When Blizzard first announced that it was working on a massively multiplayer online game (MMO), the first thought that ran through my mind was "Why? Blizzard has no experience in this area. What can they bring that's going to be fresh, new, or different?" It's not until I began seriously playing the final version of World of Warcraft, though, that I realized just how foolish a question that was. Blizzard's particular genius has never been in breaking new ground; it's watching the mistakes other people make and learning from them. Blizzard games have the cache they do because they're polished and refined until they gleam.
That, in a nutshell is the essential brilliance of World of Warcraft. It takes the essence of the MMO experience, breaks it down into its component parts, and plays up all the fun elements while actively minimizing the boring or tedious aspects. World of Warcraft is the MMO that nearly everybody can enjoy, and is a shining example of the game developer's art.
Time, Quests, and Main Street USA
The big appeal of World of Warcraft is that at its heart, it's a game -- no more, no less. Unlike most previous MMOs, World of Warcraft doesn't pretend to be an "online experience" or a "virtual" anything. It's a place where people can come to experience fun and interesting things for as much time as they have to spare. Superficially, of course, World of Warcraft resembles other games that have preceded it in the genre. Players create a virtual avatar, choosing their race, class, and appearance and which side of the global conflict between the Horde and the Alliance they'd like to fight on. Once they enter the game, they can take on quests, fight monsters, explore dungeons, craft items, join guilds, raid enemy towns, duel and fight with other players and band together to take on really tough creatures.
The difference, though, is the way Blizzard has managed to re-think things that were taken as gospel in MMO game design, ask "Why?", and remove them when they got in the way of having fun. Take, for example, the issue of time. For some reason, a game pace that would be considered glacial in any single-player game has always been standard issue in most MMOs. Why should it take 10 minutes after fighting to heal your character? Why should it take me an hour of running to reach a dungeon and start fighting monsters? In World of Warcraft, it doesn't. Everything in the game happens fast. Healing yourself takes less than half a minute. Quests rarely force you to travel farther than 10 or 15 minutes to reach a particular location. Crafting an item only takes you a few seconds, and a few hours of diligent work will garner enough money to at least net yourself one nice new piece of equipment.
The effect of the game's abbreviated time scale simply can't be underestimated. Playing World of Warcraft comes as close as any MMO ever has to giving the responsiveness and gratifying feedback of the best single-player games. Even death becomes only a minor issue as there's no penalty beyond the few minutes it takes for your ghosts to run back to your corpse after dying -- and even that can be avoided at the very slight cost of some money via item decay for an instant resurrection. Players with only a half-hour to play on a weeknight can actually log on and get something accomplished. For all this, though, there's never any sense that you'll run out of things to do. Underneath the game's simplified veneer is a remarkably complex offering. World of Warcraft is loaded with things to do, places to see, monsters to kill, and quests, quests, and more quests to solve.
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