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WoW Wednesday: Identifying Class Identity

World of Warcraft and its latest expansion, Battle for Azeroth, are perhaps one of the greatest representations of the high-fantasy genre in popular gaming culture. While others have done it first, and some might argue better, the wide world of Azeroth has taken us on wide-reaching journeys in its twenty-five year history. Coming off of a gigantic demon invasion and with a Lovecraftian foe not far off on the horizon, Warcraft is certainly not short of its diversity when it comes to the fantasy genre. However, whereas the denizens of Azeroth have a flourishing world to inhabit and survive in, the players sadly do not.

Fantasy has always been a vital part of any RPG game, let alone the MMO genre. Warcraft, however, suffers from missing any sort of fantasy or lore in its most vital areas: the character classes.

Class Fantasy is a very broad topic to touch on, especially for a weekly column. The idea of Class Fantasy is every effect and piece of world-related lore that helps build out the concept and identity of your player-class. Some concepts are easier to build out than others; Warriors are fighters of martial prowess and weapon skills. Priests are typically healers of faith who use religious powers to support their comrades in battle. Not all classes are built on so simple a concept, nor are their roots so cut and dry; Shamanism in the world has seen many things from ritual sacrifices to communing with ancestors, Pagan Druidism contains more concepts of religiosity in line with a typical Priesthood.

This is where we stumble upon the need for Class Fantasy and history in RPGs. These ideas and concepts flesh out not just the lore of a class but its very identity to the playerbase. A lot of it can be built up through flavor text and ability animations but Warcraft has issues with its class fantasy due to how it conveys its main point of storytelling.

Take for example Star Wars: The Old Republic, the MMORPG developed by Bioware Houston. As the player-character progresses through the game’s main storylines they are also driven by a personal class storyline. This storyline is tailored directly to the idea and fantasy of that player’s class and is built around the core design concepts during development.

World of Warcraft has no such thing for its player classes. Older players may remember systems in Classic that helped to convey these ideas. While many classes had particular quests to unlock major spells or ability upgrades, some like the Rogue Class had entire professions dedicated to vital performance enhancing abilities like poisons. Each player class filled its own niche uniquely, some to the controversy of others in comparison to Paladin and Shaman buffs. This idea of unique systems continued to stretch forward even into Wrath of the Lich King, with Death Knights inheriting their Runeforging system to enchant their blades with class-specific buffs.

An extensive amount of these quests and systems have been removed over the years, the only remaining artifacts being old cooking recipes some classes used. Due to very legitimate complaints of class stacking in some end-game instances we have seen those niches widened to accommodate multiple classes. Some of this has been completely unintentional simply due to the fact that not every class specialization in Classic was viable; Discipline Priests and Enhancement Shaman had at one point intended to be tanks, but the specs were simply incomplete.

This idea of, “class homogenization,” has become more prevalent over the years as specializations begin to share some of the design and gameplay concepts of others. More and more we see the Rogue Combo-Point system spread into Monk, Warlock and other caster designs. We see Warrior Rage mechanics pushed into newer and creative avenues in the Shadow Priest. Core concepts and niches can realistically be filled by almost any particular class or specialization.

So now we come to a very important question, “What makes any class different from the other?” Certainly, Mages are not Demon Hunters, as they play completely differently. But what separates Demon Hunters from Rogues? What is the difference between Warlocks and Mages, realistically?

Legion answered the question masterfully with its Class Order Halls. Tied into the main storyline of the expansion, players took a vital role in banding together famous paragons of their classes into Orders to fend of the demonic Burning Legion. While panned for being not as widely utilized as many hoped, the Order Halls injected an incredible amount of lore and storytelling into a field that players had been craving for years. Some of the Order Halls feature my personal favorite storylines to date, with the Rogue and Death Knight campaigns being some of my most vivid experiences in Legion. Many introduced brand new possibilities and characters, while others saw the changing of an old-guard in pushing new characters to the forefront.

For new players to Azeroth, this is the only sort of building out class identity receives. There is realistically almost ten full hours of adventuring throughout the wide World of Warcraft before players experience any sort of building out of their class. While we touched on the issue of the new player experience last week, this issue radiates beyond just that. In Battle for Azeroth there is no semblance remaining of the Order Halls, instead abandoned for a rather stilted faction war. With the abandonment of tiered raid sets for armor-type designs it really feels that there is no intent to illustrate the cultural ideas of each class anytime soon.

So what makes any class different from the other? While a Druid casts Nature magic and a Paladin throws about hammers of Light both heal their allies adequately enough. A Warrior tanks damage just as effectively as a Death Knight. What separates each class aside from ability flavor in Azeroth? What makes each player class realistically stand out from its peers in their fields aside from a nameplate and a class color? The answer that I come to again and again is nothing. After an expansion that put the ideas of its classes to the forefront, after looking at other MMOs that put that emphasis on individual designs of its unique heroes, it simply makes the World of Warcraft look a little flatter and darker in comparison.

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About Phil DeMerchant

A young pundit of the Industry, Phil first fell in love with gaming through World of Warcraft and the 3D platformers of the Playstation Era. Honing his expertise over years of reporting, he now focuses on investigative work on appraising and evaluating industry practices.