World of Warcraft
One year ago, I ventured into the land of Azeroth for the very first time. A brand new level 1 hunter showed up in Coldridge Valley just outside of Anvilmar. I'd chosen the name Venatas and immediately began journey of adventures that has become a favorite past-time ever since. I originally started playing because so many of my coworkers on my new team played and I wanted to share in a part of their frequent conversations on the ins and outs of the game world. In World of Warcraft (affectionately called WoW) you earn levels and distinction through completing quests and killing monsters. People who only level by killing monsters call it grinding. At first, I was given relatively mundane quests such as hunting wolves or running messages between settlements. With each quest came bigger challenges and better rewards. As I gained leveling I learned new skills that helped me complete my objectives. At level 10 I ran into Grif Wildheart who taught Venatas the art of taming wild animals. A hunter who can properly handle a wild animal makes for a powerful team to be reckoned with. After trying several different types of animals, I chose a bear as my constant companion.
Venatas traveled all over with his bear at his side. They had adventures all over the hills of Dun Morogh. They fought Troggs and Ogres around the beautiful Loch Modan. (Loch is Dwarvish for lake) They even encountered Murlocs and raptors in the swamps of the Wetlands. Bear (no he never got a name, cuz once you pick a name for your pet you can't change it and I never thought of a good one) was great and though he had a ferocious appetite, he would eat anything. They saw many remote and rugged areas but they also were frequent visitors to the great Dwarven city of Iron Forge as well as the Alliance capital of Storm Wind nestled in Elwynn Forest. Their adventures were not limited to one continent though. Eventualy Venatas and his bear made their way to Menethil Harbor (for Storm Wind Harbor had not been built yet) and found themselves aboard a ship bound for Darkshore in Kalimdor.
Here Venatas and his bear faced infernals and demons the likes to make most adventurers quake in their boots. Together they never backed down from a fight and always found a way to accomplish their goals no matter what the cost may be.
WoW is so large it actually has its own economy. Every character in WoW can choose two professions from over a dozen different choices. There are the three gathering professions, mining, skinning and herbalism, so called because the profession is based on gathering materials. The other crafting professions use these materials to craft various goods. A skinner can skin the animals he or others kill after they have been looted producing various types and qualities of leather. This leather can be used by leatherworkers to create different types and quality of leather and mail armor. A miner can spot veins of ore as he travels and mine the ore from them and smelt it into bars copper, iron, gold and so forth at the nearest forge. Blacksmiths can use these bars to create various plate armor or weapons. A herbalists can spot flowers, herbs and roots and pick them. Alchemists can use these herbs to create potions and elixirs to do various beneficial things for players. After killing monsters you can loot them for various kinds of items. Sometimes you find pieces of armor or weapons, other times you find materials such as cloth that can be used by a tailor to create cloth armor or bags for characters to store all the things they loot off monsters. Wow has an in-game version of eBay (called the Auction House or AH) Anything you don't need or anything you craft can either be sold to a vendor for minimum profit or listed on the Auction House for potentially much much more.
Because Venatas is a Dwarf Hunter, mining and skinning just kind of made sense to me. It turned out to be a good choice for your first character (commonly called toon) as crafting professions generally require you have money to buy materials to craft. To really make money on Azeroth you have to work the Auction House and that generally requires a separate character (called a banker) that can live in a capital city with ready access to the bank, post office and auction house. Then as your main character is questing across the land they can mail everything they aquire that they can't personally use back to the banker who can auction it on their behalf. So I created a human mage and ran her into StormWind. As her bank space filled with inventory to capitalize on fluctuating prices it became necessary for her to form a guild. Not for other players but rather to make use of the additional bank space afforded a guild. For a small fee a guild can have up to 6 slots of guild bank space, each tab storing up to 98 slots (or stacks) of goods.
For over 20 levels Venatas was never separated from his bear. They did everything together and for the most part completely separated from everyone else. I enjoyed taking my time and working at my own pace. Occasionally I'd run across others and offer help where needed. Especially if it involved seeking treasure in some cavernous dungeon. One particular friend had a night elf toon named Silentwater. Together we stalked the elusive Ghostsaber, a beautiful cat that stalks the shores of Darkshore but can be baited to appear using a cat idol. Both Venatas and Silentwater tamed a ghostsaber and began training it regularly. No hunter can work with more than one wild companion at a time because the deep bond that is required to fight side by side, a hunter cannot afford any appearance of favoritism. So this meant that while Venatas was working with his cat he needed to board his bear at a stable. Eventually he spent more and more time with his cat than his bear and around level 60 or so, Bear was released back into the wild.
There is some really pretty scenery throughout Azeroth. By far my favorite was a place in Feralas with a view of the west ocean and a bridge going over a waterfall. I like it so much I took several pictures and then used the panoramic stitching feature in Windows Live Photo Gallery to create a multi-monitor sized wallpaper.
Azeroth is enormous and though the characters are fit and can run continuously on foot (at a speed of approximately 12 mph, is it disgusting that I know that?) without getting winded, it was a wonderful day when Venatas finally reached level 40 and was able to purchase his first mount. These entry level mounts can go 60% faster than traveling on foot and this makes a big difference when trying to get around. At the time, the mounts cost 100 gold pieces and that was not a trivial amount of money. Thankfully though, my banker had been working overtime and so we had plenty of in-game coin (measured in copper, silver and gold pieces 100c = 1s, 100s = 1g) set aside for the occasion. Looking back now it doesn't seem like much of an accomplishment as I can earn well over 100 gold a day just doing daily quests available at level 80, but back then this was huge and I proudly posted a picture of my mount on my door at work just like my other coworkers to announce that I had reached my first major milestone in my WoW career. (I know it sounds silly, but it really felt like that.)
By this time, the family had spent enough time looking over my shoulder watching the goings and doings that they wanted to join in too. My wife created a mage and I created a brand new warrior to play alongside her.
My son and daughter each created druids (who can change forms into bears, sea lions, cats and trees). I found it really interesting watching the very different ways people approach playing this game and how different aspects I'd all but ignored really grabbed their attention. My wife enjoyed "shopping" at the auction house for different outfits that looked better sometimes even preferring them to items with better stats. My son took up the engineering profession so he could build crazy little devices like exploding sheep or a Gnomish World Enlarger. My daughter amassed a huge list of friends in game that seemed to enjoy doing really random things from exploring obscure areas of Azeroth, running through low-level instances (way below their level), or fighting PvP (player versus player) battles against the Horde in Warsong Gulch.
I did some exploring of my own, including an assent to the summit over Iron Forge with the help of a video I found on YouTube.
When (not if) you die on Azeroth your spirit travels to the nearest graveyard. At this point you have a few options. You can talk to the spirit healer at the graveyard and be resurrected there or you can begin the trek back to your corpse in the spirit world where you come back from the dead. Finally if you happen to be running with a healer, they can resurrect you at your corpse. With no afterlife, the religions on Azeroth are extremely under developed. They answer no eternal questions and offer no hope. To me it makes the priest class and to a lesser degree druids and shaman classes more mystical and confusing. The humans speak of the Light, the elfs talk of Elune. But both are little more than platitudes. I guess art imitates life.
Once you reach level 60, it's time to go explore Outlands. Formerly known as the planet of Draenor, it was ripped to shreds and now floats amidst the twisted nether. Somewhat unnerving, it actually is flat and you can fall off the edge into the twisting nether. Some zones show the remains of the toxic destruction while others seem almost other worldly with giant mushrooms. After many months, I finally reached level 70, which until Wrath of the Lich King was released was the maximum level obtainable. Here is where I started adventuring into dungeons (known as running instances). An instance is a place where 5 people enter and fight monsters including really big ones with highly prized loot (these guys are called bosses). The bosses usually pack tricks (referred to as mechanics) that make you fight them in certain ways. I remember one would channel an explosion spell that when you saw him casting it you had to run behind a pylon to keep from dying from the subsequent blast.
Within Wow there are events that happen that correspond to real world holidays and events. When the summer Olympics happened there was an event in Wow that if you successfully won a battleground you'd win a tabard and the chance to win a commemorative pet. I did more PvP those two weeks than ever before. It was also about this time that I got involved in a guild. Within WoW, groups of people can form a guild. Two of the biggest features of a guild are the shared guild bank that I mentioned above and a shared chat channel. Anyway I joined a very active leveling guild. They were very friendly whenever I'd log on and occasionally they'd have organized events.
After one particular guild party we ventured into a Horde town in the Barrens and killed all the NPCs (non player characters) and hugged all the low level Horde players.
On another guild-get-together we revisited an old level 60 raid instance. This got me my first taste of raiding. In one sense, raiding is just like running instances in that you have a group of people and you are working toward a common objective (usually killing everything in sight). However raids are different in their scale. The smallest raid consists of 10 players and depending on the requirements of the raiding instance it can grow to up to 40 people.
With a taste for raiding, I eventually accepted an invitation to a friend's raiding guild. We ran Karazhan more times than I can count and then started working on the harder raids. The picture above is from our first boss kill in Mt. Hyjal.
We also went back and did more of the old world raids like Onyxia the dragon.
Some raid encounters are absolutely stunning in the detail along with the mechanics of how you had to engage them.
In November of last year, Blizzard released Wrath of the Lich King (WotLK), the latest expansion pack for World of Warcraft. I, along with my son and oldest daughter, joined 400 other people at Fry's to stand outside for 90 minutes until they reopened at 12:01am to sell copies to overly obsessive compulsive geeks. My kids still mention how exciting it was. I took the next 2 days off from work to create a 4 day weekend and stayed up late a few more nights the next week to reach level 80 (the new maximum) as fast as possible. Northrend is even more interesting than other areas. Some of the scenery is just staggering.
From here I started running raids together with multiple guilds because not many people were at level 80 yet. This got me the chance to see Naxxramas. (I wasn't around when it was a level 60 raid) And run with some very skilled people.
Above is a picture of our victory downing Sapphiron. He is the second to last boss in Naxxramas. More importantly he drops the key to unlock the Malygos encounter. I was the first person in our guild to get the key!
With WotLK, Blizzard introduced an achievement system to WoW. Normally I would not have thought that earning achievements would be fun, but Blizzard added rewards for some achievements. For example the achievement I am probably most happy with was For the Alliance! You earn this achievement by killing the leaders of each of the 4 major Horde cities. These leaders are Elite NPCs with an extraordinary number of hit points. It takes a full 40 man raid to even attempt it and sometimes they even fail. I managed to find a good group late one night and we killed all 4 within a few hours. The cool part about this achievement is that when you earn it you are rewarded with a Black War Bear mount. So in case you've been wondering what I've been up to when I'm not busy doing a thousand other things, now you know.