Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Life after Warcraft

Hey everyone,

in one of my regular fits of navel-gazing, I decided to re-read the blog. My it's been an eventful few months, hasn't it? Back when I started this blog, I predicted I would probably either get bored or delete it in a panic in case a pretty girl found out I was into model soldiers. Well, I'm going to push that boundary today, by revealing new hidden depths to my nerd-core.

Part of the reason I'm having this fit of looking down the retrospectoscope is because amusingly, in many ways, I am back where I was when I started the blog. I have no job, no girlfriend, and my house is on a ticking clock before I lose it. Living in house you know you may lose in sixty days is almost the same as being homeless and living with my mum - you can't do anything permanent, you don't feel like leaving your stamp on anything because you know it might all end very soon. Balls. I'd even moved in lots of my books too.

Sigh. I'm even re-reading the Media Guardian.

Now, to me, the Media Guardian is a publication which is like a much loved but deeply unreliable friend. You know, the kind of friend who is always, always there for you when you need to make a phone call to talk about why your life is "over (sniffle), because she's left me (sob sob)" but when you invite them to parties, they then end up getting drunk, screaming rude words at respectable lawyer friends and spectacularly murdering all of your Neighbour's deeply expensive Koi carp (1).

The Media Guardian is the place where I think i have found practically every deeply unstable but exciting job I have ever done (2). It simultaneously gives me hope, sets me on a course for success, but usually conceals some crucial flaw which eventually dooms me to, oooh, i'll give you the list: -

  • Working for a Lunatic or a Criminal. Or often, a lunatic criminal.
  • Working for a company that is choking to a slow death just as I arrive.
  • Working in a warzone/fascist state.
Now, a close friend has argued that a journalist/PR with a masters degree in international criminal justice is always going to be in one of these situations, because Publishing and PR are dying industries, so only criminals or lunatics operate publishers or PR companies, and the masters in International Criminal Justice means I will always pull the assignments where I am either in a warzone looking for a war criminal, or in a fascist state working with the war criminal on his legal defence. Or, as it turned out, taking photos of his Giant evil monuments. (3)

Well, I'm trying to break the cycle (ish). I have a job interview with a very respectable Non-governmental organisation this week, to be their director of PR. This seems like an excellent opportunity to do something stable, funded and not at all odd. Oh, I know once I get there I will discover they have a pit of acid spitting snakes in the basement or something, but it seems like the sensible move. Equally, while that interview came from a headhunter (4), the Media Guardian has reliably coughed up a job hunting war criminals with the ICC(5), and i'm off to that interview on Friday.

Still, for now, life is at a still and sedentary pace. So i've read highbrow literary books, like Vanity Fair, Wolf Hall and Blood Pact (6), and done other highbrow things that any 18th century Romantic poet would be proud of, like wrote short stories (7), started a new novel (8) and painted (9). I've also applied for a shitload of jobs, but found that the horror of yet another application form is alleviated by having decent TV on in the background (10).

I've also been writing freelance, messing around on facebook, having long involved conversations with someone I'll call Mme. D'Afrique. For those of you who have been following this for a while, that's a different woman in Africa, aside from the baroness.

One thing I haven't done is turn on the computer and play World of Warcraft.Why? Well, thereby hangs a tale...

Willard and the World of Warcraft

Now, I wasn't in to World of Warcraft from "the beginning".

I remember talking to my good friends Pat, Bob and Dan, who were excited about the game's release. They showed me the trailer. It was pretty FMV, and those people in the gospel choir seemed to like it... but it didn't really make me stop and go "Wow!". I didn't realise I was looking at something that would take up huge amounts of my time, give me tremendous amounts of pleasure, but also be something I would regret getting involved in, in some ways. Do you ever think back to the first time you met someone you later grew to love? Well, thinking back, it feels a little like that.

At first, when I saw the devotion WoW was breeding in them, it sort of worried me. I'd never seen anyone play a computer game with that sort of intensity before. Just to gauge that level of intensity in gamers that shocked me, I'd seen people lose their jobs because they got literally addicted to a GW game called Blood Bowl. It was much, much worse than that. I distinctly recall Pat turning down a trip to the pub because his "guild" were going to kill a dragon that night. I remember Smithy (my long suffering former housemate, Er ist keine Nazi) and I thinking that was weird.

Why would anyone want to pass up a night talking about girls who we weren't going to sleep with in a dingy pub called The Artichoke?(11) To stay at home and kill a computer Dragon? Oh, we'd all played computer games religiously - about the same time, my particular method of "studying for my masters" consisted of staying up all weekend playing either Fable or Knights of the Old Republic, and then asking Smithy for a Cornetto from the shop on Monday morning. But I never missed an evening out as a result of that. What was going on?

Every week, at our regular roleplaying sessions, a new vernacular developed. We're all familiar with it now, but at the time "lol", "kek", "omg" and so on were like a strange language. Before any game could start, there was a thirty minute discussion on the latest "patch", and a frequent diversion into youtube videos inspired by WoW. Pat, previously the clean cut type who was pretty switched on, started to miss classes, then days, then whole weeks of university. Dan, never the most stable and well organised individual, started to look even less presentable than normal, his unique all skunk and sainsbury's basics noodle diet making him lose weight at a prodigious rate.He really should market that - it's certainly more efficient than Atkins.

Still, despite the impact it was having on my friends, it was intriguing. I was interested to see why this game was so good it was worth putting off all other things. I got involve reasonably early, in august 2005 - about patch 1.6, for the real nerds out there. Dan "The Man" Vallely, got me involved. He came round, installed the game, and insisted I play on a "PvE" server, which he had just moved to, away from the server him, Pat and Fuzz were on. He was, like, totally going to play on that server from now on.

The choice of server in WoW is a somewhat vexed question. There are two sides in the game - the alliance, who are unquestionably the good guys and the horde, who are all baby-eating deviant devil worshipping fascists. At the time, you weren't allowed to have alliance AND horde characters. So, you had to pick. Good or Evil. Bob, being the kind of man who incinerates harmless fish for giggles, had opted for Horde, and thus played on a different server to Pat and Dan.

And now Dan was moving server. You see, the server that Pat was on was a "PvP" server, meaning that at any time while harmlessly picking flowers in the shire, a giant Orc played by some 14 year old norwegian listening to Darkthrone or Man O'War (11) could turn up and slay you to pieces. Without you having any chance to hurt him at all, because you're armed with a rusted blunderbuss to keep away inquisitive crows, and he is armed with a telekinetic mountain blitzer and wearing approximately three tiger tanks worth of armour. And, if he was a particular type of 14 year old, he would stay there, killing you over and over again. Until you or he got bored.

Or, alternatively, until you get bored, load your ludicrous top level character, and come down and reduce him to a greasy stain with a spell that makes all of his bones turn into white phosphorous. Of course, if you don't HAVE a top level character, your only option is to turn the machine off and come back hours later. And, sometimes, he will still be there. Waiting. Bob, in particular took a delight in doing this, and would keep a brain eating zombie character hidden at the bottom of a swamp in a low level area, so when the mood took him, he could emerge and begin wreaking bloody misogynistic havoc for a few hours, like an electronic Jack the Ripper.

You can always spot someone from a PVP server in wow. It's the way that if you tell them you're from the opposite faction, they will look at you with a contemptuous look normally only given by Holocaust survivors to germans. They know that maybe it wasn't you who inflicted hours of pain on them, but it was someone just like you - and that if you met them in game, they'd kill you soon as look at you.

Now, that PVP lark sounds like a bit of a nightmare to me, as I'm very vulnerable to feelings of unreasoning hatred, and years of working at games workshop had left me with an unusually keen understanding of the evil lengths to which teenage boys will sink. Also, humans and the other traditionally "nice" fantasy races, like cute midgets, beardy midgets and pointy eared emo types have always appealed to me more than dark, gothic monsters, so I decided to play Alliance, with Dan, on a PvE server, called Shadowsong.

There are hundreds of servers, all with silly names. Pat, as I recall was on Daggerspine (aka "Laggerspine" because of its poor connection). Bob was unlucky enough to be on a server called Bloodscalp, which had been unofficially adopted as the national server of Hungary, so when Bob tried to get groups he would be met with a tide of "magát üzemanyag tartály?"(13). Now, there is a cynical part of me which thinks that Blizzard, the creators of WoW, actually want real life friends to end up on different servers. It makes you make friends outside of the bubble of people you know in the real world.

Now, within weeks of me starting WoW, Dan had quit - not quit wow (of course), but he'd quit to go and try playing horde and "like, totally level a shaman, dude". So, I was on my own. In a big bad scary world full of dragons and monsters. Not that I was seeing any of those big dragons or monsters. You see, WoW is fundamentally a team game. Solo, you will often be tortured and eaten by scavenging pygmy fishmen - just like you would be in real life if they came for you with their tiny stone spears and frustrating nets. This is somewhat difficult to take, the first few times it happens. You're playing a computer game. You're the hero, right?

No. You are one small part of a much greater whole. If you want to save the kingdom from the evil pirates, you can't sit in the BBC newsroom and write about it, or go in single handed and kill them all. If you try to take those pirates on by yourself, their chained drugged slave miners will beat you to death before you get within 100 yards of a single blouse wearing, parrot loving sea dog. You need at least four friends to come with you. Oh, and none of those friends can be shit.

Because if they are shit, then they are unquestionably more of a liability than an asset. Now, when you're fighting evil pirates, then 5 of you may do. But if you're fighting a giant god made of lava, or a really big dragon masquerading as the Queen, or a giant tentacle monster which shoots lasers from it's million sanity blasting eyes, then you need 40 people. And generally, while your actual contribution to the fight drops off in a 40 man fight, the potential for one smacktard to ruin everything remains roughly the same.

So, you not only need to find friends, you need to find lots of friends. And you need to be bloody good at the game as well, otherwise you will never get invited back. There are few social faux pas greater than "wiping a raid" i.e. getting everyone killed through your actions. It is roughly equivalent to being invited to a swanky dinner party, turning up massively under-dressed (e.g. wearing green instead of purple), then somehow puking all over every morsel of food, just as it's served.

So, I started to develop friends on WoW. People I'd never met before, people who I may have had no more in common with than a desire to kill Orcs and have epics drop. Oh, that's the other reason you bother to, say, kill the evil pirates. You see, as in any good fantasy world, the pirate chief will have a magic sword, which you can take from him when he dies. You can use this to show off how hard you are, to impress the girls (13), and also, it helps to stab it into other powerful evil people, so they drop their magic swords, which you can take, and so the cycle repeats itself. The best kind of magic items are "epic quality", hence the term "epics" and "epic fail", which you may have heard bandied about.

Of course, if you're there for the magic sword, instead of the magic sword, he happens to be carrying his magic trousers, which are great for your sneaky friend, but sigh, you're going to have to come back tomorrow. Or, alternatively, when the magic sword drops, one of your other friends wants it, and you have to have an argument over who gets it. Now, when you can have 40 people squabbling over one piece of loot, you can understand why you need to be playing with people you like.

The other thing about WoW is it has bizarre, unfathomable depths. I'll give you a quick example - like most games, WoW has little side elements, to keep you interested, but WoW's side elements have a truly mad, legendary quality to them. For example, fishing.

If you want your wow character to be able to fish, it's easy. You just buy a fishing rod for a couple of coppers, and off you go. However, later on fishing starts to become mental. To learn how to catch really valuable fish, at one point you have to find a legendary magic lost fisherman, and on his orders travel literally all around the world, catching rare fish in four different dangerous rivers - and travelling in WoW take a long, long time. There are four continents, and to ride on the fastest horse from one end of a continent to another takes an hour. And that's assuming nothing eats you or kills and robs you on the way. So, you do about four hours of real-time travelling so you can learn how to catch better fish. Nothing else. Just a chance to be bit better at fishing. It's like driving to Newcastle to buy a copy of the Media Guardian.

If you think that sounds bad, then pretty much the pinnacle of fishing is a point you get to where you find out that there is a lake on a plateau in which live magical, immensely valuable crayfish. The only problem being that this plateau is above a city of evil devil worshipping birdmen, and that their evil god lives on this plateau. Oh, and to even get up there you need to buy a super-fast flying mount, like a Griffon or a Wyvern, which sets you back an amount of money that in the real world will cost you about £50 to buy - about 5,000 gold pieces. To give civilians an idea of how much time 5,000 gold pieces takes to make, it will require you to loot the treasure of the aforementioned pirate king around 3,000 times to buy that griffon.

It is the Maserati gran turismo of magic flying things. And you need it to get up to the top of the plateau. And, once you're there, you will find that the fucking crayfish can only be fished up by someone with the highest possible level of fishing skill, wearing a magic hat that makes you better at fishing, a magic pair of boots that makes you better at fishing, having found a grand master enchanter to enchant your gloves so they make you better at fishing, having equally found a grand master engineer to build you an aquadynamic fish attractor to put on your fishing rod. Oh, and you will need a fishing line made of pure eternium.A metal which can only be mined at the top of a Volcano where the king of the Dragons lives.

Anyway, once you've done all that, you can start fishing for crayfish, although you will occasionally be interrupted and murdered by evil birdmen and their evil god. And, maybe alliance/horde players. BUT, the reason you're doing this is because one time in 100 catches of crayfish, you will catch a magical wish granting crayfish. Amazing. That would take...I don't know how long. A long time.

But you see the level of dedication people put in? I don't know if there's another game that has such rewarding time-sinks. Part of, in fact, most of, the reward is that when you pull out your magic crayfish in the middle of a city, everyone in the know who sees goes "Holy shit, that guy has the magic wish granting crayfish". And they are impressed. So, it's not just an accomplishment - it's an accomplishment that your peers can see.

And, to an extent that is the appeal of the game. Not only do you get to meet people from all over the place, who you'd never ever have met without the game, but you get to fight against that mediocrity you felt at the beginning of the game. You may be only a part of the wider whole - but if you work hard enough, are good enough, are sociable enough to be close to a group of really good players, you can show off just how awesome you are. You're wielding the magic sword that only comes from the hardest monster in the game, or you have the trinket that shows you killed the supreme necromancer. Which I have, by the way. Ha ha.

My experience of WoW really came into it's own in the first expansion for the game. Blizzard released two new races and allowed players to play types of characters which had previously been limited to one side or the other. I created a new character, and decided to play very, very hardcore. My new character was called Strawberry, and damn, I loved that character.

Strawberry, the only set of pixels I have ever loved.

I was one of the first people on my "side" to get that kind of character to a high level, so I was always the person with the new tricks, the different things to do, the ability that surprised people. One of the best of these tricks was an ability which let me come back from the dead, on command. Useful for inspiring religions,if nothing else. After a couple of false starts, I managed to find a group of 25 people who were good fun, enjoyed listening to rambling stories over the radio you use to speak to each other, all of (ok, most of) whom were very good at the game.

We had a worked hard, and in civilian terms, beat every single level of the game,. That's harder than you might think. To put it in perspective, Blizzard estimated that around 1% of the player base had completed the "last" level of the game.

My guild kill the biggest, hardest monster in the game (at the time). I think the sharp-eyed in this picture will note I am the first to cheer it's demise:)

That's one area in which computer games are unlike any other type of media. It's not like when you're reading a novel, you get to chapter three, and there's a test which says "are you sure you're getting the complex interplay of character, setting and tone? If not, go back to chapter one and start again". Christ, in Wow it's even worse - imagine being in a book group where you can't move on until all 25 people get Remembrance of things Past.

But, that said, we did have a great time doing it. It still brings a smile to my face to think of the precious first kills of particularly hard bosses, especially Illidan, Archimonde and Kil'Jaden (15). It's a similar memory of the pleasure I've had on seeing a magazine or newspaper come off the presses with a story I've written in it, a similar memory to hearing your name announced in the break of a debate competition.

It wasn't always good. Occasionally, we'd spend literally weeks dying time after time while some people got their act together (15). But most of the time, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now, I was all keyed up for the release of the new version of WoW this year. But, a bunch of real life problems - problems readers of this blog are familiar with - stopped me really getting into it. When I came back, the old gang had split up - most had quit altogether, or had joined other guilds. Even though the people were there, the critical mass of old friends that had kept me coming back in the slow times wasn't there.

So, I cut my losses, and at Bob's prompting, moved Strawberry to a new server, where a bunch of real life friends were playing. But, I'm sorry to say, the group of people they are with are all a bit shit at playing - charming, but total liabilities. Without those regular shots of excitement of first kills, of seeing new things, of seeing things most people hadn't seen, WoW got a bit stale.

So, I haven't played it much. Oh, sure, Strawberry is the top level, with all epic gear, but it's just not the same any more. It feels hollow. Empty. The reasons I found it fulfilling - the people - just aren't there any more.

Looking back on my experience of WoW now, from a distance of 4 years, it seems like I'm remembering a good but ultimately dysfunctional love affair - in the sense that the emotions are similar. Ridiculous perhaps, comparing the two, but I can't help but feel that my time in wow was sometimes frustrating, sometimes infuriating, but largely fun - although, viewed objectively, perhaps a waste of time in the actual sense.

Still, that could be said of every single career decision I've ever made, and like every career decision I've ever made, it has left me with a crop of excellent friends. So, Seraph, Kenjy, Amber, Geeves, Arthran, Lovelorn, Firien, Harry, Dreycor, Dunmail, Libidor, Schwick, Blaadjes(16) - it was fun, wasn't it?

Enlightening, for some, I hope. A good walk down memory lane for others.


1.) That's right, I have the same relationship I have with the Media Guardian I have with my tattooed, 6ft, ex-housemate, Mr.Bobbins.

2.) i.e. all of the jobs I have ever done. Even if I wasn't applying for jobs in this hallowed notice board for the strange, I was putting adverts in, asking other people to come and work for me. Which usually got them mixed up in something wonderful and strange, like carrying Gore Vidal on a makeshift sedan chair through a swamp, or being spoonfed roast Swans by arrogant French chefs.

3.) But I can't really talk about my time in *that* country without getting in trouble. Ask me about my photographs some time.

4.) Not a tiny Papuan pygmy warrior, but a lovely young woman called Jana. Still, part of me would like a tiny savage bringing me the skulls of potential employers as tribute.

5.) The International Criminal Court, rather than the International Cricket Council or the Internet Chess Club. ICC is a pretty common acronym, it seems. Probably a good cover if you are ever surprised by an angry warlord... "Me? A war crimes investigator? Oh, no, General Katanga, there's been a terrible mistake..I just play Chess on the internet..."

6.) The astute among you will notice that one of these is not, by the strictest terms, a good novel. Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel is shit, booker prize or not:)

7.) About Zombies.

8.) About Battleships.

9.) Watercolours of sunsets. Actually, that's a massive lie. I was painting a massive tank with a super-laser on it.

10.) Dexter and True Blood at the time of writing although not sure how many firms would like to know I applied for a job with them while watching TV about sympathetic serial killers or "Buffy on a porn channel", as Miss Marlboro memorably described True Blood.

11.) The girl that Matt was talking about that was called Laura, and as I recall I was telling him it was "never going to happen" and he should move on. Ahem. I have been known to be occasionally wrong, especially as they are now moving in together, 4 years later.

12.) These are Metal bands, in case you don't know.

13.) "Are you a tank?" in Hungarian. The reason the text is in pink is an in-joke for WoW players, and the nature of the question will tell you everything you need to know about bob's character. Kenjy, Seraph, he feels your pain:)

14.) No, really. A friend of mine, Kenjy, quite regularly hangs out carrying in one hand the legendary Hammer of the Supreme King of the fire elementals, and in the other the legendary Sword of the Supreme King of the air elementals, riding on a magic zombie horse he stole from the baddest Vampire in the world. You really, really don't spill his pint, and the ladies love it. Honestly.

15.) "Big Monsters" to civilians. As an aside, a particular claim to fame of mine is that I was always, always, top of the "Death Meter" at the end of any given night of playing, meaning I had died the most times. Now, I maintain this is largely because of my character's ability to die, and raise herself from the dead instantly, which I was in the habit of using tactically. Yes, a tactical death. Like my patented "tactical thirds" in debating. Seriously, in one of these "wipes" I was mentioning earlier, if I was playing well, I would die twice as often as everyone else. This adds up.

I was also terribly, terribly unlucky. If there was a death laser which would instant kill you, a pit full of acid, a swarm of carnivorous bats, whatever, it would unerringly be drawn to me. On one occasion, I was thrown into the air by a giant demon, cursed by him in the air, and then landed in a lake of napalm. Random abilities my arse:) I was so famous for this, by the time we were near the end of the game, other serious guilds would encourage my guild to run the death meter in the general chat, so everyone could see how often I had exploded. Sigh.

16.) I bet I have forgotten someone important. Ah well.


  1. Strawb, Stop dying all the time!

    Where are the other screenshots i sent you? :P

  2. Dude! :)

    Love the read! Got me all nostalgic again :) Sooo.. Devotion reboot in a few years from now?
    Yes? No? Maybe? to quote Schwick

  3. Man, I miss those days. After you left, TS got awfully quiet. ;o)

    I also miss the 'nice stuff about gnomes' I was promised! *pout*



  4. Yeah, a reunion would be'd be like the blues brothers, tracking down dreycor, schwick, jark, libidor, lovelorn so we had decent ranged, finding Dun and arth to tank, then the melee crew - which gives us five more and ... err... then 13 healers?:)

  5. With your amount of dying, we can never have enough healers... =P

  6. I've never played WoW but this entry acted as something of an idiot's guide. Thanks.

  7. A very, very sensible friend who I had no idea played wow contacted me privately to tell me she had the wish-granting crayfish:)

  8. Ah yes, such good times we had. I too have moved on, but have failed to find somewhere to settle. Rather like a crumbly traveller I dally a while then disappear leaving havoc behind. I do miss the old crew...

  9. Argh, I KNEW I'd forget someone important! Sorry Jark!

  10. I'm sorry I missed this blog post originally, but so glad you reposted it on Facebook Will.

    I miss the old times, and especially the banter on TS (even though I never really contributed). Maybe one day we'll find ourselves adventuring together again, who knows?

  11. Hey, we managed to get Firien to talk on TS, what's so 'impossible' about a reunion? I'm in!



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Writer, Editor, Publicist, Swashbuckler.