MMO Cartographer: World of Warcraft, then and now

How do Classic and Retail stack up, side by side, when you haven't played since 2005?

A note to our readers: This article was written in early October 2019, before Blizzard’s wildly unpopular decision to penalize esports players over a pro-democracy protest. While the exact nature of the future of our Blizzard coverage is something we are still discussing, we are proud of our columnists’ work and do not wish to continue delaying their articles indefinitely, so we’re releasing them this week, including this one. We are not endorsing Blizzard’s recent decisions or actions in doing so.

A month before the whole Hong Kong Hearthstone debacle consumed the gaming industry – and blissfully unaware that this article would ultimately be held back because of it – I put my innocent money down on Blizzard for my MMO Cartographer column here on MassivelyOP. I jumped on the World of Warcraft Classic bandwagon.

It was a combination of FOMO and curiosity that did me in. I am a cheapskate, so this was a much bigger decision than it seems. And I have no regrets about this subscription, just considering the merits of my gameplay. I have gotten at least $15 worth of fun out of the first month.

It seems silly to say that I was late getting into the game because I waited a week, but it also seems that most people prefer to jump in the first second servers open, like Black Friday shoppers stampeding through a department store’s doors at 5 a.m. There’s some perceived prestige in being a “Day One” player, even though it hardly matters when everything shakes out after a few months. What can I say? I like not waiting in queues. And as a notorious cheapskate, I know it takes me a while to come off the money, even for things I know I want.

I haven’t played WoW since 2005, so I don’t have a community I belong to there, but I do have friends that play WoW regularly. So the first thing I did was hit Facebook to see who was playing Classic and where they were playing. I had planned to play Horde, but a few of my friends (who don’t even know each other) were playing Alliance on the same roleplaying server, so that’s what I did too.

I made a few different characters of different races and classes but ultimately settled on a Gnome Mage as my main. I have always liked small and cute races, and I have moved from enjoying the tank role to preferring a DPS-oriented role over the years. I grabbed quests as they became available and ran around in the snow killing wolves, boars, troggs, and trolls. I sold junk and used the money to train. I was surprised that I remembered where many things were. Chat was busy but civil and mostly pleasant. People were friendly and helpful for the most part. It was a comfortable, familiar experience.

The thing is, it was familiar to me because it was the only WoW I knew. How could I truly appreciate Classic without seeing what the Retail version is like?

I decided that I had to cross over to the other side to see. I created a few characters and then decided that I would get the most out of the comparison if I played the same race and class.

The first thing that struck me was that the tutorial has improved immensely. If you’re on your 16th alt, you probably don’t appreciate those first few levels. As a raw newbie, I appreciated both the spoonfeeding and the speed. As a Gnome, I was pleased to see all the machinery and even the pollution in the retail newbie area. It felt gnomier. The Classic snow gets old and seems endless. Classic servers have a more “old school” newbie experience, giving you the barest bones of instruction and setting you loose to battle with wildlife. Retail has a newbie experience more in line with… well, what you would expect from a newer game.

Dude, I am level 3. I know how to accept a quest.

There were a surprisingly large number of other people running around doing the newbie quests on the Retail side, so I wonder if it has gotten a bump from the Classic comeback as well. This held true even when I tried different races and servers. People seemed to mainly be in a hurry, and there wasn’t a lot of casual conversation on the Retail servers compared to the Classic servers. It may be that Classic may have attracted people looking for a community like the one they remember from the good old days, creating a more interactive community. Or it might just be a side effect of playing on a roleplaying server; those have a reputation of being generally friendlier.

I suspect that a lot of people in retail are also in a voice chat with their regular companions, so there’s very little text chat going on. (This is a well-established trend across all games, as far as I can tell.) It seems that there’s a lot more text chat on the Classic side of things. Maybe it is also part of the throwback effect; people playing the older style of game may also prefer that older style of communication. It might also be a side effect of Classic being so new that many people haven’t settled into a guild or Discord channel yet.

I found it very easy to find groups in Classic, which made the questing go faster. People see that you’re killing the same things that they are and will ask you or just invite you to group. That’s especially nice for the socially anxious (like me). On the Retail servers, people are in a hurry to level, and it seems to go fast enough that there’s no real incentive to group up. That’s more in line with more recent games I have played; I can solo a character from 1 to 50 in Black Desert in no time at all, for instance, and it has never occurred to me that I might want to group up at any point in that process.

It turns out I have a much greater appreciation for the Classic experience than I did in when I last played in 2005. It really is an old-school experience. It is just plain fun. I knew it was a good game when it launched, but I was too deep into EverQuest to commit to the jump. Would I recommend Classic to people who want to relive that Classic experience? Absolutely! I would even recommend it for people who have never played World of Warcraft at all.

And now for the controversial bit: Having played and enjoyed both, I prefer Retail. It is a more streamlined experience with all of the modern conveniences and quality-of-life upgrades one would hope to see in a game in 2019. It blows my mind that somewhere along the line, I went from someone who thought WoW was too easy – “just EverQuest for dummies” – to someone who appreciates Classic WoW as a fun throwback but prefers something even easier and faster. I am almost ashamed to admit it. I have become a filthy casual.

Every other weekend, Massively OP’s Mia DeSanzo opens up her satchel of maps and decides where to go next in MMO Cartographer, Massively OP’s journey through MMO worlds, be they old or new, ordinary or unusual, or well-loved or long-forgotten. Expect the eclectic!
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