Classic, Retail, Outrage Merchants, and The Illusion of Meaning

“If nothing is meaningful, then you are free to self-direct.”

There it is, the words for the thing I’ve felt about World of Warcraft Classic since the *discourse* began.

It comes by way of a video from a creator I follow but did not expect to make a Classic video, Dan Olsen, aka FoldingIdeas, who today put out a 40 minute video essay on the merits and less favorable parts of WoW Classic. I generally like his stuff, so this video was up my alley and it is something I sought out quickly and watched completely. I would encourage you to do the same – I may dip into the well of this a few times, but I want to touch on a few things here – two specifically – “outrage merchants” and the quote above.

Here’s the whole video for you to watch should you choose to do so, and again, I would highly recommend it.

So, the lighter of the two topics first – outrage merchants.

Something I saw a lot in the post-Classic launch window was Classic-only players going on about a vitriol coming in general chat from “retail” players – often presented as a one-sided attack for which there was no equal retaliation from the Classic crowd, most often seen that way because the people writing thinkpieces on the nature of the supposedly one-sided abuse were often ignoring or simply not in spaces where it would occur quite strongly in the other direction. If you had to qualify that you avoid forums, fan sites, and the live game, it would be difficult to take this seriously, and yet I read a few versions of that exact idea, which was…interesting. At least one of the authors admitted the farce of the premise after the fact, and so rather than devote more space to the topic (I originally wrote a nearly-finished piece after reading many of these weeks ago and gave up because I couldn’t make it a worthwhile read), we’ll stop that tangent there.

But to the point about outrage merchants, the window up to Classic was full of people who were downright nasty to anyone enjoying the retail product, even as many of them played. The fervor around this type of content from Asmongold in particular made me stop watching him (one of these days, if I want my filtered comments and Twitter mentions to be an uninhabitable wasteland of toxicity, I’ll write about his content more). His channel stands as an exemplar of this exact kind of content, both as used in the linked video but in general – Asmongold’s stream commonly features him reacting to videos from other creators, spouting whatever his opinion is at the content which often serves as a signal to his audience, intentional or not, to bombard the content with positive or negative reactions based around how Asmongold reacted. From the death of Nostalrius up to the launch of 8.2 in BfA, his content was full of rants about how the current game is awful and Classic is way better, despite him quite often still playing the live game.

But I don’t fault him for that last part, because the thing the video above points out is pretty interesting and something I feel deeply now that I’ve been writing semi-consistently about WoW for almost 3 full years – all of us kind of suck at actually getting at the root of why we like or dislike something. I have a visceral dislike for systems in BfA, and I’ve spilled thousands of words on the topic trying to make it make sense to myself while sharing the thoughts more broadly. What I dislike about the outrage merchant mindset is that it packages every small slight as a larger message. I don’t think Blizzard hates me or is “designing for the pros” or anything of the sort – I just think we have a fundamental disagreement about what is fun and engaging gameplay, and their solution was the systems we have now, and my solution to my dissatisfaction is to play less and spend less with them until such a time as my lack of enjoyment is resolved. Of course, since this is capitalism, one side has the majority of the power (hint: it ain’t me), but if the situation looks bad enough, they’ll change course – and we’ll probably see if they’ll do so in about 4 weeks.

Those that desired Classic in the wake of the death of Nostalrius took every avenue they could to get what they wanted – petitions led by grifters like Mark Kern, attempting to pin down an answer from Blizzard in every avenue available like live Q&As, Twitter, live streams, and Blizzcon sessions. Many of the outrage merchant types made communities for the game nearly uninhabitable if you dared to like the current game – it is why I try to walk a fine line with my criticism, 8.2.5 story notwithstanding, because I get it. It sucks to like something and want to discuss it and have yourself elbowed out of the space by loud shouty internet boys who will hurl insults at you for having a different opinion, so something I hope I do decently is cultivating a good discussion space – being honest about my opinion of the game without trying to present as an expert.

Which serves as a dovetail nicely into the next aspect I want to discuss today from the above-linked video – meaning.

One of the most tired canards trotted out about Classic is the idea that “everything is meaningful.” Is it, though? The thing I’ve grappled most with when writing about Classic is tackling this point – because, much like things like Azerite and Warfronts in BfA, there is an intuitive layer that is easy to peel aside and understand, but the roots of the idea are much deeper than that.

I never particularly felt like choices or actions in Vanilla were much more meaningful than even BfA, because even for as long as I’ve played the game, I have a small, single-digit number of things I can remember distinctly in any version of the game where I made a choice that had some massive impact. Soloing down the last percent of a bosses’ health, getting a clutch heal off to heal a tank in Ulduar from 10 HP to 50%, etc. The moment to moment gameplay of WoW has never particularly been loaded with meaning. In fact, I think something about WoW and the broader genre/sub-genre space it occupies is that the overall gameplay path isn’t meaningful. You can make choices, and those choices can matter, but most choices are recoverable. The quote from above, “if nothing is meaningful, then you are free to self-direct” encapsulates something broadly interesting I never thought about in that way. Classic, like a lot of single-player games, has a defined endgame “funnel” of sorts. The possible content space is wide open when you start, and the game world is crafted in an illusory way that makes the possibility space feel wide open and varied, creating moments and imbuing a fiction of meaning into the gameplay.

As you level in Classic, the illusion does begin to collapse, a wide spectrum of choices feeling more narrow and eventually winding to a tunnel. It is especially interesting because in Vanilla originally, the tunnel was hidden for longer by a content release schedule that was often varied and threw in enough expanded content to create a fiction of a larger possibility space. However, in Classic now, in 2019, we know what the content structure is – there is no hidden patch content, no surprise raid, dungeon, or zone. We know that endgame starts with Molten Core and ends at Naxxramas, and we know what bosses there are, what loot there is, and there is nothing past that. Of course, Blizzard could subvert that, and there are some people who would like that – and many who don’t want modern Blizzard developers touching content for the old game with a 10 foot pole. Many of the changes made to the game since Vanilla, have fully intended to widen this illusion and offer progression options to keep people engaged. In Vanilla, you either reached the point of raiding and did it, or didn’t. If you didn’t, realistically, there wasn’t a whole lot there for you past that point, besides leveling an alt or doing every quest in the game – maybe playing the auction house. PvP, once 1.6 came with the battleground system, became another highly viable content path. It was also possible to try and engage in world PvP, farming people in varying places, but the charm of that wears thin in an environment that isn’t always target rich.

The modern game has expanded this and attempted to both maintain a higher degree of player engagement by putting in systems that make the game work better for people. If you want to do nothing but run 5 player dungeons, the game now makes that a content loop with rewards comparable to Mythic raiding available. PvP remains in the game as an option, although the progression systems there need work. Raiding continues to exist and has had a number of changes to reduce system and social friction, with smaller raid sizes, flexible raid sizes, and expanded difficulty options. World quests allow solo players a chance to play and progress with rewards that keep them close enough to the curve, in a way that they could expand to a raid or dungeon team if they wanted to with minimal investment. Achievement hunting is a valid pathway to play, and that offers players a lot of different ways to engage with content. What is lost in all of these, however, is that these systems are so vast, and the number of options so varied, that you can feel a different tunnel effect shaping up – a longer tunnel.

This analogy actually really smartly captures something I think about both versions of the game – they both have their tunnels, Classic a narrow and shallow tunnel, retail a wide and deep tunnel. Both have pros and cons – Classic is at its core a self-directed experience to an extreme, as it allows you to choose your path, although the content to support each path is relatively short, where retail gives you a ton of paths and an illusion of choice which you can turn into an illusion of force – “I have to do all of these things or else I’ll fall behind.” My experience with retail, and why I haven’t just quit, is that when you strip away the facade of choices and the feeling of being forced to do certain things, you can see something new. I don’t have a leveled Heart of Azeroth, not even on my raid main. I don’t do dungeons anymore, I only log on to raid and occasionally to chase an old raid achievement or mount. I have fun with it because it is what I want to do, and nothing more. I allowed myself to burn out a bit by grinding flying, but in truth, I could have easily chosen not to and for the content I typically play, such a decision would have only been a minor nuisance. (The fact that it is a nuisance and not just an inconvenience is a design disagreement I would have with Blizzard.)

But ultimately, these choices are only meaningful in the moments they are made. I won’t remember doing extra world quests for flying in a year, and most of the Classic players won’t remember every moment of combat gameplay and the decisions they made. There will be an overall pattern, a sort of amalgamated concept of the time spent, but it won’t register as meaningfully as most people seem to believe. My strongest memories of the game, the ones with the most meaning, are social in nature, and as someone who has built and helped maintain a raiding guild, what I recognize about this is that my moments of meaning in WoW are spread across the content I’ve played, from Classic through to now, because they are based in human experiences. The game didn’t create the meaning, it just gave a canvas upon which I could have a healing officer who didn’t know what an Aura was, or watch as someone insulted the guild leader and his stupid wife. Those are all created by the people in the game – and yes, there is something to be said about Classic forcing social friction in a way that helps facilitate that, but to pretend that only Classic does that is silly and short-sighted though modern WoW can definitely improve on this front.

Luckily, most of the inter-community friction has calmed down, short of a few incendiary-lobbing writers and the ever-persistent outrage merchants peddling their slop. Classic has begun to shrink as expected, with the smaller servers beginning to wind down layering to a single layer, the prerequisite Blizzard put forward for the phase 2 content launch. Retail has bumpy waters ahead for the foreseeable future, with a mixed-reception content update being all to tide us over until after Blizzcon, if not later. Blizzcon itself will tell a lot about the future of the game – both games, as different as they are.

Either way, I’ll enjoy what I can, skip what I don’t, and talk through it without getting (too) crazy for as long as people want to read it.

4 thoughts on “Classic, Retail, Outrage Merchants, and The Illusion of Meaning

  1. Looking for “meaning” in anything, let alone a video game, is an extremely dangerous path to go down. You will inevitably end up either lost in existential angst, consumed with religious fervor or sunk in a bottomless well of nihilism. My personal feeling is that absolutely nothing that humans are able to apprehend has any objective “meaning”. All meaning is subjectively imposed and culturally sculpted.

    Therefore, any meaning you find in playing any video game is the meaning you brought with you, colored and shaped by the meanings other people brought as communicated to you via the surrounding culture. Any argument about meaning is an argument about feelings so good luck with that.

    Where you pick up bloggers, streamers and the rest for seeing things from within their silos or bubbles, not comprehending the experiences and outlooks of those confinced to separate silos and bubbles, you might also find yourself falling into the same trap in your description of the games themselves. I’ve been playing MMORPGs for two decades and almost all of them have one thing in common: I play them because I enjoy the moment to moment gameplay, not with the intent of achieving anything, finding meaning or progressing to a perceived or actual “end game”.

    WoW Classic is compulsive for me because the moment-to-moment gameplay is constantly entertaining. It’s an endless series of small, trivial, meaningless goals that accrete to form a texture. That texture is aesthetically pleasing and I want to keep touching it. It’s like stroking velvet. There doesn’t need to be any more to it than that and in all MMORPGs that grip and hold there isn’t. It’s just an activity where doing the thing you do makes you want to go on doing it.

    My experience in game over the years is that there’s a vast horde of players who play for that sensation. They might not express it in the way I have but they are logging in every day because what they feel when they play feels… nice. Those players not only have no pretensions to end game be that raiding or tiered dungeons or whatever. Many literally will not know such things even exist. From my experiences in medium-sized “family” guilds in several MMORPGS it’s hard to overstate just how unengaged many players are with anything at all in game that doesn;t come directly from their own actions and what the in-game text or voiceover tells them.

    This massive body of happy, socially unengaged, uninformed players is roundly and routinely ignored by almost all commentators. I’m willing to allow that modwern social media has led some people towards a greater level of engagement but in the case of classical, tab-target MMORPGs you have a self-selecting audience that stands well off to the side of prevailing cultural trends. It’s an aging and somewhat archaic audience and WoW Classic is appealing to its most change-fearing hardcore.

    For that group, the so-called “journey” isn’t a journey at all. It’s a stasis. You level your character because it feels good. You develop tradeskills and do quests because it feels good. When you hit the point where the game no longer supports that gameplay it’s like bumping up agains the electric fence in a field. You take the jolt as a warning to back off and you do. You make another character and you play through all those parts that felt good again and they feel good again.

    That cycle carries on until, eventually, it doesn;t feel good. Or not as good. At that point you either find another, similar game and start over or you leave the hobby. At no point do most of the people who play this way discuss it with anyone other than their close friends and, less commonly, their guild. All that happens is one day, after months or years of being there almost every day, that person doesn’t log in again.

    That’s the “massive” part of a massively multiple role playing game. Like the proverviable iceberg, it’s there, you know it’s there, but you can’t see it. All you can see are glimpses through the dark water.

    I guess that could have been my blog post for today but I’ve done too many think pieces of late! Trying to cut down.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The point with meaning was intended more as a broader refutation of the commonly stated “Classic is more meaningful” because ultimately, you’re right – the idea of meaning is loaded, personal, and experiential rather than an agreed upon baseline. I think the games can create opportunity spaces in which meaningful interactions can take place, though – which I probably didn’t articulate as well as I had hoped! The one thing I think most people can embrace about Classic and agree upon is that the force of social friction in many aspects of it’s gameplay drives people closer to social experiences with little moments that can feel like you’re part of a larger community in a positive way – but I think it is common to inflate that to “only Classic can do that” which is not necessarily true.

      As for the gameplay point and the moment-to-moment feel, there’s probably another post in that topic as a whole, but I’ll say that I think my gaming tastes have fused into a single sort of taste that combines my older desire for action-oriented gameplay and my love of the original WoW experience at its original place in time, and the modern game does a better job of appealing to that fusion of tastes. I play fewer shooters and twitch-action games now and tend to play things that are slower than that gameplay but faster than old WoW – it’s a personal quirk and one that I would hesitate to ascribe any larger meaning to, but I also think that similar sentiments drive the modern WoW playerbase’s dissatisfaction with the ability pruning of the last 5 years – fewer buttons to hit, less to do, less engagement. I’m sure when I do sit down and take some time to level my Classic characters, I’ll find a good middle ground in the back-half of leveling, but the early experience I picked first (warrior) is too slow for my current tastes. It was probably too slow for me in 2004, too – warrior is what I tried first and I tuned out of the game until I tried again with a caster class. The more things change, the more they stay the same!

      To the social engagement point, I’m probably going to use that as a post launching pad as well (maybe when I haven’t posted 4 things in 24 hours!) but it is something that tends to haunt my vision. Retail is “dying” to a lot of people who write about games, WoW specifically, and those of us that are extremely online, but every time I log into the current game, I run into a fair number of players. Some of that is certainly Blizzard’s newer systems creating an illusion through sharding, server merges, and other such technology, but even when I night owl and log in at 3 AM, I can see people online. Not many, but peak hours on my server has bustling capitals and I see people logged in. For every player like me who obsessively analyzes the game, documents the journey, and discusses with others, I’d guess there are 99 (if not more) players just…playing. I bet many of them don’t consume WoW content outside the game, don’t engage with other players except within the context of the game, and are what the video describes as “social solo” players. Hell, I’m one myself when not raiding – as much as the dungeon silence is seen as a problem in the current game, I kind of like it, because it helps my personality to not have to engage with anything but the game – I need the other people to do the content, but unless the mood strikes me to have a conversation, I don’t have to say anything and I’ll likely never see them again. But, the game also provides social services that can be used so I could build a social network out of that and meet more players to do more content with – I’d be curious if there is a large number of people doing that and not discussing it. Part of the bullet point list of features for Battle for Azeroth was the social systems revamp, and while most bloggers and game pundits wouldn’t describe these systems as huge successes, I’d be curious to see what numbers Blizzard has on how many communities are formed and used in game regularly and how they form. I hear a lot of voices talk about the game from all angles already, I wonder what hides in the amalgam of players who just play?


  2. Heh, I saw “outrage merchants” in the subject line and immediately wondered whether you’d seen the FoldingIdeas video too. I also follow him for his other content, and while I was aware that he does enjoy gaming, I was still very surprised to see a 40-minute video about Classic popping up on my YouTube feed. I had no idea he was a “statue level” subscriber.

    Anyway, I thought the video was overall very good, but there is definitely more to Classic vs. modern WoW than he gets into, from class design to the way the game treats socialising.

    Also, I sort of (?) agree with Bhagpuss that meaning is a very fuzzy word. You seem to be very set on it involving choices, but I don’t think that’s a requirement at all. Doing the dishes is meaningful to me because it means that afterwards I’m happy to have clean dishes and it feels like time well spent, doesn’t matter that there was zero choice involved. Classic is similar that way, except that it has the bonus of the moment-to-moment gameplay being way more fun than washing dishes. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I won’t count the number of times publicly I watched his full series breaking down the Fifty Shades series, because I never read it but it is a sort of cultural fascination for me. 🙂

      I’d also agree that I think he definitely kept surface-level for an audience that likely hasn’t played WoW for as long or in as much depth as he has. Now that I know he’s played on that level, though, I want more content and analysis – I’d be interested to see it through that lens and use that to illuminate my own thoughts some more!

      As for the meaning thing, I probably just didn’t communicate meaning as well as I intended to – I think there can be a relation of choice and meaning, and having choices can offer more opportunities for meaningful interactions, but I see the role of the game in all of that as being a conduit for meaningful interactions and not itself meaningful. I do think Classic creates more scenarios for meaningful social interaction, but I think this is often conflated with the game itself being more “meaningful” which is a bit of a trap. That is something I’ll probably break off into its own post later, so I’ll avoid weighing down this comment much more for now 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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