What is World of Warcraft?

On December 23, 2004, I rolled my first character in World of Warcraft. It seems almost impossible to imagine that this was a little over nine years ago, but I still remember the day clear as a bell. A friend told me where to make a character and what faction to use, and offered me a guild invite the moment I logged in -- an Alliance guild that, to my knowledge, no longer exists. That began a journey that was a long, impossible at times, climb to level 60. Along the way, I made a ton of friends both in the guild and out, and when I hit level 60 it seemed like an incredible accomplishment. But as I shook off the haze of congratulations and cheers, I realized I had little to no idea what came after you hit level 60 -- and frankly, neither did anyone else.

Ironforge was the place to be. If you were Alliance it was the only place with an Auction House. Players spent hours upon hours outside the front gates dueling each other. There was no PvP as we know it today -- Battlegrounds didn't exist, so PvP was relegated to long, drawn out battles between Tarren Mill and Southshore. The options seemed to be as follows: Run Stratholme, Scholomance, and UBRS to collect your blue dungeon set. Go raid either Molten Core or Onyxia's Lair. And ... that was it. Needless to say, my next option was to roll an alt and find a raid guild. What other choice did I have, at the time?

As the game has progressed over the last nine years, those choices have expanded into a flurry of content that dwarfs everything that has come before it. And that makes me wonder -- just what is World of Warcraft, now?

Reputation and dailies

In the early days of vanilla, dailies and reputation didn't exist. You could gain reputation for a few different factions, if you were crazy enough to grind mobs for hours, but it was by and large optional content that really didn't have a point. It wasn't featured content for hitting level 60. Going back to do old quests was pointless -- the experience to gold conversion didn't appear in WoW until March of 2006, making doing those old quests in the early days a needless waste of time. This also made making any kind of gold once you'd hit level 60 an excruciating experience.

In Burning Crusade, the two major daily quest hubs, Ogri'la and Skettis, were both introduced with an entire wheelhouse of daily questing -- the first reputation based daily setup we'd ever seen, and a repeatable way to make extra gold. Wrath of the Lich King embraced this model as a method for gaining reputation all over Northrend. Cataclysm had only a handful of reputations, some that involved daily quest hubs, and some that only offered reputation gain by wearing a tabard and running dungeons. Here's where the breakdown happened -- even the reputations that had daily quests also had that tabard option.

So imagine, if you will, you're a player trying to get things done. You're offered two options of doing exactly the same thing: one is a slow and steady progression completed over weeks of doing quests. The other is a fast-forward method of getting everything done at once, without any kind of artificial gating in front of it. Why, when given a choice between the two, would you ever in a million years choose the slower option?

This is why tabard reputation was easily the biggest mistake Blizzard made in Cataclysm. Because once you open that faster, easier, race-to-the-end floodgate, you can't shut it again. You can remove those tabards with the next expansion -- which Blizzard did, in fact, do -- but players will forever remember the days in which they could hurriedly speed to the end and reap all the rewards with no gating and no real effort. And they will long for those days, because for some reason, getting to exalted has become a big "The End" on reputation grinding, rather than the process itself being an enjoyable journey. Do you know what happens after "The End?" Absolutely nothing.

So why is everyone in such a hurry to get there?

What is Endgame?

World of Warcraft is several different games wrapped up into one. There's your questing element, usually experienced through the leveling process, your PvP content, for those that enjoy the challenge of facing off against other players, and then there's this mysterious "endgame" element that most people have taken to mean, over the years, as raid content. There is also a giant influx of players who surmise that the game itself doesn't really begin until endgame, which is about as far from the truth as you can get. The game begins when you log in and create a character.

That game, the leveling game, is a giant portion of content that seems to be overlooked in favor of rushing to the end. When you reach that magical "endgame" portion of Mists, you'll find that there are more choices than ever before as far as things to do. Heroic dungeons, scenarios, heroic scenarios, challenge mode dungeons, PvP battlegrounds, arenas, the Brawler's Guild, Proving Grounds, legendary quest chains, the raiding scene itself -- and an obscene number of daily quests for various reputations.

That mythical promise of "endgame" seems to be a lure that causes players to leap through any leveling or questing content as fast as they can. Even when reaching endgame, the thought of doing daily quests bothers players -- because they want the reputation immediately. They want the upgrades immediately. They don't want to be artificially gated through some sort of daily system, they want to be able to get all the rewards as quickly as humanly possible. And it's weird seeing this progression, because in the early days of vanilla, this mysterious "endgame" was nothing more than a handful of activities to be repetitively run.

The idea of a game

What is a game? A quick jaunt to Google defines the term as "A form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck." It's a hobby. It's something you do for enjoyment. It's a pastime. It's something that you do, quite literally, to pass the time -- and it's supposed to be fun. When you take out the passing time portion of gaming, aren't you defeating the purpose of it being a pastime in the first place?

And how does WoW fit into that equation? World of Warcraft is nearly ten years old. When you pay for the game and start from ground zero, you have almost ten years of content to play through. When you phrase it in that fashion, it makes it seem like the most daunting task in the world. But leveling up to 90 has never been easier -- players will find themselves out-leveling zones before they even finish the main storylines in the area, shuffled down the line and moved on before they really comprehend what was really going on. Before they know it, they'll be at level 90, faced with a daunting list of things that need to be done before they can "really start playing the game."

At this point in Mists of Pandaria, if you reach level 90, you still have a lot of catching up to do. Before you can leap into full raiding content with your friends, you have to be geared to do so. There have been several shortcuts implemented to get people there -- the most notable being the addition of plenty of high-level gear tokens on the Timeless Isle -- but even if you collect all of those tokens, you'll still likely be in LFR or Flexible raids for some time gathering pieces before you're considered viable enough for normal-mode raiding. There is no rushing through that process.

WoW's evolution

Somewhere in between vanilla and now -- I'm not sure when, exactly, perhaps in Burning Crusade -- the definition of what World of Warcraft is changed. Level 60 was a milestone celebrated by players in vanilla, and now hitting max level means nothing. There's so much to do beyond level 90 that the actual act of getting to 90 isn't really worth recognition -- it's become a footnote in the long crawl of things to do after you get there. It's become so much of a footnote that in Warlords, players will be able to take a character to 90 in the blink of an eye, shuffled off to the brand new shiny content available with the expansion.

That original level 1-60 experience means absolutely nothing now.

And that bothers me on some obscure level, one that I can't quite pin down. What's at the end of WoW? Another level of gaming to do. And what happens when you reach the end of all there is to do at max level? Nothing beyond waiting until the next expansion comes out. Is that really what people are racing for?

Why do you continue to play the games you play? Is it the lure of repeatable content at the end of it all, is it the familiarity of hanging out with friends and family, is it the story that winds itself through all the content? Are you more concerned with the journey, or with getting there in the end? And when you get to the end, what do you expect out of the experience? What do you want out of the game you play, what makes it all worthwhile to you?

In the dawn of a new year, I'm trying to figure out my own answer to that question. Until then, I'll be doing what I always do -- playing with my friends, killing some dragons on the internet, and trying to puzzle out stories that have yet to be.