“He’s too powerful! Heroes, quickly, come to me! We must leave this place immediately! I will do what I can do hold him in place while we flee.”
Horrified to see the indomitable Sylvanas turning on her heels, I run along with her and my team-mates as I suddenly realise that the Lich King himself is coming for me… and he’s pissed off! Cue adrenaline rush. Cue running for my life. Cue a big grin on my IRL face. I’m totally lost in the moment. This is Warcraft history in the making.
Then: “Shammy, come over here.” I turn to see my fellow team-members, instead of running with Sylvanas as she makes a defiant last stand, have cowardly hidden in a corner. They casually ignore Arthas as he strides slowly past them. They’re actually ignoring the Lich King. Confused I huddle up with them, wondering what’s going on. When I ask why we’re not legging it along with the Banshee Queen, I’m told that “it doesn’t matter, its easier this way”. We then proceeded to rather pathetically follow behind the Lich King instead of fleeing from him, picking off his undead minions in ones and twos. We got to the end, defied physics by walking through the final rockfall and completed the instance. I was annoyed. This was the first time I had run the Halls of Reflection and that thrilling experience had been marred by a PUG who would rather finish the instance in record time than to become immersed in the awesome-sauce of Warcraft. I felt cheated. I had been taken from my exciting make-believe world where I was fighting alongside one of my favourite heroines, to being reminded that I was just stabbing buttons on a keyboard to make pixels hit other pixels.
So I was relieved when I ran the Halls again today and found that Blizzard have made it impossible to do this anymore. Now if you try to hide round the corner from Arthas his evil aura of death blasts you and your naughty ways into nicely charred chunks. If you want to complete the instance, you have to do it the proper way, the way which tells a story. Quite frankly I find it sad that they have to do this at all. Personally I would always choose a cool story-based version of a game over one which just involved you getting through the content as quickly as possible. Otherwise why have content at all, why not just have a random shooting gallery of brightly coloured pictures to blow up in the fastest possible time? Of course others do not share my lore-love, which is why I was glad to see Blizzard making sure that even for the power-gamers, there will always be a story to play through.
Of course maintaining the balance between gameplay and immersion is a tricky issue in any computer game. If the gameplay isn’t fun and engaging, whats the point? But if the engaging narrative and immersive world isn’t there, we may as well be playing Space Invaders. Now of course Blizzard should not force players to have to slog through complex lore-laden encounters at every turn. Not everyone wants to be playing The Longest Journey, sometimes they just want to log on for half an hour and kill bad guys. However I do think that wherever it is possible to do so without significantly affecting gameplay quality, that narrative experience should be there without fail. What has always set WoW apart for me is that it really is a living breathing world, full of wonder and excitment, and even places to relax and have a cup of tea. That’s something we should cherish, not dumb down.
Now, despite my current praise, Blizz have not always been on my side on this one. The Random Dungeon Finder itself is kind of an immersion killer. I remember not long after Wrath had been out, myself and some guildies proceeded to do every heroic in one day, which involved a lot of flying around and travelling. It was a hassle, but it was also a great experience, flying towards Utgarde Pinnacle together, or making our way toward Ulduar. Nowadays such a thing would not be necessary, you can just teleport there and back in the blink of an eye. Easier but less realistic (and yes I know its a world of dragons and sorcery, I’m talking subjective realism here). Now I totally understand why Blizzard implemented such a feature. With the current state of gear most of the end-game population has, heroics are a cakewalk which are run primarily for the sake of collecting emblems in order to raid new content. The random dungeon feature also helps keep all that content fresh and keeps player boredom under control. In many ways it was a clever move, but one that I hope they will be responsible with.
For instance (no pun intended), whilst it doesn’t break believability too much when we’ve already run these instances a hundred times, I really hope that in Cataclysm we wont be able to just teleport straight into a dungeon that we’ve never visited before. Cast your mind back to when Wrath came out. Now imagine that not long after arriving in Howling Fjord, you had used the random dungeon feature to get a Nexus group. You would have been teleported straight inside without any knowledge of Malygos, the Nexus War or any of what the Blue Dragonflight were up to. You’d even kill Keristrasza without having first fought by her side or even knowing who she was. Yes, it still would have been a cool instance and good fun, but you’d have lost a great deal of the immersive process. Therefore, I can only hope that Blizzard act in the future as they have done with their Halls of Reflection hotfix, in a way that is responsible with the background and the player’s experience of it. It really does make for a better game.