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Opinion: Can World of Warcraft Classic capture the MMO's original glory?

Opinion: Can  World of Warcraft Classic  capture the MMO's original glory?
August 30, 2019 | By Katherine Cross

August 30, 2019 | By Katherine Cross
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More: Console/PC, Design



We can never go home again and yet, inevitably, inexorably, we must try. For all my doubts and skepticism about WoW Classic, I knew I’d be in the launch-day queues with everyone else. And queues were the order of the day, not just for logging in, but for killing low level quest mobs. Photos of interminable yet orderly lines of lowbie avatars flooded social media. By any standard, the launch is a success.

Everyone has their reasons for going back; mine were to relive the unique experience of leveling as a Holy Priest in a world full of adventure. And, just perhaps, to shed a tear for Auberdine. So many Night Elven towns are restored to their former glory, after all, frozen in a time before Blizzard went trigger happy with senseless wars and unending catastrophes.

Azeroth was more dangerous--as Classic’s splashy pub riot ad said, it’s a place where “anything can kill ya!” That is, at times, frustrating. But it also makes the world less boring and more meaningful. Suddenly, the Ban’ethil Barrow Den on Teldrassil felt important, rather than a pit stop on the way through a quest hub.

More than that, the relaunch has brought something especially magical to the fore. Something I never got to experience, even when I played Vanilla: the sense of everyone being new to the world. At this time, there are no glitterati of raiders in Tier X armor sitting around Stormwind or Orgrimmar for passing admirers, no impenetrable cliques of guilds or drama, no status hierarchies of senseless elitism. There’s a majestic equality at work in WoW Classic; we’re all scrubs dying to murlocs and kobolds--and that’s just fine, for now.

If the game is a long term success, of course, we’ll certainly be treated to the inequities that emerge in any MMO, as is simply natural when these games are designed around the assumption of their existence, but I never really got to experience what it was like to truly get in on the ground floor--when no one could say they were running Molten Core just yet, where none of us have mains who can gift gold to lowbie alts. I bought a linen bag from the auction house for three silver. At just the moment when one would expect peak inflation, prices were well within the limits of reality: most of us can’t rub two coppers together.

It can’t last, of course. Either the population will fall off a cliff, as I fear, or WoW will simply start all over again and win back a goodly chunk of the eight million people who were playing by the start of 2007, the natural target audience for this nostalgia trip. They could then recreate the world we had twelve years ago, a teeming population of avid roleplayers, Tier 3 raiders, High Warlords and Grand Marshals, and AV queues popping like corn kernels. That possible future has a comforting appeal right now.

***

Nostalgia is big business in gaming, but WoW Classic is a remarkable experiment without equal. Where other nostalgia trips are usually remastered single-player experiences or the renewal of old aesthetic and design sensibilities in new packages, this is the first time we’ve seen nostalgia used to sell something at this scale that requires a persistent, concurrent population of players to make it viable. If WoW Classic’s population is, at present, comprised chiefly of curious onlookers and try-anything-once sorts, then the game will empty out, leaving behind a lonely world that serves as a (barely) living museum.

If the people aren’t there it just isn’t WoW. What’s more, Classic in particular requires a chunky population. Between the plethora of dungeons and elite mobs, zones, and quests, there’s more call for groups of players than ever. This is a big gamble, but it’s one that feels winnable.

The nostalgia craze that’s made everything old new again might have spawned WoW Classic, but if it’s to endure it’ll be because the game met needs that are altogether more contemporary.

In an age of soulless games-as-service, this iteration of WoW feels like a breath of fresh air despite being the direct ancestor of games like Anthem or Destiny 2. There’s that much vaunted “open world,” yes, but it was a world that felt full and organic. It was peopled with real characters and not just an endless procession of identikit enemies to slay. And yet even those same enemies took on a life of their own; a murloc’s gurgling growl or the phrase “you no take candle!” summon a sea of memories. The word “iconic” is much belabored these days, but for much of WoW’s early corpus it almost feels understated.

There’s a simple genius to the game’s spaces that even WoW’s subsequent iterations lacked. There are so many empty apartments and houses, chairs waiting to be sat in, hearths ready to host a player’s tall tales. This was a world to be lived in. One senses the developers’ optimistic hope that players would do more than just endlessly grind mobs. And we did. Perhaps we will again?

If WoW Classic is to thrive, it’ll be because it’s giving its players something few other games offer these days.

Whatever else WoW Classic was intended to be, it has become an MMO launch for the 2020s. Since the slew of MMOs from the late aughts and early teens there haven’t been many big MMO launches in the classic mode. Live service action RPGs have taken their immediate place, and multiplayer is the rule rather than the exception. WoW Classic is an act of necromantic faith in the idea that old guard MMOs still have appeal, and that the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired world of stats and levels, combined with its emphasis on collaborative storytelling and lore, can still move us. 

Of course, for those of us who played the original game back in the day, there’s no way to bottle that lightning. The only hope for us is to create new memories amidst the happily dancing shadows of Azeroth’s youth. We may yet create something like what we had, with old friends and new, if those who are playing just hang on. The game is indeed more challenging, and certainly more tedious than its present incarnation. There are long runs across vast territories, low drop-rates for mundane quest items, and weapon skills to grind on hapless low level mobs. But in having to track your own quests and follow written directions to get where you’re going, there’s a magic in even the endless running. A reminder of a time when the vastness of game worlds was tied to something more meaningful than digital acreage for its own sake. 

There’s a real sense of exploring a world, something I still feel despite knowing many of these lands like the back of my hand. Even if WoW fueled some unpleasant trends in gaming---’bigger-is-better’ thinking and live services chief among them---the original itself managed to hit a sweet spot of accessibility and challenge.

And so, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, we beat on, Goblin zeppelins against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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.



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