Casually Classic: How permadeath runs are revitalizing WoW Classic

    
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While I don’t have any hard data on the subject, just observing the World of Warcraft Classic scene (and ABK’s financials) over the past couple years leads me to the conclusion that this massive phenomenon from 2019 to 2021 has started to slow. Enthusiasm is down, engagement seems to be following the law of diminishing returns, and not even last year’s Wrath Classic release was anywhere near the high point of the first launch of the legacy ruleset.

We’ve been wondering what Blizzard is going to do with this property, especially now that it’s fielding multiple versions of this MMO and is nearing the end of what many consider to be the true “classic” era of WoW. Does the game go into Cataclysm and resign itself to becoming a progression server? Is another Season of Mastery called for? Will alternative Classic content be developed? Should the whole project be put into extended maintenance mode?

There might be another option on the table, one that’s come up from the community itself rather than Blizzard Entertainment. And it has to do with one of the most stigmatized rulesets of MMORPGs: permadeath.

Emerging on both private servers and the official Classic Era realms is a player movement to make its own rules of engagement where, as the rallying cry goes, “death equals delete.” The idea is that participating players jointly undertake a challenge to level brand-new characters from 1 to 60 on a single life — and if, at any point, they die, that toon is immediately deleted and a new run commences.

Classic Hardcore, as it’s being called, may sound bizarre and overly harsh to the average MMO player’s ears. After all, we’ve been conditioned by decades of online gaming to depend on the persistence of our characters through countless deaths. Most of these titles are designed around constant resurrections so as to not frustrate players and wipe out dozens if not hundreds of hours of investment. And here we have a game mode that is flipping that script upside-down by gleefully changing the rules of the game.

Yet this is a community that’s not just growing, it’s booming. Player counts on participating Classic Era realms is up, way up, and the buzz is growing around Classic Hardcore. Streamers and content creators have seized upon this mode as a new way to play and entertain others, and even a fluffy carebear – me – ended up rolling on one of these realms to see what the fuss was about.

What I found there was a homebrew success story. Those intro zones were hopping with characters fresh off the mistakes of a past run, and guilds eagerly snapped up anyone who raised their hand for participation. The mood and enthusiasm there is electric, too, as everyone encourages each other on, passionately debates leveling strategies, and watches in both horror and delighted I’m-glad-it’s-not-me interest when the system informs everyone that so-and-so just punched their ticket at level 32 thanks to an ogre.

To help structure this challenge, the non-Blizzard-sanctioned Classic Hardcore site lays out the rules and provides a link to an addon that everyone participating is encouraged to use. Players are not allowed to trade with others (even via auction house), use certain death insurance skills (such as the Warlock soulstone or Paladin bubble), group up for questing, or run any dungeon more than once (and then only on level).

The addon tracks everyone’s progress and allows for additional optional achievements — just in case you want your challenge to be even tougher. Want to try to hit level 60 while playing completely nude (your character, that is), eschewing talents, or skipping the use of flight paths? Select the option at level 1 and see if you can make it!

Apart from the sheer enthusiasm everyone has for this mode, what struck me as I played is how much a hardcore run absolutely changes your perspective on WoW Classic. Suddenly, everything is way deadlier than you ever imagined. Caves are suicide, running away is a legitimate strategy, knowing how to get out of the range of a mob’s “leash” is essential, and every piece of usable gear is a lifeline. You’ve got to have great situational awareness at all time and wield your professions and talents to maximum effect.

When you know that your character most likely won’t make it to 60 and become “immortalized” (i.e., become exempt from the death = delete rule), you start playing more for the moment-to-moment. It’s a challenge in the truest sense rather than a time investment. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of gaming back in the ’80s when there was no winning — just a drive to push yourself further than you did last time.

Classic Hardcore revitalized WoW Classic so much that there are indications via datamining that Blizzard may be in the process of setting up official permadeath realms. I think this is a great idea that will solve one of the current problems, which is non-participating griefers using all manners of tricks to get challenge runners to die. If an entire realm is under this ruleset, then the griefers have just as much to lose.

And besides, it’s such a no-brainer for Blizzard to take the one successful booming segment of WoW Classic and throw official support behind it. I would hope that it’d do this well because if so, this might not just provide years of additional enjoyment on these servers for many but also open the door for other creative rulesets.

Stepping back into the MMO time machine of WoW ClassicJustin Olivetti offers up observations and ground-level analysis as a Gnome with a view. Casually Classic is a more laid-back look at this legacy ruleset for those of us who’ve never stepped into a raid or seen more than 200 gold to our names.

Activision-Blizzard is considered a controversial gaming company owing to a long string of scandals over the last few years, including the Blitzchung boycott, mass layoffs, labor disputes, and executive pay fiasco. In 2021, the company was sued by California for fostering a work environment rife with sexual harassment and discrimination, the disastrous corporate response to which compounded Blizzard’s ongoing pipeline issues and the widespread perception that its online games are in decline. Multiple state and federal agencies are investigating the company as employees unionize and call for Bobby Kotick’s resignation. As of 2023, the company is being acquired by no less than Microsoft.
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