The Game Archaeologist's World of Warcraft confession

WoW Concept Art
As you may well know by now, I wasn't an early adopter of the MMO scene apart from a brief exposure to BBSes in the '90s and Anarchy Online and Final Fantasy XI in the early 2000s. To be honest, I found that MMOs were as intimidating -- and fascinating -- to me as pen-and-paper RPGs. You see, in high school I started buying RPG manuals and devouring them cover-to-cover, but I could never find friends or like-minded people with whom to play. The genre was a spectator sport for me; I was looking in from the sidelines and imagining what would happen if I actually got to be part of a D&D session.

Likewise, MMORPGs in their earlier forms appeared as user-friendly to me as that house on the block with overgrown shrubs, a rusty iron fence, and a mangy, ever-barking mutt in front of it. Maybe it was really cool inside, or maybe it was a death trap from whence there was no escape, but I never had the courage to find out. Let me put it this way: I purchased and read the entire Star Wars Galaxies Prima Guide three times over without once signing up for the game.

I'm sharing this with you because I always want to remember that what we take for granted today -- that MMOs are friendly, fun, engaging, and a downright natural part of many of our gaming lives -- isn't always true for those curious lookey-loos who feel intimidated by the scope, busy UIs, subscription fees, or the often bizarre attitudes that long-term MMO players exhibit. For me, it took one game that tore those barriers down to extend a welcoming hand to me, guiding me into these awesome games.

Of course, that was World of Warcraft. And even though my geek cred would be so much higher if it were something earlier or, well, not so mainstream, that wouldn't be the truth. So today I'm going to share my story of how I got into MMOs and why the early days of WoW were some of my most treasured gaming memories.

WoW Concept Art
In the beginning, Blizzard created the servers and Azeroth

When I first began The Game Archaeologist column, I used 2004 as the dividing point between the old (or classic) MMO culture and the new because World of Warcraft really was one of those rare points in gaming history that was an honest-to-Kotick revolution. So much of what has followed 2004 was so greatly influenced by WoW that I wanted to go back to examine the era before it hit. I'm not interested today in getting into a discussion of whether WoW was more helpful or hurtful to the genre as a whole so much as I want to share my perspective of why this pixelated atomic bomb pushed me from spectator to activist.

It wasn't like WoW came out of nowhere, of course. Today we're more than used to massive build-ups of hype that serve as modern-day heralds of the great comings of kings and queens, but back then it felt like something so above anything we'd seen to date. I'd been a casual player of Warcraft II in college (seriously, who didn't play that at the time?), but I wasn't what you'd call a Blizzard fanboy by any means. All I knew when I first saw an article about WoW in early 2003 was that the artistic style was attractive in a way I hadn't seen in MMOs before and that the devs were pushing new ideas like quest-based gameplay.

The quest for a quest

I thought about researching and writing an article on the development of questing in MMOs, but then I realized that I didn't have 100 spare hours lying around. So suffice it to say that like many "revolutionary" ideas that come along in MMOs, questing wasn't 100% original (MMOs certainly had quests before then), it got noticed because it was polished to near-perfection, and then it got despised after many games -- including WoW itself -- ran it into the ground without continuing to advance the idea.

But if I had to pick one thing that caught my attention more than anything else, I'd have to be honest and say it was the quests. While once upon a time I might have been much more patient with learning obtuse and complicated gaming systems, by the 2000s I knew I was at a point that the game at least had to meet me halfway, which I didn't feel most MMOs were doing in that regard. WoW's clear, easy-to-understand setup told me, in advance, that I wasn't going to have to struggle with the basics of how to play -- I could just play. It would be a little while before I'd hear about Blizzard's "easy to learn, hard to master" mantra, but it makes sense in retrospect.

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Naptime

I think there comes a time in the lead-up to any interesting MMO when you start to devour everything -- and I mean everything -- that's currently out there. Curiosity becomes a ravenous beast always wanting more, more, more. As I rounded into 2004, there wasn't as much as I'd hoped, so I ended up lurking on the freshly minted forums, soaking in post after post of excitement, questions, speculation, and light banter. I don't recall the atmosphere being as vicious back then as that of most official forums today, either.

Even though it is only seven years in the past, 2004 feels like a lifetime ago in gaming terms. The gaming scene was much different on the internet, with sites like Gamespot and Gamespy dominating the daily news (Massively and WoW Insider were just sparkles in AOL Weblogs' eyes) and a much more sparse environment when it came to blogs and podcasts. So while today interest in a new MMO is covered from everyone from the individual hammering keystrokes in his den to the mighty press overlords we all serve, back then the coverage was coming from far fewer players.

One of the most eye-opening facets of the potential future of WoW's community came when Blizzard announced that it would be introducing a rest system into the game. Now, despite common perception of infallibility, many of Blizzard's design decisions were just as much shots in the dark as devs make today. The team said that players would start their gaming sessions feeling rested (with bonus XP), then would go to normal, then -- and this might be news to some -- could become fatigued after a while, resulting in an XP hit. In concept, it was RPish and made sense, but as a game element it drove some folks bonkers.

The debate over how the rested system would work showed me just how fanatical players could get about one game mechanic, with voices raging on both the pro and con side of things. Eventually Blizzard removed the "fatigued" part of the equation and ended up implementing the system we've seen copied in pretty much every MMO since.

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Far from a sure thing

While we may look back now and just assume that everyone knew how World of Warcraft was going to dominate and be this juggernaut MMO machine, back in 2004 that really wasn't the case. It was Just Another Game that had a lot of positive buzz but the same potential as any other. Most of us have been complimentary and critical of WoW over the years (you'd have to work hard at neutrality and indifference not to have some opinion of the game, really) because nowadays your stance regarding WoW is like joining a political party. You're either in the crowd that everyone else hates or the other crowd that everyone else hates. Back then, it was actually kind of cool to get excited about WoW. I don't recall any mudslinging of "hater!" and "fanboy!" thrown back and forth, just the fun of anticipating something that looked cool.

In fact, WoW was so far from a sure thing in my mind that the month it came out, I was really giving the then-brand-new EverQuest II a hard look. EQII came out a few weeks before WoW and had some people thrilled, and it took a lot of self-control to wait until the day WoW launched to jump into the MMO pool with both feet. (As an aside, I didn't even pre-order but rather just drove down to Best Buy, snagged a Collector's Edition, and came home.)

WoW at launch was far from perfect, of course. The queues and server downtimes, ugh. The broken classes (Warlocks, Druids). The bizarre wasteland of its endgame. You think people whine a lot about what Star Wars: The Old Republic may or may not have at 50 these days? Get a time machine, go back to 2004, and see what WoW at 60 had to offer. Tumbleweeds across your keyboard, my friend.

But imperfect as it was, it helped this one gamer fully commit to the MMO lifestyle. It was a colorful tutorial of how MMOs worked, polished and presented in a package that wasn't out to penalize me for being a complete noob. It gave me water wings for a while and pointed out how many others were trying to learn to swim all around me. I may at this point be belaboring the pool metaphor.

In my opinion, the most important MMO in the world is the one that got you hooked, whether it be an ancient MUD or something that came out last month. It probably has some of the largest influences on your outlook as well. In my case, because I was weened on WoW, I expected all MMOs I experienced from then on to be similarly user-friendly and comprehensible. It's always been tough to check out earlier games because of this. I also learned valuable lessons about how important guilds are, the dangers of burnout, and playing for fun and not out of obligation or obsession.

So maybe this is a rambling column today that has significance for me but is just one of a billion WoW posts that you've ever read. That's OK. Next week we'll get back to the past-past, by which I mean before 2004 came rolling into town. Thanks for letting me nosh on nostalgia, though!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.