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Mists of Pandaria and the Zen of Warcraft

October 25, 2011
by

Aside from a few brief tweets on the subject, I’ve maintained radio silence on the BlizzCon announcement of WoW’s newest expansion this weekend.  I felt somewhat as if the news hit me like a ton of bricks, and I’m still trying to digest everything I’ve read and seen.

The Dark Chi

I’ll be completely honest with you – Pandaria wasn’t what I expected at all.  I knew about the copyright when it was filed months ago, but never in a million years would I have believed that Mists of Pandaria would be our new expansion.  When I saw the news on my phone while working Friday afternoon, I think you could have knocked me over with a feather.

I’m not … disappointed.  But I do have this very odd, indescribable feeling of not being particularly happy or excited by the news.  For some reason this announcement – more than any apocalyptic report of lost subscribers or angry blog post about the “good old days” – this announcement in particular has made me come to terms with the difficult realization that someday WoW will end.

It’s difficult to say why this suddenly hit me without sounding overly pessimistic about Pandaria – and that’s not at all what I mean to do.  It’s just … when I saw the announcement, I was hit with a sense that perhaps the climactic days of WoW were now behind us.  That maybe Wrath was the high point of the story the game, and that while there may still be some great things to come, we are essentially beginning a process of winding down.  That, perhaps, we’re living in WoW’s dénouement.

Allow me to explain with a bit of context.  I didn’t play any of the Warcraft games before WoW.  What I have learned about lore I’ve learned in-game and through external websites and blogs that have additional information.  So the news that I’d be seeing Pandaren in-game was a pretty odd experience for me.  Most of what I knew about them made them sound like a cuddly, fuzzy, drunken joke.  (This is NOT me saying that I expect Pandaren to be a joke in this new expansion; I realize that Blizzard has gone to great lengths to develop their culture and story.)

Add to this the notion that there’s no “main villain” in Pandaria and it’s difficult for me not to feel as if my characters are about to enter their retirement years.  Hell, even the trailer gave me that impression.  “When we were young, we fought Onyxia and Illidan and Kel’thas and Arthas and Deathwing.  Then we began to have back problems and our social security checks kicked in, the kids all moved out and we figured – to hell with all of it!  We’re taking a cruise to Pandaria where our next great conquest will be helping a giant panda clear out the rabbit infestation in his brewery.”

I’m being a little facetious, I know.

Pandaria looks beautiful; it may well end up being my absolute favorite collection of zones in the game.  And while exploration and forging alliances can certainly make an interesting game, do those themes truly fit this game?  I hate to use the old cliche, but … aren’t we playing World of Warcraft?  Now that the villains have all been defeated (Note that they haven’t; we’ve yet to face all the Old Gods, Sargeras, Azshara, etc.), we’re left to quibble with our neighbors instead – except that narrative attempts to progress this aspect of WoW’s storyline can never be as fulfilling as when we fight against something larger than the factions.  Arthas can be defeated.  Deathwing can be defeated.  The Horde and the Alliance, by definition, CANNOT be defeated because doing so would mean that people’s characters would no longer function in the framework of the game.  An expansion that highlights the struggle between the factions is one that ensures that neither side will win over the other – and, so, none of us will “win” the story the way we did when we killed the Lich King or Illidan.  As I explained a few weeks ago, experiencing this extremely emotional sense of accomplishment at seeing a story through to its epic ending is what makes or breaks a raid encounter (and, by extension, an expansion) for me.

The changes to the talent system have me in a funk as well.  I worry that, in order to give us actual choices which are not defined by math and theorycrafting, the developers haven’t given us interesting choices at all.  I think they may actually achieve their goal of finding a system in which there is no one correct talent spec, but in doing so talents may become rather meaningless.  And the formula of giving us a choice between 3 things that are extremely similar (so close as to essentially do the same thing in a very slightly different way) reminds me entirely too much of the soul system that I hated in Rift.  More than anything, I’m scared to death that this new talent system is going to kill the weird hybrid stuff I love – most notably Atonement healing, which has been an absolute joy to learn over the past month.

Notice what I said there?  I said I’m scared … scared of change and of losing things the things about WoW that I’m especially attached to.

The Light Chi

I’d never have guessed that Blizzard would create a WoW expansion that would inspire me to quote the Dhammapada, but then I didn’t guess that Mists of Pandaria was coming:

“Look within.
Be still.
Free from fear and attachment,
Know the sweet joy of the way.” 

This panda is totally wu wei.

What is it about these pandas that has me running scared?
The answer is simple: change.

I consider myself an adaptable person.  I hardly batted an eye when the changes to the talent trees and healing model were announced for Cataclysm.  “Bring it on,” I recall telling a guildmate.  “We’ll do what druids always do; we’ll adapt.”  When the flexible raid lockout system was enacted at the end of Wrath, I figured that I had enough healers in my alt arsenal to be able to participate in both 10 and 25 man raids.  When talents, spells, quests, zones, stats, and more changed, I rolled with the punches.

Mists of Pandaria is different.  Whether for legitimate reasons or not, the announcement of this expansion has been polarizing.  People who have already quit WoW have said that this validates their decision, and others have said that MoP seems as if it will be so different than their idea of WoW that they may leave as well.  Our raid’s discipline priest, and one of the sweetest people in our guild, told me last night that she wasn’t sure she’d stick around once the pandas went live.  This was within the context of a conversation in whispers discussing how depressing it was to hear so many of our guildmates complaining about MoP.  She agreed with me that it was depressing – she’s always such an optimistic person – but then told me that Pandaria wasn’t really something she would be interested in, either.  I was floored.

MoP is scary not because of the changing face of Azeroth, its races, or its heroes’ abilities.  It’s scary because it is so polarizing.  I believe I will lose guildmates over this, and I believe we will see a turnover in our raid team that is even worse than what we saw between the end of Wrath and the beginning of Cataclysm.  MoP is likely to cause me to lose people with whom I enjoy playing, and will make my Warcraft world smaller and lonelier because of it.

All this might be manageable if I felt like it was time for me to part ways with WoW … but I don’t.  I still love playing this game as much as I did the first night I zoned into Teldrassil over 3 years ago.  Every few months I find a new aspect of WoW that I either didn’t know existed or hadn’t really experienced before.  I am not done yet, even if MoP doesn’t exactly fit my expectations of what Warcraft should be.

At the end of the day, there’s something I must remember: World of Warcraft does not belong to me.

WoW, due to its nature as an enormous MMO, is different than nearly any other game.  It is constantly changing and evolving because it must.  WoW belongs to hardcore raiders and to players who have never leveled a toon to 85.  It belongs to bloggers, guilds, solo players, children, teenagers, adults, PvPers, lore nerds, pop culture fanatics, free-to-play accounts, its developers, and to each and every one of the millions of people who have played it over these last 7 years.  Its reach is broader than any other game in history, and it tries to appeal to a wider customer base than any other game could ever have dreamed was possible.

It’s time for me to let go of the fear and attachment I have when I think of what WoW “should” be.  The only thing that matters is whether I still find this game to be an enjoyable source of escapism and fun – which I do.  Faces may change, raids will come and go, but my love of the game remains the same.

I swear I can feel my stress melting away just from looking at that panda, you know?

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38 Comments leave one →
  1. Squelchy permalink
    October 26, 2011 9:50 am

    You had me at the dark chi. But then–I’m one of the people who left the game.

    • October 26, 2011 8:20 pm

      Aw. :(

      I’m curious: Does this announcement help to solidify your feeling that you left WoW at the right time? Or do you think you would be interested in the new content if you were still playing? (Granted, your choice to leave wasn’t completely based upon content, but I’d still like to see what you have to say on the topic.)

    • Squelchy permalink
      October 31, 2011 10:38 pm

      It pretty much solidifies it. So many of the new systems seem like they’re gimmicks–pet battles, scenarios, to name two. I admit, being out of the game means I haven’t read the details, but–one hears people say a lot, “put the WAR back in World of Warcraft.” I say, put the WORLD back in World of Warcraft. How much of the UI will be based on queuing systems in MoP? It depresses me.

      So basically, yeah, I wouldn’t come back for the content. I will say that I miss all my friends terribly, though. That and the legendary may yet bring me home…

  2. October 29, 2011 6:05 pm

    Beautiful! I have heard similar negative feedback from a few of my guildies and friends as well, and I hope that it’s just hot air. But like you, I’m not done yet! I still love WoW and Azeroth, even with all of it’s changes and imperfections.

    • October 30, 2011 9:22 am

      Thanks, Gladiola! It’s really hard to say how much of what we’re hearing now is “just hot air,” but I’m certainly hoping that may be the case as well. I know that my feelings about the new expansion have been all over the place since the BlizzCon announcement, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one.

  3. October 29, 2011 9:52 pm

    I have similar reservations about the upcoming expansion. Not so much about the Aesthetics, I don’t mind the way things look, but I actually wrote a pretty big post about the ways that I think that Blizzard has failed to understand the impact that the medium of the game has on the constraints of their narative.

  4. October 31, 2011 4:26 pm

    I’m one of those people who’s considering going back after hearing about Pandaria. I was so tired after BC, and Wrath and Cata, (game design and aesthetic wise) it really took the wind out of my sails. The new stuff looks really nice, and I’m excited to see the new art and character models. I hope they can get the old models updated so that they can perform those monk moves with finesse.

    • October 31, 2011 6:29 pm

      I’m also very excited to see the new artwork that will make its way into the game (I’ll admit to being especially anxious to see what those lady pandas will look like). Definitely crossing my fingers for some updates to the old models as well.

  5. Dranneb permalink
    October 31, 2011 4:43 pm

    Wow… very insightful, balanced post! I think a lot of players are torn between the dread of what this expansion could mean for the game and a hope that MoP will be a great expansion. My guild is feeling the same pain as you described. A lot of our guild members are dismissing the next expansion based solely on the appearance of pandas and pet battles. But I have found that these are the same people who complain about every change the game has ever undergone, before anyone had a chance to see how things pan out.

    However, I feel there is still so much more about this expansion Blizzard is keeping to themselves. Ghostcrawler did mention that there was a big-baddie lurking for the next expansion, and I think as Cata comes to a close, we will begin to learn a lot more about what MoP has in store for us besides Monks, Pandas, and pet-battles. But I am the eternal optimist.

    • October 31, 2011 6:33 pm

      I like to think I’m an eternal optimist as well. :)

      It’s difficult to stay that way when you hear so much negativity, particularly from people like guildmates. I think that you’re right, though, and that there’s so much more we’ve yet to find out about what’s in store for MoP.

  6. October 31, 2011 4:55 pm

    I’m one of the people who actually came back partly because of Mists (the other parts are friends getting back in I enjoy playing with and Angelhorse). I’m also a wannabe game designer and love sinking the mental teeth into game mechanics, with an eye for thoughtful simplification and real choice over the illusion of it. As such, Mists excites me and makes me feel it’s a move in the right direction.

    The criticism I’ve seen so far has been terribly ill-reasoned, ranging from “Pandas are childish” to the classic “6 talent points mean not as much customization” anyone with a brain realizes is bunk.

    That all said, your thoughts and feelings in The Dark Chi section were well thought out, unlike the vast majority of Mists-related discontent I’ve seen on the net. It was also an enticing read, and I thank you for it.

    • October 31, 2011 6:38 pm

      I’ve signed up to receive my Angelhorse as well … looks beautiful so far! Thanks very much for reading and for your comment. I think it’s pretty easy to debunk the “Pandas are childish” argument when you look at posts like Cynwise’s that track the influences of the Pandaren in WoW: http://cynwise.posterous.com/on-lone-wolf-and-cub-oriental-adventures-and

    • November 1, 2011 2:04 am

      8 bazillion thanks for the link!

      I wasn’t aware of Lone Wolf and Cub, though another classic series comes to mind by what’s revealed by Mists so far: Usagi Yojimbo.

      Thanks again; I’ll be checking it out.

  7. Amazedbyignorance permalink
    October 31, 2011 4:56 pm

    Mate, I was with you until I read that comment about the Rift soul system, I clicked your link, read your article, and laughed so much I fell off my chair….did you ever get past level 10? seriously, your ignorance is amazing.

    Rift souls offer choice, huge amounts of hybridisation, you can be a support healer, you can dip into support/buffs/heals as a dps. Hell, cleric tanks have 1 tanking soul and 14+ accepted builds, and many more viable ones.

    Mate, you may want to actually get some realy experience of something before you prattle on about it and display your ignorance.

    • October 31, 2011 6:40 pm

      Well, you’ve certainly got me there, I didn’t play Rift at max level. I quit around 25 as I recall, because I didn’t find it to be an engaging game – for me. You’re absolutely right that it offers a ton of hybridization, but at lower levels that translates to several redundant abilities and feeling like you’ve bought a brand new character when you try out a new set of souls. That was my experience of the game; I’d certainly argue just as you did if someone tried to tell me they had an equally bad experience of WoW at low levels. To each her own.

  8. October 31, 2011 5:11 pm

    Don’t you hate reading books when you know exactly what’s going to happen in the last chapter of the book? Doesn’t it spoil all the fun of exploring the 20 chapters that come before that last chapter of the book? Why does Blizzard have to give us expansion spoilers that tell us what the last raid encounter is going to be? Would Burning Crusade have been more fun if we didn’t know that Illidan was the one pulling the strings from day 1? Why does having to know the end of the story mean the story is going to be more fun?

    I remember back in Vanilla WoW when we didn’t know who the next Big Bad was going to be and the excitement that came with learning about what new adventures awaited us. Sitting around waiting for Deathwing to meet his end is boring. Not knowing what the Lost Island of Pandaria has in store for us allows for exploration and adventure. I can’t wait to see what Big Bads are luring around the corner in Pandaria. In Pandaria, it’s what we don’t know that I find the most exciting adventure of all. Blizzard is still going to do it Blizzard-style and it won’t just become a little-kid-game overnight. Sure, there is light and humor – but there is also war and death and destruction. The balance of humor and destruction in a creative storytelling manner is what is going to make Pandaria so awesome.

    • October 31, 2011 6:44 pm

      I agree, Lissanna, there is a lot to be said for a good mystery. (Rhades has already gotten me wondering about what’s really going on in Pandaria with his recent post on the new races there: http://www.orcisharmyknife.com/2011/10/meet-new-races-of-pandariaespecially.html). I certainly think there is plenty of potential for an amazing story with MoP, it’s just that a direction that was a little unexpected for me, personally. That’s not at all a bad thing, and I can’t wait to see what Blizzard comes up with.

  9. Jyotai permalink
    October 31, 2011 5:18 pm

    Guild Wars started ti ‘Wind down’ somewhere between its second and third expansion.

    The solution, which will likely happen for WoW as well someday, will be in Guild Wars 2.

    The problem is that lore only goes so far until the story gets stretched to the breaking point.

    Mists is a different direction – One I find very engaging. But it also signals a departure from the ‘story’ that drove WoW’s inception. How far will the story get to keep going until it needs a reset?

    Guild Wars 2 reset Guild Wars lore.

    Fast Foward a few centuries, the following new events have happened in the interim. Magic, the races, the nations, the lands – its all been changed in so many ways. But the ‘mood / theme’ all the fans loved; still there in spades, with lots of new angles.

    That’s what will happen to us in some distant day.

    They’ll need to take the ‘story’ back, away from us… rewrite Azeroth into a new planet. Shift things up a lot.

    Completely different factions, maybe no factions, maybe more factions… new continents, new driving energies… new NPC heroes…

    Who knows… maybe the Orcs and Humans unite to fight the Elves and Trolls, while the Forsaken and Tauren hang out and pick sides individually… Or whatever…

    An all new WoW-2. I’d say its due in about 3-6 years. But will take 2 more than that to hit shelves. 6 years sounds like a while – that’d mean we’re in the middle right now… But in dev-team cycles, its not long enough.

    WoW 2 might take place as much as a thousand years after WoW 1. They could set it before, but I’d consider that foolish. the problem with prequels is that everyone knows the ending.

    It needs to be sufficiently far away that they can wipe the slate clean. But not far removed that you lose ‘that special feeling’.

    • October 31, 2011 6:00 pm

      Guild Wars needed the reset. There was so much to update and I am glad that they are doing it the way they are, as both GW and GW2 are radically different in design and mechanics. The story is the only thing that continues, though 300 some years later.

      WoW… I don’t think so, at least not yet. There is so much lore wise that they can do in the current timeline, and they have shown that there is much they can do to update the graphics even on such an old system. At this time, especially with the numbers they have, it would be foolish to break up the player base ala Everquest 2.

      What lore strength WoW has is in its characters. If there was a reset we would lose 95% them. The world without them is really quite boring if you look at the bare bones of it. Highly derivative and been there done that. No, I think WoW will finish its run, and then Blizz will pour money and time into a new story and world to explore. You can only up the ante some many times me thinks.

  10. October 31, 2011 6:07 pm

    You summed up my feelings perfectly with just five words … I am not done yet. The game is still fun for me, and I am 100% confident that I will still find it fun when Mists is released. Will I like every single thing about it? Ha. Of course not. But I will find the things about it that I do like and enjoy them to their fullest.

    • October 31, 2011 7:58 pm

      Truth be told, if I’d been playing WoW in Vanilla and heard that BC would be the first expansion, I doubt I’d have been thrilled. BC is possibly the farthest departure from the traditional idea of WoW that we’ve seen so far in the MMO, and yet a lot of people (myself included) enjoyed a lot of things about that first expansion. It will be interesting to see whether the same holds true for MoP.

  11. October 31, 2011 7:33 pm

    I think a lot of people are feeling that same apprehension that you are, that this doesn’t feel like “War”craft. And I would totally agree with you, that there does seem to be a lack of conflict, of dark/grim storylines, of overarching stories of heroism and good triumphing over evil…SO FAR.

    I think it’s simply far too early to come to a conclusion about Mists’ plot and feel yet, considering we really don’t know anything. Actually, that’s not true – we know we won’t just be having happy adventures in Pandaria – that there WILL be villains and sinister forces at work. We just don’t know what they will be yet.

    I strongly encourage anyone who is so far disappointed with Mists to just have patience and wait until we know a little bit more about it. There is so, so much we don’t know yet, and it would be such a shame for people to abandon the game before the actual content is even known! You (and many others) may not be thrilled at the sight of Mists’ proverbial cover, but it’d be silly to toss it aside without opening the pages and having a look inside. :D

    • October 31, 2011 7:56 pm

      I completely agree, and I’ve become more interested in the xpac with every new bit of information we’ve seen so far. As I said in response to Lissanna above, I think the idea of Pandaria has plenty of potential for mystery and heroic storylines. What remains to be seen is just how much Blizzard capitalizes on that potential.

      This post was much more an attempt to figure out WHY I was feeling so down when I first read the xpac news than it was a criticism of MoP as a choice for our next direction. For some reason, the news hit me hard, and I wanted to figure out why that was.

  12. Artemisian permalink
    October 31, 2011 8:30 pm

    I just wanted to rebutt a few of the things said in here. I think this expansion has great potential, and what I love about this is that we simply don’t know where it’s going. They’ve said there is a Big Bad Villain for the expansion, but they’re not telling us. There’s the Sha, feeding on the energy of war and violence … which is exactly what we’re bringing to Pandaria. I’d love to see us killing a being of dark energy that we’ve created by our own carelessness.

    I personally love the talents; they all have similar ideas for the tier, but with interesting mechanics and choices. Most of our talent trees haven’t been choices, it’s been 100% cookie-cutter. And Atonement is still in there (or Archangel and other Smite-related tidbits in talents) which is lovely. It hasn’t been a valid playstyle for high-end healing output for a while, so it’s ramped down a bit it won’t change much.

    • October 31, 2011 8:34 pm

      The Sha definitely look like an exciting new aspect to the story, and one that I’m really curious to learn more about.

      I think that finding a way to get out of a system of talent trees that include pass/fail choices is a fantastic thing. I also think that creating talent trees, let alone reworking existing ones, is probably one of the most difficult things game designers can be tasked to do. I also *highly* doubt that anything we’ve seen so far in the talent previews is anywhere near its final form, so I purposefully decided not to expand much on the topic.

    • Artemisian permalink
      October 31, 2011 8:38 pm

      I think the designers might have realised that redesigning the talent trees (as done for Cata, and they did a freaking fantastic job) is only a temporary fix. As soon as we get more levels, the trees have to be re-done again or theorycrafters find the random OP combinations and mix-and-match in a way not intended. By getting rid of the points/tree idea and going with the choice-per-tier idea, I feel like it’s a more permanent solution that avoids them worrying about future expansion.

      And yeah, I can see so many nifty talents dying :( I feel sorry for some of the DPS hybrids, as a lot of their choices seem kind of sub-optimal. Priests final tier has no option for damage at all that I recall, just healing >_<

    • October 31, 2011 8:42 pm

      Completely on board with you, here. I LOVE what Blizzard did to the talent trees for Cataclysm. The whole idea of a “class-defining” ability at level 10 is just so incredibly cool – and so important for new players because it gives you a chance to experience what you class is like even from a very low level. But, yes, sadly all that work is going to be undone whenever a new expansion with a new level cap comes around. This concept does look like something that can be a long-term solution for the designers – or at least the form does, if not yet the content of the individual talents themselves.

      Out of curiosity, where have you seen news that Atonement is sticking around? I haven’t been able to find anything on the topic yet.

    • Artemisian permalink
      October 31, 2011 8:46 pm

      Well Archangel is currently a level 45 talent, still stating it consumes stacks of Evangelism, so I’m assuming Smite is still probably going to be source of that. Surge of Light can proc from Smite as well, so it seems likely the playstyle is still going to be possible. I did Atonement for a fair chunk of Cata (until hitting mid-Firelands and realising I a) didn’t need it anymore, as I was using GHeal the whole time and b) I couldn’t keep up with a pally and drood using it) and really love the idea, and I think it found a place in the hearts of a lot of discos.

    • October 31, 2011 8:54 pm

      Right, that makes sense. Thank you. (Also, DAMMIT! I wanted to take Divine Star so badly because it’s like Flame Orb but healy!)

      Atonement has really just been a fun leveling and 5 man experiment for me on my priests, specifically because it hasn’t been competitive or ideal for a lot of the fights in Cata. We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out in MoP and if the encounter designs appeal to it at all.

    • Artemisian permalink
      October 31, 2011 9:05 pm

      Atonement was damn fun, and I really liked it through T11 raiding. And Divine Star looks freaking awesome. At least we can try these things out easily and just switch if we feel like it!

      I feel that disc was really well handled for Cata. There were multiple viable playstyles – Atonement/Train of Thought, or Strength of Soul and GHeal/PWS spamming (my current one, and I loves it). I just wish there was more support for Atonement in the end-game so it felt like a real contest :(

      With the lean towards hybrid and dual-role support that the new talents seem to imply, I feel like Atonement might fit well in the new fight designs. Fingers crossed, I miss my wings :(

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