The month before a new expansion is a magical time for World of Warcraft players. Just on the horizon, and fast approaching, is an entirely new world (or, in Battle for Azeroth's case, two new worlds (opens in new tab)) just waiting to be explored. There's exciting new features, like Island Expeditions (opens in new tab), to speculate over, and the always looming question of "do I dare switch to a new class?" For my group of friends, Battle for Azeroth has been a topic we continue to revisit almost daily. And, for my friend Kevin who has never played World of Warcraft in his life, our enthusiasm is infectious. I saw it happening from a mile away: His cool, detached curiosity gradually warming as he asked us more and more involved questions. I jolted upright with excitement when, almost out of the blue, he asked the group chat which class he should play. Good, I thought, join the dark side.
MMOs are massive, intimidating games. You would think they want to do everything in their power to hook new players, but as I have discovered, World of Warcraft seems infuriatingly indifferent about its first impression. With a free trial that showcases its most tedious aspects, an abstract value proposition, and a painfully steep buy-in cost, World of Warcraft is a nightmare to get my friends into.
Just wait until endgame…
… is a sentence I say so much that I've begun to loathe it. Intrigued by our incessant rambling, Kevin decided to try World of Warcraft's free trial which lets him play a character up to level 20 without any restrictions on time. On the surface, it might seem like a great way to see what World of Warcraft is all about. But here's the problem: World of Warcraft's early levels are its most tedious and boring—a problem, to be fair, shared by almost every MMO.
When Kevin logs in to play for the first time, he won't get to experience the cool story and lore that I excitedly ramble about. He won't get to fight epic monsters or explore difficult dungeons. Hell, Kevin will barely get to experience any of the impressive technical improvements World of Warcraft has made over the years that make its world more immersive and fun to explore than ever before. Because World of Warcraft's leveling content was revamped during the Cataclysm expansion in 2010, Kevin is stuck eight years in the past using a few drip-fed abilities to kill gnolls. It's not a great first impression.
And look, I get it. The reason that monster is epic is because I've put in the hours to get there. That dungeon is difficult because I've mastered the combat and Blizzard can push me to my limits. I've lived my hero's journey from lowly pup to ferocious wolf and that's just something you can't rush. But here's the thing: You absolutely can. World of Warcraft has been selling level boosts for years (a free one comes with each new expansion) that let you skip that entire journey and get to the good stuff. And you know what? My enjoyment of World of Warcraft's endgame isn't diminished on any of the characters that I've boosted. The journey is a big part of what makes World of Warcraft appealing, yes, but what doesn't matter is where that journey starts.
When I express that to Kevin, though, what I'm saying is, hey, I know the first 20 levels of this game you're playing are bad but trust me, spend $60 and I promise the last bit of it is really much better. It's a shaky value proposition even from a trusted friend because, honestly, I don't know if Kevin will actually like World of Warcraft, and the free trial does nothing to help him decide that for himself. If Kevin does buy WoW, a "class trial" will let him test run an endgame class for a bit, there's no way for him to know if he'll enjoy the pace of running a good dungeon, grinding World Quests, or fighting in Battlegrounds PvP—or any of the other things I enjoy about WoW.
On the surface, that's really no different than any other full-priced game you buy. You can read all of the reviews in the world, but shelling out cash for a game is always inherently risky. But even if an expansion like Battle for Azeroth adds all new features and experiences, World of Warcraft is over a decade old and, sadly, people do judge a book by its cover.
This abstracted idea of value further exacerbates the problem because you're not just buying a brand new game that'll last 30 hours. You're buying a full-priced 14-year-old game where the expectation is you'll pay a subscription fee and continue to play an indefinite amount of time. It's an evolving relationship that can't be summarized by the hours between pressing play and the credits rolling. My opinion of Warcraft is the result of hundreds of little experiences that slowly congeal together to form a mosaic in my mind. It's a unique phenomenon worthy of being treasured and part of the reason why, love it or hate it, tens of millions of people have played World of Warcraft.
World of Warcraft is a hopelessly massive game that, no matter how hard Blizzard tries, will always have rough edges. Systems like the leveling experience begin to age and the developers have to try and divide resources between adding new things to be excited about while simultaneously updating old systems to stay relevant. It's an extremely tough job that I think Blizzard has tackled remarkably well. The new level-scaling, for example, means that monsters and quests always present somewhat of a challenge for new characters as they level up. I'm no longer having to drop a storyline mid-quest because I've out-leveled it.
But the free trial and subsequent new-player experience does nothing to convey this to the player. World of Warcraft's value potential is unlimited, but that doesn't mean people don't expect it to, like any form of media, communicate that value early on. Like poor Kevin, new players are merely dropped into a now eight-year-old version of Azeroth with a few basic abilities in their hotbar and left to wonder what all the fuss is about while, on the other side of the virtual world, my raid party and I are fighting for our lives against the living incarnation of a demon-possessed soul of a planet. And, yes, that's as fun as it sounds.
The best demos are the ones that give you a slice of everything a game has to offer so that you can decide to go all-in. But World of Warcraft's free trial is all vegetables and no dessert. It actively discourages enthusiastic players like me from evangelizing it to my friends. Take a look at any of the comments on my World of Warcraft articles and you'll see that it obviously has an image problem. People are way too eager to write it off as a dead game when, in fact, World of Warcraft has never been more accessible and more fun. Has it seen more popular days? Absolutely. If it wants to see those days again, Blizzard should stop expecting players like me to convince my friends to play by leveraging their trust through promises that, eventually, it gets better. Build a better free trial and let World of Warcraft speak for itself.