The Future

Doomed to repeat World of Warcraft

Its creators are counting on the power of nostalgia to bring players back to the once massively popular game. Can it survive?
The Future

Doomed to repeat World of Warcraft

Its creators are counting on the power of nostalgia to bring players back to the once massively popular game. Can it survive?

Can It Survive?

a series about the present, and what can last into the future.

On August 26, Blizzard Entertainment launched their most highly-anticipated release yet: a video game from 2004. World of Warcraft Classic, as the name suggests, is a new installment of the popular Massively Multiplayer Online RPG that resurrects the game as it existed 15 years ago, (Technically, 13 years ago if you're going by the specific version on which Classic is based.) This is the World of Warcraft most remember — the one of Leeroy Jenkins, the one featured in South Park, the one that, if you didn't play yourself, you likely knew someone who did.

In the years since WoW's initial release, players have moved on. According to a combination of fan estimates and official WoW subscriber numbers over the better part of two decades and seven expansions, Wow has seen its player base fall from a peak of 12 million in 2010 to just over two million at the end of 2018, the lowest it's been since 2005. Today, there are far more people who used to play WoW than there are who still do. That is, until Blizzard released Classic two months ago.

The number of subscriptions to WoW (which is no longer software that you buy and download, but a service giving you access to all the versions) jumped 200 percent in the month leading up to the release of Classic, which shouldn't come as a shock. Since WoW launched in 2004 a network of illicit fan-run “private servers” has kept older versions of the game running, the largest of which, Nostalrius, hosted over 150,000 players before Blizzard shut it down in 2016. Almost all Classic's servers were full on launch night, with queues of tens of thousands of players trying to log in. And even days after release, when Blizzard introduced additional servers, in-game players were still waiting in lines for the better part of an hour to kill specific enemies. Classic saw more players waiting to play WoW than actually playing it.

Classic's launch, rough as it might have been, seems like a revitalization of WoW. Players are jumping in whether it's to revisit a version of the game from their youth, reconnect with old friends, or even try it for the first time to see what all the fuss was about. But now, a few months removed from launch, Classic is starting to look less like a breath of fresh air, and more like WoW's final gasping breath.

At first glance, Classic fits the current cultural trend of big entertainment companies rebooting or just rereleasing what was popular 10 years ago. “In nostalgia’s case, it’s so you can climb back into your memories,” writes cultural critic Soraya Roberts. “Where you can lock yourself into a space untroubled by reality.” Part of Classic's appeal is offering players the ability to fight and quest down memory lane, but what it sets it apart from something like Disney's cynical conveyor belt of live-action adaptations, is that in the estimation of players, Classic is the “best” version of WoW.

Efficient use of time doesn't exist in Classic

Arguments as to why Classic is better than retail WoW vary from player to player — some enjoy the simpler art style and straightforward game mechanics — but the consensus is that Classic is a difficult game to play. Difficult not in the sense of needing to deftly execute a number of inputs, but difficult in that everything in Classic takes a very long time to do. You spend minutes just running from one activity to the next, an hour trying to find four other people to run a dungeon that takes 45 minutes. Efficient use of time doesn't exist in Classic. To reach the game's level cap of 60 — which most of the game's activities require — you'll need to spend over 200 hours playing WoW. Even if you treat the game like a full-time job, logging 40 hours per week, it'll still take you a month just to level a character to 60.

On paper this might seem extremely tedious and dumb, but in-game it's a great way to make players feel like they've worked hard to "earn" whatever rewards the game doles out. The joy of Classic is spending hundreds of hours doing the same thing over and over again, hating yourself only to finally acquire that sword you wanted, thus validating those hundreds of hours you spent banging your head against a wall.

Over the years, Blizzard has made a number of changes to WoW so that players do not need to spend 40 hours a week in WoW just to enjoy the bare minimum of what the game has to offer. With the Dungeon Finder, players can simply open up an in-game menu and seconds later be paired with other players. The improved quest tracker removed all ambiguity from completing challenges in game, telling players exactly where they need to go or what enemies to kill in order to fulfill quest objectives. While the game's mechanics got more complex, Blizzard made the game "easier" by reducing the amount of time players wasted in-game bumbling around trying to figure out how to get to the good stuff.

The Dungeon Finder and improved quest tracker didn't radically change the WoW experience, but they were the most prominent of many small “quality of life” changes Blizzard rolled out over the years to ensure that WoW had something to offer all players, no matter their time commitment. Now, instead of spending four hours in a 40-player group to potentially get an upgrade for your character, the current version of WoW promises a guaranteed reward if you can find 30 minutes to quest.

Despite Blizzard's best intentions to make the game more accessible to a broader audience, the devaluing of time had the unfortunate effect of not only alienating veteran players who felt that WoW no longer resembled the game they've grown to enjoy, but also overwhelming players with so much to do once they hit max level. In 15 years WoW went from a tedious grind of running the same content over and over again, to being so flush with things to do that there's this running algorithm in your head that's constantly calculating what the greatest reward you can get with the limited amount of time you have.

What we're seeing now is Classic's honeymoon period. As players spend the 200-or-so hours leveling to 60, it's refreshing and exciting to re-experience all the moments of Classic with perfect knowledge. The game's rough edges now seem like artifacts of a by-gone era, rather than malicious developer incompetence. What's more, Classic offers an early-game experience that few saw upon release — where you're leveling alongside your fellow players, rather than trying to play catch-up to your friends who are already at 60.

But as more players hit the level 60 limit, they'll have to face the fact that the only thing that Classic has to offer is better gear gated behind hundreds of hours to play. If players want to keep playing once they hit 60, they'll have to confront the same issues that caused them to stop playing in the first place.

It's no accident that Classic arrived just as the WoW player base hits an all-time low. Parent company Activision is notorious for pushing its developers to churn out annual releases in the name of shareholder value, and with Blizzard potentially not releasing another WoW expansion until 2020, the developer likely had no choice but to cash in on the nostalgia. The circumstances that birthed Classic are the same ones that birthed the recent plague of remakes in the entertainment industry. The free market has doomed us to playing and watching the same things over and over again, not because we really want to, but because we'll pay the price of admission.

Classic isn't so much an invitation to replay the "best" version of WoW; it's a clever move by Blizzard to get people to pay $15 a month to attempt to recapture the "best" time of their lives. This is something they've already done with Starcraft: Remastered and the upcoming Warcraft 3: Reforged, even though you can still play the original versions of those games. When players recognize the folly in that, that'll mark the beginning of the end for Classic — unless, of course, Blizzard decides to re-release the first WoW expansion, The Burning Crusade, and at that point, what's to stop Blizzard from just re-releasing Wrath of the Lich King, and everything up through last year’s release of Battle for Azeroth? One thing is certain: If the future of WoW is constantly stuck in the past, it's clear where it will ultimately lead.

Steve Rousseau is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He has a newsletter about World of Warcraft.