Is A 14 Year Old Game Really What We Want?

Nostalgia is one hell of a drug.

I make my character, just the way I had done when I was in college: late at night, a weird sense of anticipation in my chest. “Will this be good?” I ask myself, honestly not knowing the answer. “Can Blizzard really make an MMORPG?”

The second question of course, we all know the answer to: yes, they can. Not only did they make a wildly successful jump into the world of Massively Multiplayer, they revolutionized it. World of Warcraft was a game that, when it came out in November 2004, grabbed millions of fans and wouldn’t let go. Many college and high school kids discovered the joys of finding forty like-minded individuals to go diving into the fiery depths of Molten Core. Entire evenings – and early mornings – were lost to adventures in the charming world of Azeroth.

I was one of those kids, for the longest time. Transforming into a surly, grumpy dwarf with a reliable rifle was one of the true joys of my weeknights, logging in right after I finished my homework. Or sometimes before! While World of Warcraft kept growing and expanding and mutating, I kept up along with it for years. One day however, around 2008, I logged in, and realized I had outgrown the world of Azeroth. Nothing was really wrong, I just was ready to try other things. The real world called to me, with job schedules, commitments, and a relationship that was becoming serious. I couldn’t find the groove again.

I’d visit sometimes, when a new expansion came out, but quickly found myself falling away every time. When I realized real advancement just wasn’t possible without sinking in whole weekends, I knew I couldn't really ever go back and feel like I could keep up with the competetive PvP scene or the ever evolving raids. Azeroth was a really fun place to visit, but the moment of peak enjoyment had passed as I had grown older.

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The amount of feelings I had when this popped up on my computer...

Still. Still, as I load up the World of Warcraft Classic demo from this year’s Blizzcon, I get actual chills down my spine as I hit ‘login’. I hear the classic woosh noise, and as the soundtrack for Westfall hits my ears, I realize my heart is racing. Just a little.

Why Do We Want It?

The fan demand for World of Warcraft Classic has a long history, filled with a heady mixture of memories, entitlement, desire, and nostalgia. It is a request by fans that is both perfectly understandable and perfectly ridiculous. I’ll try my best to boil it down here, but by no means is this a perfect timeline.

World of Warcraft has seven expansions to its name, and each caused more and more upheaval to the world of Azeroth. When Burning Crusade hit in 2007, we began to move past the world that was left behind after Warcraft 3, and into new and bizarre territory. Another world filled with demons was added, and large touchstones of Warcraft history started to get explored and modified.

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It's been a long, long time since I saw the loading screen look like this.

While much of the normal world of Azeroth stayed the same, this started a few voices of discontent. While the base game had been out for two years, most fans had begun to demand fresh content and new interesting ideas. The revolutionary gameplay that WoW had brought to the MMORPG world had set a new bar that its players now wanted to see surpassed. To do it, old game systems started to be modified. Travel was made easier in some areas, while quests became easier to track. Small changes at first.

Wrath Of The Lich King hit in 2008, for many (including myself), it was something of a capstone. The mythical Lich King from Warcraft III was dead by the end of it. The final large continent of Northrend had been explored and conquered; sweeping arcs with major villains that were decades old in lore were taken care of.

When Cataclysm hit in 2010, the real movement for a classic, or ‘vanilla’ WoW took hold. By this point, skill trees had been revised repeatedly. Portals to multiple areas of the world were accessible anywhere. Entire zones were skippable because there was just so much content, and flying around on your own mounts was so accessible. Cataclysm is also when the major lore of the game took a huge few leaps, as zones were destroyed by Deathwing, left forever altered.

While it was a really fun concept that had many eager to see how the world could change, World of Warcraft was now over 6 years old. Veteran fans who had started on day one found themselves missing the older systems of gameplay, or the older feel. Maybe they enjoyed the older lore more than the fresh content that had started retconning some of the mythos. World of Warcraft Vanilla servers became popular. More and more expansions hit Azeroth, and continued to evolve the world, using time travel to create new storylines, adding new hidden continents. And more people found themselves missing ‘the good old days’. Legal fights around these unofficial vanilla servers heated up.

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When Blizzcon 2017 dropped the announcement that they were going to make official vanilla servers, renamed “Classic”, the internet went wild. Now, at Blizzcon 2018, ticket holders have been able to get into World of Warcraft Classic for the first time. It’s only several zones, but this demo made it real to a lot of people. Again, I cannot argue I felt a little emotional as I saw it load up onto my computer. I felt young again.

How It Felt To Play

The amount of sensory memories a human can store is something that always surprises me. I hadn’t walked in Westfall in nearly a decade. Yet, I’m told to find harvesters to kill, and I immediately head to the fields, even though my map is blank and my quest tracker no longer gives clues as to where to find things.

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I’m my old dwarf hunter; I may have spent way too much time in the character creator. No epics or legendary items. My cloak looks dinky and tattered, my gun is a flintlock rifle without any of the fancy demonic runes or otherworldly glows my future weapons would have. The big threat on the horizon is a rough and tumble gang of thieves, the defias gang. To me, there is no cosmic dragon of death, no horrific menace of the Lich King. I’m wandering through fields of grass that look so very dated, but still look so very good thanks to some phenomenal 2004 art direction.

I had forgotten how orange everything was. The sunset of westfall bathes everything in light, making it sometimes hard to tell things apart. I run too fast through a field of wolves and vultures, and when my pet vanishes, it takes me a minute to remember how to call them back to my side. A whistle, and they are there; I realize with a burst of laughter that I have to feed my pet again. I want to go check out the other side of Westfall, to dig deep into the mines, and go to mount up – and I remember that the original level to get a ram is 40. I start running through the fields, suddenly feeling very vulnerable.

This all may sound like points against WoW Classic. The graphics are worse, the stakes are lower, and a lot of the ease of play has been removed. You don’t realize how much you rely on certain tools until they are gone. I had to dig into 14 year old memories to remember where certain places were on the map, and my nostalgic mind actually recalled it. It might all sound like points against. But the entire time, I was smiling.

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I've now played games with much, much better graphics. Still, the first few combats back in this world had me just as excited.

The sound of my rifle firing immediately brought me back to 2004. I could almost taste the Sobe fruit drinks available on my college campus, slurping them down while eagerly, relentlessly finishing quest after quest. The small thrill of clearing a farm field of wandering scarecrow golems fills me with joy.

Someone in general chat types out “DING!” to signal their level. There are only 60 in the game, rather than 120. My chat box fills with people shouting back “grats!’, and I’m one of them.

Is This Return To Innocence Really What We Want?

I'll say it again, that nostalgia is one hell of a drug. I've played games where combat has been refined and made infinitely more exciting than what a 2004 MMORPG could give. Yet, when I found myself facing down monsters with canned animal grunts and sound effects over a decade old, I am excitedly grinning at my screen. A quest comes up to 'kill 20 of this type of monster' or 'collect 8 livers' - a type of collection quest that has been mocked and critiqued for years by fans and journalists alike - and I'm actually happy to see it again?

The real question I find myself asking is this: how long can you play World of Warcraft Classic before you become bored? How many hours, or minutes, until you find yourself missing modern conveniences such as infinite ammunition, or more easily accessible healing items? Is it a month? A week? A day?

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Maybe that isn't the real point though of this game. Blizzard is trying to please fans while also saving its own legacy: WoW Classic is a time capsule. A photo album, a trunk of artifacts that your grandfather pulls out of the attic every so often and rifles through to remember 'the good old days'. For someone like myself, nostalgia is the point. I want to feel myself transported back to a younger version of myself, to remember these great stories I would tell with friends I made across the country - friends that I've now actually visited with in reality as adults. For others, like those born after 1995, who have never played Warcraft as a Real Time Strategy game, this will be a living piece of history. Maybe they've never played a version of WoW where the world hadn't been destroyed. Maybe they want to see how game mechanics used to be, how Blizzard had revolutionized a game industry, and how it continues to do so with a game that manages millions of subscribers.

World of Warcraft Classic comes out Summer 2019, and it will be free as long as you have a World of Warcraft subscription. It's a smart move, and one that makes me feel like I won't be paying to return to what is now an ancient game. I won't lie; I will absolutely be logging into a WoW Classic server as soon as they are available, just to relive some of those great moments. Hopefully with some of the original friends I had back then. Part of me wants to ask, 'how long will these be popular?' or 'how long until people get tired and abandon them'? After playing for just over an hour, I don't think that's the point of World of Warcraft Classic, in the end. The point is to capture a little bit of history, and to let some of us feel like kids again.