Thursday, March 15, 2012

1.1. First Steps

Part I: Vanilla

"Gear doesn't make a bad player good."

World of Warcraft login screen,
during the Vanilla ('04-'07) era
Copyright 2004 © Blizzard Entertainment

The Gamble

Between the months of August and November 1999, I played a game called EverQuest, and it was the worst four months of my life. I found myself wandering aimlessly throughout the landscape, leveling a Gnomish Necromancer, and while I was first enthralled by exploring the expansive world of Norrath, it very quickly degraded to series of mundane tasks, all with no real reward to speak of. It was extremely dangerous to play by yourself, as the punishment for death was punitive; a random zombie-related death could strip away days of play on your character, in the form of lost experience. I also knew nobody online, and was surrounded by a sea of strangers, none of which provided any assistance to me. To make matters worse, the publisher of EverQuest (Sony Online Entertainment) was proving how selfish and shallow a corporate enterprise could be. Frequently, the servers would go down for extended periods of time, or we would suffer a “server crash” and items/experience would be lost--and Sony vehemently refused to take responsibility for these problems. No refunds would be issued, and no apologies would be given. I remember being up late one night, standing on a frozen plateau overlooking Everfrost Peaks, and thinking to myself, what the hell am I doing here? I've played this game for four months. I have nothing to show for it. I don’t know anyone online, and haven’t met anyone. I don’t know what my goal is. I've barely leveled at all (I was 21)...and I have absolutely no interest in pursuing this further.

I closed my account that month and never returned to EverQuest. I also made a decision: I’d never play another MMO again. Besides, my interests were elsewhere: I was an FPS gamer, and had clocked in many hours playing Quake and CounterStrike. However, it was due to my gaming clan which first got together for late night LAN parties, that I was initially exposed to another genre that caught my interest: RTS (Real-Time Strategy). At the time, it was too late for me to even bother being able to compete, but I enjoyed watching my friends play Warcraft II, and became more curious about the lore, history and characters in that universe. When Warcraft III was announced in September of 1999, I kept tabs on it, and the more I learned during development, the more it intrigued me. By its release in 2002, I had become a full-blown Warcraft nerd, and knew far too much about the races, classes, and history. I never became an expert at Warcraft III (Level 11 on the US-West Battle.net Ladder, 2v2), but I thoroughly enjoyed the game and the experience. So, when rumors began trickling out that Blizzard “may or may not have been working on an MMO”, I had mixed reactions. By this point, I had become a complete and total Blizzard fanboi. I was in love with Warcraft III and Diablo II, and couldn't eat that content up fast enough. Yet, the prospect of an MMO gave me pause. I remembered how horrible EverQuest had been, how “not fun” and “bland” the game experience was, what the company’s treatment was toward their customer base, and how very little I was interested in experiencing that all over again. So, I had to take a very big gamble.

Kerulak prepares to accept signatures for the
creation of the guild Descendants of Draenor,
Thunder Bluff

Descending Origins

World of Warcraft was released at the end of November of 2004, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. My only previous experience in an MMO ended in disappointment, but Blizzard had not done me wrong with Diablo II or Warcraft III. The months leading up to the game’s release had me discussing the possibility of starting a World of Warcraft guild with various members of my gaming clan, and some of those guys showed interest. They brought their knowledge and experience from Dark Ages of Camelot, City of Heroes, Horizons, and other random MMOs to the table as well (yes, some of them had also dabbled in EverQuest). Once the chaotic servers stabilized after an insanely underestimated launch of the game, it became obvious that we would have to band together, in-game -- done by forming what is referred to as a "guild". But, what would we name ourselves? Names meant a lot to me; I felt strongly that the first impressions you get after reading a guild name would speak volumes about the folks comprising the guild. And although it might be a kick-in-the-pants to name a guild "FAILURES AT LIFE", I couldn't help but feel like it was a direct reflection of the guild mentality. I wanted my guild to attract a different type of player, one who shared my nerdy love of the Warcraft universe; who would read our guild name, and say to themselves "Ah, clever! Someone knows their Warcraft shit!" 

I dug deep into the lore, looking for a clue. The gang and I all agreed that we would take up the cause of the Horde, and fight for the Orcs and their allies, following in the footsteps of the historic Orcs vs. Humans conflict of the original Warcraft RTS game. I remembered from my time playing Warcraft III that the Orcs came from another world, one now ravaged and torn by conflict. This broken, barren wasteland was referred to as Outland, but before its destruction, it bore another name: Draenor. It was this name of the Orc home world that struck a chord with me. What better way to identify with the cause of the Horde, originally driven by the Orcs, than to take the name which defined their origins? And with the Tauren, the Forsaken, and the Trolls aligned with the Orcs to form the evil faction in the game, the Horde carried on the tradition of those first Orcs that burst through The Dark Portal from Outland into Azeroth. We were the Horde, and we were their descendants.

And so it was, that on that day of November in 2004, we became known as Descendants of Draenor.

---

The first months of our guild were eye-opening. Azeroth was an immense world, rich with ancient artifacts and ruins, magnificent towering structures, cities that were so large you felt like an insect walking through them, and boasting an exotic host of creatures and monsters that populated the landscape. My guild and I spent those early months simply drinking it all in, exploring every little nook and cranny, venturing out into dangerous territory, away from the safe haven of our starting villages and cities. While my guild seemed to enjoy themselves at a standard pace, I was absolutely drunk with the overload of information. I would sneak into enemy cities, just to read books on shelves (yes, WoW has readable books in the game) to try to glean new perspectives on the history of the lands and characters, possibly gaining a biased opinion from those Alliance-written texts. I would catch glimpses of references to Outland, grinning as I eyed our guild name; I knew the majority of players who waltzed past the “then-sealed” Dark Portal would have absolutely no idea what was on the other side, or its importance, let alone how any of that related to our name. 

Except perhaps the true Warcraft nerds.

When I discovered Uldaman, a dungeon in Badlands, I remembered a book I had read in Thelsamara town in Alliance territory, referring to the "Three Ancient Dwarven Cities", and hat Uldum and Ulduar were still undiscovered. I remember getting excited, then frustrated! I wanted to know more about those cities! I was hopeful that one day, I'd get the opportunity to see them. I was in a constant state of wanting to know more.

Kerulak investigates Uldum while working
on "The Platinum Discs",
Tanaris

A Higher Standard

In my quest to explore every last inch of Azeroth, I met a lot of players along the way. Initially, I had never really put a lot of thought into the interaction between our guild and other living human beings. Up until this point, my online experience had been limited to whomever happened to be playing on that evening’s popular Quake or CounterStrike server. Mostly, it was a faceless, anonymous interaction, and players were very commonly disrespectful toward one another, talking a lot of shit, making a lot of empty threats, and generally leaving you with a bad taste in your mouth. I wasn't particularly looking forward to dealing with that same type of community in WoW. However, I noticed that with Blizzard, very real attempts were being made, right from the start, to curtail shitty behavior. They took player and guild names very seriously, and would not allow characters to be named with injected titles like "Captainspooge" or a phrase like "Killthemall". Alternate spellings of curse words were very cleverly caught as well. And if anything slipped through the cracks, an interface built into the game client allowed you to quickly submit reports. 

I was curious, though. Blizzard thought like me, but would they go the distance? I got into a routine where where I would catch shitty names, quickly /friend them (adding them to a personalized list of contacts in game), then report them their inappropriate names to Blizzard. Then, I would sit back and watch. Sure enough, in less than 24 hours, I would log back in and see the person’s name fixed -- renamed to something more appropriate. Impressive! It seemed that Blizzard was dedicated to making the online experience an enjoyable one, and took that ownership very seriously. But, it wasn't just about player naming. I remember well the many server issues that Blizzard had that first year, and how, in every case, no matter how ignorant or inappropriate the customer base became when complaining, Blizzard always stepped up to the plate, took responsibility for their situation, issued out refunds, apologized profusely, and assured us that they would continue to do everything in their power to make it right.

At last. A game company that gets it.

Sure, some issues slipped by here and there, but I had to hand it to Blizzard for making a concerted effort; it was pretty damn close. A hell of a lot closer than Sony got. I was very thankful for the level of communication and support Blizzard delivered, and it was because of those early years in WoW, and how they handled their customer base, that I became a staunch supporter of their decision-making process. Having also been in software development, I could empathize with the challenges and frustrations they must have gone through. I saw the level of commitment they had towards us. So, when they made blatant decisions about certain fundamentals in the game, and the masses swarmed in crying “nerf!” and “unfair!”, I was always one of the first to step back and try to see it from their side. In fact, I was so impressed by Blizzard’s integrity and track record on following through with things that they promised, I made it a rule in my own guild to try to do things a little differently. We, too, would make a concerted effort to hold ourselves to a slightly higher standard, to be a little bit more respectful towards each other and towards other players in other guilds. Like Blizzard and World of Warcraft, we would also be different. 

As it turns out, it would be this standard that led Descendants of Draenor to become quite successful as we ventured into new, unexpected territory: 40-Man raiding.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Very interessting to read, looking forward to the next parts.

Jeremy said...

Wow, just saw your interview over on WoW Insider so I thought I'd pop over here and check it out. Just made it through this first post and I'm already feeling the waves of nostalgia, great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Me too, came over from wow insider, LOVED the first couple of posts and looking forward to getting up to #47!

Anonymous said...

Also came from wow insider, I'm a much newer player, started late in cata, but look forward to reading this.

Anonymous said...

As with many of the previous posters, I also came here after seeing your interview on WoW Insider. This first post really rekindled those memories I had of Vanilla.

Lynda said...

And me. Hopped over from WoW Insider. My husband and I didn't join until Buning Crusade launched but I am deliriously happy to let you lead me through the vanilla I never knew first hand. Many, many thanks from another lore nerd.

Juls Juls said...

Just came from Wow Insider; this is really good! I might have to stay up all night reading it!

CrimsonFusion W said...

Very nostalgic. I am enjoying the history of a very mature guild. I also loved the Warcraft I and II games. Warcraft III never crossed my path however I have been itching to. Interestingly I was involved in the BETA of WoW and just couldn't get into it; Being impatient most likely why. However, I started December 2006 with a good friend I met at work, as you well know too. Ever since I had become fascinated with not only the lore, but also the comradery of other players. I am looking forward to continuing my read! Great job so far!