Farewell to Azeroth

I’m leaving World of Warcraft.

I played the game from before the beginning, during its beta test prior to the game’s formal release in November 2004. After putting time and energy and money into the game for 15 years, I feel like some nostalgia and introspection; hence this blog post.

World of Warcraft (WoW) is part of a thread of my life that started in the 70s, when I began to play tabletop role-playing games. I played D&D at first, then expanded to my own system (Argothald, of course). I enjoyed these and similar games until about 1990, when the increasing distance between myself and my fellow players made the face-to-face tabletop experience no longer practical.

I missed the social interaction and shared storytelling of role-playing games. I found a substitute through a recruitment drive at a science-fiction convention: LARPing (live-action role-playing). I played in LAIRE from 1991 to 1996, and Mystic Realms from 1997 to 2003. That ended for a variety of reasons, but to discuss them all would require another series of posts similar to the ones I wrote about why I stopped working at the Ren Faire.

Once again, I felt the loss of the friendships and joy of role-playing. And again, I found a substitute: At the tail end of my experience with Mystic Realms, a group of those players got together to play World of Warcraft. We picked the role-playing server Earthen Ring; our guild was the Explorers of Evermoore.

In those early days, role-playing was as important as playing the game content. Our little community of friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, and acquaintances of acquaintances grouped together as informal group called the Toadpunchers. We once crashed the Earthen Ring server when we held a virtual clambake by shores of Auberdine; the designers of World of Warcraft never anticipated that so many characters would be in one place at the same time.

A brief explanation in case you’re not familiar with MMOs (Massive Multiplayer Online games): What I describe in the previous paragraph is “player-created content” and not meant to be the focus of the game. In WoW, characters advance in the game by killing monsters, fulfilling quests, and visiting locations. There are different aspects to this: PvE (player vs environment), which you can play on your own; dungeons, in which five players group together to face tougher challenges; raids, in which up to 40 players group to face the toughest environments; PvP, in which players advance by battling each other.

Raiding is considered the ultimate goal by most MMO players; you get to have the fun of playing the game in the company of other people. However, you can’t just create a character and start raiding. You have to advance your character to a certain point before first dungeon and later raiding opportunities become available. In the early days of WoW, this took many weeks even if you dedicated yourself 24/7 to the task.

Back in 2005, I enjoyed playing many different charactersin WoW. Each race had a different starting locations and there are characters classes with their own abilities. I created as many characters as the game permitted on the Earthen Ring server: Winston the Warlock, Theadora the Druid, Vasili the Priest, Pellinore the Paladin, Grotar the Warrior, Swiftslice the Rogue, Diddleswythe the Mage, Durumi the Shaman, Usda the Hunter. I explored the different areas of the game and learned each classes’ abilities.

All fine and good. But my fellow Explorers of Evermoore focused on perhaps one or two characters, instead of distributing their time across eight. As a result, they got to the point where they could begin raiding while I still had months to go. After a year, I finally got there and could start raiding with them, but I was way behind in knowledge and experience in raiding. I made novice mistakes in the raid encounters and violated what I later learned was basic etiquette in claiming the valuable magic items left behind when powerful monsters were defeated. This did not make me a welcome presence on their raids.

About two years later, World of Warcraft had its first major expansion: The Burning Legion. I enjoyed exploring the new territories and watching a new story unfold, but I’m going to continue to focus on the social aspect of the game.

In those two years some things had changed in my WoW community. Members of the Explorers of Evermoore were gradually leaving the game. People I knew by name and face were replaced by players I only knew through their on-line IDs. The Toadpunchers, instead of being an organizing force behind social events and raids, became folded into a different broad coalition of guilds, the Wildly Inept Raiders.

(My memory is a bit fuzzy here and I may be getting things wrong; the message boards that were used to organize all of this no longer exist.)

The role-playing aspect of WoW was fading away. Earthen Ring was designated by Blizzard to be a role-playing server. This means that players on the server were expected to contribute to an immersive story environment. In the early days of WoW, a character name like “Horneeduudx” might be cause for a formal complaint to one of the Blizzard’s gamesmasters on an RP server, while on other types of servers no one would care. Over time, as the general WoW player base became more focused on raiding and other game mechanics, less attention was paid to RP events. I saw no more invitations to clambakes. Blizzard gradually stopped enforcing the RP standards, and Earthen Ring began to fill up with Horneeduudxs.

In the absence of role-playing opportunities in WoW, I concentrated on leveling up a single character: Winston. I was still further behind in advancing my character than most of the folks I knew, but I got to the point where I could participate in raids in only months instead of a year.

But the raids had changed as well. Above, I said that up to 40 people could participate in a raid. That was true when WoW was first released, but in The Burning Legion that limit was reduced to 20. This revealed a problem: in the 40-person raids, my poor raid performance wasn’t an issue; I was one among many. In a 20-person raid, my character was putting out low enough damage that it was noticeable.

I did what I could. It was roughly around that time that the first tools became available for players to monitor their character’s performance. I stood on a hilltop where a powerful monster couldn’t reach me and practiced casting Winston’s spells to get my damage output to an acceptable range. I wish I could say it was time well-spent.

There was also the time factor: The raid encounters are difficult. All 20 people have learn the “beats” and transitions of each one. It’s typical for a party of 20 try to defeat a monster, fail, get wiped out, resurrect, and try the encounter again, repeatedly, for weeks, divided into hours-long gaming sessions. This is called “glasschewing,” because of what it feels like as you strain for that feeling of accomplishment.

The high-end raiding guilds might do this 5-7 nights a week. The Wildly Inept Raiders did this three times a week. I was comfortable with glasschewing once a week. WIR reorganized its raiding structure to separate those who attend 2-3 times a week from those who could attend less frequently; the latter could run once every two weeks.

I had problems learning the encounters when I only saw them once every two to four weeks. The other raiders weren’t enthusiastic about a clumsy and underperforming raider.

To make it clear: There were other things to do in WoW apart from raiding. For example, the Burning Legion introduced flying mounts. There were a wide variety of mounts available. Many of them cost large amounts of in-game currency or required weeks of earning reputation with in-game factions to purchase. I also worked on leveling up other characters after I got Winston to raiding level, just to see what it was like to play those characters. But collecting and leveling are typically solo activities.

Two years later, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion was released. I didn’t bother to ask to join any raiding groups. If I participated in a raid, it was a pick-up: “We need one more to go into Ulduar. Anyone wanna join?”

By this time, Wildly Inept Raiders had become Deadly Cupcakes. You can infer from this that at least my WoW community doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Wrath of the Lich King was the last WoW expansion whose story I enjoyed. It was the culmination of a tale that began before WoW did, in the Blizzard game Warcraft 3. It was in this expansion that I discovered the joys of mount collecting.

A word of explanation:

From the beginning, WoW characters have had the option of companion pets. They do nothing significant. They show up on players’ screens, perhaps with cute animations. You look at them. That’s it.

Characters can also gain mounts that speed up their travel and, with the second expansion, allow them to fly. One mount is as good as another; in terms of travel time you can get there just as fast on a simple brown horse as you can on a tiger. (This wasn’t always true, but has been for the past several years.) The difference between mounts is purely cosmetic.

Collecting pets and mounts serves no game purpose. It’s a self-imposed task to collect digital items that have no intrinsic value.

In this expansion, I noticed that, among WoW’s many game achievements, you could earn an extra mount if you acquired 150 of them. I already had 100 or so from previous expansions, so I worked on getting 50 more. After all, by that point in the game I didn’t have much else to do. I collected the quota, saw that there was another award if I collected 250 mounts… and stopped. (I must have casually picked up more mounts as I continued to play game through now, because at present my character has 260 mounts.)

Then the unexpected: I was invited by someone I only know as Snique to accompany his guild, Friends and Lovers, as they glasschewed on the Icecrown Citadel raid. This was the final raid of the Lich King expansion, the end of the story I mentioned above. I wanted to see it, and I accepted his offer.

I knew he wasn’t looking for high raid performance (to be sure, he got none from me!). He was looking to fill a slot in his roster. Nevertheless, I cooperated as best I could. I regeared, respecced, rehearsed. Finally, after some weeks of effort, we saw Arthas fall. Thanks, Snique!

The next World of Warcraft expansion was called Cataclysm. For me, it was meh. Snique offered to have me continue to raid with the Friends and Lovers guild, but though I was grateful to him I just wasn’t motivated to go raiding in expansion 4; the story didn’t interest me, and while I carved out time to raid in this special case, I couldn’t keep it up indefinitely.

I didn’t go into any dungeons or raids at all in Cataclysm. I leveled up characters, explored new or updated regions, and so on. Nothing really stands out in my memory of the expansion.

In 2012 WoW released Mists of Pandaria. The story was a bit more interesting, and there was enough that seemed new and fresh to engage my interest. The expansion included a new race and I started a new character, Yungi.

Still no dungeons or raids, until…

With this expansion, World of Warcraft introduced pet battles. Those cosmetic pets still didn’t help you defeat monsters or accomplish quests, but you could collect them and have them fight each other. It’s Pokemon.

Part-way into the expansion, Blizzard introduced the Celestial Tournament, an epic-level pet-battle challenge that required players to have a wide collection of powerful pets to succeed. By that point in the expansion, I had run out of things to do so I decided to collect more pets and go for the epic achievement.

In three weeks I had built up a collection from a bunch of level 1 do-nothings to enough level 25 specialty pets to defeat the Celestial Tournament.

I had been bitten by the bug. I wanted to collect more pets, I wanted to level them all to maximum, and I wanted all of them to be of Rare quality. The chief motivator was the ranking on warcraftpets.com, a web site that tracks the relative quality of WoW players’ pet collections. As I improved my collection, I gradually moved up in the ranks.

It turned out that there other members of Deadly Cupcakes who were into collecting pets. In particular, I was aided, abetted, and possibly enabled by Andius, whose skill as a WoW player and collector is far greater than mine. Thanks!

I finally raided again, using LFR (“Looking for Raid”), an organizational tool that Blizzard introduced for folks like me who were not part of organized glasschewing raid groups. Both the game challenges and rewards from these raids were less than normal; they existed solely so that people could see what they looked like. I raided for just one reason: there were some pets that could only be acquired by accomplishing tasks on raids. It was not always pleasant; the players had a random assortment of gaming and social skills, and I experienced some antisemitism.

By the end of the fifth expansion, my pet collection was in the top 10 on warcraft pets.

The sixth expansion was Warlords of Draenor… but I didn’t care much. The expansion was almost a background to me. What mattered was that a year after its release, I was the number one pet collector on Earthen Ring.

It was the worst thing that could have happened (provided you think that playing WoW is of some importance).

By now you’ve seen the problem: There was only one reason I was playing WoW, to get and keep that rating. Was it an addiction? I don’t think so. It wasn’t progressive, I wasn’t hurting myself or others, any money I spent was well within my limits of disposable income (I could have spent $1000 to get another pet or two, but resisted the mild temptation).

The seventh expansion was the Burning Legion. There I met a serious pet-collecting challenge, namely challengers. I was the number one pet collector on Earthen Ring, but there are plenty of other WoW servers out there, with even more dedicated pet collectors than I am. A couple of people, with an even stronger desire to be #1 than mine, transferred their characters to Earthen Ring to be #1 in the rankings on a server; they could be a big fish in a small pond. Or so I suspected, since I never spoke with either of them.

I had to grind hard to keep up. In particular, I had to spend months in PvP, which I hate, in order to get the last couple of pets to finally be #1 in the last few weeks of Burning Legion.

Then I looked at what it would take to stay at #1 for the eighth expansion, Battle for Azeroth.

It would mean more grinding at stuff I hated to do. In particular, there’s a pet I’d need to get by going into many Timewalking dungeons. Translated into English, that means visiting dungeons that I’d never been into before, over and over again.

Shouldn’t that be fun? Remember that there’d be four other people with me, total strangers. They became familiar and then bored with those old dungeons years ago. They want to zip through the place and get out. They’d have very little patience for someone who didn’t know the encounters, or even whether to turn left or right at crossroads.

Settle for not being #1 anymore? You’re joking, right?

I quit pet collecting cold turkey. I hadn’t even looked at warcraftpets until just now, when I copied the link to include in this blog post.

The Battle for Azeroth arrived and I started playing normally. I decided to switch characters and play one of my older ones, Theadora. There were interesting things to do, like visiting Drustvar. After I leveled her to the maximum allowed by the expansion, I started a new character in a new race from scratch, Winstonia, to experience the beginnings of the game again. And then…

I had a health problem. It’s caused me to be homebound for the past three months. During that time, as I try to find ways to occupy my time, I’ve felt no urge to play WoW. None.

Without pet collecting, the last vestige of thrill from Blizzard’s “Welcome to World of Warcraft” in 2004 is gone.

Storytelling? Blizzard hasn’t told an interesting story in years. Roleplaying? In WoW, it’s been gone more than a decade. Social environment? The Deadly Cupcakes have been nice to me and have been endlessly helpful with advice on how to play the game, but I don’t know any of them; I don’t even know their real names. (It could be reasonably pointed out that I never asked.)

The guild Explorers of Evermoore? For years I’ve stuck with it out of a sense of loyalty and memories of clambakes from 14 years ago. There’s only one other player who regularly signs on, and he’s another old hold-out from Mystic Realms as I am. (At least I know his real name!)

The central plotline of WoW is the Alliance versus the Horde. The Explorers of Evermoore is in the Alliance. On the Horde side, the guild The Onyx Crown once held the Horde characters of everyone in the Explorers of Evermoore. They had their own role-playing events… again, 14 years ago. Now, my two remaining Horde characters Grotar and Swiftslice are the only members of the Onyx Crown in years who’ve logged in.

After 15 years, World of Warcraft feels empty.

I realized I’ve felt this way for a while, but I wanted to wait a month or two to make sure. My feelings haven’t changed.

Lest you think I’m now bereft of all hope and joy, I’ll go back to the thread of events I began at the start of this post. In 2012 I walked into a game store and started playing board games with a bunch of people. Over the past few years that’s grown to regular visits to each other’s homes and playing D&D and other role-playing games via videoconferences. During my convalescence, they’ve visited me to play games in my home and given me lifts to play games in theirs.

And I know their faces and their real names. (Or so they tell me.)

I’ve come full circle, from eagerly anticipating my copy of TSR Hobbies’ Dungeons and Dragons in the mail back in 1976 to dealing with D&D5e on Roll20. It’s the people I’ve known along the way that have made the journey worthwhile.

So who needs World of Warcraft?