Why do we play Game A instead of Game B? Why do we spend months obsessing about Game C, but when it comes out we play it for less than 3 months and move on? Why do we move on in the first place?

Weighty questions, but I’ll tell you one answer it mostly isn’t, for me — I don’t play game A instead of B because B is crap. I play one game over another because at any given point in time, one game appeals to me more than another. It really has very little to do, in most cases, with the overall quality of the game itself, and despite what some bloggers and other pundits would have you believe, it mostly isn’t an objective valuation.

It’s the worst kind of self-centredness, in my oh-so-humble opinion, to think that my not liking a thing makes that thing crap, be it chocolate ice-cream, blue scarves, or InsertNameMMO. Which is my roundabout way of saying: I’m not playing Warhammer Online right now, but that doesn’t make it crap.

I’ve been thinking about why Warcraft is more fun for me right now than Warhammer, and it comes down to a few core reasons.

1. Performance

As I noted previously, this isn’t something that I’m usually very intolerant about, but after half a year of playing various betas, which are usually questionable in terms of stability and performance, it seems I want a game that’s steady. WoW is steady, uses about half the memory that WAR does, and gives me consistent 30+ framerates. Crashing a lot is an obvious irritant, but general graphics performance is important too; when stuff hitches sll the time, as WAR did for me (though I’ll admit, the last few patches have gone a long, long way towards improving that), I’ll eventually get irritated enough that I don’t really want to experience it anymore.

Another small but important difference is loading screens/bars/whatever you call them. When I log in to WoW, it takes maybe 15 seconds, same when I need to zone somewhere, like from Kalimdor to the Eastern Kingdoms. In Warhammer, loading in takes me almost two minutes. Zoning to Altdorf takes over a minute. Flying somewhere and loading that… you get the idea. It may sound minor, but added over a bunch of playsessions, it just wears on me. As far as I’m concerned, if I’m noticing the loading screens, they’re too long. It’s one of the main reasons I haven’t bothered getting a console since we passed our PS2 down to the kids & grand-kids, because as far as I can tell, every console RPG is 20% playing and 80% loading screens.

Now that I’ve played WoW as well as WAR, I can see what everyone was talking about when they mention combat responsiveness. Take just my hunter, for instance: when I fire an arrow, it zips (even if it also occasionally zigs in physics-defying ways). It doesn’t lazily arc 200′ into the air before lazily arcing down to the target, who by that time may be right in my face. When I hit a button, something happens right away. The animations are smoother, shorter, more consistent. Spell effects don’t stay stuck on my avatar for the rest of my gaming session. And so on. Those things are mostly in the “growing pains” category though, and they’re being worked on. Given that WAR is graphically more complex than WOW it may take a while, but I’m certain that organically responsive feel is something Mythic is striving for, because every gamer notices it — including them.

2. Expectations

In Warhammer, I still feel as though I should be levelling, even if it’s at my own pace. In Warcraft, because I’ve been around the block before, I actually feel no compelling need to do any one thing above another. If I want to run around exploring areas I haven’t seen in almost 4 years, I can do that. If I want to travel to BFE to get a particular pet I want (and no, it’s not necessarily MegaElitePetofDoom), I can do that. If I want to fish for 2 hours, all I need to worry about is where, and is my skill high enough.

bombayWhile there’s nothing in Warhammer that tells me I should do one thing instead of another, my own expectations frame what I’m aiming to do when I log in — and in Warhammer the choices are, for the most part, PvE (levelling) or PvP (levelling). The tradeskills are utter poo, so I’m not bothering with them. Tome unlocks are fun, but it really irks me that I have to do them in conjunction with an external site if I want to make any real progress, because there’s nothing in the ToK itself that’ll give me any kind of guidance, and running randomly about in the hope of filling ToK conditions isn’t my idea of fun — especially not at the glacial speed of movement in WAR, even mounted. I could get a mod that’ll tell me where to go for Tome unlocks but again, that seems to me to defeat one of the ToK’s main purposes, which is discovery. If I were an achiever and wanted the unlocks more than the process of getting them, that would be fine… but I’m only slightly more achiever than killer, and I’m neither very much. In my Bartle rating, “A” stands for slAcker.

(Here’s another, tangential irony: I’ve spent less time switching out of WoW than I would switching out of WAR if I decided to pursue Tome unlocks. Sure, I could use a browser to find everything in WoW — hell, I could get a mod that will not only tell me where to find quests, but will also tell me what order to do them in for maximum levelling efficiency (yawn) — but I haven’t. I remember enough about Azeroth to get around, and the rest is fun to rediscover. I have spent a lot of time reading up on talent builds, but I do that outside of my in-game time. That said, if I wanted to switch out of WoW I could, which wasn’t the case with WAR. Switch out too many times, especially to another hog program like Firefox, and a crash is almost guaranteed.)

Whether a game fills my expectations or not is down to me and not the game — but right now, WoW fills my expectations much more closely than WAR. Which is ironic, actually, because when I fired up the WoW trial period I was almost certain I would come away after a few days, admitting that WoW really wasn’t for me. It wasn’t last time around; but what has changed now isn’t so much the game as what I want from it. When I first played WoW I kept feeling as though I was being funneled into activities I didn’t enjoy, specifically dungeons (instances) and raiding, and while that’s true to an extent, it’s not the whole story. Four years later, I’ve come out of the closet and I admit that I don’t particularly like to do dungeons — for various reasons — and I have absolutely no interest in raiding… and I realise that that doesn’t necessarily make WoW useless to me. There’s plenty to do in Azeroth even if you never set foot in an instance. Having given up pressuring myself to adopt a playstyle I don’t like, I can stop and smell the do-what-you-want roses, and it’s fun.

3. Atmosphere

Another subjective, intangible yet important aspect of MMOs and our own changing expectations. When I quit WoW in 2005, I was glad to move on to games that weren’t as bright — I think I may have used the word “gaudy” — and that didn’t have shoulder-pads you could brain a moose with. When I left EQ2, I mentioned wanting a game that wasn’t so “drab and brown” (which it seems EQ2 itself isn’t these days). What I want in terms of visuals and atmosphere isn’t a constant; in fact, there’s nothing like a bit of contrast to make one appreciate things, and I don’t mean just games.

Right now, WoW’s cartoonish style pleases me more than WAR’s grim darkness, and I think that may be partly why Wizard 101 appealed to me too. The Game I’m Testing I Can’t Name hasn’t been fired up in several weeks either, and I’m sure part of the reason for that is that it’s another beatiful but very grim and mostly dark-atmosphered game. I don’t want grim right now, I want silly reindeer mounts and mechanical greenches — and, sadly, in that respect the Keg End WAR event utterly failed to inspire me. I didn’t even log on to get at least one look at it. Dwarves, sure, but  I don’t have a particular thing for them (I look more than enough like one in real life, minus the beard and male bits), and the same goes for beer. A giant backpack shaped like a keg? Meh, I guess. I’ll bet that event went down a lot better with the guys than it did with the gals.

* * *

All in all, it means I can approach WoW much more casually right now than I approach WAR, where I currently feel too pushed to do stuff I may not want to do, like level, group, do scenarios, do RvR — even if nobody or nothing is really pushing me aside from my own expectations. Basically the activities WAR offers aren’t activities I want to engage in at the moment, whereas the ones WoW offers are. I can fish. I can find pets. I can run about (at a decent speed, I might add, and ye gods that’s a pleasant change!) filling in blank parts of maps, getting flight routes, finding a nose-picking trainer… or whatever. And I can do all that in a performance package that feels responsive and fast, which right now is a real relief — it’s like the ending of a toothache you didn’t realise you had till it finally went away.

To think one single game will meet all of our expectations all of the time is naive. It may work for some, but it doesn’t for most, less so as we get older. I don’t eat the same thing every day of the week. I don’t read nothing but fantasy, or sci-fi, or crime novels, or indeed nothing but fiction. Why should we feel compelled to play the same game all the time, or to justify why we don’t want to? Well okay, some of us justify because it gives us something to write about, but we don’t have to.

Whatever you’re playing, I hope you’re enjoying it. If you’re not, you might want to take a look at that and maybe find something you do enjoy. Life’s too short to play at something that isn’t actually fun.