By Tom Chatfield
A wave hundreds of feet high is breaking, poised to sweep away the statue whose open arms greet visiting ships. "Booty Bay is going down," I whisper to my wife. "I'm not sure I'm going to like this," she replies.
They're not calling the forthcoming World of Warcraft expansion "Cataclysm" for nothing. My wife and I have been playing the game ever since beta: that is, for over six years. This October, Cataclysm's full cinematic intro finally went up online ahead of its launch on 7th December, and we sat together in my study watching it. To a booming orchestral score, the earth opened, and a beast not seen since 1995's Warcraft II crawled out to rain down apocalypse.
The two of us are long-term but fairly casual World of Warcraft players. We raid occasionally. We don't tend to get sucked into the story, or spend much time reading lore. Still, watching an enraged dragon–Deathwing the Destroyer; Neltharion to his friends–levelling swathes of this virtual world in a frenzy of fire was a surprisingly emotive experience. It also helped confirm at least two expansion purchases plus continued subscriptions, bolstering the more than one billion dollars the game's parent company Blizzard Activision receives in income each year from over twelve million subscribers. Why do we care so much? And what does it mean that we do?
The significance of Warcraft has little to do with the traditional reasons that make a fictional narrative, characters or place involving. We care because Warcraft's world–the land of Azeroth–is a place we have spent a serious amount of time visiting and experiencing, via a lovingly-crafted handful of avatars. We have met people there, built friendships, had a lot of fun, worked hard and explored. We've gone away and come back countless times. On our main characters alone, we've spent almost four months of real time there. This is a geography we know more intimately than almost any part of the real world outside of greater London. We don't have kids yet, but when we do, we may well end up playing this game with them.
I've just turned thirty. I was ten years old when the very first website was created, by one Tim Berners-Lee on a system he'd recently devised called the "world wide web." I've got used to the fact that there's no such thing as a website older than me. Now, though, I'm contemplating the fact that I own, or at least hire, virtual beings that may themselves be ten years old by the time I get around to creating any real progeny. And this increasingly strikes me as strange; or, at least, as something new.
Persistent virtual worlds have been with us for a long time, in digital terms. The first shared graphical worlds date back to the 1980s. Ultima Online, the first true Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, launched in 1997 and is still being played today, with spruced-up graphics and some hefty nostalgia appeal on its side. What's got Warcraft where it is, though–controlling almost two-thirds of the paid-subscriptions MMO market–is a combination of skill and luck that has effectively reformulated on the fly a host of conventions about what such game-worlds can and should be for.
This struck me with particular force when I downloaded and began playing the game's major pre-Cataclysm update, Patch 4.0.1. Even players who don't shell out for the new Cataclysm content get what's in this: major revisions to the way the game's mechanics work, and to your characters' abilities. The patch impressed and excited me in a way I hadn't felt for a long time in Warcraft. For it seemed to mark the culmination of a sometimes hesitant process of refinement which–via 21 major patches, to date–has since the game launched seen it gradually homing in on a particularly potent notion of fun and player involvement.
This shift has meant a move away from wasteful complexity, and towards creating as many decisions as possible that players find meaningful. In blunter terms, it's about pulling psychological levers more effectively–and pulling these for more different types of people. To take a simple example of the latest developments, in one stroke patch 4 has eliminated a whole region of incidental "grinding," by removing the notion that characters need gradually to build up their skill with every different class of weapon. In the old days, every time your character went up a level a certain amount of time had to be poured into raising your skill with everything from daggers to staves to swords. It was a time sink, typical of the RPG genre. Blizzard's decision to dispense with it is just part of a continuing re-weighting of the game towards action and exploration, and away from time poured into bringing a character's stats up to scratch. They also, finally, got rid of ammunition for projectile weapons: an intense relief after six long years of running out of things to shoot at invariably inconvenient moments.
These relatively minor shifts have been combined in patch 4 with a major reduction in the amount players are required to do to keep their characters' abilities up-to-date. Rather than training an improved version of each spell or attack every few levels, things are now learned just once, then scale up automatically. There are fewer choices, too, when it comes to spending "talent points" on special abilities; while the choices here are more meaningfully differentiated. Rather than spending a total of 71 points on a mix of different abilities during the course of the game, you now have just 41–and can pick only one out of three specialised talent trees in which to invest all but 10 of these. Throughout the game, more is explained, and more is automated: the designers' own thinking is more clearly visible. A virtual world that six years ago felt esoteric, obtuse or just bloody-minded in places (running ten minutes in the form of a ghost in order to locate your corpse comes to mind) has become almost cosy. It no longer wants you walking for miles to locate a tiny object that can't be seen on a map, or slaying a hundred spiders to get one drop of poison. It wants you progressing, interacting, questing: knowing where the next objectives lie, and the ones after that.
What all this marks is an evolution towards something designed for painless replay, exploration and social interaction, rather than something throwing time-sucking obstacles in the way of players griding their way towards the top. It's a profound shift for Massively Multiplayer Online games, psychologically as much as anything else. And one sign that Blizzard have got it right is the whining of old-school hardcore players. Through most of their history, MMOs remained very much in touch with their role-playing roots: games whose fundamental purpose was to offer tens or even hundreds of hours of progression for a character, allowing gamers of a certain mentality to grind their increasingly masochistic way towards a final state of game-beating power. If they were true masochists, they'd do it all over again; but the style was aimed firmly at a certain kind of geek for whom few things were more fun than near-endless skill-learning, re-learning, statistical analysis and stat re-balancing.
Paring away this process has been a long journey, and it's gone hand-in-hand with the realisation that having a permanent player community of over ten million players simply cannot revolve around eternal linear progressions. It has to mean doing interesting, sociable, varied things with a spectrum of characters. Above all, this means making somewhere that's fun simply to be, and that increasingly thinks of itself as an online destination as much as a game, complete with its own social structures, calendar of seasonal events, delightful incidentals and inexhaustible stock of repeatable daily tasks. What people themselves can do, should they wish, is extremely complex. But the tools at their disposal for doing things with: they keep on getting simpler.
All successful MMOS–from Ultima to EVE via Everquest–have achieved something of this, of course. But World of Warcraft is, today, looking at once more accessible and more radically willing to keep remaking itself than any other game out there. In deciding not to generate another brand new piece of land for the Cataclysm expansion, moreover, but instead to integrate its changes into a landscape with which most players have a long emotional relationship, the game's creators have cannily embraced the fact that the game's environment itself–and what it means to people–is perhaps their greatest asset (just as, I'd argue, their decision to set previous expansions within new continents sealed off from the old world was both disappointing and damaging to the experience of playing the game).
Cataclysm also makes me think that pretty much everyone else creating similar games to World of Warcraft ought to be terrified. Because if it's possible to keep on reinventing a game this well, how can anybody else hope to tempt you away from a place so layered with experiences and memories, and so relentless in re-calibrating itself on the basis of its users' behaviour?
There's a larger lesson here about what the increasing maturity of digital culture itself signifies. For the idea that everything inexorably gets outdated within a few years–a given of not only the video games industry throughout more-or-less its entire existence, but many major online players too–no longer holds. Increasingly, the future is being shaped by existing products, not new ones: by hugely successful franchises–but also by companies who, having won vast communities of users, are devoting their increasingly expert energies to holding on to them.
Take the announcement two years ago that PopCap's hit casual game Bejewelled would be made available to World of Warcraft players via a downloadable add-on, allowing them to use the game within Warcraft itself rather than switching between two windows. Why compete with other kinds of game for attention, or attempt to out-design them, when you can simply collaborate? This ability to change, learn and absorb is characteristic of many of the most dominant digital companies of the moment, and it marks a determination to be superseded not from outside, but only by newer versions of themselves. Among other things, Cataclysm will boast a homage to PopCap's most famous recent hit, Plants vs. Zombies. World of Warcraft doesn't want you never to play anything else. It just wants you to know that, whatever you like and whatever you are like, there'll always be something in it for you.
This is what you can do with a persistent world, if you put your mind to it. For "persistent" really does mean what it says. You never really stop playing–just as you never really own the game or even your own characters in the first place. Stop your payments and your subscription will lapse. But your avatars will remain, neither aging nor decaying, waiting for you to reactivate them whenever you decide you're ready. As, no doubt, many thousands of people will be deciding to do at this very moment, as the urge to revisit a transformed version of the place they spent so many hours exploring all those years ago kicks in.
Nostalgia and novelty have long been the two most significant forces driving interactive entertainment–and they have always tended to pull us in two different directions. Today, though, within places like World of Warcraft, they are increasingly powerfully aligned. And this inherently conservative force is already having major consequences for just for the games industry, but for digital culture at large. We play games because their miniature worlds are places where everything makes sense: where effort brings rewards, where neither we nor the place ever grows old. The little Eden of Azeroth may be about to be transformed, but in an important sense it will always also remain the same. We should be both grateful for this, and–if we believe that change and innovation are the lifeblood of the web–a little afraid as well.
Tom Chatfield is an author, essayist, and arts and books editor at Prospect magazine. His book about the culture of video games, "Fun Inc.," is out now in the UK (Virgin), and is published in America on 15th November by Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter at @TomChatfield