My recent playing experience has me convinced that World of Warcraft is a lot less fun today than it was in its vanilla days. This isn’t nostalgia talking — I wasn’t even playing WoW until after Burning Crusade released. But let’s say I’ve confirmed it and leave it at that.
The real question, though, is why. Without talking in vagaries or throwing down meaningless buzzwords like “sandbox,” why does the vanilla WoW experience seem so much richer than the game today? A lot of what we think about this is annoyingly unspecific; how far can we dig into it?
There’s no question that a lot of changes have happened in WoW over its 8-year lifespan. Many of those have been positive additions to the game — few would quibble with most of the new races, for example, or the fact that new lands have been added. The addition of auction houses in every city instead of just Orgrimmar and Ironforge is probably a good thing. Autoloot saves everyone some hassle.
At the same time, the very process of expanding the game also irreprarably broke some things. Crafting has never recovered, for example — crafted gear at any level other than the current cap is still tuned to a gear level before the current expansion, making it worthless as new drops have been added to the loot tables. The progresion speed within each tradeskill is still tuned to the vanilla leveling speed — meaning that now, you will outlevel your zones long before you’re able to finishing doing the crafting for those same levels, which stalls you one way or the other: either you stop level and grind crafting, or you abandon crafting and maybe get back to it later — whereupon you need to grind independently of leveling. Perhaps the vanilla game wasn’t as well-tuned as it sems today in comparison, but the general trend toward the leveling game just being a time-waster until you get to the top level was much less obvious then.
Too, it’s easy to forget just how nonlinear the questing was pre-Cataclysm. There were quests all over the place, and no particular pointers to them in many cases. Even standard zones like Elwynn Forest had breadcrumb quests between the major hubs, but also a ton of quests off the beaten track that you could find, and lots of intersting locations not directly tied to particular quests. You had chains that you’d pick up at one level and then resume ten levels later. It gave exploration value over and above the pittance in XP you got from unlocking the map sections, and you could find and do things in the order you liked, instead of just giving being given a set progression that you can’t deviate from in any significant way.
WoW was a little more challenging then, partly due to mechanical changes and partly due to even low-level gear being totally busted now. WoW was never really about challenge per se, but who doesn’t have a recollection of of dying a dozen times in the Burning Blade cave or the Fargodeep Mine, or to those fucking robots in Deadmines? In a way it was frustrating, but your forward progress never really stopped, so it could still be fun. even if you were pounding your keyboard in rage.
The world was bigger. This is an illusion, of course, but it’s a powerful one. With no mounts until level 40, no flying mounts at all, and the flight paths few and far between, for a lot of the game you had to hoof it. Which could slow the pace of play dramatically, but it also had an interesting side effect when players left the straight path and tried to find shortcuts. Sometimes they discovered something interesting up there in the hills, tied to somebody else’s questline that they would otherwise never see, or perhaps a relic of some abandoned thread of development from before release. Sometimes it was just something that ate extra time, but even then it was showing the wandering player the texture of a world that didn’t have every iota of content already lined up in order. The expectation was that things would take time, so you felt less inclination to rush and spent more effort on the journey and enriching it.
I’m hoping that EverQuest Next can capture some of this magic that even Blizzard seems to have lost their grip on. It’s probably the Last Best Hope for virtual worlds on the visible horizon; “sandbox” isn’t really the right term for this, but it’s what we’ve got.