Something WoW Does Better Than Anyone Else

Goblin in Shades

A Goblin in shades? Now that's immersion.

Today, I’m not going to talk about how easy or hard WoW is, about whether or not it’s dumbing down the MMO genre, or even what impact it’s having on the way we socialise in game. These may all be valid (and interesting) topics but right now, right at this moment, all I want to discuss is something that I believe WoW does better than any other game out there: it stimulates and cultivates our imagination.

I’ve commented before on the psychological way WoW (and every other MMO out there) exploits us and tries to addict us by leveraging the human need to collect and complete but that’s not what keeps me coming back to the game (thankfully). What keeps me returning time and time again is the way it manages to kindle that fledgling spark of excitement in my brain about playing a certain race or a particular class. Call it roleplaying, call it escapism, call it immersion, call it whatever the heck you want but when I load up WoW and roll a new alt, I really feel it.

Indeed, World of Warcraft is incredible in its artistic direction. Regardless of the fact it can run on a toaster and has a stupidly low polygon count, it just oozes character and personality from every pore. In fact, when you actually think about it, it truly is a massive accomplishment and regardless of you feel about WoW, you’ve got to take your hat off to the way the game manages to captivate, embody and execute a huge varying range of locations, races and virtual cultures.

I suppose I’ve always identified this about WoW but it’s not been until recently when I went on a low level alt binge, creating new characters all over the place and even deleting some high level ones in the process, that I truly recognised and appreciated the immersion available. Start a Worgen, a Goblin, an Undead, a Blood Elf, a Death Knight, a whatever, and you’ll realise that each starting environment is radically different from the other. It’s the subtle things that exist too – the different types of trees, the different melodies of music, the style of buildings, the shades of colours used everywhere. It’s all distinct, it’s all varied and it all helps allow the player to buy into their role while crafting a real and vibrant world.

And for me that’s hugely important. Just as the real world is varied and diverse, so should the virtual ones we inhabit and only a few of the MMOs I’ve played have managed to accomplish it. WoW is one, Everquest was another, perhaps Dark Age of Camelot was a third. They succeeded because every race was unique, every class was special and every location and area had a unique and immersive design.

I actually think this is why I never managed to get into more recent games like RIFT and Aion. They were fun, polished and very well technically executed but they lacked the variety and subtleties to keep me occupied for a long time. I know the lack of starting locations and playable areas were all design choices to try and aid the longterm PvP gameplay but I can’t help but feel that they were decisions made with the head rather than with the heart and that’s never a good thing. Play RIFT once and you’ve played it a hundred times.

So say what you want about WoW but don’t ever insult its artistic execution and direction. It’s one of the few MMOs that really has it nailed and, no doubt, has been a huge factor in its success.

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29 Comments

  1. Nils says:

    I agree with this. There are also other things WoW does really well. For example the technical execution and many speccs also have a really good gameplay; at least if you fight something that lives long enough to experience it.

  2. bhagpuss says:

    I liked WoW well enough for the short few months I played it, and the art direction was certainly solid,but I’ve played plenty of MMOs that drew me in much more intensely with their aesthetic. You mention Everquest, which is my personal favorite, but Vanguard is possibly even better in this specific regard. Fallen Earth, Ryzom, FFXI also spring immediately to mind as MMOs that worked better for me on this level than WoW.

    I completely agree that getting this part right is crucial to whether an MMO “works”, but ironically I feel the one that’s succeeded best in this respect in the last 18 months or so has to be Rift. I completely refute the idea that Rift’s settings, environments, locations or aesthetics in any way “lacked variety and subtleties”. As I’ve said often, I think Telara is an absolute explorer’s dream.

    I’ve played pretty much every day for six months and I would say that even after all that I still see new things every time I log in. And not newly added things but things that have always been there but that I hadn’t spotted before. The level of detail in Rift is absolutely astounding. I can only suggest if you haven’t noticed the immensely subtle, layered, referential delights of the superb art direction there you can’t have been looking very hard.

    • Gordon says:

      Maybe I didn’t play Rift enough and I have considered getting stuck into it again – the big problem for me though is that I don’t find the races or classes very inspiring so it’s hard to get excited about it.

  3. rav4ge says:

    Totally agree with you here. I haven’t touched WoW in a good while, but I will always give it credit in this department. Despite some outdated textures and models, Azeroth as the sum of its parts is the most fulfilling and lively MMO world I’ve ever played in. Sure, other MMOs might have better graphics overall but they still can’t compare to WoW – the environments in that game just have so much character. I’d go on but you did such a great job doing that for me with this post.

    -rav4ge

  4. vortal says:

    I concur, WoW is one of the if not the best MMO when it comes to an immersive experience and a class/race uniqueness. I dislike MMOs that do not focus on story telling, that’s why I disliked the original GW and Rift. I didn’t engage with the story, not so much as to even give it a try. Personally I think that the story and the feel of the game much outweighs it’s mechanics. If the story doesn’t intrigue me, if it discourages my imagination from going wild, then I will not even consider it. That’s why I like WoW besides it’s obvious “mistakes” which can be easily forgiven, knowing that I’ve just made another newly awaken Lvl 1 in Tirisfal Glades.

  5. Longasc says:

    WoW definitely has a very strong artistic direction. It also has the advantage of being friendly to the hardware.

    But that doesn’t mean it looks good! Cute comic style isn’t for me.

    I always found the environments to be very well done and looking great, but not so much the characters and most importantly the “Tier” raid armors. Paladin armors were the worst, and Warlocks didn’t get better since T5. Plus the extreme shoulder fetish.

    LOTRO has strong environments and by now also nice armors. The faces and animations are still stiff. Aion has a decidedly Asian look and feel. My favorites are Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2. So yeah, I would rather have Daniel Dociu as art director than Chris Metzen.

    • Tesh says:

      As much as I love the overall art direction of Guild Wars… I still think their women are ridiculous. Their posture is atrocious and the ‘caster armor is absurd. If they could manage to rein in their inner Frazetta, I’d find little to fault in GW.

      WoW really does have strong art direction, though… it’s just a very strong stylization that I’m not always fond of. I see the strength of it, to be sure, I just prefer the more naturalistic feel of GW.

    • Gordon says:

      Comic style isn’t for everyone but it fits in with the WoW ethos and technical requirements perfectly.

      I think it’s worth pointing out that another game I think had fabulous art direction was Age of Conan. I just love Tortage so much and the whole style of the game… you can almost smell the beach and sea air when you start a new character. Just a shame the game was let down in other departments.

  6. Telwyn says:

    Interesting OP. I agree that WoW has some wonderfully crafted environments, especially the starter areas for Night Elves, Tauren, Dwarves and Blood Elves (IMHO). That said LoTRO has very strong ‘characterisation’ of the world as well and for me personally, avoids the endless pop references that infest Azeroth.

    Rift is an curious game from this angle, I agree that the lack of differentiation of the races is an issue and that having only two starter areas was a mistake. However as Bhagpuss states above there are some lovingly crafted lore and environments to discover if you look for it. The fact that the game funnels you at breakneck speed past all that can explain why so many fail to see or appreciate it. But I have played it very slowly and casually as my second game of choice. I have really enjoyed reading the quest text, with some subtle humour and some nice characterisation of NPCs.

  7. [...] was reading about WoW’s high quality starting areas over at We Fly Spitfires and it reminded me of how much I liked the racial lore quests in Freemarch, and how sad I am that [...]

  8. Bronte says:

    You’re absolutely right man. The unique nature of the environments, and the sheer volume of (polished) content is what sets WoW apart. I get sick of the rails from time to time and the cyclic nature of constantly gearing yourself is annoying as hell, but I keep coming back because frankly no one does it better. Other MMOs may have one or two systems that are on par (or in rare cases better) than WoW, but in the end WoW is what offers the most bang for the bug.

    I suppose the best and most memorable relationships are the love-hate ones.

  9. Drew says:

    The reviews out of the gate were deservingly horrid, but FFXIV had one thing going for it, even at launch – beautiful immersion. The game is markedly better now than it was then, and has found a place back on my hard drive. It’s still free, to boot. The game is absolutely gorgeous, and you’re hooked into the storyline from the get-go through a series of cut-scenes, action sequences, and now a tutorial.

    But yes, the elegant simplicity of WoW is certainly to be applauded. Looking that good and running on a toaster with that much backstory? It’s not terribly shocking that WoW is still the industry leader.

  10. [...] Chaser – We Fly Spitfires has been heavily alt-ifying, and he feels there’s one thing that WoW does better than any other game – “World of Warcraft is incredible in its artistic direction. Regardless of the fact it [...]

  11. flosch says:

    I agree, to a certain extent.

    WoW delivers a very good low-level experience. I’d even go so far as to say that it does it gameplay-wise, too, for people that are new to the genre. But without a doubt, the storytelling in the starter zones is for the most part done very well. I don’t _like_ every starter zone, but that’s because I also don’t like the mindset of some races either, so that’s fair enough.

    Sadly, this polish and storytelling gets a lot worse when you leave the starter zones. Shintar from Priest With A Cause had a story the other day (actually, the same day you published this post) in which she talked about the homogenization of the leveling and questing experience in the mid-to-high levels: http://priestwithacause.blogspot.com/2011/10/homogenisation-of-wows-two-factions.html
    That actually disillusioned me quite a bit. It might also be a hint that completely revamping most of your world after release ends up going not so well, because you don’t invest as much care and time into it as you did when you were still in pre-release development.

    • Gordon says:

      I never really did understand the whole Horde/Alliance storyline tbh and it is a very confusing aspect of the game, one that really does need to be clarified. Plus the TBC and WotLK zones don’t make a whole lot of sense now either.

  12. Wolfshead says:

    WoW gets a bad rap for having low poly counts. However, the art and graphics are probably the best thing about WoW (except for the human male faces).

    I recall back in my days as a game designer, a talented video game artist co-worker was blown away when she saw the complexity and beauty of the textures in WoW. High poly counts have nothing to do with whether or not the artwork is compelling and appealing.

    I daresay, without the talented Blizzard art team and animators WoW would be a mediocre MMO experience at best. The art is what gives WoW its charm and strongly compensates for the woeful inadequacies of the rest of their MMO.

    The problem with WoW at its core has always been the design — not the art.

    • Tesh says:

      Wholly agreed. The animations especially really sell it. Then again, I’m an animator at heart, so I’m keenly keyed to notice stiff or poorly weighted animations. WoW has some of the best animations out there.

      • Gordon says:

        I never appreciated the WoW animations until my designer friend pointed them out to me and then suddenly I realised he was totally right. Just goes to show that it’s the subtle and subconcious things that truly make the biggest impacts.

    • Gordon says:

      I’d definitely agree that the art team play a huge role in making WoW as popular as it is and also that the animations go under-appreciated. You only need to look at the way the dragon breathes on the Catalysm welcome screen to see what a fabulous job the animators have done with such a (relatively) low polygon count.

  13. bloob says:

    “until recently when I went on a low level alt binge, creating new characters all over the place”

    I think this is one of the big things new games miss – replayability. If you have a dozen races with a unique version of the four archetypes (fighter, rogue, priest, mage) each, in their own distinctive starter zone with distinctive quests based on that race’s lore and where say 1/3 of those quests are class-specific also then you have 48 separate experiences. Say that lasts levels 1-15 and takes about a month that’s potentially four years of subs for an altoholic. Even more so if the trade skills are regional also i.e hobbit cookery is different to orc cookery, and have a quest or two of their own as well so that even a hobbit-warrior-cook levels up a little bit differently to a hobbit-warrior-tailor because of the drops they farm as they level plus a few crafting quests.

    It seems to me low-level replayability would give the highest rate of return on content creation in terms of player-hours and yet most games seem to ignore it completely.

    • Gordon says:

      “It seems to me low-level replayability would give the highest rate of return on content creation in terms of player-hours and yet most games seem to ignore it completely.”

      Couldn’t agree more and it’s one of my biggest bugbears with RIFT.

  14. DM Osbon says:

    WoW also does a great job on the emotions. That feeling of coming home when returning to certain zones, is a clever feat for a videogame let-alone an MMO.

    Am hoping Diablo III excels in it’s direction too.

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