World of Warcraft Thoughts


I think I mentioned that a few weeks ago I was looking for a game console, but instead decided to just buy games for my PC. Well, during the investigation process, I saw some reviews of World of Warcraft and a couple weeks ago while I was in Fry's I decided to grab it since it would also works on my shiny new Mac Mini (unlike most games). WoW is a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) like Everquest. I've never played any of these games before and was pretty intrigued with some of the clips I saw on TV so I decided to take the plunge. I have to say it's pretty impressive.

First, the game comes on four CDs and installs 3.6GB of app data on your drive. This is to me an astounding amount of data - easily the biggest program I've ever loaded onto a computer. Secondly, the game comes with a pretty hefty manual which explains how the game works, what all the icons and buttons do, and a little history about the world itself and all the races and characters. It was pretty overwhelming - at first I just wanted to sit down and veg in front of the game and the amount to grok at first seemed pretty overwhelming. I think it's like most technologies, it's been built on assumptions of other games like it so for a complete newbie like myself there's a lot to take in at first.

Since I was 12 and my older brother ran me through the default adventure that came with the D&D Basic set called The Keep on the Borderlands where I played a thief trying to sneak through the castle, I've been in love with Rogue characters, so I decided to whip up a little halfling-type Gnome Rogue and see what the world was like. I think it's interesting how quickly you can create a new character, as I remember back in the bad-old-days of dice and pencil/paper RPGs, it would take an hour and half to roll up a new character. But using WoW, it takes about two minutes. You have a pretty good variety in terms of class/race combinations, but not much more. The faces are pretty much all the same as well, so many of the characters look similar. But that's not really that important.

As soon as I registered on the web for an ID (a month free with the $49.99 game), I entered in my user ID and password and chose the default server WoW assigned me. I didn't get this at first - they have multiple servers they call "realms" and they are separate from each other. The idea is to choose a server that's close to you. However, there are lots of servers with very few players on them and they are marked as such. The game I guess is made to choose a server with the least amount of load, so as a new character it put me in a world which was pretty much empty. Later I was able to change this, but it seemed pretty desolate for the first few hours I was playing, I can tell you.

The graphics are great - I've since installed the game (from the same CDs) to my PC and both the Mac mini and my Toshiba laptop are pretty comparable. The Toshiba actually has a pretty nice NVidia graphics card which is powerful enough to run Half-Life 2, so I'm able to turn on a bit more detail on the PC, but other than that they look pretty much the same. Since my Mac is plugged into my big 21" monitor, I'm happier playing there. I will say at first I was confused about the difference between the game speed and the network latency and thought the Mac was pokey. It's not - it's just that if you don't have the greatest connection to a server and run into an area with a couple dozen other players, the response times can *really* get bad. It's not the game or the PC, though, it's the network.

The world is *huge*. I've just never played anything so massive. It's hard to describe how much is in this game, and I've only seen 1% of it. My Gnome character and later a Dwarf character started in a small village in the snowy mountains near the huge casle of the the Dwarves. At first you're given some "quests" by the NPC characters which stand around with exclamation points over their heads, and you go off to kill some wolves or what not. The world is really, really big. I spent the first few hours just exploring this first valley before I realized that I could cross through a tunnel pass at the top of a mountain and enter a whole other huge valley. It was insane. Later I tried a Human Mage character which starts you in the forest outside of the main Stormguard Human stronghold and it feels even bigger - with lakes and hills and lots of little villages, etc. It's hard to describe in text, you really need to play and see. You run pretty fast, but sometimes the quests can take way off into the distance and takes 3 or 4 minutes of real time running before you get to where you can start killing little monsters, etc. Early on, I saw other characters riding animals including flying eagles, and can't wait until I get enough levels to get one of those babies to start exploring the world even more. I mean I've seen two sections of the continent, and there's SO much more. Check out these screenshots online to see what I'm talking about.

I'm finally happy with the Mage character. The Gnome and Dwarven Rogues just didn't have enough power and I ended up sneaking around a lot of bad-guys instead of fighting them. This made leveling up a lot harder, and because you walk half-speed when sneaking, made the areas even longer to work through. Plus I think the "Cold Creek Valley" where those characters start isn't nearly as fleshed out as the forest in the Human area. Last night I started the Mage (called Myrth) and quickly went through many of the little quests for starting characters in the forest. They were pretty fun, and the spells you can cast are great, like ice-bolts or fireballs. I quickly zipped through levels and by the time I went to bed LATE last night, I was at level 8, which was high enough to start doing some serious damage. In fact, I had skipped one of the quests early on because it was too tough, but went back later and was able to kick some bad-guy ass and it was pretty cool. It's that sense of leveling up which was so great in paper-based RPGs.

Oh, I should mention that you can die quickly and easily, and it's no big deal. I didn't get it at first, but it's more of a "time-out" than a D&D-style "get another character" death. You have a battle and take damage, but as soon as "combat" stops, your character immediately starts healing again and usually is up to full strength within a minute or so. If you do run into a monster or usually several monsters that kill you, you appear at a local graveyard as a ghost in an alternative universe. You have two options, you can click on the Angel of Death who will bring you back to life immediately, but with some penalties on your equipment, or you can run back to where your body was and resurrect yourself. It seems like you'd always want to do that latter, and most of the time it's the easiest option because the graveyard you appear at is close by. But a few times it's a pain. I spent 20 minutes (real time) as my Gnome getting out to an area where it was filled with bad-guys, I was sneaking through but got too close and lost my invisibility and a bunch of them ganged up on me. So then I appear at the graveyard, spend another 10 minutes getting back out to my body, reappear, only to get wacked again within moments by a half a dozen monsters. Repeated it once more and finally gave up and just took the penalty.

So far, the outside areas have been the best in terms of getting "into" the world. I don't really expect to interact much with trees and grass or rocks. But once I started exploring the houses, castles and other constructs, it became really obvious that I was in an artificial world. Ever been to Disneyland inside the castle? Where it looks like you could go upstairs, but you can't? And the outside which looks like stone, is actually just paint? And the books on the shelves aren't real either? That's exactly what it's like in the castle areas. You go into a library or an armory or a tavern, and you can't interact with any of the stuff. It's all just painted there. The NPCs as well, are limited in what they can say or do. And if you are unlucky enough to get onto an empty server, you wander around HUGE areas that are just completely empty. Shop after shop of two-level buildings, where there's nothing in there. It almost seems like a waste putting all that stuff in there. Yeah, I can enter a tavern and go upstairs and see a bed - it's just like the armory across the street, but there's nothing I can really do there. It's sort of disappointing.

I haven't really done much in terms of interacting with other characters yet. Every once in a while someone else will appear during a quest and we might gang up on a bad-guy, but I haven't had a conversation with anyone yet (they all seem too busy) nor have I gone on a "group" quest as well. So really, I'm just doing my own thing as well as everyone else. There are some areas - like in the hall of the Dwarven city - where there'll be 30 or so players in there of all levels. (Please come hurt me if I write about my level 67 Paladin some day, okay?) But the lag is *incredible* in these areas and I've ended up avoiding them. Still, back to the graphics, sometimes it's truly awesome to enter an area where you can see other players way off in the distance to give you perspective. The controls give you 360 degrees of camera, so you can look up and see mountains and the stars in the sky, the sun rises and sets with the time, the castles are HUGE and and valleys are looong. It definitely makes just exploring a pleasure. Every time you enter a new area, the music in the background rises to a crescendo and really makes it seem like you're on a great quest, it's pretty fun.

Anyways, WoW is a very cool game which definitely harkens back to my days over a decade ago when I thought D&D was cooool. I'm not sure how much longer I'm going to continue to play, but it was well worth the $50 to just see what everyone has been doing with MMORPGs and to see the state of the art when it comes to creating alternative universes like this. I'm so amazed at the quality of the game, it's just sooo big (have I said that too much, it's just so hard to capture in words). As a developer, I'm also pretty amazed as well - this game is sort of like combining all the creative abilities of a feature length fantasy movie, all the technologies that 3D rendering entails plus the servers of a incredibly popular website. It really makes you step back and respect the guys that put this stuff together. I guess WoW took years to publish, but once you start roaming around, you can see why.


Update: NYT has an article about WoW and Blizzard.

Update 2: Here's a great video from GameSpot which shows a lot of the world and explains why the game is so cool.

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