The anticipation, release, and subsequent popularity of Classic WoW has left me intensely curious. As its release approached, I was pretty convinced that the majority of people were just looking at the game through rose-tinted glasses, that when it actually came out, reality would smack them in the face, shattering their lenses of self-deception. Well, it’s been out for about a month now, and people are still digging it. I’m still skeptical of its longevity, but it’s already undeniably surpassed my expectations. This has left me wondering. What is it that makes this 15 year old game more enjoyable than its modern counterpart? After all, it’s received many quality of life improvements over the years that I would argue have undoubtedly improved the game. The only answer I can come up with that makes sense to me is this: Despite its many improvements, some of the changes that have been made over the years have come at a price. The developers, either knowingly or unknowingly, have chipped away at the strong foundation that made the original WoW so great. They have sacrificed its strong core systems for less important benefits.
Let’s start with what defines the genre. MMOs are incredibly dependent on two types of systems: progression and social. Progression is the primary driving force in most roleplaying games. If the player isn’t satisfied by the growth of their character, they will become disinterested in the game itself and quit. Strong narrative and social systems can serve as supplements, but progression is the backbone.
Now, what makes Classic WoW’s progression so satisfying? I think it’s three things: the level-gating of zones, talents as intermediate goals, and variable loot. Leveling in Classic is a grind, a real grind. Even the fastest levelers reach max level in ~4 days played time. That’s ~96 hours of gameplay for the fastest players. It took me over 200. And that’s just to reach max level. With that kind of required time investment, leveling better be damn satisfying. And for the most part, I think it was.
We’ll start with zones. Since they don’t scale to match your level, your location actually matters. It means you can’t be where you are without having worked to get there, and it means the next zone you go to, you’ll have to earn your way in. This level-gating directly affects the social dynamic. It funnels all the players in a certain level range into the same areas, which has a significant effect on player-to-player interaction. It both encourages grouping and on player-vs-player servers, it makes conflict more likely.
Next let’s look at talents. The talent system in Classic isn’t perfect. There are a lot of talents that don’t make for interesting choices and many builds just aren’t very viable. But what it does well is provide intermediate goals along the way to 60. Every level up, you’ll be gaining something that you were looking forward to. There are exceptions to this as some talents just don’t feel good and are only taken out of obligation to unlock the next tier, but for the most part, every level up feels good. And on the other hand, some talents feel really good. When you unlock a new ability or passive benefit that you’ve been looking forward to for several levels, it can literally be game-changing. This layering of intermediate goals on the way to 60 really makes the grind more tolerable.
As far as gear is concerned, I think the lack of standardization is what makes it so good. I know this is going to sound jarring to the people who want to standardize every system to make content creation easier, but I think once everything becomes about item level instead of unique stats, equipment becomes incredibly bland. In modern WoW, different items of the same level are going to have the same primary stats with some random variation on secondary stats. This means in most cases, the higher level item is going to just be better than the lower level item. In Classic, there are some items that are best-in-slot for multiple tiers of progression despite differences in item level. This is so much more compelling than having everything standardized. Sure, content creation isn’t quite as straightforward, so it might eat a little more into budget. But the trade-off for player satisfaction that turns into player retention should make it well worth it.