Have We (and Warcraft) Officially Grown Up?
As hard as an end of an expansion always is, lately I can’t help but wonder if Cataclysm is somehow harder. Until quite recently, I found myself less motivated to log on, more bored, and finding it increasingly difficult to invent new priorities for myself while I wait for Mists to be released. When I put this question to Twitter on Friday afternoon, I was flooded with a ton of fascinating responses on the topic (and a list of all those who were kind enough to participate can be found at the end of this post):
What I found to be most interesting was just how many of the responses I received didn’t speak so much to the differences in the game since the end of Wrath, but instead to the differences in the players themselves. As I read through tweet after tweet telling me how much happier players are now with the way they are spending their time in-game and how they have shed the anxiety that comes with believing they have to do it all, I had to wonder: Have we grown up just as much, if not more, than WoW has?
The Wrath 20-Something
The Burning Crusade was a time when WoW was slowly making its way out of the identity crisis faced by any new MMO into a place with a clearly defined endgame and path of progression. BC defined what heroic dungeons, gear grinds, faction reputations, and raiding would look like for years to come. Yet it was Wrath that took all these new systems and made them accessible to a large portion of the playerbase.
For the first time, it was truly possible for many people to get their characters to a place where they couldn’t upgrade further. Once this happened, Wrath provided us with huge incentives for alting. Heirlooms were released with the expansion and added to as Wrath went on. The XP needed to level, particularly through Outland, was decreased significantly, and it was possible to take a character from 1-80 in just a matter of weeks. Once level-capped, gearing to the point of being able to run heroics, then ICC dungeons, then ICC itself, could all happen within days or hours – depending on how determined you decided to be. All this was an extremely far cry from the very long leveling and gearing process in Vanilla and BC.
There was a consistently expressed desire at the end of Wrath to have one of every class, or one of every healer/tank, and so on. Players frequently set leveling goals for themselves and repeatedly slogged through the 1-80 grind, and I know that I am not alone in having quickly filled up my character slots on my home server thanks to Wrath’s easy leveling.
If WoW aged like your average human being, I would place Wrath as the equivalent of its late teens and early 20s. It was a time when many of us were finally learning to play the game for the first time, and there was a ton to learn! We leveled a multitude of alts so we could figure out all the different classes and roles, just like a college freshman might take courses from her university’s liberal arts core to help her decide on a focus of study. We tried a little bit of everything – raiding, leveling, PvP, selling on the auction house – because we finally had the resources and the knowledge at our disposal to do so.
We couldn’t get enough of all the new experiences that were available to us then. For many of us who had never found raiding accessible before, the idea of not only taking our mains through the final encounters of the expansion, but also our hordes of alts was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. I know that I loved the idea of getting to try out each of my healers, my tank, and even my warlock in ICC. Wrath was a time of learning and discovery, and that desire to figure out every aspect of how the game worked kept us busy until the very end.
Unfortunately, this also made it easy for many of us to set completely unrealistic goals for ourselves. Leveling and gearing an alt of every single class takes a lot of time, even with heirlooms and reduced XP. Couple this with the knowledge that many quests, dungeons, achievements, and more would either be gone forever or changed drastically in Cataclysm, and we suddenly felt more like we had to keep going than we wanted to. For many of us, burnout was inevitable, but we played on anyway.
The Cataclysm Adult
Narci perhaps best expressed the jarring shift from Wrath to Cataclysm when she said:
The end of Wrath was spent preparing for a future in Cata that turned out to be completely not what I imagined. And really, I spent most of Cata adjusting to the question “if not THAT, then what is this game?”
I don’t know what exactly I expected Cata to be. I know that I was excited to think that, for the first time, I would go into an expansion with a raiding guild and focus on progressing through content (hopefully) soon after it was released. I expected to lead my own 10m group and also participate in the guild’s 25m, but the difficulty and gear check of the T11 raids quickly chased many of my 10m raiders away. Real life intervened for both groups, and we lost more and more people. Those best friends you make while you’re in college who you think you’ll be close to forever? We lost a lot of those in Cata’s early days.
So I was forced to reevaluate, just as Narci was. Perhaps the most difficult of all Cataclysm’s changes has been the clear shift from WoW’s default being a multiplayer game to its new default as a solo game. The addition of dungeon finder, satchels as incentive for tanks and healers to queue alone, and eventually raid finder meant that it was actually more work and more effort to raid or group with your guild than it was to queue alone. Blizzard’s choice to focus on ease of solo play has made a lot of aspects of WoW much easier to coordinate (in that they require essentially no coordination at all), but it has also meant that we must work exponentially harder to maintain our community ties.
Cataclysm has been an extremely lonely expansion for me, and not just in recent months as I’ve found my guild growing increasingly indifferent to the game. After the first few months of heroics and the subsequent nerfs to those heroics, it was as simple to hit the dungeon finder button as it would be to try to put together a group of people from my guild. The original Cata heroics and the troll heroics I did for the first several times with guildmates – the Hour of Twilight heroics I have pugged since day 1. With each patch added during this expansion, I have watched as we are given more incentive to play alone and much less to play together.
By far, the people who have had the most success with maintaining a sense of community, and who are enjoying the end of Cata the most, are those who have gone outside the traditional notion of what a group or a guild is. Many of the responses I received on Twitter were from players who met each other outside of WoW first – whether through blogging, Twitter, or forums that coordinate raids using Real ID and Battle Tags. By using non-traditional means to find new people to play with, many WoW players are now using these new resources to group with people who want to play like they do. Now, because it is easier to find those people who share your interests, burnout is less of an issue for some of the community. Those who want to run old content can find others with similar goals, as can those who want to PvP, roleplay, or just about anything in between. Though this was also true during Wrath, being able to quickly find and connect with those who have similar interests is really something that didn’t fully develop until the current expansion.
In the years since I finished college, I’ve realized that one of the more difficult aspects of adjusting to adulthood is the lack of sanctioned, organized activities and settings that make finding new friends as simple as attending class or a club meeting. For me, the same has slowly happened in WoW as Blizzard moves toward a model that simplifies solo play. Finding new recruits, and developing and maintaining ties with guildmates have all been much more difficult in the last 2 years than they were during Wrath. Much of the loneliness and isolation I sometimes feel in game now isn’t all that different from the adjustment I had to go through when I lived alone for the first time after sharing a dorm with many, many friends during my college years. There are still plenty of potential friends and guildmates out there, but the work required to find them has changed.
The Aging WoW Player
Where were you 4 years ago? Was your job the same as it is now? Do you run in the same circle of friends? How has your family changed?
I don’t have much in common with the person I was at the beginning of Wrath, nor is there much in common with the way I play now versus how I did then. It’s amazing to look back and think how I knew absolutely nothing about this game, and that I never would have dreamed I could ever know as much about it as I do now. This has been more of the more challenging things to accept in Cataclysm – that, for the most part, my need to learn about the game is at an end. I suppose a part of me expected that a new expansion would mean more to learn, but that simply wasn’t the case. Wrath had been all about the influx of information and new experiences that I got from being a first-timer in WoW’s endgame. That thrill of knowledge and of knowing how you’ve improved yourself is pretty compelling – and there was no way Cataclysm could hope to duplicate that feeling, because I was a veteran now. I’d seen it all before, and the new stuff just didn’t interest me all that much.
Just like many of the others who responded, I realized that I have changed much more than WoW has. I came into Cataclysm expecting an emotional and community experience that would be mostly the same as what I’d seen in Wrath, and then had to scramble to change my priorities when I realized this wasn’t going to happen. Perhaps we made it through WoW’s (and, as players, our own) adolescent period in Wrath and expected the game to treat us differently in Cataclysm. We were ready for the grown-up expansion that would take us to the next logical step in our learning and growth as a playerbase, but we only found more of the same.
So much of what I saw on Twitter regarding the ways our attitudes about WoW have shifted reminded me of the changes we go through during the end of adolescence into adulthood. We have narrowed our priorities, really picking and choosing among them to be sure that we are spending our time doing things that are meaningful to us, and weeding out those obligations that overwhelm us and lead to burn out. We have both broadened and simultaneously narrowed our circle of friends, finding people who more closely share our interests but finding more of these like-minded players. We recognize that balance is key, both in game and out, and that spending too much time on the game while we wait for a new expansion isn’t necessarily very good for us or for WoW.
The Warcraft community has grown up, and we are ready for Mists to be the expansion that sees us this way. We are incredibly eager to learn new things and to continue to tailor our play experiences so that they coincide with our individual interests and priorities. All that remains to be seen is whether WoW will be able to keep up with us.
Many thanks to the following people who responded to my question on Twitter: @AlternativeChat, @GarroshHllscrm, @Lyshra, @battlechicken, @anexxia, @_Rades, @Druidis4fite, @JRWStormy, @DruidMain, @GetintheBag, @wowcynwise, @itsreallymarc, @EWOKinLA, @Aralosseien, @matticus, @DragonFireKai, @Rezznul, @BeruHeals, @catulla, @stoppableforce, @lufitoom, @Khalior, and @annanda. Hope I didn’t miss anyone!