Is WoW too polished to be hardcore?

I think everyone agrees that if there’s something Blizzard achieved to deliver with World of Warcraft, it’s polish. It’s what sets the game apart from all the other MMOs out there that are really lacking in one way or another, turning off bigger audiences in the process. And it’s not surprising that polish is so hard to find in this particular genre: MMOs are huge and much less defined and restricted than other, normal games of a specific genre. It’s not so hard to add polish to a shooter that’s supposed to offer its players approx. 50 hours of gameplay fun. Polishing entire worlds that gamers are supposed to enjoy and practically “live in” for years, well, that is another matter. And let’s not even talk about the server-side of things.

So I give Blizzard a lot of props here. You don’t tear your hairs out because game controls are frustrating the hell out of you in WoW. You don’t take hours to get used to some totally unintuitive and inflexible UI and dysfunctional menu features. From there it goes on to things like gear, level and dungeon progression, stat balancing, difficulty levels etc. etc….the required maths behind an MMO could fill a library of books. And even when it comes to class balance WoW does a better job than the competition; even if there’s no perfect class balance, you can still run most dungeons and raids with various group compositions and you can PVP with every class in a way that would be impossible in most other games. Class balance is a horribly tricky and controversial thing to manage in any MMO, especially if there’s both PVE and PVP content to balance.

Too polished to be hardcore?

There’s been voices in the WoW community for some years now asking for a more “hardcore gameplay” approach, whatever that means. Personally I’ve always avoided the term “hardcore”, I find it rather silly in connection with WoW. I also don’t know that I necessarily agree that WoW should be more hardcore in the way I understand the term. I would like to see certain features or things handled differently in WoW, but when I talk about the quality of challenge in the game for example, I don’t associate that with being hardcore. It’s a very ambiguous term that gets used as synonym to anything between ‘hard’, ‘challenging’, ‘elitist’ or ‘exclusive’, even if these things are far from synonymous.

The other day I came across a post by Tony Ventrice from Gamasutra, while reading an article over at Church of Pangoria (thanks btw!). I find it an excellent read that manages to define the term “hardcore” as the rather lacking and blurry attribute I perceive it to be. He also distinguishes the term from other qualities it is often mixed up with it in respective discussions (much to my own discontent):

Six things that make a game hardcore:

  1. Difficult controls
  2. Overwhelming options
  3. Prerequisite knowledge
  4. Abstract memorization
  5. Unclear goals
  6. Unclear solutions

Six things that do not make a game hardcore:

  1. Challenge
  2. Trial and Error
  3. Strategy
  4. Theme
  5. Repetition
  6. Depth / Graduated objectives

If you care to visit the article, you will find further explanation of each of these terms. I cannot but agree with Tony about his distinctions and I find them very revealing in regard to whether WoW should be more “hardcore”. Many qualities that some veterans associate with a hard game or challenge, are actually that: features of a broken game. Annoying controls, unclear goals or directions, an over-kill of meaningless choices, low user-friendliness or accessibility are signs of lacking game design. Signs of a lack of polish. They are not remnants of some romantic time when games were harder in a good, challenging way, they were only really annoying. It also stands to question how beating a broken game makes you an “elite/hardcore” player and why it should be a good thing for any MMO to only attract those few exceptionally stubborn exponents.

I’ve played a lot of the early games on Atari ST or NES and I didn’t find the parts that were broken and full of glitches particularly fun. No, I do not want WoW ever to lack that polish. I think a good game is a game that knows how to balance all things, staying between “hardcore/broken” and “casual/too easy” (yes, I know ‘casual’ can also have different meanings).

That’s also why I thank Tony for listing those features that I am personally so eager to see changed in future MMOs among his second “list of 6”: I do think there’s areas in WoW that should be more challenging or “harder” and Blizzard can learn from the past in a productive way. But re-defining or re-designing what constitutes “challenge”, “strategy”, “theme” or “depth” in a game should never have to do anything with being hardcore (or casual). It’s simply about different ways to approach an audience with the potential to make games more fun and rewarding – for everybody.

“Hardcore may be a badge of honor amongst dedicated gamers but, as more and more people play games, it’s worthwhile to reevaluate our assumptions. How many hard-core tropes build honest challenge and how many are simply lazy design that alienate market share? The casual space may have much to learn from its predecessors, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have a few important lessons to impart of its own.” [T.V.]

I couldn’t word it any better. And to answer my own question: Yes, WoW is too polished to be hardcore and it always was, fortunately! Now let’s focus on the real challenges.


  1. Actually, if we use the linked article’s definition of hardcore, doesn’t that mean that WoW is hardcore on several levels?

    Overwhelming options: Not when you start out, but at the level cap you’ll have several dozen abilities to use, as well as way too many stats to consider on your gear, dozens of currencies to collect, and so on and so forth.

    Prerequisite knowledge: WoW never actually teaches you things like what a tank is for example, or what raiding is. You have to learn from outside resources or hope that other players teach you.

    Abstract memorization: DPS rotations get pretty damn abstract. ’nuff said.

  2. @Shintar
    I agree about the choices, even though I think this is mostly true in WotLK and partly TBC. Vanilla WoW stats and itemization was pretty straightforward and miles away from the sometime mind-boggling maths we face today. the abstract memorization has taken the same trend, I’d say.

    Which would make for the rather strange bottom line that WotLK is actually the most hardcore era in WoW – I wonder what all those players would say that talk the same way about vanilla?

    As for the pre-req knowledge I don’t agree. I think WoW is the most beginner-friendly game there is and the ingame info and tutorials are very ample compared to most MMOs. but it depends on how far you want to take a game’s responsibility to inform a player about every aspect ofc.

  3. Polished is a very relative term. All mmo’s have a learning curve in them. Both Lotro and eq2 have taken the extra step of telling you which stats are good for which class. And I like the eq2 class style where you just pick you end class from the beginning and being automatically given spells at new levels rather than constantly go to a class trainer.

    I like the polished graphics most of all though. I love the fact that the fae don’t stare at my toons crotch when interacting, but actually tilt their heads up. And I never find the controls awkward when moving from one of these to the other.

    Maybe I just adapt easy, but by the above definition, none of the 3 I mention are extremely hardcore.

  4. @Barrista
    All I can say is that when comparing WoW to other MMOs I’ve played, it shows a polish in the sense of ‘perfectionism’ the others clearly lack. They are great in one way or another (also I’ve never tried Lotro) but also really frustrating in one way or another. WoW manages to not frustrate me ‘greatly’ in any of the really important aspects, which I tried to list in the intro of the article.
    so if you take Tony’s definition, WoW is (mostly) too polished (or balanced) to be hardcore.

  5. @Shintar: WoW, being an MMO of good length, is a gradient. The game starts off very casual, and progresses into some hardcore… or does it?

    DPS for many classes has switched from rotation to prioritization (not a real word but it rhymes).

    The options are LESS overwhelming, since once at level cap, you simply get the gear for two choices (PVE: Heroics or PVP: Battlegrounds) and then you go to Raid or Arena. If you don’t do either of those two, then you are limiting the purpose of being at level cap.

    And Cataclysm is remedying the too many stats and currencies. Honestly, they are polishing their game. Making it less Hardcore.

    But look at this video from Totalbiscuit, and tell me that they are making the game easier.

    @Barrista: Graphically though, WoW is an old game. Though, you would think they would fix things like weapons magnetized to your back, and other model issues. In that regard, it really dates the game.

  6. But perfectionism is a relative term as well. What annoys one person won’t annoy another. Personally, I dont see it. If WoW were perfect it would have the graphics as well, to me. I think you would have to play another game for a substantial amount of time to know if they are as polished or not by your own definition. After your review I actually went out and bought EQ2 out of curiosity and find myself really enjoying it though I thought it would be hard. It’s not.

    Oddly enough, what you see as broken I see as a challenge to some degree. For example, in Lotro pre-free, you would mouse over skills in your character panel and it would describe what they do in the language of the game. You would then maybe mouse over your spells or abilities to see if it was useful. It took a small amount of reasoning and taught you the game’s terminology. After free to play, in the character panel it has a description as well as a list of the classes it is good for. I don’t think asking people to think a bit is “broken”. For me, this helps my immersion.

    And EQ does this as well, but in a different manner. When you mouse over a stat it tells you if it is good for your class or not.

  7. @Barrista
    I think it’s an interesting discussion and your own examples are kinda what I’m trying to ask: is challenge (and immersion linked to that) constituted by difficult content or rather by ‘broken features’ you are simply trying to overcome while playing? I think there is a clear difference and I think you CAN define what part of your experienced ‘difficulties’ are because of bad balance / immature design or ‘true challenge’. but it’s certainly not easy to find a consensus there. for me the 6 points in Gamasutra manage that pretty well though.

    oh and i’m glad my bad EQ2 review made you look at the game anyway! 🙂

  8. i think it’s more to do with the player really. WoW was my first MMO, i started it the April after it was released and have been playing since. I didn’t look at external reference sites until well into TBC – probably around the time i joined Raging Fire to be honest and then it was just to buff a few bits up. Most of what i know about playing my main paladin i learnt through reading tool tips and doing. With this context, i think the game itself is very user friendly and can get you to a good level without having to min/max or datamine information to make you the best. Guess it depends if you want to play a game or start a new way of life.

    Sure i got more involved with external reference sites when i was asked to be a bit more involved with tanking or paladins – or if i wanted to prove or disprove an assumption i had – but i’ve never used it to tell me how to tank or heal.

    DPS on the other hand, unless you’ve played a DPS char right from the offset and played with different combinations, external reference sites are a necessity. Taking an arcane mage for example in WotLK. Knowing when to use missile barrage and when not to use it can be the difference of about 2000 dps – also knowing which stat to stack can also make a massive difference which would take too long to research and play test yourself (especially if it’s an alt)

  9. I think what is or isn’t broken is a very fine line. if they don’t want to make certain things clear to a player, then maybe its because they want players who will put more thought onto the game.

    For example, I wish my husband’s gnome would have looked me in the eye when he would hug my draenei so that it wouldn’t be too, uh, vulgar. While EQ2 would allow this, most players couldn’t afford a machine that would allow this. So, I say WOW isn’t as polished graphically, but blizzard went after an audience. What some see as broken may be trying to reach a different audience.

    I’m glad there’s no consensus myself. I enjoy checking out media that other’s like and seeing if the differences are broken etc. It would be a boring virtual world with only Azeroth to escape to.

  10. I agree that “casual” and “hardcore” have become useless words in this context.

    Too many people have too many prejudices about these words. There is some part of their brain that makes them attack the one or the other. They often not even bother to try to understand what you used the term for.

  11. @Grumpy
    I learned all the basics of my char and the game by myself and I think it’s the effective and long lasting way to do it – the best way to learn is to experience yourself. It’s probably one issue for newer gamers too that enter the game now where there’s so much info and they feel overwhelmed and possibly pressured to read up a ton before every really playing.

    it’s a huge hype in wow right now and even if there’s more end-game related stuff raiders might be required to read up on, if they want to optimize, I wonder if you really have to?.
    with this we are back to the optimization discussion, which I guess is a small part of this topic, too.

  12. @Barrista
    It’s definitely a fine line. But I think you can still see a difference, just to name one example:

    1) a 5man instance that is hard because you can only really do it with a DK (or any other set class) tank

    2) a 5man instance that is hard for any given group, because it requires a lot of planning, careful and strategic pulls, crowd control etc.

    it’s one simplistic example and not necessarily pointed at WoW, but meant in general. there’s been examples for this in WoW however and also in other MMOs. for me it’s clear that I want to see difficulty Nr. 2) in a game, rather than Nr. 1)

    Oh yeah, I know that feeling too well hehe! I’ve given up trying to convince those that will never agree because they already made up their minds though. 😉
    it’s a hard stand for gray in a world of black and white.

  13. I still say that “challenge” and “punishment” are two different things, and I’d suggest that punishing mechanics fit better into “hardcore” as phrased here, which is to say: “alienating and broken”. Some players simply want a game to hurt them. It’s a masochism I don’t understand, but seems to be a hallmark of many “hardcore” wishes.

  14. @Tesh
    you kinda put it in better words than me, thanks! 😀
    it’s what i was trying to express earlier and yeah, I think a fair few people find a virtue in ‘suffering’ no matter how a game manages to create difficulty and challenge. I admit I have a hard time to see the line myself sometime – it can be very fluent.

  15. “there’s more end-game related stuff raiders might be required to read up on, if they want to optimize, I wonder if you really have to?”

    I think it’s easier to learn by doing when a game is new and everyone is on the same page. Starting out as a newbie in WoW now is in a way tougher than I imagine it used to be, even if the game has been nerfed a lot. One reason for this is the lack of natural socializing with players on your server. People already have their set social circles. And it’s hard for the new players to find each other and form a guild consisting of people who still have a fresh look at the game.

    I think it’s probably easier to climb the learning curve in a natural, old-fashioned manner if you choose some other game than WoW, something that is new and fresh for everyone.

  16. @Larísa
    yeah, I am really thankful I was able to level up when there was not much data around yet or mods. it must indeed be a huge pressure for somebody that starts wow today, especially if you want to raid you’ll be facing all these people talking about EJ/WoWwiki/XYZ and you won’t be able to tell if they are exaggerating or not(?) killing yourself trying to catch and read up, rather than learning things in your own time. there’s also obviously not the same chances to run instances anymore on your way up, as there used to be.

  17. I can see the difference, but I believe that what is a “challenge” to one person may be too easy to another. What someone may feel is clunky control-wise may be intuitive to another.

    Honestly, after reading his list again, all I could think about were reviews of FFXIV that are coming out right now. All of them say that the controls are better with a console controller, that you have to know some lore to level, etc. Do I think that game is broken? Not completely. I think it is for a particular audience and that audience may not be me. I don’t know the lore and I won’t buy a d-pad just play a computer game.

  18. Syl, you might enjoy this tangentially relevant article:

    The Brainy Gamer article he links to is a great read as well.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but more and more, I consider “hardcore” game design to be *bad* game design, and too many old school gamers are stuck in Stockholm Syndrome and past achievements (beating Ninja Gaiden on the NES!) to see past the rose tinted past.

    I also find it funny that those who denigrate the Achievements in something like WoW seem to cherish their past “Achievements” of surviving and somehow finding fun in defeating games built to antagonize gamers.

  19. @Tesh

    That’s a great article, thanks for pointing it out! A lot of it resonates with me, and maybe he is right about ‘encouraging’ investment rather than ‘demanding’ it in newer games – but then I’d like to see this properly implemented and rewarded too in an MMO. I think WoW really fails at this still and players would be moaning if a substantially higher investment of time would also lead to substantial rewards: raiding endgame used to be like this and all the whining about not having access to the same gear made blizzard open raiding access continuously and create the same gear for 3 different levels. I’m not saying it’s utterly wrong to make raids more accessible but here they failed to reward those properly that chose to go the whole nine yards. potential Invincible drops wouldn’t motivate me to farm the LK heroic.

    I have tried re-playing some of the old RPGs I used to love and I know I cannot play them anymore, for many reasons. there was certainly the factor of suffering and I believe it was Tamarind who once wrote in a comment somewhere that many ‘l33t’ gamers delude themselves by thinking there’s an inherent virtue in suffering. I tend to agree with that. at the same time, you do invest yourself more during hardship: it does make for better immersion and reward value. I guess the question is HOW you achieve hardship though and that’s the main topic for me in my article.

    there’s two ways to make a game challenging and thus immersive, but one is clearly better than the other.

  20. @Barrista
    “I can see the difference, but I believe that what is a “challenge” to one person may be too easy to another. “

    I do agree with this to some extent, but my personal view is that the majority of gamers perceive a game to be good and fun when it’s balanced. If you cannot access a dungeon without a certain class present, you can regard that as a challenge but really, how challenging is that to YOURSELF? there’s zero personal challenge in this for you, because it’s out of your hands. a real challenge would include you, by asking you to play the dungeon well for example – not having to wait on somebody else for hours.
    the same goes for other poorly balanced or incoherent game features imo. what’s the “challenge” in timesinks? just to name one example.

    also about the FF14 controls: if SE intended you to play the game with a pad / on ps3, then they should have simply stated that, instead of trying to sell the game to a PC audience and promoting it with a keyboard at Gamescom. they are free to restrict their game however they like but that’s not what they did – they are delivering a PC version with broken controls for the platform it is meant to be played on. and that’s the main issue for me.

  21. @Barrista: Har har, np about the name thing. B: For some reason I thought you were talking about Lotro. As for EQ2, I think the graphics in there are just as dated, and someone looking up to me doesn’t make enough of a difference. What you are talking about is animation and not just graphics.

    WoW’s graphics are horribly dated, and the newer zones really show how much better the game could look with effort.

    On the other hand, EQ2’s standard looks better than WoW’s older content, but that is hardly saying anything.

    For all the polish that WoW has, it has some very glaring things missing. As they improve the graphics, those missing animations and older content will stand out more and more.

  22. In general, I think, this whole discussion comes down to this:

    You cannot give rewards “just like that”. You need to add something the player needs to do before he gets the reward.

    What you put in front of the reward will most often not be inherently fun. Beating bosses that are obviously easy to beat, searching for other players, traveling the landcape, reading EJ, doing a BG…

    Point is that isolted activities are not inherently fun or inherently unfun.

    – Just running around in ICC and pressing buttons without any consequences (like rewards) is not fun.

    – Just receiving rewards for doing nothing is not fun, either. If it were I’d be a millionaire with my super-cheap, super-successful games :).

    But the combination of running around, pressing buttons and eventually receiving rewards is fun.

    I wrote about it here and here.

    At some point an activity like running towards a dungeon, an activity that once was full of pleasant anticipation can become annoying. That is deeply connected with ‘expectations of entitlement’.

    It is comparable with singing in front of the christmas tree before you go for the presents. It can add a lot to the athmosphere. However, given specific exspectations of entilement it can turn into an annoyance.

    Another example would be cooking. Many people enjoy making their own meals. Not only because the meals taste better. (Often they do not :).
    It is the pleasant anticipation that makes it fun. If you strip that anticipation away, you can access the reward faster, but you also lost something: The fun of anticipating future rewards.

    What also plays a role here is a feeling of natural order. If you feel that it is completely natural that you need to a walk to a dungeon before you are there, you do not doubt. You take it as a given and enjoy the pleasant anticipation: The anticipation of furture rewards.

    But once you got to know a teleporting dungeon finder, that feeling of natural order is gone. You have been spoiled. And there is little you can do about it. From now on you consider the walk to the dungeon as unnecessary annoyance.

    That got long .. I think I will make a blog post out of this 🙂

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