I've been playing World of Warcraft (WoW). It's the MMORPG to try. Last year I played around 250 hours of Guild Wars, but it's not really an MMORPG; it's somewhat like Diablo 2, which is multiplayer, but not massively so.
To get a good feel for WoW, I played over 50 hours over the past 10 days. I tried out 6 of 8 races (Alliance: Human, Night Elf, Gnome, Dwarf; Horde: Troll, Tauren), 6 of 8 character classes (Druid, Hunter, Paladin, Rogue, Warlock, Warrior), 4 of 12 professions (Mining, Skinning, Cooking, Fishing), and 1 talent (Marksmanship). I visited all 6 major cities (Stormwind, IronForge, Darnassus, Ogrimmar, Thunder Bluff, Undercity) and 3 of 4 Goblin cities (Ratchet, Gadgetzan, Booty Bay). I played mostly PvE, but also tried out PvP, both out in the open and in 1 of the 3 PvP instances (Warsong Gulch). I visited 1 of 36 PvE “instances” (Ragefire Chasm) and 12 of 40 major regions on the map (The Barrens, Durotar, Mulgore, Thousand Needles, Dun Morogh, Elwynn Forest, Westfall, Redridge Mountains, Teldrassil, Stranglethorn Vale, Tirisfal Glades, Darkshore). I tried out 1 minor quest from 2 special events (Midsummer Festival and Scourge Invasion).
Overall, I thought the game was well done. It's much more complex than Guild Wars and there are lots of different styles of play. Guild Wars offers character classes plus secondary classes, giving essentially 15 different combinations, although the choice of which class is primary and which is secondary gives each of those combinations two styles. WoW offers 40 combinations of races and classes. The races affect your appearance and give you bonuses and skills; the classes affect your clothing and give you bonuses and skills. Within each character, Guild Wars offers 4 attributes and plenty of skills influenced by those attributes; WoW offers attributes but also 3 talent trees and plenty of skills influenced by them. In Guild Wars, the attributes can be changed to suit each mission or area; thus, you don't have to choose which to specialize in. In WoW, attributes are influenced by race and class, but can be modified by items and spells. The talents are permanent choices, and thus you treat them like races and classes, and have 120 combinations of races, classes, and talents. So already WoW has a much richer set of choices (“builds”) in characters. But wait, there's more! In WoW, you also have professions, which are non-combat activities, such as Skinning (get leather or other materials from animals), Leatherworking (to turn leather into items), and Enchanting (to add magic to items). As you use the skill, you become more proficient in it, and that allows you to do more things with it (for example, when you are better at Skinning, you can skin from higher level animals). You can choose 2 of 9 main professions, plus up to 3 side professions. This raises the combinations of character builds to 4320, although in practice, only around 14 of the 36 combinations of professions make sense, so there are a “mere” 1680 character builds you might want to play. In Guild Wars, your weapon choices are largely determined by your character class. In WoW, they're influenced by class but you can learn to use new types of weapons. There are 16 types of weapons (such as Swords, Wands, Bows, etc.), and each character class starts out knowing some of them, and can learn up to 4 to 15 of them (varies by class). Once you choose a weapon, it increases the number of character builds to nearly 12,000. Compare that to 15 in Guild Wars and you'll get a sense of how rich this game is. I barely scratched the surface with what I tried out.
Each race has a starting location in the world. There are 8 races and 6 starting locations. This greatly increases replay value. In Guild Wars, there's one place everyone starts and explores, so the second time through you're not seeing anything new. In WoW, you can play 6 times and see brand new scenery each time. The WoW world is huge, varied, and non-linear; Guild Wars in contrast is fairly linear, much smaller, and has 5 types of areas (pre-Searing, post-Searing, jungle, desert, volcano). Different areas have monsters of different levels, so you can't venture in to the higher level areas without being killed. With several of my characters I did however manage to sneak by some monsters and get to high level areas, where one hit from a monster would kill me. There are special areas called instances. These are areas that are separate for each group of people playing. In Guild Wars, all areas other than the cities are instances; in WoW, most areas are not, so you can see lots of other people doing things unrelated to your party's actions (seeing other people is fun!).
There's just so much to do in World of Warcraft, and so many styles of play, that it's no wonder people spend huge amounts of time playing. There are also lots of repetitive actions that lead to variable results; this activates the gambling portions of the brain. For example, when performing quests to retrieve items, you will sometimes get the item and sometimes not; when killing monsters, you will sometimes get treasure and sometimes not; when fishing, you will sometimes get l fish (which can be eaten to gain health) and sometimes you will get treasure; when improving skills sometimes you will gain a skill point and sometimes not. Everything you do works this way; it's no wonder it's addictive.
The game was pretty smooth when it ran. Several times though the realm I was on would be down, and I couldn't log on. When I was on though everything was smooth and (as far as I could tell) bug-free. Blizzard seems to be pretty good at this.
I enjoyed the game but in the end I wasn't addicted to it (despite playing 50+ hours in 10 days). The main problem I saw was that the reward was far too low for the amount of time I spent. Running from place to place is really time consuming. At higher levels you can buy creatures to ride on, and this lowers travel time, but the reward is less pain rather than something rewarding in its own right.
The quests were often repetitive and boring. For example, I had a quest to go kill some ostrich-like monsters. It took a while to run out to that location and kill them. When I got back to town, I got a small reward and then was told to go out and kill some lions. I had to go back to the same area I was just in, kill lions, and go back. I was then told to kill some dinosaurs. I had to go back to the same area I was just in, kill dinosaurs, and go back. After that the series of hunting quests continued in a slightly different location with slightly different animals (zebras, more lions, more birds, and more dinosaurs). There were probably at least 15 quests like this. Another line of quests involved killing some variant of kobold, going back to town, then being told to kill a different variant of kobold in that same area, then going back to town, then being told to kill yet another variant of kobold in the same area. These kinds of quests really stretch out gameplay, because you have to run back and forth every time; you can't get get the next quest until you've finished the previous one. Occasionally the quest would be more interesting (for example, collecting dinosaur eggs while killing the dinosaurs), but it only seemed slightly interesting because the quests were boring.
I do like the whimsy in the game. There are lots of cultural references, silly items, etc. The dances are fun (for example, the orcs dance like MC Hammer). The graphics look cartoony, making the game feel more fun and less serious.
With the trial account I played, I couldn't participate in some of the interesting aspects of the game, like the auction system. In Guild Wars, you have to wander around, asking people for things to buy or sell. It's chaotic and it was so much of a pain, I rarely traded with anyone. With the WoW auction system, I think I would trade much more. Comparing trading in the two games really demonstrates how important efficient markets are. I also couldn't really get involved in guilds, which are apparently a lot of fun (but have high time requirements).
On my last day, I sold all my items and found that I had earned around 2.6 gold (26,000 copper pieces). This amount of wealth was unimaginable to me a few days earlier. The scale of wealth seems to go up exponentially. For example, a bag that can hold 8 items costs 4 times as much as a bag that can hold 6 items. Small increases in power come at a large increase in price. I think this is a good game design, but it felt strange to me. Despite getting so much, the last few days were just not much fun. Since I had only a short time left before my trial account was cancelled, I decided to kill off my main character in a most spectacular way. I went to the top of Thunder Bluff, the highest cliff I had found in the game, set myself on fire, and jumped off, to my death.
It's a very interesting and rich game. It's just not for me. It takes too much time and wasn't rewarding enough. If I were paying the monthly fee, I would feel like I had to play a lot to get my money's worth, and I'd end up playing even when it wasn't fun. The other problem I have with playing games online is that real-life interruptions can lead to my death in the game. If you have kids, you're going to have real-life interruptions. So I'll go back to playing Oblivion occasionally, and doing other projects (like writing a transportation game, going on scenic drives, and writing web articles). I do encourage people to try out the free trial (either from FilePlanet or by getting an invitation from someone who already plays), because it's an interesting game for game developers to study. I'm glad I tried it out. And I'm glad I didn't become addicted.