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World of Warcraft Classic’s permadeath mode makes a 19-year-old game feel new

Hardcore servers are a brilliantly simple bit of social engineering

A giant lizard monster menaces a team of heroes in lurid fantasy artwork for the Zul’Gurub dungeon in World of Warcraft Classic Image: Blizzard Entertainment
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

If you want to see how one simple rule change can transform a game, look no further than the recently added Hardcore servers for World of Warcraft Classic. Only available in Classic Era form — that is, the mode that replicates the game (more or less) as it was during its launch phase, before any expansions were released — these servers enforce one feature World of Warcraft never had before: permadeath.

This ought to be an absolutely terrible idea. World of Warcraft Classic is not Diablo, where hardcore permadeath modes are a staple. It is not a fast-paced action role-playing game designed for solo play, with flexible character classes that enable the player to use skill choices and loot to effectively redesign their class for survivability.

No. World of Warcraft Classic is, by modern standards, a glacially slow MMORPG, with strictly delineated classes designed to fit into group roles, where the player’s investment in their character is expected to run into hundreds, if not thousands, of hours. Its leveling curve is described on an epic scale across endless stretches of hardscrabble grind, dotted with tough quests, dungeons, and packs of monsters designed to catch players out. The thought of losing all this hard-won progress is horrifying. Adding permanent character death to this design seems masochistic to the point of being a bad joke.

Well, if it is, the joke’s on me: I’m on my fifth Hardcore character. I’m one of the thousands of players thronging the brimful official Hardcore servers Blizzard has set up, and I’m having a great time.

A night elf hunter runs through a jungle pursued by a huge black dinosaur in World of Warcraft Classic Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Hardcore revitalizes this early era of WoW completely — more completely, I’d argue, than the launch of Classic itself did in 2019. That release wound back the clock to 2004-2006 in terms of the content and game design, and it was briefly exciting to revisit. But it couldn’t quite put players back in the same enthralled mindset they had enjoyed during that period. Trained, over the course of 15 years, to rush and optimize their way through the game, the WoW community ate Classic up and either moved on or settled into the raiding endgame. Classic was absolutely still worth playing, but there was no way to recapture the magic.

Only, it turns out there is — because, in the context of an MMO like WoW, Hardcore mode isn’t just a ruleset that changes the feel of the game itself; it’s social engineering that changes the way people play it and interact with each other.

On a moment-to-moment level, Hardcore heightens the experience of playing WoW Classic in the ways you would expect. It’s more tense, more immersive, and sharpens your engagement with the game design. In WoW, particularly in its sprawling original form, every class has a toolkit that extends far beyond the core skill rotation you need to do damage, or tank, or heal (but mostly do damage, in the context of leveling up). Much of this is easily ignored, and in many cases, has been trimmed away over the years.

But as you look to improve your survivability and get out of sticky situations, almost every skill suddenly gives you a potential edge. Those racial cooldowns you always forgot about, or the spellcaster interrupts you only ever bothered with when it was a required part of a raid boss mechanic, can now save you when you get in too deep against a pack of three normal enemies. Professions, too, become lifesavers: On Hardcore servers, everyone’s an alchemist or an engineer, popping hail-mary potions and dropping target dummies to draw away threats. If, in Diablo, Hardcore is mostly about build optimization, in WoW Classic, it’s about learning your class inside out, and keeping everything it can do at the front of your mind.

A peaceful sunset over a clifftop settlement in the Thousand Needles region in World of Warcraft Classic Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Hardcore mode has also revived the lost art of running away. The hardest skill to learn in Hardcore is to know when you’re beat — or rather, to sense it just before you’re about to be beat — and to drop your dignity and flee. (Ironically, this gets harder the deeper you get into the game, as a false sense of achievement lulls you into complacency.) This is anathema to the way World of Warcraft has been played for most of the last 19 years, which has all been about pushing your character to the limit of its capacity, the better to maximize experience gain and leveling speed — particularly as questing in WoW got more forgiving over time. In Hardcore, though, the only thing that counts is staying alive, so you’d better get good at being cowardly.

But the most profound changes wrought by Hardcore are social ones. Everyday questing and leveling in WoW has been a lonely experience for many years now, as most players race through these parts of the game solo, with their heads down. The higher stakes of permadeath have encouraged players to open up and include one another again. Party invites are common, whether they be to ensure that nobody misses the chance to tag that named enemy for a quest, or to make tackling elite mobs safer, or just to ease the grind. There’s not a lot of chat, but there is a renewed sense that we’re all in this adventure together, which is what MMOs used to be all about.

I feel silly for not predicting an even more dramatic consequence of permadeath: Leveling zones are always busy, because people are constantly starting new characters, because people are always dying. Outside of new expansion launches, or the first days of a fresh server, it’s rare for low-level areas to be busy, as players naturally filter through to high-level and endgame content. If anything, WoW Classic Hardcore reverses this trend, and this, above all else, is what makes it feel like a time portal back to playing the game at launch. Everywhere you go, there are players running around. There’s life. (And death: The carpets of player corpses around tough early leveling spots, like Tiragarde Keep in Durotar, are grimly funny. “Take a moment to remember our fallen comrades,” said one companion, and I dutifully typed out /cry.)

A team of heroes battle a mage boss in the Scarlet Monastery dungeon in World of Warcraft Classic Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Redditor centcentcent summed up the appeal of the Hardcore servers perfectly in a post titled “Why?”:

It’s 2023, I’m 38, and I’m a level 17 priest in World of Warcraft classic hardcore. Why am I playing this? The gameplay is slow, questing is tedious, it takes forever to get anywhere, my rotation is simple and repetitive. Why is this the only game I can think about lately? Hours go by and all I’ve done is kill Old Murk-Eye and collect some condor meat. It’s the most fun I’ve had with a video game in a long time. Why? I’m putting hours into something that could be gone with a single disconnect. I love it. There are people everywhere, the world feels alive. Everything has weight, there’s a sense of danger and progress. Deadmines soon. And if I die… I’ve always wanted to try a dwarf warrior.

Hardcore is not what World of Warcraft was ever designed for. (In fact, one of its chief innovations was to ease death penalties in a genre in which they tended to be quite severe.) But it has more successfully revived the spirit of the game at its launch than anything since 2004. Don’t get me wrong; losing a character is absolutely galling, especially to a disconnect, which has happened to me once. Every time I’ve lost a character, I’ve sworn it off. But every time, after a while, I’ve gone back.

Once, during this period of mourning for one of my characters, I decided to transfer their ghost over to a normal server (a service Blizzard offers for free), resurrect them, and continue my journey. But it wasn’t the same. The place was deserted. Combat felt hollow and dull. The world didn’t feel alive. And neither did I.


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