As I loaded into The Barrens for the first time in more than ten years, I immediately realized the kind of torture porn I was getting myself into with World of Warcraft: Classic. With no glowing green arrows nor highlighted areas on the map, I started aimlessly roaming the World of Warcraft, and not knowing where to go next is exactly where I want to be.
There isn’t much to see in the demo, but at the same time, the absence of instruction or recommendation speaks volumes. I forgot that there’s more fun in the unknown, that choice should have consequence, and that my “Hero” shouldn’t need some in-game system to tell him how to kill Quillboars. It feels as though the past five years of video games as a medium have cared more about presenting themselves as an amusement park ride: you’re whisked along, promised fun, but definitely on rails. You can have fun–so long as you keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.
World of Warcraft today is filled with so many “quality of life” changes that leveling up a character to the maximum of 120 can take you as long as two weeks, or as little time as it takes you to enter your credit card information. That’s because Blizzard believes that the end-game content is the selling point of their game. With that frame of mind, quests tell you exactly where to go to complete them, enemies always drop the items you need, and reading quest text is optional.
It’s not unique to Blizzard games though. In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, you can pay to have your character level up faster, too. The more developers reiterate upon their games, the more icons we see when we open up our map, and the more notifications we get in our UI that tell us our “super easy insta-kill move” is ready for use. On the whole, hand-holding has become normal for games in 2018.
Out of habit, I tried to skip the quest text for the first quest that WoW: Classic threw at me, expecting some quest tracker to pop up in the right-hand corner and tell me what I needed to do. It took forever to do (because back then you needed to wait for an NPC to be done talking to accept a quest) but I ran along then to every other NPC I saw with that glowing exclamation mark above their head.
I f***ed up.
I found myself with five quests and no idea what some of them wanted me to do, or where I was supposed to be heading. I started killing Plainstriders because everyone else seemed to be doing that, and to get the seven beaks I needed, I had to kill 32 goddamn birds. With a modicum of pride, I turned in the quest and realized that I had no clue what to do next.
WoW: Classic makes you figure things out for yourself. And now that I’m older, I realize that’s why I liked playing such massive games. I liked having to ask weird people in Barrens chat for help with quests and searching far and wide for Mankirk’s missing wife. I liked watching people duel each other just for fun, or having to sit and drink to regain their lost mana after each kill. I loved having to visit the class trainer to learn new ranks of spells and then being able to decide which rank I wanted to use. I felt like a budding adventurer the entire time I was playing instead of a hollow hero archetype that saved the world some hundred times.
It’s like getting older and realizing the fun was never in completing the LEGO set, but building it. Figuring things out feels good. I think the return to the old, and admittedly ugly, version of the game’s graphics is just to aid players in getting them back to 2004. But we’ve seen graphics updates be rejected before, as in 2013 when Runescape 3 was released.
The player base for RuneScape 3 dipped significantly and was only rehabilitated when developer Jagex brought back the game they had from 2007 in the form of “Old School Runescape.” The company continues to support both games, however, the player count for OSRS has kept growing (more so due to the game’s release on mobile).
I don’t think WoW: Classic will surpass the current version of the game in terms of subscribers, but I hope that it reminds Blizzard of the reasons why people play their game. It’s not to feel like you’re a “Champion of Azeroth” who is constantly taking on space demons, but rather to feel like you’ve earned something through your rewards and the time it took you to get stronger gradually over time.
Each time I earned a talent point, I had a lot of choices on where to put it. I could build up my character into what I wanted over a series of small choices, rather than being made to choose one talent (out of three) every 15 levels in modern WoW. I had to walk everywhere and see everything going on in the game rather than hop on a flying mount and get to my destination in seconds.
The demo simply lets players experience four levels-worth of leveling up in the 2004-version of World of Warcraft. But those four levels felt more earned and meaningful than any of the levels I’ve gained in its most recent expansion, Battle for Azeroth. It’s not pretty, and it’s not simple, but it is more beautiful in the way that it asks you to play it and experience every quest and every monster you kill.
WoW: Classic is harder than contemporary WoW in just about every way. However, it gives players a real sense of satisfaction, a feeling of accomplishment that is absent from many modern games. When you get home from a long day at the office and log in to WoW Classic, you’ll remember all the times you did so in the past and you’ll be able to reflect on those times, knowing that you are the hero you’ve created and that you deserve the name you’ve made for yourself.
As previously mentioned, WoW Classic is releasing sometime next summer. You can read more about the demo here, which is available to players who have the BlizzCon 2018 Virtual Ticket.