Mists of Pandaria: Playing the Hotbar Game

Over the last week, I’ve spent a decent amount time in Mists of Pandaria plugging along at my 88 Death Knight and 12 Monk. I’ve been having good, if not particularly surprising, fun. I love the painterly quality of Pandaland, hate how Disney playing the starter zone feels, and love how efficient questing is. It’s like mainlining XP straight to the vein. (To note, I don’t think I would like the “three quests 100 feet from the giver” model in most other MMOs. WoW gets away with it because the world is openly a means to an end). While many aspects of the game have evolved, the fact that combat hasn’t stands out.

Dodging and movement have become qualities people have trouble living without. Once you have experienced them, it feels odd and off-putting to go back to a game without. Mists of Pandaria has done its best to circumvent this problem by building reactionary elements into the leveling process. This, in fairness, is great training for heroics and raiding but can’t compete with games designed with movement in mind. WoW might reasonably be called a “classic MMORPG” at this point. Its art holds up but its gameplay is quickly becoming something current developers are avoiding.

When movement means so little, ability selection and timing are elevated beyond all else. Optimizing your class comes down to mastering rotation and priority, hitting this flashing ability in the fewest milliseconds possible. What is interesting is that it’s not a deal breaker for me, and given enough time, I actually come to enjoy the groove. I get a sense of tunnel vision towards my hotbars that is anathema to raiding but quite spellbinding for leveling. Of course, it happens that from time to time you look up to see your rapidly depleting health, but hey, that’s why your screen flashes red.

I’m being facetious but it’s true. Most of WoW is a hotbar game. Raiding comes down to doing it with your eyes closed. Leveling is the training session, but ironically, memorizing the steps comes down to doing exactly what you shouldn’t do in raids. Pandaren zones aren’t enough to overcomes all of Cataclysm, all of Wrath, and all of Burning Crusade. Sorry raid leaders.

The fact that this hasn’t turned out to be a deal breaker further solidifies my idea that there is no fundamental problem with the “core attributes” of MMORPGs. Players have just segmented into different audiences. Some people want new systems. GW2 delivered, and that game is so fundamentally different that it doesn’t even feel like the same type of game. Unless you outright hate classic MMO gameplay, Guild Wars 2 will likely fail as any type of “replacement.”

That’s why I believe action- and hotbar combat have to co-exist or, more likely, a blend of the two will arise and trump them both. I don’t find players to be quite so polarized as the Internet would make believe. Most, I think, are probably a little tired of the old but would prefer something “familiarly new.” It will be fun to see where MMOs are two years from now when all of our speculations begin surfacing in actual design.

You know what the new design of WoW really does show? Blizzard must have thought we were pretty inept before now. That a difficulty spike of “occasionally move over here” is worth noting is a pretty telling design attribute.

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