15 March 2012

WoW: Cataclysm

I did not expect much from the third expansion and I was not really looking forward to it all. Nonetheless, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the initial content. Normal dungeons were still easy as pie, but at least the heroic versions did require some degree of strategy, e.g. crowd control and interrupts. The Grumpy Elf has a series of “Cataclysm miscues” in which he addresses several problems such as the fast leveling speed or the state of professions. I highly recommend reading this insightful nine-part series.

My very busy raiding schedule from The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King had taken its toll and I wanted to slow things down a bit. Therefore, I decided to leave the hardcore raiding scene and move on to pastures new. My brother-in-law asked me to join him on the Horde side (on a different server) and we founded a casual raiding guild together. The aim was clear: we wanted to raid about two to three nights a week with a fixed roster and flexible hours in a casual and friendly atmosphere. This worked for the first three months. After that it became apparent that the casual approach in Cataclysm was just that – very casual. People rightfully prioritised other things over gaming and we had difficulties getting regular groups together. Our server was very active, so we were able to pug the occasional raid member. However, the guild perks system required us to have at least eight members from our guild as raid participants in order to receive the guild bonus. This was very problematic at times and let to the fateful decision to merge our guild with a group of friends who were looking for a new guild to call home.

Even though this was technically not a real guild merger because the other group was not a real guild, it certainly felt that way. They were a group of four real life friends and they had heard of our approach and contacted me to talk about details. We had a pleasant chat and seemed to share similar views on the game. So it came that all of them joined our guild which now had nine (allegedly) reliable players (our previous five and their four). That meant that the guild bonus was secured. We established a solid 10-player (casual) raiding guild and for a time it was good. However, the devil is, as they say, in the details. I was basically managing the entire guild myself – the guild bank and guild website, recruitment and raid leading. I must admit that I am somewhat of a control freak and I really enjoyed being in charge of everything. This led to some problems with the “leader” of the four new members who wanted more competence. I had told this “other alpha” right from the start – even before they all joined – that I would be in charge as guild and raid leader and that my brother-in-law was second in command. Other than that we had a flat hierarchy with everybody else being on equal ground. At first he and the others seemed fine with that but somewhere along the road this was no longer the case. I honestly do not know what their specific problems were as none of them wanted to directly and openly discuss it when asked. I had the impression that the main issues were the lack of certain bank and website privileges, but I do not know for sure.

We had no loot drama since a 10-player raid only offered two items per boss and we also created a “class raid” meaning that we had one of each class in the raid. Warrior and Death Knight Tanks, a Holy Paladin as primary Healer, assisted by either Druid, Priest or Shaman – depending on the encounter – and a Hunter, a Mage, a Rogue and a Warlock as primary Damage Dealers. I was very pleased with this set-up and it worked amazingly well. However, we hit a brick wall on Cho’gall and his very annoying Conversion mechanic. We worked several weeks on this boss with no success in sight. Every time we managed to overcome an obstacle something new came along that broke our necks, e.g. the tentacles in the final phase of the encounter. So, we were unable to defeat this boss before he was nerfed. This was also the time when the new members gradually stopped showing up until they all decided to quit the game for good.

As a consequence, my brother-in-law and I decided to go even more casual in Firelands. We set two specific raid nights (Wednesday and Thursday) and we invited anybody who wanted to come (irrespective of guild affiliation) and who seemed capable according to their armory profile. This meant forgoing the guild group bonus but somehow that did not matter to us any more. I guess one can say that we were already losing interest in the game. That method worked surprisingly well and we cleared six bosses in Firelands within the first two weeks after release. Here we were at the final boss again and we were having the same problems again. Master phase one, fail at phase two; master that one and fail at the next one. Eventually, we did it, but I simply did not care any more. I was glad that it was done and finally over. After that I just could not be bothered any more. We had no Dragon Soul guild runs; however, I completed that raid three times via the Raid Finder – as a Healer, a Tank and on my Hunter. Every single run was boring and felt meaningless with the final “boss” encounter being the ultimate let-down.

Towards the end of 2011, my subscription ran out and I took my very first (and only, and final) break from World of Warcraft – meaning I did not renew my subscription. This might not seem like a big deal for many people but for me it was a very big deal. I had been playing continually since I started back in 2006 without any major breaks whatsoever – i.e. without cancelling my subscription. Unfortunately, the game had lost all its appeal to me and I already knew that I wanted to start fresh in a galaxy far, far away.

14 March 2012

WoW: Wrath of the Lich King

Initially, I was very excited about this expansion, as it would conclude the story of Arthas and I was looking forward to seeing how that would end. While journeying through Northrend, I encountered my favourite species, the Kalu’ak. I simply love those walrus people! The scene at the Wrathgate and the subsequent quest to reclaim the Undercity were among the most memorable leveling experiences for me.

Unfortunately, the beginning of the end was already apparent. The “big boss nerf” must have also affected all other dungeons because the common theme from day one in Wrath of the Lich King seemed to be to AoE-nuke everything down. Imagine my surprise when that actually worked! During classic World of Warcraft and The Burning Crusade this was unthinkable. Even low-level dungeons required careful planning and pulling. But not anymore! Pull the entire corridor, nuke and move on. This was true for every dungeon, normal or heroic right from the start. (What a shame!) It was even true for the expansion’s entry raid instance, the rehashed and soulless Naxxramas (please read Kungen’s blog series “Ensidia starts raiding ...” if you want to know more about this and have a look here if you want to get a brief glimpse as to why he quit the game).

Upon hitting level 80, raiding was once again business as usual for my guild and we conquered the content pretty quickly. I think Ulduar was the absolute pinnacle of raid design and I consider the interior area the best raid in the entire game, challenged only by the wonder that was Karazhan. Ulduar had a great story, a beautiful scenery, a plethora of achievements and, most importantly, hard modes that were triggered by in-game events (i.e. player actions during an encounter) rather than by changing the setting via the UI. It also featured two of my all-time favourite boss encounters: Mimiron and General Vezax.

I was still playing with my wife from time to time, although less regularly due to real life commitments and my busy raiding schedule. To be totally honest, the game actually ended for me after I defeated The Lich King. I had finished the story that I wanted to follow and many (game-breaking) changes were already implemented or on their way, most importantly that 5-player dungeons were no longer regarded as a meaningful endgame activity – a view that was facilitated by the great tool that would destroy any sense of server community and accountability: the marvellous Dungeon Finder. That was sarcasm, by the way. The issue of content vs. community is also addressed here and (unsurprisingly) it is Shintar, once again, who hits the nail on the head:

I hope they stick with the focus on community too. I actually haven't met that many completely awful people in LFD either, but even with a decent group the experience is just completely soulless, as everyone just goes through the motions to get to the end as quickly as possible. All the access in the world doesn't do me any good if the content doesn't feel like it's actually worth doing. I'd rather have fewer runs but have them be worthy of remembering.

09 March 2012

WoW: The Burning Crusade

Shortly after the launch of The Burning Crusade, I managed to arouse my wife’s interest in the game as well. So it happened that eventually the two of us would share those online adventures together. We created a matching pair of characters – she played a Protection Paladin and launched herself right into the fray, while I kept my sweetheart alive by healing her wounds on my Holy Priest. This team managed to clear all dungeons (normal and heroic) along their way and met many pleasant – and even a few unpleasant – people during their journeys.

The Druid’s quest chain for the Swift Flight Form was amazing and I consider it one of my most memorable moments. I only wished that the [Reigns of the Raven Lord] would have been a guaranteed Druid-only reward for completing the quest. I am still harbouring a grudge because I never saw it drop. I ran Heroic Sethakk Halls almost daily during The Burning Crusade and started soloing it as soon as I could – right until the very end. I even gave it a try on my very last day in Azeroth – but Anzu would not yield up the elusive item.

I never enjoyed gaming more than when I played level 70 content during World of Warcraft’s first expansion set, The Burning Crusade. -- Zellviren

I consider The Burning Crusade as the best WoW expansion, the height of my gaming when I felt WoW was doing everything right. I consider WotLK the beginning of the end for me, especially when it came to the difficulty of 5-man content. -- Kadomi

I wholeheartedly agree, even though I would say that the beginning of the end was already noticeable after Patch 2.4. I think that The Burning Crusade was the best expansion because it offered meaningful content for everyone. Heroic dungeons provided a great experience and (additionally) my group did spend quite some time in that beautiful place called Karazhan. The best part about heroic dungeons for me was that they all required strategy and tactics. Careful planning and pulling was essential and crowd control necessary. This meant that heroic dungeons took some time and that they could be seen as an alternative to the raiding endgame.

At one point, however, I started yearning for the ultimate challenge only 25-player raids could offer. So I applied to a hardcore raiding guild and was accepted for trial. We had four to six raids per week. Monday to Thursday were regular progression raids and on Fridays and Saturdays (or Sundays) we did the occasional “off-raid” – old content to get gear and/or attunements for new members. Once Zul’Aman was released, we did our “bear runs” on the weekends as well. We were able to complete the entire level 70 content before the “big boss nerf”. And for a time it was good.

08 March 2012

WoW: Classic or “Vanilla”

Leveling my Night Elf Druid was great fun, even though Darkshore was stretching my patience a great deal. Nevertheless, I could not easily be discouraged and I kept on playing. Everything seemed magical and the little inconveniences that existed did not hinder my enjoyment. There were very long ways to walk and some quests required me to travel to very distant places, e.g. the original quest-line for the Aquatic Form. Yes, there was a time when Druids learned their shapeshift forms not simply by visiting a trainer but by actually performing some tasks in the game world. Shocking, I know!

I died a million times in the barrows filled with furbolgs. I mean, seriously, who designed those? Close quarters, a maze, high respawn rate. It was a death trap for noobs like me. I was in there for literally hours. -- Kadomi

I had exactly the same experience in the Ban'ethil Barrow Den and the related quest asked me to bring back four items when my bags were already full. Life in Azeroth was time consuming and demanding and I loved it.

At some point my Druid hit the level cap and entered into the ominous endgame, where he experienced two massive group dungeons called “raids”. He lent his healing hands to a group that was determined to enter a fiery cavern named Molten Core. There he had his very first taste of what it was like to overcome the greatest challenges with the greatest number of people. It was very invigorating! On a different night some people of the same group asked him to help them kill a horrible dragon hiding in another cavern somewhere in the swamps. Needless to say, he joined without thinking twice. Unfortunately, those were the only two raid instances my Druid did in those days because otherworldly matters kept the real person behind the Druid busy for quite some time. I did stay subscribed, however, and played very casually and started some alts, most notably an Undead Mage.

Overall, I can say that I will be forever fond of those days as they mark the beginning of my journey into the realm of MMOs. The cynics will always attribute nostalgia to “rose-tinted glasses” and that is, of course, their prerogative. It is, however, equally valid for other people remember things in their own way and make different claims. I do not think that some of us are only looking at the pleasant parts of the past but rather that the inconvenient parts were not that unpleasant to begin with.