So here’s something funny to consider: No matter what happens, Blizzard has collectively backed itself into a corner with World of Warcraft expansions over on WoW Classic. Not in the sense that it has no path forward, and not in the sense that I honestly expect anyone in power is going to have a hard time figuring out what to do next, but in the sense that Cataclysm is already representing a flashpoint. The powers that be are already floating the idea about that coming down the pipeline next, and it’s going to be launching into a very different environment than the original did.
Specifically, it’s going to be launching into an environment where WoW Classic already has achieved its goals.
I’ve already made my case for how Blizzard squandered the potential for WoW Classic as an actual alternate evolution, but that piece does elide a specific point that I honestly should have brought up. What I talked about there was about making a version of Classic that aligned with people’s stated values instead of the demonstrated actual values.
What’s the difference? Well, trying to evaluate the clamor for Classic divorced entirely from the disingenuous side of things is kind of difficult, but even as I’ve made it clear that I don’t have some overwhelming nostalgia for going back in time, I have also made it clear that WoW Classic is not a project without merit. World of Warcraft is a game that indisputably has changed over time in design and philosophy, and the fact of the matter is that there are legitimate and (most importantly) non-gatekeeping reasons to have genuine affection for the old version of the game.
In many ways, the original version of WoW was the version most concerned with being a world first and a game second. There have been times when that wound up causing problems, as it always does, but the game had enough flavor, enough variety of crafts, enough weird things that don’t slot nicely into balance that there is a foundation there to expand and explore. This also ties into precisely what that aforementioned column was touching upon.
But Cataclysm was, in many ways, a flashpoint for what the game’s philosophy would be moving forward. This is true in a variety of ways; for example, it served as a statement of purpose moving forward that foundational elements like talents were no longer stable but subject to massive revisions. It codified roles to a degree that prior parts of the game had not, cut out a lot of things that were perhaps harder to balance but more flavorful for it.
But one of the other things that Cataclysm represented was a hard push back against something that Wrath of the Lich King had really embraced: accessibility for different playstyles.
The original WoW had a very clear idea of how people were supposed to play. Questing leads to dungeons, dungeons lead to raids, and that’s the point of the game. Raids were structured in such a way that you were basically expected to just keep playing and re-clearing endlessly, and while PvP progression had a track, the volume of play you needed to accumulate to accrue ranks and the need to maintain those ranks meant that in both cases you were functionally meant to be locked into a “do this all the time forever” sort of playstyle.
The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King both made changes in this regard. Hybrid classes became able to do things other than heal. Badges made gearing more accessible. Loot changes made equipment more deterministic. By the end of Wrath you really could log in, have fun with your dungeons, and still have progress waiting for you and feel rewarded.
And there was a contingent of people who absolutely lost their minds over this and thus informed WoW’s slow push back against the idea of “I just want to earn gear with a deterministic system.” Cataclysm in many ways started that pushback by simultaneously limiting what you could get with badges and making Heroics far more difficult and unwelcoming; later expansions made it harsher, but this was where the reaction started.
So herein lies the problem. There are a lot of people who, consciously or not, want to go back to the days of vanilla not because of anything high-minded about the state of the world or the open nature or any of that. They want to go back because back then they could be a part of the raid cycle and forever lord over people who couldn’t. (I suspect this is also where a lot of people’s fuzzy assumptions of server communities come from; if you remember back in the day when you had to keep track of your raiding guild and the other big raiding guilds on your server, it felt like you knew everyone.)
This is where I talk about stated values vs. actual values. Very few people will come out and say, “I want this game to make me feel special while it makes other people feel bad because they have to gawk at me.” That sounds kind of awful. So most people couch it in terminology, in other wants, in different terms. Heck, it’s not even that stated values are entirely disingenuous; you could want to lord it over the non-raiders while also genuinely preferring the world design and talent systems from back in the day.
Now, if we cycle back around, it’s pretty clear that Wrath of the Lich King Classic is a far cry from the actual Wrath of the Lich King. We’ve got major changes to Wintergrasp, we’ve got no dungeon finder, we’ve got the inclusion of “Heroic Plus” into the game that completely removes every excuse of being different from the retail game. Add in the boosts and the cash shop and it doesn’t exactly take a genius to realize that this incarnation of the expansion makes a mockery of the very idea of “#NoChanges, only the pure version of vanilla WoW!”
But the point is that the whole thing was always a lie.
You didn’t hear people railing against the inclusion of an in-game clock to the Classic game. You didn’t see mass protests from the community about the massive changes made to Season of Mastery. The #NoChanges thing was never actually about avoiding changes; it was about avoiding very specific changes: changes that increase gatekeeping are good; changes that increase accessibility are bad. It’s railing against an illusory version of the game that hasn’t existed since Cataclysm, and is fundamentally based on a long-simmering anger that peaked in 2009 and has continued burning.
Am I saying that everyone who wanted Classic wanted this? Of course not. I’m saying that Blizzard has decided those are the people it’s marketing to. I’m saying that Classic has decidedly cast itself not as a throwback, not as a classic experience, but as a palimpsest for people still mad at the suggestion that maybe just being part of a specific content cycle did not make them indisputable masters of the universe.
When Cataclysm rolls around and the exact same expansion launches with just as much gatekeeping but without the dungeon finder? See how people actually react. Because this isn’t the only approach the studio could have taken, but it is the one it did take.