Sure, they're technically rocky at times as surging player populations strain even the best infrastructure and world design in the business, but immersing myself in the first few weeks of a brand-new MMO is the most fun I've ever had with games.

I have had the luxury of spending a week out of the office to dive headfirst into a few MMO launches, and there's nothing like the feeling of being part of the first wave of players to discover the content. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is the best example I can think of off the top of my head. I had power-leveled my new death knight to 80 in order to play with some different (Alliance, ugh) friends on a new server in the weeks leading up to launch, and as soon as the gates opened I was right out there on the bleeding edge of progression up to level 85.

[Sidenote: I came across this old piece I wrote a month after Cataclysm launched. Weird to read it now, but kind of a trip too.]

Engaging in single-player content like the leveling zones in World of Warcraft isn't any more fun when you're first off the boat, though being the guy in guild chat with all the answers to hard-to-find quest objectives and explanations of new mechanics is amusing. Learning and conquering the harder content – in WoW's case, five-man heroics – is amazing. Few poor players are on that leading edge of early levelers, so the groups that the looking-for-dungeon matchmaker puts together are high-quality more often than not.

The thing is, tanking and healing are the two most common failure points for groups in WoW. We've all had to bail on dungeon-finder groups when it's clear that the "tank" is a death knight in an off-spec he copied off of Elitist Jerks but doesn't understand how to use Death Grip, or the "healer" is a priest who thinks Circle of Healing is the one-size-fits-all answer to any health bar under 100 percent.* When you're the tank and you're good – and I was good, if not server-first good – the success rate for pick-up groups is astronomically higher and your queue times are nonexistent.

While having an absolute blast figuring out how to deal with the nastier heroics at Cataclysm launch, I also got to make a truly stupid amount of gold with a minimal amount of effort by crafting jewels and selling them to players like me who were replacing gear on an hourly basis but wanted the best stats available to help survive the tougher content they were interested in. Even though my gold reserve had already become more of a high score than an adventuring necessity, waking up to a mailbox full of successful auctions was still a pure pleasure.

The best part about all this, though, was in teaching my guildmates the content. "How to complete World of Warcraft heroic dungeons" might be the most trivial and useless subject ever, but I still adored the feeling of helping my friends out and sparing them the unbearable pain of rolling the dice on random tanks in the LFD queue. It's nice to be popular for once, and not just for my stunning good looks.

That feeling – of being part of the elite, the bleeding edge, the guy that everyone wants in their group – is a powerful sensation that I've never gotten out of any other video game. Exceptional FPS players get it when they get spammed with friend invites after dominating a match with an absurd kill:death ratio. Skilled MOBA players get it when they lead a team to victory with a good hard carry. I got it because I was better than most at being stabbed, shot, blown up, poisoned, cursed, and beaten to a pulp. What the heck, I'll take it.

The high points can't last forever, though, and not just because I don't have a life where I can play 80-plus hours of an MMO for more than a week at a time (woe is me!). My guild, great as they were, couldn't get a consistently solid raid group together by the time I had gotten everything I could possibly need from five-man dungeons. I burnt out on the damnable rep grinds Blizzard insists on jamming WoW full of these days and quit after a few weeks of failing to progress in ten-man dungeons.

On the plus side, I still get paid to run my mouth about MMOs on a regular basis, so things could be worse. And there's always a new one on the horizon giving hope that I can recapture the magic of riding that first wave.

* I haven't been playing Pandaria, so these might not be relevant player-strategy complaints any more. Insert your favorite noob tactics instead, if you must.