I am a game snob

With our guild raiding season over, my main hunter as geared as I care for her to be, alts mainly in end game status, and basically Legion on its way to the trash bin, I have been looking at some other MMOs to play as a diversion. (And to have a Plan B in the unlikely event WoW goes to that great bitbucket in the sky any time soon.) But I have not had much luck finding anything to hold my interest.

Here are the ones I have tried so far:

  • Final Fantasy (XIV)
  • Elder Scrolls Online
  • Wildstar
  • Lord of the Rings Online

Up front, I should say that I have not played any of them long enough to get much past the very early stages of character leveling, so that certainly colors my opinion. But also each of them has had some major (in my view) shortcoming that caused me to be unmotivated to stick with them to get to a later stage. The process has been interesting, insofar as it has allowed me to identify many of the factors that are important to me in a game.

First person shooter (which none of the above are). I simply cannot play FPS games, they feel claustrophobic to me. I am not sure why that is, but I think it has something to do with the technical interpretation of that point of view. Of course, we all go through real life with a first person view of the world, and nobody (well almost nobody) complains about that. But RL first person seems vastly different from MMO first person. I think it has something to do with the idea that in RL you have full body awareness — you can glance down and easily see your feet, you see your shoulders in your peripheral vision, you can at any time quickly glance at your hands, knees, arms, etc., and they are almost always more or less in your field of view even if you are not looking directly at them. But in FPS games, it is like you are trapped behind your eyes, kind of a disembodied floating presence above a weapon, unable to get any sense of anything but your immediate surroundings. To me, this is an impossible proposition.

This phenomenon is a known problem with FPS games, I should point out. Some companies are working on improving the experience. Until rather recently, technology dictated the way FPS had to be presented to the player, since any kind of dynamic full body awareness would be a killer to decent frame rates. As technology improves, though, we may start to see some progress in the FPS experience.

Artwork. Where to start with this one? Maybe scenery. I have concluded that I do not like scenery that is either too realistic or too cartoonish. I like it to be detailed, but if it actually looks like something I could see out of my window or on vacation to the mountains, it puts me off. On the other hand, if it looks like it came straight out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, I can’t deal with it either.

The stuff that is too realistic gives me a disconnected feeling. In my mind, I know I am indulging in a fantasy world, and to be continually surrounded by what looks like a real world environment is just too jarring to me. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I want to have an immersive experience, so the scenery has to be believable in the context of the game.

I have said before that I think Blizz’s artwork is the best around, and I stand by that statement. To me, it strikes exactly the correct Goldilocks point in terms of believability and fantasy. Most of that is due to the extreme detail in it — insects and small animals, water motion in rivers and oceans, rain/snow and clouds (including thunderstorms) from time to time, shifting blowing sands in desert areas along with wind sounds, and so forth. Yes, the flora in an area may tend towards pinks and purples instead of chlorophyll-based green, but Blizz has always made it believable with the detail you would expect if it were actually real.

None of the other games I have tried so far comes even close to this standard.

The other aspect of artwork is in character representation. Here again I am persnickety about striking a pleasing balance between too-real and too-cartoonish.  As with scenery, I do not want a character that looks like someone I could see walking down any street. I do not want to see realistic 5 o’clock shadow, grease stains on clothing and face, sweat, etc. Games are fantasies, and in my fantasies, these things are not welcome.

On the other hand, I do not want to see characters that look like Elmer Fudd. Also, I am not a fan of the anime cartoon style, and I think many MMOs use it far too frequently. Maybe it is my Western bias, but I just cannot identify with an anime avatar. When I play games that use this style, I feel disconnected from my character, as if it is a chess piece I am pushing around rather than some sort of fantasy personification. Again, to me this is where WoW strikes a good balance. I know there is a school of thought that WoW veers too far into cartoon land, but I don’t see that — to me it works.

Payment method. I’ve discovered this is more important to me than I thought it would be. I have always done the monthly or annual subscription in WoW, and it works well for me. I have never done game cards or bought the tokens, because when I want to play the game I want to play, not worry about how many days or minutes I might have before I have to find a way to add more time. I realize this is a privilege I enjoy because the $15 a month is no big deal for me, and for a lot of people it is an obstacle, so of course personal economic situation plays a role in what kind of game fee structure you prefer.

But I find I really dislike the games that offer you actual game advancement (gear, mounts or mount training, profession boosts, whatever) for real money outside the game. This is the usual “free-to-play” plan. I dislike it not so much for the money involved (it probably works out to the same as or less than the $15 a month I spend on WoW), as for the disruption in my fantasy. If I have to stop playing, go to some online store and hand over a credit card to continue playing with appropriate gear or talents or whatever, it just kind of destroys my whole mental illusion.

Also, I think there is a principle involved, one that Blizz has espoused for some time now, namely that success in the game should not depend on how deep your pockets are but on how well you compete. For the most part, they have held firm on this, and I hope they continue to do so. The one aberration, in my opinion, was the introduction of the WoW token, because in a sense people who buy the token to sell it for in-game gold in the auction house are paying real money for the advantage of being rich enough in game to afford anything they want. Still, I understand why Blizz did it — in addition to generating revenue it also greatly curtailed the influx of illicit gold sellers in the game. Luckily, thus far it has not been a slippery slope, and with the sole exception of the token everything you can buy in the Blizz store for WoW is cosmetic rather than imparting a game advantage.

Technology. Blizz has had its share of tech failures and challenges — server crashes, system overloads, DDoS attacks, extreme sharding, sporadic lag times, annoying disconnects, login queues, what have you — but for the most part if you have an adequate computer the game runs smoothly. That seems not to be true for some of the other games I have tried (LOTRO being the prime example) — they seem not to have allocated sufficient infrastructure to keep pace with the game’s technological demands. I like LOTRO the best of all the above games I tried, but I finally gave up when, night after night for two weeks, the game would slow to a jerky start-and-stop state such that movement became a slide show rather than an animation. It was fine during off-peak hours, but as soon as a player load came on it was miserable.

Anyway, none of the MMOs I have tried so far comes close to meeting my admittedly picky preferences. I am not done, there are a lot more to try (even with my Mac handicap). But my experiments so far have made me appreciate the continuing genius of WoW.

It’s refreshing to remind myself of that once in a while.

Now what?

This will be a disjointed post, but it reflects my current feelings about the game. I really don’t know where I am in my enjoyment of it, if indeed I am even still “enjoying” it. I just don’t know.

Last night I stepped out of the morass that is Draenor and revisited some of my favorite legacy areas. Places like Uldum, Tanaris, and all of Pandaria. I got out my favorite flying mount and swooped and soared to my heart’s content, taking in what I believe were Blizz’s finest art designs. Designs that cannot ever be truly appreciated from the ground, designs that inspire and delight when viewed from the air. This, I thought, this was Blizz at its best. This was art and design made by passionate, creative, talented people who loved what they did.

I dipped down in Pandaria and traveled awhile on my chopper, and I saw that this zone’s design was so rich that it gave me an entirely different experience on the ground — complex, varied, and with unexpected visual rewards just as I rounded a corner or trekked through a jungle.

The Blizz that designed Pandaria knew how to deliver a product for all of its player base. That Blizz welcomed challenge and met it head on, taking joy in showing they were more than a match for it. They gave us visual content at its very best.

But ultimately visiting these areas was sad for me, because I knew that I would never experience any of it again except by revisiting legacy areas. I realized that among other things it has done to weaken the game for me, Blizz has killed the joy of anticipation. I cannot make myself get excited over 6.2 because it will be nothing more than an undisguised rerun of the worst parts of WoD. More slogging around on the ground even at level, increased garrison chore load, even less relevant professions, class imbalances so great as to make some specs unplayable, crappy gear that can be bought with gold at prices as exorbitant and ridiculous as the Apexis crystal price, and “new” flying mounts that will never fly in Draenor or any future content and are just reskins of old mounts anyway.

Worse, I am so demoralized over this last weekend’s in-your-face announcement that I am pretty sure I won’t be able to work up any real enthusiasm over the next contraction expansion either. Blizz has made it clear that they are no longer about proudly doing the hard things and making them look easy. Instead, they are about cutting corners, about designing Potemkin Villages and telling us over and over how “rich” and “complex” they are, about setting up mechanisms that slow us down so we won’t notice there is very little content.

I doubt I will be logging on much for awhile. When 6.2 comes out, I’ll go through it at least with my hunters, because I’m not ready yet to give up raiding with my guild. But Tanaan will be simply a necessary means to an end, something to get through rather than enjoy.

The sad thing is, the fun I used to have running old dungeons and visiting old content is gone now. I used to have fun running Firelands for the mount, but now really what’s the point? Even if I get the drop, all I will be able to do with that magnificently-drawn mount in any current content is waddle around on the ground with it. Whoopie.

So thanks, Blizz, thanks for sucking the fun out of not only the current content, but also past and future contents.

I have started looking into Final Fantasy XIV. The new expansion, Heavensward, looks very promising and launches June 19 for early play, June 23rd for those who do not preorder. I did download the free 14 day trial on the current xpac, but unfortunately was unable to make it playable on my VMware Windows box — could not get more than 6 fps. (Yes, I play games on a Mac, don’t judge.) But Heavensward has a native Mac download, so I am very hopeful. I will definitely give it a serious try.

I am debating whether to unsub from WoW in the near future. Part of me says it would make a (microscopic) statement of protest, part of me says wait until after 6.2, part of me says get real you know you will stay with this game until the bitter end so quit fooling yourself. (Sometimes I do talk rather sternly to myself.)

I am foolishly now waiting to see what Blizz has to say for itself in the June 6 “Q&A” which clearly will be Watcher “A-ing” bogus watered-down “Q’s” designed to show brief “concern” over the reaction to the no flying decision and then quickly moving on to how exciting and content-packed 6.2 will be. The most I am expecting regarding flying is some vague hand-waving semi-promising to “relook” it possibly maybe in the future in some limited fashion, in hopes that those of us who want it to happen will be gullible enough to hang on and buy the next xpac. (Hey, that approach has worked for over a year, no reason it shouldn’t keep on working.)

Like the little kid diligently searching for a pony when presented with a room full of horse manure, I am furiously digging through this game to find the fun I know has to be hidden somewhere. Sadly, it is that reaction that makes me exactly the kind of player Blizz has come to love. . . .