Monday, January 22, 2007

Evolution of a MMOG

I have been observing World of Warcraft as a social space for over a year.
I have found much to admire in terms of the game’s design and the player culture that has emerged. For those not familiar with WoW, these remarks won’t make much sense. But blogs are about whatever is on the blogger’s mind.

With the expansion (more content added to the existing game) I believe the designers diminished one rich aspect of social life in World of Warcraft. They demoted the great city of Ironforge to an auction house pit stop. Had they replaced Ironforge with a vibrant new social space in Outland, that would have been fine. Instead, Shattrath is a shopping mall gone bad. There is no natural gathering place. You are forced to choose between two opposing factions of the city. Since these factions are mostly about what gear you can work toward, there is no interesting narrative that justifies the fact that you will not always make the same choice as your guildmates and friends, hence you will not see them in Shattrath. Shattrath is simply a place to get business done as quickly as possible. While people would hang out conducting all sorts of activities in the space between the Auction House and Bank in Ironforge, there is no such space in Shattrath.

Furthermore, and it pains me to say this, Shattrath is populated by both Horde and Alliance! After slaying evil forces in deep dungeons, beating back ferocious beasts throughout the land, and encountering worthy opponents in the wilderness encampments of Azeroth, it was always nice to hearth back to Ironforge to be amongst one’s natural allies. Now the game is more focused on the repetitive quests, rep grinding, and so on. The designers believed that people would still go back to Ironforge for the Auction House, and made it easy to get there. What they missed was the diversity of tasks that kept people in Ironforge, giving them an excuse to mingle. It was a village with the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.

I have much less experience on the Horde side, but Orgrimmar seemed to have a similar feel. It does not have the same gathering space Ironforge does, but there is an area with Auction House, Bank, and so on that was a focus of activity. I haven’t been there since the expansion but I expect it’s the same ghost town Ironforge is.

How can one get so worked up over a video game? Massively multiplayer games are a genuine social space in a world in which taverns, bars, hair salons, and all those other great spots simply do not have the same function they used to. I don’t think there is a one to one correspondence between online games and real world social spaces, but there is one important parallel, namely, a not-work social place for recreation and diversion. It is sad to see something that was working so well in the game messed up for no good reason. All the designers had to do was create a decent couple of capital cities in Outland. Perhaps they themselves had the same nostalgia for Ironforge I have, and they tried to preserve it, rather than having it become an abandoned ruin. It is, however, abandoned.

Just had to get that off my chest about Ironforge (*cries*).

More soon on what I love about Outland!! Outland is spectacular on many ways!