It's that time again. I keep looking at the clock, realizing that as the minutes pass, it's getting closer. I can tell you stories of these past experiences, each one memorable and fulfilling, but this one is different. This one is new. No, no, this isn't a set up for a poop joke (although man, what a great set up for a poop joke), it's the launch of a new World of Warcraft expansion, and it's mere hours away.
This time, though, things might be different. Will I pick this game up at midnight tonight, or will this be the first WoW expansion pack that I don't buckle down and purchase? Let's find out.
I've been a loyal World of Warcraft subscriber since the day of release, November 23rd, 2004. While my first MMO was Everquest, and my first moment of realizing how cool an MMO could be was with Anarchy Online, World of Warcraft changed my idea on the genre entirely. It didn't do anything entirely new, and it didn't do anything out of the ordinary, but it refined mechanics that were already established, and polished them to such a degree, it made for an entirely new experience. Blizzard's always had a knack for improving on fundamentals that work within the confines of a genre, and WoW was the very embodiment of that idea. I remember my first PvP match, I remember my first Battleground, I remember the first time I was ganked on a PvP server, and I remember my first WoW guild. Each time a new expansion is released, these memories come flooding back.
With any MMO (or online game in general), the quality of the experience is directly tied to the quality of the people you experience the game with. I've made many great friends (some who I've still never met in real life) and shared many great experiences with them, in so much that every time I think I miss playing World of Warcraft, I think I'm actually just missing the people I played with. It's a slippery slope, the life of an MMO gamer, as the amount of time you put into the game is considered 'time invested', and it's easy to convince yourself that what you're doing is actually important. 'Well, only a fool would spend 200 hours on a single character, and I'm no fool! I'll show them what my hard work has achieved! If only I had those nice epic boots to round out my wardrobe, and prove it to everyone!' On that side of the coin, it's the same mechanisms as slot machines, or gambling. Time invested is time spent 'learning', not necessarily wasted, or so we tell ourselves.
Over the past eight years (damn, has it been eight years?!), I've run the same content multiple times, seen the same story instances too many times to count, and spent money on so many various types of cloth that my head spins thinking about it. Yes, these are fun diversions, but after nine years of the same fundamental game, to say I'm burned out is an understatement. No amount of auction house usage, heroic instance farming, or daily quest grinding is going to change that, because I already know what I'm going to get: More of the same. It's familiar.
But what is a curse, is also World of Warcraft's greatest blessing in disguise. It's familiar. It's a known quantity, I know exactly how to play every aspect of the game, I've spent time with my various characters, and my knowledge of WoW lore has improved tenfold with each passing expansion pack. When I don't know which game I'd like to play, I can always rely on World of Warcraft to bide my time, because a nice helping of 'comfort food' always seems to hit the spot, doesn't it? Playing these characters I've had for nine years feels like rejoining with old friends: My muscle memory returns, my hand-eye coordination goes back to its old tricks, and it feels like coming home again.
There's another part of me that realizes that the industry has changed a significant amount since 2004. MMOs are one of the most progressive business models in gaming, and with the advent of 'freemium' titles, and free-to-play offerings becoming legitimate contenders (Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online are fantastic games, regardless of payment model), there's not a great reason to spend $15 a month on content that can be delivered partly (or in full) by other, non-subscription offerings. Guild Wars 2, Torchlight 2, Borderlands 2, and DDO are four games I can think of right now that are installed, updated, and ready to play at the click of a button from my desktop. There's no ongoing financial commitment required with these games, and they deliver the same primal experience of World of Warcraft: Gratifying quests, creative writing, instant-satisfaction economy management, and solid gameplay structures. What's the incentive to go back to World of Warcraft? There's too much to play, too little time to play it, and we haven't even touched on me being a father of a six month old baby girl yet!
With all of this being said, with the deck stacked fully against World of Warcraft, I still can't shake it. I haven't logged in for more than an hour in over eight months, but for some reason, every time a new expansion comes out, I get that tinge of excitement, that fire in my eye. The game I fell in love with in 2004 is still there, and it's promising new takes on old content, new minigames to explore (pet battles are particularly fantastic), and new secrets to find. I can't think of a single game I've ever played that I've gotten more enjoyment out of. I've put nearly 250 days played between all of my characters, and there's still things I've yet to discover in the world of Azeroth. If that's not replay value, I don't know what is.
Who knows, I may buckle and get the expansion, knowing I may never play it to the extent that I used to. I've changed over the past year, as the industry has, and there's much more to consider in my life than which drops the guild will hand out after the latest 10-man. I may log in and realize my old guilds have long-since split, and many of my friends have moved on, much like I have.
Or maybe, just maybe, as I log in, I'll see the same people doing the same thing I am. With smiles on our faces, we'll gladly trek to the new land of Pandaria, waiting anxiously to witness the new adventures that will surely come our way. It's been close to a decade since we started this journey in the land of Azeroth, and maybe these people think about the good times as much as I do.
Maybe changes aren't needed in World of Warcraft, since our real lives are doing enough of that on thier own.