I’ve talked about wanting World of Warcraft Classic to evolve, moving towards Wrath of the Lich King as the pinnacle of the original game. Today, however, an interesting thought occurred to me about how we judge the relative quality or reception of an expansion.
The prevailing narrative that I don’t think we’ve questioned much (at least, I know I certainly haven’t) is that the subscriber metrics reflect a degree of quality and player acceptance of the game at certain points in time, by which metric, Wrath of the Lich King is easily World of Warcraft at its most popular (and therefore “best”), where it sustained an 8-digit subscriber total for the vast majority of the duration of its release, spiking at Cataclysm’s launch around 14 million before falling off the mountain to around half of that player base.
What this means in relation to how we evaluate Classic is that Vanilla is seen as the tip of the iceberg, not close to the game’s most popular point and therefore hardly the “best” content. If we follow the subscription metrics, well, surely Wrath of the Lich King is the best, as it had the highest and most consistent subscription volume!
And well, sure – in a world where these things are released in order as original, you could make that argument.
However – an underrepresented but important factor is the story hook. How many people would have preferred Vanilla gameplay but held out until The Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King because of the presence of Warcraft III big names like Illidan or Arthas? If we evaluate solely in a bubble of the original release order, well yeah, it seems like Wrath of the Lich King was the “best” – but how many people skipped Vanilla because of a lack of big-name lore NPCs?
The thing about Classic that fascinates me is this: should we reach a point where Blizzard begins Classic Expansions, there is a lot of interesting potential for people to test how much they really liked the gameplay at a given point in the game’s history. For Classic, some people are seeing things they forgot and dislike about the original game – whether that is gameplay pacing, the inherently time-sinky nature of certain components of the core gameplay loop, or issues with other quirks specific to their classes, races, or the content they like. Some people are discovering those things having never played vanilla and finding themselves on one side or the other of a conflict over judging the quality of these elements of the classic game.
Vanilla isn’t the only point in WoW’s history where contentious design decisions are often papered over in the glow of nostalgia. Burning Crusade gated Heroic dungeons behind reputation, and had a raid attunement tree much worse than Vanilla’s, with faster leveling and a smaller amount of endgame content than we might remember it as. Wrath of the Lich King had the 10/25 player raid split which gave lesser rewards for the often-harder 10 player fights, the Emblem system which cluttered up UI panes and faction hubs in Dalaran (imagine if Titan Residuum in BfA was tied only to the season earned and could only be converted downwards!), and while I could do this for every expansion, Wrath is likely where the hype train for Classic servers ends for most folks.
The idea that Wrath is the best expansion takes a legitimate claim to highest quality, obscures it through the lens of market metrics like subscriber count and raw profit for the expansion lifecycle, and discards anything else that might also explain the relative dominance of WotLK within the WoW discourse. I do think that WotLK has a very legitimate claim to being the peak of WoW, but I wonder how much of that peak was time and place as opposed to it simply being outstanding on its own merits.
The thing about Wrath is that it is easy to view posthumously as both the best point in the game, but also the beginning of the slide into the modern game – Dungeon Finder was added in 3.2, 10/25 player raid splits made getting into a raid with strangers easier than ever but still cultivated a sort of community, loot began to get easier than ever with more epics, more players in full epics, and most players having access to current tier raid level gear without doing said content.
To someone like me, gameplay focused and otherwise a loner in play outside of my guild, Wrath was the first expansion where I played comfortably – I leveled DPS alts for the first time ever, I tried more content and pushed the boundaries of what I did in game. To a purist Classic player, this is the part where the game begins to downturn, where a comment with arrogant phrases like “this is where the game went wrong” might start to pop up, where some elitist jerk might pop up with phrases like “welfare epics” or things of the sort.
Wrath over its lifespan had something for everyone in that way – the early part of the expansion was full of server community, building friendships and opening content to more players via the ease of building PUG raids in the 10 player format, and the daily dungeon quests encouraging players to band together and push into content with whomever else was willing (TBC had these too, but the ease of accessing Heroic dungeons in Wrath arguably made this more popular). Later in its life, Wrath kept many of these features but also opened up dungeons and added more dungeons than any prior point in the game, and made dungeons easier to run by regionalizing them, opening up as datacenter communities before fully expanding to the semi-anonymous hives we have today.
Would vanilla have been more popular than Wrath if it had Arthas and Illidan in it, continuining the story of WCIII directly rather than giving us the (relative) fluff of vanilla before reintroducing those tales? It was an interesting idea – players new to Warcraft as a franchise had enough to learn as it stood, so maybe removing these plot elements was a good idea!
But all of this rambling is dancing around the core idea of this post – let’s say we reach a future where Classic consists of vanilla, TBC, and Wrath servers. Which content set do you think is most popular, and why? I’d bet on Wrath, but at the same time…some people may prefer Vanilla or TBC!
Either way, I think we’ll get to find out at some point in the future, and I think this will be an interesting topic to revisit at that point!