WoW Factor: Hardcore progression, speedrunning, and closed environments

I circle the waterfront, I'm watching the sea.

So in one of the least surprising surprises ever, we’re getting official support for hardcore realms in WoW Classic. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. While I say that it’s not surprising, that’s because all of this had been teased and datamined beforehand, so it was really a question of when rather than whether, and frankly hardcore runs have been a part of World of Warcraft for ages. While there are definitely things worthy of the side-eye in this particular arrangement, having formal server rules for this is very much a good thing.

The side-eye comes in when you start thinking about what this means in a larger sense for Classic because there’s something interesting to unpack there. It’s not exactly a bad thing, but it does make you think a little about how Blizzard has approached WoW Classic and appears to be intent on continuing to approach the game and its community… and that isn’t necessarily a healthy approach, which is probably not surprising. I mean, it’s Blizzard.

But to talk about that? We need to talk about speedrunning. And I’m eager to talk about that!

If you haven’t heard of speedrunning before now, the basic idea is very simple. Your goal is to get through an entire game as fast as possible. There are usually more rules on top of that; for example, most games make a distinction between Any% and 100%, depending on whether you need to grab everything in the game or it doesn’t matter how much you grab. In games with major glitches, there’s often a distinction between “glitched” and “glitchless” categories. You get the general idea, and if you want to know more about it, there are tons of places to look up more. (YouTube is a great start.)

Personally, I think speedrunning is really neat. I like it a lot. I don’t really participate, but it brings back memories of when I was stuck inside with nothing but a Sega Genesis and a very set library of games to play. By that point I knew how to beat most of those games easily, so it became a task of… well, seeing how fast I could do it. Some of them I got through pretty dang quickly.

But there’s a catch there. Something you may not have caught, even though it wasn’t really a gotcha. Go back and check that again.

Chaos descends.

My own dalliance with speedrunning was about dealing with games that were finished. Yes, to a certain extent that’s because this was the ’90s, and that was just what games were like then, but it kind of expands outward. Games tend to develop speedrunning communities when they are Finished Things. If people are expecting major DLC drops on a regular basis, it takes a little while because the game might change.

That’s not a bad thing, mind, it’s just the nature of how speedrunning works. Speedrunning is not something you do for your first playthrough or even your second playthrough. It’s something you do when you enjoy the game but you want to see how it changes when you experience it through a different lens. The whole idea is to have a different sort of evaluation for what matters, what you’re trying to accomplish, and what limitations you have to overcome in the process.

Speedrunning is not the only possible form of challenge run, of course; back in college I was big into the Final Fantasy Tactics SCC challenge, even helping to draft the initial form of the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance SCC before most of us in the community found that FFTA was… well, not what we enjoyed about the original (far superior) game. And it’s into this same space that Hardcore servers on WoW Classic fall. Here is a new form of challenge that alters how you play the game and what you value.

No, this version is not about speed, but it is similar to these challenges in every fashion. There are rules about what you can and cannot do, including some abilities that are technically part of the normal game but trivialize the spirit of the challenge. Yes, there are certain restrictions that might seem too harsh or too light, there are some things that are not accounted for, and some of those may be debated extensively, but the rules are what they are, and they make sense.

And just like speedrunning, these challenges exist because you are finding something to do in a game that will offer nothing new.


Obviously, no one is expecting a new patch for Super Metroid to arrive providing new content. People have done a lot of fun things with hacking and randomizers and whatnot, but all of those are fundamentally new ways to mix up a set schedule of content. WoW Classic is, unsurprisingly, in that same boat. Indeed, the idea of hardcore runs date back to vanilla, a ruleset that people would engage in for new alts because… like… if you’re not going to raid, what in the heck else are you going to do?

You have seen all the quests in the game, have seen all the dungeons, have explored the limits of content available to you. If you’re going to still derive new enjoyment from the title, you need to have something new, and the game itself is not going to provide that novelty.

And that’s fine as far as it goes, with WoW Classic existing functionally in a closed-off bubble. But it also is one of those things that starts to draw a lot of elements about WoW Classic into starker relief.

For example, one of the sentiments I’ve seen from a lot of people is that Cataclysm is the point when the game stops being properly classic. This is an understandable sentiment, but it’s also kind of hilarious to me because that expansion came out 13 years ago. It came out closer to the release of the base game than the release of Legion. The recommended video card for optimal performance was a GTX 960.

This is not a column about how Blizzard squandered the potential to use WoW Classic as an alternate design evolution for the game; I already wrote that column, and nothing has changed since then. Rather, it’s about the way in which the release of the Hardcore ruleset is very much about looking at this as a sealed-off bottle.

Now, make no mistake, this bothers me way less than the Season of Mastery nonsense. The Hardcore ruleset is not about appealing to people who remember that it was supposed to be harder or any kind of chest-pounding; the comparison to speedrunning isn’t by accident. It’s about being superior to your own abilities, doing things you might not think you can do, and it is unabashedly changing the mechanics of the game to force you into a different playstyle.

But it does count as another underline on the idea that Blizzard just has no interest in exploring this as an alternative design path. At best, it’s a different way to experience well-documented fixed content, and at worst (and far more often) it’s a way of trying to turn back time so that this time you get to be on top of the hierarchy. Which is kind of a disappointing ending, even if this is a positive development.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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