I’ve spent a lot of time in the run-up to World of Warcraft Classic talking about how people excited for the game may want to temper expectations, how it may cause problems for guilds and raid groups in the modern game, and about what the future of the Classic franchise is.
Today, in what will likely be my last WoW Classic post for a little bit (I’m not excited enough for the game to brave those login queues and I have enough other stuff going on to keep me busy), I want to touch on the other side of the Classic reaction in the overall WoW community.
I think it is easy to focus on the Classic side, as there is more energy and also more bombast there to focus on. However, there is a smaller side of the modern game’s audience who is aggressively angry with Classic, or at least completely lacking understanding of what Classic offers.
My guild leader is one of these. He’s never in a conversation about Classic with people who don’t play the game, including at least a few that are excited about Classic, so he’s never openly hostile to the players themselves, but instead couches it in the terms of disappointment and boredom.
During the launch yesterday, our group chat was discussing the launch queues of Classic and he said something to the effect of “that is a long time to wait for a lot of disappointment.”
Now, I think I need to backtrack and say why I find this worthy of writing about. In most cases I’ve seen (but not all), most Classic critics didn’t play Vanilla. That’s fine, actually – I’m not a believer in the idea of gatekeeping people out of being critical of the success of the game, but it is worth examining why this opinion is so strong for something left unexperienced. My guild leader began playing WoW late in TBC, and didn’t actually hit endgame until Wrath of the Lich King. His opinions of vanilla are based on second-hand accounts, as he did the majority of his BC leveling after patch 2.4, during the experience curve shrinkage, and of course, was also largely leveling solo until he reached a similar point to the rest of us.
Given that, I know two things about this person in particular and where that criticism comes from:
1. He hasn’t experienced the original content of the game in any meaningful way, so his perspective is built on and extrapolated from the stories of others.
2. What he did experience of the original vanilla experience – zones, quests, etc – were experienced in the streamlined leveling of late-TBC, meaning that while it may have been slow compared to now, it was different than the true vanilla experience.
Why do these things matter? Well, I think it is important to understand why someone might not like an idea if you’re going to try to engage – and also to understand when it isn’t worth engaging.
I know that when he approaches this, he is arguing in bad faith. He hasn’t played vanilla, he doesn’t really know vanilla, and he’s amplified the perspectives of people who didn’t like vanilla and coupled them to his own limited view of having done the content during late-TBC, alone and with no friends available to help him find his bearings. I don’t think he is purposely trying to debate the topic in bad faith, but without intending to, he is. He won’t change his mind, despite the triggers that led to that conclusion in the first place being faulty. It’s not as egregiously bad faith as, say, someone whose blog has a long post about how WoW has grown more difficult but then comments on my posts about how raiding actually doesn’t require IQ at all and you’d have to be stupid to think it’s hard – so I’m kinder to the perspective, but I know that perspective isn’t on a strong foundation and you’re not interested in testing the strength of that foundation. (I’m thankful for approval features for comments to starve trolls of the attention they crave, though!)
The thing about these people, though, is that some of them have played vanilla and don’t like it – and that is fine. My criticism, for example, is rooted in 2 years of vanilla gameplay, of raiding and PvPing during that time, and understanding at least partially what it is that kept me engaged and why that might not work in 2019. The thing I find fascinating about the kind of anti-Classic rhetoric I see, though, is how much of it is based on actively dissing the foundation of the game they currently love. The thing is…there is kind of something to that.
Vanilla was not the high mark for the game in terms of popularity, mainstream success, cultural impact (EDIT: Shintar’s comment calls out an excellent point I missed in the edit – what I wanted to get at here was genre impact, not cultural impact. Vanilla is arguably the high point in the broader culture – his examples in the comment below are good points as to why that is!), or overall playerbase. Wrath was (technically, early Cataclysm, but I would not try to extend that argument to say that Cataclysm was the best expansion ever!), and there are reasons for that.
WoW as a product was simpler than what came before – a veritable vacation for your average EverQuest player, but still large and intimidating to a newbie for the genre. TBC maintained the same sort of base structure, but changed up questing drastically and focused more heavily on the endgame. Some of the elements of the vanilla and TBC experience were still hardcore – raiding was still a heavy time investment, less so in TBC, but not a lot less. The formula was still built in a way that was analogous to those prior MMO experiences, and it took a bit longer for Blizzard to find their own groove and begin to really push in their own direction.
Wrath was the change in the game, where Blizzard really began to define their own vision and do more things that were unique to them. The endgame vision with multiple difficulties extended into raiding. Group-size flexibility became the standard for raiding, a vast improvement over the TBC model of differing, fixed raid sizes per raid, where Karazhan was for 10 players but then the following tiered raids were for 25. Daily quest hubs and faction reputation grinds became a more common, easier part of the game for more people, with better faction rewards and the tabard system for easier reputation gains. I would argue that Wrath of the Lich King is the point at which WoW became what most of us see WoW as – the seeds of the modern game are planted, but the worst byproducts of that haven’t yet appeared, the world still feels whole and cohesive, even if it suffers from the expansion effect of being trapped in Northrend, there is a strong core of repeatable content, with each patch adding more, there’s a balance of easier, simpler content and much more challenging raid content, the reward scale isn’t completely out of whack and offers steady, predictable return rates, and all of that combines to make the most important thing – fun.
I liked vanilla, and I think Classic is not going to be disappointing to most. There will be segments of the audience who will feel let down or disappointed, mostly due to their own expectations. I think that even if you don’t like it, Classic is a sort of milestone moment for the game overall and its success (or failure) will dictate the outline of the game’s future for years to come.
Now, I don’t think that Classic is going to push the team to adopt older practices for design or development, or anything like that. I think they’ll be forced to look at the questing experience for 9.0 and beyond, the reward mechanisms in the game (which aren’t great in Classic but are fundamentally broken in Battle for Azeroth), and the means by which the game offers its content to attract and retain players. There’s a lot of directions this can go – changes to the journey of leveling to make it more meaningful, changes to reward mechanics to offer a better path with more incentives, less transparent time sinks, and an overall better sense of the world. They can accomplish these without relying on the strict formula of the past – there are a lot of different ways to get this accomplished, and Wrath is, if anything, proof positive that the team at Blizzard can spin new designs into their formula to pull off these feats.
If anything, I think having Classic means Blizzard can create sharper separations between the original game and the modern game. A lot of what we’ve seen the team do in the modern game with instancing, phasing, and the like are intended to keep the modern game in stasis – to allow the use of old content without removing or permanently altering it. Classic allows Blizzard to take the game’s old zones into new content, to be completely different and fresh, without having to fret about the lost experiences that presents (although, well, removing the current 1-60 zones or revamping them means we’ll clearly need Cataclassic!)
Mainly, I think the two camps are indicative of different narratives within the community and different shortcomings of each viewpoint. The modern game audience that looks at Classic with disdain, like my guild leader, want the gameplay to be more engaging by their definition – more buttons, faster overall play, streamlined leveling and constant rewards, and the modern presentation with in-game cutscenes, much more voice acting, and the slick instanced phases that transition relatively smoothly. These players likely either don’t see the value others do in the slower, more world-utilizing questing – they like the hub and spoke design of the modern game. They also generally like to limit their community exposure, playing WoW like a single player game, and so LFG tools that let them get in and out of the dungeons and raids they want to play hold a lot of value.
Likewise, the Classic audience wants that grindier, more time consuming experience, with quests pushing them to the ends of the world and expanding the scope of the land in-game with each quest. They also want meaningful choices and incentives, when that is truly the case (gear decisions being less about item level and harder/more subjective to make) and when it is largely a fictional “meaning” added in (something taking long =/= more meaningful). They like the sense of community, both because it expands their playgroups while also allowing them to cut out the riff-raff, even if it means forming a group takes longer. The reward mechanisms of Vanilla, and Classic by extension, are better in some ways (leveling rewards spells and ranks on a regular basis, talent points are dispensed on a more frequent basis) but worse in ways that are less often felt (dungeon loot is similar, but raid loot is objectively far harder to get just due to drop volume). They want what is perceived as the added challenge, even if, as we’ve previously discussed, the “challenge” was originally a factor of unfamiliarity coupled with the longer time investments required all over.
The challenge, both of being in community discussions about this topic and writing about it, is that it is all largely subjective and the argument and debate largely pointless. Most people I’ve met or spoken to are like me – they like the idea of Classic, think it’s sort of an iffy proposition for the loudest voices in the room to whom J Allen Brack may end up being right, but that ultimately it is a good thing to have the choice officially and that Blizzard have done a pretty good job walking the tightrope of delivering the experience. Those opposed in the extreme are a minority, and pointing out that the experience and value of that experience is subjective doesn’t go anywhere, and they’re often unwilling to engage with the idea in an even-handed fashion. Likewise, those who are maximally hyped on Classic and think it is going to be far better than the modern game have a heady mix of nostalgia, actual excitement and hype, and the tribalism of being part of the crowd – signing petitions when Nostalrius went down, booing at Blizzcon panels, and being a part of the big group that wants to go back and see that whole experience over again.
My guild leader is never going to convince our Classic-hyped windwalker monk that Classic is bad actually, and the other direction, that monk is never going to get our guild leader to budge an inch about the game actually being good and there being something fundamentally great in Classic that became the foundation of the game they claim to love today. For people in the middle like me (and, to be clear, I don’t think that taking the middle ground is always or necessarily virtuous), I think we get the best of both worlds – a cautious optimism about Classic, excitement for those willing to brave queues of 25,000+, and a bit of perspective about those who are unwilling to pull their heads out of certain cavities and engage with what people like about Classic without sounding like mad children.
Either way, Classic is here, and looking at the queue sizes and times, the game is an unmitigated success – and all sides of the debate around it won’t have to wait a whole lot longer to see what predictions come true.