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Why Blizzard Games Work

May 12, 2012

I think I’m starting to get why Blizzard games are so popular. I feel like I keep talking about WoW, but since I finished school a week or two ago, it’s all I’ve been playing! I thought I was going to play Xenoblade Chronicles, but I got sucked in. I started leveling a Warlock from 53 (where I had gotten him) and powered on through to 82 so far in about 5 days or so. That’s pretty good time, or a sign of some mental addiction. But I think there’s a deeper reason why WoW sucks me into its world.

A bit of background. I was never much of a PC gamer at all; I mostly stuck to consoles, since I didn’t really see the need to buy a PC, especially because, until 1998, I didn’t even know they existed. Sheltered? Maybe. But I honestly had a great childhood, and I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.

To proceed, my first gaming PC was a Dell I got in 2000, and MDK2 and Unreal are the first games I remember playing in any real capacity. Still, neither were a favorite, and if I was going to pay the exorbitant costs for games that looked slightly better, or played slightly differently, than my N64 or Playstation, I’d stick with consoles, thanks.

Of course, as PCs got better, it wasn’t much of a difference anymore – PCs had a stark advantage in terms of graphical prowess, although they lacked that extra “oomph” I was looking for. Having been trained on the Japanese aesthetics of bright colors and creative looking worlds, I just couldn’t bear to play these dark, gritty, and rather adult games.

If you payed attention and connected the dots, you’ll see where I’m going with this.

However, in 2005 or so I was introduced to World of Warcraft by a friend. I sucked at it pretty bad, but those bright colors drew me in. I had played WarCraft III, so I was vaguely familiar with the setting, but it was interesting! And fun! And I could play with friends (well, that’s what I thought at the time, anyway. I picked a night elf hunter. It seemed cool enough; you get interesting toys, weapons, and things to play around with. I lost motivation, however, in hitting the level cap. My friend (and friends who joined later) basically power-leveled to 60 and left my poor hunter behind to rot. If you’re not playing with friends, then what’s the point? So I quit.

Now, I hadn’t forgotten that experience. I had just tucked it away so I could do schoolwork and graduate from high school. I tried FFXI in the meantime. I figured I liked Final Fantasy games, so why not this? Well, once you’ve tried WoW, you don’t tend to like other MMOs, and I think there’s a good reason for this: accessibility. Simply put, MMOs before WoW were not accessible. That is, they required massive amounts of time to play for little reward. Yes, grinding can be considered a sort of “skill”, but it’s not the kind of skill a person used to console games craves. It’s certainly not one that I have the time nor luxury for. Why punish the player for playing your game? At least in 2006, the cool stuff in FFXI was locked away. I want a Red Mage outfit, and I want it now! Not so, said SE: you must work hard for it, in a way that makes no sense to a new player. Not only that, the game gave little to no indication as to what the various roles of classes were, what was good, what was bad, was a quest worth doing, goals, etc. They throw you into an incredibly complex set of systems with little to no tutorial, and almost mandatory group questing. There’s a niche for this, but why make it solely cooperative? For money, of course! But this is disingenuous to the consumer, who literally pays with their time rather than their skill.

Now, there are two ways to a teach a player: through the game itself, or through tutorials. FFXI did neither of these well at the time. Eventually, I had to quit, as did my brother who came along for the ride.

Now, I said we could probably play WoW. My brother also played console exclusively, so he was rather skeptical. We both decided, however, that a quality game is a quality game, regardless of brand, and so we jumped into the Blizzard boat together. He played a undead mage, I played a tauren druid.

Those were some good times, people! Questing, dungeons, figuring out class mechanics, and even trying to make an nonviable spec (moonkin druids of vanilla should know what I mean) work in level limit dungeons were just the tip. I’ve raided Molten Core and Zul’Gurub! It was my bad to pick a druid, as they only healed at the time, but my ability to reach level cap speaks volumes about how much fun I was having.

I even got my parents into it. We all still play. But why? Well, as my father put it “It’s Secret of Mana online, basically”. Except this is an American game! And I think, if you’ve read this blog with any sort of regularity (or the backlog), you’d know that I supposedly have some kind of bias against that! Why do I play WoW continually, then?

That was only playing the game. WoW has a story, one derived from tying the loose ends of WCIII: specifically, Arthas and Illidan. Where were they? What were they up to? Those questions would be answered in time. Even with its cartoonish aesthetics and sense of humor, WoW was not without its dark moments. I mean, think of the kinds of villains the game has. As of Cataclysm, a nihilistic crazed dragon is trying to kill everyone. However, unlike in, say, Final Fantasy, we’ve had a whole expansion of quests, experiences, text, and cutscenes that establish the why and how of such villains. Blizzard has improved over time – we aren’t stuck with a Sephiroth archetype. The Lich KIng is such an interesting villain because he was once a paladin, and it has been established that he is now a composite of multiple people. Stuff established expansions ago (such as the Old Gods) gets answered later, but with just enough mystery and intrigue to add that extra flavor to it. People who play constantly and get burned out miss out on this because they’re focused on the goal and not all the little details Blizzard has put into the story of an ENTIRE WORLD.  I just love the lore, the world, the characters – it’s all been done before, but not quite like this! Metzen has a very Christian theme of redemption going on all the time in these things. If his recent statements regarding Illidan are anything to go by, he’ll get his own redemption for being both hero and villain alike, misunderstood and misunderstanding. It’s that kind of thing I can relate to, even in characters that state they reject redemption (Arthas), yet still keep the world from total destruction even as they purport to do the opposite Deathwing was less that, and more a tool of the Old Gods, but that’s cool too! What’s important is that the story is always developing, even if you don’t notice it. The Yogg-Saron fight, for example, has a point where one goes into the god’s mind, to find a sequence where Arthas tortures an unnamed prisoner; how you can develop a story in the midst of a boss fight is pretty amazing, but Blizzard knows how to slowly unfurl a story over a period of months, even years! That’s good storytelling.

And the cooperative aspect only adds to this. You have to work as a team to win in end-game stuff, or even in some quests. It’s fun cooperation, though (as long as everyone actually wants to play right). Sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating (like when my family finally beat Yogg-Saron with 4 people – I was yelling and fist-pumping), it’s really quite a joy when it all comes together.

The system is based on good mechanics, too! Blizzard eases you into your ability set regardless of class, and though the system’s not perfect, you can play without looking up anything outside the game. If you like to play some way, you can here. I like to optimize, so Elitist Jerks is a frequent internet destination for me, but it’s not necessary. I’m leveling a Warlock, currently, and he’s been a blast, even if their spell rotations are messed up. But it’s very much Secret of Mana-esque, just with a bigger ability set and the the frequent need to dodge attacks (or “stay out of the stuff on the ground”, the best hint you’ll ever get in this game).

If Blizzard can get a guy like me playing WoW, they can get anybody. It’s because they found a WHOLE GAME that works, not merely good game mechanics or aesthetics or story. It’s an integrate experience. That’s what gets me playing the game.

PS – I’ll be on vacation again…I have big plans for the blog, however, so stay tuned in June!

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From → Life, Video Games

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