This post has been brewing in the back of my mind for quite a while now.  I want to start by saying that World of Warcraft is not now, nor has it ever been a bad game.  In fact, it’s one of the best games ever made and it’s ongoing influence in the MMO space cannot be discounted.  The WoW-model of design for MMOs is still very much in effect today as it was when WoW was first launched.  However, I think that WoW as it is has been diminished from what it was.  The game is still epic, but it’s just not “as epic” as it was.

So let me start by talking about my history in the game.  I started to play World of Warcraft right before the launch of The Burning Crusade.  I played, stereotypically, a hunter–that I only got to level 20–keeping in mind that at that point, level 20 was a decent portion into the game.  When TBC came out, I rolled a Blood Elf Rogue, and that’s been my main ever since.  I loved the rogue class (coming from a Ranger in Neverwinter Nights), and I really enjoyed being a stabby character.  I feel in love with the lore of the Blood Elves, so much that I have the Blood Elf crest tattooed on my side (easily, the most painful place).

Even still, I played the game off and on for months.  I didn’t have a guild so playing the game was always a little bit … well, boring.  I did a few server transfers and landed on a server and found a guild towards the end of TBC that I stayed with all through Cataclysm.  For me, Wrath of the Lich King was my WoW hayday.  Not because of gameplay changes, but because of the guild that I played with was a ton of fun, we got along great.  We weren’t even close to the best guild in game, but we had fun and that was all that mattered.

Towards the end of Wrath, the guild exploded, splintering off in different directions.  I continued to play regularly again more of a “free agent” than an actual guild member, but without access to raids to get gear, I was repeatedly kicked from PUGs in the dungeon finder for not having enough DPS (even though I needed gear from the dungeon).  This wasn’t just a once or twice thing, but when I would try to play, in a run of 4-5 heroics, I would be kicked from 3-4 for being ungeared and they didn’t want to “carry” anyone.  Its not that I didn’t know how to play my class — I did.  I was always effective as a rogue.  Most of the time I was kicked based entirely on GearScore–nothing else.

Eventually, after meeting my partner and having a few WoW dates, we both eventually moved away from WoW and onto other games, but we keep active subscriptions, and keep coming back.  And finding it disappointing again, and moving on again.  This brings me to what I consider to be the diminishing of WoW: the inclusion of GearScore into the game proper, and allowing faction transfers.

I think that GearScore is likely the worst thing to happen to a game.  It attempts boil a player down to a discrete number, which when correlated to other numbers such as DPS, comes up with entirely new ways of discrimination. The actual skill of the player is irrelevant — the only thing that matters is your GearScore.  To a lesser degree, if your GearScore is appropriate but you aren’t hitting some arbitrary number that someone has decided you should be at in DPS, HPS, etc, you are judged by that too.

Now, if this were just the realm of the elite, it wouldn’t be a problem for me.  It should only apply to those who are trying to clear the highest, toughest tier of content, the min-maxers.  But it doesn’t.  Players in WoW apply this to every aspect of gameplay now.  Something as simple as running dungeons can now be denied to me if I don’t have what some consider to be appropriate gear.  Even if the gear I need to get better is in that dungeon.  Worse, Blizzard actually incorporated this singular number as their gating mechanism.  There’s something fundamentally wrong with making the summation of a player a single number, which intended or not determines whether someone can play the game.

The second is faction transfers.  The inspiration for this one came when I was recently at an amusement park and saw someone with a Horde tattoo.  I’m a stalwart Horde player (hence the belf tattoo).  So naturally I got excited and pointed it out to my partner who replied with, “Like that matters anymore … no one cares about Horde or Alliance anymore.”  Allowing faction transfers for existing characters I think undermined a fundamental core mechanic of the game, which has always been about the conflict between the Horde and the Alliance.  In the MMO space, it’s a fairly unique dynamic. When you think, there are still not many games that build this faction conflict into the story quite like WoW.

I was (and still am, even if it’s a meaningless distinction now) part of the Horde.  I was vested in the Horde and really enjoyed playing in it.  I had never rolled an alliance character above level 5.  I never wanted to play Alliance, I disliked Alliance.  But once faction change went live, and my guild imploded, I did what I thought I would never do — I faction changed to Alliance to play with other friends.  I learned my way around Stormwind.  I tried to play for a while, my Worgen Rogue scampering about.  But for me, it just wasn’t the same.  A few months later I transferred back to my blood elf rogue.

But I think the damage was already done.  My choice to choose Alliance or Horde was already meaningless.    By being able to move back and forth between factions with no repercussions at all (outside of my wallet…I don’t consider those “game” repercussions), I made my choice to pick a faction utterly void.  It didn’t matter anymore.  It still doesn’t matter.  Ultimately, I think that this is the greatest diminishing of WoW — the game has become one meaningless choice after another.  If I don’t like a choice, I pay money–things change.  My spec is meaningless now.  I lack any real choice in anything that matters — I have choices of utility left in the game, but even those are meaningless.  I have no consequences in game for re-speccing, faction changing–anything.  A choice without consequences is at it’s heart, not a choice.  A choice must have consequences or it’s utterly meaningless.

While this happens all the time in WoW, for me the faction change is the choice that diminished the game the most for me.  My choice to be Horde is meaningless because there are no repercussions to changing to Alliance.  I think in a larger sense, the lack of consequences for my choices is what has made WoW less than what it was.

Like I said, I don’t think WoW is a bad game, or that it’s dying.  I don’t think any of those things, but I do think it’s been diminished from what it was through the implementation and tacit acceptance of GearScore and the gradual removal of all consequences for any choice you make in the game.  Literally, nothing in the game at this point has any consequences anymore.  And a game without meaningful, consequential choices isn’t much of a game for me.