At more than 100 million user accounts created and over $10 billion made, it is not only the most-subscribed MMORPG in the world, but the highest-grossing video game of all time. Ten years after its launch, Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft is less a game and more a world unto itself, and it's a world Daniel Lisi knows well. More time in his high school years was spent in Azeroth than in his hometown of Irvine, CA—a home he happened to share with Blizzard itself.
Now that Lisi has founded his own game development studio, WoW remains his most powerful example of just how immersive and consuming a game can be. Based on research, interviews, and the author's own experience in a hardcore raiding guild, Lisi's book examines WoW's origins, the addictive power of its gameplay loop, the romances WoW has both cemented and shattered, the enabling power of anonymity, and the thrill of conquering BlizzCon with guildmates you've known for years and just met for the first time.
"In MMOs, the analysis needs to go way beyond gameplay and into how social interaction and relationships work. In this excellent book, the author's history with Blizzard's magnum opus match up with a history of the game itself, to great ends." – Simon Carless
"An excellent snapshot of a player's experience with a game while trying to negotiate their place in both an adolescent and virtual world. It's a quick, thoughtful read that kept me engaged throughout."– 8/10 - Paste
"I love it. [...] It's a deeply personal story, one that's easy to get engrossed in."– 98.1 The Fan
"This is not an analytical overview of a cultural phenomenon, but a personal story of how it affected one person. Of course, for a game that once had twelve-million monthly subscribers, there were many Daniel Lisis out there. So whether you were one of them, or whether you want to know what it was like, read this book to take a tour through the possibilities and pitfalls of the World of Warcraft."– Goodreads
"This was a very good, quick read."– Goodreads
In his 1961 book Man, Play, and Games, sociologist Roger Caillois states that "[p]lay is an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often money." He adds that games are also a source of joy, as well as a healthy means of escape from responsibility and routine, but must adhere to a set of rules to reach a healthy balance.
Caillois offers such a set of rules for making games. According to Caillois, a game must create a carefree space in which the player feels free from obligation, must not bleed into the player's "real life," must not offer the player certain success, must not be a "productive" activity but must exist for its own sake, must be governed by clear and discernible rules, and must be rooted not in reality but make-believe. These are rules I follow when making my own games.
In The Burning Crusade, WoW's first expansion, Blizzard introduced "daily quests"— tasks that can be completed on a daily basis to earn the same reward each time, usually a sum of in-game currency and "reputation points," a metric used to determine your standing amongst in-game factions. Once your reputation reached the maximum with a faction, you gained access to powerful enchantments and items that sometimes proved vital to end-game players.
This feature obliges players to check back in on a daily basis to meet standards that were being set by raiding guilds, adding yet another necessary task to keep up with being a good guild member—breaking one of Caillois's rules for play.
For many hardcore raiders, myself included, raiding started to feel like a second job. The social obligation and the risk of being removed from your role in a guild motivates hardcore players to return to the game on a habitual, regimented basis. The chance at better equipment and the opportunity to see game content unfold was only possible when you clocked in every day. Your commitment, then, is not to the game itself but to your community.
This is no accident. In the 2011 book Building Successful Online Communities, the authors of a chapter called "Encouraging Commitment in Online Communities" advise that community designers "make design decisions that influence whether and how people will become committed to a community," noting that "[c]ommitted members work harder, say more, do more, and stick with a community after it becomes established. They care enough to help with community activities and to sustain the group through problems."
In WoW, the more work you put into raiding, the more content your guild unlocks and the better gear your team acquires. As Paul McCartney wrote in "The End": "And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make"—just replace the first "love" with "gear" and the second "love" with "raids."
And raids are not just played but studied. We always knew about the raid bosses we were to encounter, even if it was our first time facing them. Every item a boss could yield was calculated down to the percentage rate of their dropping. Updates on raid content were carefully spaced out just enough so that when the majority of guilds had cleared a current patch's raid, new content was around the corner.
Hardcore raiding schedules turn an otherwise unproductive "leisure" activity into a competitive sport, whether you're "only" vying for supremacy on your server like we were or competing internationally against top-tier guilds. The rules of the game at this level weren't only set by Blizzard developers but also by the WoW community itself. The obligations and stresses of World of Warcraft were created by us.
Alex Golub's 2010 article "Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Realism, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game," outlines this progression succinctly:
These instances generally follow a certain "progression": you must kill all of the bosses in one instance before you can kill the bosses in another instance. A guild's success and seriousness is measured by how far it has "progressed" in "end-game content." It is this goal of progression that is shared by guild members. For instance, in WoW 2.0 players must slay Gruul and Magtheridon before moving on to Serpentshrine Cavern, where they must slay five bosses before finally taking down Lady Vashj. After this, players may advance to Tempest Keep, kill the three bosses there, and then take down Kael'thas Sunstrider, the final boss. Once Vashj and Kael are "down," players are "attuned" to The Battle of Mount Hyjal, where there are four bosses to kill before taking down Archimonde. Only then may players proceed to the Black Temple, where there are eight bosses to kill before facing lllidan Stormrage, the final boss in WoW 2.0.
Exodus, one of World of Warcraft's highest-ranked raiding guilds, disbanded in 2013. Shortly after, in a Facebook post dated April 26, 2013, guild leader Killars spoke out about the guild's dissolution: "It's certainly becoming a more difficult breed to be a part of. What I mean by this is of course the time commitment and the level of sheer dedication and determination it takes and costs to be at the very top... Unfortunately we (hardcore raiders) pushed too hard. Tier after tier we just keep adding to the insanity in both farming preparations and actual progressing. It's almost as if progression itself never really ends after an end tier boss dies. Combine this with Blizzard actually putting new content out faster, alts playing a big role, PTR/BETA, dailies, coins, BMAH, well... you just get lost in it all."
This level of intensity is, of course, not shared by every single raiding guild in World of Warcraft. However, the behaviors do repeat themselves enough across guilds and across servers to show a trend in the type of culture and ideology created by hardcore players. The result is a vicious cycle of addictive behavior that is spurred on by a group of enablers—twenty-four other guildmates participating in the same guild culture.
World of Warcraft's original raiding content was arguably the most demanding on its players, requiring the 40-person raiding teams to log countless hours progressing through content. On his blog Hardcore Casual, WoW player SynCaine wrote a post in 2007 titled "Looking in the Mirror; the Sickness that Was WoW Raiding." The author was the main tank for a top-tier raiding guild, as well as an officer in the guild's hierarchy. The guild raided six nights a week, starting around 7 p.m. and ending around 1 or 2 a.m.
SynCaine talks about how he provided additional hours around his raiding schedule to provide upkeep and preparation support to the guild and its raids, and only missed a raid if he "was on vacation (rare) or due to some emergency (also rare)," adding, "I planned movies/dates/dinners/etc. around raids."
SynCaine's raiding attendance was around 90-95%, but regardless of his effort and the amount of hours he spent outside of raiding, he writes:
I always felt I could be doing more, that our guild was not progressing fast enough, that we were not learning encounters as quickly as we should be, or that our membership was not stable enough to push faster. I spent a good amount of time on our guild forums discussing ways to improve our progress and increase our pace. I remember getting frustrated with members who would not log on consistently, or who had to leave a raid halfway in. We knew exactly who our best healer/DPS/support players were; we had the guild all-stars and we had the rest. I could take one look at a raid and know if we had a chance for progress or not, simply based on how many of our 'key' players were on that night. The players who, like me, were consistently online and put in the extra effort to read up on strategies and farm up potions/buff items. It was a constant effort to find those types of players to replace those that 'only' raided 3-4 nights a week, those that did not put in the 2-3 hours to farm up potions or read extensive strategy write-ups.
Whenever I did miss a raid, I would hear about it the next day; and at worst find out that the raid had not gone as planned due to lacking a tank. This guilt factored in heavily in making me log on. I felt that if I take a night off, I would be letting 39 others down, people who depended on me to be there. [...] Most of all, I did not want to act like the people who I was trying to remove, the 'casual' raiders who did not dedicate 5-7 nights a week to the guild.
The game became a stressful obligation rife with social dependencies and pressure. What ended up getting to SynCaine, though, was simply boredom. Eventually, clearing the same content with the same people week after week got stale. A full-sized World of Warcraft raid typically housed eight to ten bosses, and took around two months to clear fully.
Some bosses took many attempts to defeat. For instance, the first boss in Blackwing Lair, a dragon named Razorgore the Untamed, took my guild nearly two weeks to conquer. When a boss defeats an entire raid party, it is referred to as a "raid wipe." Whether it was poor party composition, ineffective leadership, or just insufficient understanding of a boss's mechanics, your entire evening in a raid could be spent wiping over and over again on a single encounter.
If a raiding group was frequently successful in defeating the bosses of a raid, the group would return every week to face the same content (or "farm" the content) to continue beating the encounters they became increasingly familiar with so that they could obtain all of the items that a boss could possibly drop. Epic-rated items that drop off of bosses have a degree of scarcity to them regardless of a party's ability to defeat a boss consistently, with each item generally having a 10-15% drop rate. This kind of scarcity made it worthwhile for guilds to return on a regular basis to defeat bosses they've already experienced.
Item scarcity made it so no player could get fully equipped in his or her optimal raiding equipment with only one successful raid clear. It took at least a month of very lucky drops, and even then you'd have to compete against other players in your guild who could also use the same equipment.
Because of item scarcity, guilds created ingenious internal economies completely independent of World of Warcraft's mechanics to determine who should receive items dropped by raid bosses. The first system for fairly distributing items in MMOs was the application of Dragon Kill Points, or DKP, in EverQuest to deal with the game's similarly scarce drops among large-scale raid bosses that required many players to defeat.
The rules for DKP distribution varied from guild to guild, but in a nutshell, if you attended a raid on time, participated in the defeat of a boss, and remained in the raid until the very end, you received a number of DKP. When an item you desired dropped, a DKP bid would ensue and the player with the highest bid received the item.
If a guild established an internal DKP economy, the "currency" could then also be used as a means of punishment. If you somehow impeded the raid's progress, it was common for an angry raid leader to dock your DKP—which essentially amounted to your paycheck. If you performed well, you got a pat on the back with some points to buy goodies. If you did poorly, you got squat. This internal economy only intensified the demanding environment of hardcore raiding guilds. Furthermore, players who receive many items from a guild are often expected to remain loyal to the guild, becoming key members of a group. Pressure to remain active is common in WoW raiding guild culture.
SynCaine eventually quit his raiding guild. "I had had enough," he wrote, "and I realized, sadly so so late, that WoW was now 99% job, 1% fun for me. The only time I really enjoyed myself was when we downed a boss for the first time, and that happened perhaps once every two weeks or so. Near the end, everything else was work. Dealing with guild drama, judging new recruits, repeating a strategy in raid chat for the 1000th time, updating DKP, it was all work."
The desire of more casual players to raid and experience World of Warcraft's endgame content has, fortunately, led to a decrease in time commitment as the expansion packs have progressed. Burning Crusade reduced raiding parties from forty players down to either ten-player groups or the slightly more challenging twenty-five-player groups, making assembling a raid far less logistically intensive.
When WoW's third expansion, Cataclysm, arrived, a new "Looking for Raid" tool changed raiding forever by allowing players to enter a cross-server pool of people wanting to face raid content. The tool would then construct a balanced group and send them off to an easy-mode version of the raid, allowing players to experience the same boss encounters and receive slightly lower-quality versions of the most contemporary raiding equipment.
Combined with the easier raid bosses and comparable raiding equipment, the "Looking For Raid" tool lowered the barrier to raiding considerably, and made clearing raid content a casual endeavor. Players can now experience the entirety of an expansion's raiding content within a few hours where it used to necessitate months of time and dedication—a healthy step for World of Warcraft players toward Roger Caillois's ideal of play for its own sake and away from obligation.
The LFR tool received a lot of backlash from hardcore raiding communities, stating that it undermined the existence of hardcore raiding guilds, that the game had become "too easy" in the wake of their hard work. Others found this to be an opportunity to finally quit their intense commitments to their guildmates, returning to what WoW likely was for them initially—a fun game.