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.
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.
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.