A couple of significant things happened in the world of online gaming over the first weekend of November. At its BlizzCon convention in California, Blizzard devoted quite a lot of time to World of Warcraft Classic — the nostalgic, retro version of its 19-year-old massively multiplayer game — and revealed surprisingly ambitious plans for Classic’s future. At the same time, Fortnite’s servers were melting under the load of its biggest day ever, which was all down to the launch of Fortnite OG, a special season bringing back the game’s original map and 2018 gameplay.
All of a sudden, in the proudly impermanent world of online gaming — where change is always good, and if it’s not, never mind, because here comes more change — winding back the clock is big business. It’s a kind of paradox: Because online games are always evolving, a sense of scarcity and intense nostalgia forms around the way they used to be. If you can find a way to bring that feeling back, especially for an audience that’s getting jaded, then you’re on to something.
Blizzard initially seemed reluctant to get on board with a growing movement in WoW’s community that wanted to go back to the way things were in 2004-2005. It squashed unofficial “vanilla” servers and prevaricated over creating an official alternative for years. In a way, it’s understandable: If you have spent many years of effort on (in your eyes) modernizing and improving your game, why would you want to indulge this rose-tinted exercise? Isn’t World of Warcraft just better now?
Of course, that’s a value judgment — but what’s undeniable is that WoW is now extremely different from how it used to be. And that’s exactly what makes Classic a viable and interesting, if slightly old-fashioned, alternative. After Classic arrived in 2019, included in a standard WoW subscription, it became a roaring success, partly because of the strong contrast between it and the two unloved expansions (Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands) it launched between.
But what’s really fascinating about Classic is where Blizzard is taking it next — because Classic is an online game, and no online game can stand still, even a throwback. It began as a relatively faithful version of the original MMO with smart tweaks: It moved through content patches at an accelerated rate, while locking to a single iteration of game design and balance. Then it bifurcated, with some servers moving forward through classic expansions, while others stayed in the “vanilla” era. This year, it acquired a third track, something completely new that WoW had never had before: a permadeath Hardcore mode, which turned out to be a game-reviving innovation that was quite brilliant in its simplicity.
From its showing at BlizzCon, Blizzard is doubling down on morphing WoW Classic into its own game. The expansion servers are moving on to Cataclysm, which is probably the point at which “classic” becomes a misnomer: Whatever your feelings about this divisive expansion, its sweeping rewrite of the “old world” questing experience is the point at which original WoW died, and is still represented in the game today. Blizzard is going even further than it has before in tweaking and fixing this expansion for Classic, accelerating leveling, adding quality-of-life features, and throwing in new dungeon difficulties and loot.
But that isn’t even the headline. Blizzard — drawing inspiration from sister series Diablo, as it did for the Hardcore mode — is also introducing a fourth track to the WoW Classic servers that seasonally remixes the original “vanilla” game. Season of Discovery, which launches on Nov. 30, seeds entirely new content across the original world of Azeroth in the form of Discoveries, which producer Josh Greenfield said at BlizzCon were a way to disrupt the “solved nature” of original WoW and restore a “feeling of adventure and exploration.” It also offers a Rune Engraving system that endows classes with entirely new abilities, even allowing them to switch archetypes (you’ll be able to create a tank Warlock or a healer Mage, to name a couple).
The game is furthermore being broken up into level-banded phases — the initial level cap will be only 25 — and interpolated with all-new endgames, one for each phase. The first of these reworks the classic leveling dungeon Blackfathom Deeps as a 10-player raid, but Blizzard is also teasing adding unfinished or cut content, and even all-new dungeons, to Season of Discovery. It’s not just a new way to think about classic WoW — it’s a new approach to structuring MMOs, borrowing liberally from across the online gaming landscape. It’s pretty exciting.
That Blizzard is going to all this effort shows that WoW Classic is working both for the business and for the WoW community. It also demonstrates that for an online gaming nostalgia mode to succeed in the long term, it needs to evolve away from being an emulation or restoration of a bygone experience, and become a (sort of) fresh game in its own right. (Or, in Classic’s case, four games.)
Currently, Epic has no plans to keep Fortnite OG going past its current monthlong season, which sprints through six seasons of the game’s Chapter 1 in a matter of weeks instead of months. The branding clearly allows for OG to return and revisit later chapters, but given the enormous surge in interest, Epic would be foolish not to be considering ways to keep some of these new or returning players in the fold permanently.
It’s true that WoW and Fortnite are very different games with, crucially, different business models. Splitting the game’s audience might be more of a worry for Epic than it is for Blizzard, which is presumably happy as long as all those players stay within the one subscription-paying bucket. But WoW has proven that a big online game — especially one with a history — can support a family of sub-communities enjoying different flavors of the same game. Indeed, that might be the healthiest way forward for a game of that sort, certainly one approaching its 20th anniversary.
More importantly, perhaps, what WoW Classic and Fortnite OG demonstrate is that the history of online games doesn’t have to be consigned to the scrapheap of memory. There’s a genuine hunger from players to turn back the clock, which, when met by an inventive studio that understands what was special about what it created but is willing to take some risks with it, can create something vibrant and sustainable in the long term — a kind of multiverse of paths not taken for your favorite old multiplayer games. What’s next, Vault of Glass in modern Destiny 2? Sign me up.