As I write this, it's less than 4 hours to go until World of WarCraft: Cataclysm launches, and, yes, I, a man dangerously close to the age of 50, am actually counting the hours. Some might call this sad--I call it a testament to the power of WoW, six years after its launch.
Think about that for a second. Because, in videogame time, 6 years is an eternity. For reference, the year that WoW launched, 2004, was also the year of Half-Life 2, Ninja Gaiden, and Halo 2--one console generation behind. Even more significant, most MMOs flatten out or just slowly die of attrition after a few years. But WoW, incredibly, just keeps getting bigger.
And, yes, like everyone else, I've had long periods (sometimes over a year at a time) in which I burn out and bail and swear I'm never coming back. And during those periods when I *am* out, I always feel a sense of liberation, because I can *finally* play all those games that WoW prevented me from playing. Because WoW is a cruel and demanding mistress. You can't be heavily into WoW *and* be playing other games, because there is always simply to much to do in WoW once you willingly invest yourself. Playing other games feels like a betrayal, as well as a waste of time, when, really, you should be in WoW working on your gear--or whatever.
But the reason we keep coming back--or at least the reason *I* keep coming back--is just that it's just such a goddamn good game. And, yeah yeah, MMOs might not be yer cuppa joe, and that's all good. If you're not convinced yet, I certainly can't and won't now. I'm mainly talking to the converted here. And yeah, it's gotten easier over the years too, even though, for certain really old-school folks (and I'm not talking about myself, because I lived through the hell that was earlier MMOs) it already started out too easy. But for those of us already in the congregation, you know what I'm talking about. WoW is the Disneyland of MMOs. And some of us happen to love Disneyland. Even when we're pushing 50.
This particular expansion is drawing many of us back (and until a month ago I had been off for about 16 months), because Blizzard's Chris Metzen and gang are fulfilling a promise that they announced years ago, before they had even figured out a way to make it possible: They're fundamentally changing the entire old game world, forever. If you've already patched up the game prior to tonight's launch, you've actually seen a great chunk of it already: Almost all the old zones are redone, revamped, changed forever, thanks to the cataclysmic event of the expansion's title--and changed, of course, with all the things that Blizzard learned about how to make their game better over the course of the past 6 years. As a design decision, it's a simple but brilliant one. I mean, there was no way I was ever going to want to quest again in Wetlands, The Barrens, and, god forbid, Stranglethorn Vale again. But now? I can't wait to see what they've done with it all.
When I first wrote about World of WarCraft way before it first launched, in the first magazine story ever published about it (see what I did there--I'm bragging!), I was marveling at how Blizzard was so smartly rewriting the rules of what an MMO could do by actually making it easy and accessible for its players, with such then-revolutionary and now seemingly banal ideas as the now-ubiquitous question marks over quest givers in-game zone maps. In the old days, ya see, you had to figure all that out for yourself. Even the notion of "quests," while present in some MMOs, was not really fleshed out. Mostly you just logged into the world and, well, good luck to you. Was that fun? Often, yes. Very much so. Some of my experiences in EverQuest, the long-ago former king of MMOs, remain among my fondest gaming memories, exactly because of the kind of hardcore, unforgiving bullshit it put us through. For you players who "grew up" on WoW, EverQuest was---well, I'm not going to say it was our "'Nam", because that would be both moronic and disrespectful, but let's just say it makes WoW look like just the kind of "baby game" its detractors accuse it of being.
But the proof is in the numbers. WoW beat them all back then, and continues to beat them all now. The number of MMOs (many of them dubbed "WoW killers" either by their creators, publishers, or the media) that have come and gone in the 6 years of WoW's unrivaled reign is long and sad. What's amazing is not one of them--including the ones still fumbling along with whatever loyal fanbase they've scrounged together--has ever even come close to competing on WoW's level. And what's even more amazing than that is that WoW has deserved it. Blizzard has kept the game alive and vibrant and fun and funny for six long years, and, with Cataclysm, they're doing it again. It's a dangerous drug, this WoW thing. But, me? I'm lining up with the rest of the addicts, happily waiting for my new fix.