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Shiny Syndrome: the Push to 80

  • Culture

I’ve recently witnessed quite a shocking but fascinating conflict between an emergent cultural practice and those of a world’s designers. I speak of Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft and not Linden Lab’s mis-handled “come to Second Life, but please don’t lead a second life” discussion (and I offer no apologies for slipping that in on a tangent – it’s been a hard rant to tame).

I observed the following between three players: two level 50-60 characters, clearly alts. (sadly named in a typical ‘noobish’ style with words like “pwn”) and an apparently new user in Orgrimmar. It’s edited for grammar’s sake:

“Ah, noobs these days. You don’t need items, you just need to get to level 80 A.S.A.P. Then you get items.”
“I haven’t bought anything almost this whole time. Just grab stuff from dungeon drops and push to 80. Save as much gold as you can.”

By coincidence I was logged in as my blood elf priest at the time who, if you can forgive my brief distraction to background context, hovers around the level 70 mark so that my guild-mates and I can enjoy The Burning Crusade‘s dungeons. Thanks to the persuasive suggestion and outright pressure from our peers to reach level 80, I’d managed to skip large swathes of World of Warcraft‘s first expansion pack in a rush to reach the so-called ‘endgame’ in Wrath of the Lich King, despite having paid around £20 for the privilege. That struck me as a little insane, so my priest is kept there to heal a party whose very purpose is to explore what the pre-level 70 world of Outland has to offer. I do have some bias towards this practice as a result.

This aspect of the player culture seems to ride pretty hard against Blizzard’s designs. There’s a global delusion that says all the game’s most fulfilling content has been built into a chunk at level 80, despite the fact Blizzard have pushed this game past two other ‘endgames’ already – at level 60 in Azeroth, and 70 in Outland. A lot of the lore has been designed so that stories seeded while growing up will come to fruition in that game’s harder dungeons, and this is expressed in some hard-to-reach quest chains spanning tens of levels.

Most of what actually keeps players amused at the endgame are the challenge of heroic dungeons, a more active player versus player (PvP) scene an the tiered gear rewards which come from high-level raids. The sad fact is that unless a player retraces his or her steps and commits themselves to quests which offer relatively little monetary reward and inferior gear rewards, the story and player interaction is actually fairly sparse here. There’s also a bitterness against which I’ve done my fair share of ranting; push a character straight to 80 and it’s very likely you’ll be denied access to the heroic raiding parties you were hoping for precisely because you’re entirely devoid of play experience.

Gear is the only material reason for players skipping content. It’s a well-known fact that at level 69 (once only a level away from the endgame), a player can expect to find gear of a superior quality in Wrath of the Lich King‘s quest rewards than they will from persisting in Outland. Professions like jewelcrafting suffer most, going so far as to offer low-level recipes to Wrath of the Lich King arrivals which exceed even the hard-to-reach ‘epic’ gem cuts offered in the Burning Crusade expansion.

The problem is that both expansion packs have had to cater for a split audience. Those who bought Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King on launch are likely to have spent a lot of time in the game already. Those were the players who had met the previous game’s challenges, sought out the best gear available and now expect to meet similar challenges in the new world. It’s unlikely that they will even use the gear offered for the new expansion’s opening quests.

Gear Shift

Fast forward six months or more, and we have players whose characters have only just reached levels 58-60 or 68-70. Though they may still tackle the older game’s dungeons out of curiosity, it’s unlikely that they will work on the daily quests, faction rewards and dungeon farming that their predecessors did to get at their gear sets. It seems likely, then, that they will move on to the new content and find themselves battling enemies of a significantly tougher nature in relatively common gear – after all, such enemies have had to put a decent fight up against veterans, too. The solution to that is simple – freely offer gear only a few steps below the old game’s optimum in order to up the players’ survival rate.

All of which has somehow been lost upon the majority. Without wishing to sound too cynical, it is an affliction of the shiny. There are questions asked at 58 and 68 as to where a player’s character should spend their time:

“Do I plug away at these Plaguelands quests, tackle Stratholme and Scholomance.. or instead do I hop through the Dark Portal and get fantastic gear for comparatively little effort?”

For participants in a leisure activity like gaming, this is not a hard decision to make.

Personally I’m stuck for any solution other than blocking the expansion content to player characters below levels 60 or 70. By allowing players to accept quests in each of the expansions’ new continents at 58 and 68, Blizzard have allowed for a compromise in which we can skip straight to the more polished content; quests and dungeons made after the lessons of the previous game were learned. They could leave it no lower, for even players starting at 59 may struggle to overcome the new world’s obstacles. Leave it higher, however, and the older content need not have been so ruthlessly abandoned. Nor indeed would the player skills be lost for what are often the level 80 ‘noobs’.