Chatting to assorted folks about the freshly-announced next World of Warcraft expansion, I’m hearing a lot of apathy. Clearly, each and every one of those people will buy it and play it obsessively anyway, but I’m definitely getting the sense the rot may have finally set in. What happened to Everquest and Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot and etc and etc and etc is now affecting the game that was supposed to have broken the known rules of MMO success.
What I mean is that WoW seems to have now passed the point where anything it can do will realistically attract many new players. All it can do now is keep its existing ones there – and its existing ones are the stat-obsssessed hardcore, even if, terrifyingly, that group does number in the millions. Look at the list of stuff in Wrath of the Lich King and there’s nothing there to lure back a lapsed player, let alone attract a brand new one. Haircuts? A new skill? A new class? Fun if Azeroth’s magic still enchants you. But entirely incidental. It’s all about the raised level cap – but not, crucially, about the experience of reaching level 80. It’s about what happens once you are 80, and the instance and reputation and PvP grinding to then be done on repeat every night.
Though I kept playing for a while afterwards, where WoW and especially The Burning Crusade broke for me was the point that I understood almost everything. The game was incredibly entertaining when I was confused and shambolic, making stuff up as I went along, nervously eyeballing the art of a new location or enemy, rather than the level number on it, exactly what spell it was casting and what its likelihood of dropping a green item was, according to my raft of UI plugins. The mystery, the sense of exploration and discovery, was gone. I’m now so utterly familiar with the mechanics behind the game that no expansion can possibly recapture the sense of wonder of WoW’s first 30-odd levels. I can’t believe I’m alone in this. It’s now a game for people who understand the maths, and them alone.
There’s now no going back. WoW can only suffer entropy from here, and the lack of golly-gosh features to really get people talking in Lich King only proves that. It’ll take another MMO entirely – yes, very probably another Blizzard one – to get the whole world as enraptured as it has been for the last two years.