I was never a hardcore player of MMORPGs. I had trouble setting into each and every one, and the only ones that I stuck with for any serious length of time were Vanguard, EVE Online and World of Warcraft. Of those, I got the most serious about WoW, reaching the level cap in the Lich King era, doing some of the “endgame” stuff, running lots of dungeons and even joining a guild and doing some light raiding. Casual or not, though, I spent years and a couple of novels worth of words on this blog trying to feel out what makes MMORPGS good. I don’t know that I ever settled on anything firm even for me, let alone for everybody else.
Since I played most heavily during Lich King and came into the game just before Burning Crusade, I never really got much “vanilla” experience as such. But while WoW continued to evolve the whole time, the massive revamp to both world and mechanics were still a ways off by the time I stopped playing regularly. As a leveling character, Azeroth in the BC and LK eras was still very like it was back before expansions happened.
Frankly, the game at the time was slow and often frustrating, even aside from the various technical glitches. Classes varied radically in how fast they could level or how useful they were. It was easy to mis-spec, and respecs were costly. It was easy to die, especially in leveling content and especially for certain classes like the Warrior, where an extra add could spell certain doom. Death itself was costly in terms of time spent running back from graveyards — and occasionally getting lost on the way.
But at the same time it really did feel like there was a world there to explore. You had a direction but you could also run off the rails. Content left partially complete by the developers stayed in the world, leaving mysteries that would only sometimes be solved. Little nooks and crannies with neat stuff in them were all over the place. People weren’t afraid to try wacky things like swimming between the continents. And then there was the PvP that happened spontaneously in the open world, and raids on major cities weren’t uncommon.
That way of playing off the cuff, of saying “I never noticed that before… I wonder what’s over there?” has pretty much gone away in favor of a far more structured experience. There’s tons to do but it’s almost all rails, everywhere. The class mechanics are streamlined to the point of sameness, where classes no longer feel especially distinct. The communities that grew up around guilds and servers withered with the advent of the group finders and Battlegroups. Crafting became an unrewarding grind early on, where anything you made leveling was valueless. I was by no means the biggest fan or player of WoW back in the day, but even I felt the drift in the Lich King era. And — when we think about it — that very epoch, when there was some stagnation but the game hadn’t yet been radically changed, was when WoW’s subscriber numbers peaked. The game is indisputably much easier to play now, but is it more fun, or more rewarding?
I played on Nostalrius, before Blizzard shut it down with legal threats in 2016. No judgements there; it was within their legal rights to do so and the whole point of Nostalrius was to make available an experience that you could no longer get from Blizzard. And on Nostalrius there was indeed an indefinable magic that was missing from the game the last time or two I played it.
Which brings me to World of Warcraft: Classic, launching next summer. Based on the demo footage I’ve seen and the news out of Blizzcon, it’s looks like an attempt to exactly replicate the pre-BC experience, probably/hopefully minus all the technical glitches, even to the extent of gradually rolling out the post-launch but pre-expansion content: Onyxia and Molten Core at first, then adding Blackwing Lair and Zul’Gurub, then Ahn’Qiraj with its massive world event, then finally Naxxramas.
This itself raises any number of questions. How fast will this stuff roll out? After Naxx, is that it? Or will there eventually be BC and LK content as well? Will have have perpetual, parallel deveopment efforts?
As of now we don’t have those answers, but I wonder. WoW’s subscriber numbers were at their highest Wrath of the Lich King. The new expansion Battle for Azeroth didn’t bring them back up to those levels even temporarily. This is obviously much more copmlicated than just the degradation of the WoW experience… isn’t it? What if Classic brings the numbers way, way up in a year between expansions, when we would have expected them to be at a historic low?
I guess we’ll find out. As of right now, I may or may not stay, but I’m in when it launches.