WoW Factor: So why did people love WoW’s Wrath of the Lich King so damn much?

Binding, binding.

Sometimes, when I write something and note it would require an additional column, it is a preview of coming attractions and something I actually plan to write later. Other times it’s just… well… an observation. The penultimate paragraph in this column was the latter case. Unfortunately, everyone read it and lots of people loved it, so now I have to at least start by explaining why World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King was considered a high mark for the game and seldom saw player accusations that it had “nothing to do” when there was, objectively, far less to do.

I’d be peevish about it, but this is entirely a prison of my own making.

At the time when it was the current expansion, of course, Wrath was not seen as the best WoW would ever be. A lot of the problems the game had been wrestling with before were still present there, and arguably some of what Wrath did actually laid the groundwork for later problems that were overcorrected. (Wrath, for example, is the flashpoint that led to the overabundance of daily quests in Mists of Pandaria and the wild overcorrection of having basically none in Warlords of Draenor.) But people did still genuinely love Wrath and it has only grown in estimation since it was the expansion. What was its secret?

In a word? Accessibility. Except leaving it at one word actually blunts a lot of points into uselessness, so I’ll need about a thousand more. But for a general thesis, let’s just use six: Your choices are different, not wrong.

By way of an example, one of the big pushes in The Burning Crusade was to change the way that classes and specs worked. In Vanilla, every class had three specs, but generally most classes had one spec anyone cared about in the endgame, which was raiding. And that was the endgame; everything else wasn’t even in the same galaxy in terms of worth at max level. So Paladins existed to heal. Shamans existed to heal. Warriors existed to tank. Full stop.

TBC really did try to make sure that all of your specs did actually have a use, a purpose, and a goal. So your Paladin could at least try to be either a DPS or a tank. This worked out better for some specs than others, but what mattered more was that it was the first pass at changing up a design element. Wrath doubled down on that idea and pushed hard to ensure that every single spec brought something to the table – and often that something wasn’t raw DPS.

So your Retribution Paladin wasn’t going to deal as much damage as a Frost Mage. That was all right, though, because your Retribution Paladin also boosted everyone’s mana generation and brought other support options to the table. The lower personal damage was compensated by your assistance of the whole group. It wasn’t the spec you’d take for doing the most damage, but if you liked playing a Paladin and liked dealing damage, it was still a good and solid choice.

But that was just if you went down the full Retribution tree. People were finding ways to make things like Shockadins (Paladins going further down the healing tree to get the direct damage Holy Shock) work as DPS, and the game encouraged you to do this. You were closer to a DPS/healing hybrid, of course, but sometimes you could actually make that work. It could be useful.

Your choices were different, not wrong.

All right, apparently choosing that you wanted this was wrong, sort of.

Do you not want to field a full 25-person raid? That’s fine; the game also offered 10-player versions of its raids, which was only twice the number of people for a regular dungeon group. As time went by, you could also toggle harder fights on most bosses through specific options before the hard “Heroic” raid selection was implemented, and those were available with smaller or larger groups. Just want to run dungeons? That’s fine; our token system will let you buy up new gear just the same, and much of it is just reskins of raid gear. Don’t have a fixed guild? Just queue up; we’ve automated finding the group.

Heck, nothing epitomized it more than the admittedly hard-to-balance but absolutely fascinating initial design for Death Knights. The game’s first Hero class was set up to be a hybrid tank and DPS, but unlike any other spec in the game, that hybrid nature wasn’t limited to “here’s the tank tree, here’s the DPS tree.” No, all three trees were tanking trees and DPS trees. Frost let you become an icy wall of defense, Blood was a drain tank, and Unholy was… well, it didn’t work very well for tanking, but in theory it was the magic-shattering option when mage-type mobs could be the most difficult pulls in dungeons and raids.

If you wanted to be a Death Knight and a tank? Congratulations, you could. And you might not be able to manage tanking terribly well in a raid without the right talent picks, but you could probably manage some dungeons. Choices, but not right or wrong ones.

This is not by any stretch to say that the game was perfect, of course. Crafting, as it has always been in the game, was a problem. Outleveling zones was a problem. Older areas and content were still problematic in many ways, and it was very clear just how much better the quests in Wrath were compared to the old vanilla content. (The urge to have new stuff came from a very real problem between the Northrend quests and the old world; Cataclysm was answering a tangible problem.) There was a lot of grinding up reputation, which could have used a more dynamic system.

For that matter, the token system itself still had problems; it was still kind of first and foremost in place as a way to compensate for bad luck in raids, and you were still sort of expected to be raiding. There are other games that have expanded and improved upon the system’s failings, so we know what the answers look like, but it’d be disingenuous to imply they didn’t exist. Not every spec was balanced right, and some specs had not much to offer despite lower DPS.

If I glossed your personal reason already, I'm sorry.

It’s not that it got all of these things right; it’s that it was trying to and got as close as the game ever has. And for some segment of superfans, this was perhaps the biggest problem with the expansion: that all of that accessibility left a game where a player could legitimately decide that she didn’t need the hardcore raiding guild and its toxicity to keep playing at the level cap. Horrors.

For an awful lot of the designers who had stepped into their roles from those hardcore raiding roots, the idea that they were creating a game that didn’t need them didn’t seem to sit very well. And that minority of fans who were loudly angry at the very same problem ultimately got their way. A lot of the changes and improvements of Wrath have been rolled back over the years, both as an effort to streamline balancing across classes (when was the last time a spec had lower DPS and support elements to balance that out?) and to preserve the overall social dependency and hierarchy.

Roles have been codified more firmly and flattened. The top end of equipment has gotten higher and raiding has gotten more elite-focused. We are awash in things to do but devoid of reasons to do most of them. You don’t need to hear this rant again; you’ve heard it all before.

And of course, I’m not even touching upon everything. There was a lot of good stuff happening in Wrath. Coherent art direction. Consistent zone design. More spread-out storytelling. A sense of culmination. Jousting. I could probably write out a column giving a broader retrospective of every expansion for this game.

But the fact of the matter is that, at the core, I think that’s why people pine so loudly for Wrath at this point. It isn’t that it was perfect or none of the systems posed any issues. It was that core difference in design philosophy, and the feeling that this was the direction for the game from this point onward, a direction that got turned away from hard and left us with classes, crafting, and so forth being ever more steadily eaten away.

Vanilla’s design was all about there being right and wrong choices. Modern design is that you can’t make wrong choices. But WrathYour choices are different, not wrong. And that made all the difference.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.

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