I spent a bunch of time post-BlizzCon thinking about why World of Warcraft personally bothered me. Not why its design pitfalls bothered me; that’s easy to understand, and frankly, it’s a case of whatever. It’s no different than Star Wars: The Old Republic fumbling unnecessarily for direction and making more missteps all the while, or Guild Wars 2 spending a year of pretending constant holiday events counted as content, or the litany of things going wrong with WildStar.
But WoW felt different to me. It felt personal. And after spending a lot of time thinking about it, I think I’ve figured out why.
Unfortunately, explaining it means getting pretty relentlessly self-indulgent, and it’s not really about mechanical sides of things. But I suspect some of it might not be unique to me, and I’d like to think that it’s at least entertaining in the same way that other depressing stories are entertaining. So if you’re not in the mood for some self-indulgent reflection, you know where the back button is on your browser; otherwise, let’s talk about the worst feelings of rejection.
This probably will not surprise anyone, but I was not a popular child when I was growing up.
Some of this was due to factors I had control over and didn’t realize when I was younger, some of it was due to factors not under my control, and some of it was just due to the sort of person I was period. It’s been at least two decades too long to really dissect which part was for which reason, and while it might be edifying to know, does it really matter now?
What mattered is that I wasn’t liked, I wasn’t popular, and I wasn’t welcome. And there are two basic ways that people seem to internalize that; they assume that there’s something wrong with the rest of the world, or they assume that there’s something wrong with the people themselves.
I belonged to the latter group. Considering that my mother was pretty openly contemptuous of me for having been born and thus at fault for her marriage, this wasn’t a long leap. I didn’t understand why the world around me loathed me and wanted me gone, but I knew that it did, and it didn’t really matter why.
You might think that this is the point when you find out that my love of video games came from grouping together with my fellow outcasts. To that end, let me tell you about my first days at high school on Martha’s Vineyard.
I was super excited to find out that there was an after school chess club because I figured that would be a great place to meet people with similarly nerdy interests. Naturally, I was there for the very first meeting of the school year, and to my simultaneous hope and dreams, it was a chess club more as a way of meeting students with similar interests than it was actually concerned with chess. And more to the point, the assorted nerds of the club were into stuff I had heard about but had not yet seen, like the fabled Dungeons & Dragons.
This was everything I could have dreamed of. Sure, I’d never played before, but I was eager to be helped through character creation and looked forward to the first game session, which was supposed to happen on Saturday! I went home from school that day on cloud nine, finished out the rest of the school week, and eagerly awaited the call on Saturday about where to meet and when.
I don’t remember when it was on Saturday that I gave up waiting, but it ended with me convincing myself that it was my own mistake and it was actually supposed to be on Sunday. Not that it happened then, either. There was no explanation offered when I saw the rest of the club in school, but I was told that since I missed the first session I wasn’t really going to be able to join in midway.
None of this is meant to elicit sympathy, precisely; it’s meant to make two points. The first, obviously, is that this was who I was growing up. I wasn’t a nerdy kid shunted into my isolated social circle with the other nerds but a nerdy kid who wanted to make friends and generally wasn’t wanted even by the fellow nerdy outcasts.
But it also demonstrates a pretty important principle. If I had walked into the chess club and been rejected, it would have hurt, but it would have been the sort of hurt that faded quickly. The fact that it was a rejection that came only after being embraced, that I thought I was welcomed, that makes it sting.
Rejection hurts worst when you think you’ve been accepted.
All of this provides a useful foundation for the sort of person I was when Final Fantasy XI released in North America back in 2003. Things were better for me socially, but I’d spent a very long time being conditioned to think that real long-term friendships were things that happened to other people. My “friend circle” was one or two inscrutable social events away from disintegrating.
To this day, I can’t exactly explain what strange alchemy made FFXI so appealing to me. It felt near-instant, like a sea change in what I found interesting. But I was hooked immediately, beyond hooked, doing as much as I could to be friendly and make connections and establish friendships… which I didn’t actually expect to last in any real capacity.
For better or worse, I did not suddenly become a different person in the game. The odds of making any serious friendships struck me as unlikely at best. Sure, you needed to party up with people to do some leveling, and I genuinely did my best, but I accepted from a relatively early point that there were hard limits on how welcomed I could be. The really fixed group content at the high end was where the core of the game was, though. It was pretty clear that the game didn’t really want someone like me around.
Of course, that was universal. Every MMO had its focus, and as near as I could tell none of them really wanted me. They wanted hardcore PvP enthusiasts, or different sorts of hardcore PvP enthusiasts, or people fixated on Star Wars, or people who wanted to grind for hours in groups and also had absolutely no sense of aesthetics. Why would it surprise me that none of these games really wanted me? No one else did, after all.
Before you decide to fire off an angry comment for mischaracterizing a game, keep in mind that I’m doing my best to recall my impressions of these games at the time. I know more now than I knew then, and pretty much none of them are accurate.
I hadn’t really focused on World of Warcraft during the lead up to launch, but I saw some good reviews of it and decided to pick it up. I’d liked Warcraft III, after all. (For the record, I wouldn’t realize that “we have copies sitting on the shelf” was unusual until a few weeks later, at which point there were no longer copies on the shelf.) I made a Human Paladin, and a choir of angels descended from the heavens to inform me that my quest had succeeded and I found the Holy Grail.
Remember, I was coming to this after mostly playing Final Fantasy XI. Suddenly here was a game with quests that had an actual story, where the big story was not tied to group quests I was certain I’d never be able to do. I could just level instead of relying on finding a group. It felt amazing.
Sure, I was distantly aware that the game still didn’t actually want me, but neither did any other game. This one at least wanted me around more and would let me do more things before it threw up walls in my path. It felt like a massive change.
But as I kept playing, over time, something weird started happening. It started feeling like World of Warcraft might actually want me around, someone who didn’t want to coordinate a friend group to do anything but who still enjoyed and was devoted to playing the game.
It started in The Burning Crusade, when more specs started to become viable for play; suddenly I was actually able to, like, continue playing my Retribution Paladin or Fury Warrior or Enhancement Shaman. Moreover, dungeons actually rewarded reputation that built into some good gear rewards. There were even these badges you could get from Heroics! Sure, those could be hard to get groups together for, but it was worth it when you could. And you could gear up with Battlegrounds anyhow, so I actually had something to do at the level cap now!
Battlegrounds alone were a big change for me, even. Now I could just… press a button, and get involved in the content, and I would get rewards. It felt like a whole different game.
Then we wound up in Wrath of the Lich King, and not only did all of the stuff that made TBC fun continue, but suddenly Wrath had even more dungeons, and it was even more accessible.
And then it added in the dungeon finder.
My wife and I had fallen backwards into a raiding guild that made for the locus of our playtime at the start of the expansion, but the raiding group we had been the core of collapsed as we ran into horrible burnout. But that was right around the time the dungeon finder showed up, and that meant that the change was honestly not that big a deal. We’d get together, grab a friend or three, and queue up. It worked out well; it was play on our terms, when we could, with plenty of chances to keep upgrading our gear and progressing.
Slowly but steadily, the game had gone from being a title that didn’t want me around to one that did. It was strange, but it also felt welcoming. Like maybe I was wanted here.
Then, of course, it changed. Then the game started walking away from the idea that you could use currency to buy things, that if you weren’t in a regular raiding group you didn’t deserve to get as far. Then it kept walking further back. You didn’t deserve rewards for earning reputation. You didn’t deserve reputation for dungeons. You didn’t deserve currency at all. You didn’t deserve tier sets even in the still hideously random and needlessly simplified dungeon finder.
I’ve already spilled lots of digital ink on the reasons for these problems and so forth, and honestly, discussing this design slide in detail is something that I’ve talked about as well. The details are already plenty established and I don’t need to chat about it again.
But that’s the reason why this overarching change in WoW doesn’t just feel upsetting from a design standpoint, but personal. This is why the change feels differently, even when on some level it’s just more bad design: Because rejection hurts the most when you feel like you’ve been welcomed. Because the game was opening its doors and slammed it on non-raiders without warning or explanation. You don’t do that to people who feel unexpectedly welcome without engendering at least a few feelings of personal betrayal.