Any World of Warcraft player who regularly browses the less.. “sophisticated” forums will probably have noticed them: droves of players arguing that everything was so wonderful and fantastic and magical in vanilla, in those first couple of years of play, as everything was uncharted territory and we were all just winging it. I don’t entirely disagree with this, but I also think the argument’s never really been properly developed because the whole thing relies so deeply on FEELINGS, on our own personal experience. It’s not something that’s necessarily a consequence of game design, something that Blizzard can fix by changing something about the game. Or something that’s been lost by a move they made in the previous expansions, as some players seem determined to argue.
You know, that magical feeling you got when you were first playing, when everything was still fresh and new and awesome. When you weren’t obsessed with the stats yet or killing that next raid boss, but were just having fun without obligations. You know! When the world seemed so big you’d never explore all of it, a dungeon lasted 5 hours to get through half of it, and a battleground lasted days. You know? That kind of thing. It was magic, man. That’s what it was. And then the magic started slowly fading away when you became more familiar with the game mechanics, and everything was reduced to a mess of numbers and time frames, and the world lost its mystery, every nook and cranny explored a million times by those willing, and laid bare in Youtube videos watched by those unwilling. And the magic was lost. You know?
The feelings expressed in that argument are also not, as opponents might assume, just a consequence of rose-tinted glasses and nostalgia. That’s part of it, of course. Because I’d say (and I’m certainly not the only one in that) that the game’s only gotten better over the years, and that there have been so many improvements in game mechanics and general entertainment value that I can scarcely say the old design was superior. But again: this isn’t a matter of purely game design. It’s a matter of everything still being new and fresh and unknown, of experiencing something completely wonderful for the first time.
Expressing why a certain gaming (or cultural, to look a bit broader) experience is unique or special is no easy thing. Finding the words to do so can be incredibly hard, because there are two seperate things to consider, which often get mixed up together: on the one hand there’s the actual game design, the stuff that make the game tick, the purely structural mechanics that can be very clearly explained and defined, simply because they form the “outline” and framework of our experience. Our experience of WoW is in large part shaped by whatever structure Blizzard wishes to place us in. The examples are all around and range from minor things to rather extreme things – you only need to look at how an entirely mechanical change like LFD alters the way we interact and behave in the game to realise that the game-structural aspects simply can’t be ignored when talking about our experience of the game.
Now, those aspects can be described, they can be criticised and taken apart. Most game critics and journalists, when reviewing a game, still focus on exactly that: they go through a purely structural account of how the game works (these are the different systems in place, this is how you level up, these are the different kinds of weapons, this is what the graphics look like) and base their judgement on that. But the experience we gamers – or in this case WoW players – have goes far beyond that. There are a lot of intangible and very personal aspects to our game experience which can’t be that easily captured in words. And just like a film critic doesn’t focus on the purely film-structural aspects when trying to get across what makes a certain film so special, I don’t think we can ever rationalise everything we’re doing in games by always focusing on the mechanics. This is where the problem of language comes in though.
In an ideal world we as gamers, but also we as the blogging community or we as WoW players, would be able to develop a language to express both sides of the game experience I’ve just explained: both the mechanical framework on the hand and the personal experience that builds on that framework on the other. Right now, I think we’re faced with the problem that most of the language, and most of the communication from professional writers, has focused on the first side of the game experience: the mechanical, game-structural one. Which means a vocabulary has been developed to allow them (and us) to talk about that side. It’s a vocabulary that’s not always as clear as it could be, with words like “gameplay” or “immersion” clouding the debates because they’re so vague and quite meaningless. The consequence is that, even in casual conversations about games, people tend to go back to that game-structural, mechanical side, because it’s the easy one to focus on: not only is it less nebulous and personal than the OTHER side of the experience, the language is also developed enough to debate it.
So, returning to the WoW argument I started this post with, I think there are two intertwined issues here, both related with language. The first issue is that the language used in those complaints is almost inherently vague because it focuses on the second side of the game experience I’ve tried to describe: the personal one, not the game-structural one. It’s talking about the player’s feelings about the game more than any factors of game design at the base of the issue. Which means it’s already difficult to capture in words to begin with.
The second issue is that, in presenting a “counterargument” to this, a lot of players seem to fall into the trap of attacking it based on game-structural aspects: “you are wrong, because this and this and this improvement has been made to the game since vanilla, so you can’t possibly argue the game was better in vanilla”. Which is not what the argument is about in the first place, and which as I’ve tried to show in this post is partially a consequence of the game-structural language already being developed.
The question is what to do about all this. Do we just stop talking about our personal game experiences because we’re doomed to being vague for all eternity? That seems like a silly idea. Do we somehow try to develop a language, a specific jargon to talk about it and transcend the usual game-structural arguments? In an ideal world, that’d happen. Perhaps it’s also a consequence of this medium being very young still, and a language organically being established over time as a medium grows. I hope so.
In the meantime, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to adapt an openness to other players’ feelings about a game on the one hand (however vaguely expressed), and not always trying to reduce a personal account of a game experience to game-structural grounds on the other. Being open-minded is certainly a good thing in general, and it’d help us along while we’re still stuck in the dark, feeling our way around trying to find the words and explain the inexplicable.