Casually Classic: WoW Classic’s leveling journey shows how much retail has lost its way


In the past six months, I’ve been tracking a very interesting conversation that’s arisen over what the MMORPG genre as a whole has lost as it’s pushed forward into the current age. It’s a topic that often ropes in retail World of Warcraft, a product that couldn’t be more streamlined and packed full of quality-of-life features yet is lacking the innate enthusiasm that players once had for it.

And in this conversation — one that has spanned videos and essays and my own internal Halls of Thought — a thesis has emerged that’s intriguing and worth examining in further depth: the idea that some MMOs have lost their way because they’ve abandoned the leveling journey in favor of designs where everyone boards an express train to the endgame in order to exist there forever.

Now there are plenty of other factors to consider about what retail WoW’s done to shed its magic and inherent stickiness, but I want to zero in on the leveling journey today because the contrast between retail and WoW Classic shows just how far Blizzard’s changed the core of how this MMO used to function.

It’s no exaggeration to say that in two weeks or less, you could take a brand-new character in retail WoW, blast through to the level cap, and be raiding by the end of that period. In fact, it’s almost impossible to go slow in retail these days. Everything pushes and propels you to get to the current expansion content, and when you get there, there’s an even stronger push to ensure you’re at the cap so you can start running all those treadmills.

If you jump back to a Classic Era server, the downshift in speed and progression is so pronounced that whiplash is a very real danger. Of course, retail didn’t get to where it is now overnight. It was a process that started slowly and exponentially accelerated with each subsequent expansion.

Not pictured.

The idea was probably noble and started with the presupposition that leveling was boring and getting in the way of what people actually wanted to do, which was — of course — high-end group content and gear grinds. So small concessions were made here and there, and some of those were absolutely great additions to the game. But as the devs would hear kudos for those changes, they’d think that it was imperative to keep players moving faster to the endgame. More expansion content would lengthen journeys, so shortcuts were needed.

Mounts were granted earlier. XP curves were lessened. The dungeon finder was added. Level skips were sold. Heirlooms powered up alts. The auction house could twink your lowbies. And finally, all of the expansions were seen as optional and skippable as long as you did something to get enough levels to the most recent expansion.

The reason that this conversation over the leveling journey’s come up is that we’ve seen player pushback on these super-streamlined MMOs and a surge in interest in older, more traditional MMO designs over the past few years. Blizzard told us that we wouldn’t really want Classic, and we ended up telling Blizzard that we didn’t really want retail. Fair’s fair.

How now crown bow... wait.

The way I see it, leaping to the decision to chastise leveling as if it’s some sort of horrible Fun Demon that’s getting in our way is overlooking the satisfaction and enjoyment that the journey offers. It’s not merely the levels but the steady progression through stories, zones, and character improvement that comes with those numerical milestones. When every step along the way matters, then you’re invested in the journey. When all of it is fast, disposable, and inconsequential to the “real stuff” at the endgame, then you hate leveling and provide encouragement for developers to continue to do away with it.

I have no idea what’s coming for Classic — I guess we’ll find out next month at BlizzCon — but I can tell you that there’s a profound relief when I log into it to find a full journey through a huge, challenging world ahead of me. It takes me back to the days when I’d be vibrating with excitement because this was the week that I’d finally hit level 40 and get my mount and 31-point talent. It reminds me of how fun it is to plan out a talent build and navigate a leveling path.

I don’t think there’s any reverting retail WoW at this point; it’s too far gone down a path that’s transformed it into an arcade game with cutscenes. And if that’s fun for you, then have at it! But I hope that Blizzard sees that it’s received a second chance to recapture the leveling magic with Classic and nurtures that in the coming years.

Stepping back into the MMO time machine of WoW Classic, Justin 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.
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