World of Warcraft turns ten next November. It sort of feels like that game has been around for much longer, when it fact it started right as I built my P4 machine. Little did I know that machine would be sucked into that world for the better part of two and a half years or so.

I often consider WoW a sort of cornerstone to my modern PC gaming. Before WoW, I played mostly console games, JRPGs, platformers, or handheld titles. My PC gaming was very light, mostly older FPS titles and emulated games from the past. I hadn’t adopted the Steam platform when it first game out ten years ago last month, but the popular opinion at the time was Steam was a very weak distribution system for mostly Valve games at the time. I wasn’t a veteran of the genre WoW attracted players from either, titles like Ultima Online and Everquest.

So how did Blizzard wrangle someone like me into its world? There are a few layers to this. You might want to get a snack.

Always Behind the Times
Blizzard was not a new name in 2005. It was a household name among gamers for titles like Starcraft, Warcraft, and Diablo. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a household name for me. While people were fighting the Zerg, Horde, and Diablo in the late nineties and early zeroes, I was still fixated on Duke Nukem, Quake, Final Fantasy, other popular titles on the PSX and PS2. It ended up being my ex-girlfriend that introduced me to Starcraft while we were dating in 2003 that put Blizzard and its creations on the map, but we then followed some others into Ragnarok Online, the popular Korean-based MMO of the time. I never went back and played the original Warcraft or Diablo titles, albeit only briefly years later.

I’m not someone who leans on the current trends in gaming. I don’t have the time for it anymore, but even back then when I did, there was always so much coming down the pipe that you had to hyper-focus on what you cared about and ignore the rest and come back to it at some point. There was also cost. Since hardware turned over with the Pentium 4 processor and associated hardware, games were evolving past my Pentium III system that had been my workhorse for almost six years prior to 2004. I finally built a new machine in 2004, but lacking the funds to build a super-powerful machine, I built a mid-tier box that could handle the new stuff for now with a little room to spare for the future.

Real Life Explains It All
When WoW launched November 23rd, 2004, I was still living in my mother’s house going to community college. Without going into incredible detail, it was not the best of arrangements, and even though I worked a full-time job and went to school, I wasn’t gaming as much as I used to years earlier in high school. My ex lived in California at the time, and she had come in for a week to spend with me where we went to New York City to see my cousin perform at Carnegie Hall and tour around the city a little. Azmaria, my P4 machine, was built and completed a month later.

Fast-forward through the end of 2004, all of 2005, and the first-half of 2006, and all sorts of shit went down. I got an apartment with my ex and some friends. It turned out to be the worst decision of my life. My ex and I then moved into another place for just us. She broke up with me and immediately started dating someone else. Trapped in a one-year lease, I moved myself out into one-half of the large front room and slept on an air mattress, and got a friend to move in to the other half of the room to help pay rent and make it less awkward for me to cope with my ex fucking some other dude. Not the best situation, I know. I tried to be friends with her, and it was failing quickly. Analyze my fucking mind some other time. I was working a stressful and physically demanding job at Red Robin at the time, so I came home smelling like grease and sadness. My only companion was a Siamese cat named “Ninja” I adopted from my Great-Aunt who passed away that year, along with two other relatives and my family’s dog.

Yeah, 2006 can fuck right off.

Journey into the Void
Records indicate I started playing WoW June 5th, 2006, several days after meeting a friend in New York City for something and dinner. This was about seven months before the launch of Burning Crusade. By then, “Vanilla” WoW was reaching out among my friends and people I conversed with online, especially on IRC. Having the hardware to play it, I decided to bite into it starting with a Night Elf Rogue on Greymane. I chose Greymane because my ex and some others also started there, and it was useful to have a couple people to play with. I recall having debates online back then about what faction, race, and class to choose, as they each had their pros and cons. I chose a Night Elf to start because it visually appealed to me, and lord I didn’t hear the end of that one for quite some time. I did create many other characters over my time spent in WoW, including an Undead Rogue on a different server to play with some Horde friends, which didn’t really materialize.

I even had a pet Siamese in the game. TopLEL.
I even had a pet Siamese in the game. TopLEL.

Despite criticism, I enjoyed playing Ciele as I climbed the first-half of the sixty levels of vanilla WoW. It was an expansive world with so much to do and see, sometimes I wouldn’t even bother doing anything other than just sitting around a city watching people run by. Other times I went around killing everything I could for a little bit of XP towards that next level. But as I continued to distance myself from my ex and company, I quickly found myself playing alone every night. I worked afternoon-to-late evening at Red Robin, and I would play from then until early morning, sleep, and wake up at ten or eleven and play until I had to go to work. It was not the most elegant of living situations, and I was twenty-three at the time.

The Burning Crusade
When Burning Crusade released in 2007, I actually stood in line at a midnight release for it at a local Gamestop, the only time I have ever done such a thing. I was text-messaging one of the new hostesses at Red Robin I had started talking to and hung out with a few times about how cold it was. I brought the game home, installed it, and rolled a Blood Elf Rogue named Tiralynn, which was partially randomly-generated, but I added the extra letters to mimic her name. I did a few of the opening quests and put a few levels on her before going to bed. I officially joined the Horde.

This happened a lot.
This happened a lot.

I had about four months left on my apartment lease from hell, but they were made significantly easier by starting to date said aformentioned hostess, despite calling me an asshole at first. When I wasn’t playing my rogue trying to level her to the newly-raised cap of seventy, I was spending nights in her apartment south of where I lived. So while I was still heavily invested in the game, I tried to balance it out for real life. I partied a lot with a friend and his friends or guildmates for much of the 10-50 content when they themselves were not raiding on their primary seventies. Gaining levels went from being fairly easy to much harder later on, but not as hard as it once was during vanilla days.

With the lease finally up, my friend and I moved to a new apartment, and my girlfriend moved in with us. For the first few months, I was still playing until the early hours of the night and working all day, despite her living with me. I hadn’t made that transition yet from being a single guy to a guy in a relationship, much less one living with him. She was not visibly happy with me playing into the night, especially since my computer was in the bedroom as she was trying to sleep.

I was forced to quit Red Robin in August of that year after a manager threw me under the bus for something I didn’t do. Unemployed, I sank deeper into WoW as a means of passing my time when I wasn’t job searching. With my rogue nearing the top, I was clawing ever-so-desperately for seventy with gusto, trying to gain at least a level every two-to-three days. Fortunately for me, my next-door neighbor was a manager at a Gamestop several towns away, and got me a job working the holiday. I also got another job working at Panera Bread. I managed to hit the coveted level seventy in November of that year before having to devout most of my time to two jobs.

Patches, Raiding, and Durotan
When you reach the apex of a game, you usually win the game. Reaching level seventy in World of Warcraft just means the game has begun. Raiding was the logical progression for top-level players, it offered the greatest challenges for the greatest rewards. As a rogue, everyone sought the Warglaives of Azzinoth, but I couldn’t just walk into the final boss of BC and down him. I needed to get gear from a bunch of instances, in order to get gear from a bunch more instances, in order to get gear from a bunch of raids, and then fight the final boss. Tall order.

Back then, PUGs were limited to mostly small instances. LFG was still done mostly the hard way, though I recall the initial framework going in for the auto-LFG that allowed you to do other things while waiting for a PUG to form for an instance you want. There was no Looking for Raid (LFR) or anything of that sort, to raid, you had to be part of a guild, or be brought along by a guild. Not many pick-up raids happened, especially on Durotan, the server I was on, which was mostly Alliance and few Horde. All of the top guilds on our server had extensive criteria for becoming a part of them, so much that they pretty much rejected everyone who wasn’t playing fewer than 40 hours a week, effectively a full-time job. I was working close to 50 between my two jobs, I did not have the time for that, nor did I want to have the time for that.

I had started to try to do some of the instances required for the first set of gear I needed just to be considered for a guild. I don’t remember the set, but it involved doing all of the five-man BC instances I believe, over and over until the required pieces dropped. I might have only gotten one. I had a full PvP set from one of the older PvP seasons that were being sold for tokens from playing BG instances, which I did a bunch of when I wasn’t trying to do instances. It got trite and boring, especially since it was mostly me. I was in a casual guild at the time, but no one else was near my level to run with. I was effectively just a freelancing seventy trying to find people in other guilds to play with, or who might help me get what I need. I didn’t suck at playing my class either. I might’ve not been the highest-DPS rogue on the server, but I played fairly well, listened to directions, and even led a few smaller instances for folks in my guild.

Many people I talked to back then told me I chose the wrong class. Tanks and healers were always in high demand, and could often be played without too much knowledge of tactics in most fights. As a rogue, I have to compete with other DPS classes, and if my mustard doesn’t cut it, I’d be out. I hated that kind of competition, I hated the idea of being confined to a group that is so hyper-focused on progression or their own gear that they aren’t willing to help anyone else stand at their level, especially if they have something to give. The whole ecosystem of late-game raiding in WoW disturbed me.

The Collapse and Retries
Between the disillusion of late-game events and real life, I eventually ended World of Warcraft sometimes in early 2008. I believe I tried to make a couple minor comebacks, but it pretty much was playing alts and getting bored with the early-game level crunch. I had finally adopted Steam that year as the service expanded and included many more titles to play, as well as Portal. The main reason for quitting though was the strain the past year of heavy playing had put on my new relationship. Even though she played the game with me, she did not share my same level of “obsession” with needing to achieve the next level, or obtain an item. It quickly became a “It or Me” scenario, and I picked her.

I made a few attempts to “come back” after the release of Lich King, but I didn’t buy the expansion to do so. I reactivated my account for about a month or two in late 2009 to try to play a little, but having been gone so long and forgetting most of the motions, I tried to play some alts, and got bored quickly. My account has been frozen since January of 2010, which I imagine is where the paid time ended. I have not been back since. That was almost four years ago.

The Taunts of Four Years
What has kept me away from WoW in that time frame since I stopped and today has been pretty much a large expansion in Steam gaming, and console gaming. The Wii, PSP, DS, and PS3 stole the scene for me quite a bit early on, but the Steam sales drove it home over the past year or so. Gearbox releasing Borderlands in 2009 and Borderlands 2 in 2012 have also sapped up considerable hours of my time, probably almost as many as WoW did back then. But the thing about pick-up-and-put-down gaming is I don’t find the need to keep playing into the late hours of the night. There is no drive for me to compete against anything, myself or others, to need to obtain that next level or item. Plenty of companies try to be Blizzard and dangle those carrots, but only Blizzard seemed to be able to do it effectively. Perhaps it was because I was paying for it every month that drove me to get my money’s worth from it. I’m never sure.

There have been many times I was tempted to play again. Either by expansions releasing, seeing articles about new content, watching people play. I love fantasy games, fantasy worlds, and the type of experience Blizzard builds into their games. There is a reason no one else can replicate their style one-hundred percent. But more importantly no one can replicate their community, even if most of that community are terrible human beings. I watched a friend play with his friends for Extra Life a couple nights ago, and missed being able to play games with other people at random times, for fun. Plenty of people tell me that playing WoW today is nothing like when I started seven years ago. Leveling is stupidly easy. Late-game guilds are a little easier to get into, many are casual and don’t demand the world from you. LFR simplifies joining a raid if you aren’t in a guild or just looking to run through some. I like to think most of these changes didn’t stem from a need to change them to attract more players, or water down the experience, but rather respond to the social change that has swirled around the game. There are many more people who play this game that have full-time jobs, families, and lives outside of the game. 90% of the content has existed for nine years now, there is no drive to be “the very best”. The global consensus among players is that it is no longer serious business.

More importantly, however, I believe I have changed as a person in seven years. When I started playing, I was single, living in a shitty almost-halfway-house sort of fashion, using video games as a crutch to slog through life instead of drugs or alcohol. I didn’t give myself any limits or stop myself from going too far. When I did, I aggressively told myself that I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t lose what I had gained, that the game was shitty. The ad hominem attacks I lobbed at the franchise would reflect more upon my unwillingness to believe that it wasn’t the game itself that had wronged me, it was myself to blame. I couldn’t control it, it controlled me.

I’ve still yet to decide to bite that bullet and come back to Azeroth and see what I have missed. I don’t believe I can treat it the same way as I once have, there is simply too much I have invested in the last four years, including marriage, to go back to how I once was. Rather, I feel that it can be treated like anything else I do currently. I still play games, still watch anime, still do all those things I’ve always done, I just have better self-control about it. I don’t even think it was ever an issue of self-control, I think it was just the environment back then versus now. I am not an underemployed, unmarried, unwashed heathen, I am a professional, married, occasionally-unwashed heathen. I still stay up late sometimes, but mainly on weekends when I don’t have to work and nothing is going on. Hell, I am pretty sure she would play with me again, I just have to promise to play with her and not run off on my own.

A lot of this is stupid-obvious to most of you. You probably wonder why it took me years, or until now, to realize this. This isn’t new. I’ve always been a hardcore gamer in the sense that I will play long and often as time permits when the game is fun. But I am called casual by hardcore gamers because I don’t devout my life to the craft. I shower, I eat, I go to parties, I go out with my wife. We’ll have children soon, no doubt. I will never stop playing games, even when I have kids, but I’ll learn to game when I can and not when I can’t. It’s not a new life lesson, it’s an old one that I didn’t follow seven years ago because I didn’t have to. Now I do.

I should probably try to finish some other games though first. I won’t, of course, but it feels better to say I might.


2 thoughts on “Why I Fear Returning to Azeroth: A World of Warcraft Story

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