A Philosopher's Blog

The Brilliance of Warcraft

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on December 15, 2008

Although friends of mine had already been seduced back into the World of Warcraft, I held out until shortly after the release of the Wrath of the Lich King. Although I have two level 60 characters, I ended up starting a new character-that was “the plan” I agreed to with my friends Dave and Ron.

When I first started playing WoW a few years ago, I approached it like an online version of D&D: I tried to get immersed in the story, I sought the toughest challenges and brought my loot back to the vendors to sell. As such, I tended to miss out on the true brilliance of the game.

This brilliance is not the story, the setting or the game system. The story is standard fantasy with some sci-fi elements thrown in. The setting is quite familiar-a fantasy world with plenty of things to kill and loot. The game system is based on the usual class and level system (plus all sorts of hidden math that would, no doubt, boggle my mind).  The brilliance of the game is in its power to suck people in to play, play and play some more. To do this, the folks at Blizzard have made brilliant use of the classic mechanics of seduction and addiction. As such, WoW can bee seen as akin to Las Vegas, only with elves, loot, and instances instead of hookers, gambling, and fancy hotels. Oh, and throw in some eBay/QVC in there as well.

I could write volumes about the psychological mechanics Blizzard has used in the game, but I’ll just briefly hit on three.

First, there is the frustration/reward system. This is a classic mechanism in which the frustration of a task is finely balanced against a reward. The challenge is to make the task frustrating enough so that there is a feeling that the reward is earned but not so frustrating that most people just give up. This is the same sort of approach used in those county/state fair games of “skill” in which you play dozens of times in order to win a crappy $2 toy. Dating also involves the same sort of thing. In WoW, you have to grind through kill after kill to get decent treasure or to finish many quests. For example, you might need to get 8 gnoll paws from gnolls. But it turns out that the gnoll tribe you have been sent to decimate is mostly made of pawless freaks: you kill and kill, but they have no paws to loot. Just as you are about to give up, you find a paw. So, you keep on going until you are just about sick of it, then another paw drops. The whole game is full of this sort of stuff and this keeps people playing and paying.

Second, there is the auction house. When I first started playing, I didn’t visit the auction house. It seemed a bit weird to my classic D&D mindset and I also did not find the idea of playing eBay very appealing. But, my friends were sucked into it-they spend hours buying and selling fake items for fake gold in the auction house. This no doubt provides the same charge people get from buying and selling on eBay.  So, people will spend hours gathering up things to auction off to other players and then use the gold to buy things that other players are selling.

Blizzard has brilliantly designed the game so that most people will not find what they need while playing. For example, I worked my night elf druid to level 60 and found only fairly weak items in the course of adventuring. Put crudely, my equipment and weapons were crap. Meanwhile, my friends were buying top of the line gear at the auction house. The genius of this system is that some players play for countless hours to get the very rare good items. They then auction them off to other players who have less luck or less time. To buy the good items, you need lots of fake gold, so the other players need to do other time consuming things to get the gold they need to buy the stuff they want.  So, everyone is playing and paying for a long time.

Third, the game has various professions such as the mundane ones like, mining, fishing and cooking (really) to more esoteric ones like enchanting and alchemy. Some of the professions involve gathering-you go around mining or picking flowers to gather ore or herbs, for example.  Some of the professions involve creating items and these require every rarer raw materials. So, you need to get all the stuff you need to make things and then spend time making them. This creates a virtual economy in which people spend hours working at gathering fake resources and making fake items. Pure brilliance on the part of Blizzard. In real life, you have to pay people to do that sort of stuff. In WoW, people pay to do it.

Of course, Blizzard did not come up with the system overnight. The previous games of Diablo, Diablo II and the Warcraft series gave them perfect test beds for the various systems. For example, Diablo II showed that people would play countless hours hoping that good treasure would pop out of a dead monster.

Yeah, I do play WoW. But, I do my best to avoid getting caught up in the stuff that merely eats my time without being really fun. What I do enjoy is adventuring in a group and being able to play a game without being the one who writes up the adventures and runs the game.

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3 Responses

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  1. monkeywithpants said, on December 16, 2008 at 9:04 am

    Step #1. Kill
    Step #2. Loot
    Step #3. Sell
    Step #4. Repeat until you have no life of your own.

  2. Dave said, on December 16, 2008 at 9:17 am

    Actually, it’s a lot like golf . . . but with different kinds of gear and funny pants and hats.
    “(miss) I hate golf (crappy shot) I Hate Golf! (even crappier shot into a water trap) I HATE GOLF!!! (lucky beautiful shot goes sailing over the fairway) I love golf!

  3. kernunos said, on December 16, 2008 at 10:49 am

    Real men/women MMO players pit their skill against others in combat. Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online FTW! :P


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