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RANT: World of Warcraft & Addiction

This started as a rant talking about BlizzCon 2011, Blizzard's fan convention, which took place this past weekend. In particular, I was going to try to chime in on Mists of Pandaria, the newly announced expansion to Blizz's money-printing MMO. Mists of Pandaria is the fourth expansion to the WoW since its original release in 2004, and its presence seems like a sure sign that despite talk of another original IP-based MMO, Blizzard has no intention of slacking on their bread and butter product. Mists has taken a lot of flack from the Warcraft community for being based around the Pandaren, a Kung Fu Panda mascot character that's essentially a self-inserted joke character by Samwise Didier, Blizzard's art director. These jovial, Asian-stereotype martial arts pandas would usually only make appearances proximate to joke content, like April Fool's releases.

Am I surprised that Blizzard decided to develop the Pandaren into a full continent worthy of an expansion's worth of content? Not in the slightest. What DOES surprise me is that even the meager bit of research that I began to do on WoW's goings-on has sent me into a full-on convulsion of Warcraft withdrawal.

I didn't get into Warcraft until about the summer of '06, a little before Burning Crusade - the first expansion, offering another 10 levels and a new world to explore - launched. I had the ultimate support group for jumping into Azeroth: It was a break between school semesters, and a dozen of my video game school friends and I had two weeks and no real desire to pass out in a pool of our own vomit on a beach somewhere. Some of us had played Warcraft before, but most of us were neophytes. Everyone started a new character and we took the plunge. We had a grand time, and quite a number of us - myself included - stuck with it past the break and continued on. Oh, how we continued on.

Anyone that tells you video games aren't addictive is talking some serious bullshit. Alcohol isn't addictive if you're drinking piss-quality booze. Drugs aren't addictive if you light up once and have a terrible experience. But offer up a quality product with consistency and availability, and you'll turn a straight-edge kid into a slobbering junkie in no time. Warcraft is a masterfully crafted game in that it creates a simple but remarkably rewarding lather-rinse-repeat cycle of gameplay that can prove to be unbelievably addicting.

What Warcraft does so well is that it allows players of all skill levels and attention spans to play by creating an inverse relationship between skill and time invested. Anyone can play Warcraft and feel the exact same wonderment of having a fantasy superhero character in a world of chaos and excitement. Anyone can kill the big monster and reap the rewards. The only thing - and I mean the ONLY thing holding you back - is time investment. If you're willing to put in the time (and time will be reduced for "better" players, but it's time nonetheless) then you will eventually get exactly what you want out of Warcraft at any given moment. There are absolutely skill-based rewards (particularly in the end-game content, like Arena PVP and raiding) but Blizzard does their damndest to make even this content available to the entirety of the player base. Some of my greatest victories in Burning Crusade only took place when, as the next expansion's release date neared, the difficulty of the hardest dungeons was toned down so that players could hurry and see all of the Burning Crusade content before moving on to the next big thing.

There's a lot that prevents some people from getting into World of Warcraft. Some people don't like fantasy; other people simply prefer single player experiences. Some people loathe the art style; others disdain the gameplay mechanics themselves. Regardless of personal opinion, Warcraft's numbers prove that the magic formula works: over 11 million hamburgers cooked and served.

But I don't play now. Why is that? Well, as the next expansion rolled around, I found myself falling behind my group of friends in-game because I wasn't investing as much time as they were into progressing through the game. That barred me from content that I would've otherwise seen. Additionally, other friends that I knew personally weren't playing as much any more. I found myself investing hours upon hours playing a game which I still really enjoyed, but didn't derive the same level of super-star-dom from, since I'd lost so much of the community that meant so much when I first got started.

Quitting was easy. Staying sober is the hard part.

Warcraft now occupies a sick sensory area of my brain where the recollection of it inspires cravings. In the same way that hearing the name of a lost love whispered on the other side of a party can make your blood run cold, the chatter about a Warcraft patch - or, heaven forfend, the news about a new expansion - makes my brain completely ignore the tedious hours of trying and failing to complete a dungeon, or down a boss, or secure a piece of loot that seem so vitally important to have back in its age of relevance. All I see are the visions of dragons flying high over Outland, of the lure of impressive titles and unique pets, of the brilliance of well-timed spells and victories seized from the polygonal jaws of defeat.

The tried-and-true fact that keeps my willpower intact is the time investment. The world is yours if you sink time into WoW - but if you start playing, then you can kiss any other planned activities that you have goodbye, because the addiction is real, and the time that you have to spend in order to get what you want is all too precious to waste on socialization or eating or going to sleep.

So! Who else is playing The Old Republic?

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