I remember the original Zul'Aman. The 10-player raid dungeon was added to World of Warcraft in The Burning Crusade expansion. While I had been playing WoW since beta, Burning Crusade was the first time I really committed to progression raiding. On my Blood Elf Protection Paladin, I took my shot at all the TBC raids, including Gruul's Lair, The Eye, and Black Temple. I was one of the many, 25 brave souls throwing themselves headlong into fights they only barely understood. There were no YouTube videos or Twitch streams, only hastily written and sometimes secretive guides written by top-tier guilds.
A few folks in my guild at the time decided to take a crack at Zul'Aman. We started in the early evening, around 8 p.m., fearless and full of hope. Friends in other guilds had offered up the details about the instances boss fights. We even thought we'd try to tackle the timed prisoner event! That hope was dashed against the rocks pretty early on, but we pressed on. We blew through the first two bosses, but stumbled on boss three. No problem though; we buckled down and got it done.
Then, the progress slowed to a crawl when we hit the final boss, Zul'jin. We threw ourselves against him, tried different tactics, and got him really close to down. The latter is what kept us slamming our heads against the fight. The feeling that if we just pushed a little more, it'd be done. It never happened.
I remember that night because 3 a.m. rolled around and the goddamn sun came over the horizon. We still hadn't cracked Zul'jin. The end was in sight, but so was my job. I had to go to work on no sleep.
I'm still friends with some in that group, the shared pain of struggling for so long and missing out bringing us together. I can bring up Zul'Aman to other long-time World of Warcraft players and there's an instant connection there. We all have our stories. And if it's not Zul'Aman, it's Onyxia's Lair, Upper Blackrock Spire, Karazhan, Icecrown Citadel, or any number of raids. I (fondly?) recall gathering 10 Hordies together and trying to sprint through the Alliance mulling about in the front entrance without dying. (Ah, PvP servers.) It was before my raiding days, but vanilla WoW players have told me stories of C'Thun. I faced the Lich King and Kael'thas, and can commiserate with folks who played in that era.
Nothing brings people together like hardship. While my colleagues here at USgamer are writing their own odes for Play Together Week, focused on how games bring us together, I'm the MMO guy. I still play World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy 14, and The Division 2 on a semi-regular basis. These are online, persistent worlds where everyone is just running around together all the time. It's like being thrown onto a sportsball field when you're a child and told to play cooperatively and competitively against others; the shared confusion and bewilderment is what creates bonds of friendship.
World of Warcraft used to force the kinship and camaraderie. If you wanted to run a five-man dungeon, it was a nightmare. First you had to yell in chat for a group. Once you had the group, you had to get everyone to the dungeon entrance, which usually involved two people walking to the dungeon and summoning everyone else via the Meeting Stone. Then you had to actually tackle the dungeon, with the hope that everyone knew what they were doing. It was a recipe for bonds of brotherhood or deep-seated hatred for your fellow players. Folks love that though, and it's part of why World of Warcraft: Classic is so popular.
These days, the connections are errant and more fleeting, because the truth is time is limited and spending an hour to get together a group to run a 30 minute dungeon isn't something a lot of players want to do. Online matchmaking now makes grouping an almost painless affair; despite that, the strong bonds between players still form. I was playing The Division 2 two weeks ago, chipping away at the seasonal Neptune Manhunt—the event requires you to complete missions and control points within a certain region. Over the course of simply killing enemies in the region, I had inadvertently created an Alert Level 4 Control Point, meaning it's pretty hard to complete alone. So I called for help.
A player—let's call them Bunge for short—answered my call for help. It took awhile, but we completed the control point. I gave Bunge a salute and bid him a farewell, heading off to hit another target. Generally, a player will drop the group after they've completed the specific mission they're needed for. So I was surprised to reach my next target to find Bunge still following me. We finished another target. Then a mission. Then another target.
We kept going and my erstwhile friend was there by my side. I was shocked. I had to leave for the evening, but Bunge had impressed his quiet work ethic upon my soul. "Can we be friends?" I asked them. "Sure," they replied. And they sent me a friend request. They are my first friend on The Division 2 that I don't know from real life or a forum. Bunge is probably the most useful friend to turn to in the game at this point.
MMOs are nothing but shared hardship. It's you and nameless dozens up against that world boss. It's you and three others against a dungeon in Final Fantasy 14. Or perhaps getting together a static—a static is a consistent group of people you run dungeons or raid with—of eight players to take on Eden Savage. That 10-person group progression raiding on WoW's Ny'alotha, The Waking City raid, or the six-person squad pushing down their times on Destiny 2's Garden of Salvation. Even if competitive PvP is your preference, every MMO has that in spades as well.
The core of MMOs is that happenstance connection. That feeling when you're low on health and your healer comes through in a clutch, or your tank uses a cooldown to power through that last 1% of the boss' life. You might be able to experience a similar feeling in other games, but you're doing it alone. With MMOs, it's a shared understanding of suffering and triumph. It's not even just the people in your immediate guild or static; it's all the others who have gone through the same fights and challenges. MMOs are about the stories inside of the game, side-by-side with others. It's why you can mention "Southshore and Tarren Mill" to longtime WoW players and get a collective groan or gleeful smiles.
Hell, the longer some of these MMOs go, it's sometimes about sharing those feelings with family. Long ago, I went to Daybreak to take a look at Everquest Next (RIP), I met people who met in Everquest, started a family, and now their kids were playing the game as well. A recent post on the FF14 subreddit illustrates this, with the poster pointing to their 8-year old goddaughter jumping into the MMO for the first time.
People play together in their cooperative or competitive games, but not in the same way we hearty MMO few do. It's right there in the name: massively multiplayer. You might "Play Together" in some other games, but that's just a squad. We're an army. All faced in the same direction, tackling the same raids and dungeons, and all hoping for that sweet, sweet cosmetic loot, assuming the Random Number God chooses to grace us. And then we go back and do it again next week.
God, I love MMOs.