Sunday, April 24, 2016

World of Warcraft: A Brief Return

Way back in 2006, I played World of Warcraft (WoW) for a few months. Did the same again a few years later, around 2010, and haven't touched it since. Recently, I installed it again and played a character up to level 20 (the "starter edition" free-to-play cap, at least for now).

The impetus for this little adventure was the Hearthstone promotion to unlock the Lady Liadrin alternate Paladin hero. Play a WoW character to level 20, get the Hearthstone unlock for your account. I likely still wouldn't have bothered for that alone, but it also gave me an excuse to take a quick peek back into WoW after being away for years. Curiosity combined with the Hearthstone freebie was enough to push me into actually re-installing.
I didn't have the option to do anything with my old characters, because you have to subscribe for that. There's a good amount of stuff locked behind subscription: using the mail, auction house, guilds, etc. (Full list here.) Since I just wanted to poke around a little, that was fine with me. Apparently Blizzard is in the process of realizing that people don't want to pay monthly subscription fees any more, as they've created a system where you can buy play time in-game. Maybe they'll eventually be pushed to a buy-to-play model (meaning that you buy it once, then play with no recurring fee), but not yet.

In the process of creating a new Troll Druid and leveling her to 20, I was disappointed (but not surprised) to encounter:
  • Bugs in the opening quest area. Specifically, there's a quest to chase down a unique raptor and rope it, then take it to a holding area. I took the quest, but no raptor spawned. Had to drop and re-accept the quest, then it spawned. Bugs happen, but this game has been around for more than a decade! Can't they at least make the new player experience run smoothly? There were a couple of other similar quest issues as I moved into other areas.
  • Huge areas with no quick travel. My starting area was a pretty huge island, and I had to run around it to quite a few different locations to complete the initial quest chain. Watching your character run for 20-30 seconds between quest locations is not a good initial experience. I understand that mounts are available later on, and you do get access to some forms of quick travel between town areas soon after the starting area. But in the early game, it still takes forever to run around big areas like cities, or the huge open spaces between quest objectives.
  • Terrible respawn rates. The very first quest I got after leaving my starting area sent me to hunt down some sort of crab things, and when I arrived in the quest area, some other guy had just killed them all. I had to wait several minutes for more crabs to show up, so I could complete my quest. Same sort of thing happened several times in different quest areas.
  • Slow NPC Interactions. Several times, I had to sit and wait while NPCs spouted several lines of text, with long pauses in between, before I could do whatever was next for my quest. I can read quite quickly, thank you, and don't need to sit around waiting for the next line to appear.
Now, I realize WoW is an old design. Some of this stuff didn't seem nearly as bad 10 years ago, because we hadn't seen those same problems repeated again and again in other MMOs. But it confirms what I'd expected - WoW hasn't made much of an effort to change, at least not in the early going. If they want to get new blood into the game, that new player experience is a key component.

It's not all bad, of course. The graphics are fine, running well on my 1600x1200 screen. The cartoon-ish art style helps there, as you don't really expect amazing visuals. I didn't have any technical issues at all, really, which for a decade-plus-old game is a pretty significant feat. Quests were plentiful and led me to new areas, so I wasn't ever lost and wondering where I should go next. And leveling progress from 1-20 was fairly quick, requiring just that I follow the quest lines with no additional grinding.

It's certainly possible that there are some new and interesting things in WoW, at the higher levels and in newer areas. But this little experience in the new player/free-to-play area gives me no incentive to pony up a fee to find out. I expect most new players using the free "starter edition" trial will feel the same way.

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