Thursday, January 05, 2006

A Year in Azeroth

So I've been playing World of Warcraft for over a year now. My highest level character is Samarius, a 48th level Priest on the Argent Dawn server. And the fact that I'm playing a computer game for a year is pretty major, and a testament to the strength the game. And now that I have driven off all but the most hardcore of gamers, here are the things have impressed me from a design angle, and some things that I found were irritating.

Among the stuff that impressed:

The Theme Park Geography: The world is broken down into regions, and each region is stacked with areas holding challenges for a particular group of levels. These areas are stacked together cheek to jowl, but create the impression that they are distinct and distant from each other. Sort of like Disneyland, this world FEELS larger than it is.

Graphic Varieties with Design Similarities The various regions have distinct and dramatic looks, so that when you enter a region for the first time, you get the feeling of entering a new world. Very Dorothy opening the door to Oz. Elwynn Forest looks like something out of a twisted Snow White cartoon, while the neighboring Westfall lives in the eternal gold of harvest. Dun Morogh is ever-wintery, the Barrens look like the African Grasslands, and Mulgore has the gentle undulations and color of a putt-putt golf course. Yet within each area, there are similarities in effect - you interact with the bulk of the region in the same fashion. Yet you come into new areas and it all feels different.

Always Something New: In addition to differing appearances, there are some small special effects for each of the areas. The main Tauren city in Mulgore has elevators (painted in NW Native American designs) to reach it. Ironforge is centered on a huge foundry. Westfall is haunted by big robotic scarecrows in straw hats. The sense of discovery is rewarded for wandering around - I just found the Noxious Lair, a rocky desert with huge curving spires that rise from the pitted landscape. Then I realize that these structures of insect legs jutting out of the group. And they were twitching. Ewwww.

You Gotta Have Friends: One of the things that has kept me in play has been others - Real Life friends who have been involved in the game. I started out on the Horde side with one group, and played extensively, but the Guild broke up and people drifted away, and I pretty much retired the character at level 44. At the same time, the Argent Dawn group got started with a core bunch of four of us, and we've actually made play dates to go adventuring together. Four more people have joined up as well, so that's been pretty nice. I have found myself staying up late to help friends finish up quests.

Anachronism can be a GOOD Thing: Back in the early days of fantasy roleplaying, guns and other tech was abjured. The gnomes of Dragonlance were a particular exception, and groundbreaking their way. With Warcraft's background, heavily influenced by TSR and Games Workshop, we see a lot of tech. Guns, zeppelins, aircraft - it tends to be stacked away to other races (including gnomes) but still does not overturn the fantastic nature of the world. Rather, it underscores the quirkiness of the world. A recent quest involved me finding lost runes in an ancient ruins, avoiding nagas and sea-walking giants, in order to reach a landing strip (!) lit by spotlights (!) and using a signal flare gun (!) to summon a dwarven scout plane (!!). And the weird thing is, it works.

Special Times of the Year: So one of the things that has kept me engaged has been various special events they run. They are just getting out of the Season of the Winter's Veil Festival, where Santa gives out quests to gather milk and cookies, and if you rescue a red-nosed reindeer, you get something that lets you turn your mount into a reindeer. Previously we've had Halloween, a New Year's Eve celebration (fireworks on the hour) and a "Children's Day" festival that encouraged people to zip around the world. It keeps folk tuning in.

New Year's Eve fireworks over Stormwind Castle

And there are some things that I don't care for:

Instances and Elites So within this theme-park world, there are particular, more challenging "rides" - called dungeons or instances. For these you usually need a group and at least an evening of play, and are inhabited by more powerful versions of the monsters called Elites. Normally you can handle a monster at your power level. With Elites, you are definitely out of your weight category with a monster of your "level" and perhaps with those of several levels lower. So I have bad guys that are tougher than I am, and better organized as well. Add to that the fact that most of these Instances are "mazes of twisty passages" and I tend to get lost easily. Its not a horrible thing, just frustrating.

Ironlag: The worst thing I can pin on World of Warcraft is the result of its own popularity. There as so many people on the servers that the machines can't keep up, so there is a lag between what you type and seeing a result. The worst offender is the Dwarven City of Ironforge. Due to its layout, there is always a huge knot of players at the main entrance - there is an Auction House and a Bank and it has become the general hang-out joint. Oh, a during the holiday season, Santa is there as well. As a result, lag is at its worst in at these main gates. Given that there are pits with molten steel nearby (Its a foundry, right?), and my character regularly falls into a pit while just trying to get across the main plaza. Its embarrassing, I tell yah.

So for the moment I am still wrapped up with the world, and have a couple low-levels as well that I have been playing. I find it interesting and intriguing and showing that, yes, you can get a lot of the fun of a table-top RPG into a computer game. It does work, and it does hold my interest.

More later,