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Meet the players caught up in the brutal grind of World of Warcraft's early years

We're digging into the PC Gamer magazine archives to publish pieces from years gone by. This article was originally published in 2006. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.

Marik skipped a term of school, disconnected his mobile phone, broke up with his girlfriend, and created barriers between friends he’d known for over a decade. Why? To play and, in his words, “beat” World of Warcraft. To become High Warlord, the single best player on his server.

For the final month of the grind, he spent over $500 on two things: Diet Mountain Dew (because it contains more caffeine than regular Mountain Dew) and alcohol. “It’s the only way I could endure playing, to be totally numb, detached... only when I was within a week of finishing did I stop drinking to maintain optimal reaction time.”

This is the ultimate test of patience: the ranking system devised for the Player versus Player battlegrounds in World of Warcraft. To progress, you must kill other players; to reach the highest ranks, you must take part in daily battles. Each kill, and each win, gives you honour points, totted up once a week. Those players with the highest totals move up the rankings. The players with the least, move down. But why would you want to put your life on pause for an MMO? There are the in-game rewards (see ‘Wear With Pride’), but few Warlords strive for these alone. In a game that never really ‘ends’, how can you prove your mastery?

Say what

Mojak on... the honour system
“You're grinding in Warsong Gulch for Grand Marshall, so you can't waste half-an-hour on a game that only lasts five minutes. If we're not going to win, our group will simply leave the battleground and find another game. I played for 18 to 20 hours a day to reach the top level.”

Another player, Mitenka, sees the honour grind as part philosophical challenge, part Catch-22 commitment. “I dropped out of high school with what’s called the California High School Proficiency Exam—the equivalent of degree, but you can get out at 16 instead of 21. I’ve always regretted leaving early, you know. I should have just stayed and worked it out. I feel really bad about it. I wanted to stick something out to completion.” He pauses. “It’s one of those things where I invested so much time in it that I couldn’t just quit.”

Here is the problem: every player reaching for High Warlord is in competition with each other. It is a test of your commitment. How much do you want it? If your team-mates play for 15 hours a day, and rack up 50,000 points in an afternoon, you must play for 18, and beat their score.

The honour system doesn’t allow for vacations, sick days, sometimes even bathroom breaks. Early one morning when I was making my own try at High Warlord, with my mouse-hand shaking and my eyes darting around the room in an attempt to avoid the monitor, I realised The Grind, as it’s become known, was beyond addiction—it was a compulsion.

“I’m doing 15 hours per day, minimum,” Mitenka admitted, a few days before he would obtain his final goal. His average day began around noon. “I queue up for all the battlegrounds and since the wait is so long, I have time to make some food, which consists of frozen burritos or pizza. If I’m feeling adventurous I might go and get McDonalds. I always have three or four cases of Coke ready, so I can stay up. I’ll play until about 4 am, when the honour updates so I can see how much progress I made, then go to bed and do it all again.” Mitenka played like this for a daunting four and a half months. “It’s funny,” he says. “If you stay awake long enough you cease to be tired.”

That mirrors Hekter’s experience. “There wasn’t skill to it. Towards the end, it was just wait in the queue, join up, close my eyes, smash some keys, and the game was over. It’s like being a zombie.”

Say what

Hekter on... what grinding does to you
“It was driving me insane. You start to forget what you're doing. You pretty much turn into a mindless zombie. You stop paying attention to what you are even doing in the game. I'd do anything to make it stop.”

I couldn’t face this lifestyle. In my own bid for High Warlord, I made a conscious decision to sleep at night, so I did the unthinkable—I outsourced my nights to China at one US dollar per hour. I’d still play during the day, but while I slept, a Chinese doppelganger continued to play for me. I was doing a bad thing: having multiple people play one character hurts legitimate players by forcing them to keep up with both me and my hired help.

How do players respond to this type of cheating? Some, like Mitenka, attempt to seek justice. “After three weeks of me reporting [a cheater], he finally got suspended for a single week. Next week he came back and did the same thing until he got Rank 14.” Others, like Mojak, simply increase the amount of time they play in order to try and keep up. “It makes everyone angry... you’re going for rank 14 and somebody [else] just pays for it. But what are you gonna do? That’s the way the game works.”

To preserve their best players’ sanity, and social life, some groups form pseudo-cartels, and implement an ‘honour cap’. Players near the top bargain with each other to collectively play less, so they still gain the same amount of rank, but it takes less time. The system doles out rank based on how close everyone’s points were to the top player’s points for that week: if the top player didn’t get too many points, everyone benefits. But even if just one player breaks the limit, everyone else could be set back a week or more, while for the player who broke the cap it could mean he puts himself several weeks ahead of schedule. This occurs quite frequently, even among otherwise loyal players. By their second or third month, some are so jaded that breaking a friend’s trust means nothing when compared to obtaining rank 14 ahead of schedule.

Mitenka was one of those who made an effort to implement an honour cap among the top players on his server, but each week brought a new player that had to be convinced that economising would save time. “They’d be like ‘I don’t have a cap! What cap? Did Blizzard set a cap?’ And I’d be like ‘uh, no! All the grinders have, like, agreed on a cap.’ And they’d be like ‘well, I didn’t agree on a cap!’ So, there’s not much you can do.” After weeks of frustration, Mitenka gave up on the system and broke his own honour cap. His reputation was ruined as a result.

Say what

Mitenka on... why do we do it?
“The thing that drives me to reach the highest level is there's no tangible way to beat this game. You can't beat the ultimate boss, and every month, there's a new boss that's bigger and tougher to kill. The only way for me to beat the game is to reach the rank of Grand Marshall. I mean, if you reach it, you're number one on your server. How else can you say you've won?”

“The whole server hated me for it, people I didn’t know were sending me hate tells, saying I’m a shitty player and so on.” Even now, when he’s reached his final level, and earned his High Warlord armour, most people on his server still hold a grudge.

Only extremely skilled diplomats are able to make the cap work for several weeks. “The cap I set up was done so well, I could stop farming honour by Friday.” Hekter said. That doesn’t mean he could stop playing the game, though: he had 15 players to babysit online. All it meant was taking a break from Warsong Gulch. “You’re trying to control the top people, find out how much honour they have, trying to make sure they’re not over the cap.” It’s paranoid work. “You have to keep your eyes open on everyone… [I have] to go inspect my own friends. It gets pretty bad.”

It just takes one bad apple to ruin it for all. “I had one guy, Calipso... he paid three or four different Chinese farmers to play as him at all times. He was never offline.” After Calipso threatened to make hell for Hekter and the other top 14 members of his guild, Hekter acquiesced and gave him a spot in the guild’s upper echelon – at the expense of many of Hekter’s friends. “Calipso was happy, and everyone else just had to take lesser standings.”

Those who get rank 14 must make serious adjustments to their lives, but more importantly they need monk-like patience. They are beyond casual gamers, hardcore gamers, or any other type you can name. They are in a class of their own, having played 60 to 80 hour weeks continuously for months, on the same unchanging map, with the same people.

Here is my final confession. At the final hurdle, I failed. Even when victory was in my sights, I could take no more. I couldn’t cope. Knowing that I faced months and months of mindless, monotonous grinding, I threw in the towel. I stopped at 13. I lacked the enthusiasm and my group-mates let me know. My two pleasures in life, watching four-hour football games and going outside to get the mail, were incompatible with the lives of my caffeine-ridden, social pariah brethren.

I wanted to be outside, to do something other than capture the flag. My friends online didn’t stop, or even look up. They continued playing, continually capturing and recapturing that damned flag.

An hour after he’d achieved his goal I found Mitenka and asked for his view from the summit. “My girlfriend and I are going to go get breakfast and spend some time at the park. And then maybe later this week I’ll find a job.”

“Would you ever do it again?”

“No.”

Get your honour—the best places to grind for kills in 2006

Warsong Gulch
This is the standard, easiest way to gain honour points. Just sign up for this capture-the-flag battleground, and you'll be racking up kills quickly. Youll also gain points for flag captures, and defending your own flag. For best results, play for 20 hours a day.

Alterac Valley
When you tire of Warsong, try Alterac Valley. It plays a little like Battlefield 2—capture and hold named areas on the map for the longest period. He who captures the first flag will receive an honour point bonus. If the battle lumbers on, most dedicated players will up and leave.

Gank Central
In the hour-long wait between fights, most players head out to ambush unsuspecting innocents. Try hanging around the flight point in the Eastern Plaguelands—players tend to go AFK after the long gryphon ride, giving you a free chance to stab them in the back.