The best thing about getting together to play an MMORPG with your friends is knowing you’ll have people to shoot the shit with when you’re grinding out low-level quests. The worst thing about playing an MMORPG with your friends is that it sucks more when they leave you behind.
Instead of hanging out at the local dive bar or playing yet more Super Smash Bros. in someone’s living room, my friends and I decided to spend our weekends running around World of Warcraft Classic as a band of ugly Horde hooligans. Optimistic that we’d stick things out together, we engineered a balanced party—a warrior, a shaman, and a hunter—and excitedly talked over what professions we’d take on to boost the party’s equipment. Meeting in-game together for the first time, we cheered when we took down a tiger three times faster than we had on our own. We spoke in silly role-play voices and acted out ridiculous emotes.
Then, we damned ourselves with a social contract: to wait up for each other if someone leveled too quickly.
World of Warcraft Classic is unambiguously better with friends, especially in its early stages. It’s a punishing game that makes you earn the more beautiful zones, the more epic fights, the sexier armor, and the more engaging quests. But because the ramp is so slow, the early game is really grindy. I wasn’t put off as we headed to the Echo Isles with a log full of quests to collect the cat pelts, the bird eggs, the crab meat, and kill mob after mob after mob. We swam over together, remarking on the excellent shade of the sky and the calming water texture. We gossiped and told jokes. Each bullet point on our huge checklist went by quickly. And then, about halfway through, it was time for bed. We pledged not to level too much before our next session.
Fast forward one week. We stuffed into my tiny, Brooklyn home office and all logged into World of Warcraft Classic. I spawned in the Echo Isles. My friends didn’t.
“Huh,” I said. “You guys finished these quests already?”
“Yup,” they said. “But we’ll do them with you! It’s fine!”
They dutifully returned to the islands and messed around underwater while I trawled through the ocean for crabs to axe. They were at least five levels ahead of me, and I felt guilty as they trudged through the same boring quests again.
We returned to the mainland. I was in awe as we approached the first city, a mass of spindly towers and winding roads lined with shops. It was exquisite, and I couldn’t wait to explore its nooks and crannies. Of course, one of my friends had already seen it. It was nothing new. I got lost on the way to the auction house, and it took forever before I was ready to head out again. Soon after, it was time for bed.
A could of days later, I received a dreaded but inevitable message on Facebook Messenger: “So about that level 15 cap...” I was level 9.
As my friends kept chugging through the low-level quests and discovering new zones, I kept finding reasons not to play. The quest I stopped on was boring, or I wasn’t sure I could take on higher-level monsters that might attack without provocation. I wasn’t in a guild yet, either, and didn’t want to upset my friends by joining one and finding new allies. Other games had fewer barriers to entry before the funtimes: Overwatch, Magic: The Gathering Arena, Control, Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Opening the Battle.net client, I kept urging myself to log onto World of Warcraft Classic and catch up, but the goalpost kept getting pushed further and further away. After some time, the prospect of reaching level 20, level 23, or level 25 alongside my friends simply became unrealistic.
When the newness of a new zone was dulled by my friends’ been-there-done-that-ness, I wasn’t getting the World of Warcraft Classic social experience I craved. When the guilt struck after they offered to go back and do some tedious thing, it pushed me further and further into a state of dread and apathy. At first, I thought, I couldn’t be mad that they played a game they bought, and I was happy that my friends were enjoying it. Then, over Facebook, one asked whether we wanted to do the Instance in Orgrimmar. “I’ll play too,” I said, “unless a low-leveled troll like me is not invited.” The response: “I think you’re too low level for that one, C. But we can do something else…”. Self-pity quickly curdled into a small bit of resentfulness, putting me off even more from logging in and leveling up. I haven’t played in weeks.
My character wallows alone at level 11. It’s my own fault for letting myself spiral. And yet, it’s easy to get down on yourself in MMORPGs, to feel you’re not getting out of it what other people are when the trappings of success, like armor and new abilities, are worn like badges out in public. To get the most out of this game, I need to recalibrate my character’s goals so they’re individual and not collective. It’s time to envision a new type of game, one where I’m half paying attention while listening to a podcast or one that I play in solitary weekend streaks. Or I can make some new friends...