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Can ‘World of Warcraft Classic’ Revive the Past?

The legendary role-playing game is trying to turn back the clock with an updated version of its original iteration. But is a nostalgia trip what gamers are looking for?

Blizzard/Ringer illustration

In the summer of 2006, on a break before his junior year of high school, a teenager named Zack booted up a close-to-two-year-old game called World of Warcraft. The massively multiplayer online RPG’s fantasy setting of Azeroth soon became his daily destination. Free from real life and the demands of adulthood, Zack spent hours at his computer, questing, warring, and exploring.

Zack often played with a friend who had started the game with him, joined the same server, and enlisted in the same guild. One day, the duo wanted to tackle a dungeon called Deadmines, but they couldn’t get a group together. “Finally, we just decided, you know what? Fuck it. Let’s just do it ourselves,” Zack recalls.

Zack, who played as a warrior, was at his mom’s house. His friend, who played as a paladin, was at his grandmother’s house. Rocking prebuilt HP PCs from Sam’s Club, they hacked, slashed, and spellcasted their way through the twisting tunnels of Deadmines, clearing it without any assistance. Zack has a long mental list of warm memories from his first summer with World of Warcraft, but that unscripted experience—two friends leaving their lazy summer surroundings behind and battling side by side in a hostile subterranean labyrinth—remains foremost among them.

Thirteen years later, Zack is still playing World of Warcraft, but he never has trouble forming a group. In fact, throngs of fans follow him whenever he logs on. Zack, who now goes by Asmongold, is the world’s most popular World of Warcraft streamer, with more than a million followers on Twitch and average audience sizes of almost 43,000 viewers. That newfound notoriety has made it almost impossible for him to have a near-solitary session. “There are a lot of times where I just want to do something on my own and play the game at my own pace,” he says. “And I understand that obviously as a streamer, that’s not really going to be an option most of the time.”

At least the game is the same. This week, Asmongold, along with legions of lower-profile players, returned to Azeroth as it existed in 2006 courtesy of World of Warcraft Classic, an old game in the guise of a new game—or maybe more like a new game in the guise of an old one. Classic’s content is dated, but the experience of playing it can’t help but be different in 2019, and not just for a player who’s morphed from yesterday’s high school student into today’s 29-year-old streaming star. That’s what makes Classic—a feat of digital time travel designed to reproduce the past of an ever-evolving virtual world—such a singular experiment. Part nostalgia trip, part unprecedented anthropological playground, World of Warcraft’s retro release highlights how our online habits have evolved since the Wild West of WoW, while testing the contention that you can’t go home again.

Almost 15 years after it launched, World of Warcraft remains by far the most popular MMORPG. Although the genre has lost a little luster amid the ascendance of competing multiplayer phenomena such as MOBAs and battle royales, WoW, one of the top-grossing games of all time, is still thriving. The Blizzard Entertainment blockbuster, which launched in late 2004, became the bestselling PC game of 2005 and 2006, peaked at 12 million subscribers in 2010, and boasts 140 million accounts created. Its player base has contracted over time, but the game is still a sales powerhouse; its seventh expansion, Battle for Azeroth, sold 3.4 million copies on release day last year. More than two million players created characters in WoW Classic before launch, and more than a million concurrent viewers (an enormous number for a single game) were watching on Twitch when the game went live Monday, with more than 200,000 tuned into Asmongold alone.

When Wow debuted, it turned an intimidating genre that had previously catered to hardcore players into an accessible diversion endorsed by mainstream celebrities. Blizzard, which was known for its action RPG franchise Diablo and its real-time strategy series Warcraft and StarCraft, made Warcraft’s world of Azeroth the stage for a new electronic tentpole that borrowed some of the trappings of traditional MMORPGs but honed their hassle-filled formula. By reducing the downtime between combat encounters, populating a lore-filled realm rich in quests and storytelling, delivering a smooth technical experience that empowered players to traverse the game’s massive continents without loading times, and crafting a distinctive, inviting visual palette described as “a careful balance between fantasy art, cartoons, and realism,” Blizzard designed a game so successful that it soon became synonymous with (and almost subsumed) its genre. A generation of RPG players sided with the Horde or the Alliance and journeyed across Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms, leveling up and looting along the way.

Beginning with the first expansion, The Burning Crusade, in early 2007, Blizzard repeatedly tweaked, upgraded, and reshaped that game, distancing it from the original—often called classic or “vanilla”—WoW. The third expansion, Cataclysm, which came out in December 2010, represented the most momentous reimagining yet. Along with the usual mechanical overhauls and infusions of new content, it entirely redesigned Azeroth’s geography. “I think that’s the break point where players that were attached to the game started becoming detached because the game physically changed all around them,” Asmongold says.

Continual tinkering is a staple of online games. “Every expansion is traumatizing in its own way,” says Tony Palumbi, author of a book about WoW’s history and culture, Blood Plagues and Endless Raids. “The end of WoW classic I think hit really hard, because for so many people, myself included, if that’s your first MMO, you sort of fall in love with this world the way it is. … And then to have that uprooted and changed and have everything just thrown out the way that an MMO expansion always must to keep people moving forward … you have to have all the old stuff become obsolete, or the new stuff isn’t appealing.”

Palumbi compares that push to graduating from school. It’s exciting, but it’s also disorienting, saddening, and irreversible—in real life, at least. In a virtual world, it’s easier to re-create conditions that prevailed at an earlier time. With WoW Classic, Blizzard is trying to turn back the clock to the game’s glory days. But games are played by people, and there’s no way to reset them to their 2006 settings, which means they may perceive the same game in a different way today.

For years, people have been pining to play WoW the way it once was. Long before Blizzard announced WoW Classic, some players banded together to create private servers, roped-off oases that operated outside of time and continued to host the original version of the game even as Blizzard built “retail WoW” into something barely recognizable. The most popular of these servers, Nostalrius, launched in 2015 and grew to encompass 800,000 accounts. In 2016, Blizzard issued a cease-and-desist letter to protect its IP, which spelled the end of Nostalrius, but a subsequent petition prompted the company to address the clamor for classic WoW.

“If we could push a button and all of this would be created, we would,” WoW executive producer J. Allen Brack wrote on the game’s official forums. “However, there are tremendous operational challenges to integrating classic servers, not to mention the ongoing support of multiple live versions for every aspect of WoW.”

Those obstacles weren’t insuperable, but Blizzard had to decide whether it was wise for the company to devote resources to resurrecting a long-dormant incarnation of WoW instead of propelling the game in new directions. John Hight, WoW executive producer and vice president, remembers “wrestling with should we do this project or not. Not only was it a pretty big effort on our parts, but it’s always the decision, is this the right message? Is this what players are ultimately going to be happy with, or are they going to feel like we’re navel-gazing and we shouldn’t be going into the past?”

One factor complicating that discussion was the lack of precedent for a project like this. It’s not uncommon for MMORPGs to dip into their pasts periodically; WoW, for instance, lets players participate in timewalking events, in which their current characters’ capabilities are scaled down so that they can enter old dungeons without easily overcoming the monsters inside. But limited flashbacks like that are nothing next to a complete re-creation. And while vintage games are often rereleased or remastered, and throwback consoles regularly resurface in “classic” form, that’s different from reviving a previous version of a game that’s always active. Many rereleased games are single-player experiences, but WoW is a shared endeavor; Blizzard can bring back the classic mechanics and make Azeroth look like it used to (with minor, optional graphical upgrades), but the experience of playing it is unpredictable and partly dependent upon the community’s support.

We’re living in an era of reboots and distant sequels, in which content creators rely on recognizable IP to cut through the clutter of a culture awash in entertainment options. But before a show or movie can be rebooted or remade, it has to go away for a while, whereas WoW has been with us since the day it went live. It’s as if, say, Grey’s Anatomy reshot its second season in 2019 with the same script, cast, and camera cuts it featured in 2006. Except, well, it’s not really like that, because the cast would look different even if the scenery was the same, and because Grey’s Anatomy isn’t interactive in the same way as WoW. “I haven’t really been able to come up with anything comparable,” Palumbi says, adding, “Going back all the way for real is not anything that I think has been done before.” Hight, who worked on remastered ports for the God of War Collection before he joined Blizzard, says, “This is completely new.”

For Blizzard, the most difficult design decision involved in exhuming Classic was weighing whether to modernize any aspect of the original game, which could have defeated the purpose of preserving and unearthing a pristine World of Warcraft time capsule. Ultimately, Hight says, “We tried to keep it as faithful as possible, and I think that was a really good decision, because once you go down that path of, ‘Well, we’ll make it classic except for …’ and you have this laundry list of exclusions, it’s very tempting to add onto those exclusions.” Blizzard is already planning a patch to restrict the usage of certain divisive, community-created social add-ons that threatened to jeopardize Classic’s realism by replicating anachronistic conveniences that didn’t become available until later in the game’s life.

The one compromise Blizzard made, senior game producer Calia Schie says, was to “use the modern code base and the modern architecture and infrastructure and then teach it to talk to the old data.” That enabled Blizzard to leverage the stability and security of its modern WoW servers—and make Classic accessible under the same subscription as the current product—while keeping the parts of the game that the user sees the same. “I kind of [liken] the project to be one of a bunch of archeologists with their little white gloves, meticulously scraping the bits away from that old, old WoW and discovering what the real one was, and bringing that to you,” Hight says.

As part of that painstaking process, Blizzard’s WoW Classic team—which is composed of a mix of WoW veterans (including two developers who recently celebrated their 20th anniversaries of working on the game) and relative newbies—compared screenshots side by side and altered the game’s graphical rendering to account for changes in video cards and emulate the look of the original lighting. (The game’s stylized look has held up well.) That was simple compared with the foundational dilemma of whether to fix mistakes that snuck into the original. WoW Classic restores the game to the state it was in after the final patch of vanilla WoW, 1.12, which was released in August 2006 and incorporated improvements made to the original engine released in 2004. During the development of WoW Classic, Blizzard agonized over whether to fix known or newly discovered bugs that were present in that patch. The team erred on the side of not tampering unless a bug posed a threat to the game’s stability or had the potential to be exploited by unscrupulous players. (Blizzard also removed the ability to stockpile and rearrange the skeletons of killed characters, which some players used to spell out advertisements or offensive messages.)

A fascinating phenomenon arose over the last several months, as Blizzard solicited feedback from players who dabbled in the demo or the beta. “The preponderance of people that were reporting what they thought was a bug because they couldn’t find quest markers to tell them where to pick up quests or to hand in quests was kind of amusing,” Hight says. “They’ve become so accustomed to that.” In other words, people who’d forgotten or never known how things worked in vanilla WoW were interpreting actual features from that version of the game as bugs, because they were used to different—and, often, easier or more streamlined—systems used in later iterations of the game. Vanilla WoW wasn’t as well-balanced; combat could be slow, and quests confusing. But Blizzard, which released a long list of non-bugs to clarify the way certain systems are supposed to work, believes that classic WoW’s clunkiness compared with current WoW may be part of what made it magical. When the game didn’t go to great lengths to hold players’ hands, players had to hold hands with each other.

“The game’s a little more dangerous,” Hight says. “It’s a little harder, and some of the conveniences that have been introduced over the years are actually things that, while at the time [people] begged us to put them into the game, I think that now, especially for the classic purists, they’re happy that they’re not going to be there. … Friction is something that causes people to rally together and do things together, and there is a higher degree of friction in Classic than there is in modern WoW. One possibility is that we’ll see stronger social connections as a result.”

Another possibility is that players weaned on more forgiving versions of the game will find that friction unpleasant and gravitate back to a friendlier, more familiar experience. It’s also conceivable that players who loved classic’s quirks the first time around won’t find them as charming now. For some people, playing difficult games is a point of pride: It’s proof of their hardcore credentials and a means of separating themselves from “casuals” (a concept that sometimes masks sexist sentiments). It’s not uncommon to hear old-school gamers reminiscing about games with no checkpoints or nigh-unbeatable bosses and sounding like stereotypical old-timers ranting about walking 15 miles to school in the snow, barefoot, and uphill both ways. “It’s an inescapable nightmare, which is to say it’s perfect,” Kotaku’s Mike Fahey wrote after playing the WoW Classic demo. “We wanted it hard, and Blizzard is giving it to us hard.”

There’s something to be said for the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a difficult task; the view may seem sweeter from a mountain you’ve climbed than one you’ve scaled via ski lift. At the very least, there’s more time to admire it. “Coming from the modern game and then looking back, I actually found it very immersive, because I had to read all the quest texts,” says Schie, who didn’t play vanilla WoW when it was first available. “There weren’t the little markers on the mini-map to tell me where to go, and I became so swept away by the fantasy of it all that I can get lost in the game for hours.”

Whether that sounds like a plus or a minus may be a matter of personal taste. Some players bemoan the fact that hunters, who once had to buy and ration ammunition, can now shoot off unlimited arrows. Some complain that it’s gotten too easy to fast-travel around Azeroth, lamenting the sense of scale and discovery that came from trudging along at slower speeds. For them, those extra miles were integral to WoW’s world-building. Others just want to get where they’re going. Asmongold views vanilla WoW as the best version of the game, because, he says, it resembled a sandbox more than a theme park, and because it was more of a meritocracy; rewards were less random, and players’ efforts led directly to loot. But playing the beta brought back memories of the minor annoyances that accompanied classic. “If you casted a spell on your mount, you’d actually have to dismount and then cast the spell,” Asmongold says. “Casting the spell itself did not automatically dismount you. Later on in the game, they did change it to where you were able to automatically dismount. … There are a lot of those that I see, and I’m like, ‘Man, some of the changes that they made were actually good.’”

Difficulty in games can turn into a trap that echoes the mundane monotony that gamers are trying to escape when they enter a virtual world. Patricia Hernandez, a senior editor at Polygon who has written about the relationship between difficulty and quality, notes that the two needn’t go together. “Tedium and hardship can become ritual, and that leaves an imprint,” Hernandez says. “Destiny is known as a very grindy game, and when Bungie streamlined that in the sequel, players hated it. It had nothing to do with the inherent quality of the game, rather a desire for the nostalgia of it—re-creating that time and place when your buddies would come together and commiserate over the miserable thing you all have to do. Difficulty is hard to get right, but the assumption that challenge always equals a rewarding experience is a flawed one.”

Not every veteran of vanilla World of Warcraft is eager to enlist again. One of my high school friends, Christopher Kerins, recently stopped playing WoW because it became too repetitive. For him, the prospect of replaying the game in its less refined form isn’t enticing. “Classic doesn’t have repeatable quests, but it does have just massive grinds and no modifiers on dungeons, so I see myself getting bored with it much more quickly,” Kerins says. “There’s also just a lot more ‘prep work’ in classic that would need to be done to make sure you have all the potions and gewgaws you would need for a week of raiding, and I recall thinking even a decade ago that all that prep work was dull and uninteresting.”

On the whole, though, the community that pestered Blizzard to bring back classic seems prepared to put its time and money where its mouth was. “I figured it would be a big nostalgic kick and people wouldn’t necessarily stick around,” Palumbi says. “But this scale of excitement and investment that I’ve seen with WoW Classic is really impressive and beyond what I thought there would be.”

Any amped-up players who are rallying to WoW Classic’s banner because they recall the challenge it provided in the past may find playing the game a little like visiting one’s alma mater: The chairs seem smaller and the ceilings seem lower than they did pre-puberty. Hight insists that the game is going to be just as challenging as it was the first time around, but Asmongold disagrees. “It’s going to be incredibly easy compared to the way that it was back then,” he says.

With WoW Classic, Blizzard is hearkening back to a time when YouTube, Reddit, and social media were in their infancies, streaming, Twitch, and Discord were yet to be born, memes took more time to travel, and the community was still sussing out the best strategies for defeating Azeroth’s biggest baddies. “Players have gotten a lot better,” Asmongold continues. “Internet has gotten better, optimization has gotten better, computers have gotten better, knowledge has gotten better. … People have pushed the limits of the game on private servers for years. … There are a lot of people that idealize classic WoW for its difficulty, and I think that a lot of those people are probably going to be disappointed whenever they go into the content and they’re able to clear it with relative amount of ease.”

Fussing about Classic’s difficulty may obscure the real reason many players are so psyched to revisit the Azeroth of old. Yes, the old game was great, and maybe it still will be. But many once and future fans of Classic crave something that may prove impossible to recapture. As Hernandez says, “I think people miss that time in their lives more than the mechanics.”

Blizzard can rebuild what WoW was in 2006, but it can’t transport its players back to that time any more than a snippet of a half-forgotten song that summons a sense memory. That’s not to say that the studio isn’t trying: Blizzard created a forum tool called “Classic Connections 2004-2006” where players can enter their info and try to reestablish links with erstwhile WoW companions. “I think we’re going to have people that are coming back to reminisce, to have that reunion, to make connections again with friends that they had 15 years ago,” Hight says.

One such lapsed vanilla veteran, Anthony Scheff, hasn’t touched WoW since 2012’s Mists of Pandaria expansion and hasn’t played seriously since Cataclysm, but Blizzard has roped him back in with the promise of rekindling relationships. “I was already debating getting back into WoW when they announced Classic, so I decided to wait and play it with some of my old WoW friends from high school and college,” Scheff says. He’s already made plans to form a guild with a group of close friends and relatives he’s played WoW with before, and he’s reached out to about 10 college acquaintances with whom he’d lost touch. “I hadn’t talked to my former raid leader in about five years, and we instantly fell back into the same easy, friendly conversational pattern we had in college,” Scheff adds. “Playing and talking about old-school WoW again after all this time is like hearing someone else speak your native language while traveling abroad.”

But attending a reunion isn’t quite like being back in school, even if the building seems the same. Asmongold invokes Heraclitus’s quote about being unable to step in the same river twice. “You can’t go through high school twice,” he says. “You can’t learn to ride a bike twice. There’s a million different things that after you do it, it’s done, and I think that’s just something that everybody has to accept. If you’re going to go back into the game expecting it to be the exact same and have the exact same experience as you did in 2004 and 2006, whenever you originally played, you’re going to be disappointed because you’re a different person. And I think that a lot of the experiences that people had in the game were largely shaped by the entire environment around the game and not just the game itself.”

During the beta, Asmongold and his flock of followers demonstrated one way in which the environment has shifted. By attacking from afar while staying out of melee range—a practice called kiting—he and his horde lured a dangerous dragon boss from its Dark Portal lair to Stormwind, Azeroth’s largest human city. The dragon wreaked havoc, conjuring memories of early WoW players kiting Lord Kazzak, a practice that Blizzard soon stopped.

That sort of spectacle may become a more common occurrence than it was in the mid-2000s, before celebrity streamers gained the power to make players pull together. Mass action has the potential to disrupt regular players who are just trying to go about their business. “If you’re not part of that group, you’re not going to be happy when this giant crew just rolls through and they’re screaming Twitch chat memes out on general chat,” Palumbi says. “There’s people who are going to be made upset by that, and the question becomes, do they find other servers to play on? And so streamers are trying to be conscientious of their ecological impact.” Asmongold confirms that he’s conscious of not trying to spoil anyone’s fun, but chaos makes good content, and not solely for streamers. The sense that the game could surprise people—that the guard rails Blizzard erected over a decade and a half of development have been broken down—is part of Classic’s allure.

Asmongold has moved up in the world of WoW since vanilla went away, but because he’s continued to play WoW in the interim, he is, in a sense, more tightly tethered to his 2006 self than many past players. Scheff has time to play Classic because his job recently switched from full-time travel to remote, but for others, work, romantic relationships, parenting, or new recreational interests may make it impossible or unpalatable to play WoW. Raiding requires commitment. “I clearly enjoyed it, as I played it for 15 goddamn years, but it takes up a ton of time, and now I’m an old man with better things to do,” the 31-year-old Kerins jokes.

Asmongold, who stocked up on groceries and bade a temporary goodbye to his girlfriend in preparation for launch, plans to spend Classic’s first month playing “extremely hardcore” before dialing back to “only” eight hours a day in month two. After that, he expects, he’ll ease back into playing primarily retail WoW. But he may create an alternate Classic account and quest without anyone watching, as he did before he was famous, when he first fell in love.

Blizzard plans to unlock additional pre-expansion Classic content in six staggered phases, allowing players to relive milestones like the opening of the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj. But Classic contains a finite amount of material, and players have seen it before, so the well will run dry eventually. When it does, maybe its world will disappear into digital storage again. Maybe it will stay on display, like a living exhibit about the origins of one of history’s greatest games. Blizzard could bring back The Burning Crusade, or even announce a new expansion that diverges into an alternate timeline. One way or another, placing a spotlight on WoW’s past may help inform its future. “If there are things in the modern game that we oversimplified, and we believe we should go back and look at some of the roots of that, absolutely, we will,” Hight says.

For now, Classic represents a portal to a less fractured time—not just because it’s a relic of a culture that was slightly less segmented, but because it’s literally less fractured than the latest versions of WoW. Unlike many modern MMORPGs, WoW Classic won’t use “sharding,” a technique that increases server stability by shunting players into numerous identical copies of the game world. Although it lightens the load on the servers by spreading out the player population—which waited hours to play Classic on Monday—sharding also makes avatars disappear suddenly and reduces the odds of recurring encounters, destroying the sense of immersion.

“That’s what players really miss … the feeling that this was a real place that they could occupy,” Palumbi says. “On your server there’s only one Blasted Lands, there’s only one Stranglethorn Vale.” Because Classic restores that “one server, one world” structure, he concludes, it seems like “an actual place as opposed to just a game.”

Classic isn’t a virtual world where everybody knows your name, but it is one where someone might. And for the many inhabitants who’ve missed it, that makes it worth seeing again.

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