Why I (still) love World of Warcraft
What changes about how you feel about a game when it shifts from being something you play for the gameplay? Is that when it's truly a hobby?
We've taken a leap into the afterlife in the latest World of Warcraft expansion. We're now in our 17th year living in the Warcraft MMO, and in many ways I love it more than ever.
I don't really play it in search of a challenge, though I enjoy the way the game challenges me along the way. And I don't really play it in search of spending time with friends, though I enjoy it when I do get to hang out with some friends and guild mates from time to time.
I feel like WoW has crossed a threshold in my life where it is not really a game anymore and more of a true hobby. A hobby with lore and plot and story that I get to explore at my own pace. With nooks and crannies to find surprises in. I can fish. I can spelunk. I can fly.
I've often referred to the game as my "digital knitting", a thing I can do with my hands while my mind is occupied by other things. And along the way I happen to collect cool new pets, or mounts, or outfits, or simply explore new parts of the world I haven't seen before. And I feel rewarded when I create a fresh character and start exploring all over again.
Stepping out a little further, it's worth remembering that while World of Warcraft is 16 years old, the Warcraft universe of stories is now 26. The lore has a deep history now, with not just novels and comics surrounding the games but a series of Chronicles – volumes that explain the mythic origins of the Warcraft universe, and grant yet more understanding of the epic narratives we get to be heroes in when we're playing the game.
Few games have ever captured my imagination like this has. Those that have have always been roleplaying games of one kind or another – going all the way back to games like SSI's Curse of the Azure Bonds and, of course, The Bard's Tale. And I have to mention Planscape: Torment because it is what it is.
I always imbue my characters with stories of my own. I never name my characters based on a standard naming convention, prefix or suffix. These characters are not me. They're my creations, each walking through a grand epic and building memories for me of the trials and challenges they've faced. It's the writer part of my brain, I guess, watching these characters become more rounded because of the deeds they have done and the ways in which each of them helped save Azeroth from certain destruction. A lot.
And, hell no, I won't say Warcraft has always been perfect. There have been many story beats along the way that have felt wildly off the mark and gameplay choices that have been far from ideal.
I'm no fan at all of the arc given to Sylvanas Windrunner in recent years, pulling some pantomime villain turns that felt like a betrayal of a character with a fascinating history that deserved more. And all this after letting her deliver the greatest "FOR THE HORDE!" in the history of the game…
Ideas that feel wonderful in beta, like Island Expeditions, turn out to lose their lustre quickly once you're into the main game. And certain quests can feel entirely too hard or simply annoying (already looking at you, Shadowlands and your flappy bird nonsense).
But there's always been so many interesting arcs around the edges of the core story, too. And many heroes of many stripes getting their sub-plots developed along the way. Quite often giving me just enough to feel the emotional pull I've wanted, a little bit earnest, a little bit fun, with artistic flair in good measure.
Then, living right alongside all this, is layer after layer of pop culture references that speak to a game that puts fun at the heart of the experience. Quests, NPCs, and voice lines that all throw players fourth-wall breaking jokes and amusements to stop anyone from taking anything too seriously. This is a place to enjoy at whatever depth you want to do so.
All that plus the fact I never HAVE to do the main thing that the main story of the current expansion tells me to do next. I can collect pets, battle pets, run old raids solo in search of cool items, or just sit by a lake and go fishing. I can even pretend that one day I'll get good at working the auction house.
The release of Shadowlands let me dive into new territory in the game once again. Unknowns in a world I know so well. A biennale of sorts, with lots of new exciting things to explore once every two years.
I've explored those new stories now and we're into the phase where you think about whether you keep up with the bleeding edge or start exploring the smaller parts of the new world. There's four Covenants in the new expansion, each with an endgame storyline that has lots of lore lurking on the other side of some reputation gates. For me, that's the focus now. Because the story always leads my interest in Warcraft.
Maybe one day they'll really screw up the story. Some might argue they've already done that in a few places recently. I'm still happy to give the benefit of the doubt and go along for the ride. For me, it's still the perfect blend of casual escapism in a world full of stories that I love exploring with my army of characters. I expect I'll keep doing it for many more years to come.