The claws of the Lich King are cold, barbed, and have sunk themselves deeply into the flesh of Dear Seris. That, at least, is the way that I like to think of the situation, and would more fully embrace were I a lore fanatic; but I am not, and recognize rather that those claws have sunk so figuratively into my soul so as to be almost literal.

"Enter World," the button demands.  I accept, knowing that by the time I saw this button, I had little choice.
It began as troubling times usually do: with a visit to the parents, and a pause to visit my younger brother has he played Warcraft with a recently-renewed subscription. “Hey, look at this,” he said, pointing to an interface element on-screen that I’d never seen before. “You put in your archetype – healer, tank, or DPS – and then press Enter Queue, and within a few moments you’re put into a group with strangers from across the Battlegroup. Then, as you complete the dungeon with a random group of strangers, they give you Emblems and other rewards.”  It was as if thousands hours of free time waiting to be claimed in my schedule cried out.

I hadn’t much interest in coming back to Warcraft. I had invested what I consider obscene amounts of time into a variety of characters, and untold hours of social interaction had been lost as a result (not to mention potential job and education opportunities). But this new system, the LFG System as it has come to be called, sparked a renewed interest in me, as one of the chief problems with WoW when I had left before was simply being able to find a suitable group for a dungeon when time presented itself to play. If the promise of the LFG System worked, this problem would be entirely alleviated.

Almost immediately after renewing my subscription (actually, activating the seven-day trial), I realized that the system more than delivered on its promise. Seris, whom I’d left at level 75, was inside of a dungeon with strangers within moments of logging in, and seconds after exclaiming “Hay guys!,” she was slaying a variety of presumably evil monsters and fully succumbing to the promise of easy-access rewards.

At the time, I wasn’t quite aware of what those rewards really were. Emblems of Something or Other, the small currency bits rewarded upon the completion of heroic-difficulty dungeons – more difficult version of normal dungeons – were doled out regularly and easily, and could be turned in for a variety of awesome armor, trinkets, and jewelry. This much I remember from the previous expansion. What I also remembered from the previous expansion was how painfully long it took to acquire them, and the slow process of attaining upgrades from them – as well as their somewhat lack of variety.

But things are different now; there are not only dozens of options of Emblem items, most of which quite good, but there are, and I cannot stress the importance of this enough, dozens of opportunities to attain these Emblems. A run through a heroic dungeon, with each boss granting an emblem, grants an average of three emblems per dungeon – but each LFG System group also rewards the player with an extra two Emblems, as well as a bag of gold. With Emblem items ranging from costing thirty to seventy-five, and fifty emblems attainable in a mere few hours, getting awesome gear became almost painfully easy – alleviating one of the major issues with The Burning Crusade.

It is now three weeks after Seris has attained level 80, and is now armed (with a few notable exceptions) almost entirely with gear attained from Emblems.  (She has also become a male in-game, but for the sake of affection, I will continue to refer to Seris with the female pronoun.) She’s pushing higher number averages than ever on damage meters, and looks reasonably badass to boot. Although I as an individual had a great deal of free time in recent weeks to accomplish this, just about any player of the most casual persuasion could quite easily attain this level of gear quality. For item slots that Emblems cannot fill, craftable items – which are now able to be traded amongst players – can be made of the highest quality by trading in a small quantity of Emblems for the most difficult to attain ingredients (specifically, Crusader Orbs).

Although WoW is in a better state now than it has ever been, particularly for the casual player without time to dedicate to raid, I can’t help but find some aspects of this system troubling. An idea that I’ve subscribed to for quite a long time is that WoW is the arcade version of other online games; things are faster-paced, more straightforward, and often simpler than in other online games, and I believe that this is, in a large way, responsible for the game’s overwhelming success.

The LFG System has further emphasized this arcade nature of WoW over other games, and has, I believe, diminished the single best aspect of Warcraft; that of the social. No longer do players need to cultivate a good reputation to ensure invitations into groups, as what happens inside of groups generated by the LFG System are, for all intents and purposes, anonymous. This is because any given group might consist of five players from five different realms whom, in addition to not having encountered one another previously, are effectively barred from ever doing so again. This entirely precludes the need for common courtesy and the forging of friendships; although people are, in general, pretty decent, there is very rarely any actual social interaction between them. The five come together for a particular task, namely the crawling through of a dungeon, and disband immediately after. Aside from making jokes and explaining encounters to players new to the dungeon, there is little reason to attempt to cultivate new friendships.

Which, really, is what made WoW shine so brightly for me when it was released. Within hours of the servers coming online, my room mates

A list of the various Emblems of Something or Other.
and I had built a guild – DOS Command – and had begun recruiting players to run with. Running dungeons typically meant finding people in the cities and in other zones, and DOS Command grew quite quickly from meeting people in this fashion and asking them to wear our DOS tag. When Seris was a scant level 18, for example, she encountered a pair of players named Darhk and Dominus, a warrior and a mage respectively. Recognizing that the pair, even at this low level, were excellent players, she invited them into DOS Command – and they accepted. To this day, I communicate regularly with Darhk, not as a player but as a friend. (He has managed to apparently escape the claws of the Lich King.)

DOS Command grew in this fashion until it eventually merged with another guild, and then later developed into an entirely different guild dedicated towards raiding the high-end content of the game. While the guild was never quite on the bleeding-edge of progression, we did quite well for ourselves, and I still consider many of the players I was involved with to be among my closest of friends, favored over many of the people that I know in real life.

I do not believe that I am unique in this regard; to use another entirely anecdotal example, my brother followed a similar path in Warcraft, and some of his closest real-life friends he actually met in the World of Warcraft. I’ve met them too, but his personality is more compatible with theirs than is mine. But then, I tend to be an antisocial prick sometimes, so this isn’t terribly surprising for me. Moving along.

So then – it appears, to me, that Warcraft has traded this wonderful element of potential social cohesion, which arises from small groups of strangers banding together to defeat the Sons of Arugal and results in what I hope to be lifelong friendships, for easier access to the rewards of ever-increasing numbers, to use Kieron Gillen’s perspective on online games.

Although the system was introduced into a set of communities that have been around for some five years now, and many friendships once made online still remain so, I can’t help but fear that new friendship circles simply cannot form. As I said, the LFG System places you with a group of players that cannot effectively become friends – the only way for communication after a LFG System dungeon run is for a player to create a new character on the server of the person they met, or to pay Blizzard to transfer their character for them. I cannot help but believe that this is horribly unlikely.

The LFG System has seemed to have an impact on the isolated community of my server as well; sure, people are more geared and perhaps playing more than ever, but they’re doing so often without their friends. Although entering the LFG System with friends can make the process easier (guaranteed access to an effective tank, healer, DPS, etc.), it is by no means necessary and seems to add an extra layer of complication to the dungeon-running, Emblem-acquiring process. Sure, Seris will group with guildmates for quick runs (as you can enter the system with a full group of your pals), but this does nothing to alleviate the problem of not being able to make new friends in the process.

An example of this occurred last night, as the leadership of my guild tried to get ten players together to raid.  “Who wants to run the weekly raid?” he asked – and even though there were fifteen players online, he received only four responses.  Although this doesn’t necessarily suggest that they were using LFG instead of being willing to work as a cohesive guild unit, this type of question would likely have been met with large response in the past, whether players were interested in hanging out with friends, seeing new content, or even just getting better gear.  That last aspect – of getting new gear – is (was) arguably the biggest motivator in Warcraft – but it has now been almost entirely removed, as players no longer need strong guilds to attain any semblance of high-quality gear.

I think that the other aspect of this problem – of furthering Warcraft as essentially an arcade-game MMO – is the nature of content and what it has come to mean. (The labeling of hard-mode difficulty dungeons as “Heroic” is highly indicative of this issue, but I’ll return to that shortly.) Generally speaking, the first time or two that I entered a dungeon I hadn’t been to before, my eyes were wide with what new treasures and encounters would be found within. Fights were challenging, bosses were something to be taken seriously, and the dungeon was a reward unto itself.

However, Blizzard has created a system in which these dungeons are not in any way a reward unto themselves – they’re merely an obstacle that must be overcome to acquire the real reward, which are Emblems of Something or Other. This might not be true to the leveling individual, but is most certainly true for players at level 80 entering exclusively into heroic-mode difficulty dungeons. Damage classes with insufficient gear are ejected by vote, as well as tanks without X health points, or healers without X level of mana. The actual experience of the dungeon is rendered entirely irrelevant, and is instead something to be pushed through as quickly and efficiently as possible – and essentially something that is never to be enjoyed or savored. Certain dungeons, like the Occulus, actually trigger a response in many players that ought to be anathema to designers – they immediately leave the instance, willing to accept a 15-minute penalty before they can enter the LFG System queue because they despise the dungeon so thoroughly. As an aside, I find it one of the more interesting dungeons; players have to ride around on dragons and use an entirely new set of abilities, but because this takes a bit longer than other dungeons, players refuse to even participate.

But I don’t think Blizzard does consider this anathema; their solution to this problem was, instead of adjusting the content to perhaps be more engaging, to give the players additional Emblems, some nice gems, and a chance at a rare flying mount. Another dungeon that suffers from this problem, the Old Kingdom, is being essentially nerfed – but not, as usual, to make it more in line with standard difficulty models, or even to make it more fun – but to make it faster. Following is a developer quote taken from mmo-champion:

“With that said, we plan on making some changes to The Old Kingdom in the next minor patch. For instance, Elder Nadox will only get one Ahn’Kahar Guardian and Jadoga Shadowseeker will only use her Ascend ability once during their respective encounters. In addition, a couple of the stagnant groups of bad dudes between the Befouled Terrace and The Desecrated Altar will be removed, while some of the roaming groups will have their pathing altered. These changes are not to make this instance easier, but rather to make it a slightly quicker run and more in line with some of the other Wrath dungeons.”

In other words, this change isn’t being made to make the dungeon more interesting, more entertaining, or more in line with the difficulty of other dungeons – but simply to make it faster, to lower the wall in front of the player to achieve their rewards. The actual object of the instance, the progress through it slaying spider-things and their overlords because they are evil, and even just simply to have fun, is marginalized in favor of how bloody long it takes. As an aside, this dungeon takes about twenty-five to thirty minutes, compared to fifteen to twenty minutes for other heroic dungeons. Entertainingly, and perhaps damningly, these dungeons, not played for their challenge or lore or entertainment but the speed at which rewards can be achieved, are called heroic.

How is it that content that is essentially ignored due to high gear levels eliminating the need for strategy, and played as quickly as possible – by design, as Blizzard have seem to have acknowledged – known as heroic?

Still, I am conflicted. I get to do more of the stuff that I love – hurting monsters with swords and killing bosses to get bigger swords – than ever before, and the process is more streamlined than it ever has been. At the same time, the other key component of online games (for me, anyway) – social interaction and making new pals – is almost entirely removed from the gameworld. It’s a difficult struggle; I feel more engaged than ever before (thanks not only to the LFG System but to a plethora of other improvements to the game), and yet I feel more socially isolated than ever before.

I’m not sure if there are many other players that feel similarly about this. A resurgence of old-school guilds with old-school players engaging in the game casually has allowed the social element – at least in guilds – to remain. Perhaps those players are content not to make new friends by playing with them, and to rather keep close those ones they’ve had for years.

How about myself? Well – I don’t know. The claws of the Lich King seem to have wrapped themselves around my greedy, big-number-loving throat, while my heart weeps at the loss of new and engaging social interaction outside of /trade while simultaneously praising my brains for letting it hang out in private chat lobbies with old Warcraft friends. Which will win out?

I’ll think about it later, as my LFG System queue just popped and more Emblems are calling.

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