Following setting WoW up, I’ve now had a chance to play for a few hours, and get an initial impression of what WoW is actually like, and how it compares to my expectations.
Following launching the game, I act like a typical PC gamer and head straight for the graphics options. Pleasingly, there are lots to tweak*, so I the pretties right the way up but turn down shadows. In my opinion, shadows don’t add all that much, and are very computationally expensive, so I prefer to have a longer draw distance and blob shadows. Even at this early stage, however, I am finding issues. The dropdown lists don’t function entirely correctly. I know how hard UI is to code, but this is a poor sign.
I log in, and select a preference for an RP server. irritatingly, the only one available is an RPvP, but it doesn’t warn me of this at all. I only notice this after I have created a character, so I have to drop all the way back out, manually select a server, then redo the character creation work.
Character creation is a staple of the RPG genre. It’s where you create the avatar that will represent you, embody all the awesomeness you want to be. Often, it is your first exposure to the mechanics of the world and the lore. In most roleplay games, this happens before any tutorial or exposition, and WoW is no different.
I get presented with a list of races. Finally there is some hint at the underlying mechanics, but no numbers to back it up, or any explanation as to what it all means. As all the details (such as “increased spirit”) are in the same text field as lore flavour text, I can’t just select them to get more information on what this will actually mean. However, I’ve played enough RPGs and read enough fantasy novels, and WoW feels fairly generic from all the descriptions. As a rule, Humans are a balanced race with few downsides, and as WoW seems no different, I go with that. Similarly for classes, it is unclear as to what they all mean. To be fair, most MMORPGs fall into this same trap, giving vague descriptions intermingled with strange words like “tank”, “dps” and “aggro”. Guild Wars might give cool descriptions, but they are similarly vague. There are some class archetypes that are staples for the genre, and tend to nicely define certain types of play:
- Warrior/fighter: Up-close meleé class that’s all about armour and hitting things with sticks, swords and axes
- Mage/wizard/sorcerer: Long-range magic casting and being made of wet tissue paper
- Cleric/healer: healing people
- Ranger/archer: distance attacks with a bow, often with an animal companion
- Paladin: Like the warrior, but with a little magic, and OCD about smiting evil
WoW seemed to have something to cover all the above, so I decided to try a warrior to see what the meleé game was like. Given it’s all about hitting things, it should be hard to get warriors wrong, but the industry has shown time and time again that it can. In table-top land, it wasn’t until 4th edition D&D that playing a fighter became as fun as playing some of the other classes. Ultima Online warriors generally needed a bit of magic to smooth the edges of the world, and in one expansion added some new casting skills specifically for fighters. Unfortunately I’ve not played a warrior enough in Guild Wars to really comment, but the joy of the Guild Wars skill system should mean that playing a warrior should just feel very up-close-and-personal.
Now that I’ve decided on a Female** Human Warrior, I have to give her a name. They insist on unique names, which is nice, but then they go and prevent spaces in names and restrict the length. If I recall correctly, my actual name isn’t possible due to the apostrophe, which always sucks. Without the use of spaces, and with the need for unique names, I’m forced to use something that sounds elvish. Ultima Online had restrictions on name length, but thanks to its international nature you could have some more interesting characters present. Ultima Online also didn’t require globally unique names, which was nice in some respects, but meant that you had to be careful when talking to people. Guild Wars, on the other hand, does require unique names, and does this by insisting on a surname. ArenaNet/NCsoft cunningly included a nice random name generator, which managed to not suck at finding nice surnames. There’s a distinct theme already emerging here, it seems. WoW tries really hard, but just ends up being a bit pants.
I’d say that I shouldn’t be too hard on WoW, given it’s age, but it’s really not that old. Ultima Online, Everquest, Asheron’s Call and countless MUDs all pre-date WoW and had to address many of the same issues. And aside from things like name selection, they could have fixed many of them with time.
So, I now have “Mykaellis”, a female human warrior, and she’s ugly. No, that’s not me roleplaying, that’s the poor graphics of WoW. Don’t get me wrong – I know that they were going for a stylised look, but somewhere they tripped up. The big problem is that the texture detail outstrips the mesh detail, showing up the low poly count in the player mesh. If they had stuck to lower resolution textures, it would have looked better. The appearance options open at this point as just as ugly – a dozen heads, a couple of (bad) faces, and a selection of skin and hair colours. I can also have piercings, which are just an overlay on the texture. I make the best of a bad lot and create my standard female character, whilst thinking about how much better other games have done the same. Ultima Online is a strange example, given the 2-and-a-half D graphics, but what it lacks in dimensions, it makes up for in detail. UO has a large selection of hair styles, and players were able at character creation to dye their starting outfits. Guild Wars similarly gave you heavy customisation of starting gear colours.
Getting character customisation right is no small matter. Character creation isn’t just about making a character, it is also about bonding with your character. You want the player to fall head-over-heals for their character, to care about them deeply. This is one of the things that pulls players back in to play more. There are more advantages, too. For roleplayers, being able to completely design your character’s look is a real boon, as it means that you could have the right character immediately and jump straight into the politics without having to kit up. It also means you can wear your guild’s colours, or have a way of showing that your character has a deep and meaningful history behind them (that’s why they’re wearing black).
So, an acceptable compromise reached during character creation, and I jump into the game! Immediately I am presented with an in-game cinematic, a sweeping reveal across the landscape with voice over, setting the post-catacyslm scene. This is very impressive, and the first real sign of promise so far. It seems that I do get to experience the new, redesigned, post-catacylsm new player experience (NPE) after all! But not before I have a chance to hate everything about the default UI.
Everything about the User Interface is ugly. As I play, it becomes increasingly clear that the mouse buttons only pretend to act in a consistent fashion. Movement is heavily keyboard based, defeating immediately the classic combination of piloting with mouse and commanding skills with keyboard. The standard quest scroll font is just a little too small. In fact, everything is just a little too small. Except for whitespace, which is often over-used. The spellbook is a good example of this – tiny icons and tiny text, separated by a sea of whitespace, then dozens of tabs to make up for the lack of content on any given page. ARGH! They also commit some total faux pas, like at the bottom of tutorial pages having the marker “next [->]“, where only the “[->]” is actually a clickable button. It seems very much like the design team for WoW thought that Fitt’s law was about gyms, and not about making your buttons nice and big and easy to click.
One of the first things I am given a quest for is to go kill some things. This is promising, as it means I am getting straight to the action! Or, as it turns out, I have to manually move myself to the action and make sure I’m facing exactly the right way. This may again sound petty, but this means I can’t focus on my skills, but instead have to manually pilot my character in an awkward fashion (using both mouse and keyboard) to just the right distance and orientation. Both WoW and Guild Wars are twitch games, but WoW focuses on the meaningless aspects (movement and facing), whilst Guild Wars focuses on the player-skill parts. Ultima Online also required that you move yourself into location, however it also allowed you to pilot entirely with the mouse, making it much easier and left your other hand free to fire off skills and spells.
There’s a muted particle animation and small message in my text notification area. Apparently WoW must be attempting to be post-ironic, with the most minimal level-up fanfare I’ve seen. In most roleplay games, levelling up is a big event. In table-top games, your Games Master (GM) would proudly announce that you had leveled up, and suddenly they would have an excited room of gamers, fighting for the books to see what they get. In most classic computer RPGs, there would be a triumphant sound, sparkly lights, and a big message in the middle of the screen, then you could open your character sheet and level up like you did around the table. In Guild Wars, there’s a very noticeable sound and animation, and you gain attribute points***. Ultima Online, err, doesn’t have levels, so we will ignore that for now. Basically, levelling up is supposed to be the big moment in an RPG, and WoW makes it as boring as breathing. Actually, that’s unfair – Breathing’s more exciting, everything about how it works is cool and when it doesn’t you really know it.
The new player experience quests should introduce a player to all the key mechanics required to progress in the game, so I wasn’t surprised to soon find myself on a quest to acquire a skill from a skill trainer. What did surprise me, however, is that they expected me to pay for it. This isn’t me being tight – players of games generally don’t like to lose stuff, so a quest that is basically “lose some money for something you didn’t know you wanted” is a huge “screw you” to the player. The better way would have been to do this over two stages – firstly have the player acquire a free skill from the trainer, then have the trainer give them money to purchase a second skill. Now the player is both comfortable with acquiring skills from a skill trainer, and with paying for them.
That skill I acquired from the trainer was a rather awesome sounding “Charge”, and so I was excited to be asked to go try it out. I approved of this, as it is good design to get players to try out their new abilities immediately after learning them (Infamous on the PS3 does this very well). I head over to the training dummies, and… the skill doesn’t work. I try again, and it doesn’t work. I try a third time, and it still doesn’t work. Huh.
In my last post, I lamented the poor quality of the WoW community. Thankfully since then I was able to find the rather nice WoWpedia and WoWhead, both of which are very well maintained and documented wikis, full of very useful guides and information. So I looked up Charge, it made it clear what I had been missing – that I needed to be far enough away from my targets. Whilst there was a little tiny bit of text on the skill listing it’s range, this should have been made clear in the quest text to begin with.
Charge instantly made things better. The skill would bring me right next to my selected target, fixing the movement issue. It also was the first time I had felt cool and awesome so far in playing. This, however, was let down by the cool-down timers. Most of the UI, you see, is black. Most of the skill icons are dark colours. And the cool-down indicator that visually shows how long until a skill is ready? Yes, that’s right, it’s black. Part of the problem with figuring out the charge skill was also that the only indication of a skill being available was the quickbar button number turning from red to white, a number which is also very, very tiny.
I continued for a while, and found a couple of interesting side quests. Quite what a fire extinguisher was doing in the world was beyond me, but the firefighting sidequest was certainly amusing. However, this also let me find out that the backpack window, whilst looking in every way like a moveable window, was fixed in place on the screen. I also managed to find a bug with the quickbar.
Eventually I found myself on a quest to a neighbouring village, where I then found some Halloween celebrations underway. Given that they are special events, I’m not going to complain about them. But thanks to them, I died and got to experience the death mechanics. WoW has fairly standard death mechanics that feel a little inspired by Ultima Online, only in reverse. I don’t actually have any issue or great love for them, so instead I shall write more about death mechanics in MMOs another time. I returned to the town and camped up in the inn, having found out about WoW’s rest mechanics. I think WoW does get things right there, and that also might have to be the subject of a dedicated cross-game post.
Since I last played, I’ve had a look into replacement UIs. I have a lot of respect for Blizzard for making this moddable, however this should have never meant that the default one has so many flaws. All my investigations have found is that the WoW community is obsessed about raiding, and sadly I wasn’t able to find a nice UI to use at this time.
My adventures in Azeroth shall continue, as there’s still quite a lot more yet to see and comment on. Tonight I’m going to explore my first instanced dungeon, and perhaps encounter craft skills. Later on, I may also try out another class or two, to get a properly balanced picture.
* It’s actually debatable as to if having a large number of options is a good thing or not.
** For some reason, the client defaulted to male. I’m going to pretend that this is randomised, otherwise Blizzard will have a lot to answer for….
*** Until you reach level 20, at which point you don’t really gain any new levels, but instead gain skill points. It’s rather… unique