Vague Patch Notes: How time distorted what ‘hardcore’ means for WoW Classic

Time (and perception) keeps on slipping into the future

Doom approaches.

There’s a contingent of players looking forward to the launch of World of Warcraft: Classic next week that is vocally thrilled about one specific element of the game’s mechanics: the return to a more hardcore environment. If you’ve taken part in any discussions about the game, you’ve surely seen this come up before, as sometimes it even goes so far as to touch upon the question of whether or not the game used to be harder and if Classic appropriately matches the old difficulty. Classic is, it’s accepted, the hardcore version.

That’s the entire genesis of this particular column. Because I was there when the game launched, and as I recall, the greater MMO community didn’t see the title as hardcore on launch; quite the opposite. Jokes were made about how WoW was simple or for children, that it was stripped down and far too easy compared to other MMOs. At least one comparison was made to Fisher-Price. You get the idea.

Let’s talk about the passing of time this week.

Sweet home doing nothing.

It’s really kind of amusing to me to watch how the general perception of the game has done a complete shift from calling the game the most casual of babytown frolics to having the functionally identical version praised as intensely hardcore, simply because the game itself hasn’t changed that much. The game we’re getting next week isn’t identical to the launch version, of course, but it is close enough that comparing the two points feels fair to me.

Back when I was playing at launch, of course, I didn’t see how WoW was really any less hardcore than Final Fantasy XI. But as an older soul, I look back and find myself thinking… yes, those criticisms really were dumb back then. Even if they made slightly more sense if you think about the overall environment.

My point of comparison back then was FFXI. Not because it was the only other game I’d ever played (yes, City of Heroes is wedged in the middle there, and it didn’t actually stick with me at launch – that came later) but because it was the one I played the most, and it was the one that really sold me on WoW. Blizzard’s game had one crucial difference in that I could just go out in the world and play it.

If I wanted to level my Paladin? I went out, took some quests, and did things. I wasn’t sitting in a city shouting for a party just to level. Yes, I was going to be shouting and looking and waiting if I wanted to go through a dungeon, but I never felt like those dungeons were a brick wall or anything; if I really didn’t want to go through a dungeon, there were always other things to be done. Heck, for a long while there were people willing to do stupid things to, say, cheese the Paladin hammer quest because we didn’t really get how the game’s dungeons and tanking worked.

This was the big change between the game and its contemporaries. It was hardly alone in the idea of “maybe you shouldn’t need a group just to level,” either; the aforementioned CoH and the original Guild Wars are just the two close contemporaries I personally played, both of which had the same core idea (and clearly weren’t stealing the idea from WoW based on development and release), but there were already plenty of other MMOs that had made that breakthrough, including the first one. This was already the path MMOs were on, but WoW in particular was very much based on the model of “what if we took EverQuest and made it way easier to get to raiding?”

At the time, this made it seem as if it was the most transparently easy thing ever.


No, it wasn’t true then. It wasn’t the first game to have a solo-friendly quest structure, it wasn’t the first game to try addressing some grouping problems with gameplay, and all of that assumes that you were following the basic EQ model pretty closely (which, you know, there were several games out at the time which already were heading off in other directions). The game wasn’t easy. It was just seen as easy.

And now it’s being seen as hardcore. That’s interesting to me, especially because of the many ways in which WoW has evolved, starting with the fact that raids no longer expect you to die.

I’ve seen Molten Core (or, as it was frequently known then, Molten Chore) described as an instance with 10 competent players and 30 others as mildly useful ablative meat. Indeed, a lot of old raid mechanics are pretty simple and basic, and there are lots of mechanics centered almost entirely around characters dying. Someone once said that Alterac Valley in Wrath of the Lich King was what raiding was in vanilla, with a handful of people who are paying attention and a lot who just aren’t. That sort of thing doesn’t really fly in the game’s retail version.

In many ways, the game has gotten mechanically more complex and dense. You have fewer buttons to hit in combat, but you also have more interactions between those buttons. Raid fights, even in the raid finder, require a fair amount of attention. The biggest change is… well, the raid finder didn’t exist. Queues didn’t exist.

Regardless of what you might believe about server communities, the simple fact is that vanilla WoW is a lot less accessible than the game’s current retail version. And that, I think, speaks a lot to our talk about hardcore vs. casual.

You don't belong here.

More than anything else, the big titles of the 15 years since WoW’s release – including WoW itself – have been a big move toward the idea of making these games more accessible to a wider group of people. Even the initial release of the game seemed to be targeted at that, with the rationale that if people didn’t have to endure the slow crawl of EQ’s mostly group-required leveling, you’d have more people experiencing the fun of raiding.

Based on the environment it was released in at the time, sure, WoW didn’t seem terribly hardcore. It was a lot more accessible in various ways than its immediate contemporaries and made it much easier for people who hadn’t gotten into the genre to do so. But as the accessibility path has continued and developers have continued to head down the same route of development, it definitely feels a lot more hardcore than it did back in the day.

Except that, well… all of this is talk less about hardcore as a difficulty mode and more about it as an access thing. Hardcore means that not everyone can get into it. It’s the Dark Souls trick: The game was made to feel harder because it was designed to be harder to actually approach until you get over the fear of dying and realize that the penalties aren’t all that bad, get used to how builds work, start learning the attack patterns through repeated encounters, and so forth.

This isn’t really an indictment of anyone or what you’re personally looking forward to, nor is it in any way a prediction of whether or not WoW Classic will do well. (That’s for another day.) It’s just something that I, at least, find interesting to think about. And it feels like a nugget worth chewing on from a personal standpoint, this question of when things move from being about actual challenge and more about who gets to even take on challenges in the first place.

Also, it’d be fun to show people from the past what they think of the game now. If, you know, they could get over stuff like smartphones.

Further reading:

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Sarah Cushaway

Was it more difficult with more RPG elements than modern WoW? Oh yeah, definitely. You were going to die during the leveling process, and likely many, many times. Now? Pppft, I guess if you AFK for more than 20 minutes in a mob infested area you might.

HOWEVER… I started on Vanilla NA release FFXI. THAT was hardcore. EQ2–at the very beginning–was a hell of a lot harder than WoW, too (it got dumbed down pretty quickly, sadly). WoW was an “easy” MMO for its time, but that was part of the appeal. I remember being THRILLED I could go out and level without HAVING to have a group for almost every bit of content outside the starter areas. Of course, grouping was fun, too–and dungeons were tough in Vanilla WoW. But no, though it’s “hardcore” by today’s standards–it was actually the most casual of MMOs for its generation. And I still had fun, so nothing wrong with that.


Like Eq, just completely and fundamentally different. Always makes me cringe when I hear the WoW was molded after Eq story.
WoW is like eq in the same way that if you took apart a truck and reused all the components to make a speedboat .. Sure they are both some kind of transportation device, both have an engine, steering wheel, etc, but the entire concept is different, even many components had to be adapted to work in boat.

The result: only some individual parts are the same, maybe originally inspired by the other game; but when changed and put into a new context, the fundamentals are completely different even when you can make out components that are the same technically or mechanical.


WoW was moulded from EQs raiding game (some people leave this bit out, which does make it sound dumb), they threw everything else out with the goal of getting people into raiding because they knew how invested people got in it in EQ and they knew it would drive subs. The pre-raiding portions are fundamentally different, but the raiding parts were almost identical, albeit with a difference in complexity similar to a vanilla WoW raid and a modern WoW raid. But raiding is raiding so you can stop cringing now :P


The term “difficulty” when applied in the context of MUDs / MMORPGs always meant something like slower progression, more tedium, more grind, less accessibility, and a requirement to be more careful / patient overall, e.g. when pulling mobs.

When it comes to “true difficulty”, like twitch-based difficulty of a Souls-like or a jump-and-run, you are actually leaving the space of traditional MMORPG content. Specifically, the particular style of raiding that retail WoW developed during TBC/WotLK/Cata and is using today (when leaving aside LFR, here) isn’t traditional MMORPG content but is instead more akin to twitch-based co-op online lobby games, such as MOBAs (when leaving aside their PVP aspect) and loot shooters (Destiny, etc.).

In contrast to retail WoW’s raids, a traditional MMORPG raid was primarily a social experience where each player contributed mainly the abilities and skills of her/his in-game character, not so much her/his own twitch-based and other skills (beyond, maybe, the skill of not standing in the red and knowing the basics of how the class works).

In that sense, today’s retail WoW is a hybrid of MMORPG and twitch-based co-op online lobby game whereas vanilla WoW was just MMORPG. This is where some of the confusion comes from when discussing WoW Classic’s “difficulty” in relation to that of today’s retail WoW.


MMOs have changed over the last 15 years. WoW was considered easy in relation to Everquest which required more effort and time to level. The whole concept behind WoW was to make something like Everquest but easier to progress (read play solo and less grouping) which was a great idea I wish EQ adopted as it evolved.

Its considered Hardcore today because now Classic is slower to play and you had more (role playing) concepts to deal with. You have to eat and drink. Crafting was more involved (and useful), etc. So yes, new players who only played retail from say Cata onwards will find Classic “difficult”.

But I agree that hardcore in 2019 is more related to the lack of access or amount of time needed versus it actually being hard.

Classic will allow me to get more for my time solo each night than say what I can get from EQ (which is still a great game).


Burning Crusade felt more hardcore than Vanilla.

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Oh yeah. I remember thinking to myself “Are we EVER getting out of Hellfire?” That whole thing just went on FOREVER…


It’s all relative. Go back in time and use dial up-

Hard Core – maybe we are overusing the term.


“a handful of people who are paying attention and a lot who just aren’t. That sort of thing doesn’t really fly in the game’s retail version.” You haven’t used LFR have you? :D


I remember when WoW launched and having a good chuckle with my friends at how casual it was compared to FFXI which we were playing at the time. “You can level solo? What is this nonsense!” How times have changed.

Jiminy Smegit

Hardcore applied to vanilla WoW is a relative term in relation to current retail WoW. Back in the early days of MMO’s, both Everquest and FF11 were much harder games, especially for any kind of solo progress. WoW was the casual game of that era.

Nowadays, retail WoW is slowly turning, expansion by expansion, into a weird social experiment where everybody is rewarded all the time. Hamster presses blue button. Hamster gets reward. Yay! Dopamine reinforcement ftw.

So vanilla is hardcore compared to that. Most mobile games are hardcore compared to that.


Not much I can really add, except to say that I’m glad the Classic Servers will exist without having to deal with emulators or whatever. I’ve never liked MMO dungeons or mandatory group play. I like how CoH mostly handled it (until Incarnates ruined it) where you could team up if you wanted to, but you didn’t HAVE TO just to play the game.

I’ve never even attempted a raid outside of trying the first set of CoH’s Trials missions. I hated them more than anything except maybe PVP. My only experience with “real” Raiding is the joke video with the guy shouting “more dots!” as Orlando Bloom gets eaten by whelps. It’s a funny video to watch, and just about the exact opposite of anything that I’d ever personally attempt for fun.