Anyone who knows me personally knows I played World of Warcraft for six years or so. I was a Guild Master, I co-led and moderated a huge outside-of-game community raiding organization, I main-tanked, I crafted, I logged on at least once every 24 hours to run dailies, I raided 2-3 times a week… I was into it. And for all that, I was considered casual.
I left, as many of my friends did, when I heard the announcement about Mists of Pandaria (MoP), the latest WoW expansion, which features kung fu pandas. Yes, yes, I realize Blizzard has stated repeatedly that they are not kung fu pandas, and in fact, they had the idea for Panda People a long time before anyone else, but… whatever. They’re kung fu pandas, and they annoyed me. I’d already been losing interest in the game – most of my guild had left to join other guilds, after Blizzard’s new “Guild Leveling” scheme basically gutted little guilds like mine, and the time investment necessary for raiding was just too backbreaking – but I still enjoyed playing alone and exploring new zones and just dinking around, basically. The dorky expansion premise killed what remaining interest I had, and I finally quit my account in early 2012.
You don’t leave something that has sucked up that much of your attention, your imagination, and your blood, sweat, and tears without having a deep, sneaking suspicion that you’ll be back one day. In my six years in the game I saw countless players leave, only to come back when the next expansion hit or after a few months when the shakes became too violent. I didn’t delude myself when I left; I figured there was a very good chance I’d be back. I went about my life and waited, expecting that any day I’d say, “What the hell,” and fire the game up again just to see.
Since I was a teenager, some game or other has always dominated my attention. There’s always something that is the default topic for idle brain thoughts in my head. It’s been one MMO or another for a number of years, but before that it was Diablo, or Magic: The Gathering, or even good ol’ D&D. When I quit WoW, my brain had a vacancy, and I actually ended up getting back into Magic. It had been about 15 years since I was really into it, and it had evolved a ton. There were hundreds of new, interesting mechanics, the game rules had been significantly improved and tightened, and there was over a decade of cards that I had never seen – thousands, all told. It pulled me back in hard, and between that and how busy my day-to-day life is, I hardly ever felt the urge to play WoW.
Until last night.
Yesterday I downloaded Hearthstone, a brilliant little coup devised by the evil geniuses at Blizzard to prey upon people like me with a WoW background who are easily entranced by good collectible card games. The game is polished and fun. It has a collectible element, a deck-building element, and enough similarity to the WoW CCG from a few years back that anyone who played that or Magic feels immediately at home. And, of course, the portal to the game, battle.net, is replete with temptations to play WoW – not least of which is a little button that reads, “10-day free trial of Mists of Pandaria.”
Last night, flush from my tenth victory in a row in Hearthstone and suddenly reminiscing on the good old days, I clicked that button.
I was shocked by how quickly the install happened. I remember re-installing WoW and all its expansions a few times over the six years I played, and it was always a tedious, difficult experience. It would take hours for everything to download, and usually something would get screwed up along the way – some patch misapplied or bit of wayward data stuck in my computer’s craw. I expected to leave my computer downloading overnight, and probably to have lost interest by the next morning. Instead, the game was playable in less than 15 minutes. I glanced at the window, saw the little glowing “PLAY” button, and finally said, “What the hell.”
My old server and all my old characters were there, like they’d just been waiting for me. I picked my priest, Challice, one of my two level 85s (the max level when I had quit), and suddenly found myself on griffon-back, flapping peacefully in place over the Twilight Highlands.
Had I really left poor Challice on the back of a griffon, hovering in mid-air? I felt terrible, like a parent who suddenly realizes he’s been ignoring his children. I remember that I really enjoyed playing her, and got a sudden urge to go kill something – but first, I had to re-map some of my keyboard and mouse keys, because I was having trouble moving. It didn’t work like I remembered.
In the process of doing that, any enticement I may have felt to play again crumbled.
The menu was a little different than I remembered, and Challice’s powers were so many and so varied that I would’ve had to study for twenty minutes just to figure out my casting rotation again. I had never been quite as familiar with her as I had been with my main character, the warrior. While I pushed different buttons and tried to remember what did what, I stumbled across the guild screen, and the game told me the old guild leader had been gone for too long. “Do you want to take control of the guild?”
I used to be the guild leader, but when I left, a friend of mine acquired the title in much the same way the game was prompting me to take it now. I hit no, figuring that honor should go to my warrior, Elkheart, who had been the guild leader for the entirety of its active existence, and switched characters so he could do the honors. But if I had been confused looking at Challice’s powers, Elkheart’s left me baffled.
Everything was mapped to the keyboard keys exactly where I had left it, but much of it functioned differently. The talent window was a complete stranger. Even the powers I recognized used terminology I didn’t completely understand. For example, “Shield Block” made you block everything for x seconds. You might think “block” means “block,” regardless of how much time has passed, but in WoW it was never that simple. Did a block negate damage from an attack completely? Did it decrease it by a certain amount? If the latter, was it based on a fixed percentage, or a variable value you could influence? Was it derived from your stats somehow?
This simple question left me reeling. When I had been chest-deep in WoW, playing every day for hours, the answers to questions like these had come as easily as breathing, and had felt nearly as important. I’d thought that since I remembered how to use most of Elkheart’s powers, it wouldn’t be a big deal to play again, but not knowing how block worked was too fundamental.
I went into the guild window, thinking to ignore this conundrum for the time being and reclaim Elkheart’s place as Mr. Bitches, the Guild Leader. But he didn’t get the same prompt Challice had, and while I hunted for it I came face-to-face with the guild roster, which may have been the census of a ghost town.
Pages and pages of characters, along with the timeframe since they’d last logged in: 11 days for one character, a mule for a player who was still in the game, but the rest were 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, 3 years. I switched to another window, a history log, and saw a litany of characters that had left the guild, both in the time period I was playing and in the year following.
I looked around Stormwind, the capital city where Elkheart had spent two years waiting for me, and it echoed the ghost town theme. There were a few characters around, but it felt nothing like it once had.
I had expected to feel some of the old spark, the old desire to get new abilities and explore new parts of this sprawling fantasy world. I had expected to see someone I knew, even though I recognized that expectation was patently ridiculous, or feel a hint of the old pride I’d used to have when idly looking over Elkheart’s gear and stats.
Instead, everything felt hollow. Nothing was left but the signs of the people who had gone. The world felt flat and used, less like a mysterious temptation to explore and more like a rundown alleyway. And the gear and the stats were nothing but gibberish.
I ran out of the gates and killed a few rabbits and bandits, just to shield slam something again. I remapped my jump button, so I could leap about gaily while I did it.
Then I logged off and went to bed.