The fracturing has begun. That’s what sticks out to me when I look at WoW Classic’s Season of Mastery limited-time experiment.
Obviously, this is not entirely accurate. After all, the fracturing for the classic userbase already occurred when The Burning Crusade launched and people were given the option to migrate forward or stay frozen in amber; if anything, this addition of a new server ruleset seems like a compromise to minimize or at least address extant fractures that were already present. But it also means that classic has now launched full-on into the varied rulesets that ensure a more limited and liquid playerbase along the way.
I find myself with an odd assortment of thoughts on this particular state of affairs, the sort of thing that fits nicely into a column but not neatly into a single grand conclusion. It’s definitely not an experiment that I am personally interested in playing, but I think it’s worth investigating the sort of people who are being marketed to and what these changes mean for the longer-term future of the game and seasonal changes in general.
First and foremost, I want to highlight something that’s been quietly elided in discussions about this particular ruleset change: the feeling that this is the absolute final nail in the coffin for anyone who wanted something that has colloquially been floated as “Classic Plus” more or less since the Classic servers went online. What precisely is contained therein varies, but the short version is that it’s a form of vanilla World of Warcraft with more stuff added, either cut content, totally new content, or additions to abilities and underperforming specs.
Any chance of that happening always felt slim, but this is also exactly where it would start off if it was ever going to happen. It seems pretty clear just from this first round of seasonal content that the development priorities for classic content have been laid bare. Tweaking existing content and balance is fine, but adding something new is a big no-no. That means this season and future seasons will all be balanced much more around the fixed pool of content.
Is this surprising? Not really; I figured this was a given as soon as we found out that the first expansion was coming out in Classic form. But this is a nail in that particular coffin just the same.
As it stands now, Season of Mastery is a pretty solid experimental run to start doing seasonal servers because it really doesn’t require tweaking a whole lot of dials in order to make it functional. Players are going to be more firmly funneled into raid content and more efficiently pushed that way, but that’s really always been how Classic was set up. The tweaks are far more focused on ensuring that the content in question is more punishing, but it’s the same content people were always expected to be playing.
Of course, you might wonder how much can actually be done to really push that challenge element. Looking at a lot of the early raid fights in question, I think there’s only so much Blizzard can do to really make the encounters more difficult, and a lot of it runs into the basic problem that without new mechanics, it’s able only to minimize the external buffs and support it might be bringing in. Players won’t have access to as much gear or world buffs, but you still have to deal with two major things that are just naturally going to be different.
First, the knowledge about how to play the game is still there. Blizzard can tune damage numbers higher, but unless it’s adding new mechanics to the fight, the fights are still known quantities and they’re pretty simple on a whole. And adding whole new mechanics seems to run counter to the philosophy of changes, so that seems unlikely. In other words, the studio can make Ragnaros hit harder, but it can’t make people struggle to figure out how to fight Ragnaros.
Second, there’s the simple reality that everyone in Season of Mastery is going to be there with an explicit goal of taking on these harder raids. It’d be disingenuous to claim that there are no other reasons for people to play the game (players will always surprise you like that, even if you tell players that their characters will be deleted if they don’t clear Molten core), but it’s equally disingenuous to claim that that is not both the tacit and explicit focus of this season server. Blizzard won’t be getting players who just want to see the raids or give it a shot; it’s going to get mostly players who think “classic raids but harder” sounds like a fun time.
Given these facts, I’m curious about how much harder this stuff is actually going to feel in the long run. There’s going to be extra damage flying around, but I don’t think it’s really going to rewrite the entire experience. Which, I suspect, is part of the reason for starting off with this particular style of season.
I mentioned before that the arc of content and expected play is not actually all that different from what people were already expected to do in the actual vanilla game, something that should be taken not as a condemnation but as a simple statement of fact. The design and goal of the original game was always to basically make a smooth transition from leveling into doing raids, even though the game’s overall popularity was brought in from a different playstyle than was initially intended.
By making the first seasonal server into an even smoother move from leveling to raiding, the developers can observe both the popularity of seasonal rulesets like this and establish how easy any changes actually are in the long run. It’s kind of clever, since it really requires only the smallest shifts in priority and design while having the opportunity to provide maximum dividends. So an easy season to implement and a great opportunity for worthwhile data all at once.
Ultimately I’m going to be curious to see how this one plays out, even though it’s an experiment that I don’t personally find terribly engaging. The basic model of “classic but it’s more raid-focused” is not something that appeals to me, but I’m interested to see in how well this particular project draws in more players and what further spins, if any, will be offered for players in the future.
Part of me also wonders if this says something about the overall popularity of The Burning Crusade, as well. It’s definitely another play to get people more interested in the game’s classic servers again, but we’re not that far from having a major new release on those servers. This might be a bad sign for that project… or it might just be part of the continual effort to deflect negative attention away from the retail game as it seems to attract it like a magnet.
There’s a lot of stuff to unpack here, and as I warned at the beginning, it doesn’t all neatly slot into a single overarching conclusion. Consider this more of a potpourri than anything, then. There’s a lot of stuff to consider.