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Why it took me eight years and 300,000 words to say goodbye to World of Warcraft

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We wanted to be awesome; World of Warcraft had other plans

I never meant for my rage to see the light of day.

Raw, fuming, unbridled wrath poured out into page after page of nonsensical cry-babying. I hardly expected it to fill more than a few paragraphs. But posting on the World of Warcraft forums wasn't rational. Nothing draws the attention of trolls quite like a thoughtful dissemination on why things are so hard for you. If I was looking for support, I wouldn't get it from gamers — such calls for sympathy only invited ridicule from the community. Besides, I had good reason to keep my rant off the forums: I shared their contempt.

Eight Years In Azeroth is where I told my story in serialized blog form, and it began at the dawn of WoW itself in November of 2004. In those early days, my attention was focused solely on the nerdiest qualities Blizzard is known for — the fine details of the world, the ongoing story of the game and which game mechanics would keep things interesting and fun. The concentrated coolness. And, having rolled on a PvP server (Deathwing-US), nothing filled us with greater glee than basking in the suffering of others.

The audacity of the enemy was real. We'd point and laugh as they met their fate at the end of a weeklong push through Alterac Valley. Insults came easy when backed by the power of the crowd. It was us vs. them, horde vs. alliance. Hardcores vs. casuals. Fairness didn't factor in; when they complained of imbalance, we drank their tears. And little credit was given to sportsmanship. "It doesn't matter whether you win or lose," was a calling card squeaked by losers to justify inadequacy. Showing our opponent any humanity was a weakness. You came for the slaughter. It's your own fault if you lost.

World of Warcraft op-ed

But there was more to World of Warcraft than mindlessly repeating battlegrounds. The first signs came in the form of an occasional Orc or Tauren wandering through the horde city of Orgrimmar, draped from head-to-toe in gear unlike anything we'd seen. They clutched staves with snake-like tentacles and gripped swords bathed in the glow of a bright light; our menial carving knives and cutlasses were like kitchen utensils by comparison.

These unique players brought back wondrous, powerful gear from deep within the World, from dungeons that required more than a silly few folks to clear. To the contrary, these underground mazes of nightmarish monsters called for no less than forty players, and would certainly not be cleared in a single hour-long play session.

Those players were raiders. We had to become them.

The Rise of the raids

Once end-game raiding grew in importance to both myself and my guild, it became my job — my responsibility as a guild leader — to do whatever it took to master raiding fundamentals.

Rote healing skills consumed those early days. As my shaman gained access to the first endgame raid, Molten Core, I gained access to the tools in a raider's repertoire. Optimized keyboard layouts granted us better control. Add-ons like CTRAID painted the screen with a heads-up display that conveyed my team's health, threat generation and the damage they doled out (down to the decimal).

The logistics of raid strategy became daily reading material. We maximized our performance by only bringing certain classes if they committed to certain roles — Druids and Shamans healed, Warriors tanked, and so on. My focus in pushing both myself and my guild was resolute; it was the only way to assure a successful raiding outcome. But maintaining this focus grew increasingly difficult.

Honing raid skill amid a constant barrage of distractions caused my focus to waver. Ragnaros and Nefarian took a backseat to more immediate emergencies — mobs so powerful, so dangerous, they threatened to strip me of my ability to even experience the game at all.

Other players.

At times I felt as though I'd been cast on the TV show Survivor, locked into a battle of wits with anonymous people who were experts at saying one thing and doing another. I questioned which players, or even guilds, I should be forming alliances with. Every day I logged in to World of Warcraft expecting to face another tribal challenge or field some ridiculous complaint about someone's needs we failed to cater to. Unlike Survivor, I needed no voting ceremony to rid myself of dissent. Kicking players from the guild was often necessary. Elitism was wonderfully therapeutic.

Over time, contempt for players became less tribal and resentment grew more personal. I'd read of guild leaders struggling to make a "hard decision," only to discover their gut-wrenching choice came down to deciding between a Bind-on-Account weapon or armor. "Try kicking a close friend out of the guild because even though he's a decent guy he also sucks at his class and has no capacity to lead," I'd think.

Other players had no concept of hard decisions. They had no right claiming it.

I found myself irritated at the plight of the gamer who'd known no difficult journey, nor faced no real challenge. What the hell did they have to complain about? The most powerful gear in the game required weeks and weeks of gut-wrenching loss at the hands of internet dragons. We fought to inch away slivers of health, only to have these virtual creatures best us — their health remained defiantly at one percent, while ours collectively dipped to zero. These months in early WoW raids were rites of passage; it was expected of others to suffer the same.

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The Blizzard experience was similar, regardless of franchise. If you happened to march your RTS skills onto the Battle.net ladder, you'd experience the wonder of being stomped into a fine paste. This is the bar we've come to expect, it's what Blizzard set out for us to achieve, many moons ago. Playing a Blizzard game meant expecting no hand outs.

Educating others became my personal daily quest; everyone had the potential to be great. We'd plant our flag on doing things differently, about being respectful to others and fostering a culture of betterment rather than one of alienation. Others might kick you to the curb for standing in the fire — we'd hold your feet in it until you learned.

In this environment, there were no more excuses for poor play. Everyone around you supported your ability to improve. It was in their best interests, after all ... it was they who would be playing alongside you, come raid night. Sure, it might have been easier to jump on the forums and complain about scrubs ... but that didn't produce any actual change. I channeled my anger into something productive: granting perspective.

Missteps were many, but each was a learning experience and we enjoyed great success for a time.

Then Blizzard shifted gears; the "no hand-out" mentality had all but dried up behind the blue curtain. Chained attunements only completable by a group of expert players gave way to single-button raiding requiring no such interpersonal dependency or demonstration of proficiency.

I'd cultivated a mindset of skill mastery in a game that no longer valued elbow grease.

The surgical precision of a cohesive team was no longer rewarded in WoW raids. Instead, buffoons that stood in the fire too long earned players increasingly easier attempts — instead of pointing out where players went wrong, everyone earned a "Determination" buff, an unfortunately named boon that rewarded mistakes far more than it rewarded persistence.

The goal of this new mindset was accessibility, but the result was apathy and entitlement. If the early days in WoW are best summarized as "only the elite deserve medals" then the golden age was most certainly "everyone deserves a chance to earn a medal" — a design edict I will go to my grave vehemently defending.

But that isn't how things ended.

By my guild's final days, the message had morphed once more: "everyone deserves a medal." I like to think I did everything I could to keep the guild from hemorrhaging players, but the thrill of competition was gone. My own ideals now worked against me. I'd cultivated a mindset of skill mastery in a game that no longer valued elbow grease. It was no surprise, then, when players simply stopped showing up for medals.

I faced my 189 page, 300,000 word "goodbye post" toward the public because I owed it to them. They deserved to know what exactly "guild drama" meant, how issues around imaginary armaments lead to outbursts, scheming, and corruption amongst people that called each other "friends".

They deserved to know why adults with less maturity than a room full of kindergartners behave badly, and why the best intentions of a game development company meant nothing when the effects of social psych took precedence.

After spending the better part of eight years enjoying video game victories that came upon the backs of other human beings, it was only fair that other human beings be given an opportunity to learn what that meant, how that affects others, and at what cost it comes. The frustration and sadness at the loss of my guild deserved better than the ambiguity and randomness of a common script, and there was far too much detail to leave to a three paragraph rant. This is why I had to write it all down.

Both casual and hardcore players gave me reasons to be angry, and Blizzard wasn't innocent, either. But I knew the stark reality that my anger wasn't going to be absolved with a single three-paragraph post to the forums. The response would be all-too predictable. Casuals would whine about what they didn't have, leaning on their monthly subscription as a crutch.

Hardcores would attack with brutal efficiency, outlining what they shouldn't have to give up, comparing exclusivity to natural selection. And if I were lucky enough to garner the attention of a blue post, Blizzard would simply spin elaborate justifications on why their design decisions were right. All three responses would be excellent at telling me why I was wrong.

I understand the contempt; I get it. It's that threat that someone is going to take away something that affects you deeply, something you believe in. Something you have to be right about. So in Eight Years in Azeroth, which now exists with a beginning, middle and end, I took a different approach. I tell you why I was wrong. I suspect I'm the most qualified person to do so.

Shawn Holmes is a writer, programmer, and gamer, currently breaking keyboards somewhere in Denver, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter.