The last few weeks I’ve split my downtime between returning to World of Warcraft (WoW) and participating in beta testing for the Classic (original 2004) version of WoW. Returning to both games at roughly the same time, after not playing any version of WoW for almost ten years, led me to automatically compare and contrast the versions.
This post is a casual reflection on those comparisons with some ending thoughts on game design.
I returned to WoW with pretty negative opinions about the current (retail) version of WoW and the idea of Classic.
As far as retail goes, I expected to hate the game. I heard only negative things about the current expansion. I decided to start over from level 1 both to get readjusted to the game and because I never leveled after the original world was re-created in the Cataclysm expansion. I’d also heard mostly negative things about Cataclysm as an expansion, so I expected to dislike leveling, especially since I’d be doing it solo. In the past, I almost exclusively played WoW with friends and family.
As far as Classic goes, the idea of returning to a version of the game from 15 years ago sounded like a brilliant cash-grab of nostalgia but a pretty miserable gaming experience. Older versions of WoW lacked even basic convenience features. Leveling was repetitive and involved lots of running from point A to point B. On one hand, I missed forming dungeon groups through Trade chat and the investment that came from recognizing names on your server, but on the other hand, who had time to organize every single group now? Surely game design has evolved past the ideas of 2004.
I fell in love with retail and Classic WoW, for completely different reasons.
I decided to read all of the quest text while I leveled in the retail version of WoW. I knew almost nothing about the race I chose (Night Elves) since previously I had always played the other faction (Horde). The first questing zone tied almost every quest to the history and culture of Night Elves. It interested me enough I found myself reading Wikipedia summaries of Night Elf history and imagining roleplay concepts. (And becoming annoyed at the idea the devs opened up the mage class to Night Elves since CLEARLY MAGIC IS EVIL).
As I leveled, I focused on nothing but the game. No podcast or TV show in the background. No voice chatting with other people. I listened to the game music, read the quest text, and followed the escalating storyline. When I defeated the boss of the first zone, I actually felt emotional resonance with the story.
A WoW story.
I did not expect that.
I pushed into the next questing zone…and after a few lackluster intro quests, became hooked on the story of the second zone. And then I received an achievement for completing a storyline that highlighted the fact there were 5 more storylines to play through in this zone. Normally, I have a short attention span in MMOs. I flit between character classes and zones. Instead, I felt compelled to continue with my one character, interested in the unfolding campaign and through it, feeling tied to this specific character.
Classic Beta Test
I played during 2 stress tests, which meant my experience was marred by long queues, disconnects, overpopulated starting zones, and only being able to reach level 10. It should have been a horrible experience (and at times, it was) but more than anything, it reminded me of a dozen things I loved from older versions of WoW and missed.
In retail WoW, it feels like someone decided if flashy effects are good/rewarding, then everything should be flashy all of the time. In Classic, shooting off a flamebolt from my level 1 mage felt amazing because the crackle of the spell was the only even-slightly-flashy-or-dramatic element in the entire area.
In retail WoW, it seems like someone decided that players should always have access to their cool special abilities. It is nearly impossible to run out of mana while leveling and my character easily killed three enemies that were 5 levels above them. In Classic, I could run out of mana in a single combat. And if I pulled a creature 2 levels above me? I was dead. Or running away. It took more time, effort, and attention to survive combat.
In retail WoW, they decided to make leveling as convenient as possible: when you gain a new level, not only do you automatically gain all of your new special abilities, the game even places the new ability on your hotbar if a space is available. I legitimately missed the fact I gained levels all the time. In Classic, if you gain a level you have to visit a trainer AND pay for new abilities. There were several times I gained a new level but had to continue questing for a while so I could afford to advance.
In retail WoW, they flattened ability complexity into its most streamlined form. When you level up, your core abilities automatically get stronger without you doing anything, e.g. if you have the spell Wrath, when you level up you keep the same spell but now it does more damage. Core class abilities are introduced almost as soon as possible: hunters start the game with a pet; my rogue character has been using the same 3-button rotation for 90% of my leveling.
In Classic WoW, abilities are not streamlined. Instead of improving your abilities automatically, you need to train higher ranks. So you can have Wrath rank 1 and Wrath rank 2, etc. While this seems redundant, it gives you the option to choose if you want to cast the weaker but lower-mana cost spell or the stronger but higher-mana cost spell rank. It’s a little like playing D&D and deciding which spell slot level you choose when you cast a spell; it gives you more choice, without requiring you to memorize more spell effects/unique abilities.
Class abilities are also more limited in the beginning—which means higher levels have a significant impact on play and feel like you’re actually growing stronger and more versatile. This nuance goes down to weapons: in retail WoW, you can shoot a ranged weapon at point-blank range; in Classic, if your target gets too close, you can’t fire your ranged weapon. This means wielding melee vs. range weapons actually affects your spacial strategy.
Over and over, as I played Classic WoW I found myself thinking, “I love this mechanic….I miss this mechanic…I should hate these limitations but it makes it better...”
After two weeks of playing the different WoW versions I thought, “The perfect game would be the story mechanics of modern WoW with the gameplay mechanics of Classic WoW.”
With my modern WoW character I’ve stalled due to simple, repetitive class mechanics. My character feels barely stronger at level 35 than she did level 1. Because the core abilities were all given so early, because enemies never pose a real threat, and there is no depth to decision making around abilities or positioning, the mechanics have not really evolved with my time investment.
With my Classic play, I felt no emotional investment in my character or the world. Questing was interesting at first as I re-learned the mechanics, but overall the world felt flat and empty. The story amounts to “we are under attack, kill these things, then run back to me.” Since leveling takes a lot longer in Classic, the repetitive and bland fiction became grueling...and I only reached level 10 on 2 characters because of the stress-test limitations. I can’t imagine following that same pattern for a full 50+ levels. I already know I’ll only play Classic if I find I group to play it with. While this might encourage greater social connection, I don’t know if “our world is so boring you need other people to make it worthwhile” is a great endorsement for a game.
Reflecting on Game Mechanics
Modern WoW questing connected with me because it encouraged a sense of exploration. It didn’t just send me across the game map (like Classic); it sent me through the history of Night Elves. I became less interested in leveling my character and more interested in learning more about the Night Elf culture and politics.
Modern WoW also used quests as a story-telling engine, with a building action and storyline resolution similar to a novel or movie. The zone stories built on each other: early quests about corruption in the forest all led to rooting out and destroying the source of corruption in the zone. The game continued to build this story across multiple zones: a seemingly throw-away NPC from the first zone was revealed as one of the main villains in the next zone. With that twist, it filled every quest—even the seemingly generic ones—with the possibility of becoming more.
Modern WoW set-up contrasts in its story-telling through quests. I joke about this on Twitter, but the Night Elf zones were full of NPCs giving quests with conflicting morals. One NPC would require you to complete a quest without injuring a single animal; another NPC would require you to wipe out as many of an animal species as possible. Because these contrasts were tied to quests, you had to participate or miss out on XP. As a result, you felt the contrasts in the way the quests played out as you tried to complete them. It created an emotional and mechanical contrast that simultaneously added depth to the world by showing how people in the same culture and working towards the same goals could endorse completely different approaches. It saved the Night Elves from feeling flat and stereotyped.
These contrasts weren’t limited to the Night Elf zones. I recently started leveling a character in the undead zone.
I pursued one quest right after the other; the first embodied the distrust of undead toward the living; the second embodied a desire for connection that is universal. The contrast immediately made the Undead story more interesting.
Classic WoW was mechanically interesting because it embodied the art of “simple to grasp, difficult to choose.”
Healing in Classic is a good example of this. Early in Classic, you might have 30% the variety of healing abilities as you would in modern retail. However, you can cast each of those abilities at a different rank depending on how much you need to heal and how much mana you have. You may only need to memorize the effects of 3 healing spells, but you need to decide in the moment how to use each one.
As another example, Hunters fight along a pet. The mechanics of pets are pretty straightforward, (follow, attack, special attack, etc.) but each animal has different strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. You might choose a bear while solo-leveling because it protects you, but a cat during group dungeons because it does more damage and the healer/tank protect you. The nuance grows as you look at the diversity of animals, special abilities, rare animals, etc.
Leveling up is straightforward but requires choice. When you reach a new level, you can go to your trainer and buy new abilities. But you have to ask yourself some questions: do I have enough money? If not, which abilities will I buy first? Based on how far away the trainer is, should I train now or wait another level or two so I can focus on questing instead of losing the time to travel? But if I train now, will that speed up my leveling even with the lost travel time?
These may seem like mundane choices…and they kind of are. But that’s beauty in how it feels. Nothing about Classic felt overwhelming compared to modern games. The concepts were easy to grasp. But the element of scarcity and limitation meant you had to make a decision, and that decision made me feel more mechanically invested. If modern WoW is like following a GPS to your destination, Classic is like using a paper map for a simple town. The navigation isn’t difficult, but it does require your attention.
Classic WoW reminded me that simple mechanics combined with scarcity can be compelling. You don’t necessarily need a ton of flashy, complicated mechanics to be engaging…the act of choice and challenge of optimization can be interesting enough.
Modern WoW reminded me that task-based activities can be emotionally engaging and filled with exploration if we frame them that way. If we make quests or missions less about the goal, and less about a hyper focus on xp-progress, they can be a form of rich storytelling.
So I guess my final thought is a throw-back to an earlier post: maybe we can use a traditional questing gameplay loop, but infuse it with different rewards such as learning more about a world or seeing dramatic contrast between NPC beliefs.
I'm known for going on tangents. The only consistent thing in my life is that I spend most of it creating things: novels, games, graphics. I love taking apart how art and games work, then reconstructing my own version from the pieces. I'm also enough of a layout perfectionist to adore eraser shields.