With the upcoming release of Wrath of the Lich King Classic, I think it’s now completely fair to say that World of Warcraft took the idea of WoW Classic and completely failed to capitalize on it. Front to back.
No, this is not going to be a column laughing about the still-idiotic decision to torch one of the most fondly remembered features from the expansion. I already wrote that column, and nothing has changed since then. The thing is that the whole real squandering took place and has only been magnified by the fact that we are now talking about Wrath as a classic expansion. Once we saw that the way forward was just “the way it was, but again,” the mistake was made.
To be fair, I recognize that there have always been dueling philosophies at the heart of WoW Classic, something not materially helped by the fact that a lot of the voices most strenuously advocating for a Classic server have historically been among the most toxic and gatekeeping forces in the community. But as I’ve discussed with both Season of Mastery and the excising of an important element of Wrath, we seem to have ultimately burnt away any pretense of what Classic could have been.
So let me be clear about something. One of my regular statements about WoW Classic has been that it hasn’t been for me from launch because, well, this was a game where my memories were already clear and I was in no need of a nostalgia trip. That being said, that didn’t inherently mean that Classic needed to be a lower-rent venture than the original game because there are absolutely philosophical and functional shifts that can be made without diluting what made a classic server desirable in the first place.
WoW has changed a lot over the years, to the point that you could quite convincingly argue that the connections between the original version and the current one are tenuous at best. Some of this is purely mechanical, but I think there’s an important distinction to be made between the differences that are specifically of desirability to gatekeeping and the differences that are specifically a difference in execution.
An obvious example: There’s no reason why WoW Classic couldn’t have had viable, useful hybrid classes.
Yes, a lot of the tools that would make Retribution Paladin viable and useful came about in The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King. But the thing is that there’s nothing stating the designers couldn’t make further adjustments to Paladin abilities and talent trees to produce a version of Retribution that worked well as a DPS with a level cap at 60. The fact that these two things were linked does not mean that they must be linked forever.
In fact, there’s a lot of space to expand WoW even when all you have is the old world and the original set of assets. There are plenty of new races that make perfect lore sense and require no additional changes to the backstory or major introductions, like Blood Elves, Goblins, High Elves, Ogres, and Naga. Yes, several of these might have technical issues or work that needs to be done to make them truly work, but… the foundation is already there. We’re talking not conceptual work but execution.
That’s not even getting into the underused zones from the original map, or the cut content, or the stuff that was partway through development when it got folded into the first expansion. I did a whole column on underused zones in the game, even. You do not have to work hard to find story threads that were never expanded upon in the original game that could pay off differently, or different options about what to do with zones, underused areas, and so forth.
As something like a proof of concept, there’s a rogue server, Turtle WoW, that’s been running for years based on the idea of continuing to update and expand the game without ever touching on the first expansion. It has more races, more quests, more factions, more abilities, and so forth. And in the process it also has transmog options and more cosmetic options where possible because it turns out that “cosmetic gear” was never actually something that had to be inextricably linked to Cataclysm.
Quite honestly, that’s what WoW Classic should have been. Not that exact same rogue server legitimized; for all I know it plays terribly or the half-implemented stuff is awful (I haven’t tried it). But that same basic philosophy of following a divergent evolutionary path, not just digging up archived patches and releasing content updates in phases and then moving on to the next set of archived patches.
The original WoW was in many ways a slower game with a very different ethos about how the game worked. It wasn’t a matter of “back then the quests didn’t tell you where to go” because everyone just installed addons that did that or looked on Thottbot (or both). It was that quests were more spread out and assembled according to a different set of metrics, and leveling generally took longer. There was a slower pace to the game as a whole, and while work would need to be done on the game to account for a wider variety of playstyles, that doesn’t mean those playstyles couldn’t be accommodated.
Or, if you’d prefer, you can look at it through a different lens. There are some players who wanted WoW Classic to exist because they were tired of the idea that someone could just queue up for a dungeon and make their gear look pretty with transmog and not recoil in righteous awe at someone having almost a full set of Paladin tier 2 gear. There are other players who wanted WoW Classic to exist because they liked how classes felt and how talent trees worked and how the broken edges felt, who preferred the slower and more open feel of the game.
Marketing and catering to the first group is definitely easier, and it gives a stronger sense to that group of players of being in a special club and having the better taste in games because of the perception that this was the Best Version and it was harder and all that nonsense that has been debunked and discussed many times. But the second group, to my eyes, has a lot more merit.
There’s nothing wrong with looking at underpinning design philosophies and saying that as your game has made major shifts in another direction, maybe some of those shifts have caused a disconnect. That perhaps there’s merit in exploring an alternate set of design principles, of trying to embrace what people loved about the past and marrying that to something new while still trying to keep it engaging. It’s challenging but possible to thread the needle there.
Could Blizzard have actually done it? We’ll never know. Because WoW Classic has chosen its path and it’s “live in the past, exactly like you remember it, and if it’s not the way you remember it we’ll change things until it’s hard enough to match your emotional recollection.” Which is… honestly, a lot less interesting than the alternative.
I’ve talked a lot about where WoW Classic could go after the phased content rollout was finished. And it seems obvious that the answer picked was the boring one.