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World of Warcraft Classic review: The players grew up

Welcome to one of Blizzard’s most fascinating experiments

World of Warcraft Classic brought 2004 back with a bang last week, as players flooded the servers to play the original, vanilla-flavored World of Warcraft, creating queues of tens of thousands of players and leaving the modern game feeling like a comparative ghost town.

What they found was, much like the queues, a near-authentic World of Warcraft launch experience. This is a recreation, of course, not the real thing. The engine driving Classic is based on the modern game, not the 2004 original, with the vanilla graphics and gameplay systems bolted on top. It looks and plays like that launch version of the game, but it should run significantly better.

Players often actively avoided looting anything they killed when the game launched in 2004, due to the amount of time they would have to spend sliding across the ground in the looting position as the game struggled to keep up with its players. The most laggy areas in Classic remain more or less playable, even with thousands of players. There might be a delay before an item is transferred into your bags or a quest giver coughs out their lines, but the game has been playable despite the early crowds ... once you’ve managed to get in, of course.

The game is currently downright smooth after 15 levels or so, despite the crowds and occasional layer restarts.

It’s working as intended, which is great news for fans, but are Blizzard’s intentions with this release worthwhile in 2019? And will players stick with the game once that initial hit of nostalgia wears off?

The original World of Warcraft, just a lot later

The most important thing to say about World of Warcraft Classic is that the art, quest text, and NPCs are exactly the same as I remember from the original launch, warts and all. Even the original bugs have been preserved. The whole thing runs better, which is a welcome improvement, but the game itself is as close to the original as possible. I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for 15 years now, and was afraid that the original game would be too easy. But the opposite is true; I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Classic’s difficulty.

Gameplay systems are at once simpler than in modern World of Warcraft — there is less to worry about during battles, such as interrupts, purges/dispels, or movement to avoid abilities in the original game — and more complex when it comes to things like choosing talents.

a character runs from a small T. rex in World of Warcraft Classic Blizzard Entertainment

Killing things is downright hard in the beginning, which is exactly as I remember it. Monsters hit harder, for starters, and they don’t scale, so they frequently outlevel you. Hit rating is back, and it makes a meaningful difference in whether you’re even able to connect with your target at all. Your character, in general, will be much easier to kill than what you’re used to from the modern game. The first version of World of Warcraft was hard, and it remains so today, even if you know what to expect.

Other players in chat frequently crow about the many ways in which this memory of World of Warcraft is different than the modern version of WoW, typically siding with Classic. Everything is exactly the same as it was, they say, and that’s the way they like it. But truthfully, one element has changed dramatically: the players themselves.

Now with adults!

Many of these players were kids, relatively speaking, back in 2004. Now, many of them have kids of their own. When areas got too crowded on some WoW Classic servers for players to get the kills they needed for quests this week, they literally queued up in game, forming a line so that each person could get the monsters they needed in turn. There was some sense that giving up a bit of freedom so that everyone could have a good time was the right thing to do.

That’s adult behavior, seeking to create order out of chaos, and it was nowhere in evidence 15 years ago. We were all younger then, the game was new, and, well, if your hunter could hit a target faster than my priest, you generally got it, and too bad for me. Pure Darwinism has been traded for something that almost looks like culture and rules, if you squint at it. Most players seem to want everyone to have as good a time as they’re having, at least at launch.

Even zone chat reflects that new sensibility; the dad jokes and innuendos and occasional political debates still fly, but it’s self-aware, self-referential, with clever trolls playing off memes now more than a decade old. One discussion in a zone I quested in consisted of “Did someone say ...” which in vanilla was always followed by a link to the legendary blade Thunderfury, but here was an endless list of common items (food, vendor trash, and the like).

Still, that chat is generally helpful and fun in a way that’s rare in the modern version of World of Warcraft, or most games, for that matter. Most of the posts are people attempting to find a quest objective, figure out a particularly labyrinthine UI task such as unlearning a profession, or seek party members to clear Deadmines or Wailing Caverns or whatever other dungeon is handy. Most of the answers are on point; everyone seems to be in it together.

There are a number of reasons why that’s the case, and they spell out all the good things about WoW Classic. People know they’re on a single server with the same people, and if they plan to play long term, reputation actually has value. But likely most of all, they give help because they need help, because the monsters killing other people are the ones killing them as well, and the shared difficulty builds a certain empathy for your fellow man. Or orc.

This is a game that was designed to require players to work together, and players returning to it are taking that direction to heart. You can’t be a loner if you want to get ahead, which should set off some alarm bells in your head.

How should Classic affect modern Warcraft?

I love modern WoW, mostly, and continue to play 15 years later with an intensity that perplexes my family and friends. But all of its conveniences — and there are many, including easily soloable quest objectives, instant looking-for-group parties for dungeons and quests, flying mounts that carry you over tough enemies, and one-click looting of everything dead around you — add up to more self-reliance for the individual player, which reduces the need to socialize.

I don’t group for most quests in modern WoW because I don’t need to. If I do, I join a party using LFG, do whatever is required by the quest, and leave with a quick “thanks,” which is likely the only dialogue my group sees. Sure, I belong to a guild, and we do raid instances, and I even have real-world friends to play with. But the moment-to-moment experience can be a solitary one, and the game works just fine for players without such social groups.

a female character runs from an orc in World of Warcraft Classic Blizzard Entertainment

But Classic is a game that relies on social connections, and all but forces you to find and nurture them. That’s a rare thing in online games these days, but it’s a welcome design philosophy in a time when so many other electronic entertainment focuses on ease of use and allows for continuing isolation. Bringing people together is a worthy goal in 2019, and the classic design of MMOs is an effective way to do so. But is this what players actually want?

Classic may not be a long-term hit, but it may not matter

The question that will determine WoW Classic’s longevity is whether we have time for it to be that way. All the conveniences of the modern game are designed, in part, to support the needs of players who want to feel like they’re still grinding resistance gear and raiding Molten Core for seven hours at a time, but in reality have three hours max between putting their kids to bed and going to sleep themselves before the next workday. Modern World of Warcraft design evolved that way for a reason, and it was largely in response to how so many players need to play to stay involved with the community at all.

In today’s WoW, no one has to interact with, or help, another player if they don’t want to. It’s designed so that the largest group of players possible can play with the least issues possible. What was once a hardcore endeavor is now welcoming to anyone who wants to play casually, which is a good thing for players who are hurting for time or real-world friends online — and for Blizzard’s bottom line.

This isn’t a big decision that Blizzard made at some point; it was a natural evolution of the game that was based on player feedback and behavior. If players don’t like what modern WoW has become, they also have to admit that they are likely part of the reason it turned out this way. Being able to play solo was, and is, a big part of that change.

People don’t tend to be friendly in modern WoW because they don’t have to be, in other words. Players are frequently rude these days, often because they know it doesn’t matter. There is no longer a social contract bolstered by the knowledge that players won’t be able to get ahead if they don’t cooperate with others.

Many of us are not the high school- and college-aged and young-adult players we once were, able to handle all-nighters and racking up /played time measured in weeks and months, not days. And while we’re enjoying Classic for now because of its difficulty and required interaction, those same factors may feel old and stale as the higher levels grow long and our time available to play continues to stay short, compared to when we were kids.

a collection of players get ready to fight inside a library in World of Warcraft Classic Blizzard Entertainment

It’s sort of like the quirky habit you used to love about a significant other that you eventually grow to despise. The very things we love about WoW Classic at the moment may be the things that drive us from it in the end, back to the loving embrace of modern WoW’s conveniences or to other, shorter, “easier” games, grumbling all the while about how our ex has let us down.

In some ways, this is like going back to a relationship that ultimately failed. In the early days, it’s easy to remember the good times, but the result will likely be the same as it was originally, given enough time. Either players are going to drop off, or Blizzard will adjust the game to keep them playing.

But Blizzard can’t adjust this, right? Or else what’s the point?

World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas told me before launch that he expected the total number of active users on realms with 30,000 or more players to shrink to a single “layer” of a few thousand before phase 2 even launches in a few weeks. Clearly, Blizzard bet that for many, the nostalgia and the willingness to devote the extensive time it takes to progress in the game would lose their luster fairly quickly.

But this still all makes sense from a business perspective. Blizzard knew that nostalgia would bring players back in droves; so many of us are reliving some of our favorite times with the game, which helps the brand and may lead to players rejoining the modern game. That $15 a month is revenue, regardless of whether it’s used to play WoW Classic or current WoW, and a single subscription gives you access to both.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen hundreds of players who’ve said they re-upped their subscriptions just for this. I’ve also chatted with several people in the past week, in real life, who told me they signed up for World of Warcraft for the first time to play Classic, because it was what all their friends were doing.

Whether or not Classic remains interesting to players may be immaterial; it has provided Blizzard a boost to general interest in World of Warcraft that will be helpful either way.

Even if Classic shrinks dramatically, the overwhelming response at launch should communicate two important points to designers of the modern game: World of Warcraft has played a huge role in people’s lives for 15 years, creating the kind of nostalgia typically limited to childhood hometown haunts. And players really like a World of Warcraft that is difficult enough for progress to feel rewarding when it’s made, and which forces the people around them to actually reach out, group up, and be civil. Both lessons could find a home, in some form, in decisions made about the direction of the modern game.

World of Warcraft Classic does everything it set out to do. It recreates a faithful snapshot of a moment in time, the 1.12 patch in vanilla WoW, with a few engineering conveniences quietly built in. I’ve also seen a few signs of better player behavior bleeding over into the modern game. What happens next is impossible to guess, but this is the sort of fascinating experiment that helps root out what people love in a game, and what might make them come back. And that data is worth its weight in gold, both fictional and otherwise.

Will I still be playing in a month? It’s hard to know for sure, but I’m certainly happy to be playing now.

World of Warcraft Classic is available now for Mac and Windows PC. The game was reviewed using the writer’s own account. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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