I remember when I rolled my very first WoW character and lost myself in the game. It was my night elf hunter, back when hunters didn’t get their first pet until level 10, and by the way level 10 took a lot longer than the twenty minutes it now does. I remember those early quests in Teldrassil, figuring out how to move around, getting the concept of “targeting” something, coordinating that with a standard key bind to “shoot” the mob. I remember the surprise I got when eventually the target mobs actually attacked me if I got too close, rather than stand passively and wait for me to kill them. I remember getting almost hopelessly lost in my first cave quest, and to be honest I have disliked caves ever since.
When I made my way to Darkshore as a level 7, I got in a bit over my head and learned the tried and true technique of dying, getting back to my corpse, resurrecting at the absolute edge of where it was possible, and running like hell for about 5 seconds before dying again, then repeating the process until I made it to a safe area. It was harrowing.
I had been blow away when I discovered Darnassas — surely it was the game’s largest, most beautiful city? (I remember those ?level 60? NPCs majestically patrolling the road to the city on their gorgeous white tiger mounts, and I was in awe of such a high level. I could never aspire to that!) But then I accidentally got on a ship that took me to Stormwind, and an entirely new continent, and that was my first glimmer that the game was vastly larger and more complex than I had ever imagined.
Still, I was not intimidated by it. I loved that it was virtually infinite, that there was always something new to discover, something new to learn about the game, another level you could progress to.
I remember when I learned about groups. There was a Looking-for-Group chat channel, as I recall — some sort of very primitive precursor to the LFG mechanism we have now. I subscribed to it for weeks before I got up enough nerve to actually join a group for an instance. I think I was about level 20, but I am not sure — it was such a horrible experience that I have blotted it from my memory. I had no concept of group roles, so I immediately shot at anything that moved until some kind soul said something in chat like, “Hunter making it tough for the tank,” a hint that I was — thankfully — smart enough to take.
About halfway through (I think the instance was Gnomeregen, but as I said I have tried to block it all out) I ran out of arrows and was reduced to melee weapon and fists. Yeah, that was when hunters had to carry arrows in their bag in order to use their bow. If you ran out, shame on you. That was also when you could actually level your fists as weapons — you did this by unequipping all your weapons (hunters had both ranged and melee back then) and killing mobs until your fist proficiency level matched your character level.
Back to the group, there was some sort of mechanism where we had to jump from a machine to a specific spot, and of course I missed and died. I was told to run back, and I got so lost that I never did find the group again. I just ran around periodically aggroing mobs and dying and running back again. And again. And again. Sometimes it took me forever just to find my corpse. Eventually they kicked me, I guess, because I was no longer part of the group. I am surprised they had such patience, really. Not one of my best moments in the game…
It was even later when I learned about gear. By this time I had joined a guild, and I was invited to quest with some of the guildies. One of them noticed that I was wearing very low level vendor gear and was horrified. He opened trade and gave me a bunch of green gear closer to my character level. I honestly had never even considered that gear made a difference. I was perfectly happy with buying a bow or whatever from a vendor. I had no clue there was a difference between the stuff labeled in gray and the stuff labeled in white or green. (I had never seen anything blue or higher, so that was not even a question for me.) The notion that green gear could help you kill stuff faster was truly a revelation to me.
I won’t even discuss my epiphany when I realized that cloth or leather gear was worse for a hunter than mail. Or that eventually you had to repair gear or you couldn’t use it. Yes, I really was that clueless.
I am not sure I have much of a point here, but it strikes me that that kind of innocent discovery and leisurely exploration are really no longer part of the game. The days of it being all about the journey, not the goal, seem over. As vast and complex as I thought the game was then, it is immeasurably more vast and complex now. It is also more fast paced, players as a group seem to have little tolerance for anyone who exhibits ignorance of the game’s traditions and mechanics, and Blizz seems to design now mainly for the end game, not for the process of discovery.
Think about it, when is the last time you saw a guild advertising itself as a “leveling guild”? For that matter, when is the last time you actually ran across a low level player who was experiencing the game for the first time, without a RL friend to help and guide them?
Like Thomas Wolfe said, you really can’t go home again — the bygone days of youth, whether real or virtual, are — well — gone by. I know I can’t recapture the innocent wonder and joy of my early days in WoW, I know too much about end games and Wowhead and how to develop professions and how to use heirlooms and what to expect at every level of a character. I have chosen to raid on my main, and so I am now completely steeped in the endgame gear chase, in getting to the next gear goal as fast as possible. I no longer take the time to discover, I just look it up on Wowhead or some place and get it done, then move on to the next thing.
So yeah, I have done this to myself, I admit it. But I also think Blizz has encouraged me, along with a lot of other players, in this mindset. They are fixated on the end game, on an endlessly-expanding artifact weapon, on accumulating legendaries and tier gear and battle pets and mounts. They seem to promote a sense that leveling a character is only a means to the end game, and they — and we — have lost the joy of the journey itself. I can’t shake the feeling that WoW, while never a “sandbox” game, was once a game of process and discovery, but that it has morphed into a Type A personality kind of game, where getting to the end is the sole definition of “winning”.
To quote that noted American philosopher, Louis L’Amour, “The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail.”
And try to remember to stock up on arrows before you go.