Do you remember when World of Warcraft was good?
This question presumes a lot. On its face, it asks you to accept that a) World of Warcraft is no longer good, and b) World of Warcraft was once better. Neither is necessarily the case, but the sentiment has gained traction lately. It shows no signs of slowing down either.
Nostalgia, the longing for a point in the past with positive associations, can be dangerous, especially for MMORPG fans. MMOs change over time. Friends, guild mates, and strangers all come and go. The games themselves evolve or devolve in an endless struggle for balance. As we play these games, we tie ourselves to the community, we fall in love with the content, and we devote serious time and energy into cultivating our passion.
Anchored to when we first fell in love, it becomes harder for us to follow behind as the game changes over time. We get left behind. Instead of embracing the new, we drift back to what once was and we deem it perfect, though that is never the case.
This can be the case for fans of the genre or fans of a particular game. I have my stories of adventures in Ultima Online and EverQuest. I look at the MMORPG genre as a whole and wonder, “How did it get this bad?”
But has it?
World of Warcraft fans have had enough time to join the rest of us grizzled MMO veterans. Whether you began with Meridian 59, City of Heroes, or Wrath of the Lich King, we are miserable together now. The better days of World of Warcraft and the MMORPG genre may or may not be behind us, but they are behind many of you, myself included. We are left alone together with our memories.
Nostalgia sells. The excitement and furor over new time locked progression servers in EverQuest prove that. It would sell even more if Blizzard decided follow suit. Warlords of Draenor hooked many of us with hints that it might take us back to The Burning Crusade, and when it did not, the realization alone was enough to click the cancel subscription button for most.
But what if I did go back? What if I paid a visit to World of Warcraft before it was the well-oiled machine that it is now? Would I find the magic again or would I see it through my now-jaded eyes and hate it?
Blizzard has yet to give us a means to relive vanilla, but there are unofficial ones. I won’t provide my mean of time travel to 2004, but consider joining me anyway.
New World of Warcraft
Loading up World of Warcraft circa 2004 in the year 2016 for the first time, I was struck by how good it looked. When I first started playing, I was lucky to get it to run without melting down my laptop. With everything cranked to max from the outset, Azeroth is gorgeous for its time.
The game looks great on live too, but expectations are different when going this far back in time. That the game looked like this good back in 2004 adds to the art-style’s appeal. World of Warcraft looks as timeless as your favorite Mario game. Vanilla WoW also offers a reprieve from Blizzard’s trend toward bigger shoulders and over the top armor effects, an added bonus.
Not everything aged well. The textures on the game’s flora are Paint-levels of detailed:
The Tip of the Darkspear
My first character was a Troll Rogue on an RP-PVP server. I loved being a Troll and I liked being a Rogue. Without any doubt, Trolls are by far my favorite race in World of Warcraft.
The last Troll Rogue I leveled was a female, so I opted to make a her again instead of copying my original character (a white haired, sexy beast of a Troll). It was weird creating a new character after all this time. The options weren’t surprising, but the lack of variety was. Without the added hairstyles, making a new character in vanilla World of Warcraft feels as dated as making one in EverQuest.
Worse, the hairstyle choices for female Trolls were extremely limited in vanilla. I opted for the most civilized look, but my Troll still looked like the savage she would be if I bothered to roleplay her:
Looks decided, it has been a few years since I made a new character, so seeing the opening cinematic again for my favored Trolls was a nostalgia bomb. Earl Boen’s voice acting in it is like listening to Morgan Freeman in, well anything really.
I believe it was only recent that Blizzard opted to update animations. In 2004, World of Warcraft’s animations were praised as some of the best in the genre. Nothing makes an animation uglier than spamming it for a couple of hours though. I put Sinister Strike on my ‘1’ key, so combat looked like this: 1111111111111111111111111111111111111111111.
With all the spam, I had plenty of time to stare at the combat log. It was odd seeing weapon skills again. At first, I thought I was playing EverQuest, and then I remembered that WoW launched with weapon skills too.
If you are unfamiliar, each weapon had a type and a corresponding skill. Use the weapon more and its corresponding skill increased. As much as I love the roleplaying idea of having to practice different weapon types, that never outweighed the crushing realization that the weapon you just looted is attached to a skill you haven’t touched in the last twenty levels. Enjoy missing!
Beyond weapon skills, it felt strange visiting the trainer to unlock new abilities again. Each time I dinged, I wondered why I was not getting anything new on my hotbar until I realized I had to go somewhere else. I didn’t mind doing it, but the Rogue trainer for Orcs and Trolls was placed close to a dangerous enemy:
Standing within ten feet resulted in periodic burn damage. Debating which skill to buy with your limited supply of money was always a trial by fire.
Enthralled By Orgrimmar
After the tedium of spamming Sinister Strike, I took my Rogue off rails and headed straight for Orgrimmar.
If there is one thing I hate about modern World of Warcraft, it is the overhaul to Orgrimmar. Seeing the city again in its full, ancient beauty is a sigh of relief. This place is home! 2016 Orgrimmar looks as silly as Blizzard’s modern armor design. Back in 2004, Orgrimmar had grace.
It also had Thrall. I am not that into WoW’s lore, and I cannot fault Blizzard for evolving the world over time, but the throne room in old Orgrimmar is where he belongs. He even looked like every other Orc in Orgrimmar:
Here are more shots from my nostalgia tour:
For the … Alliance?
I also decided to roll an Alliance toon, a handsome Dwarf Priest:
I visited the Dwarf starting area once before, but I don’t recall it being this challenging. It begins simple enough: grind non-hostile mobs, turn in quest, repeat. But after that, a dwarf requested I recover three objects lost in the nearby area. Without the aid of a built-in quest helper (which highlights the area to go) or items that sparkle from afar, I found this quest almost impossible to do. I will not admit to you just how much time I sank into my search, it’s more than just a little embarrassing.
While looking for the quest items, I wandered into a nearby cave populated by ice trolls. When I saw the cave’s layout on the map, a sudden familiar chill overcame me. This wasn’t just any cave, it was one of those copy-paste jobs that Blizzard did a lot of for newbie starting areas. These caves are dense with mobs that it can be hard to survive without being careful and without having a few strangers in the area too. I of course went in alone.
There are plenty of MMOs where you have to worry about positioning yourself not to aggro an entire room, but here in this cave, death comes free with any mistake. Stand in the wrong location and multiple enemies will stand with you. Worse, they respawn quickly and your mana runs out fast, so attempting escape means aggroing more mobs. It felt just like playing EverQuest again.
I died exploring the cave. Add in my inability to complete my quest, seeing my ghost at such a low level left me feeling embarrassed. I have server first Vashj and Kael’Thas kills under my belt, for Titans’s sake!
Alas, Azeroth, that has no people in it.
This experiment has been a homecoming for playing the game in its 2004 state, and, for a private server, it was well-populated even at lower levels (in the human area, for example, I saw at least six other people running around). Yet, everything I do and everywhere I go reminds me of the stories I already made together with others. It also reminds me that everyone who helped me fall in love with the game are not on my server.
As much as I want to love playing this game again, but there’s a crucial element missing: my friends.
The problem going back to some place great is the people who helped make it great are never there waiting for you. Over the years, I changed guilds several times in World of Warcraft. Most of the friends I considered close, I no longer have any means to contact. A select few have remained in contact with me, and none of those friends wanted to try vanilla WoW with me (this time).
Replaying vanilla World of Warcraft feels a lot like returning to your hometown. Everything looks the same, but most of the people who made it home have moved on and moved away.
World of Warcraft: Then, Now, Forever
MMORPGs are facing a serious conflict in finding the right balance. I am not talking balance in the sense of one class being overpowered over another. Instead, I am referring to finding a place between being an online world and online game.
The best analogy I can think of is a good steak. Without any fat, you get a tough, dry, tasteless piece of meat. With too much fat, you get a chewy mess that is hard to eat and makes you feel worse for trying.
When World of Warcraft launched, it had a ton of fat. Talent trees weren’t balanced. Class balance was terrible: if you had a heal, then it was expected that you heal even if your class could do something else. Most raids required forty people, which encouraged guilds and raid leaders to bring all the best players they could find to carry all the others players they would use to round out their roster.
I could go on with more examples.
But those weren’t exactly bad things either. Blizzard pushed the game toward fairness, which is justifiable, but in so doing, they streamlined the game to such an extent that personal discovery was lost. Sure, most people will look up how to do a quest, how to gear their character, what talents to take, or what strategies to use in a dungeon, but at least they are having to look for it or rely on others.
People refer to this as the casualization of the game. They make these arguments with the implied idea that being a casual or playing casually is wrong. They lump into necessary quality of life changes such as cross-realm Battlegrounds and Raid Finders.
Being a casual is not wrong. It wasn’t wrong in then and isn’t wrong now. Casualization happened because it needed to, but I believe Blizzard went too far, too fast, without thinking things through. In making the game easier – in cutting fat to make it leaner – the real casualty was the community. It isn’t about the challenge, it’s that the game asked players less and less to rely on their neighbors. As World of Warcraft evolved, everyone got their own bubble to exist in, rather than a server to coexist on.
Playing World of Warcraft circa 2004, I miss that bloated mess of a game that Blizzard once had on their hands. It wasn’t more fun, it was frustrating, but through that frustration I was taught to lean more on others. Without argument, the 2016 experience is a better video game, but 2004 has a charm that the game has lost over time.
12Related: World of Warcraft