So before I start this column, I want to make something very clear: I do not for one moment, in my heart of hearts, believe that Blizzard is ever going to make any form of “Classic Plus” into a reality. I’ve done columns before talking about how WoW Classic is clearly a palimpsest for people who fundamentally want a do-over on the game’s most hierarchical elements, and I stand by it. Nothing has changed about that. The time when the developers could really have staked out this territory was ages ago, well before we just popped over to The Burning Crusade Classic. I am not here to talk about this as a likely outcome.
What I am here to talk about is that this is not an impossible task. While I may not believe it is a road Blizzard has any interest in walking, there is another side to how World of Warcraft could have gone, and it’s important to talk about it just the same as people look at the future of the classic variant and see things reaching a very realistic end. So let’s take the people who fundamentally want that palimpsest out of the equation. What would this even look like?
In order to answer that question, we first have to answer a smaller but related question. What about WoW Classic is actually distinct from retail? It’s easy to get lost in details that aren’t really relevant here, either aesthetic choices like lower-poly models or design choices that are not actually endemic to what makes the classic game unique. No, being able to queue for dungeons does not actually break the game, despite what the developers might have said when Wrath of the Lich King Classic decided to go for #DumbChanges. What makes the classic game unique is something else altogether.
Namely, it’s the fact that the classic game is really bad about actually driving home its design goals.
I’ve mentioned many times that when you look at the modern state of the game with its “group finder bad, raiding uber alles, casual players need to step up or gawk at their betters” philosophy, this is not actually distinct from the game at launch. What is distinct is mostly the simple fact that the original game is just far less directed and thus easier to wander off within, ignoring what you’re “supposed” to be doing. There’s a grounding to the game, a certain degree of looseness that lets you fill in lots of stuff in the margins as you please.
And for the people who like WoW Classic as a distinct experience, that sluggishness and lack of direction isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. This is where designing for this mode of the game actually becomes really interesting because it’s a gameplay style that doesn’t need more dungeons or more raids… it needs more weird ideas.
WoW’s initial launch and patch cadence looks very different from the current game because a big chunk of early WoW was kind of a pattern of figuring out the game as it was running, the equivalent of finding a film in the editing. On a whole, the developers kind of knew what they wanted players to be doing, but players were taking the playground and mucking around in it with very different ideas about how it was supposed to work. There was space to expand into more design for things that might not be optimal but could be flavorful just the same.
In many ways, that’s kind of what WoW Classic offers with regards to “Classic Plus” as an idea. There’s space to try new things that don’t involve a new level cap, new raids, and new gear levels. Instead of offering play patterns optimized to an ever greater degree, it’s gives players a chance to just… be.
Obviously, we don’t talk much about rogue servers for WoW in WoW Factor because of our longstanding policies on this site; the game is still commercially available and being developed, and that doesn’t change just because you don’t like the people in charge. But there are rogue servers out there that have decided to expand and explore specifically at the original level cap of 60. Some of them implement ideas and concepts that were in the game but got left on the cutting room floor, they make mechanics non-standardized, and they even offer alternative progression. Because that’s all possible.
Heck, in a previous column I argued that The Burning Crusade was really the expansion that defined what WoW was going to become. And while there have been some errors made subsequently in terms of that course, there is in fact a benefit to turning back the clock and trying things again, to letting things be looser and explore more design from first principles.
By its very definition, the classic game represents a chance to try things again. There was so much stuff left on the table already in the game. Hyjal was basically already finished, just not populated, even less than Azshara was. Deadwind Pass was unused. There was tons of stuff that people loved exploring through boundary breaking, things that could be expanded and improved even beyond making the Ironforge airstrip into a quest area.
There’s so much here.
In that light, not only is it possible for there to be more of the game on the base level, but it’s actually better. There’s space to try more things. Give Paladins more seals and auras and blessings. Give them some kind of holy strike. Make DPS specs and tanking specs viable when they weren’t before. None of these things make the game not Classic unless you were basically looking for a do-over of running Molten Core when that mattered; they’re ways of exploring the game as an alternate evolution, smaller and slower and less focused on the endgame because if that’s what you want, retail is right there.
Heck, it’d be a great place to try things. Want to finally try housing? This version is simpler and smaller, so you can try it on a smaller scale. There are actually classic older forks of games that still get developed, after all. This is not an unheard of operation. Give us more quests like learning about Stalvan Mistmantle, quests bringing us all over the world not for leveling but for a reward or just the fun of doing this stuff.
But… it’s not the route that Blizzard has chosen. Not just “now” but from launch. The developers clearly looked at the people who did just want a do-over on Molten Core, and then cries of “but I remember it being harder” followed by developers changing it to match the inaccurate memory. It’s just the same old routine, only slower, and as I’ve noted it means that Blizzard has wedged itself into an unpleasant place where it doesn’t actually have anywhere to go beyond Cataclysm even though that’s definitionally the breaking point for a lot of people (despite coming out closer to the game’s launch than the present day).
It’s not that people haven’t explored this space or cannot do so. It’s that Blizzard has no interest in doing so or in catering to the people who don’t want everything exactly as it was back in the day, new content be damned. And it means that the people who enjoy the game but wish it would expand in new directions are the one who were not meant to be served and will not be served further.