In 2004, World of Warcraft was the biggest MMO around. The game continued off the success of Warcraft 3 and streamlined features from other MMOs like EverQuest, becoming the title that ended up defining the genre.
The game has been updated with expansions continuously since The Burning Crusade in 2007, and every expansion streamlines and improves the game further. As the years went by, fans wanted a return to the original Azeroth and at BlizzCon 2017, Blizzard announced it would release World of Warcraft: Classic. A demo of the game was included with the BlizzCon 2018 Virtual Ticket, and while I appreciated the blast to the past, I found the demo to be more than a little painful.
World of Warcraft: Classic demands a player’s complete attention. Pulling more than one enemy is risking near certain death. Your map is not marked with objectives; you must pore over the quest text and then head there yourself. On Battle for Azeroth’s toolbar, your abilities flash and glow when it’s the right time to hit them, a luxury Classic players are not afforded. Individual battles take time, resources are rare, there’s none of the flash and pomp that goes into a slickly designed and animated Battle for Azeroth ability rotation. As soon as I walked into Moonbrook, I winced every time I heard the cry of alarm from a Defias Pillager, and the crackling of a fireball he was summoning. Each strike would take half my health, and I was dry on mana from constantly using my abilities to stay alive in every fight.
It’s those rougher edges that define World of Warcraft: Classic.
Polygon sat down with World of Warcraft game director Ian Hazzikostas and senior game producer Calia Schie at BlizzCon 2018 to talk about the return to classic WoW. Despite the difficulty of the demo, Hazzikostas said he isn’t concerned.
“This is a product for everyone,” he said. Veteran, new player or anywhere in between: Classic is an artifact of a past time, and Hazzikostas acknowledged that people may “run away screaming,” but there’s a certain charm to the old ways that the updated, polished retail experience can’t capture. The game is set to launch on Patch 1.12, the Drums of War, which is the “final” iteration of Classic’s class balance and improvements.
“I’m excited to go back and play through it for the first time,” said Schie. “It’s an experience I’ve heard so much about, but I’ve never seen it.”
For some players, including Schie, classic World of Warcraft has become something of a myth. Everyone recognizes the game had cultural impact, but it’s become such a Ship of Theseus over the years and expansions that the original draw has been lost to time.
Classic is adopting the vanilla World of Warcraft experience, warts and all. Sylvanas Windrunner is wearing a re-colored Night Elf model, players use the old low-poly versions of characters, and Defias Pillagers can still absolutely demolish you as you try to advance through Westfall. There is no flying, mounts will take hours of careful saving to obtain (and some players may never get their epic mounts), and raids require herding 40 cats on the same schedule.
“A lot of those differences [between Classic and retail] are double-edged,” Hazzikostas said. “A lot of those inconveniences added something. There was more of a sense of exploration, it was a bit more about the journey, and accomplishments came more slowly but you were a bit more appreciative. When you couldn’t do all the things you can do today alone, you depended on others more, and you’re more likely to reach out and form bonds with them.”
“I’ve spoken to fans at BlizzCon and they talk about how they met their spouses or best men at the wedding in World of Warcraft,” says Schie. Those social bonds and stories are something the team is looking to recapture with the original social infrastructure of the game.
This is the main draw of Classic for many players. Back before the convenient, swift nature of Battle for Azeroth matchmaking, it was you and your server. Players would cluster in Ironforge, gazing in awe at the decked-out, Tier-2 raiders who had conquered end-game content. People maintained blacklists of shameful ninja looters. If you went for the top end PvP titles, you would recognize players on both sides of the battlefield — and sometimes, you even built rivalries with them.
If you played Classic for long enough, and invested enough time into the game, you got a strong sense of mattering to the game’s world. In modern World of Warcraft, the game rewards you with legendary weapons from the franchise’s history or by naming you the leader of your class order. NPCs like Warchief Sylvanas will congratulate you on how important you are and insist you accompany them on their latest task. In Classic, the game lacked that story infrastructure, and so the only accolades that really mattered were those of your peers.
You needed your reputation, as well, or you’d find yourself abandoned. When players were making a rush for Grand Marshal or High Warlord, the highest PvP ranks, the entire server would be on alert. It would be an attempt that took hours and hours of work each day, with every server on the player hot on your heels. If you angered your server, you’d be going it alone... or worse, with people actively sabotaging your attempts. Only a small percentage of players even got to see bosses like Ragnaros; if you weren’t able to coordinate with 39 other people, you were locked out of raid content.
In 2018, playing World of Warcraft is like playing a game that has been carefully polished and honed to the point where it’s more of a Slip N’ Slide than an arduous trek. If you want to jump on and accomplish something in an hour, you can run a couple of dungeons, complete your weekly Island Expeditions, or finish a set of World Quests. It’s something I praised back in August, writing, “I can see the raid content through a convenient in-game menu and a couple of hours of time; I don’t have to gear up and coordinate with 24 other players to work through a raid. I don’t have to spend hours in Felwood farming herbs for a resistance elixir anymore. I’ve grown up, and so has World of Warcraft.”
When I logged into the Classic demo, I felt a strong sense of nostalgia but also an amount of dread to leave the retail version’s improvements behind. Once the novelty of the experience wears off, the success of Classic is going to live or die depending on how many players are willing to invest the time and effort into old systems. It’s easy to get excited about the highlights of the old experience, like the rush to ring the gong over Ahn’Qiraj or seeing Onyxia reveal herself in the Stormwind Castle. Every high moment required an investment work, time and coordinating with other human beings. In 2018, I don’t think that’s a commitment I can make again — but we may see people who miss the older style of MMORPGs happy to make that sacrifice.