In my last post, I promised this would be coming, and here it is!
The TBC Classic launch announcements, all of them taken together, spell out a sort of bizarre point of progression for the Classic team. I think there are a lot of challenges with the undertaking they’ve got on this project, and TBC is, for better or for worse, the point at which WoW starts to march towards what it has become today. As a part of this, TBC Classic likewise makes several interesting changes and pivots from the Classic vision, towards something that is more accurately describable as a hybrid.
I think there are two angles via which we can analyze this news. The first is the missteps of Blizzard in regards to WoW Classic and their communication strategy, but the second is how I expect to see the Classic fanbase react.
Blizzard’s Management of the Communication
In writing the prior post on the launch, I found it fascinating (in a bad way) that it was so hard to piece together a single, concise view of the launch information that had been provided. Blizzard announced cloning for characters but listed no price; that detail was in Activision investor documents. Blizzard announced some details about the realm forking, but I had to read a separate knowledge base article about realm types to get the full picture. Blizzard had some details about the prepatch, but I had to find a Blizzard Watch article that confirmed prepatch would allow play of the TBC-specific races but not any other TBC content, and even then, they didn’t seem to have a clear sourcing of that information, so who even knows if that is right!
However, the biggest miss has to be the lack of support for guilds on Vanilla-era realms. I had to read Blizzard’s knowledge base article on character clones in Classic, and then read the last bullet point on the limitations of cloning to discover that the Vanilla-era realms just won’t have guilds on May 18th, because they’re technically new servers and only the characters are being copied, not their guilds. It’s clear to most that the expectation Blizzard has is that a majority of people will move to Progression servers, and like, that’s fair and I think a likely outcome, but there are vanilla zealots out there and you mean to tell me you had a whole-ass beta and no one thought to try testing a guild copy feature? Literally the thing that most Vanilla crusaders tell you the game is about is the social environment, and you’re going to take that audience and pull their guilds because oops, can’t copy them? Wow. That’s really stupid, frankly. Making it worse is the complete lack of proactive communication about that – I saw no other text or information about that in any more public-facing content, and no fansites that I checked have made any mention of this. At present, the prepatch is in 11 days, and a fair number of people (the most ornery hornet’s nest of fans you could possibly kick) are about to lose their guilds! Holy shit that’s fucking dumb, Blizzard. At least like, I don’t know, announce that instead of burying it in an article about character cloning?
Some Changes and The Nature of Classic
From the announcement of TBC Classic at Blizzconline in February through to now, Blizzard has been very cautious to emphasize that the tone of TBC Classic is shifting away from “no changes” to “some changes.” While most of the examples provided at that time were gameplay-focused, there were a few that touched nerves with the fanbase.
Chief among those nerve-touchers was the announcement of paid services that are specific to Classic – the level 58 character boost and character clone options.
Character boosts have always been controversial in WoW, and with good reason. The argument against them is simple enough to make – they remove meaningful learning opportunities that come with leveling, they further devalue older content more than the game’s own design already does, and they create a social pressure to hurry up and get to the “good stuff” that can make new players feel sort of unable to tackle the game at their own pace. On the other hand, the game’s model also often disincentivizes many of the same things without a boost – character leveling is rarely meaningful in WoW, most of the learning of your rotation and endgame playstyle happens in the actual endgame, and while you might have friends pushing you to just boost and get in there already, the game has never exactly been a paradise full of fresh-faced players as you go, especially for those who weren’t already there for the big launches.
So to me personally, I find the boost idea neutral to agreeable. However, I’m not really a Classic-head, and so there are different versions of these same arguments that would be made for Classic. Leveling is more meaningful in Classic, so everyone should have to experience it (is it really, though?). You learn more because you have more skills, skill ranks, and talents as you level in Classic (fair enough, but does the old game really teach you about spell ranks, or does it just foist them onto a vendor and dump them in your spell book?).
But Classic players are gonna Classic, and this change is still being met with some amount of resistance and complaints about the purity of the experience. At the now-announced price of $40, and with a limit of one per account, I guess I find this argument personally sort of uninteresting – the Classic versions of these arguments are just a smidge more elitist than the ones we’ve already had over the last 7 years of retail WoW. For what it’s worth, the lower cost of the boost on Classic and the one per account maximum feel like interesting limits – you get one shot and if you hate the character you’ve made, too bad for you. I think those changes are meaningful limits that will keep Classic away from being a hive of people with little practical gameplay expertise in the Classic setting and will instead function as means for existing players to change their main or to try their hand at an alt.
The character clone function costs $35, and it is both more understandable but also less so. In any Classic MMO experience, adding an expansion creates a ton of added complexity that isn’t always simple to resolve, especially because communities of players are involved much more than they would be in any other experience. The biggest problem is usually how you manage progression into new content, because of course, not everyone in a Classic experience agrees on what content is their ideal prelapsarian version of the game. If you do an EQ classic server, people might very well want to progress from the original release into Ruins of Kunark, Scars of Velious, and Shadows of Luclin, but then not into Planes of Power, while you’ll have pockets of players with allegiances to each of the expansions I just mentioned thanks to Google (although I do remember Shadows of Luclin because of a CGW feature on the graphics overhaul in that expansion and mostly just wanted to make sure I had the right name!).
So okay, fine, you need a way of sorts to define the experience and get players committed to a path, because the progression of an MMO sort of breaks without putting someone on a track. You can design a new track, but then it’s not Classic and now you’re making new content for the Classic experience and that prompts all sorts of existential horrors about what even is Classic. Fine – allow players to define a path, but give them an out.
Question, though – does the out need to be $35 dollars?!
Seriously, in 2021, and with the scale of operations, I know that there isn’t actual work done past the initial software development. In 2007 when you had character services, you could pretend that moving servers was this hard work that required copies being made manually and sent over to the new server, and to be fair, back then, that was likely true on some level. It was likely even automated but still took time, fine. In 2021, this whole game is built on an elastic cloud infrastructure – we all sort of know on some level that all the characters are in a big single database with server as a value of the character and not instead existing in one of many databases defined by the physical server or datacenter they are located in, so we also then know that $35 is basically extortionate – done solely to make people pay to be able to have their cake and eat it too. I think there’s sort of a fine line here – the choice of path should be a meaningful one that defines your experience, but at the same time, Blizzard’s own article on cloning admits they’re making copies and keeping them anyways with prepatch, so there really isn’t any actual service being done here. Blizzard is just padlocking one character version and telling you to pay a ransom, which is kind of gross!
Then, we come back to the lack of continued guild existence for vanilla. The whole point of Classic in the eyes of many is that it is a social experience the current game lacks, and nothing says “cohesive social experience” like destroying any guilds that stay behind and forcing complete reformation! Okay, well a lot of things actually make for a better social experience, but this is a curious example of Blizzard pushing the limits yet again with the Classic audience. From the launch of Classic through to today, Blizzard has slowly been working to shift the line where players will complain about Classic not being a good experience to more favorable grounds for themselves, and not investing in guild copying is an element of that. Sure, a Vanilla guild is just a roster and glorified chat channel with nothing else (Guild Banks weren’t added until 2.3 and guild reputation rewards weren’t until 4.0) so you lose the least here, but at the same time, this is a bad change. If you stay in vanilla, you’re going to have to track down your old roster and recreate the whole thing from scratch, and there will be all sorts of weird moments of social tension as you find players aren’t returning and it allows players who wanted to do TBC but weren’t ready to deal with the social aspect to just ghost everyone in their current guild. Sure, that last one is a player problem and not the game’s to manage, but at the same time, having to recreate a guild from whole cloth, including tabard design and getting everyone setup is a giant pain in the ass, and surely there was some way for Blizzard to have managed this better. We know they can copy guilds between servers – you can do it right now on live! Although, it is a paid service – but we know that Classic is built on the current game’s technology base, so come on!
Lastly, there is the Deluxe Edition. I personally find it cool, but it also sort of runs counter to the philosophy at the time of TBC. Store mounts didn’t come into the game until Wrath of the Lich King, although there were the TCG mounts you could find at the time if you were extraordinarily lucky. The two toys that are included are exclusive in this form to Classic, but are indeed themselves TCG items that were period-appropriate, so I find that fine. I think most players will largely accept this option, as while a collector’s edition mount wasn’t a thing until MoP, and while store mounts weren’t until WotLK, TCG mounts existed then. This mount is new, but it also is a relatively minor change, as it cannot fly and so won’t devalue the cost of a flying mount or epic flying mount.
My Overall Opinion and What I See The Reaction Being
Classic has been an interesting experiment in WoW, both because of the ways in which it started two years ago (the leadup for literal years with Nostalrius, the #nochanges people, and all of the various arguments and celebrations right up to and through launch) and that is likely to be even more fraught here. Vanilla Classic was just the base game with layering added, and for all the faults and flaws of that approach, it mostly worked out for the Classic community, who even accepted the use of layering to some extent and have been permissive of additional small changes like the Chronoboon Displacer for boss buffs. It has also, in my mind, laid to rest arguments about which version of the game was more challenging – far more guilds on Classic have done Naxxramas compared to the original vanilla version, largely down to an increase in metagaming and easier access to strategies that prove that the content wasn’t really that much harder, it was just down to item level and strategy, both things that modernized metagaming have pretty strong ways to overcome. The hardest part of vanilla raiding was often getting 40 dedicated players into a raid, as each raid did sort of reduce the number of deadweights you could bring until it started to demand the full concentration of 40 players.
TBC Classic is going to be more interesting in my opinion, because it turns the tendency for vitriol and fighting from the Classic playerbase inward a bit more. Now, there will be two Classic playerbases, each with their own preferences and tastes. The vanilla Classic audience is, to my experience in interacting with several, the prickliest, most sort of snobby elitist group of them (oh, you’re playing retail? That’s not even a real MMO, instead it’s *some genre tag they made up*) and they are the most likely to be sort of offput by the news. They lose players, lose popularity, have to rebuild their guilds, and are generally no longer the focal point of Classic as an experience – and I think that is going to create an interesting quagmire.
TBC is, to most, the point at which WoW begins its march forward to the present, where questing becomes more localized and focused, where the dungeon experience becomes less about exploration and more about a relatively fixed path that is done in less time, where raids become smaller and similarly more focused on the combat gameplay at an individual level, and where PvP becomes a smaller group activity via Arenas. A lot of what the classic audience would diagnose as the malaise that befouls modern WoW starts here.
For many in that same audience, TBC Classic will likely be perceived in a similar way on multiple levels. The core gameplay experience is preserved, by most accounts from the beta, so all of the perceptions that come with that will be retained. However, it also marks a point at which Blizzard has become more fiercely experimental with what the line is to the Classic audience – pushing paid character boosts, paid character clones, deluxe editions loaded with extra little things to set players apart, and with some small tweaks to gameplay mechanics that make the experience a little less vintage and a little bit more modern. Even if some of these are acceptable to the average Classic player, taken as a whole, they represent a sharp departure from no changes. I think most of the bloggers I follow on the topic are reasonable folks about it and haven’t had anything incendiary to say about these changes, but they do represent an interesting move for Blizzard – away from the sort of pure experience maintenance of vanilla Classic and with intrusions from modern Activision-Blizzard – a monetized product with limitations designed to push players to be more profitable for the company. I think at this point, people in the WoW orbit will have either enjoyed their Classic experience and be ready to move forward, or will choose to stay behind – and that latter experience is one that is going to be objectively worse for a minute due to a lack of players and the complete obliteration of existing guilds.
Likewise, the WoW version of a Classic experience remains distinctly Blizzardy in nature. There’s been seemingly no thought given to fresh start servers, event servers, or anything of the sort, opting instead for experience-locked servers to one of the two versions. It would be cool to have a fresh start Classic server, or even double-fresh start and have players starting from scratch on both vanilla and TBC rulesets. Likewise, TBC patches each had some major changes to the core game and it would be cool to have timelocked changes on an “authentic” patch rollout server, and even to do the same in the vanilla experience. The emphasis on the “final” version of each expansion maintains some degree of simplicity in coding and development, and that’s fine, but we’re getting close to the idea of Wrath of the Lich King Classic, and rolling out the 3.3 version of WotLK as the base will fundamentally change a ton of things (big mana regen changes for healers from 3.1, the DK talent swaps that enabled dual-wield and allowed Armor Penetration to work for Unholy damage, etc). In TBC already, this change poses some challenges – leveling from 1-60 in TBC-era is just flat-out easier and faster, there are a handful of profession overhauls that will make gathering in particular much easier than it was at the genuine TBC launch, and the metagame aspects of each raid tier will shift as a result of getting the 2.4-era balancing instead of the genuine, time-locked experience. Some of these are things that the Classic community has largely accepted as the price of even getting Classic at all, but others will stick out more sharply in TBC than they did in Vanilla, and it will be interesting to see how player perception changes.
And so we arrive at the next major milestone for the game – TBC Classic released into the void left by not having new retail content in some time, ready to be the next major thing for us who write about the game to discuss, dissect, and deliver diatribes about. Yet I notice something of a peculiar lack of excitement for it – many of the same voices who loudly supported Classic are nowhere to be found, while a smaller number of new voices are now suddenly aboard the Classic train for TBC.
My personal take remains largely the same – I’m not a big Classic fan, and I find the whole thing a sort of empty experience in chasing nostalgia that can never be the same. That isn’t a quality judgment – I’m genuinely glad that Classic exists as an offering for those who want it – but for me, my memories and enjoyment of WoW are tied into aspects of my life as it was at those points in time, and since I’m not a 20-year old naive young man on an accelerating professional track, TBC Classic is just a snapshot of WoW as it was then. For me personally, TBC is also the expansion I invested the least amount of time into – not because I found the content lacking or anything of the sort, but just because of personal circumstance. I’ll likely try it as a curiosity, and I’ve even debated getting the Deluxe Edition for the boost and the 30 days of game time to add to extend my retail experience, on top of a mount that is unique. But will I invest hours of time into it?
Probably not. But that’s just me.