A week ago today, World of Warcraft Classic launched. During this past week, I’ve been playing it pretty much whenever possible, and it certainly doesn’t seem like I’m alone there. Shortly after WoW Classic launched, it had over one million viewers on Twitch, and even now as I write this, it’s sitting at a very respectable 244,000 viewers – still enough to make it the most-watched game on Twitch by a good margin. Then, of course, we have the well-documented and oft-maligned queue times, which even after a week can still last five or six hours on popular servers. In short: A lot of people want to play WoW Classic at the moment, and I’m definitely one of them.
For those who aren’t in the loop, World of Warcraft Classic is a return to form for the famous MMO. The game has gone through a lot of changes in its 15-year lifespan, and World of Warcraft Classic does away with nearly all of them, taking us back to the way the game was in 2006 with version 1.2. That’s before any expansion content was released, so WoW Classic comprises only the content that was in the base game, commonly referred to as “vanilla WoW” by players.
With World of Warcraft Classic, Blizzard is filling a niche that it resisted filling for a long time. WoW players, whether fueled by nostalgia or just the belief that World of Warcraft was at its best in the early days, have been asking Blizzard for these vanilla servers for years. Up until recently, the answer was always “no,” leaving those players who wanted a classic WoW experience to take things into their own hands by creating private World of Warcraft servers that provided that vanilla experience they were looking for.
Naturally, that didn’t sit well with Blizzard, and once these servers reached a certain level of notoriety within the community, they were often shut down via cease and desist letters from the company. All the while, Blizzard kept insisting that vanilla servers were something it wasn’t going to do and even something that we didn’t really want, with then-executive producer (and now president of Blizzard) J. Allen Brack famously saying just that during a World of Warcraft panel at BlizzCon 2013. “You think you do, but you don’t,” are the words Brack used at the time, and they’re words you’ll probably hear a lot in the near future given that the very positive reaction to World of Warcraft Classic has seemingly proven them wrong.
Four years later, Brack got up on the BlizzCon stage and announced World of Warcraft Classic. What changed? There are probably a number of factors but the biggest catalyst for this decision definitely appears to be Nostalrius, a private vanilla WoW server that managed to attract 800,000 players before it was shut down by Blizzard. In the wake of that shutdown, the Nostalrius devs delivered a petition requesting vanilla WoW servers with almost a quarter of a million signatures on it, and in response to that, Blizzard invited the developers of Nostalrius to a meeting.
Everyone was hush-hush about what the meeting entailed, but it’s clear now that this was the beginning of Blizzard’s decision to officially revisit classic WoW. Fast forward to today and people are eating it up. People have flocked to World of Warcraft in droves, Blizzard is probably making a decent chunk of change from WoW subscriptions (which are required to access WoW Classic) and we can finally say beyond a shadow of doubt that this really was something that fans wanted.
In Brack’s defense, he wasn’t saying that just to be condescending to people who are nostalgic for the early days of WoW. Throughout the years, Blizzard has made a number of changes to World of Warcraft that have streamlined the experience significantly, and it’s easy to see why someone like Brack would consider these essential to the core WoW experience.
“Remember when you had to, like, spam cities and say ‘need a tank, need a tank, need a tank’ during the Burning Crusade days?” Brack elaborated. “You don’t remember that, because now you just push a button that says ‘go to the dungeon.’ You don’t want to do that.”
In a sense, Brack is right about that. Features like the Dungeon Finder, which wasn’t present in vanilla WoW, definitely make it easier to progress through the game. From a developer standpoint, the Dungeon Finder is a good feature because it helps players group up and run the dungeons they need to run without much hassle. From a player perspective though, making an MMO more hands-off might lessen the overall experience.
In this instance, Brack is probably guilty of thinking that those who were longing for a vanilla WoW experience were only looking at things through rose-tinted glasses. There’s plenty of that happening in regards to WoW Classic – that’s something we can be sure of – but there’s also a case to be made for the social aspect of WoW suffering because of all these streamlined features. There’s a certain charm to standing in front of the bank in Orgrimmar and spamming the chat channel with looking-for-group messages. It’s more work, yes, but when you someone answers that call, you immediately have a connection that’s missing when you’re randomly matched with other people through the Dungeon Finder.
The last time I played retail WoW was shortly after Legion launched. When I played it, I was surprised by how quickly the leveling process was and how much of it I was able to do on my own. I blew threw quests and zones on my way to Legion’s then-level cap of 110. One of my friends, a seasoned WoW veteran, reminded those of us who were returning to WoW for the first time in years that “the game doesn’t really start until you reach the level cap,” and he was right about that – in a lot of ways, it felt like the leveling and questing process was merely just a gate to the real meat of the game.
In WoW Classic, it doesn’t feel that way. Certainly, the end goal is reaching the level cap and doing that end-game content with massive groups of people, but here questing is something to be savored as well. The leveling process is much slower than it is in retail WoW, giving you time to explore your surroundings and breathe in the world.
It’s also much more difficult too, as there are a number of quests that most players will struggle to do alone. In my Orcish Rogue’s first 22 levels, I’ve grouped up with people to complete quests far more than I ever did during my entire time with Legion, and there’s something really wonderful about that. I feel like I’m just one small part of this huge world, with plenty of people from all walks of life to meet as I explore it.
I’m not here to bash retail WoW, because honestly, I haven’t played enough of it to make any kind of claim about its state. I do know, however, that WoW Classic is the World of Warcraft I want to play. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep playing, but for the moment at least, it has its hooks in me, and there’s a lot more to that than simple nostalgia.