As Blizzard ramps up its efforts to pull in older players, PCR editor Dominic Sacco finds out how the game has changed...
“You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”
As I log into Blizzard Entertainment’s online PC gaming phenomenon World of Warcraft (WoW) for the first time in seven and a half years, I think of those well-known lyrics from Hotel California.
I vowed never to touch this title – or any other MMO (massively multiplayer online) game – again after quitting to focus on my final year at university back in 2006. Why? Because it’s too damn big, too damn time-consuming and… too damn good.
But the bloody thing just doesn’t end. So I decided to delete my character, close my account and throw away the discs to prevent myself from being tempted into coming back. Good plan Dom – that worked a treat.
So as I log in now, I curse under my breath and wonder why I’m getting myself into this again. Well – Blizzard’s strategy to claw back previous long-term subscribers has worked with me. It’s offering anyone who pre-orders the upcoming Warlords of Draenor expansion – out later this year – an instant upgrade to level 90 (worth £40). It also runs clever marketing and cross-game promotions using its own Battle.net platform (‘get a new flying mount in WoW by playing Hearthstone!’).
As cynical as I may sound, I’m actually happy to go back after playing several similar (and in my opinion still largely inferior) MMOs, plus I’m intrigued to see how the in-game world has changed.
I create my avatar like-for-like as it looked all those years ago, but after staring at the screen for a few seconds it doesn’t feel right. Those adventures – that character’s stories – are over. It’s time for something new.
So I do the unthinkable – I switch from the (in-game player faction) Alliance to the Horde. I create a blood elf rogue and get ready to embrace the dark side. ‘Phoenix’ seems an apt name for my return, but of course, that name is already taken, so I have to settle for ‘Phoeniix’.
I follow Blizzard’s on-screen instructions on how to jump straight to level 90 and select one class specification out of three – ‘assassination’ sounds good.
Blizzard is allowing players to pre-order the upcoming expansion and leap straight to the final level, in a bid to attract new and previous subscribers
A WHOLE NEW WORLD?
As the loading screen fades and I pop into the World of Warcraft again, I am greeted by a half-naked orc dancing in front of me.
“Everyone get down,” the player commands. “But you have be neked first :)”
I can’t say it’s good to be back at this stage, as I watch elves and orcs dance together in their underwear, but a quick spin of the camera makes me realise something else. Despite its bright cartoony style, WoW has aged incredibly well. In my opinion it looks even better than it did before, with improved level design, more open areas (which you can fly around) and a wider variety of character styles. Canyons sprawl naturally into the distance and players fly on dragons overhead.
After tweaking the system settings and the HUD, I move to open the talent tree and… Oh My God.
Where has it gone? Where is the backstab move? What is ‘haste’ and ‘hit’ and… ‘mastery’? I quickly type a message to an old friend and a regular WoW player. He laughs and begins to explain. I spend at least an hour studying the new moves and updates.
My friend meets me in-game and gives me a tour of some of the new areas, leading my character to some hidden treasure chests. Before I know it another couple of hours have passed and I am eight epic items better off.
EIGHT epic items? From random chests and regenerating monsters? Back in vanilla WoW (as the original game was known before expansions with the cap at level 60), epics used to be truly valuable: a sign of experienced player who had taken part in a 40-player raid and defeated a legendary boss. Now they’re handed out in easy-to-find treasure chests...
Everything has changed. This is World of Warcraft, but it’s not the world I knew. You can buy pets for £9 from an in-game store. You can automatically a join raid group in minutes. Players run past each other without talking, while cross-realm zones place you with players from other servers to fill areas with a low population.
I realise that WoW has moved on. It’s become more accessible to the casual player. The world moves faster, it’s easier to do what you want, when you want, and there are no server disconnects (yet) due to the lower player base. Its subscribers currently stand at 7.6 million down from a previous peak of 12 million.
So WoW has adapted to the demands of the modern gamer. But it also hands out eight epic items in two hours! It would take around two months or more to acquire these back in the day.
After calming down, I discover these aren’t your usual epics. They can be each upgraded four separate times in exchange for Valor Points – in-game currency obtained by completing quests and dungeons.
I decide to try a PVP (player-versus-player) match. Other players absolutely rinse me – I’m cut down in a few hits, stunned and broken. I feel utterly powerless.
Despite having purple epics, my items still aren’t all that powerful. I wonder if back in the day they would be green (common) or blue (uncommon) items, and if Blizzard has made them purple just to please casual players
Next up, I try a few basic dungeons and overall I do surprisingly okay – or perhaps these challenges are a lot easier than they once were. Feeling confident, I join a queue for a ‘heroic’ dungeon with a greater difficulty level. During one particular boss fight I become the point of ridicule because I’m apparently not standing where I’m supposed to be. Another player kindly types: “MOVE, IDIOT.”
After explaining it’s my first time against that boss, I’m told I shouldn’t be playing the game, I should go back to level one and I shouldn’t have used the boost to level 90. One player even says they’d be better off without me. So, being the stubborn git that I am, I make my character sit down and watch them attempt to handle the boss fight without me. Several deaths (and swearwords thrown in my direction) later, the group fails and disbands.
I will need to go back to the drawing board, re-specialise my character’s talents and moves, and take part in some end-game content to obtain better gear.
Luckily, another old friend of mine offers assistance. He invites me into his guild – a large group of players and friends – who help me out with a few quests and upgrades. They are all incredibly helpful and take the time to give me a hand. I realise this is what I missed about WoW – the interaction between players and strong sense of community. Throw a wave at someone and you’ll often get a wave back; ask for help and another player will likely give it
This guild quickly restores my faith in players. Despite the toxic environments you find in a lot of online games nowadays, and the negative experience I had earlier on, there are still those who are patient, helpful and fun to be around – and those players make games like WoW worth their weight in gold.
I look at the guild roster and all the gamers in there – some of which have several characters at the level cap. Suddenly, levelling up instantly to 90 makes me feel cheap, especially when you consider someone has just spent two years reaching that level in a certain way.
I bring up the map screen and zoom out; there are four expansions worth of content I have skipped. Massive continents that would take hours and hours to traverse. Thinking of the overall size of the in-game world (Azeroth) makes me feel like an ant.
I take a deep breath, log out, and return to the real world. I have mixed feelings – WoW is still a fantastic PC game and probably one of the best I’ve played. But it’s changed and I’m not sure I want to change with it.
However, a few hours later, I think about getting some more epics and trying my first 25-man raid.
If I’m being honest, I can log out (or quit again) any time I like, but I’m not sure a part of me could ever truly leave.
BLIZZARD’S BOLD BUSINESS MODEL: HOW DOES IT WORK AND WHAT’S THE COST?
Not taking into account the steep number of hours some players put into this game, WoW also isn’t cheap, especially in today’s era of free-to-play PC games like League of Legends which make money through microtransactions.
While WoW is free to play up until level 20, for the full experience older players or newcomers are going to have to fork out about £55 in total, plus pay £8.99 per month in subscription fees. You’ll need the basic WoW game at £9.99 and the Mists of Pandaria expansion which currently costs £8.50. Then if you want the instant jump to level 90 you’ll need to pre-order Warlords of Draenor which is £34.99.
Considering WoW is almost ten years old, it still has the most subscribers of any MMO – some 7.6 million as of March – netting Blizzard a cool £68.3 million each month. That figure doesn’t include the full-price expansions which launch every couple of years, and in-game extras such as pets and mounts, which are priced from £9 to £22.
Each new expansion tends to sell in the millions – and Activision Blizzard still publishes boxed versions and physical game time cards for retailers to stock through distributor Centresoft. They are of course also available digitally for consumers to download direct.
If the developer-publisher can continue to attract older players like myself, and market itself effectively to newcomers by focusing on being the biggest and the best, there’s no reason why World of Warcraft won’t be around for another ten years.
Blizzard sells full-price World of Warcraft expansions every few years - the most recent is Mists of Pandaria (above)