After a week, whither WoW Classic?

Sunrise on the Green Belt. The game surprised me with how nice it still looks even on “Classic” graphics settings. Please don’t make fun of my action bars…

After 15 years, I thought that I would have more to say. But really, what’s left to say about a game so old? I scrapped half a dozen drafts of this post that did nothing but note little forgotten surprises in the gameplay — you have to eat food and drink water! — before tacking more towards personal philosophizing because really, who wants to read a list a changes, like patch notes?

Most people, maybe… I think a lot of players have taken an ironic joy in cataloging those nostalgic post-epiphanies with the sort of “we walked uphill both ways” style griping that mythologizes suffering as a source of glee. They describe Classic as something to endure (as one friend did), not something to enjoy. Instead, the enjoyment comes after, when they can boast about the extent of their suffering after conquering the game’s progression system.

I simply reject that premise. Suffering is bad (wow.) and I take no masochistic joy in it. Good thing then that Classic has a secret that the fans hailing it as a hard-core return-to-form don’t often admit: 

The game is easy.

The typical character’s optimal combat rotation (gamespeak for “buttons you need to press”) might require just three or four lazy keys, with much of the time in each fight spent humming through long casts or even just auto-attacking. Then after fights, many classes will need to wait about 15 seconds to restore their health and mana before starting again. Sure, fighting more than one monster at a time will often require some frantic, last-minute saves. But enlist a friend to party up and the game becomes easy again. Find three more people and you can roll through just about any open-world content without a thought.

Instead, I think the ‘hardcore’ crowd confuse difficulty for tedium.

Travel between zones, taken on foot until players can afford expensive mounts, will often require upwards of ten minutes. With world-spanning quests that ping players back and forth across two continents, a significant portion of gameplay consists of running and waiting for transit options like boats or flying griffons. In group content, the only challenge comes from finding four other players willing to make the long treks to the dungeon’s entrance. But once inside, as long as the players remain patient enough to fight only two or three monsters at a time (in gamespeak, making small “pulls”), they can relax again. Some players will like to rush through with frantic, high-risk big pulls (hello, brother), but other than to boast, why bother? The slow deliberate pace of Classic reminds you that you have plenty of time. Listen to a podcast while you fight, chat with your friends while you travel, go fishing in-game (or jot down notes for this blog) while you wait for a group.

Have enough time to queue to fight a monster? The massive crowds on release day shocked me.

Of course though, many players don’t have plenty of time. In the 15 years since Classic first released, they’ve jumped into university or moved onto serious careers or found love or started families. They look at the hundreds of hours needed to defeat the most difficult boss in the game and wonder how anyone could have the time. If you take a progression-oriented outlook that views the final boss as the only, ultimate goal in the game, the ‘investment’ required by Classic looks onerous. Why not stick to the modern World of Warcraft, which has refined its high-action gameplay loop into a perfectly rationed time-in, dopamine-out Skinner Box?

But I think of Classic less like the Dark Souls series — games with a progression of increasingly difficult challenges to master — and more like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing — games with minimal mechanical difficulty that instead appeal for their intimate escapism. Just like Animal Crossing players can enjoy Isabelle slowing down for thirty seconds to greet you in a non-skippable opening before the game begins, in Classic, you can zig-zag across whole continents to some useless corner of the world and enjoy it not because you accomplished anything but simply for the smooth ease of the run. With that attitude, will I ever reach the end of the progression system and feel that sharp exhilaration of mastery? Nah, but then I don’t want the dopamine hit anyway. I’m just here to relax.

With all that said though, I do have a different concern regarding time when playing Classic, not derived from a progression-based calculation about investments and rewards but rather just a pessimistic futility that afflicts everything I do.

It starts with the key strain that always makes me quit World of Warcraft again: only a week in, and I already feel a pervasive sense of ‘loneliness in a crowd.’ Though the modern World of Warcraft has drifted more towards a single-player accesible experience, both Classic and modern WoW still define the genre of Massively Multiplayer Online games. Much of the appeal of such games come from their social experiences — finding players to do group content, chatting with online friends, or even just watching other players go about their tasks like a curious child observing an ant farm.

Watching the ant farm at the Three Corners. In about a minute, maybe twenty players ran through in different directions. It’s lovely to observe a living online world like this.

Two friends with no Warcraft experience have promised to play Classic with me …though maybe less out of genuine interest than as ironic tourists smirking at the quaint past in the same way that visitors to Disney World’s Carousel of Progress only seem to ride it anymore to laugh at its show of exuberant retro-futurism. Meanwhile, my brother, the only other person in real life I know who plays the game, devotes himself to such a competitive, progression-driven playstyle that after 20 levels of questing together at the fastest, cut-corner pace, I almost put him on my ignore list out of sheer exhaustion.

But when my casual friends quit and my hardcore, week-off-work brother rockets ahead of my own progress, never again to deign run a dungeon with me while repeating his incessant, infuriating refrain “not worth” (not worth helping a friend?), what will I have left? Will I still enjoy the game if I have to play it — endure it, to use my friend’s word again — alone?

Of course, you can make new friends in the game itself. I’ve already joined a small guild with fine, friendly people (when I asked what the guild was about, the leader only replied “having fun.” Great start!). However, I don’t think the mythology surrounding tight-nit online guilds meaningfuly exists. In over 15 years of playing MMOs, I have never once found a successful guild that didn’t center on a core of pre-existing, real-world relationships to carry the whole group. Meanwhile, the online-only friendships putter along with the guarded hollowness of two office mates that have nothing else in common: ‘hey, what’s up’ followed by a cheery reply that might as well translate to ‘nothing much, you?’ in a terminal loop. If my experience with Classic-past tells me anything, my social adventure in Classic-present will end in much the same way.

And that’s when I hit my issue with time: the end (not the end-game!). For as much as I enjoy the slow, deliberate pace of Classic with its abundance of RPG systems to help emphasize the journey rather than the destination, I cannot break that fixation on the end. Not even halfway through my new (old) journey, and I can’t shake an excess of forward thinking — I’ll have played 200 hours just to find myself lonely and bored, scrounging around for the next temporary distraction on a Schopenhauerian hedonic treadmill to nowhere. The End, and what was the point?

So if I’m just going to quit then, why not quit now?

I’ll stick around for a while longer and see if it sticks. But I’m not holding out hopes.

At only level 34 (out of 60) and I already feel like a grizzled, disillusioned veteran. The chain coif helps too!

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