Posted by Azuriel
If you want to read a 4,079 word essay on the decline of WoW from the standpoint of two members of the sub-10% of raiders, you cannot go wrong with Failure, Challenge, and the Decline of WoW. If, instead, you were looking for a well-written, relevant essay on WoW’s “decline” exploring actual issues, don’t bother reading it at all. Stede in particular eviscerates the entire argument in a single comment.
What interested me about the essay is how so completely it falls into that utterly bizarre MMO difficulty trap – the sort of notion that MMOs should be social engineering experiments to create a generation of better gamers. The part that struck me the most was when they were talking about The Butcher from the original Diablo:
The best piece of low-level content ever created by Blizzard is found not in current WoW, nor even in old WoW, but 15 years ago in Diablo. The Butcher.
Every NPC in town warns you about The Butcher before your first trip into the dungeon. In case you didn’t bother talking to them, just outside the dungeon entrance you find the previous adventurer who tried to delve in, bloody and dying. Before killing your first mob, a villain is set up. The first half hour of dungeon crawling goes by uneventfully. But somewhere on the second level down, starting to get a little comfortable with your level 4 character, you come upon a small square room completely covered with blood. Maybe you remember the warning, maybe you didn’t, but in either case, it’s your first time playing and you want to know what’s in there, so you open the door. And you get Butchered.
This experience is hard to convey in text to people who’ve never played Diablo. Ask anyone who has if they remember their first time being killed by him. It’s sudden, surprising, and scary. It’s probably your first character death. He does a huge amount of damage, stuns you, and holds you in melee range. He has a loud yell the moment you open the door, an elaborate bloody apron, and a ridiculously-sized cleaver. You’re mostly likely dead before you take in everything that’s happening. And for some reason, it’s the one moment that makes everyone’s eyes briefly glass over in nostalgia.
Having played the original Diablo, I had the same experience of being mercilessly slaughtered by The Butcher. The essay goes on from this point to talk about Hogger, trying to tie both the experiences together while lamenting that Cataclysm and WoW in general has lost this dangerous feeling. The ironic part of these examples is that each were precisely designed to not be difficult. The Butcher was not supposed to be a difficult encounter, it was supposed to kill you. As the author(s) note, you probably had not died yet at this point in Diablo, so it behooves the game designers to set up unwinnable scenario to demonstrate what will happen when you overextend in the game proper. Same exact deal with Hogger: his purpose was demonstrate the difference between non-elite and Elite mobs. You were supposed to die. Neither were difficult in any meaningful sense of the term, and both simply encouraged you to grind mobs until you outleveled them as content.
Even Nils has recently demonstrated that the early game is designed to still kill you, Hogger or no Hogger. What gets confused by these challenge-seekers is that leveling was never designed to be challenging. The “kill you” moments or outdoor Elites that could be defeated through skillful actions were not designed to challenge your skill, they were to organically demonstrate how death and resurrection worked without resorting to instant-kill mechanics. And yet people lament the removal of the outdoor Elites near dungeons as if they were designed to spice up gameplay instead of marking territory out-of-bounds for solo players.
It is fine to desire content tailored to your skill level, as those authors so obviously want. But it always strikes me as bizarrely pompous to place said desire on a pedestal as if gamers becoming better at games is some kind of righteous calling, a form of high art compared to the Jersey Shore-ness of current WoW leveling. First, they were wrong about the purpose of early difficulty. But secondly, and more importantly, a high-difficulty paradigm actively destroys the social aspect of MMOs. If I want to experience hard raiding content but the friends that I made leveling up do not, I must abandon them. Read the comments from that article. For every “exclusive content through difficulty” proponent, there are at least two more people grateful that they can finally raid with their friends (until Firelands anyway).
In any event, the other half of the article talks about loot structures in MMOs, which is another post entirely. Suffice it to say, I disagree with them on that point as well.