World of Warcraft: Classic proves you can go home again, and it can be just as you remember it.
I’ve been here before. Fourteen years ago, World of Warcraft arrived on the gaming scene. It immediately touched off a firestorm amidst gamers and within Blizzard Entertainment, its creator. We had Everquest, we had Ultima Online; MMOs were becoming a “thing,” but World of Warcraft did something different. It took what was already a beloved RTS franchise —courtesy of its progenitors, Warcraft, Warcraft II, and Warcraft III—and made the world of Azeroth a place one could almost live in.
Over the years, the game has seen its ups and downs. Subscriber counts have risen and fallen, and now sit at a comfortable, if undisclosed, level, and Blizzard still invests major effort and dollars in its development. They continue to expand the storyline, and the game is slicker, more polished, more “triple-A” than before. But many players have nonetheless become distant from the title. They feel it has changed too much, for better or for worse. Whether you’re a long-time, enamored subscriber or a disillusioned, jaded separatist, both now can push rewind and relive the 2004-2005 “glory days” with World of Warcraft: Classic.
Early on in BlizzCon 2018’s run, I tried the demo of World of Warcraft: Classic and immediately found it to be astoundingly authentic to the experience I remember. This was before the panel where they took a “deep dive” into the re-creation of the game. So, without insight into their process, I quickly began to wonder exactly how the developers pulled this off. How did they reconstruct this game of old? Rolling up a level 15 pre-made character in the Barrens, at the Crossroads of years past, I was struck to find how genuine the game felt, looked, and sounded. I was impressed to find things back where I remembered them being—talents, ranked spells, interface options, character statistics. Did I just enter a time vortex?
Literally (Almost) Nothing New Here, By Design
World of Warcraft with a “classic” experience is not a new concept. Unofficial, third-party private servers running an age-old version of the game have existed for some time now. Their offering was this very thing: a retro World of Warcraft “vanilla” experience. And Blizzard turned a blind eye to these retrogressed servers, their operators, and their players.
Recently, however, a shift has occurred. Blizzard has admitted, possibly begrudgingly, that a fair number of players fervently desire this “classic” experience. These players don’t want features and changes that were layered onto the original game in its subsequent expansions, such as Flying Mounts or enhanced Player vs. Player systems. Blizzard found it was time to take it on themselves to develop an officially licensed and supported brand of “classic,” and it looks to be taking off like a rocket.
The BlizzCon 2018 panel on World of Warcraft: Classic gives much insight into their development process here. They combed through archived data to find any complete, intact version of the game from as close to the original launch date as they could. Sure enough, they located a backup within a backup, unearthing something of a time capsule—a complete version of World of Warcraft version 1.12. With a little tinkering, the game as-is was completely playable; this became their “reference client” and the “bible” of World of Warcraft from years ago. It was as close to the foundational “version 1.0” as they could get.
Blizzard now had a very interesting dilemma to face. Years of development had brought many positive changes to the game, notably where bugs were fixed and exploits were squashed. They would want to keep many of these changes intact, but how would they do it? Would they take the 1.12 client, its engine, assets, its warts and all, and redo part of their work over the years? How could the game interface with their modern network infrastructure? Like WoW, Battle.net—the underlying multiplayer architecture—has changed greatly over time. Instead of pulling version 1.12 forward through time, could they perhaps take a current-generation game client and turn back the clock to 2004?
Blizzard opted for the latter. They have essentially created an emulation of World of Warcraft 1.12 on the modern Battle for Azeroth client. They’re adapting assets and game systems data from 1.12 and rolling it into today’s game engine. It hasn’t been a foolproof or simplistic process; they’ve encountered some “square peg into round hole” situations and have been comparing the current product with their original reference client to make changes to lighting, textures, NPC locations, and more. The methodical approach allows the developers to resolve discrepancies one by one to create as authentic a “retro” experience as possible. Better yet, we’ve come to find it’s working surprisingly well.
Small Wins, Big Nostalgia
My wife and I played the World of Warcraft: Classic demo at length and found it to be a delight on many levels. It truly did feel as if we were home again, and other players echoed this same sentiment. The way the game felt back then is different. It looks different, it sounds different, but it’s warmly familiar, like a favorite pair of jeans, as well. Time moves on and things need to change within the “world” of Warcraft; that’s understood, of course. But Classic is a small gift to players who long ago cut their teeth slogging through the plains of the Barrens or the hills of Westfall, those who earned their stripes by rallying against the likes of Onyxia and Ragnaros.
While we looked back on the original game with fondness, what remained an unknown was how other players, today’s players, would react to the game. Even those who fought happily beside us to fell those villains many years ago may admit they’re glad the past is in the past. Would World of Warcraft: Classic find itself beset by bitterness, griefers, and trolling?
For our part, we found none of it. We saw players speaking openly and reverently in the fabled “Barrens Chat” (which was—mostly—conspicuously devoid of Chuck Norris jokes this time around). We found others asking for help to fight elite mobs. I personally had a player, another “tiny” hunter, suggest to me I could pick up a better weapon at a vendor near the blacksmith. Honestly, I can’t recall the last time I had another player offer helpful, unsolicited advice out of the blue like that. I didn’t know this person, they’re one of the thousands out there, and yet something about this “classic” experience brought out a sense of charity, community, and consideration. It’s the stuff we remember when we first played—people pitching in, teaming up, helping out. Talking to each other. Building a reputation. Giving a damn.
The modern game brings with it a more “streamlined” experience when it comes to playing and interacting with others. Push a button, get a group. Send a mail item, it arrives immediately. Pick up a quest, the map will show you where you must go. Too many players would feel the absence of conveniences here would make for “too much work.”
They’re not wrong; World of Warcraft: Classic does require you to put in the time. Everything in the game moves more slowly. Progress isn’t handed to you in heaps, it’s spoon-fed. In Classic, when you need to collect raptor heads, and raptors are few and far between, you’re hoping each one you kill will drop the item you need (they probably won’t). You could end up spending 30 or more minutes running out, finding targets, looting, and running back for a turn-in. For one quest. In the modern game, where someone could complete five or more quests in the same amount of time, some could view this as frustration. Yet, others see it as part of the original game’s overwhelming charm.
When informally polled in Barrens Chat about what players liked about World of Warcraft: Classic, one answer really stuck out. “It’s the small wins.” It’s not toppling a Prince of the Eredar; it’s collecting enough Zhevra hooves or Plainstrider beaks, and trucking them back to town for a turn-in. Your reward may be the most minimal upgrade, one extra point of your ideal stat, yet somehow that feels like a grand accomplishment. You begin to value more of what you have—your inventory space, your talent points, your gear, its durability, and wherever you can squeeze out a tiny bonus by eating food, using a scroll, or applying an armor kit. These small things can make a “world” of difference. I lived and breathed this game a long time ago, and here it is, back again, to enjoy. Or to hate all over again; it’s your choice.
Take it or leave it, the developers are committed to a “no changes” approach, where they will not be stripping out or dumbing down systems or easing up on restrictions. You still have weapon skills, spell penetration and resistances, and other nuances. A mount won’t be available until level 40 and it will cost a heap of hard-won gold. With another brewing controversy concerning Blizzard, where some fans feel the company is “tone deaf” to what players want, it’s comforting to see the World of Warcraft team, at least, is capable of listening to player requests and delivering uncompromisingly on that.
Will it be a full-time experience for myself and others? Probably not. There are large gaps in power gains and lockouts for bosses and loot. It’s not a place one has to live in every day; they can play the modern game and enjoy the latest fruits of Blizzard’s artists and storytellers easily enough. World of Warcraft: Classic access will be included in a standard subscription; it costs nothing extra. However, as something more than just a curiosity, for those of us who miss the game of yesteryear, World of Warcraft: Classic is a chance for a wholesome dinner at grandma’s again. It’s something that reminds of you who you were, where you’ve come from, and where you are now. I think that’s all World of Warcraft: Classic has to achieve.
I’ve amassed my collector’s editions of the original game and every expansion. I have my issues of the World of Warcraft magazine. Replicas of Frostmourne and the Doomhammer have pride of place in my home office. I have my wolf-rider statue, a reward for having an uninterrupted subscription come WoW’s 10-year anniversary. I’ve put many miles between the original game and where we are today. The game is in my blood. And as much as I like World of Warcraft, the current game, World of Warcraft: Classic is the game I remember and the one I love.
Did you play the demo? Did you even know this was happening? Do you think you’ll play? Let us know in the comments!