I want to talk about the community in WoW Classic because I think it’s interesting and it’s been on my mind ever since the story we ran recently about one PvP server apparently going full Horde. This also means talking about the community in World of Warcraft from back in the day, which is… well, tricky. Yes, I was there, as were a lot of other people; unfortunately, that also means challenging what some people are pretty sure was going on with those communities based chiefly on memory.
But the thing is that in this case, one of the interesting things going on with memory is actually at the root of most (if not all) discontent with the community in WoW Classic. That’s not to say that everyone in the Classic version of the game is bemoaning the community as being just bad, but I have noticed a fairly persistent strain of “this isn’t how the community was back in the day.” And to some extent, that’s right… but not really for the reasons that a lot of people seem to think.
The reason I point to that whole story about the whole “no more Alliance” server is that it’s a primary example of both issues colliding with one another. In its totality, the endpoint where Alliance players are just leaving a server en masse because the game isn’t playable based on constant ganking is, well… unsurprising. This is the failed end state of most forced open-world PvP games; it usually just takes a lot longer. Lord of the Flies condensed into a single afternoon, by way of analogy.
Among the players distressed by this turn of events are people who are claiming that Vanilla’s PvP servers were not constant messes of ganking, which is… well, it’s just wrong. Vanilla servers were smaller and didn’t benefit from being a finished product wherein everyone knew all about the game and could look up detailed information, but gank squads absolutely existed just the same. Most of the people remembering otherwise were either on the dominant faction (and thus not victim to as many), not playing on open PvP servers (and thus not remembering it accurately), or later additions to the game who are mostly remembering what they heard about the earliest days of Vanilla.
But there is another set of players who don’t contest that these things always existed (which they did), but are quick to point out that the community in vanilla didn’t feel like this does. And that’s a group of people that expands outward to many areas of the game, and far from being blinded by nostalgia, they are absolutely right insofar as the community is very different on Classic.
To understand that, of course, we have to go back to the thing that WoW did that managed to really put itself on the map: mainstreaming the shared solo experience.
It’d be just plain wrong to say that WoW was the only game to do this in the same basic time period, but for a variety of reasons WoW was the one where this took off. The shared solo experience is kind of hard to articulate to anyone who’s more accustomed to the modern crop of MMOs, but the reality is that for a long time MMOs were built on a level of social dependency that would seem unplayable by modern sensibilities.
You do see traces of it at endgame in WoW Classic, but the smaller server sizes of Vanilla meant that it was overall a very different experience. Generally, you had one, maybe two serious raiding guilds on your server. Anyone else was playing catch-up at best. Either you’re in the group doing this content, or you’re trying to be good enough to get into these groups… or you’re running out of content.
The thing is, though, that WoW’s embrace of the shared solo experience meant that it attracted a lot of players who weren’t actually interested in serious raiding in the first place. Your open PvP server had a good chance of containing the person who wanted to gank low-level players… but also the guy who wanted the extra sting of risk while mostly questing. Or the guy who really wanted that high-end PvP rush with like-minded players. Or the person mostly interested in crafting, or raiding, but all of your friends are on the PvP server so you go there. It was a blend of different people.
And there had to be a blend of people because if you wanted precisely what WoW offered in terms of a play experience, well… WoW was it. That was the extent of your options to play.
That was also 15 years ago. At this point, if you want to go out and quest with the chance of some more duel-oriented PvP while you’re out in the world, you can just go play Black Desert Online. Or you can play retail WoW with War Mode turned on. Or Albion Online. Heck, there are probably more options than even that for games that still allow you to play mostly solo in a shared space without turning off PvP.
WoW Classic, as a product, is more niche than the game’s original incarnation. It’s no longer providing something that the majority of other titles on the market are not. Heck, it’s not even providing the only throwback server on the market (Blizzard is one of the last MMO developers to offer that option). This means that rather than being the cool new bar everyone wants to check out, the game is selecting from a rather limited pool of people.
You’ve got people who are genuinely nostalgic for the way things used to be and want to take a trip back to the game for a while. You have people who never saw the content at the time and are curious about what the game looked like, or just want to see how it feels to play Classic again. And… then you have the people who really, really liked the way that vanilla divided players starkly into “have” or “have nots,” a point when the game required a bulky friend list and an active guild if you wanted to be playing past a certain point.
More to the point, curiosity and nostalgia alone are kind of time-limited. The first time you wait for half an hour for someone to show up to the dungeon because the only tank you could find was in Stranglethorn Vale and you’re trying to do Maraudon, it’s a neat experience. The fifth time it happens, though, you start to remember how much you like being able to just queue up and go. Unless, of course, the fact that you can’t just queue up and go is the entire point.
Add to that in-group out-group mentality the fact that you have larger servers (meaning you can effectively cover more territory) and a thorough knowledge of how the game works, and yes, you can very effectively create a situation where playing the game becomes impossible for one faction. And the players of that faction are going to leave because the game just isn’t fun any more.
It’s not really something Blizzard can mitigate because the studio is essentially presenting players with exactly the toy chest they wanted. You can’t ask someone to give you the option to make this happen and then get mad when the same person doesn’t stop you from doing it.
Ultimately, it’s a problem where the community now isn’t going to be the community that was because that time has passed. The world has changed. And when you advertise a version of the game that specifically gates out a lot of people, it’s not surprising when a lot of people stay away to begin with… and others just decide to leave when it becomes clear that they are now in the out group as well.