Keeping Up With Classic

It's been over four months since BlizzCon, and while we've been hearing plenty about Battle for Azeroth, things have been fairly quiet on the WoW Classic front. (As an aside, I'm always awed by how much free PR Blizzard manages to get out of content that isn't even released yet simply by having an open alpha/beta. The amount of YouTube videos talking about every little thing going on in the BfA alpha from one day to the next is staggering.)

That's not to say that we've learned nothing new at all about Classic; it's just that nothing that's been said has been important enough that it made the wider news. You pretty much have to live in one of the relevant subreddits or at least follow someone else who does to hear about any updates. I've opted for the latter, as I recently found a nice new YouTube channel mostly devoted to WoW Classic, called Tips Out. While the creator's obsession with calling his viewers "boys" and "fellas" all the time is a bit weird to me - I guess part of that "classic" feeling is pretending that women don't play video games - his videos are wonderfully thoughtful, which really helps him stand out in a community that is otherwise all too fond of hysteria and hyperbole.

So what have we learned? There was a Forbes interview with J. Allen Brack, which largely crushed any hopes that we would be seeing Classic any time "soon" as he admitted that they had announced it somewhat earlier than usual to get more community input. It's also been noted that based on open positions listed on Blizzard's job pages, they only filled the last spot on the WoW Classic team in January.

With how desperate people are for any kind of update, there was a bit of a frenzy when the official WoW Twitter account posted a little video for the anniversary of the game's launch in Europe that shows old character models in the old starting zones, which got people to speculate about it being "leaked" Classic footage. You can find a video that analyses this claim in incredible detail here, but the short version is that it's possible, but it could just as well simply be old Wrath-era footage. People are just that desperate for some sign that the project is making progress.

Personally I appreciate that it's early days, but with what little communication we have got, I can't help but get the impression that this is a project that the higher-ups at Blizzard are feeling incredibly meh about. Notice how in the Brack interview he says that there are people at Blizzard who are really interested in Classic WoW... but he doesn't include himself among them. I wonder if the reason this is happening at all isn't actually a mandate from Activision, something along the lines of: "Hey, I know you just wanna keep making new Overwatch characters, but there are people out there on the internet who are making a stink because you don't want to sell them an old product of yours that they used to love... why not do it and take their money? It doesn't sound like a big deal if people are able to privately re-create the experience in their garages. Do you hate money?"

The focus on community input can also be seen in this context - sure, you can simply interpret it as a positive thing, as Blizzard wanting to listen to the players, but from my point of view there's also a darker side to it: that at least as of now, they don't seem to have a big spokesperson for the project, someone with a vision. They are just doing it because someone higher up told them to, and they hope the new hires will figure it out by just listening to what people say on the forums. That's actually kind of concerning if you think about it, but would also explain a couple of somewhat contradictory statements that we've got on the question of the game's direction so far, e.g. Ion Hazzikostas saying "Vanilla means Vanilla" while Brack in the interview linked above seems to consider new character models a possibility for example.

Regardless of what direction they are eventually going to take with Classic, it would be nice if they could get someone to helm the project who is willing to take a strong stance on what exactly it's going to be and who is able to communicate this to the fans.


In Dreams

Last night I had a dream in which I was back to playing retail WoW. With me were a couple of friends/acquaintances from my teenage days - who have never actually played WoW as far as I'm aware but in the dream they were avid players - who were happy to see me back.

It was the time of the Fire Festival, and I was running around Stormwind trying to find the seasonal quests/activities, but everything was so different from how I remembered it that I failed utterly. Eventually I gave up and asked one of my friends for help, who flew me around on his super-fast mount to show me where to go and things slowly started to come back to me.

Then we were suddenly in Halaa and I asked my friend why the eff we were suddenly in Halaa, to which he responded that he had used some sort of newfangled teleport that hadn't been in the game yet when I last played.

... I blame having recently watched some videos about the changes to levelling in patch 7.3.5 and going: "Huh, that looks neat, wonder how it plays."


Love for Burning Crusade

This week, Syp made a post getting nostalgic about the Burning Crusade expansion, and I was surprised by how little of a response it got (my own comment being one of only three).

With all the talk about Vanilla WoW I suppose it deserves saying that if I could choose to "live" in any WoW expansion, it would actually be The Burning Crusade. However, Vanilla is close enough (especially when you compare it to current WoW) that I'll take it. And as much as I'd love for Blizzard to also host BC servers (one day... in the far future... even though they've only just started on WoW Classic...) I fear that there isn't as much demand for that simply because all the Burning Crusade content still exists in the live game - strictly speaking anyway, unlike the Vanilla content, which has literally been wiped off the face of Azeroth: geography, NPCs, quests and all.

In one of those discussion threads about what WoW Classic should be like I saw someone make a comment which I thought was very pertinent. They said that if you're longing for Vanilla WoW with better class balance and the biggest annoyances removed, you don't really want Vanilla: you want Burning Crusade. "Like Vanilla, but improved" is definitely a good way to describe Burning Crusade.

Class balance in particular had its golden age during that time in my opinion. In Vanilla you didn't really want to bring a lot of classes/specs to raids. And from Wrath of the Lich King onwards, you wanted to "bring the player, not the class" aka it didn't matter at all what you brought. Only in Burning Crusade did we have a situation that actively encouraged diversity, making it beneficial to bring a mix of classes because they all brought different benefits to the raid. It was a great time if you wanted to be more than just "a damage dealer". I'm not saying that this system didn't have its issues too, such as that feeling of "needing" a certain class or spec that you might not actually have available on a given night. I still preferred having to put up with that to simply having my favoured play style (that of the buffing shadow priest) completely erased though.

Aside from class balance, BC also fixed a whole bunch of other little niggles. Like I mentioned in my reply to Syp's post, quest rewards actually became useful to most classes. Gear for specs like protection paladin actually started existing. The introduction of daily quests made it a bit more palatable for the casual player to grind for gold. Gear token drops and badges of justice mitigated bad RNG without sacrificing the joy of getting a good drop.

It was also my personal golden age for dungeon running. I can appreciate people's love for places like Stratholme and Blackrock Depths on a cerebral level, but personally I always found them confusing and tedious. BC's more straightforward challenges, such as the not-at-all-mazelike Shadow Labyrinth, were much more up my alley and I never grew tired of volunteering to run the heroic version and feeling accomplished by being able to down Murmur.

If I had to point out BC's biggest weakness, I might actually choose the setting. I seem to remember that back in the day, quite a lot of people found Outland to be pretty alienating. When Wrath of the Lich King came out, I heard more than one comment about being glad to be back on Azeroth. However, for me it was never an issue because I only came to Vanilla WoW relatively late, and the alien landscapes beyond the Dark Portal felt like just another natural extension of the world to me.


WoW Classic Survey

Some people have taken it upon themselves to try and collate some actually useful information on what players would like from WoW Classic by starting to post informal surveys on the subject, using tools such as Google Forms and Surveymonkey. Last week my attention was drawn to what probably must have been the biggest survey of this kind so far, one that managed to gather nearly 34k responses despite of only taking submissions for a few days. (By the time I had found it, the option to vote had already closed.) You can see the poll's results here.

Unfortunately, instead of providing a clear guideline, I think it only highlighted once again what a tricky proposition WoW Classic is going to be. The only clear threads were that nobody wants blatantly "modern" changes like flying or a dungeon finder and that the later raids shouldn't be released right away.

However, there was a surprisingly high amount of support for implementing certain changes that didn't really come until Burning Crusade, such as guild banks, arenas, lower costs for changing your spec, being able to summon via meeting stones or making more classes viable as tanks in raids. I can actually sympathise with this one in so far as I started playing Vanilla relatively late, so about a third of my "Vanilla time" was spent with certain Burning Crusade changes already implemented, even though the actual expansion wasn't out yet. For example I was initially kind of confused when I learned on Kronos that summoning stones didn't actually gain their summoning functionality until the 2.0 patch.

Many features that existed in more than one version throughout Vanilla, such as single-server battlegrounds vs. battlegroups, 5-man vs. 10-man Stratholme or a single faction auction house vs. one in every city also have the community pretty split. I wonder if some sort of ranking for your answers or an "I don't care" option could help paint a clearer picture here. For example I personally don't care much about Vanilla PvP as I found it pretty dire whenever I tried it, but in a poll like that you'd have to express an opinion on all kinds of aspects of PvP anyway, even if you have no interest in actually participating in it.

Finally, I was surprised that the survey included questions about "classic expansions" (aka going the Runescape route of adding to the old game while sticking to the classic style) and how many people responded positively to them. For me this is something that sounds intriguing, but at the same time it seems to me that it's way too early to even think about it. Let's see how this whole "recreating the Vanilla experience" thing goes first and how well it is received.


Classic Videos

While people continue to speculate on just how much of the love for Vanilla WoW is nostalgia and how much isn't, let's have some actual nostalgia - in video form!

This was one of the first WoW videos I ever saw. Set to a popular Weird Al song, it's full of visual gags and I remember watching it over and over and over again. Weird Al being represented by a troll also seemed strangely apt.

I think this was the first WoW video with a parody song that I ever saw. I was just blown away by the cleverness of the lyrics and how well it was all done. It's no coincidence that the guy who made the video, Terran Gregory, went on to make cinematics for Blizzard themselves and has been with them for over ten years now...

This one was fun for all the jokes about class clich├ęs. At least some of them were definitely accurate.

This one I didn't actually find until much later, but it also hails from that era at least.

If you got any fun, old-school favourites of your own, feel free to share!


Flaw or Feature?

It's barely been two weeks since WoW Classic was announced, and already the forum wars are raging about how exactly it should work. There is an official WoW Classic forum now after all! I've also had a lot of videos on the subject pop up on my YouTube feed.

Personally I firmly fall into the camp of wanting to see as little change as possible. It's not that I couldn't imagine some changes that would make the game a little nicer for me personally, but as I once wrote in a previous blog post, Vanilla WoW appealed to different groups of people for very different reasons. There were people who enjoyed the levelling and the world and cared little about endgame, and there were those for whom endgame was all that mattered. If you asked either group how the game could have been improved, they probably would have told you to do away with all the stuff that was just dragging them down... but which was someone else's main reason to play in the first place. So while it will be impossible to re-create the experience we had back then 100%, trying to stick as close to it as possible should definitely be the goal. Any sort of changes would just cause the pendulum to swing in a bad direction for one target audience or the other.

I think a lot of this sort of discussion comes from people still not understanding the appeal of Vanilla WoW. It was just an entirely different game. I saw one YouTuber compare it to a survival game, which I thought was really interesting... no, you weren't going to die from not eating or drinking enough within a certain amount of time, but the world was dangerous and you could find yourself in all kinds of unpleasant situations if you just strolled out into the wilderness unprepared.

Let's take hunter arrows for example. Blizzard eventually took the approach of considering the act of buying and restocking ammo pointless busywork that might as well be removed. And if you only ever log in to raid and test yourself against mighty big bosses, there is some truth to that! However, for the newly minted hunter who is only just learning how to survive in the world, you essentially just took away a part of their game. It's like looking at a survival game and going: "Gosh, all this collecting wood and stuff before you can build anything is just pointless busywork! People should be allowed to just have unlimited resources and build whatever they want." Building whatever you want is a valid activity to have in a game, but then you're not creating a survival game anymore.

Vanilla WoW was also much more about roleplaying than gaming in the modern sense. Sure, things like imbalanced classes and expensive respecs may have been issues from a gaming point of view, but they also helped define your character's role. What meaning does it have to "be" a holy priest if they are something that effectively only exists inside of instances because in the open world everyone respecs to shadow? Most classes and specs were better in some situations than in others and this was something that you just accepted as part of the character you chose. You could choose to be someone who had to rely on others a lot, someone who went at it alone most of the time, or a jack-of-all-trades who was flexible and could do multiple things but wasn't as good at any of them.

You can disagree with that, and maybe even consider it a bit inane to prioritise roleplaying over having a smooth dps rotation or a viable tanking spec. However, the point is that there is already a version of the game that has its priorities the other way round. I'm still amazed that Blizzard is finally acknowledging that players who don't prefer that way of doing things actually exist and might even be worth catering to. Right now it looks like it might actually be the player base for whom it will take some time to sink in that not everyone likes the same things and that other ways of playing the game might be valid too.


Classic WoW in a Modern World

The more I think about the notion of classic WoW becoming official, the more problems I foresee Blizzard facing - beyond the question of which exact set of features should be included and at what level, that is.

Server Merges

Blizzard are probably pretty proud of having successfully avoided the spectre of official server merges despite of the game having experienced some pretty dramatic population drops over the years. First there were linked servers, then cross-realm zones. It may all be a bit convoluted, but they effectively managed to transfer their game to a single-server model of the type that more modern MMOs have without ever having to deal with the dreaded matter of officially having to shut anything down.

Since Blizzard has also already stated that WoW Classic won't have these features, I can't help but wonder how it's going to work. Regardless of how successful you think this experiment is going to be in the long run, it seems pretty obvious that there'll be a considerable launch rush as everyone sticks their nose in just to see what it's like. Are they going to limit the number of servers and let people wait in queues for that old-school feeling? If they open more servers to accommodate the masses, what happens to the ones that go quiet once the initial excitement wears off?

Old Game vs. New Player Base

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that World of Warcraft's player base has gone through some heavy churn, and that the majority of people who are playing today are not the same ones that played Blizzard games ten, fifteen years ago. The company caters to different tastes now.

So what's going to happen when "WoW Classic" suddenly shows up on the Blizzard launcher as a new option? Lots of people are going to play it just to see what it's like and will likely come away from it thinking the experience terrible and outdated (even if that's the point). This could produce some pretty bad PR for Blizzard. They will probably need to put up some sort of disclaimer when people first opt to download the game, that if they want fast and streamlined, current WoW is right over there.

Ignorance Is Bliss

I often hear claims that people only enjoyed Vanilla WoW because of the circumstances and that it's actually a pretty terrible game underneath. I strongly disagree with that, but circumstances have certainly made a difference. In Vanilla WoW, we were all bad at the game, and there was little help available. Sure, fan sites and databases like Thottbot did start to pop up over time, but they were woefully incomplete compared to what people are used to today, where everything is datamined, categorised and published on multiple websites often before it's even released. The game was a mystery, and since we were all clueless we didn't expect as much from our fellow players.

As an example, people like to cite Alterac Valley matches that ran for hours or even days - yet after re-experiencing the vanilla version of that battleground on Kronos, I couldn't help but think that this would simply be impossible nowadays. AV used to take days because too many people didn't know what they were doing, got distracted by quests and randomly hunting for kills. If most of the team knows the objectives and actually tries to capture them, there's just no way that things can stall for that long, not unless the two sides are insanely evenly matched or incredibly organised.

Or remember all those stories about half the raid in Molten Core getting away with being AFK or just hitting one button? You could get away with that because the content wasn't as demanding, but people also didn't know any better. Not everyone had damage meters or even any idea of concepts such as min-maxing their gear or having the correct rotation. Yet can you imagine anyone being admitted into a raiding guild and consistently being allowed to just tag along like that these days, with how performance-anxious many MMO players and WoW players in particular have become?

We'll see just how people's attitudes shake out, but it's definitely something to be a little wary of.