World of Warcraft was the first game to really grab hold of me and it held me enthralled for a very long time. 30 months to be exact.
The early game was one of the most compelling game experiences of my life. Advancement came quickly and there were always plenty of tasks to accomplish in my quest log. I never ran out of things I could do alone nor was I compelled to sit and grind kills for experience. Groups were not hard to find when needed and even when engaging in more solo oriented play having one or two other people along did not slow things down. In addition to all that I seemed to be in a never ending stream of new places, creatures and experiences that came quickly enough to keep boredom at bay like nothing before.
WoW's early game is one of the most masterfully crafted experiences ever created. It does a superb job of moving you through each area, guiding you from quest to quest so delicately you don't realize you are being guided at all and does so at a pace that keeps new content coming just before old content would start to grow old. It is a magic formula that keeps you playing without turning into a repetitious grind. Westfall stands out among all the early areas as one of the best designed regions in any MMO ever made. The story draws you in to fighting the defias bandits and discovering their hideout right through going into an instance to take out their leader in what is one of the most memorable and reminisced about experiences shared by nearly every player of the game.
WoW struck gold when they stumbled across a world design that established the outdoor world as the foundation of solo play while concentrating the group play into the dungeons and instances. Players find their own way through each region doing quests and learning about the zone at their own pace but ultimately most zones culminate in a dungeon or series of quests that requires a group effort to overcome. This seems to ensure that players are never lacking things to do or the ability to do them and that they can choose to group when they want or choose to solo if they prefer. The way WoW easily bends to fit a player's preferred style of play at any given time is one of the key elements of it's success.
I played for roughly 6 months before I started to feel a little bored with the game and the time I spent playing dropped off dramatically. The guild I was in had largely broken up and on the verge of canceling my account entirely when I started to hear whispers of the raid game. Molten Core, the games first major raid instance had just been released and people I knew in game started talking to me about it. At first I have to say I was not at all impressed with what I heard. Stories reached my ears of hours being spent just trying to beat the first few monsters at the entrance, of people wiping over and over against what seemed to be brutally overpowered opponents for little to no reward.
Gradually, over a couple of weeks, things changed. The first creatures at the entrance had been beaten and the first boss encounter reached. People were talking about epic items dropping in the dungeon and there were promises of more to come. Guilds were starting to recruit more people to fill out their ranks and start raiding Molten Core seriously.
Circumstances exceeding mere providence compelled me to join one of the two raiding guilds being established at the time and for two years we attacked every raid instance and encounter that Blizzard put into the game in an ongoing, and often heated, competition to be the first and the best. I have many fond memories of bosses beaten and tasks accomplished but none perhaps so sweet as our first victory over C'thun, the final boss of Ahn Qiraj. That victory was the culmination of weeks of grueling trial and failure which launched us for the very first time to the absolute pinnacle of raiding and put us months ahead of our rivals who had never missed a chance to ridicule us when they beat something before we did.
Two events marked the decline of World of Warcraft for me. The first was a quiet herald bearing a message that, although easily overlooked, signaled a serious change for the worse. That event was the release of Naxxramas. It seemed to be just like any other raid instance when it first appeared but some of the things inside foreshadowed the detrimental changes that would be implemented in the future. The warnings, if we had recognized them, were in the form of boss encounters that were tuned to such a degree that they could only be defeated by obtaining ludicrous degrees of buffs. Buffs that could only be acquired by spending hundreds of gold and countless hours farming for them which, in turn, meant spending larger and larger blocks of game time performing tedious, repetitious tasks.
The second event was the release of the raids in the Burning Crusade expansion. We wouldn't encounter them for some time as we all set about leveling up from 60 to 70 and getting ourselves prepared for the new raid content by gearing up and getting keyed. The first problem we ran into was that the first raid instance was limited to 10 raiders per instance and we were a guild built around a core team of 40 people. The pain of forcing a 40 man raid guild through 10 man content was a ruthless experience that cost us many players and one I hope never to go through again.
Once past the 10 man gateway we were able to begin working on the 25 man content. It quickly became apparent that raiding in BC would not be like it had been before. The encounters were all tuned to levels beyond merely difficult. By comparison even the first boss encounters, Gruul and Magtheridon, were more unforgiving that anything we had encountered before. Each was deliberately designed to require every consumable item and buff that existed in the game just to have a chance at winning. This forced-farming carry-over from the final bosses in Naxxarammas was the final nail in our coffin. Already demoralized by the internal struggles we faced completing Kharazhan the new style of raiding continued to wear us down until we finally were unable to continue. Shortly after starting Serpentshrine Cavern we were forced to admit that under the new conditions we no longer had the will to continue. The challenges were not of perseverance in the face of difficult encounters, coordination, skill, or ability but instead tested our level of tolerance for hours of tedious, repetitive, and unrewarding gameplay.
When the guild stopped raiding it stopped being a guild. Roughly half the members quit the game then or soon after while others transferred to other servers or joined other guilds or just stopped raiding entirely. Changes were later made to the game to greatly reduce the time spent farming consumables for raids but the damage had already been done. If Blizzard had continued to follow the old model for raiding which made encounters difficult but beatable we would all still be happily playing now.