Do you play World of Warcraft? If so, why?
This is a post which eventually will be about the changes recently announced regarding raiding in Cataclysm. I want to leave that question hanging over what follows, as I take a sort of lengthy dawdle along the path of why we do what we do in Warcraft, why the raid changes matter to so many people, and what I ultimately think about them.
To begin with, I want to think about what constitutes our experience of the game.
First of all we customise, from a variety of available choices, our own “character”: we choose looks, allegiance and capabilities from a predefined set, and then as gameplay proceeds make further choices which narrow down our character’s identity in the form of talent specs, guilds, content we choose to do, and so on.
This character serves as our point of contact with the world of World of Warcraft. It is the lens through which we perceive and experience the world. What most brought this home to me personally was exploring Northrend during late beta using a premade level 80 character, then doing the same thing on live servers while questing – it was exactly the same content, but the context it was given and the way my interaction with it was shaped by my character’s story and goals made it a totally different experience. Our experience of the play environment is filtered through our character choices. (This is not earth-shattering stuff – it’s just another way of saying that the determined nature of an object is shaped by the nature of the subject.)
This world, moreover, is a persistent environment shared with other people’s characters. Everything we do in WoW carries with it the potential to meet and interact with other players – even if you’re soloing an instance for goldses you still might get whispered by a friend (or a gold seller!). In one of the papers published on Nick Yee’s site, Yee and fellow researchers talk about “alone together” play (not to be confused with playing Together Alone) – in which you might well be playing the game “solo” but will still be surrounded by chatter, other player characters passing by, and the potential for social interaction. They compare playing WoW solo to reading a book in a noisy cafe.
This is important for two reasons: firstly because it gives us the possibility for interacting with other players to further our goals (e.g. doing an instance together, fighting each other in PvP, etc.) and secondly because it gives us the potential of an audience. Both those factors are crucial in determining the way we play WoW.
So we have this matrix emerging of character–world–others which forms the basis of the game. (Notice, incidentally, where “world” fits in there – all our interactions that take place in WoW are interdicted by the game world. Even whispers that you receive while idling in Dalaran are framed by the context of the city you’re in, the character you’re on and the way you’ve set up your chat window.)
Motivation for play
“Play” is, I guess, actually a poor choice of words for what we do in WoW because it imposes a predefined meaning (loosely opposite to “work”, I suppose) which may not actually be appropriate. Do we play World of Warcraft or is what we do in the game world something else – or something more?
Sticking for this post with the ‘play’ idea, here are some simplistic motivations that may drive our WoW involvement:
- Twitch-gaming. The simple pleasure of being presented with a mechanical system (e.g. your spellbook) and a goal (e.g. killing a monster) and pressing the right buttons to make it happen. WoW allows for some pretty complex interactions and yet is still very forgiving to simple interactions. There’s a lot of room to just ‘enjoy playing your character’ – choosing the right spell, moving at the right time, wearing the right gear, and such like.
- Story-gaming. Your character is presented as a participant in an ongoing shared story and you are given the opportunity to act out your role in this story to a greater or lesser degree. Arguments about the strength of this aspect of WoW aside, a lot of folks take simple pleasure from being ‘actors on a stage’ and playing out their story either with others or “alone together”.
- Meta-gaming. Here you have a set of rules which govern your interaction with the game world and a set of assumptions which govern those rules. Enjoyment in this category derives principally from ‘playing’ or experimenting with the rules themselves rather than living within the environment they create. This encompasses things like melee hunters (I mean people who actually want to roll a hunter to melee, not people who’ve not figured out that they do more damage at range), people levelling without killing anything, and even hardcore theorycrafters who spend more time working numbers than actually playing.
- Social gaming. The sharedness of the game-world is what excites you and drives your play. You might play primarily to make friends (and maybe even to make enemies!), or you might just play primarily to be witnessed by the people you are sharing the world with. In this case “world” extends beyond just the game-server you’re playing on, because the social environment of WoW encapsulates a much wider array of mediums – blogs like this one, forums, academic papers, books, RL meets – the ‘WoW community’ is a diverse and far-reaching animal.
There are certainly more categories we could think of even just within this basic schema, but these four serve the purpose of this post just fine.
Why do you do what you do
The reason I’m talking about this is because I think most of us don’t really think about why we play, we just play. I’m all for that, personally – analysing things too much can suck the enjoyment out of them. But when we start debating about what constitutes valid play or superior/inferior play, we’ve crossed a line and have to consider what we mean by play (and ‘superior’ or ‘valid’) in the first place.
Raiding is what I enjoy most about WoW. I level characters up because there’s an end-game to level them towards – even if I doubt I’ll actually participate in it, the possibility is there and it’s enticing. The raid-game is, I think, the ultimate expression of the four motivations I listed above and the ultimate climax of the character-world-others matrix. You have a very social, co-operative and competitive environment (4) that rewards careful analysis of and use of game mechanics (3) framed as an epic narrative (2) through which you progress by using your character’s abilities effectively (1). Raiding successfully (1) enhances your characters abilities to perform effectively (loot) while (2) advancing your experience of the game’s storyline, (3) enhancing, vindicating or challenging your understanding of and use of the game rules and (4) strengthening your connections to your fellow raiders while improving your standing in the wider raiding community (prestige).
(I think PvP fits this basic pattern too, by the way.)
While I definitely don’t want to spend all my time raiding, it’s clearly a very important part of the game for all those reasons and more.
I raid mostly for motivations 1 and 4 – the fun of playing my character and the shared enjoyment of those I play with. I regard 2, the game’s story, as a sort of bonus – I actually never really bothered much with the lore or story of raids until a few of the folks I raided with started to make connections for me with previous Warcraft games, quests, etc., and since then I have appreciated more and more of the story aspect. 3, the meta-game, is something I’ve had passing interest in but almost exclusively from a solo rather than raiding perspective, and my meta-gaming in raids is limited to what I require to function well as a player (e.g. gear or spell rotation choices) and what my group requires to function well as a group (e.g. strategies).
But clearly these broad categories motivations are themselves considerably nuanced by their specific expressions in players. For example, my pleasure in playing a character derives not just from pressing the right buttons, but from being able to use the full extent of my character’s abilities to respond to a crisis (or unusual raid role such as kiting), and from the art, animations, effects and environment in which it all takes place. I just don’t enjoy playing a character that I don’t like the looks of or in an instance I don’t like the looks of (yes, I’m a very visually driven person, as I’m sure is obvious by the random pictures I put into posts).
Likewise my interest in the social dynamic of the game is primarily of the “friends” sort. I actually started playing WoW as a way to keep in touch with an old friend and to give us common ground to talk about, and only after I had bought the game discovered that there was actually a lot to enjoy purely on its own merits too. However I’d be lying through my teeth if I claimed that I was unaffected by the perceived “prestige” of raiding successfully or the presence of an audience. I’m well aware how my in-game behaviour changes depending on whether or not there are other players nearby.
Raiding and enjoyment
If raiding is, as I say, the ultimate expression of what makes WoW WoW, it’s understandable why Blizzard would be so keen on opening up raiding to as many people as possible – and this is why we have parallel 10-man raiding progression in the first place, as well as (I think many forget) why 25-man raiding was invented. Many, many other authors have already covered this in much greater depth (see for example Dreambound for a good range of 10-man raider viewpoints), so I just want to touch on it as simple information without analysis or judgement. 20-man raiding was introduced while 40-man was the paradigm, and 20-man proved very very popular; hence, 25-man raiding becomes the norm as a sort of compromise between the two formats and to allow room for going from 8 to 9 classes (when paladins and shamans ceased to be faction specific). Sidestepping the issue of how 10s and 25s were implemented in TBC, it’s again clear that the most ‘popular’ raids were 10-mans. WotLK has really cemented this, with I think 10-mans being the preferred format (for whatever reasons) for the vast majority of those who take part in raiding.
The difficulty in this assertion is that for most people who were involved in 40- or 25-man raiding in the past, what the vast majority of new players do in their 10-man instances barely qualifies as “proper raiding”. If you remember Scholo class runs or UBRS with 15 players, and compare that with the insane amounts of grinding, practice and expertise required to beat Illidan or Vashj, you may be forgiven for thinking that pugging the first wing of Icecrown Citadel can’t really be called raiding. And yet everything that makes a raid a raid is there even if it’s a bit ‘looser’ or ‘diluted’ compared to what you’re personally used to. In a game with 11 million players there is a lot of room for diversity of experience and preference.
What I’m saying is that I think it comes down to enjoyment of the game. The old MMO paradigm of excessively punishing grinds, long hours and meagre rewards is being substituted by a new paradigm of accessibility and fun. For whatever reason, a lot of us have been really fond of the old paradigm. We have great memories of rousing successes following weeks or months of agonising failure, relationships forged in the heat of struggle, seeing 39 other people log in to join you on your epic adventure and so on – and often rightly so, because clearly these things were a source of great enjoyment to many people.
Let me quote Nick Yee again. This is from a piece written in 2006 titled “Labor of Fun”.
The central irony of MMORPGs is that they are advertised as worlds to escape to after coming home from work, but they too make us work and burn us out. For some players, their game-play might be more stressful and demanding than their actual jobs.
This is, I think, something which Blizzard themselves are aware of and actively trying to work against. They are, for lack of a better way of putting it, trying to make their game healthier. They want us to have the same sort of fun and avenues for enjoyment without chaining us to our computers for most of the week. They want to remove aspects of their game which are unnecessarily punishing and replace them with play which is more thoroughly rewarding. Here’s a quote from Paul Sams, Blizzard’s COO:
How often in your everyday world do you get to feel heroic? How often do you get to step into a world and do something big and meaningful? People need an escape from ordinary life. It’s just something people need.
And from the same article, the author himself says:
What I came to understand was that WoW was not necessarily an escape, but a surrogate for a community that is harder and harder to find in the real world.
If you have people attaching this much importance to your gaming world, then I think it’s right to be concerned about making that world as positive an experience as possible. And this is what, I think, the raid size debate comes down to – the ongoing process of trying to remove ‘punishing’ mechanics in favour of ‘rewarding’ ones. In this case the punishment is feeling obliged by the game’s culture and mechanics (e.g. superior prestige, superior rewards) to partake in a particular style of raiding which is perhaps not what you really want. For an oft-quoted example, maybe you enjoy the 25-man environment but aren’t so keen on 10-mans or 5-mans, but feel required to farm both on off-nights in order to get your maximum emblem intake, which in turn allows you to perform better in your progression raids, which in turn makes it more likely you’ll be chosen to raid in the first place (and remember, raiding is what you do very much want to do).
The changing raiding paradigm
So ultimately I really don’t think this is actually about 10-player raiding, or 25-player raiding, or ilevels or epicness or entitlement or any of that stuff. It’s about making a game fun to play. It’s that simple. Do what you find most fun.
If, like me, you really enjoy raiding, then raid. If, like me, you have very little time and energy to commit to a raid group, then join a ‘casual’ group. If, like me, you happen to have a small but very skilled collection of friends to raid with, then raid 10-mans and dabble in hard modes. If you prefer the atmosphere of bigger raids or have more than 10 friends you want to play with, do 25-mans and enjoy it!
The trouble is that we have an existing paradigm which has been experimented with, tweaked, tweaked some more, experimented with some more, and ultimately changed, and a lot of us were fond of that old paradigm or perhaps one of the many steps along the journey towards the new paradigm. I say, embrace the journey. Enjoy what has been and let those memories stay with you. And look forward to the new things to come. Identity is not a static thing.
Now, I feel the frustration of certain parts of the community who really exulted in what you might call hardcore, full-time 25-man raiding, where every night (and some days) was filled with glorious raiding or activities which directly contributed to raiding progression, because it must really feel like you’re losing something. You’re potentially losing a lot of the prestige (associated with ilevels and legendaries etc.) you’re used to, you’re losing the option to play your character in both 10s and 25s in the same week, and you’re potentially losing some of your friends if the changes cause your group to fracture. In fact that whole matrix of character-world-others which we talked about earlier is affected by such a change. It’s understandable and, I think, justifiable that some folk will be upset. I just honestly think that this is a change for the better not just for the game, but for the direction of the game, and I hope that there will be sufficient content of sufficient difficulty and enough options for such players to continue to enjoy the game and its “surrogate community”.
My final thoughts are regarding this community itself. It’s easy to see that, in allowing flexibility in raid sizes (5, 10, 25), the designers are hopefully making it easier for most people to play with the sorts of people that they want to play with. But I think another really important aspect of the changes is what it implies for the wider culture of World of Warcraft, in the way that it very clearly legitimises what has until now been a rather stigmatic choice – the choice of raid style.
How often have you heard this sort of stuff on blogs or forums? “Casuals” hate “hardcores” for being elitist and lording it over them. “Raiders” hate “scrubs” for holding them back and dumbing down the game. And so forth.
What Blizzard is saying with this change is, it’s OK to raid casually and it’s OK to raid to a higher level of challenge. We’ll provide for and reward both. It’s OK to raid with 9 guys and it’s OK to raid with 24. Do what you prefer. We’ll support it.
And just maybe in the process of having our choices and preferences so explicitly supported by the game designers, we will find it within ourselves to value, respect and honour the choices of those we play the game with. And perhaps as a result the whole world of the World of Warcraft will be a better place for it.