The Lameness of World of Warcraft

And what to do about it.

A screenshot from World of Warcraft

Online swords ‘n’ sorcery games like Ultima Online and EverQuest once settled for cult followings. But World of Warcraft —the half-game/half-community in which thousands of players cooperate and compete in the same virtual world—turned the genre on its head by luring a massive audience. The game has attracted more than 7.5 million users worldwide—most of whom pay $15 a month to play—and its success has devastated the competition. The New York Times covers Warcraft, and South Park lampooned it. It’s a shame, then, that the first massive online game to break into the mainstream is so horribly flawed.

Technically, Warcraft is fantastic. It sports some of the most polished, attractive graphics of any game on the market. You can also play for days and still come across new sights, like a vast coral reef or a gigantic stone bridge crumbling over a chasm. And the game constantly feeds you achievements and rewards, minimizing frustration by neatly color-coding every monster and mission.

Warcraft’s constant cycle of rewards helps explain the game’s extreme addictiveness. The color-coding also illustrates the game’s defining ethos: the lowest common denominator. To reach everyone from casual players to obsessives, Warcraftstrips its controls down to a handful of choices and tactics. Winning a fight turns into a basic numbers game. If you’re bigger, you’ll win. If you’re smaller—well, you should start running. As a consequence of Warcraft’s simplemindedness, you end up doing the same thing the same way hundreds of times. Somebody asks you to go to some field, find some monsters, and kill them. After you’re done, you walk back and pick up your reward—only to hear that even bigger monsters wait around the corner. You’re a rat, and the game keeps sending you to look for bigger pellets.

You could argue that the gameplay is supposed to be repetitive and simple. The real point of Warcraft is to interact with the other players—to socialize in the chat channels, team up for quests, and run each other down on the battlefields. Teamwork and competition do make the game much more fun, but everybody’s stuck in the same grind. With little at stake, your quests feel less like Frodo and Sam’s trip to Mordor than a night shift at Hardee’s. Every new level brings more of the same, and fatigue sets in the 10th time you’ve run through the same high-level dungeon, or when you’re trying to crack level 38 but can’t bring yourself to kill another goddamn swamp jaguar. In other words, you start to feel what designer and critic Mike Sellers dubbed “WoW-nnui.”

WoW-nnui is a problem for Blizzard (the company behind Warcraft), but it’s a bigger problem for the fans. Warcraftis such a towering success that other game makers, challenged with sinking millions into the field with a minimum of risk, are now compelled to copy it. Sure, a few companies have taken chances with nuclear wastelands and comic book superheroes, but skim the list of games slated for next year and you’ll find a whole bunch of cranky dwarves and chain-mail bikinis. If Warcraft doesn’t get any better, online games will be nothing but a kill-this, collect-that experience.

Luckily for Blizzard, there’s a simple way to make its cash cow a better product. Warcraft took off by popularizing the role-playing games that preceded it. Now it needs to adapt more of the ideas that made those games great. 

The most obvious thing to add is customization. The MySpace generation expects a personalized experience, yet Warcraft’s avatars come in only a few stock models. The men are brawny, the women are lithe. Although you can choose the details, you can never change your look once you’ve made your initial decision—you can’t even get a new haircut. You can’t post a profile or write a bio and, unlike in online worlds like Second Life, you can’t own land or even rent your own space. Adding personalization would reinforce the game’s raison d’être: addictiveness. Plus, giving players an ownership stake and a unique-looking character would keep them coming back for more.

Warcraft also limits your choices when it comes to gameplay. The citizens of Warcraft are like migrant workers—they get their marching orders, and they follow them to the letter. Players never face moral quandaries and never get to choose between an upstanding act and an evil one. Instead of just barging through every problem with a sword and a club, Warcraft should let players negotiate their way through conflicts. If someone pays you to run an errand, do you follow through honestly or steal their money? Should you betray one faction to win favor with another—and what happens if you pick the wrong side? Other commercial role-playing games, like the best-selling Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, are full of these types of decisions.It’s time Warcraft gets with the program.

The most glaring problem with World of Warcraft, though, is the larger storyline. Lots of video game developers are wrestling with how to shape players’ choices without penning them in. Warcraft’s developersdon’t care about that. They don’t tell a story so much as lead you through a theme park. Key figures from the Warcraftmythology mill around like Mickey Mouse at Disney World, waving to visitors. The giant war that’s supposedly raging across the world seems to be stuck in a stalemate—neither side gains an inch of territory, and the generals stand around looking bored. Compare that to a game like The Matrix Online, where major characters hand out new challenges and even die to move the story ahead.

Blizzard has written new storylines before. Last winter, it challenged players to team up and fuel a worldwide war effort. As a payoff, it unlocked new territory. This was a good example of letting the users drive a story, but Warcraftneeds more of them. New wars should break out, cities should rise and fall, and all hell should break loose at least once a month—and the players should be the ones to make it happen. After all, in a world that never changes, you can never make your mark.