Meet the powergamers, the extreme MMOG players obsessed with mastering in-game feats first

Being at the top comes with a cost, as powergamer Jonathan Delise discovered. “Eventually, I became a target,” he says. “Player versus player (PvP) fights in other factions’ cities would turn into witch-hunts, [with] disparate teams working together to track me down and kill me. There were times when I became a one-man army, entire days where I completely disrupted play for other factions. People would rage at me in whispers, pissed that I was crushing dozens of high-level players alone. In my final days of playing the game, I would take on five-man Heroic-level dungeons and 40-man and 25-man raids solo – just my character. I was unstoppable, a killing machine.”

Rewind to the three days following the release of World Of Warcraft’s Wrath Of The Lich King expansion. Delise played almost without pause. He stopped only momentarily at his desk to eat and drink, the need for intermittent dozing and defecation seen as infuriating biological interruptions by the young player, delaying his quest to rise through the rankings first. In-game, he accepted every quest he was offered, assimilating the experience points, but discarding those activities he believed would take too long to complete. He never idled, only pressed forward.

On the fourth day, Delise’s character hit the numerical ceiling: level 80. He missed out on the accolade of becoming the first player on his server to ‘max out’ a character by a matter of minutes. It was a failure: no one remembers the guy who came second, right? Nonetheless, Delise’s attitude to the game had been changed beyond recognition by this impromptu quest for world-first glory. He slept for two days. When he awoke, playing World Of Warcraft was no longer a pastime, it was a pursuit.

The next day, he abandoned the online group of friends he had played World Of Warcraft with for close to three years to enlist in a new ‘powergamers’ guild. It was made up of those who weren’t playing to socialise or kill time. This group played only to win.

In World Of Warcraft, one measure of a player’s success or status is loot: the rare clothes, elusive weapons and other desirable, wearable trophies that bespeak great effort or talent to the rest of the game’s population. Another measure is a player’s Damage Per Second. This figure represents their proficiency with a mouse and keyboard – their physical, human ability to make inputs in the shortest possible amount of time – combined with the quality of their ‘theorycraft’, the strategies and tactics they’ve developed to maximise effectiveness in play. Within a month of joining the group, Delise had the highest DPS in the guild and one of the highest in the world.

World Of Warcraft: Wrath Of The Lich King.

Soon Delise and his companions – having long held the distinction of being the top players on their own patch of virtual soil – decided to move to a new server in order to seek out sturdier competition. The move brought fresh challenge and rivalry, but in time the allure of raiding dulled as well. Delise’s mentality was hardening every week. Where others played the game for enjoyment, he became obsessed with the deeper systems that underpin it, and with crafting strategies essential for dominance in the game’s purely competitive PvP modes, where he now spent his time.

“When I first started playing Wrath Of The Lich King,” Delise says, “I was a decent-enough player. I took playing the game seriously. At the point at which I quit raiding to focus on PvP, I’d nearly reached the pinnacle of skill possible solely in PvE [player versus environment, the AI monsters and nonhuman systems arranged by the game’s designers to challenge gamers]. The transition from a casual player who takes their play seriously to a ‘powergamer’ was a deliberate one. In time, it became an obsession. At first I wanted to become very good at the game. In time, my only interest was in becoming the best.”

Delise formed a three-man PvP team and began developing tactics in earnest. Every day after school he would read about World Of Warcraft strategies or watch videos of high-level players for five hours, then put what he had learned into practice for the remaining hours before bed. “I spent almost as much time on gaming as I did on school,” he says. “I worked on my homework in class so I’d have more time after school to read up on World Of Warcraft. I spent enormous amounts of time researching and I paid complete attention to the game so that I would never die or take unnecessary damage. I’d spend hours, days, weeks and months theorycrafting – testing strategies to eliminate weakness.”

The effort paid off, at least in the game. Delise and his two PvP companions won the coveted Gladiator achievement for climbing into the top 0.5 per cent of teams and holding that position until the end of the arena season. “By this point, I was one of the best players in the world. I could crush anyone that opposed me, even when I was outnumbered by other good players.”

That’s when the witch-hunts started. Other factions would often pursue him, interrupting his ambitious solo raiding missions with surprise attacks. But Delise’s proficiency didn’t only offer a thrown gauntlet to other players, it also provided a helping hand. He’d write guides and offer one-on-one training sessions to help improve individual players. Not all of this aid was offered for free. Delise would earn up to $200 for playing another player’s character up to an 1,800 or 2,000 rating in order to grant them access to rating-locked PvP gear. In short, his obsession paid.

World Of Warcraft: Wrath Of The Lich King.

It’s become fashionable to divide videogames into two loose classifications: casual and hardcore. The former is a term used to describe games with ostensibly shallow depths, gentle learning curves and often a cutesy, mass-market-friendly art style. By contrast, so-called ‘hardcore’ games tend to offer considerable depths and a steep learning curve that can only be surmounted with concerted effort.

But the terminology is both unhelpful and misapplied. Casual and hardcore better describe a player’s state of mind than a game’s possibility space. It’s possible to play Bejeweled – PopCap’s prime exemplar of a ‘casual’ game – with grim determination and a resolve to master its systems. Likewise, you can be casual in your approach to Dark Souls, FromSoftware’s notoriously challenging action game, ignoring its intricacies and depths.

Players with hardcore mentalities can be found investing in almost any sort of videogame. But the powergamer holds a unique position in the world of the MMORPG, where their speedy consumption of content and relentless race to be the best can change the way in which games grow and their worlds develop over time.

Isaiah Cartwright is the lead designer on Guild Wars 2 at ArenaNet, which chose to invite powergamers to play its game early on in development. As he explains: “We specifically invited people of this ilk, who will become way better than all of us on the development team, to play the game at an alpha and beta stage. Doing so allows us to balance for this type of player and also helps to show up the challenges and bugs in the game a lot more quickly. It’s hugely important for us.”

Despite the early heads up that enrolling powergamers gave the Guild Wars 2 team, the speed at which the first players raced through the game on its release in 2012 was still startling. “No matter how much you account for or cut the numbers, players will always do things faster than you think,” says Cartwright. “The first player reached the Guild Wars 2 level cap in just three days. He did it by playing nonstop, working together with a large number of people in his guild and having them pool their resources together. Then, with those resources, he crafted items [to expedite his progression]. We knew that crafting was something that could get you through the levels quickly, but we also knew it would take a lot of people working together to achieve this.”

Guild Wars II.

Powergamers introduce a problem for MMOG designers, however. Their quickness in making it through a game often inspires them to write the guides new players will read for tips. As such, they can often set the tone for how a game is received by its community. But despite this power, they represent only a vocal fraction of the overall audience.

“Powergamers only represent a small niche, so it’s important to not only create content for them,” says Cartwright. “There’s some ensuring we have some valves and knobs to turn in order to deal with players burning through things quickly. But the goal is always to make sure the players have the most enjoyable experience, and we don’t want to hinder or destroy that. That said, it’s interesting to make hard content. Soon an unspoken challenge develops between the designer and the powergamer: the designer racing to create fair-but-tough activities, the powergamer racing to master them.”

The pursuit of mastery – and the in-game social kudos that follows – is what often tempts a normal player into becoming a powergamer. Justin Edmond from Alberta, USA, joined the only raiding guild on his server because he had “a vague idea” this was how players could acquire the best equipment for their character.

“At first, I started playing World Of Warcraft with the sole aim of beating Ragnaros, the final boss at the time,” he says. “Killing him was such a huge event: we had tried for weeks, and when he finally dropped I still remember screaming on voice chat as the loot was shared and we returned to town. We were showing off our loot and everyone was so excited. After that, it was a case of trying to recreate that thrill. We did this by attempting server- and world-firsts. When the next update game, Blackwing Lair, launched, we all set [our] alarm clocks for 3am, waking up before school to play. Wanting to be the best, and wanting our guild to be the first is what motivated me. It was exciting to reach an encounter and figure out how to beat it so you could say you were the first guys to do so. Not only were you praised for your speed by others, but you had the enjoyment of figuring out how to beat the challenge.”

Edmond was a keen sportsman and musician at school, but the thrill of acquiring a world-first in World Of Warcraft offered a far greater buzz than “beating another group of 16-year-old kids from a small town”. While Edmond was an accomplished student with good grades, active in the science fair, and regularly entering national school jazz band competitions, something about competing on an international scale proved more enticing than anything he had yet experienced.

“I was really into spreadsheets and math, so I did a lot of the early theorycrafting for maximising DPS,” he explains. “I loved trying to find the optimal solution to a problem. I could use logic, math and problem-solving, and I could find answers that would cause people all over the world to change their gameplay. To be admired by so many people was a great feeling. It started to get more serious once I took on more of a role in the guild. We’d be the centre of a lot of drama, and the forums would always be talking about us. We were popular in this online world, and the power and attention was an amazing feeling for a 16-year-old kid from a small town.”

World Of Warcraft.

As Edmond’s role in the guild grew greater and he developed leadership qualities, he found the way in which he interacted with others outside of the game began to subtly shift. “It was hard for a shy kid like me to stand up and boss people around,” he says. “As I started to develop this assertiveness, it caused me some problems at school, [since] I went from somebody people listened to and respected in the game world to just another kid in a sea of schoolchildren. At that age, it was really hard to keep both worlds separate. It was easy to want to value the game world more than the real world, [since] I felt more appreciated there. I can’t imagine I would be even a fraction as accomplished as I am today without the time I put into powergaming. 
It really shaped who I am today. I was a very shy kid when I started playing MMOGs, but they’ve taught me so much about hard work, teamwork and problem-solving.”

For others, the powergamer lifestyle has had less positive effects. Matthew Boyle began playing EverQuest when he was 19, a time when he was working a night shift in a factory. At first, playing was a hobby, a way to pass the afternoons before he left for work. But when Boyle lost his job, the focus changed. “I didn’t go balls to the wall right away,” he says, “but I did become severely addicted. The real transition happened when the exploration and thrill of this new world faded. Now the goal was to become better than the next person.

“The friend that introduced me to the game ending up staying at my apartment and introduced me to a more hardcore way of playing. We were on a levelling binge, and instead of taking turns playing, we would take turns sleeping. After that, the average day involved waking up to log in, and playing till I couldn’t stay awake any longer. This sometimes went on for days at time until [I’d fall] asleep in a puddle of drool, and [wake] up with a waffle print on my face from the keyboard.”

Boyle’s impoverished circumstances fuelled his interest in the game. “I had no job, a horrible girlfriend, and a slum of an apartment with no heating or windows. I would skip showers, because the place was so horrendously cold [that] I’d rather deal with the discomfort of being filthy. But in the game, I was in the top 500 worldwide. I was a success. So there was more of a motivation to better my avatar and go for numbers in rankings than there was to further my education. When achieving an ultra-hard kill, or getting rare loot, I could only compare that feeling to what I would assume achieving something great within a team might feel like.”

Powergaming is the pursuit of the time-rich, primarily the domain of students and unemployed – those able to dedicate the swathes of time necessary to master the game and then maintain that mastery. But while Edmond is able to see the benefits of the time he dedicated to powergaming, Boyle is less convinced of its positive impact on his life. “It was an absolute loss of time,” he says. “I took nothing good away from it. Instead, I lost several years of my life I could have done something else with. It was a cause of concern [to] and disgust from my family, like a bad drug addiction where you would sacrifice nearly everything for the monthly subscription and Internet access. Those days were far from glamorous, and what money was made from playing got dumped back into the game to afford the addiction. It took boredom for me to finally break the cycle.”

Delise takes a more balanced view of his time as one of the powergaming elite. “I view that hectic year-and-a-half of hardcore play very happily,” he says. “The challenge of playing against other capable players was incredible. It was both the most difficult and most fun time I’ve had in my life. I think it was good for me, because it helped develop my focus and ability to learn new things very rapidly, but at the same time I could have been working a job at the time or learning to deal with people face to face better than I do. The impact on my life was considerable. To this day, I’m far more comfortable writing than talking, for example.”

While many powergamers set aside the pursuit of in-game excellence as they grow older and life’s demands diminish their free time and energy, it seems that the inner hardcore mentality developed through these experiences is not so easily discarded. “To this day, I still enjoy playing games at the top tier,” says Edmond. “When you’re just a casual gamer, if you want to be the best, you generally follow the instructions that the hardcore players give you, either through guides or personal help. When you’re at the top level, you have to experiment and truly understand the concepts. This gives you more freedom in a way. Most of us [powergamers] still enjoy the challenge of figuring out a game and getting to the top, but we no longer desire the stagnant gameplay of remaining there.”

While Boyle’s negative experiences mean he’d warn others off this mode of play, Edmond’s more pragmatic. “Don’t listen to all those horror stories about people who ruined their lives this way,” he says. “People ruin their lives with partying. People ruin their lives by trying to be professional athletes. You can find scare stories about people destroying their lives doing almost anything. Setting a goal and accomplishing it is one of the greatest things a person can do. While I was powergaming, I encountered some players with no lives outside the game. Most of them I’ve kept in touch with and today they are almost all productive, happy people. Have fun, play hard and keep healthy.”

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