Zul'Aman and the Pain of Nostalgia

I've said pretty much since the beginning of Classic that while nostalgia is a powerful draw, to truly be able to enjoy Classic, you need to be able to keep it at bay to some degree. If playing Classic starts to feel like you're trying to re-create the exact experience of being a young student with endless free time and (relatively) few worries in the world, things are likely to go down a dark path fairly quickly. The joy of Classic should lie in playing a game again that you've missed and that is still good fifteen years later, but while still being aware and leaving room for the reality that it couldn't ever feel exactly the same as it did fifteen years ago.

I think I mostly managed to do that throughout Classic's original run. The familiar environments stirred up memories for sure... but I tended to play different characters, and I actually participated in endgame in a way in which I never really did in vanilla, which very clearly made it a new and different experience.

I think part of my struggle with Classic BC has been that I did much more of BC's content in its original iteration, and that all of this happened during my most formative WoW years, meaning that I have a lot of powerful and positive memories associated with pretty much everything - more so than I did in old Azeroth, and no matter what I do in Classic BC, it has often felt like it pales in comparison to the original game if the experience isn't totally amazing.

With that in mind, I've been anticipating the opening of the Zul'Aman raid with very mixed feelings. I wrote a post on here two years ago in which I described the experience of raiding with my fixed Zul'Aman group back in Burning Cursade as "the height of my WoW raiding career". No matter how much I may have wanted to practice self-awareness to temper my expectations of the re-release, that kind of high was always going to be a very tough act to follow.

I don't have detailed records of my Zul'Aman runs back in the day, but I strongly remember the sense of camaraderie as we came together for every reset, goofing off in the entrance area until it was time to ring the gong to open the gates - which was the signal to put our serious hats on and be intensely focused for the next forty minutes or so.

We messed up the timed run many times, but we did get better over the course of weeks and months, and there was a strong sense of progression and of overcoming a challenge as a team. When we finally beat the timer for the first time, it was glorious and felt well earned.

The previous paragraph was originally supposed to start with "I have no records of my Zul'Aman runs back in the day", but I did actually find a text document on my hard drive in which I'd saved the write-up of our first successful bear run that I'd originally posted on our now defunct guild forums. Let me reproduce it here in full to give you a sense of the general vibes I associated with ZA:

17/6 [2008] - Onslaught's first bear mount!

It started with one man having a simple idea. This Zul'Aman place is nice, Kanoth thought to himself, I think I'd like to go there every week, even if it's not part of the official raid schedule. Some of those timed chests contain amazing rewards! Always being a man of action, he soon started to assemble a group for this very purpose.

At first it was a bit of a struggle. Our gear wasn't quite up to the intended level, and it took some time to figure out the ideal strategy for each boss. Sometimes people stopped playing or just couldn't make the raid times anymore so the group makeup had to be changed. In the end this became the final "Team Bear Mount":

Arkiza - Noggenfogger addict and shooter of chain heal lasers
Drokhnar - suicidal killing machine and provider of windfury
Kanoth - cookie dispenser, crowd controller and frosty aoe master
Kordac - unsurpassed circle of healing spammer
Koreth - stabmaster supreme
Minox - whirlwinding bringer of death
Marasha - crazed warlock alt of Iarwain
Odious - amazing Tuesday tankadin
Shintar - neverending source of mana
Verment - strong bear and fierce cat in one

Two chests were a guaranteed reward for us in no time, soon three. Losing Kordac for several weeks as he moved house set us back a bit and made our runs considerably less spirited, but we persisted. As we got closer to the fourth chest the many ways in which you could just mess up the timer made us want to tear our hair out. Make sure you wear your tanking gear on the boss, Verm! Oh god, Marasha got too close to the hut! How did Odi just die there? What the hell is wrong with Shintar's computer, we're practically nine-manning this! [Note: I'd forgotten that this coincided with the time when I was struggling with an utterly crappy PC, lol.] ARGH.

However, in the end it was only a matter of time. Tonight we knew it would have to happen. People were excited before we had even started, and Minox got subjected to many vicious pokes by impatient people while trying to cook his dinner until he finally decided to leave it for later. We rang the gong and were off.

As usual Odi tanked a large part of the eagle gauntlet in one go and we just aoed it down. Akil'zon only had a chance to cast three storms before he bit the dust if I recall correctly. Barely a few minutes had passed by the time we engaged Nalorakk. He too went down fairly quickly and we rushed on to Jan'alai's gauntlet, the hardest bit of trash in the instance. However, people were really on their toes this time and all scouts were quickly intercepted and disposed of, without a single one getting a chance to call for help. On the dragonhawk boss himself there was a brief moment of panic when a hatcher didn't get killed in time and the whole right side of eggs got hatched before we were really ready for it, but fortunately we had just managed to kill off the left side before so Odi was free to pick them up. Flame debuffs were everywhere but nobody lost their cool and we were able to regain control while the healers did an amazing job keeping everyone up. As Jan'alai fell, Arkiza was so exhausted already that she stood on one of the remaining bombs and died right after the boss, becoming our first casualty. 😂

At this point we had almost twenty minutes left on the timer and Kanoth cautioned us to better move a little more slowly and carefully now rather than risk a wipe. The troll spirits smiled upon us as we sneakily wove our way through huts, past trees and across the lake without incidents, as all the patrols were conveniently in just the right place wherever we went, not even requiring us to wait for them to move. Our hearts pounded in our chests as the last of Halazzi's trash mobs died at our feet and we still had almost ten minutes left. After one last check that everyone was buffed and ready, Odi and Verment charged in... and only a few minutes later Halazzi was dead, with about five minutes left on the timer.


We were all happy and laughing as we freed the last prisoner, a chatty little gnome that zoomed all over the room before finally revealing the fourth chest to us. And then it was ours, our very first Amani War Bear! 😀 Arkiza was the lucky winner of the first roll but I think we were all equally happy really.

Here's a shot of the happy team with Ark on her bear, unfortunately we suck at lining up properly. 😉 Also, here's a bigger one of just Ark and the bear in all its glory. Now to farm nine more bears for the rest of Team Bear Mount!

A video of the event made by Odi should also be forthcoming. [Note: I actually found that this video was still up on YouTube fourteen years later! You can tell it's authentic from the minimal editing and the stamp-sized resolution, which means that you can't even read people's names, but you can make me out as the shadowy blob mind-flaying Halazzi from the side.]

I kind of dodged the matter of Zul'Aman opening in Classic for a few days since I wasn't playing much anyway, but then the Monday raid got cancelled once again and someone suggested going to Zul'Aman instead. "Screw it," I figured, "I didn't reserve this evening for a raid for nothing, so I might as well make this ZA run happen." (It fell on me to organise it since no actual officers or raid leaders were present. Yeah...)

After poking a lot of different people, I managed to assemble a group of ten, even if some of us were on alts. I had to play on my druid to fill one of the tanking spots myself, and the other tank was a warlock's paladin alt. People were asking whether we were going to try for a bear mount and I firmly told them no. Not only did we have a bunch of alts in the group, for many it was their first visit to ZA altogether! Obviously things weren't going to feel quite as challenging as they did back in the day, but the notion of people expecting to get a bear the very first time they set foot into the raid seemed ludicrous to me.

And in a way, my assessment wasn't wrong. The first boss, Akil'zon, took us three tries, meaning we already failed at the very first chest. I didn't feel too bad about this either, because as I said, my expectations were based on how hard I remembered this timed run being in the original Burning Crusade. The bear boss went down on the first try (even if my health bar yo-yoed to a scary degree), but then the dragonhawk took two tries, and the lynx no less than five. That last part threw me a little because I didn't remember that one being that much of an issue.

After four more wipes on Hex Lord (the penultimate boss), we had to call it because some people wanted to go to bed. And I'm not going to lie, at that point I did feel disappointed. I didn't expect us to get a bear, I didn't expect us to get any chests, and I did expect us to wipe repeatedly... but I'd hoped that we'd at least be able to complete the instance.

For that extra bit of salt in the wound, a friend joined us on voice chat just as we were finishing, to ask how we were doing, and when someone else told him that we'd only killed four bosses, his counter-question was: "Did you at least get a bear mount?" At least! Bears are now the bare minimum you should get out of this instance, pun intended!

The next day while I was doing business in Ironforge, as if to taunt me, a random parade of bears formed up between the bank and the auction house, as if to say: "Look how easy this is nowadays, we're only a week in and there's loads of these around already!"

It's not so much a matter of envy - I don't really crave a bear mount for myself in Classic - as being made to feel that the general vibe and the expectations around Zul'Aman are totally different now than they were fourteen years ago. The goal posts have moved from "here is a new raid and if you really work on it you can also earn a mount from it eventually" to "if you don't get the bear every single time from day one, you suck", and my memory - nay, my knowledge of how it used to be is so strong that the clash between then and now is painful.

Back then our gear was mediocre (if you look at the above group shot I used as my desktop background for a while, you can see a lot of tier four in there still, as well as gear from Zul'Aman itself, which we had farmed over time and which had actually been upgrades for us), everything wasn't as well documented, and the ZA timed run was a challenge on which we failed over and over again as a group until we got better, something that truly felt like an achievement.

In Classic, it feels like everyone's already running around in Black Temple gear, doing enough dps to steamroll everything with ease, and the ZA bear run is just treated as another item on the checklist of "objectives to complete in Classic BC" before moving on to Wrath. I hate it!

I can't really hold it against anyone who enjoys this type of play, but it's so fundamentally unlike what I've wanted out of my Classic experience that I honestly find the realisation kind of depressing. I wonder if people who spent months on the vanilla raids back in the day already felt something similar during OG Classic...

I also find myself missing our old server once again, because I have a hunch that this "issue" wouldn't have been quite as pronounced on Hydraxian Waterlords where we only had a small number of guilds doing hardcore progression. Over there, a bear mount would still have been a rare sight in week one, and we all would've gone, "Oh yeah, that guy's in Caelum, of course it's easy for them". Things feel very different when you're on a server where dozens of guilds have been farming Illidan for months.


The Socialiser's Lot

Playing WoW Classic and my ups and downs with it have made me do a lot of soul-searching about just what it is that motivates me to play MMOs. My previous results on the Bartle test have struck me as pretty on point in that regard: I'm mostly an explorer and socialiser, with a smattering of killer and very little achiever in me, which seems to make me very different from the majority of MMO players nowadays.

But what does that mean in practice, especially in a game like Classic? The explorer portion of my interests was pretty evident at launch, and I got a lot of joy out of rediscovering the old world, re-familiarising myself with old quests and all that jazz. My interest started to falter once I had revisited most of the major milestones and my socialiser heart was starting to feel lonely... but then I found a guild and that "saved" me, because just having a fun group of people to hang out with made everything interesting again.

The 40-man raids forced a lot of people into doing at least a bit of socialising I guess... and even if it wasn't their primary reason for playing, I suspect that most of those who chose to raid were at least okay with spending some time on it. I guess it's similar to how achievement systems don't do a lot to motivate me personally, but that doesn't mean that when I see an unexpected achievement pop up I won't sometimes go "oh, that's neat".

I was shocked then by how many of those social dynamics I saw getting lost in the transition to Classic Burning Crusade, because I honestly did not expect it. But smaller raid sizes meant cutting people out because efficiency won out over community, and instead of being grateful for every warm body that you could add to your roster to increase overall raid dps, people started to pick and choose based on performance.

The removal of the world buff meta also largely eliminated the whole "getting ready for the raid together" mini game. (Seriously, I know it had its downsides and people did a lot of complaining about it, but it was also such a team building exercise.) Increased "puggability" of raid content has meant less reliance on guilds, and resulted in achievers slowly switching towards playing with whoever could get them results the fastest vs. who they might otherwise have enjoyed hanging out with.

It was such a depressing wake-up call. Basically, as long as the game had made it beneficial for all types to be social, I had been under the illusion that everyone also enjoyed it equally. Little did I know that as soon as socialising became less mandatory, literally almost everyone seemed to be ready to ditch it in favour of achievement-hunting, whether that took the form of chasing the next level or the next piece of gear (what with there being no explicit achievement system in Classic - that didn't come in until Wrath).

To be clear here, I'm not trying to paint this as some sort of black and white, us vs. them scenario. We all have a myriad of different factors influencing our in-game motivations at any point in time. For example, if someone asks me to do a dungeon in WoW, here are some of the considerations that will help me determine whether I'll say yes or no:

  • Social: Who's asking? Who else is coming? How much do I like them? Would my coming along really help these people out or am I easily replaceable?
  • Curiosity: Have I been before? Has there been some sort of change that might make it interesting to revisit? Even if it's a place I know well, do I maybe get to bring a different class/play a different role than I usually do, to mix things up?
  • Progression: Is there some sort of benefit for my character in this? Potential gear drops, XP, reputation?
  • Gameplay: How fun is the moment-to-moment gameplay likely to be? E.g. I enjoy healing more than tanking, so being able to heal would tip the scales in favour of yes, while having to tank might push me more towards no. Also, how difficult is the content and how much time is it going to take? Do I have to take responsibility for forming the group or other "administrative" tasks?

If all or most of these questions have positive answers, I'll be there in a flash, while negative answers might make me hesitant. It's about the cumulative effect though, and no single point is going to turn the tide on its own. Nonetheless it's key to note that not all questions carry the same weight. I already tried to do some ranking here by putting the more important ones on top and the less important ones at the bottom. For me it's a no-brainer that the social part of the experience is one of the most important things, and that the other motivations would all need to be really strong to outweigh negative feelings in the social area.

What I found in Classic BC though was that many people's priorities were obviously very different, with "progression" often taking the number one spot and being the most important for them, and that has been both eye-opening and hurtful in some ways.

It has also meant that - somewhat paradoxically - my enjoyment "cycle" is kind of the opposite of that of many achiever types, who are happiest and most engaged when a new patch has just dropped and there are lots of new goals to chase. Meanwhile I just end up frustrated that my friends suddenly sideline me to grind dailies on three different alts or whatever. Conversely, when they get bored and run out of drops or reputations to pursue, I finally stand a chance to get at least some of them interested in simply doing things to hang out again, because the all-important progression part of the content has already been exhausted for them.

The one thing I'm still not sure about is why this has been such an issue for me in Classic but not for example in SWTOR. I think it helps that SWTOR as a whole doesn't actually cater as strongly to achievers: sure, there's new gear to grind sometimes, and there's an achievement system, but neither of those things are really designed to be the game's primary focus. There's no reason to do group content more than a couple of times if you don't actually enjoy it, so people don't sign up to raid with a guild if the company isn't a primary motivation for them, meaning that you're more likely to end up grouped with people who actually have similar interests.

Vanilla/OG Classic was the other way round in that it funnelled almost everyone into group content for gear, but that also worked in its own way to get people on the same page. In BC though, things have changed to the point that you'll still find many people doing group content primarily for the rewards, taking up valuable raid spots, while at the same time trying to escape the commitment of socialising - which I guess many solo achiever types would rate as an improvement, being able to get their BiS gear while having to rely on fewer other people. As someone for whom the social aspect is the focus at this point though, I've found it kind of hard at times, simultaneously having to compete for spots with people who don't actually want to be social, while also struggling to get the people I want to play with the most into groups with me.

All of this is only a small part of my current WoW malaise, but mulling these things over in my head has been a reminder of just how much WoW has cultivated a player base that is heavily achievement-driven. I can't remember whether I ever fit that mould in my early WoW days - I might have - but even so I have a strong feeling that the player base used to be more diverse in terms of motivations back then.

I was watching an old Extra Credits video about Bartle types and how to balance their populations before writing this, and I found it very striking that the way they describe an MMO with an overabundance of achievers, "players are playing simply to get further in the game, each in their own, small bubble", seems to describe my early BC Classic experience to a T (and is something I've seen in other MMOs as well). They also point out that socialisers need lots of other socialisers around to have fun, and yeah, I'm definitely feeling a strong impact from the seeming lack of like-minded people at the moment.


Fortnightly Classic Update

I haven't been playing Classic very much these last few weeks, partially because the new SWTOR expansion is still keeping me very engaged, partially because Classic has been a source of melancholy for me more than anything else.

About the most interesting thing I did was some questing on my little warrior alt - which is where I ran into what may well be Classic's last remaining mystery: how to get the assassins in Southshore to spawn in order to unlock the quest Assassin's Contract. It's a quest that I picked up on many previous characters more or less by accident, but curiously I never ran into the little event while in town with my warrior.

I started researching it and was surprised to find - as evidenced by the top comment on the Wowhead page linked above - that to this day, nobody really knows how to trigger it. There are all kinds of theories, from timers to it being set off by players starting or completing certain other quests, but at the same time every idea seems to have been disproven so far. I did my own bits of experimentation, going as far as to bring another character to Hillsbrad to do other quests in the zone while periodically relogging to my warrior in town to see whether anything was happening, but to no avail. So much for a "solved game"...

Aside from that little bit of fun though, I've been feeling a bit gloomy. My questing buddy let his sub lapse for no single reason that I'm aware of, and I've been feeling his absence all too keenly. We'd been working on levelling not one but two characters together, my shaman and my priest, and I keep staring at the character selection screen with thoughts along the lines of:

  • I really love both of those classes, I want to continue levelling them so badly...
  • But we worked so hard to be in sync in terms of levels, I don't want to play without him and mess that up.
  • When is he going to be back though, if ever?
  • When I think about it, levelling these characters without him would feel very empty, I don't think I'd want to do it anyway...
  • I do have his contact details outside the game, I guess I could just ask when/if he's planning to come back? I guess I'm afraid that I might not like the answer though...

That's the downside of getting too attached to someone in a gaming context. It's great to have someone you like and whom you trust to always be there and to provide help and entertainment, but when that partnership comes to an end for whatever reason, it can be hard to go back to the solo lifestyle.

Not that there aren't still other guildies whom I like... one of them in particular keeps asking me to do dungeons with him and I always feel bad when I have to turn him down, because I do enjoy his company too (and I have run a few dungeons with him and others in the meantime). But it's just not the same.

The raiding situation has also continued to be very meh. At first we continued to cancel raids due to lack of attendance, until one such evening led to people having a bit of a chat on voice about the future of the guild. There was still a surprising amount of desire to turn things around somehow, which was nice to see. A lot of people (including me) spoke out in favour of opening up the core raids to community members, because even if that meant sacrificing some control over loot and things like that, it would surely be better than not getting to raid at all.

Then it took the officers a full week to set up these new events, and during that time another bunch of people posted goodbye messages about stepping down from raiding or the game altogether. This Saturday (a change of raid days that was welcome to me as Wednesdays were now out due to work) we were supposed to go to Black Temple, but almost half the group was pugs.

On the night, we struggled to find a third tank, and when we started to clear trash with just two tanks, we wiped three times on the same pull of naga just before the first boss. One of the pugs dropped group silently. It was looking pretty grim from my point of view.

However, somehow we pulled through. Leadership soldiered on undeterred, and eventually we filled the raid and succeeded at killing that trash pull. Nothing we encountered after that was quite as bad either, and we finished the night with four bosses killed, which didn't seem half bad for our very first foray into the instance.

Of course, before I'll even get a chance to go again, Blizzard will be releasing Zul'Aman next week... which to be fair, is a small catch-up raid and not a replacement for Mount Hyjal and Black Temple, but it still feels very soon for them to drop another patch, which in turn provides more evidence that they want to get everyone through the remaining Burning Crusade content quickly, potentially to be able to release Classic Wrath before the end of the year.


Sudden Death?

It's funny how quickly things can change in life sometimes. A month ago, my situation in Classic looked pretty rosy. I enjoyed my guild's first forays into Mount Hyjal, and I was having a blast taking my priest into Outland.

Then our progression raid on the 14th of February had to be cancelled due to a lack of sign-ups. There was some disappointment, but most of us didn't think too much of it because it was Valentine's Day, and we figured that people were just prioritising real life commitments on that day in specific and that there wasn't really more to it than that.

The day after that saw the launch of SWTOR's newest expansion, something I'd been looking forward to for months. I made sure to let my guildies know that I wouldn't be logging into WoW much for a week, but that I'd be back to at the very least showing up for raids as normal after that.

During that week "off" I got some bad news in real life... well, bad for me in any case: After more than two years of full-time working from home, my employer decided that I needed to be back in the office twice a week, and one of those days was going to be Wednesday, one of our two core raid days. From the day I first joined the Forks to raid, I knew that this was only going to be a temporary arrangement due to the fact that their raids started about an hour before I'd even be home on a "normal" day... but as our return to the office got postponed again and again, part of me started to wonder whether it was ever going to happen. At last, dull reality caught up with me.

I shared the bad news that I wasn't going to be able to attend more than one raid per week anymore, but was equally stunned by what I learned from others on my return: that both core raids and the Karazhan community run during my week off had also ended up being cancelled due to lack of attendance. An officer informed me that we'd had a streak of bad luck with several raiders stepping down at once for unrelated reasons.

Since then we've only had one progression raid: a Mount Hyjal run during which we did the opposite of progress, as we only got three bosses down. The mood was jovial enough, but people were very unfocused and did not play well at all. The officers have had a discussion about what could be done to get the guild back into shape and asked for input from us raiders, but few people even bothered to respond.

The Forks have always had periods in which they struggled to field a full roster during my time in the guild (after all, lack of warm bodies was why they were pushing so hard to recruit me during AQ40), but I don't recall ever seeing such widespread apathy. There've always been those who are more invested vs. those who don't talk much on Discord and don't do anything other than log in to raid, but percentage-wise, there were always enough of the former to make things feel alive. Right now, it doesn't feel like that anymore... and I can't even cast stones, because I've not exactly been online every evening myself.

When we transferred servers, I was worried about the guild not being able to sustain itself after the move, because of how slow and casual we were in comparison to the dozens and dozens of more progressed raiding guilds on Nethergarde Keep. But people were excited, keen to make it work, and there were still some people interested in progressing Vashj and Kael'thas whom we could recruit.

Since Mount Hyjal and Black Temple opened their doors though, things have been different. Since these raids are so much easier, pugs on the server have been clearing the former and most of the latter pretty much since the second week. Guildies started jumping into BT pugs because we weren't going there as a guild anyway, and got their Archimonde kills in pugs too. If you want to kill bosses and get loot, there's little reason to be in a guild like the Forks at this stage. Of course there's still the social aspect, and there are people other than me who are there for that, but there aren't enough of us to fill the whole raid, and it seems impossible to recruit in that kind of environment. The future of the Forks has never seemed this uncertain to me.

Regardless of what happens, I won't be there for a good chunk of it anyway because of the return of my work commute. It seems weird now to think how excited I was to get back into raiding not too long ago, dreaming of clearing Black Temple, building a team for Zul'Aman whenever it comes out, and perhaps even seeing some Sunwell bosses this time around. As it stands, I'm not sure I'll ever even see the inside of Black Temple in Classic. And I'm not even that broken up about it because I've had other things on my mind too - but there's still something sad about it all.