There’s an old saying that we experience entertainment with all of our senses. We might watch in amazement at a breathtaking movie, or rock out with a CD from our favourite artists. We might enjoy the smell of a rich cup of coffee or a freshly baked loaf of bread, or savour the taste of a succulent steak or fine wine. The theory is that by tickling the senses, we generate an emotional response – we cheer at a movie, cherish the coffee. The question is, can the same be said of videogames? Moreso, can those feelings be rekindled time and again?
This shape of question was set as the BlogAzeroth shared topic this week, and it’s a tough one to tackle. This is partly because trying to recall the experiences I felt five years ago when the game launched is a struggle in itself. But also there’s the bigger question – does a game need to continually need to entertain us in order to survive? Or does it become like a soap opera – we log in, we see the same familiar names and faces and feel warmed by just by being part of something?
To tackle the first, I’ll go back to where my videogaming was at the end of 2004. I’d been cajoled into playing an MMO called Horizons (now Istaria) by my girlfriend. It was a clunky experience, but provided a contrast to my usual fare of first-person shooters. I’d been brought up on the rich visual fare of Quake (proper 3d!), Unreal (emerging from the crashsite-wow!) and so on.
In the lead up to the European launch of World of Warcraft, I’d been getting heavily into Half-Life 2. If you’ve played this game, you’ll know that it’s a visual feast. You’ll also know that it’s jammed full of loading screens – go down a pipe: loading screen, open a door: loading screen. Even so, you get the idea – I liked to go stomping around places while being hideously overpowered.
Once I’d got past the installation-patching-account creation-character selection malarkey, my patience was wearing pretty thin. I remember thinking that this game needed to impress me a ton if I was going to stick with it.
The strange thing was that I did. There were so many things that impressed me about the early days of the game – the flight from Thelsamar to Ironforge and back was spectacular, really showing off what the game was capable of. It didn’t bother me that the graphics weren’t up to my usual fare – the atmosphere and style had been loaded in by the bucketful.
I remember being taken on a journey by the guild I was with to the Shimmering flats, running through Dustwallow Marsh and the Thousand Needles just to make it to the raceway. I remember climbing the mountain in the Barrrens just to see the Shrine of the Fallen Warrior. The little touches, the way the world had been crafted, it constantly amazed me.
Of course, there comes a time where you’ve seen every location. You’ve seen the sun set over Freewind Post, or the hidden treasure of the Crystal Cave. The awe started to fade, the novelty to wear off. It was just at this point where my game changed.
My girlfriend told me that there was a raid forming to Molten Core, and that they were looking for mages in Ironforge. If I was quick, I might be able to get invited. I’d never raided before and was only dimly aware that it happened, but I was keen and adventurous (and importantly, attuned to the dungeon!) so I contacted the raidleader. I instantly got an invite and got told to head out there.
The next five hours were some of the most intense, chaotic and riotous that I’ve ever spent inside any game. It was also a ridiculous amount of fun and I’d definitely caught the bug. I’d walked away with the Arcanist Belt and was determined to collect the rest of the set. Two weeks later the girlfriend joined me on a raid and won the Core Forged Greaves. I phoned her afterwards and all she said for half an hour was “Shooooess!” For a self confessed pure roleplayer, she was thrilled to bits to have earned them.
I’ve seen this cycle repeated in the subsequent expansions. The initial discovery of new content will always be a visual feast, from the lush plains of Nagrand to the lore-rich steppes of Zul’Drak. The excitement of getting new spells is never something that will wear off, particularly when it’s things like Spellsteal, Invisibility and Mirror Image. But like anything, this awe fades over time, until the arcane becomes the mundane.
In between the content patches and expansions when there’s nothing new to explore or experience, it’s what’s created by the players that keeps a game fresh. People to team up with and raid with, friends to have a laugh and joke with. Podcasters that remind you why you’re playing the game, or bloggers that share their own tales. In the end, it’s all this that keeps filling me with awe and surprise long after the novelty fades.