Now that we’re weeks into Burning Crusade Classic, players are discovering that despite many antiquated design elements, this expansion is still a whole lot of fun with scads of stuff to do. While many (but not all!) of the community is already engaged with the endgame of raiding, dailies, and hard mode dungeons, one of the most important parts of class progression happened well before characters hit level 70.
I find it a sad commentary on retail World of Warcraft that an expansion from 2007 offers a more satisfying and substantive character progression than the current iteration of the title in 2021. In today’s Casually Classic, I want to examine where retail WoW’s character progression is lacking — and what Burning Crusade Classic has to teach the live team about building expansions.
Up until earlier this year, I was neck-deep in Shadowlands content. I had my fingers crossed that Blizzard would pull out of the downward spiral that was Battle for Azeroth and reclaim the previous heights of Legion (what I consider to be the last “good” expansion of the game).
Initially, it seemed that Blizzard was taking a few really good steps in that direction, especially for its leveling process. The new player zone was tremendously good, the faster pace felt right, and the choose-your-own-adventure of picking a single expansion for leveling promoted choice and alts.
But then there was the leveling squish, a sad commentary on how inconsequential levels were to characters any more. Blizzard scrunched down the levels for nothing more than making its wasteland of character progression less obvious — even though it was still there. Instead of fixing the problem of a lack of choice and customization as players leveled, Blizzard slapped a big ol’ band-aid on it and called it a day.
It got way worse when we got into the new expansion because it was a clear sign that Blizzard really learned nothing from the failing points of its last packs. Characters worked through 10 levels that offered no additional talents or skills and were thrown yet another temporary “borrowed power” system that few could get that enthusiastic about. There simply wasn’t any character content to justify the additional levels, and so yet again, World of Warcraft made players go through the motions of progressing without offering them actual progression.
If some bitterness is leaking out here, trust me when I say that it’s both restrained and widely shared. We’re just so dang tired of investing tons of time into flashy progression systems that are on loan from Blizzard’s library and due back in two years to never be seen again. My eye still twitches in anger when I think about how good Legion’s artifact weapon system was and how Blizz simply gutted it and abandoned it instead of supporting it into the next expansion.
Seriously, what’s the point of levels if there’s nothing to back them up? If even your stats don’t matter because the game dynamically adjusts around them? Why haven’t we gotten new skills or talents for so many expansions now? Forget $40 character boosts; I’d pay that much just to have a good ten seconds of being allowed to grab a game lead by the lapels and shake them vigorously while bellowing, “WHYYYYYYY??”
OK, enough about retail WoW. The point of comparison that I want to make is simple: With talent points on each level, new talent rows, and a small pile of additional skills, Burning Crusade kept the good times of leveling going. It backed the leveling standard with substance. It wasn’t revolutionary — in fact, it was more of the same. But that worked.
Was it sustainable past another expansion or two? Probably not, because there comes a point where games get too top-heavy, but it’s an issue that many elder MMORPGs have addressed with permanent alternative progression systems without having to resort to squishing and removing and ignoring.
I hope that as WoW Classic continues to be a popular draw, Blizzard’s live team is taking notes about what players actually enjoy from this older format — and that it takes the initiative to steer retail back to leveling that offered lasting progression and got the fanbase excited about the ding.