And ale from a flagon,
Sharp swords and goblin hordes,
And castles and dragons,
Shiny steel chestplates and magical rings,
These are a few of my favorite things...
I remember the first time I played World of Warcraft, which would have been about 16 months ago. I had leveled "Gomur" my human Warrior through the first six or seven minor quests, met a few people who helped me along the way, and got a feel for how the game worked. As I got bolder I decided to explore more of the surrounding countryside. I had seen the castle at Stormwind that (like a real castle) took 10 minutes+ to walk from end to end, I had killed a few very minor baddies and I was sporting the best crappy vendor armor and weapons I could afford. I walked into Duskwood, which is the WoW equivalent of a huge haunted cemetery, complete with haunted houses, towns, and a gigantic graveyard full of relatively minor monsters. It didn't occur to me that the county of Duskwood was contested territory until I got there, but halfway through some minor quest I'm fighting off the last of the weak skeletons with my weak armor and weapons and I turn around.
In front of me, sitting atop a huge black armored war-horse, is a high level Horde character (an actual player from the opposing faction). This guy looks like something out of a movie. His eyes glow red from under an evil-looking helmet visor, the wicked curved two-hander sword on his back is on fire. I have to tilt the camera upward onscreen to even get all of him in the frame. His horse snorts at me and rears. I realize I am dead, a long way from home. It will take me another 15 minutes to run back to the spot where I have died and retrieve my corpse, and I'll be too sick to fight my way out. I am about to get PvP ganked. Though the players on each faction cannot communicate to each other, you can make your character do several things called "emotes". I do the "emote" and my warrior sketches out a formal bow onscreen. Instead of killing me, the warrior on the horse lets out an evil laugh, waves at me from atop his horse, and vanishes.
It is at this point that I realize I'm playing the coolest video game ever created.
There were other moments in the game that stand out to me: when I bought my own first horse, when I decided irrevocably to become an armorsmith and spend days hammering out armor in the Great Forge in Ironforge, when I fell off the dam in the county north of Ironforge (I forget the name) and had to call a Blizzard technician to tell me how to get back to the rest of the world, when I got a fiery enchantment on my own sword, endlessly assaulting the ogre fortress in some backwater Alliance ruin with four or five other guys only to have our asses handed to us again and again, killing my first dragon, and watching the sun come up over the Western sea on Christmas morning.
(sunrise in Azeroth on Christmas morning, 2005)
(killing my first dragon, 2005)
And therein lies the awful conundrum of this game. The game moves in real-time, meaning if I saw the sun come up on Christmas morning, it's because I stayed up literally all night and played this game and happened to be on the edge of the world at 6 AM.
This, sadly, was not an unusual occurrence for me when I was playing World of Warcraft. Eventually, after many arguments, negotiations, threats, and the crushing reality of having a new baby in the house, I decided to cancel my WoW account and quit playing.
A year later, I'm STILL not over it. I have played video games before that can absorb huge amounts of time (Final Fantasy VII took Dion and I something like 70+ hours each the first time we beat it, Neverwinter Nights is good for 30-40+ hours per playthrough, and I must have played Diablo II for hundreds of hours combined), but nothing like World of Warcraft. I'll get more specific in a moment, but for the time being let's just say that I played it WAAAAAY too much, and even though I was a new dad and the whole world felt like some sort of sleepless blur, I'm sure WoW made it worse on me.
The thing that was so profound was how this game changed how I saw all other video games after it. There is a benchmark for all video games to me now, and it is World of Warcraft. The game is crafted in intricate balanced detail that drives you to play. Characters just starting look and behave like street urchins and foot soldiers, characters who have been playing for years look like mythical heroes from medieval fantasy stories. As you grow, your character morphs into a unique inhabitant of the game world Azeroth. You could go into Ironforge or Stormwind or any other city in the game and see hundreds of other characters playing, and the game is so expansive that none of them will resemble you. Characters are recognizable by appearance alone.
There are dozens of mini-games and things to do in the game that require a broad range of gaming skills. There is an auction house for buying and selling armor, swords, and equipment that works like eBay where you have to pay commissions, set minimum bids, etc. There is a system of professions where you can learn to harvest raw materials like stone, metals, cloth, leather, and various plants and make them into things. There is a working economy with banks and inflation and supply and demand between players. There is a guild system that's like a sort of Greek fraternity for your character that you'll need to join because most of the higher quests you can't possibly do alone. You need strategy, money smarts, personality, social skills, ruthlessness, and perseverance to play this game. The game itself is beautifully done in the best traditions of high fantasy, and is very challenging despite being easy to learn how to play. At higher levels, you become involved with fighting the other players on the opposing faction. Which means you could be in the middle of nowhere by yourself and run straight into a war-band of blood-thirsty enemy troops that are actually other players. The game is exciting, huge, and brilliant. World of Warcraft is quite literally the perfect game.
Well, almost. The thing that's not perfect about it is that the more you play it, the more you have to play in order to keep up with it. At higher levels, you need assistance in the form of other players to advance in a timely fashion. If you are a guild member, this means that you have your guildmates to count on for healing and support when you storm some dungeon or castle or cave. Your guildmates, however, aren't necessarily all new fathers. Your guildmates might be retired people, or college kids, or even teachers on summer break with as much time on their hands as they could ever want. Your guildies might play surreptitiously on their work computers or work from home where they AFK (away from keyboard) just long enough to answer the phone and use the bathroom. At this point also you start running into power-leveling meta-gamers who learn how to use the rules of the game's engine against it and basically dominate the world. Their language has evolved to include the meta-gaming strategy style of "tanking" and "drawing aggro" to overcome the hideously difficult endgame elements of World of Warcraft. If you haven't an idea what this means, consider the 40-person TEAM it takes to accomplish many of the tasks in the endgame. Try getting five gamers to cooperate. Just try. Much less 40. This is a funny example of what happens when that cooperation is not there. This is the infamous and hysterical Leeroy Jenkins video:
The example above was staged as a joke, but what makes it as hilarious as it is is that it's not far off from what the actual gameplay is like at higher levels. You'll be in large parties of characters and someone will be the "leader" that the rest listen to (or not).
And when you do, you know you're in a league of people who are more serious about this game than pretty much anything. If you're not serious, you're not invited. Those awesome glowing swords and heavy magical armor will be something you'll just have to look at and never actually have for your character, who frankly after 300 hours of play you start to care about more than you really should.
So you find a good group of four or five good guildmates that have the right gear, are of the correct level, and can play the game well and aren't greedy dicks when it comes to the treasure you find (which of course you have to share), and all is well in the world. Until you have to go to work, that is. Or sleep. Or do anything in real life. When you log back in after as little as a day or two without playing the game, your four or five good buddy guildies will have moved three or four levels ahead of you and suddenly they're playing dungeons that you can't play in. Never mind the fact that your auctions expired and someone was trying to send you something in the in-game mail system that you missed or that your guildies needed a higher-level warrior to help do some lesser dungeon that you've already done four or five times to get an item that never dropped. Now you're stuck making friends with some new group of guildies you've never talked to before and starting the whole process over again, or worse, you're expected to help level up the lower-level guildies by playing through quests that you did weeks ago. Which is fine, except these quests take just as long the second or third or eighth time around as they did the first. Remember, though, this is a team effort, and failure to help people now means you're shit out of luck when you need to finish some instance to level up later.
Ok, rant over. We could sum all this up by saying simply that the game starts very simply, draws you in, and then demands enormous amounts of your time to play it. How enormous? Let's look at that next. When we talk about hours of something, it can be a little difficult to get a realistic picture of how much actual time is spent playing a game. So, I've tried to compare it to other things of similar length. There are two main things to consider. First the total amount of hours spent playing and then the density of that time. I'll start with a simple example.
My character in Oblivion just passed the 80-hour mark. That's a lot of time, even for an "addictive" video game. A contrasting example would be something like the Resident Evil, Hitman, or Metal Gear Solid games, some of my other favorites that can usually be played through in about 10-12 hours (or, if you prefer, roughly the amount of time it would take you to watch all six Star Wars, or all three Lord of the Rings movies) 80-hours is about the same amount of time as two full workweeks. It wasn't played that much in two weeks, of course, it was played in about seven weeks, which means I was playing roughly 12+ hours or so a week, or a little less than two hours per day. My wife will tell you that I play a hell of a lot more than two hours a day, but the reality is that some days I do not play at all and some days I play for 4-6 hours as time permits. A lot still, but not as much as, say a part-time job.
Now we'll look at my Massage Therapy school. When I went to CSMT, I was in class for a total of 550 hours over 15 months. This amounted to about 20 hours per week of going to and from classes, sitting in classes, and doing practical clinical work. 20 hours a week IS like a part-time job, in addition to my full-time job, and it lasted for over a year. This was an enormous life-altering time commitment. Still, at 20 hours a week, we're averaging 2.86 hours a day of work.
Finally, let's look at World of Warcraft. When playing this game, you can type "/played" and it will give you a little game clock to tell you how many hours you've played it. At last check before I cancelled it, Gomur had been played for over 14 days. That's roughly 336 hours, give or take a dozen or so. Now you can see where this fits into my little graph below, right?
As unbelievable as this might seem, the density figure is where it really gets ugly. I played 336 hours of World of Warcraft over a three and a half month period of time. Which means that in 14 weeks, I played 24 hours per week, or three hours every day. At 24 hours per week, you can qualify for medical insurance in most jobs. That's an entire day of each week devoted solely to wandering around in Azeroth and dorking out to my fantasy/castles/knights-loving heart's content. In effect, it was as if I was working my own full-time job, trying to help my loving and very patient wife with our new little guy, and doing an activity that required more hours per day than going to school at CSMT, all simultaneously. As you can imagine, World of Warcraft was the first thing to go on that particular chopping block.
There supposedly exists a system that rewards you for taking a break now and then from the game by making your experience level faster if you've logged out for a while. This might be so, but your friends from the guilds will be so far ahead of you when you come back that it's not worth the time needed to make new friends. You can supposedly set some sort of parental limit on how many hours the game will let you log in and play per day. We considered doing this rather than having me cancel my subscription for the beloved game, but in the end this feature itself is counter to the later game where you need a block of time equal to four or five hours to really do much of anything.
I started taking my laptop to work so that on my lunch break I could log in, check the in-game mail, take care of my auctions, chat with my buddies, and help out the lower guildies so I didn't have to do this during primetime gaming hours, which of course were from 11-3AM, between feedings where my poor wife looked at me like I was an insane Dr. Frankenstein. Again, there were some days where I didn't play at all, but very few, and there were a number of days where I stayed up until the very, very wee hours of the morning playing through dungeons that take a 5-man group two to three hours to play through. And that's not counting time needed to put together the materials (potions, equipment, and consumables) that you need to accomplish the dungeon raids to begin with.
So we're talking an unreasonably gigantic amount of time, such that it was ruining my life and I needed to stop playing the game. I thought to myself that I would just re-install Neverwinter Nights and play through it until I got bored of the whole computer game thing and moved on to something else.
Then I installed Stronghold II.
Then I installed Knights of the Old Republic II.
Then I installed Monster Hunter.
Then I played through Diablo II some more.
Then I tried Last Chaos.
Then I tried Two Worlds.
You get the idea. I finally stumbled on the flawed but brilliant Elder Scrolls series with Morrowind and the incredible Oblivion, which though they didn't totally kill the WoW urge, managed to be outstanding in their own right. Monster Hunter has better combat than WoW, and also has the mining/gathering/multiplayer online thing going for it but has irritating and one-dimensional play and a world that's too small, Neverwinter Nights has the same cartooney fantasy greatness as WoW, but is repetitive and without the community, Last Chaos is an awful WoW clone that did almost everything wrong. Diablo II has the community and the Blizzard greatness but without the character customization and in-game epic feel...
Morrowind and Oblivion are expansive enough to satisfy the huge, dwarfing epic scope of Azeroth, has the fine-tuning to equal the character customization (and Oblivion and Morrowind are even slightly better than WoW in this respect), and terrific graphics and storyline, but I feel this sense of utter lonliness and dorkdom when I play them, knowing that ultimately, the only person that will ever appreciate the towering legendary badass knight I've crafted is myself. And for some reason the Elder Scrolls series has no dragons, which frankly bothers me. They have some of the best castles and lifelike NPCs I've ever seen, but I really don't give a shit about fighting demons shaped like alligators, humanoids, and pint-sized lizards. Bring on something that's impressive like a black knight or an evil warlock or a sea monster or a dragon. Or even a race of evil dwarfs or something that looks scary. Also, WoW has an entire world full of different terrain and probably at least 200 different kinds of enemy to fight. At the endgame of Oblivion, I'm still killing rats and wolves with my enchanted sword.
WoW hit this nerve with just the right hammer for me, and no other game really has.
And of course there is the unreasonably amazing things that Blizzard has done with World of Warcraft that no other game had pulled off. For Christmas, Azeroth goes through a holiday called "Winter Veil" that includes holiday hats, presents for your character, Father Christmas under a huge tree, snowball fights, abominable snowmen, a quest to free a reindeer from a character called "the Greench", and potions to turn your horses into reindeer and your character into a miniature Santa's Elf.
Here's an example of a huge party (150+ players) where everyone hung out, went swimming, and then went into a gigantic battle in Horde territory.
The game occasionally undergoes "World Events" where something happens that's unique to that time and place. This is a video of a huge demon-creature rampaging in one of the main Alliance cities. Apparently there was also a time where someone brought a fast-spreading disease back from some dungeon or another to one of the cities and hundreds of lower-level characters died from it to the point where Blizzard had to reset the servers due to this strange spontaneous plague.
This is a video of Highlord Kruul slaughtering basically the entire city of Stormwind which is a player city, which means he slaughtered hundreds of players. At about the 2:00 mark, you can see the character that the video is coming from reach the gates and high level players are running past him in the other direction. That's exactly the sort of random shit that happens in this game.
And perhaps most amazing of all is the fact that now you can send Blizzard the specifications of your character, in the armor and weapons you wear IN THE GAME, and they will make you an action figure out of it. That's... simultaneously the coolest and dorkiest thing I've ever seen in association with a video game. Nonetheless, you know I'd get one of Gomur. Anything that I put that kind of time into I want to have some memoir of.
But alas, here I sit, a grown man, still dying to play this game an entire YEAR after I gave it up. It's not a daily thing, but I would say a week hasn't gone by in the last year when I haven't wondered how Azeroth is these days. Devilishly, Blizzard doesn't delete your character when you cancel your account, and I know Gomur is still on the Balnazzar realm, waiting for me if I ever decided to pay another $13.99 to play him again. All the gold I earned, all the gear I fought for... it's still there. I can buy $60 XBOX 360 games safely because I know I'll eventually get sick of them and I can turn them off at a moment's notice or because it's time to go to bed, but I dare not pay a fraction of that to play Warcraft again, because I have a feeling it would mean more sleepless nights and less time with my wife and son.
So, rather than having this be some long gripe-fest about a game that's too addictive for me to play (suprise! such a thing actually exists!), I figured I'd try to put together my thoughts on why this sort of gaming is the way it is, and what it means for the world in general. An academic summary, if not a study.
The best place to start would be with a question: Why is World of Warcraft as addictive as it is?
I have actually read a fair amount about this in the last year, some of it stemming back even as far as Diablo II, which is a very fun (to a lesser extent) game also from Blizzard. Here's what I found: (From the New York Times)
HERE'S the difficult issue my son and I were discussing the other day: Should I sell my Leather Gloves of Nova Shield? You see, their defense rating was only 2, but they did give the wearer a 10 percent chance to cast a Level 3 nova when struck by an attacker.
''I really like that nova,'' I said.
''Like a Level 3 nova is going to help you against Mephisto,'' he said, shaking his head, as we stared at the screen, poring over the armor and weapons for sale.
This is our new father-son activity. We slay demons. We shop for armor. I have succumbed, at a ridiculously advanced age, to the computer game Diablo II: Lord of Destruction. As I write, I am a Level 26 barbarian named, in a moment of weakness, TheNeck. My current quest is to retrieve Khalim's heart from the sewers under the Kurast Bazaar, slashing left and right with a sword in each hand to get there.
For readers who spend all their time in reality, the way Diablo works is that you create a character for yourself like a barbarian or a druid, and then you fight an assortment of dangerous monsters and other evil creatures, complete quests and gain skills, power and gold. You can do this online or just play on your computer. Obviously, the game has great appeal to preadolescents. My son is 10, which explains his interest. I'm 52. What can I say?
One thing I could say is that I'm not the only one. I have it on good authority that other fathers play this game. For instance, I am told that the father of one of my son's friend's friend's is a Level 85 barbarian.
The other thing I might point out is that although Diablo seems to be all about preadolescent fantasies of violent destruction, I have discovered that it is actually about shopping.
The battles and quests are really just extensive preludes to the moment when you bring your character back to town to begin the delicious process of buying and selling weapons, armor, potions, boots and gloves of various exotic materials (demon hide, for instance) and magical properties. They also have irresistible names like the Claymore of Alacrity or the Jagged Bastard Sword of Gore.
Since you accumulate gold as you play (the creatures you decapitate, incapacitate and destroy drop it as they expire), you become a more powerful shopper at each new level you reach. And at the higher levels of the game, better items are for sale. It's as if you had to slay the Macy's perfume sprayer to get to Bloomingdale's and battle three scarf buyers to move up to Dolce & Gabbana. The difference is that there are no spike-heeled shoes for sale in Diablo, only spike-covered maces, and helms, plate mail, swords, mauls, flails, axes, katars, staves, spears, scepters and other weapons of individual destruction.
Right now I carry a sword named Shadowfang. I wear a Sturdy Bone Helm of Charged Bolt on my head and Crimson Gauntlets of Charged Bolt on my hands (I did sell those nova gloves). I've got Chain Boots of Pacing on my feet. They don't help me worry. They help me run faster.
These are O.K., but I know that at the better stores there is merchandise of much higher quality. My son, for example, has a devastating weapon called a Bone Snap Maul that does much more damage than my two swords put together.
To get something like that, I'm going to need his help. A friend of his who is much more advanced in the game retrieved the maul from a higher level and brought it back to him. My son and his friends do a lot of this trading online. They create a game for just a few of them (there are passwords and other ways to limit participation) and their characters join together and run through jungles, caves and dungeons killing Baal or Mephisto or Diablo himself.
I have listened to my son's end of telephone conversations (they talk on the phone as they play) and watched the on-screen action in these multiplayer games, and it seems to me that what he and his friends do is much like running around outside fighting imaginary pirates or other enemies. It's less aerobic, but the graphics are better.
I'm not as involved in the social aspect of the game. I can't quite see joining one of the 10-year-old groups, and I certainly don't want to play with other adults who are so immature they're wasting their time online when they should be paying bills or reading Joyce. Plus, they're too advanced; they probably wouldn't let me in their game.
But I am willing to accept my son's assistance. He promises that he is going to get me some really good stuff in the higher levels where he shops. ''I really want to help you,'' he said. Of course, the one time we actually went shopping together, he pointed out to me that he wasn't exactly made of money, so I should be reasonable in my requests.
''This one I'll buy for you,'' he said, pointing out the Plated Belt of Thorns (which I now wear), ''but if you go for the more expensive one, you'll have to pay yourself.'' I could hear my own voice, in the aisles of Toys ''R'' Us, urging moderation in the purchase of Beast War transformers.
As it happens, I'm not completely dependent on the largess of my offspring. I could actually buy my own amazing armor and weapons with my own real, grown-up money. I checked on eBay, and sure enough, under Diablo Armor there were 138 items.
The prices are usually not high, so I could buy quite a lot of stuff if I wanted to. In the completed auctions I found sales of Unique Toothrow Armor for $1.49 and Griswold's Heart Armor for $2.50. But I also found Immortal King's Soul Cage Sacred Armor that went for $142.50. The battles may be fantasy, but the shopping is real.
I'm tempted to start spending real money, but perhaps it wouldn't be fair. After all, this is my son's game, his turf, his hard-won Bone Snap Maul. It doesn't seem right somehow to use my position as an adult to trump him.
Besides, it's embarrassing enough that I'm reading the strategy book to find how to get to the Kurast Bazaar (I will find Khalim's heart!). If I started haunting eBay to get an edge over a 10-year-old, I'd lose all self-respect.
Also there was an article recently about how some doctor said that she estimated up to 40% of WoW players are addicted to it. (here's the link:http://www.tomsgames.com/us/2006/08/08/world_of_warcraft_players_addicted/) I suppose she meant "addicted" in the clinical sense, but all of this smacks of just a bit too liberal a definition of "addiction" to me. Perhaps more importantly, I wonder why with all the advances in gaming technology (better graphics, better interface with the game and other players) why WoW hasn't been dethroned by a better, slicker game?
The answer is in the things I mentioned above. Other games feel cold and lifeless after WoW because it tries very hard to cover all the bases. Got a hankering to go shopping? Check out the Auction House. Want to make friends? Join a guild. Want to kick someone's ass? Player-versus-player in WoW is vicious and merciless. The world is huge and there are no load-times between areas. The best gear is reserved for high level players who put in lots of time and effort, and there are no cheats or unbalanced classes that make leveling easier. Blizzard has created a world so balanced that the best the basement-dwelling meta-gamers could come up with to cheat the game is to put together military-style bands of warriors to go and fight the battles in carefully-synchronized manner. Which of course doesn't work with your given player population and even more tellingly, is exactly the sort of unhurried graveness that adds realism to the game itself.
If you care that you character can die and lose you ground in the game, you'll be a heck of a lot more anxious about the actual battles when they happen, and frankly when it comes to gaming anxiety = excitement. We've all played Zelda where by the time you get to the end of the game your character is so powerful that anybody could beat the final enemy, but in WoW, the final enemies are far beyond the capabilities of any one player, and are often beyond the capability of even large groups of end-game characters.
So what's the appeal then? Why would I even WANT to put that much time into playing a video game to begin with? If I could play it only on weekends, would I? There seems to be some disagreement about this. I read an article that talks about a principle called "Variable Rate Reinforcement" which is basically the most effective way to get humans to perform a certain task. It involves no negative consequences, but rather hands out positive consequences for a variable amount of a pre-determined activity. I'm sure I read about this once upon a time in intro Psych when we talked about BF Skinner, but I didn't expect it to rear around and bite me in the ass many years later. Basically it's like the rat that hits the bar to get a piece of food. The second time he has to hit it twice, the third time four times, and by his eighth or ninth piece of food he's hitting the bar habitually. Many things in our lives take this form of reinforcement and it's basically the best way we know of to get someone to do something. Score one for Blizzard.
Also, deeply invested in the American psyche is the mythos of conquering the Wild West. Kalimdor is the Wild West of Azeroth, and is it any wonder that it's largely controlled by the Horde? More to the point, the American dream is to own, to conquer, to achieve, to rest in a high place. Only with hours upon hours of mining iron ore can you make the materials you need to get that set of armor. Score two for Blizzard.
Finally, and this is my own take, in a world where the economy is horrible, evil people are largely in charge of the way the world works, and the entire infrastructure of our country is becoming pointed toward social stratification rather than intermingling of the social classes, people can now happily live their whole lives without ever achieving anything. Someone born poor in rural Nowhere in the US now has a worse chance than probably ever before to become someone. Behind every door is a scam or an unfair tax or some corporate entity waiting to take your work and buy their next Porche SUV with it. But in Azeroth, anyone with time and $13.99 can be somebody. It's a sad day when the computer company Blizzard does a better job of administrating its realm than the elected administration of the United States, but they do. They're harsh, they're fair, and they have a sense of balance that allows everyone to relax, and no one to relax. That sense of fairness is almost completely absent from the world that we live in.
Score three for Blizzard, and homerun.
But where does all of this leave me? It's hard to use words like "stuck" when describing how I feel playing the visually-amazing Oblivion, but there's no one to turn to and say "hey, check this out, I bought a horse", or "I'm going to have that castle for my fortress if it takes all night." The community aspect of the game and what it brings to something like a fantasy zeitgeist is worth an entire sociological study of its own, but why can't I forget how fun and different and amazing WoW is? Clearly, like most things that I love, I have only a tenuous sense of responsibility toward enjoying it. Later this year a MMORPG called Age of Conan marketed toward adults will be coming out for the XBOX, which hopefully will utilize the XBOX's headset technology instead of using keyboards and typing everything, which was slow and clunky in WoW. I'll probably download the demo of it just to see if it fits my style, but Blizzard's games, all of them, are hard to beat. People are STILL playing Starcraft, and that game was old when we played it in college in 1998. Am I doomed to ten more years of waiting for something to come along and replace World of Warcraft? That's a depressing thought.
I will think about this while I grumble and imagine the magical swords and castle walls glittering a little more brightly in the world of Azeroth.