WoW Shadowlands – The Game that isn’t a Game anymore

At least Bolvar knew what he was signing up for all those years ago (Blizzard)

I was there, 16 years ago.

In my early teens, an avid RuneScape player and low key geek, my best friend gave me his 10 day free trial key to play a “new, better RuneScape” called World of Warcraft. It had appeared in a few gamer magazines, and to say there was a buzz on the internet in 2004 is like saying there is a buzz when your phone vibrates in your pocket. Nothing like the fanfare we see today.

5 discs, some troubleshooting and nearly 2 days later, I logged onto my Tauren Shaman, created on a realm I can’t remember, for an account I have long, long since lost. Of all the early experiences I remember from WoW, I will never forget the music of the Barrens, Mulgore and Orgrimmar. Even now on the rare occasions I turn the music on and fly through these old areas I get a little tinge of nostalgia. The memories of being young, curious and not knowing the world ahead. The feeling of endless possibilities.

There was nothing more exciting than this loading screen – wonders await (Blizzard Entertainment)

16 years later I log into World of Warcraft: Shadowlands on launch day. I’ve played in the intervening time, most of it actually, despite a 3 month break here, a few weeks there, half a year at the end of expansion… you know, the usual wow devotee lifecycle. A lot has changed in this time, obviously. Instead of a feeling of endless possibilities I had prepared an endless list of chores, selected through weeks of scouring the internet for tips, features and “Everything you need to get ready for raiding in Shadowlands.”

After the initial race to 60, I got on with Torghast, Covenant quests, Mythics, Mission Tables, Anima grinding blah blah blah…. you get the picture. And the thing is, if you have played WoW for any period of time, you really do.

I was tempted to write a review of Shadowlands, but on thinking about it there is simply no need. Despite it being a very popular expansion that has brought millions back to the game, and despite it having many interesting mechanics and features to go through, that is not the point of WoW Shadowlands.

The fact is; nobody who bought Shadowlands bought it for the game. They bought it for the membership.

The Well Trodden Path

I had phases to WoW life. There was my clueless stabbing things as a warlock phase where I didn’t really get it. I got good, was hardcore for a short while, raid lead for a bit, started my own incredibly short lived guild, in between guild jumping either due to being a little git or the guild exploding as many used to. About 7 years ago however, I found my way into my current guild, a nice casual raiding set up with a committed string of the “usuals” and a by and large nice bunch running the show.

I used to think that this pattern was relatively unique to me. A little upstart who matured a bit and realised that a chill group of players was no bad thing. Recently I realised this isn’t the case.

There are two types of WoW player who bought Shadowlands. The veterans like me, who have amassed 100s of days of played time, and IRL friends of the veterans, who were introduced latterly after months or years of nagging to give WoW a go. When I look around my guild today with nearly 20-30 players on at any one time, most all of them have been in the guild for years. The newer members are either nomads who came back to the game to a defunct guild and moved, or friends/partners/KIDS (makes me feel old) of the vets.

“Fancy giving WoW a try with Shadowlands Bob? Sure thing Jane, need to find a guild though, “Raiders of your Mum” packed up at the end of Mists – Steve coming back too?”

Every returning player ever

The point is, nobody in this guild is new. Not, saw it on an advert and thought they would give it a try new at least. These are all players with an attachment to the game, usually because of the people already in it.

Geeks before it was cool

I used to laugh at how ridiculous this guy was… would never be me right? Right?? (Comedy Central)

Speaking of those people, WoW has always carried a stigma for being a “geeky game.” The South Park parody of an overweight, balding man slouched at his desk, spending all day playing WoW has never really gone away. Unfortunately as I get older and rounder my destiny is only getting closer to this image, rather than further.

The players who stick around the longest and spend the most time online do inevitably seem to resemble a stereotype. Shy, introverted types who perhaps feel more comfortable socialising online, or due to their situations find it hard to meet people IRL. The dedicated few tend to have better personal flexibility to allow for more game time, which ultimately benefits the casuals who take for granted a guild bank full of raid material and 3 organised raids a week.

Increasingly these casual players are counting for a higher percentage of the overall player base. Gaming is no longer the niche hobby for people that didn’t go outside enough, and ever since the late 2000’s people from all backgrounds have given WoW a go. I’ve known top CEO’s who play, as well as athletes and as Henry Cavill revealed, Superman himself. My partner, who barely played games before she met me is now an avid player, who unlike me commits to a 6 monthly sub, whereas I still lie to myself that I could quit any time with my monthly membership.

Indeed, the “couple” demographic has skyrocketed, with parents or busy professionals who don’t have the time or flexibility to go out and socialise adopting the game for a bit of much needed respite. It goes without saying that the up-take was higher than usual to Covid, where a £9.99 subscription suddenly sounds like a steal to fill a month of lost time.

So what is Shadowlands actually like to play?

Whilst we can debate whether Torghast is fun or infuriating, if there are too many checklists or if it’s an alt friendly iteration, the simple fact is it’s the same as every other wow expansion.

Garrison, Order Hall, Covenant, whatever it’s called this time (Blizzard Entertainment)

Ok that is an over simplification. A lot of things have been done better, content is more accessible and the weekly releases make the experience last a little longer between patches. These are all good things, and you have to commend Blizzard for continuing to improve a game that is 16 years old, even if they spent plenty of time ruining it in the past.

In truth; the gameplay is and has for some time, been pretty poor in WoW. There is only so much you can do with this kind of system which is fundamentally the same as it was in 2004. To add that being in a very casual guild that takes anyone who wants to raid, progress is pretty slow. The stuff outside raiding is fine, but like most time sinks it quickly becomes a list of chores rather than any intriguing tasks. They can be grey, brown, large, small, fel, infected, enraged, empowered, mechanic, undead or infused with arcane energy, but once you’ve killed one boar you’ve killed them all.

So the fact remains, whatever the latest gimmick, raid structure or feature you will end up doing the same things that you have been doing since probably Wrath of the Lich King 10 years ago:

  1. Level Main
  2. Gear Main
  3. Grind Resources
  4. Raid/PVP/Dungeon with Main
  5. Run out of things to do with Main
  6. Level Alt (Return to step 1)

Is this a bad thing? No not particularly. Many players appreciate the familiarity – I remember the dread of logging onto Elder Scrolls Online only to find I had gone from defeating the Lich King to some noob with a stick. Sure the gameplay was good, probably better than WoW’s quite linear target + rotation style, but I had no grounding here, no knowledge of where things are or old friends to talk to. Not long after wanting to try something new, I found myself back on WoW.

Why buy Shadowlands?

Another £50 for a glorified Patch up date… that’s the 9th one now (Blizzard Entertainment)

There was a part of me that took for granted buying Shadowlands when it came out. Battle for Azeroth started well for me, but fizzled out hard. I wasn’t properly raiding for either of the last two patches, and endured the dreaded “too far behind” feeling when I came back late in Nyalotha. After some alt levelling in the genuinely fun Chromie time, all eyes were forward to Shadowlands, a fresh start where I could be back on an even footing.

The gameplay wasn’t it. Sure I researched all the latest systems, currencies and grinds, and predictably it’s a slightly different flavour of the same, albeit perhaps a friendlier expansion for the casual. I still find that 80% of my playtime, whether it be running dungeons to ensure a weekly item, or grinding currency for my weekly “renown” is just to keep up with others rather than out of a genuine desire to do so. At the end of the day I am killing 10 boars for a currency that unlocks Renown which unlocks more powers to kill more boars. Otherwise known as the MMORPG grind.

The story isn’t interesting either – although Blizzard does a great job with some characters, they generally butcher the cohesion of the expansions themselves. Bloated, confusing, repetitive, and in reality the WoW story finished with Arthas, or the Legion at a push. There was no need for Deathwing, Panda’s or Time travel, not when Azshara, one of the original big bads of Warcraft is reduced to a pretty meh patch in a meh expansion. Shadowlands takes us to the afterlife, and though I like the weekly/episodic nature of the storyline; it makes absolutely no sense. I literally have no idea what is happening or the consequences of anything. But I will kill 10 afterlife plagued boars for a new sword. I mean with that mastery/haste combo I can’t afford not to.

So it wasn’t gameplay, it wasn’t story.

Why did I come back to WoW?

Well of course I came back for the people. Which feels bizarre to say really. The majority are people I’ve never met, but I have them on Facebook, or Battle.net, or their numbers. I could call them at any time, but I wouldn’t do that. We aren’t that kind of friend, we are the type that log on and play WoW together. On a Saturday afternoon a bunch of people just sit in voice chat hanging out whilst they hack away at their dailies. I could go on voice chat without playing… but that would be… odd. When you don’t have an active sub you aren’t one of the gang. You will miss the time Tim died on the first boss, or how Anne keeps getting all the loot. All the in jokes, the banter, the feeling of inclusivity. It just isn’t there without playing the game.

If you are an old time player you remember this (Mumble)

To come full circle, this is why World of Warcraft simply isn’t a video game any more. It’s a list of chores that you pay a membership to do with your friends. It’s the subject matter that brings you all together. Content can be good or bad, but either way you will praise or criticise it with them. We’ve cleared the raid now, I just come back out of FOMO of the latest banter, and do all my chores to not let the team down. After all, these are people I’ve known for years.

Is this relationship with a game a bad thing? On balance no. As we have seen during these weird times, WoW is showing that people can connect whatever the situation, and find time to enjoy each others company even when you are unable to physically see each other. I occasionally play Apex Legends or Overwatch with IRL friends, and we struggle to find things to talk about in lock-down London. I’ve never had that problem with the WoW gang.

When we can all go outside again I am sure I will cut back my time on WoW significantly, if not stop altogether. It can be unhealthy to make it the only social time, and there are wider conversations about WoW addiction that have plenty of merit. Without a doubt though, whatever happens down the line I can see times where I will come back to WoW to speak to those friends, no matter what kind of boars I have to kill when I get there.

46 thoughts

      1. Speak for yourself- that your experience is subservient to other people is YOUR problem, not everyone else’s. I bought Shadowlands for the story and I’m very happy with it.

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    1. Well, you’re not wrong 🙂

      The gameplay options are pretty limited in what they could add.
      It is the same thing as all the exapnsions with a new flavor.
      There is a lot of “chores to do” like killing 10 boars.

      But somehow it feels worse than that.
      I remember saying around every expansion that it was rushed and most of them had a “major patch” announced soon after expansion, but this one somehow feels worse.

      I can’t help but feel more and more like a number that comes in, pays and goes out, than as a customer who is there for the entertainment.

      And it feels like they are focusing more on optimizations of their recipe of making a profit than on “taking these players on a new epic experience”

      On the other hand, i do agree wow should have ended with the lich king.. and everything after that will always feel like an extra season to a show that shouldn’t have had one.

      Curious where they will go with classic, maybe i will give that one a go again, especially as there are rumours of Outland coming in one way or another.

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    2. There will always be players that dont know how to play correctly. If you choose to “race to level 60” and rush to get everything you want, without taking the time to experience all that WOW and Shadowlands has to offer – then it’s your fault you are so jaded.

      Dont listen to this burnt out gamer. I’ve played since the beginning and have just as much fun as I did at start. The key is not spending 40-80hrs a week playing a game and when I do play, I enjoy myself no matter what I do in game.

      All you need is a few other players and you can see and do everything. Dont rush. Have more fun. Or sabotage your fun by playing too much and grinding.

      I’ve played almost 16 years and no grinding for me ever.

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    3. That guy should shut up, I’ve been playing since 2005. If he doesn’t like the game then he should keep it to himself. People that like to play shouldn’t have to listen to idiots.

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  1. By far the BEST description of ‘my’ playing experience since WOW came out. Oddly I flew through Barrens yesterday and miss the old barrens and horde alliance fights out on the plains and general yap! So many playing memories!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As a semi-veteran who started in cata and didn’t have a lot of time to waste in the game, i still enjoy every second of every new patch. the type of person who complains about these haven’t even bothered to ask about lore once and probably skipped through every possible cutscene to get through the game faster.

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      1. I am someone who has read every book and gets deep into the lore of the entire, quite extensive, universe they have built. The lore/story is very cool and exciting right now. I was more excited for Shadowlands purely for the storey more than anything and have not been disappointed. This article tells me you either don’t like fantasy rpgs or don’t like the fantasy behind this one. I do the usual end game stuff, keys in the plus 10-15 range, raids, pvp. However, when none of that is doing it for me, I am happy just to get into the world. I’ll find an old achievement I haven’t earned, I’ll try for a rare mount, work towards an exalted reputation, etc. because I enjoy existing as my character in that fantasy world. Knowing as much about the lore, having read every book, it just makes it more fun I guess.. Idk. Seems to me the writer of this article and anyone who feels the same should find a game they can love, because this sounds to me like someone that just doesn’t like WoW,

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  2. Played wiw for 12 yrs. Then again guild disipated. Players paid to transfer servers. Me i refused to transfer my characters to axl server i want to move to at £20 per character. I had already left and started over once and still never managed to regain some rare drops or achievments. I will not do that again. Thing is alliancecl on a pvp server that was 98% horde but was slowly starting to get better andxhad gotten to a 70/30 base suddenly saw server merges boosting horde back to 98% of which these new plauers just went hunting alliance in zones stopping them from playing any new expansion stuffxsaw many transfer off. Thats what nailed the coffin shut and i have notcplayed since. Shadwlands have not bought. Friend bought previous expansion though i never once logged in to play it. Bought the one before that but only played 2 months. I did have 5x 60day timecards but traded 1 and used 2 to play classic. Fun memories but i am waiting on the next gen mmo to come along now and itchas to be good and obviously next gen. Notca wannabe wow clonecthat dies 6mths after release.

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  3. Filthy casual! All grinds are finite. You’re either salty we’re having fun and your not, or you got payed by a rival company. The fact that you don’t have to do torghast is undeniable proof you don’t know what the f*** you’re talking about. Get your legendary and get out to do whatever you want. Mythic plus, raids, pvp, your path to gearing is your choice.

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  4. A nice article that says nothing new. Wow hasn’t become this way in shadowlands. It has been this way since vanilla. The game dosen’t change, people just grow up. Capitalizing on wow trends is poor form when all you’ve got is a watered down opinion piece.

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  5. I’ve been playing WoW since I was 4 years, right back in Vanilla. I’ve played every single expansion.
    I don’t like to raid.
    I don’t like to do mythics.
    I’m not an avid PvPer.
    I play it for the damn game, because I don’t care what’s changed, the story, and the experience is something I still love. It’s still a game. It’s still fun. Who knows maybe I’m a rare breed but guess what some of us still enjoy the game. (Except WOD- WOD did suck)

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    1. Curious, do you enjoy the actual mechanics? When I try and get new people to play the first thing they complain about it how outdated it is!

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  6. This article just spews the same arguments that every other individual has when it comes to MMORPG. One thing for sure that you have wrong is that its not a race to unlock all of the renown, most are just cosmetic. The only form of benefit you get when it comes to PvP and PvE is soulbinds, which doesn’t unlock fully until waaaaay later. Have a friend who just switched covenants last week and has caught up significantly. I’d argue the game doesn’t demand as much attention as it used too, sure you can do dailies but its for rep and small reward that don’t require you to do on a daily basis to be caught up. Torghast is fun but doesn’t really require much effort after upgrading your BiS leggo until they add/change the system in the future. Overall the content of Shadowlands is good and plenty, been playing since launch and haven’t stopped since. Progression on Castle is fun, mythic+ is engaging, and Torghast is just crazy hectic in a fun way. Maybe you are just looking at it the wrong way? Or maybe you have reached a point in which you are burnt out from WoW. Which happens, but Shadowlands has started on a good note (in my opinion).

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    1. I think I touched on it, but I agree, Shadowlands is a decent expansion that does a good job of getting the balances right.

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  7. I have fun playing it. I like the new systems. I played wow back during the initial release and honestly it was a slog. Still is. I like the new stuff they added since classic.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Just an FYI, that Southpark pic is an actual person who passed away VERY recently, I think anyone who knew him (I thought everyone who played wow did) would appreciate a bit more respect right now.

    Thanks,
    Beever the Night Elf Hunter on Stormrage

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    1. I believe you are referring to Jarod Nandin, a man who cosplayed as “Jenkins the Griefer” from Southpark and unfortunately passed away recently. Not what I was referring to here but it was very sad nonetheless.

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  9. I feel like the summary of this is “WoW is no longer a game; it’s a community.” Either way, the article is pretty spot on. Been playing off and on since BC with Cata being my “hardcore” expansion

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Methinks you proved that not everyone has grown up. Some of these replies are pique “40 year-old in mom’s basement” flavor. How dare you not slobber dogmatically in worship instead of writing a personal perspective?

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  10. I have played WoW since it came out. My daughter and son also played. They had plenty of freinds on the game and I even went for a weekend away with my daughter and we had a good time irl. But I was never a joiner so I love to wander around without having to turn up!

    My main problem with the way the game has gone is that it’s”dumbed down”. As an example – Hunters used to be quite tricky. If the enemy got to close you had to use a melee weapon as the bow was for range. You also had to gain weapon skills for each weapon. And my favorite – arrows – why ditch those.

    The other thing solo players enjoy is crafting.

    So if you are creating a new race character such as a viid elf. They start at lvl 10 and immediately get sent to do all the quests in Battle for Azeroth. You get the professions but can’t use anything until you are lvl 45!! Did they not check anything when the re-vamped the levels?

    Anyway. As I have just retired I will probably get all my alts to lvl 60 ! 😂😂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Well, it may be true for You! There are many of us who dont buy the game to do chores, who really enjoy the stories, the characters, the atmosphere of any given expansion. Sure there are high points and low points, but if I don’t enjoy the story, I won’t play for a while, until the next bit comes up.
    Or doing any alt, what if someone doesn’t do them? Just plays 1 character, maxes out anything they want and that’s it. Where is the problem in that? It is a huge oversimplification of the game, which is, at least for many of us, still a game, not a chore. When it becomes one, we stop playing

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  12. The game is great. Vanilla wasn’t that good. Youre just nostalgic. Class is available. The push for new raids and dungeon mechanics is fantastic and its exciting to get together and challenge yourself. Its not the game you played anymore because its evolving.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Been playing since the start of TBC. I came into this article expecting to be pissed by the end of it. Was pleasantly surprised you laid out every emotion I feel about the game.

    Don’t let these other crybabies get to you. You’re probably talking about the only game they’ve ever been good at.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. “World of Warcraft simply isn’t a video game any more. It’s a list of chores that you pay a membership to do with your friends”

    This is why I’ve not gone back to⁶ wow for the first time ever. I’m done, trying to keep up with more dedicated friends, the FOMO, getting burnt out, it’s not fun anymore.

    It’s more of a job that I’m paying membership to do with friends. It’s a massive time sink.

    What was a fun discord with my IRL friends where we would play all manner of game & talk about anything it just a shadowlands discord where all that is talked about it shadowlands & I think that’s what I hate the most.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I have played WoW since 2003 closed beta. Just few months in row usually (except vanilla to TBC). While I understand what you’re saying, I do not like that everyone is put in to the same boat.

    I have came back to WoW usually every or every second expansion to check how the gameplay has changed. I do not grind resources or world quests but instead try to maximize time-effort on how to push the character/class furthest. It has nothing to do about familiar chores or old friends. I do not care about achievements, battle pets or mounts.

    I created a new level 1 character on a completely new realm to me and two months later I am listing as TOP15 of my class based on M+ RIO Score with /played of around 10-11d on L60. I am also interested in the Raid Kill parses – how to play better and push the character even further than the last run. So it’s about the very functional and highly skill capped gameplay to me. The game feels lime your own skill matters and that’s important for me.

    I bought the three month subscription and now at two months I feel like there’s one month left for me – tops. At 38, with full time job and family with two childrens, I feel like I have put a lot of time to the game but I never felt it forced me to do something I didn’t want to. I have chosen to push higher M+ keys with random players instead of a closely nit group of friends. I like the ease of access. I can play when I want and choose what activities I spend my time on.

    I certainly play the game for the game and nothing else. I do not know or care about the story either and the world is filled with various immersion breaking things, but it just doesn’t matter.

    WoW is sort of Asteroids to me where an expansion brings a new level and other changes to the gameplay which I then want to try out, explore and understand, until I feel like I have peaked effort/reward-wise. Then it’s time to move to the next game.

    Having played pretty much everything since C64s on any imaginable platform, I still consider WoW to be one of the best games I have ever played.

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  16. Honestly this sounds like a regretful addiction. You know why you don’t want to do this, but you don’t stop. This entire article reads like a cry for help. Maybe you should cancel that subscription and explore different things. There are plenty of 16 year veterans excited about the new things and the rehashing of old. You probably think every older players experience has been similar to yours but as the saying goes “birds of a feather flock together,” you should look into finding a group of people you wouldn’t normally talk to and see how their experiences are.

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  17. This is a very bitter article …
    Let me ask you two things for you to confirm your arguments
    – Have you caped achievements points
    – list 10 things from your “before” that made the game endless and that you don’t have today

    Thank you

    Like

  18. “Glorified update” is pretty harsh for thousands of hours of brand new content, systems and zones.

    I’ve been playing since launch and WoW is in better place now than ever before.

    WOW is, at its core an mmorpg but if the grind starts to burn you out it’s also an incredibly in depth PvP arena, logic puzzle, treasure hunt and even a Pokémon battler.

    Wow is also very accessible with add-ons that let you do everything from practice boss mechanics to having complete control over your UI and several guides and communities to help you with anything.
    I left after 8.3 like most and when I got back my guild had disbanded but I was invited to a social guild while leveling and immediately got invited to a leveling group and after everyone had capped people were there to ask if we needed help doing mythics.

    Wow infaticly is its community, that’s not why I come back but it’s why I’m staying.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. There are no chores if you don’t wish there to be. Also remember this is a video game and video games have things to do that lead to greater rewards – sometimes when I hear people complain about dailies I wonder if that person would just prefer if they rolled a fresh toon, logged in, were instantly levelled to max and given all the gear on a silver platter without having to earn a lick of it. You can gear up from casual pvp, mythics or just by doing the weekly storyline. It takes half the time now to level a new character from the start. Casuals have been able to experience raid content where they never could in the past. Grinds are there if you want them but they’re just for transmogs, pets, mounts, etc. Regular dungeons these days are more like an easy mode dungeon, heroics are like regulars were and mythics are the new heroics and increase in difficulty so theirs effectively a much more diverse difficulty spectrum in the game. Their ability to string together a narrative has ways been strong but they seem to improve each expansion. Their artistry is as strong as its ever been. I find there are three types of vanilla wow players. People who enjoy the changes, people who don’t and people who are nostalgia gamers. Don’t get me wrong, I miss those days too but those days are in the past and I don’t think playing wow classic is the answer to wanting to go back. On the other hand if people play it because they honestly prefer it then more power to you! Personally I’m too old for that shit 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Yeah we get it you don’t like it anymore. Those of us that do have been tired of hearing you complain for more than a decade. You are less important to the game than the guy who sweeps the floor at blizzard. If you are doing something that you don’t like that you don’t want to do any longer ffs quit.

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  21. All valid points. I still think WOW is fun. I just wish they’d take more time to develop the RP mechanisms in the game . Role playing games like grand theft auto are dominating twitch these days. It would bring more viewers, and dynamic gameplay to WOW, if we had more ways to interact with players.

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  22. I am surprised nobody touched on this but me personally play as a form of escapism. Not big fan of raiding or dungeoning, massive dislike for PvP but I can level alt after alt while enjoying views and soundtrack, immersing myself with this great fantasy world. Additional mechanics only make it more interesting. I don’t think I grinded at all during my 12 years of playing.

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  23. I was one of the millions who started playing during Lich King. I fell in love with the game immediately and landed with a guild filled with players whose sense of humor matched my own. As a raider I hit my stride late in Lich and really blossomed in Cata. But after that, my raiding interest waned and I’ve basically found myself only playing during the fall, starting sometime just before Brewfest and usually stopping by the end of Winter Veil. Now, I mostly spend time alone in the game, going through old content just to remember those good times.

    Like

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