The Ghost of a World

I am a creature of nostalgia, it is fair to say. There are books I have read a half-dozen times, video games I keep coming back to, and movies I can watch over and over with a smile. For me, the deadly trap of World of Warcraft is not the gameplay or world- though I do actually enjoy those quite a lot- it is the wealth of memories that I have associated with it. But that same draw was also a huge turn off when I came back to Azeroth very recently, after a two year absence. The place that had once been so welcoming didn’t feel quite so warm as my memories.

It seems strange to me that with all their feature adding and efforts to bring back old players, WoW does almost nothing to welcome back those who haven’t played in a long time. Whether it’s been a few hours or a few years since you last played, logging on is the same- you select your character, and are dropped irreverently into the spot you were in when you last played. In case, this happened to be into the middle of a pack of angry enemies… and since the game made no effort to remind me of how exactly to play, my demise came in short order.

woworc

On the run back, I had plenty of time to think. Surprisingly, I did remember what zone I was in, and basically what quests I was doing. I even sort of remembered how to fight… it was just that I remembered how to fight as WoW was two expansions ago, and so much had changed since then that my knowledge was no longer valid. But I stuck with it, pushing through quests and gradually figuring out how the game expected me to fight. And gradually, it began to feel something like the world I’d left behind- engaging, deep, and detailed, with an occasional smile at a particularly ambitious or audacious quest.

By this point, I had been expecting a message from one of my friends- every other time I’ve come back to WoW after a significant absence, I’ve been contacted within fifteen minutes. A little surprised, I pulled up my friends list… and was stunned. You have to understand, I’m a pretty polite player, I keep (or kept, anyway) myself pretty well geared, I was good at my class, and I was a tank- that class of player that holds the enemy’s attention while everyone else goes to town. That made me a pretty valuable thing, so it was extremely common for people to ask me if they could friend me for future dungeons, and I usually said yes. I don’t know exactly how big my friends list is, but it’s more than fifty names.

When I pulled it up, it was empty. Not only was every single friend offline, but the game had no “Last Online” time for any of them- which meant it had been months, if not longer, since they logged on. I stared for a moment, and other observations gently slid into place. In my questing, I hadn’t noticed any signs of other players. I was in a slightly out of date zone, trying to level, so that wasn’t unthinkable, but… I had to know. I saddled up for a long ride across Azeroth. (Later, I would realize I could have just taken a flight path, the ingame taxi, but it didn’t occur to me in the moment.)

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Through zone after zone I rode, headed for the capital city of Stormwind. The rest were leveling zones, which were rarely bursting with people even back in the day, but the ghost towns that confronted me now were… unsettling. That inn over there, I remember bustling with low level adventurers. That field over yonder was always full of dead mobs, slain by eager questers. Now each place was just a collection of NPCs, waiting to do business with players that never came.

When I finally rolled into the Royal City, it was neither silent nor busy. A small pocket of players was buzzing about the busiest district- using the auction house, checking their mail, using the bank. It was nothing like it used to be, but it was something. Not dead. Only mostly dead.

Certainly, my search wasn’t comprehensive. I did check several other capital cities afterward, and found them even less populated, but it’s possible that I just missed them. That if I’d turned that last corner, there everyone would be. I doubt it.

wowarthas

After a few more days, I did level up to 85, allowing me to access the areas added in the latest expansion. There was a noticeable jump in activity there- not a ton, but enough to make the game feel alive. Considering that those areas use phasing- you can only see other players who are at the same level of story progress as you- it’s quite possible those zones could even be called busy. But part of the thing that comes part-and-parcel in high-level areas: the people in them tend to be, well, high-level.

And that’s the really telling thing in all this. The game has changed, and of course the hardcore have stuck with it. The ones who join raiding guilds, who have spreadsheets on drop rates, and who talk in strings of jargon (LF4M GTotC25 need kings and fort pst w/ gs and spec) were never the ones to worry about. It’s the ones who don’t live and breathe WoW- the guys who play because their friends do, who aren’t worried about maxing stats as much as maxing fun, who play maybe a couple of hours every few days. They’re the ones that are disappearing.

I have my own guesses as to why the game is fading into this death by inches, but they’re little more than educated guesses. At the end of the day, the reason isn’t that important. WoW’s grizzled veterans, the near-addicts, mostly remain, but it’s not getting new players. And for any MMO, the lower level players are the lifeblood. The hardcore make a good skeleton, but the casuals are what rush through the veins, making everything energetic and strong. As they fall away, so does an MMO’s life.

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It makes me sad to see the game that was (sad though it may sound) like a second home to me for a time decay and die. I don’t care that I’ll lose my rare items, I don’t care that no one will be able to check out my achievements. I care that I’ll never be able to walk through the halls of Shadowfang Keep again and remember screwing around with my best friends. WoW is a great game, but to me there’s nothing about it that is so special in and of itself, simply the memories it invokes.

I think a lot of us who left WoW assumed it would always be there- that we could always go back for a week or two, and relive the past. My visit was bittersweet, but I’m glad I was able to make it, and I’ll be sad when that’s no longer an option. I hope other games can learn lessons from WoW’s slow fall. No reign lasts forever, and it is better to die than simply fade away.