I’m not going to lie to anyone here: When the World of Warcraft: Classic team first announced the idea that you could boost a character up to be ready to go into The Burning Crusade right away, my reaction was a shrug and a big fat “so what?” But boy, if that didn’t turn out to be the underreaction of the year, I don’t know what did. This has become the flashpoint of discussion for this particular update, and on some level, it’s not hard to see why.
Making changes to any part of the classic experience was always going to trip some people up, but this is in some ways a very fundamental shift of philosophy and design away from the one that had previously been endemic to WoW Classic. Yet on another level it’s also barely even a footnote, doing nothing of particular note that should require remark. So today I wanted to talk about this back and forth for a little bit, both from understanding and not understanding the brouhaha that’s surrounded this particular hashtag-some-changes.
First and foremost, let’s note the obvious reality of the situation: This isn’t new territory for Blizzard or World of Warcraft. It’s not even unfamiliar territory. We’ve been getting a level boost included with our expansion purchases for ages now, and as soon as level boosts were introduced, we were also given reason to get used to purchasing more of them. This is really one of those cases where the company finds the money intoxicating enough not to matter.
Except… wait a second. Those level boosts existed to get people up to the most recent expansion because there was a whole pile of other expansions in the way first, so you couldn’t get to Warlords of Draenor without first going through several other things you might not have wanted to. (Leave aside the question of why anyone would want to get to Warlords for a moment, please.) This problem does not exist in Classic. It’s solving a problem that doesn’t exist.
But a different problem does exist. One of the things that I’ve noted multiple times is that there were some pretty major philosophical shifts in the way that WoW has been designed over the years, and just the other day I noted that TBC was the point when a lot of specs got introduced to the idea of viability. It’s possible that there are people who are interested in playing a classic version of that expansion who might not have been interested in playing Classic itself from day one.
Yet at the same time, why not just go back through all of that stuff again? This was actually the experience of playing back in the day, which is at least the ostensible purpose of having these servers… and you get the idea. You can kind of keep going back and forth with these arguments functionally forever because at the end of the day, it’s more a difference of philosophy than one of ethics.
Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely an ethical component to be considered here when Blizzard is charging basically the price of a new game to boost a character in an old one. But the dimension being argued more aggressively here isn’t even the question of whether or not changes are a problem. It’s about why those changes are being made and what purpose they serve.
Let’s start with the least charitable reading of the people who are upset about the boost: They’re upset because this disrupts the hierarchy that Classic imposed. We can’t ignore the fact that this type of gamer exists, and some of them are doubtlessly very upset that after an entire game built on hierarchy and aggressive social dependency, the first expansion is letting people bypass all of that nonsense with a single purchase. That’s got to smart if you were kind of hoping to lord your Naxxramas gear over everyone else now trying to catch up in Classic.
But I don’t genuinely believe that’s the majority of people who are unhappy with the philosophy of this particular change. Instead, I think there are two different groups who make up the majority: the people upset at seeing some of the aggressive setup of modern retail WoW creep into this game, and the people who are actually concerned with what this potentially means for Classic as a whole.
Let’s cover the second one first. One of the main things that can be used to ease up the still-present and aggressive social dependencies of the Classic game is and always has been a reason for an influx of new players – like, say, suddenly finding out that you had good reason to go back and level a character you may have previously abandoned or to start over fresh on a new server. By removing the need to do that, the issues with underpopulation at lower levels remain unchanged, even when you have new low-level content that should theoretically address that.
As for the philosophy of modern WoW… well, here we get into the problem of diminishing returns.
See, we’ve all known for a long while now that there’s a very straightforward and cynical reason that WoW continues to get the same resources even as subscriber counts go down, and it comes down to making money by extracting more. If you can’t keep up 10 million subscribers, having 1 million paying 10x as much works just as well. (Note: These are abstract numbers. Do not go debating them in the comments or you will be branded a fool.) There is not a linear relationship between subscribers and money made.
This has not been the case with WoW Classic, however, and in many ways it kind of ties into the idea that the older version of the game was in some ways more pure because a better game got more subscribers and thus made more money. Adding in a character boost fundamentally breaks that relationship again. Once more, it’s not actually a question of how many people are subscribing but of how much money is being made, even from a smaller population.
I don’t think this one has been explicitly stated as a reason all that often, but it’s still there in the subtext. And the fact is that I kind of agree with it. Just like Blizzard counting dubious multi-game MAUs instead of subscribers, it’s another way of obscuring how well or poorly a project is actually doing with metrics that may or may not be useful for analyzing quality and player satisfaction.
Ultimately, I understand the reasons behind the boost being in the game. I don’t even begrudge it all that much; I completely understand how it can appeal, and it’s tempting even for me as I debate whether or not I want to take a dip back in the waters of TBC when that finally comes out. But at the same time, I also find myself understanding the rationale offered by people who are less than enthusiastic about it, and I can’t say they’re wrong or even disagree with them.
From an accessibility standpoint, it’s probably a decent choice. From an image standpoint and a philosophical one? It’s probably a bad one. And I think that ultimately that does have the edge, even though it’s still going to happen regardless.