World of Warcraft is probably the MMORPG that brought this type of game into the mainstream, and it’s still live and being played today.
So I thought I’d try it out. Luckily, a friend used to be a veritable WoW-fiend doing high-level raids, so I had a pro guiding me through the beginning, suggesting good races to pick etc.
WoW is great, and of course it’s an institution, but oddly, I found I did not enjoy it enough (compared to Star Trek Online, which I’m currently playing). Because that is rather weird, I thought I’d try to list the things I like and dislike about WoW, in the hope that it’ll make me more clear about what kinds of games I would like to make.
The thing that initially attracted me to STO was that it had story missions, which felt almost like episodes of a TV series. At least as far as I played, WoW’s missions are a lot shorter. Where in STO I play what feels like half an hour to finish a mission, from accepting it to getting the rewards, WoW favors shorter missions of a few minutes, meaning every time I get a tall un-moveable window containing a wall of text (“lore”) and a button to accept a mission or complete.
Even in STO (where it is at least moveable) I do not like mission windows. They take me out of the story, even though I enjoy the gratification of successfully levelling up. And it just feels hollow to get a big achievement for going from point A to point B.
While STO’s mission accept and completion dialogs are similar, they occur much less often, and one mission consists of several smaller quests in the WoW style. This gives them the opportunity to design the dialog before those missions as a real conversation, not just a monumental text dump. I guess it’s a matter of personal preference, where I fall on the side of conversations.
Both WoW and STO have little help popups that introduce you to using the in-game UI. But like a lot in STO (which came later, so I’m really not blaming WoW for that), their implementation feels more like it would feel in a real computer program.
You can click all of them to either advance in the directions it gives you (which means it will pop up e.g. your inventory to show you how to equip a weapon), or close a single-popup instruction.
The WoW ones, on the other hand, have no obvious way to dismiss them (I tried all three mouse buttons), and at least in my case have the habit of covering mission rewards (and since the mission window is also immovable, if the mission description doesn’t scroll, there is no way for me to read the rest).
Also, the help in STO is tiered. You create a new character, it shows you every hint exactly once. In WoW, I repeatedly get reminded that I just received a new item and seem to be pretty much forced to equip it right then and there to get rid of the tutorial popups.
Moreover, after each mission, I get a large banner in the middle of the screen, telling me to press M to see the map. Even if I can see where to turn in the mission perfectly fine in the mini-map. Even if this is my 10th mission.
One mistake STO makes with help I don’t want to repeat is that popups contain static text and sometimes only point at fixed locations. So if I move an ability from the default spot in the tray, I just get help pointing at the tray, not the actual ability. Also, any keyboard shortcuts the docs mention indicate the default (they point that out, though) so do not reflect any changes I may have made to key bindings in the settings.
I play on a Mac. STO’s Mac port is done using Cider, which means I essentially run a Windows emulator. Also, their UI feels like it is written like the game itself, i.e. it calls back to the server for confirmation a lot.
While this is correct for actual gameplay and mini-games, it means that on a slow or busy connection (whether on my side or theirs) a lot of the UI loses clicks, even for parts that aren’t timing-sensitive like the confirmation panels when ending a mission or moving between sectors.
WoW on the other hand feels different. Buttons just behave like you’d expect them to, and if you click a button it triggers an action (the exception being if you accidentally right-click instead of left-click a button, in which case it highlights but then never does anything — it should just not highlight in the first place on a right click).
The symbols in your tray in STO have a clean, “iconic” look, made up of simple glyphs and (after an update this year) following a system that makes it easy to tell apart the various groups of abilities and match up abilities with their icons.
WoW’s icons are less clean, more fancy, as you’d expect from a fantasy game. I think I’d get used to them if I played it some more, but they seem to be at the slightly less self-explanatory level STO’s were a year ago. WoW would benefit from an icon redesign, I think, but that’s a minor nitpick, but a big thing to keep in mind for one’s own game designs. Structure them like STO’s icons, even if I may choose a fancier style for a fantasy game.
Especially STO spaceships make it kind of hard to detect when your character takes or deals damage. Since WoW mostly deals in living beings, they can provide much more obvious feedback about damage dealt or received, where your character shrinks back or similar to indicate you’re not doing too well. Such cues on the character models are much better than having to keep a health bar or “hull strength” indicator in peripheral vision.
In STO it often happens to me that my ship suddenly blows up because I didn’t pay attention to that bar and the damage model has not quite triggered yet and an enemy hits me with an especially strong shot. I do not enjoy One-shot-and-you’re-dead enemies in my games.
If I wanted to have an instant killer enemy for story reasons, I’d make sure there is a little cut scene before the fight starts where it demonstrates this weapon on an unsuspecting NPC, and also that the weapon has some sort of “I have you in my sights” indicator that gives me a chance to evade it.
When I fight in WoW, my character is constantly complaining “cannot do that yet”, “I have no target”, “not enough manna”, “this ability isn’t ready yet”. While I like the use of audio for feedback like this, it doesn’t help my immersion that my character constantly talks to me.
This is exacerbated by some misfeatures of the UI, where e.g. it doesn’t auto-target the next enemy, so usually I press buttons to swing the sword and the first press kills the enemy, but I don’t realize it because the animation takes its sweet time to make the character fall over, so I hit again, and hear “I have no target”.
Also, cool-downs and “manna” (or whatever power is used) are displayed separately in the UI. In STO, they’re one thing. If there is not enough power, the button for an ability stays inactive. In WoW, the button becomes active, but the manna bar is empty, and I get “Not enough rage” or whatever.
Now mind you, I’m aware that battle in STO is more real-time, like in shooters (it’s an action-RPG after all) whereas WoW follows the conventions of strategy games, where you click your enemy and then they’re supposed to be fighting it out while you watch. It’s about who you pit against who and what abilities you decide to use, not as much about each individual shot.
So maybe I just need to cool it down. Let the game play that part.
Range of actions
The way you play STO is fairly keyboard-heavy. You can use the mouse like in WoW, but the tutorial generally tells you which keys to press.
So usually every interaction involves walking up to something until an action menu pops up or an ability becomes available, and then to trigger it.
WoW generally expects you to use the mouse. This leads to a weird dichotomy for me because my character is roughly near the object and I can click it with the mouse (“my hand is able to reach it”) but then my character complains “too far away”. Because I’m not yet in range.
There are indicators, mind you. The mouse cursor is B/W instead of color if you’re too far away, and your character tells you it needs to get closer, but again, it doesn’t help my immersion, so I’d probably go with the STO approach even though it means there are additional popups onscreen which WoW avoids.
The games already show lots of HUDs like mini-maps and ability trays and manna bars, though, so just one more doesn’t weigh as heavily to me as the break in immersion.
WoW is definitely the more polished game. I’ve had one Mac where it would crash on launch, but whenever I got WoW to run on a Mac, it was solid. STO on the other hand, has crashed a lot for me on the Mac.
Also, WoW’s progressive downloading in the background is great. It shows you in the progress bar how much you need to start playing at all, how much they recommend so you don’t have to wait, and how much to have to hit the network the least while playing. And it seems to take only a few megabytes to start playing. The graphic design of the Battle.net client is also quite nice looking.
STO’s launcher OTOH shows you 9 different progress indicators before you can start playing, and even a fresh download from the server still requires an 8GB patch afterwards. And the progress indicator graphics are very eighties and at least in the Mac port text overflows the progress bar’s boundaries.
They may both be using HTML behind the scenes for all I know, but only STO feels like a web site with CSS bugs.
Also, WoW’s buttons highlight and track properly and responsively, and feels like one application compared to STO’s three. And STO has glitches when switching levels where the level is drawn, and only then the load screen covers it, so you get a glimpse of every scene before you enter it. Not a very smooth transition.
WoW also has great in-game details, like rats and foxes running around for ambience, or little children coming up to you and asking you whether you really did all those things you did in the previous quest.
STO only has static characters standing in groups or on corners repeating the same phrase with your name filled in, like “It’s great to see you, Admiral” or “The Federation is doing its best to support you all here”. The infrastructure seems to be there, but I guess they can’t afford to script and implement that in most levels … ?
Trolls and griefers
I just had WoW spoiled by ending up in a cave where I was supposed to kill a spider queen that spawned about every 10 seconds. A few higher-level mages were camped out there and killing the spider as soon as it spawned, with a single shot from a distance.
The worst I’ve ever had happen to me in STO was one guy who kept moving his avatar in front of me and making it dance, or someone triggering a bomb next to me (which doesn’t have any effect beyond making a “poof” effect because outside designated PvP areas all players are on the same team). The solution? I switched to another instance, which is randomly assigned to each player, and identical to the one I was in before. It also takes along my mission progress. No onerous “moving my character to another realm”.
STO seems to generally be engineered to avoid conflict between players. Between players, there is not even collision detection. Most quests require you to trigger enemies, so you have the first chance to get them because your enemies can’t know when they’ll pop up and get in before you.
Also, most battle zones not only have more enemies than you could be expected to kill in a short timespan you’d need to troll someone, they also reduce the level of all characters in a certain area. So my Vice Admiral (60) fights on Nimbus III as Level 20, like everyone else, making it just as hard for the troll to kill the objective as for me. Chances are I’ll get a success in.
Both games are great, both games do the basics extremely well, both games have their strengths and weaknesses. And both games let me learn a bit about game design in MMORPGs.