“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.