Let’s all meet up in the year 2004; won’t it be strange now that we’re all fully grown?
It was especially charming of Blizzard to give BlizzCon attendees early access to limited parts of World of Warcraft: Classic, the long-awaited, official relaunch of World of Warcraft as it was in the old days. Of course, I find myself slightly horrified to realize that I’m currently teaching university-age students who were four or five years old when World of Warcraft first came out; the game I joined during that long-ago summer is now a nostalgia object with a market.
Reports have already streamed in from BlizzCon attendees: Barrens Chat is back, and everyone’s making Chuck Norris jokes at The Crossroads like it’s 2004. The relative innocence of those days is a precious commodity in itself. One of my fondest gaming memories ever was the feeling that gripped me when I hopped a Hippogryph from Rutheran Village to Auberdine; my first flight in a game that seemed more boundless than anything I’d ever played--even my beloved Morrowind. Those were the days when my online gaming experiences were sprinkled with a layer of faerie dust I took for granted.
This leads me to the inevitable wet blanket of a thesis: I fear that World of Warcraft: Classic is unsustainable, and will prove to be incapable of sustaining a meaningful community of anyone other than those committed to burning through the endgame. And even they will fade away after triumphing over the last challenge in this deliberately finite universe.
World of Warcraft: Classic, by its very nature, will leave you with no worlds left to conquer.
It owes its existence to nostalgia, yes, but also a lingering sense among those old players who feel like the game has traded away too much magic in the name of accessibility. Magic conjured through tedium, of course. 40-man raids, ostentatiously huge questlines, microscopically low drop rates, precious little in the way of difficulty tuning--and, of course, those halcyon days before you could send multiple packages in a single mail. Technical skill was always confounded with endurance, the willingness to farm, to fight RNGs stacked against you without mercy.
This is now mythologized as peak-WoW, the days when the game was its best and most thoroughly respected the bleeding-edge raiders some still see as the game’s true constituency.
Such ‘hardcore’ players forget that even in its earliest days World of Warcraft was criticized by the then-hardcore Everquest raiders for being too soft on its players. Everything from rest XP to the instancing of dungeons to drastically reducing the cost of death was seen as an unforgivable concession to “QQing casuals.” There’s a certain irony in this erstwhile nightmare of “true gamers” acting as a rebuilt temple to ultimate skill. One suspects that hard lessons will be learned once the game goes live.
And yet, I can’t be too bitter. As grindy as it could feel, there was a touch of the sublime in a 6-hour long Blackrock Depths run. As noxious as it was, there was a certain pride I took in being able to wrangle a full group from the argumentative pit of the LFG channel (being a healer helped, I’m sure). Strat, Scholo, UBRS; memories as deep as the Maelstrom.
Or I could wax nostalgic about being a great Enchanter, who sat on the little globes at either end of the Stormwind bank steps and plied her trade on Trade with RP: “Quinnae’s Enchanting Emporium is now open!” RP guild meetings in Stormwind Keep, my first raid in Molten Core, winning the rare drop of Alanna’s Embrace, the transpacific love affair that shattered my old guild; the chill I felt on seeing the Plaguelands for the first time; my adoration of Scarlet Monastery and my memorization of Every. Single. Pull. I remember it; I remember it all. The thought of reclaiming it, of touching it all again, in the company of others, appeals to me on a level of need I’m ashamed to admit to.
It was the community that made those experiences meaningful, however. I could never recreate those salad days; even if by some dark miracle all my old friends and guildies from 2006 were to rematerialize here in Classic, we’d be different people.
This is a problem for an expensive undertaking marketed (as so very many other things are these days) with appeals to nostalgia. It creates a quandary: how can you create and sustain a community of players who are there to get the one thing you cannot give them, no matter how hard you try? The nostalgia is premised on far more than code, far more than even the rolled-back landscape of Azeroth to its pre-Cataclysm impurity; it’s premised on the bonds we forged in that world.
A world we can never, truly, go back to.
I’d love nothing more than to recapture those days; I know it’s impossible because they’re tangled in a web of context that no server could host. Who I was, where I was, simply can’t be encoded into World of Warcraft: Classic. I will, invariably, come to old Azeroth as a too-grizzled traveler, unable to return. Like Frodo but considerably less cool.
The game offers much to those who remember, as I do. It may even offer a novelty to the legions who joined World of Warcraft after its later expansions fused themselves to the game. Yet it’s hard to imagine most of those players staying in an Azeroth shorn of the quality-of-life improvements that ensured WoW’s success was long-lived.
Should this all spell doom for Blizzard’s project? Not necessarily. It’s possible that entirely new communities could form around these old structures and systems, but would they stay? The other great problem, after all, is the one that’s stalked MMORPGs since their creation: how do you keep players continuously, indefinitely engaged? It’s not an urgent financial question for Blizzard: World of Warcraft: Classic comes bundled into the same, unchanged World of Warcraft subscription fee. They get their $15 per month either way. Rather, it’s a question of whether this project will, on its own terms, be successful in the years to come. Will World of Warcraft: Classic, as a work of ludic art, succeed?
The original World of Warcraft was built from the ground up around the assumption that there would be content patches and, of course, expansions to keep building out the world and giving players new content to explore. But World of Warcraft: Classic’s whole pitch depends on keeping everything exactly the same. Suspended animation, circa late 2006. The pinnacle of Vanilla, but with no prospect for growth. What happens when all the committed raiders clear Naxx and everyone and their dog is, at long last, kitted out with Thunderfuries and Atieshes?
What will remain? The already-diminished communities of this resurrected fantasy will turn to dust leaving the great cities of World of Warcraft in the ruins of its own logic.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student at the University of Washington who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.