I didn't ever think a game could make me truly homesick for it, but World of Warcraft did that for me this year. I was a day one, hour one player, starting my adventures in Azeroth on the morning of November 23rd, 2004. It quickly became an obsession, and I played the game nightly for hours on end. Over the years, that has added up to an embarrassing amount of elapsed time: My main character alone has almost 6,000 hours invested in it – that's 250 days – and I have plenty of other characters that I've played in-depth. All told, I've probably spent nearly a year of my life adventuring in the World of Warcraft.
However, in June of this year, I finally turned my back on the game after enjoying it almost daily for over a decade. It wasn't a sudden decision: I'd been slowly falling out of love with WoW for months beforehand – and I wasn't the only one. During 2014, the game had seen a sharp decline in subscribers, falling to a low of 6.8 million by the middle of the year. Those numbers perked up with the November release of the Warlords of Draenor expansion, which brought back a significant influx of players to the tune of 10 million users. Unfortunately, though, the expansion didn't hang on to those players for very long. By the middle of this year, WoW had lost 44% of that number, crashing to 5.6 million users. The good news, though, is that the decline has since leveled out. Last month, in what will apparently be the last time World of Warcraft subscriber numbers will be announced during earnings calls, Activision Blizzard stated that 5.5 million people are still playing the game. It seems that the numbers are stabilizing, and despite the significant year-on-year fall, 5.5 million is an still an impressive number that most MMOs would certainly covet.
As one of those who left the game during its sharp decline, I didn't so much feel like a rat leaving a sinking ship, but more of someone who was sadly moving on from a game that simply didn’t hold the interest for me than it once did. There are a variety of reasons for this; some due to the gameplay not being as compelling as it once was, and others because of how newer WoW features have changed the way that players interact with one another.
The world of Warcraft has evolved enormously over the years, and while it's fundamentally the same game as the one that launched in 2004, major changes have been implemented over the years to make it easier to do things like organize groups for dungeons and raids. However, while these convenience and quality of life features have added some really great functionality to the game, they've come at a cost.
Early World of Warcraft was a far more social experience. Back in the day, players tended to hang out together in towns and cities. However, the advent of player housing in the forms of the Mists of Pandaria farm and the Warlords of Draenor Garrison sucked the life out of the social centers of yore, as players migrated to their own private hangouts to do daily quests and administrate their settlements. Automatic queues for dungeons and raids also undermined the social fabric of the game. Guilds were no longer as important to people, who could simply queue up to dungeon crawl with a pick-up group whenever they wanted, rather than having to organize groups with guildmates and friends.
Don't get me wrong: both player housing and pick-up group queues have been a great addition to the game, and have made playing it far more easy and convenient for most of the player base. However, it has come at a cost in terms of the social aspect of the game, causing guilds to fragment and fall apart due to there not being such a strong need for them any more.
For me, one of the joys of playing World of Warcraft is doing so with a group of people who I know and whose company I enjoy. My guild has eroded considerably over the last few years, but we've always managed to replace players with new ones to maintain a fairly stable group that raided together regularly. This year, though, sounded the death knell for my guild. At the beginning of 2015, when WoW went through its precipitous player decline, most of our raiding team left the game. Finding replacement players was tough, so we started using the pick-up group queues for raiding. While we were quite successful at completing the various Warlords of Draenor challenges, something was missing: the lively banter between friends raiding together. Playing with strangers just wasn't quite the same, and instead became an exercise where most people were focused on finishing the dungeon as quickly and efficiently as possible.
I find this mentality pervades many aspects of World of Warcraft now. While it's still a massively multiplayer game, it's basically lost a large chunk of its social aspect that made it so appealing to me. In years past, guilds were groups of people who spent a lot of time together, and therefore you'd get to know one another over the weeks and months. Now, because most players only spend a few hours together in raids, there's no time to get to know anyone; it's just a case of hitting the loot piñata and going home.
The other thing that Warlords of Draenor changed is that it made all classes easier to play by giving fewer choices in terms of spells to cast. While this might have balanced the game a little more effectively and streamlined things like spellbars, as I explained in my review, it ended up homogenizing characters somewhat, and made them a lot less interesting to play.
This, combined with content that simply hasn't been as varied or challenging as prior expansions is ultimately what put paid to my interest in WoW. The weird thing is, though, I miss it enormously – and this is where I go back to the start of this piece. While I feel somewhat pathetic admitting this, WoW has been a large part of my life for the last ten and a half years. It's ultimately delivered a unique experience no other game has matched, and this is why I'm homesick. I crave the combination of fun challenge, social experience, and interesting characters that WoW used to offer, but I know I'm chasing the dragon, trying to find something that no longer exists. WoW isn't the same as it was - and there is currently nothing on the market that can replace it.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of great games out there. There are, and I'm playing many of them. It's just that I can't quite replicate the same experience that World of Warcraft delivered. But I am hopeful that perhaps the new expansion, Legion, might bring me back to write another chapter in my WoW adventures. I'm following its progress closely, and it sounds like the folks at Blizzard are working diligently on specific aspects of the game that won't necessarily fix the issues that drove me away, but might at the very least change the status quo.
Class Orders are new social spaces where people of the same class will be able to hang out together. Having these instead of solo player housing won't necessarily change the continued erosion of guilds, but they will at least provide new areas where players can get to know one another.
One of the highlights of the expansion is new sweeping class changes. Some of these are quite significant, and assuming that Blizzard can pull them off as promised, it will make playing the game far more interesting and varied than it is now.
Another major change is that PvP and PvE are finally being split into two separate aspects of the game, so that the developers can balance both independently of one another. New PvP-specific spells are being introduced, as well as a unique PvP leveling system that sounds great. Combine this with a new landmass, class-unique artifacts, and a new Demon Hunter class and you have an expansion that sounds very promising indeed - indeed, quite possibly the most exciting one since Wrath of the Lich King.
Whether or not Legion will have enough interesting new content to get me back into a routine of playing nightly remains to be seen, but there are certainly enough changes being made to the game to bring me back for at least a few months – both leading up to the expansion and afterwards.
Whatever happens, I'm really looking forward to coming "home," and will be reporting on my adventures as and when they happen.