Taking something apart always reveals its flaws, always shows it wanting. Yet it is also important for figuring out exactly what we want, why, and what should be done about it. So WoW will be examined, and the whole of the MMORPG genre will be examined with it. Because when we examine MMOs, we must examine World of Warcraft, or we are skipping a vital step, ignoring the largest sample.
For this two parts will be required. First this post will examine World of Warcraft in particular, in its first few levels and its structure. Then this will be reflected onto all MMOs, since WoW is just the poster-child, not a single child.
The other day I started my game as an Orc rogue. This choice was partly my own feelings toward the best race, and partly going for a standard experience. Orcs are the central race for their side, the center of 'the horde'. Yet rogues are not the standardized MMO experience, that would be Mage or Warrior.
I'll start by saying that the character creator in this game is ancient. Sure WoW came out in 2004, but that is no excuse for having a character creator that is simply a choice between 5 hairstyles, 5 faces, and 4 skin shades. I didn't even need to see another player, and I already felt like I looked exactly like everyone else. This feeling of being 'just one of many' continued as I picked up the same items as my other leather wearing allies, and did the same quest which the dialogue made seem was special for me.
Now what some may not know is that WoW has had some changes because of the upcoming release of their new expansion, Cataclysm. The content from level 1-60 has been modified, down to how you gain points as you level up. So imagine my surprise when the big change in my starting area was, as I heard another player say, the boars I had to kill constantly were in a pen instead of roaming. This was the same beginning as many other fantasy MMO, killing animals and other pest that every NPC around you should be capable of killing. The game tries to make you sound like the chosen one in dialogue, yet any NPC you see at work is obviously better at their task than you are. Your character has no place in the natural order, which goes directly against the idea of being an RPG. This is likely my number one complaint about WoW, and many MMOs. The only thing about the game that has me 'Role-playing' is that I fill a very specific role in a combat group, either healer, tank, or DPS.
But I will spend more time on that later. The trial of World of Warcraft is in particular, offensive. The game's system because a wasteland, your character a phantom in the middle of real people. This is not a trial, this is a single player game plugged into the middle of a multiplayer game. You cannot talk except in tells to certain people, you cannot trade around gold (this one I understand because of mules), and worst of all you cannot invite people to groups. For a game, a genre, built upon social interaction this trial is built to stop it at every turn.
Which is okay, since these levels are all about being an errand boy of the NPCs around you. From collecting cactus apples to killing scorpions, only half the quest I did ever felt like something important. I dealt with the burning blade, and the Northwatch patrols, but they somehow made these things that should have been profound, feel like dummies assisting in a practice exercise. It doesn't help that your kills are far from permanent, with enemies spawning around you within a minute of you slaughtering them.
Then an aesthetic complaint, mounts and cities. The wandering hordes of level 80 players should be something awe-inspiring in a game. These people have worked hard, and their characters are the true champions, people doing the most dangerous things for their faction. So it saddened me to see them look like goofballs, riding go-karts and motorcycles while wearing costumes to look like pirates and goblins (note goblins were not playable as of this posting). This makes going through large towns, like Ogrimmar, a bother. Every time I went into town, I was pulled out of the already lofty setting. Not that WoW didn't try hard to pull me out by itself, with a world of blades and spells being back to back with stealth camo generators and rockets to the moon. Blizzard makes it very clear they don't want you to take their setting seriously.
There was a lot of good in here too though. I managed to get a group by playing with a friend with an actual account, so there were times I could actually group up. It was fun filling my role, to manipulate stealth and try to only fight one or two characters at a time. Thorn hill, and other razormane related locations out in the barrens, turned out to be the most enjoyable. There were plenty of enemies to kill, and because of the sparse population, it felt like there was a reason I was out there doing the dirty work, which all related to killing specific targets. There was also a subplot of the survival of the Razormane, as a people, which was of course largely ignored. There was also good fun in Azshara, but that fun was stifled by the fact that none of it felt like it fit in the setting. When I'm walking a mech around to fight people, and then doing quest for hyper-intelligent raptors, I have no idea where I am anymore, or what to expect.
All MMOs tend to have similar problems to this, missions not seeming important, and really slow starts. Yet I would expect better from the big daddy of MMOs, especially with how often it has been changed. In Warhammer online, most races start off fighting legit threats, fighting off a siege or pulling raids against the enemies of your race. City of Heroes starts off being about crime fighting, so its version of fighting boars is fighting basic street criminals who can't do much but try to punch you.
The biggest problem here is the lack of role-playing, something that plagues just about every MMO except maybe Eve Online. By role-playing I do not mean pretending you are the little girl, I mean having a full investment in your character, and having control over their fate and story. In an MMO, often the quest will dictate to you a story that you may not want to take part in, which is okay if there are multiple paths, or your character has multiple ways to apply him to the problem. If someone tells me to take care of a target, and I can kill or persuade them, stab them to death or blow them up, I have options. In World of Warcraft, as in Warhammer Online and City of Heroes, there are a select few paths of where my character will go. My rogue will be of one of three specializations, and his gear will be to exemplify that, and my quest will all lead to the end game content. In Eve, at a point, the quest don't matter anymore. I can become a miner, I can be a CEO of a business, run special ops, or drive a giant ship into battle. The quest, at least early on, do not try to lead you anywhere. You are simply one of many, and the game knows this. You are not unique, you are not a butterfly, if you don't do this quest then someone else will.
These observations and complaints are all for a specific group of players though. For many, MMOs are about the group combat and challenges. I understand this as a person who played a game built around that from top to bottom, Guild Wars. Yet when I play a game that attempts to have a story, I hope to find enough in there to satiate me, and push me forward. World of Warcraft has failed in that respect, so far.