Blizzard Unveils an Official World of Warcraft Classic Server, and We’ve Got Questions

After more than a year of argument, meetings, random unofficial server mergers, and yet more arguments from various members of the community, we’ve finally got an announcement on Blizzard’s Classic Server push for World of Warcraft: It’s coming. The company even unveiled a trailer at Blizzcon:

There are a lot of questions to be answered about this new server, listed below in what I personally feel is order of importance:

  • Which version of vanilla will the game use?
  • Will negative aspects of the Classic game, like an Honor system that required massive, months-long grinding (and that players tried like hell to game) be implemented identically?
  • Will it use 2004-era graphics, retrofit old outfits and raids for the modern engine, or use current assets (while restoring old quest lines and content progression?)
  • Will there be any adjustments to itemization, loot tables, core gameplay loops, or supporting features?

Why the Answers to These Questions Matter

I began playing World of Warcraft when Old Ironforge was just called “Ironforge” and no part of the skill/talent system that launched with the game had been implemented. You can still find a few of the posts I wrote about the state of Warlocks if you know where to look for them and I played a Warlock and a Paladin through vanilla. The questions I’ve raised above are just a few I thought of off the top of my head, but they will impact how people respond to the classic server concept (and who can play it). With no further ado:

Which Game Version? World of Warcraft wasn’t a monolithic entity from launch to the debut of the Burning Crusade. There were major changes made to the base experience between 1.1.0 (launch day, November 7, 2004) and 1.12.1 (September 26, 2006). Over this period of time, every class received some degree of class changes and balance tweaks (some larger than others, but all significant), new raid content was added with support for 20-40 players, PvP battlegrounds and world PvP were tweaked, new sets were added to make it easier for players to bridge the gap between 10-man UBRS and 40-man Molten Core, and the first holidays were implemented.

In an interview with Eurogamer, J. Allen Brack acknowledged that debates over which version of the game to use, and other questions like how should UBRS be balanced (10-player or 5-player) are going to have to be decided, likely with input from the community.

The PvP System: The honor grind in the original World of Warcraft was brutal. In the original version, you had to hit certain honor point cutoffs (gained from killing other players) to gain rank, and these cutoffs became increasingly difficult to achieve the higher you ranked. The fastest you could hit Rank 14 from Rank 0 was 12 weeks of literally coming in first on the entire server, every single week. Most people never achieved anything like this kind of success, and “farm teams” were formed by players to manage which players could achieve their ranks. The reason players enforced a rank-up system in which you entered the farm team at a given rank (usually 10-11) is because the run for Rank 14 was so insanely difficult. Imagine playing PvP matches for 12-18 hours a day, seven days a week, three weeks straight. And if you failed to hit your rank targets, you actually lost ground week-to-week. Failing to hit your rank target one week didn’t mean you had another day or two to go, it might mean you had another few weeks added on your schedule. That’s how crushingly hard the system was.

The thrill of the countdown! The blare of the horn! The 5-15 second lag at the start!

But even if you love the idea of a PvP fight literally that difficult, there was another problem. Both the Alliance and Horde had farm teams; groups of players that banded together to maximize PvP rewards per match. The problem was, the worst people for the farm teams to play were their counterparts.

WoW Classic battlegrounds had an honor system in which you got fewer and fewer honor points for killing the same person in a 24-hour period. This was meant to discourage griefing, but it also meant that long Arathi Basin matches (generally the farm-team favorite, since it accommodated 15 players and held the potential of 4-5 minute matches), were subject to severe diminishing marginal return. A 5-cap match was over in 4-5 minutes. A 3-2 cap match, (This means one team holding three capture points and the other team holding two) took around 20 minutes. A 3-2 cap match with the third flag flipping back and forth between the two teams — which is more-or-less what happened when two equally matched forces slugged it out — could take nearly half an hour.

I loved the camaraderie of playing on the farm team. I still reminisce about it with people I played through it with. And I never, ever, want to go through it again. For more information on how players desperately tried to game Blizzard’s insanely difficult system, check this MMO-Champion post by a Rank 14 player (I topped out at Rank 11).

Which graphics engine? I seriously doubt WoW will return to 2004-era graphics and I’m certain they’d never actually return to the original engine. Not only would that mean attempting to update a game designed for Windows XP to run in Windows 10, it would mean asking gamers to fall back to APIs that haven’t been used in a decade. Original WoW ran on a 32MB GeForce 2 or Radeon-class GPU. It’s much easier to make the new engine look like the old one than it would be to update the old engine to support modern operating systems and hardware. I’m guessing they’ll revert characters to classic outfits and designs, but probably keep newer models and areas, just as Starcraft Remastered is a complete recreation of Starcraft’s gameplay but with a design updated for 4K. Brack notes they couldn’t even run vanilla WoW when they started this project, which shows just how much the engine has changed in the interim.

Left: 2004 Tauren. Right: 2014 Tauren. 2004 game or not, I prefer the right-hand side.

Grinding, Gameplay, and Loot? The last issue I want to touch on is the fundamental design of MMOs in 2004. Make no mistake, upon launch, WoW was touted as being more quest-driven, more story focused, more individual-play friendly, and taking less time to hit in-game milestones than any other MMO on the market. And it was! But that’s mostly because previous MMOs were designed by blind people who read each other spreadsheets in Braille translated from the original Proto-Indo-European via Google Translate for fun.

A few salient examples:

Going on five-man dungeon runs was fun. Spamming the major city channels for 15-25 minutes trying to find people to run with was not. Guilds were helpful but not a guaranteed solution.

Doing quests in dungeons was fun. Not being able to share quests with other players was not.

Raiding 20-40 man instances was fun. Watching the boss drop loot for classes that your faction didn’t have (Horde couldn’t roll Paladins, Alliance lacked Shaman) was not. Fighting over loot was. not. fun. As both a guild leader and an officer, the problem wasn’t that people wanted unfair loot distribution, it’s that different people have different ideas about what fair versus unfair loot distribution looks like. WoW’s later expansions introduced a number of improvements to loot distribution, but the vanilla game’s model was downright primitive as far as the options players had to work with.

MANY WHELPS! HANDLE IT! (Not remotely work safe unless your boss approves Robert DeNiro-level cussing)

Having a guild bank is great. Having a guild bank be one specific toon held by one specific person was not. Guild banks weren’t added until Patch 2.3, well outside vanilla, so would Blizzard bring this capability backwards?

I could go on damn nearly indefinitely. Fighting bosses was fun. Fighting bosses with a limited number of debuff slots that required micromanagement of the entire raid to ensure only the right debuffs were applied felt less like killing world-shattering enemies and more like trying to import a Microsoft Word document in Microsoft Works (dated callbacks ftw!)

What Does It Mean to Bring Back “the Classic Experience We All Enjoyed?”

That’s how J. Allen Brack referred to these Classic Servers in the keynote. “We want to reproduce the game experience we all enjoyed from the original, classic WOW.” But compared with a game like Starcraft, World of Warcraft is vastly more complex. It’s not just a question of content, levels, and raids — it’s a question of the subsystems that underpinned these systems. Will players have access to the LFG system? Will guild banks exist? What about the PvP system? Will Blizzard offer modern loot system options in addition to classic ones or leave them out entirely? And maybe more importantly — which of these features were, in retrospect, key to the nostalgia Blizzard is trying to evoke, and which of them are features nobody really liked? (As a practical example, I can understand wanting to raid Molten Core the “classic” way, but I can’t believe anyone would love to see Shaman gear dropping in Alliance raids, or Paladin gear for the Horde. Those issues didn’t increase difficulty or change the experience of raiding, beyond contributing to the frustration and burnout people felt when they raided for week after week and saw gear drops the raid couldn’t use).

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but the answers are going to matter.

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