The spirits that I called

From the spirits that I called,
Sir, deliver me!

“Back now, broom,
into the closet!
Be thou as thou
wert before!
Until I, the real master
call thee forth to serve once more!”

When reading Tessy’s final blog post last night, I was instantly reminded of this famous poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Goethe is to German literature, what Shakespeare is to English and so back in school we would naturally read and analyze this formidable piece of literature quite meticulously – and years later, when standing in front of my own students teaching German classes, I was happy to return the favour (muaha). While Goethe’s work is probably not widely known in an English speaking society, that particular poem is definitely a well-known one and that’s not just thanks to adaptions like Disney’s Fantasia opening.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has a very simple message even the youngest can understand: be careful what you wish for – and: don’t go behind the back of your superiors (the part I will shamelessy ignore in this article…I think). While his master is away, the spiteful apprentice dabbles at forces of magic he cannot yet understand or control and as a consequence, creates utter chaos in his study, nearly being drowned to death in the process. That’s what the poem’s most famous citation stands for, having become a frequently used proverb in the German language: “die Geister, die ich rief, die werd’ ich nicht mehr los” – which literally translates into “the spirits that I called, I can lose no more”.

In her goodbye post, Tessy draws another analogy from fairy tales she enjoyed as child, to explain why World of Warcraft is slowly but surely losing its shine for her. She says “All the bumps in the roads have been smoothed out and all the detours have been made unnecessary” and concludes later: “I’m not saying the game has become too easy – I just think it has become a bit too smooth.

And that conclusion is only an arm’s reach away from a rather ranty article I wrote some time ago, when starting off with this little blog, complaining about the decreasing difficulty level in WoW and how it can kill what makes adventure come alive to many (not all) MMORPG players. It’s a natural law: challenge and sense of achievement go together. To take away the first, is to take away the second. To overcome challenges and hardship together fills us with a sense of heroic satisfaction and enjoyment we can never get by other, more forgiving means. A rep or daily quest grind can never be a challenge in the same way, much rather than being a test of your mathematical skills – it’s all a matter of time and easy enough to calculate. Well, another matter of time is when removing all the pebbles on the road will start vexing players.

I’m not speaking of painful gameplay and mind-numbing, idle tasks and downtimes here by the way; I don’t actually believe in the virtue of suffering. I do however believe in a balance between challenging and rewarding game features. To define “challenge” in online games is obviously another can of worms, but for simplicity’s sake let’s just assume that we all want to run and scream in terror every once in a while.

Are the whiners always the same people?

The missing link between Tessy’s observation and Goethe’s poem is of course this: a playerbase wishing for changes long enough and whining about anything that makes the game a little hard / unfair / unsatisfactory to them in a particular moment in time, might end up with exactly what they wish for (given the master’s willingness to listen). And before knowing it, they have spoiled all aspects that made the game fun to them in the first place. You know, a little bit like lovers who over the course of their relationship attempt to change one another, until one day they wake up beside a completely different person – one they don’t recognize and don’t love anymore.

MMOs, like other real or virtual worlds, are rather delicate works of design; to meddle with balance, fixing a little here and there and changing things on one end and not the other, can easily cause disaster. I’d never claim that Blizzard didn’t do substantial amounts of calculation and testing in their re-balancing and patching acts, of course they do – but every change, no matter how small, actually changes something. And very often, players do not actually know what they want: they think they do, but they should really leave it to those who know better (y’know, those who do this shit for a living). Because the thing that players will not and cannot consider (and apparently some devs can’t either or will ignore), are long-term consequences. You might not see the greater picture when you complain about classes not having enough solo-ability (and then, in a year’s time, complain about all classes being way too similar); for short-term and long-term change are quite an unhappy couple in MMOs.

How many times have we not witnessed class or content difficulty whining in WoW’s official forums, only to read a diametrically opposed echo of said whining a year down the road? Really, this is erm….what you asked for? Now you figure, huh? But then, there’s really no way of keeping the whiny voices on any gameforum apart: they might sound exactly the same, but how can you tell they go back to the same people? (No, I don’t feel inclined to track nicknames.)

Which is something justly pointed out to me by Chastity of Righteous Orbs, a few months back when he wrote an article on linearity in WoW and how he didn’t enjoy all the cut-scenes during Cataclysm’s quest lines. Personally, I felt the short ingame movies were a brilliant addition to the game, making quests and lore feel more immersive. It’s certainly been a common complaint among WoW players for years that the game really lacked this sort of player inclusion (the way you find yourself inside the clips with Harrison Jones for example). But there you go: “among WoW players” – which ones exactly? The ones screaming loudest on the forums at the time? The ones simply louder than those who didn’t wish for ingame movies (and therefore had no reason to speak up before)?

When we hear “the players”, “the PVPers”, “the druids” (loads of’em…) moan on gaming boards, we don’t actually know who they are. We don’t know which players were whining before and we don’t know which players whine later (after change happened). All we know, really, is that there will be whining. Ample empiric evidence has been given!

Yet, maybe they exist? Those players that did ask for XY in the past and only later realize the gravity of their wish? Players who cry for buffs on today’s forums and then cry the same be nerfed later, in an even louder voice because hindsight is such a beautiful thing? Are there any sorcerer’s apprentices in today’s WoW community or is it always different people?

I’ve no clue, I’m usually rather consistent in my whining (and I avoid official forums like rabies – way too many whiny hybrids around). But if the waters are rising all around me because the apprentice is messing with his absent(-minded) master’s work, there’s one hope I cling to – that it’s all just a story in a book and everything will be fine in the end. Alternatively, I’ll grab another book if the old one got wet beyond repair. Yep, I can always do that.


  1. Years ago I had it right: shamans are fine. Then they went and changed them and now shamans are no longer fine. So don’t blame me, I had it right all along. In this one extremely specific and subjective instance, but since we all know anecdotes are stronger than statistics, I was right about everything.

    More seriously, I think the true problem is that a certain subset of the MMO population will always be unhappy. They are too obsessed with others. This covers everyone from the guy who is mad that people who play more have better stuff to the guy who is mad that noobs have not yet been rounded up and exterminated.

  2. Kleps – You’re probably right. It’s like in real life, some people are just obsessed with comparing themselves to others who are better or do something better than them and so they’re always miserable, no matter what.
    Thank god I always compare myself to those who have it worse! 😛
    lol….no really, I’m just baffled at times how ‘the voice’ on official forums can change from left to right within days, but it’s an obscure thing at best and so all i can do is speculate (and use German poetry to create analogies which is always fun, albeit not too popular).

  3. I like the German poetry. I easily form nostalgia, such as when I took it in high school, so seeing German reminds me of the good old days. Once upon a time I bet I could have read that even.

  4. Ah, that brings back memories… I remember when we had to memorise and recite that back in high school – the memory didn’t stay with me all that long though. 😛

  5. Haha, Shintar – I don’t blame you, the biggest pity about poetry in school is that poetry really doesn’t work so well when forced on people! 😀

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