23 March, 2007

The Problem with Guild Wars

Last summer, before I rediscovered World of Warcraft, I fell madly in love with Guild Wars. I was disappointed in or intimidated by every other MMO out there, and most of all Factions is just really, really nice. But the last few times I tried getting back into the game it couldn't hold my interest. In fact it made me angry.

Fine, don't have an auction house. It's not as though Blizzard ever copied anyone's ideas. It's not as though Guild Wars is 90% Diablo II. So they filter WTB and so forth onto a Trade channel, which no one uses. It's an EULA violation to evade the filter, but the only means of reporting violations is (last time I checked) buried in the website and requires inclusion of a screenshot. Well is that even fair? What if I don't just want to single out five or ten people? What if I want to report everyone?

So it is, as near as I can tell, literally impossible to use the general chat channel for general chat. Even if you wanted to, the only other people watching tend to be those stupid or angry enough to tolerate or thrive in such an environment.

I asked for help with a quest I was stuck on. A guy helped me then asked if I'd like to join his guild. I figured what the hell. There was only one other member. I figure he must have done this before, and maybe it'll be fun helping put a new guild together. He gives me some gold for recruiting, because the game charges gold for that.

I don't log in, then I do log in. I don't know how to give him his gold back. I feel like a thief. How do you find another player in Guild Wars? Ask the de facto tradebot channel that is the main chat window if anyone knows him? The world is split into a thousand pieces.

I didn't have this trouble in Anarchy Online back in 1991. In 1993 the chat system for Asheron's Call 2 not only broke for several months but continued to work often enough that people kept trying to use it. There was no way of knowing whether it was working or not at any given moment. Were the other players busy, or did they not see what you said at all? This may have been the singular factor in the game's demise two and a half years later. The only detail that challenges it is Turbine's bald, proud contempt for their player base.

Guild Wars is set up worse than this, and yet it recently inched out Eve from the number one spot on mmorpg.com's chart. This is not a small or meaningless accomplishment; over 65,000 people voted in the website's awards last year. You could fairly argue that Guild Wars is the most widely loved game in the world right now. Why? How do people put up with it?

I miss playing, and I know someday I'll look back to AC2 and think, "I should have learned my lesson and played Guild Wars while I could, and now it's too late." But right now the idea of playing the damned thing makes my skin crawl. Kind of a drag considering it's my second favorite game.

11 March, 2007

For the first time in over seven years of this I'm close to hitting the level cap of a legitimate MMO that isn't Guild Wars and they go and raise it.

I'm having a lot of fun, though. Still in Hellfire Peninsula with my quest log overflowing. It seems never to end, like a tall, cracked Barrens with a hell of a lot more pigs and scarier music. God I love Hellfire Peninsula. I might love it more than Felwood. It may be the greatest fantasy game setting ever.

That's why I first took to World of Warcraft - the setting. Some of it. I'd been miserable starting out a night elf in Teldrassil. It reminded me so much of the irritating, precious new age shops I'd frowned at in Santa Barbara when I walked past. (I grant a loving exception to a place called Boon Mee, because the place was a reliable source of Tangerine Dream soundtracks as well as bookends in the shape of ducks and lamps in the shape of ladybugs.) You know the place, though. La la nature spirituality dreamcatchers wolves indians Great Spirit incense Yanni night elves.

In Blizzard's defense, they did Teldrassil the Blizzard way, and the characters who live there spend much of their time calling on their naïve, idealistic youth to serve the balance of nature by massacring harmless, blind herbivores and leaving their carcasses to rot unused in the forest. In my later undeath I had a soft spot for Thunder Bluff's deliciously vile Melor Stonehoof before I ever approached the Hunter's Rise. It's this sort of thing that makes me certain Blizzard hasn't lost an ounce of their giddy Diablo nastiness.

We shall discuss Melor Stonehoof and Diablo in a future entry, but suffice it to say that in spite of this element I could only take so many doting centaurs and so much gooey wisp-air, and I needed badly to get the fuck out of that place.

I'd flirted with a PvP realm in the form of a dwarf, which meant spending time in Dun Morogh, perhaps Azeroth's loveliest setting. I had no friends on that realm, though, so I was alone. I thought perhaps, though, that I might secure passage for my poor night elf to Khaz Modan, and so I asked.

We - my ancient friends from Subspace and points west, now relocated to Azeroth - took the boat to Darkshore together, and from there to the Wetlands, and they escorted me through the Wetlands.

After perhaps a month or two of suffering this syrupy game in hopes of someday growing to like it, I fell completely in love with the setting as intended for people who are not secretly night elves in real life. Why did I start this game out as a night elf? I have no idea, and I eventually abandoned the character, but for now I was finally in a murky, frightening place full of softly menacing music and heartless crocodiles. When we turned the corner and I finally saw Khaz Modan from below, that was the moment.

We went up through those tunnels, through the mountains, in and out of the jutting rear overlooks of Ironforge, and I thought: someone finally got this right. Someone who reads finally made a fantasy game, and it's too bad no one who appreciates fantasy fiction this much is making movies these days.

(I'm really only taking a cheap shot at Return of the King and the The Two Towers.)

Having visited all of Azeroth, I believed they had covered everything - mined all of world geography, history, and fiction for every possible setting. An enormous crater populated with dinosaurs and pirates? We've got it. California wine country? No problem. Every road movie ever made unless you count Lolita - check.

I arrived in central Hellfire Peninsula with its impossible fish-eye vistas and my jaw dropped. What the hell, man? How do people come up with this stuff?

You can tell me that this is simply a matter of corporate whiteboard powerhouse design gone way over the top, but I don't believe you. The creative team for World of Warcraft is actually quite small. There are a lot of designers credited - the entire company, in fact - but when I boil it down I see seven game designers and, more interestingly, nine level designers.

Nine level designers for all of Azeroth and Outland combined, inside and out.

I am genuinely in awe of and envious of these people. And the more I think about it the more I'm convinced that to find a parallel for what has been and is being accomplished by these people you have to look beyond art and entertainment. I think you have to compare it to the significant developments in transportation, government, agriculture. Don't think of WoW as the new Star Wars; think of it as the new rail transport, the new atomic bomb. The arts simple haven't discussed attempting anything that falls under the same heading.

Or I could be wrong. I hope I am, because if there's something else like this going on right now I'd love to be exposed to it.

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