WoW Wednesday: How Long Can Classic Last?

After an incredibly too long gestation period, Classic has finally arrived. Launching just a little over two weeks ago, Classic has gone on to already break several large-scale records across the internet. From crushing Twitch’s all-time release day viewership to an intense spike in current World of Warcraft subscription, Classic has more than well received its wings as Blizzard’s new gem. One that perhaps shouldn’t have been handled with, “You think you do, but you don’t.”

This week I had intended to take a critical look at the experience of starting off in Classic as a life-long fan of Warcraft’s evolution. Despite my long, storied disinterest in this column about returning to my Vanilla days and the problems there-in, I have indeed jumped back into the Vanilla I used to know. With both feet I’ve plunged right into the deep end, playing it in my off hours when I’m not preparing other content or working on my main character. There is an incredible number of things I like and a substantial amount of things I don’t. However, something occurred this week that unsettled that topic. It was something that I really hadn’t anticipated, planned for, or really even thought possible.

Less than two weeks after its release, someone has already reached max level in Classic.

Thrash Bloodedge, my own little step into Classic.

Earlier this week Twitch streamer Jokerd was the first player to reach level 60, using a technique that really wasn’t possible with Vanilla’s original launch. Grouping as many creatures together as possible, Jokerd used Classic’s improved server structure to kill them en-masse and quickly gain a ludicrous number of levels. In 2004, servers simply couldn’t manage to handle this particularly ingenious move. Two more popular instances of note such as this were documented with the launch of The Gates of Ahn’qiraj, where the world event occurring in Silithus was so well attended it crash almost all of Blizzard’s servers. The second occurred, ironically enough, at World of Warcraft’s initial launch, where the sheer volume of players flooded servers and forced shutdowns en-masse.

Classic, to its credit, still featured some of the same issues. As the world simply wasn’t built for such a high volume of players, queue times have popularly returned to the log-in screen. I’ve personally seen my queue count rise into the tens of thousands. I was fortunate, however, to be so occupied in my real life that I missed most of these launch-related issues. Classic, since the shut-down of Nostalrius and other major Vanilla private servers, has been an intensely popular idea. Compounded by current, and well-popularized issues, with the current development lead, team and Live game, Classic is an attractive method to get into the wide world of Azeroth.

However, Jokerd’s feat has brought a very pointed issue to the forefront. Longevity, enjoyability, and most importantly our personal evolutions over the years. The question raised is simple: How long can Classic last?

I’ve said it many times at this point; Classic is incessantly obtuse. In 2004, World of Warcraft was very much a capsule of game design elements at the time. As covered by one of the original designers, John Staats, in his incredibly comprehensive book, ‘The WoW Diary,’ development of WoW was very much a blind effort. Some of it, as is the consequence of modern art and game development, was undoubtedly based on other games of the time such as Star Wars Galaxies and Everquest. All these games were not intended to be played as we play modern MMOs such as Warframe, Guild Wars 2, or even Final Fantasy XIV.

Warcraft at its inception was designed based entirely on feel. Some concepts, such as Tauren Plainsrunning, were based on the sheer fantasy and ‘cool factor’ despite the fact that they were fundamentally unbalanced. Questing, as illustrated to this day in The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King quest hubs, was non-linear and broken up. Exploration was a forced aspect of Azeroth’s experience so that you could finish quests and discover new ones. Mob grinding was a requirement when you ran out of quests because of those inspirations from other games. In some aspects, Blizzard’s MMO darling was softer than games such as Everquest, penalizing players less for dying.

Progression, however, was still a brutal experience. Due to technological limitations, methods such as Jokerd’s wouldn’t only have wide-spread effects on your server but on your personal PC. Low frame-rates were not a rare issue, with the best top of the line CPU of the year being AMD’s Athlon 64 3500+. While the average computer in 2019 usually has between eight and sixteen cores the Athlon, the absolute peak of PC gaming, had four processors. Not four cores, four processors.

This, on a level, fundamentally breaks what Vanilla was and what Classic is. Unless you’re playing on a period piece PC, you cannot really encapsulate that experience. Even then, with Blizzard’s improved server architecture, that original terror of pulling more than three mobs because your computer can’t take it is not reincapsulable. Does that directly impact the enjoyability of Classic? Not in the slightest, but it does allow one to do more than the game was originally designed for.

Take, for example, the end-game raids. Now infamous for their intense difficulty, Onyxia’s Lair, Molten Core, Blackwing Lair and The Temple of Ahn’Qiraj were massive instances requiring 40 players. Not only were these the pinnacle of the endgame, often requiring extensive periods of gearing for raids, but they required a multi-tiered system of leadership to perform. Due to the organizational hurdle, most guilds not only had a Raid Officer and a Loot Officer overseeing fundamental aspects of the raid team, they also had Class Officers or Class Heads to oversee individual roles.

Because of that type of foresight, as well as the technological limitations of the time, raids were not tuned as they are today. There was not a specific equation to tune specific boss damage. Mechanics were not a heavy aspect of raiding outside of decursing, threat (which was inordinately complex), and some cleaving melee or raid-wide abilities. To put it in perspective both Razorgore the Untamed and Vaelstrasz the Corrupt were fundamentally earth-shaking in their design at the time. Some encounters required two tanks, others needed six; most raids didn’t have a clear-cut set comprehension unless they were cutting edge.

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However, keeping all of this in mind, raids were not tuned for 40 players to complete. Between technological limitations, high organizational requirements and very specific gearing requirements, it was unthinkable for 40 people to come together to succeed. Instead, raids were tuned for 25 competent players to manage. This has been espoused by both Vanilla Veterans, such as Youtuber Preach, and some members of the original development team. This, in part, is one of the fundamental reasons why Naxxramas was such an elite thing during Vanilla’s life cycle.

Raid attunement and gearing was incredibly linear in Classic. One did not progress to Ahn’Qiraj without having your full tier set from Blackwing Lair, which you didn’t enter until you had your full tier set from Molten Core. Of course, you didn’t enter Molten Core until you had your best-in-slot fire resistance gear from across Azeroth’s endgame dungeons. All of this culminated in Naxxramas, featuring one of Warcraft’s most infamous enemies, in a battle for the very fate of not just Lordaeron but potentially the world.

Both of these phenomena created what today we refer to as ‘The Naxxramas Effect.’ It was the first raid that not only required specific classes in specific situations above other classes, but also required all 40 players to work in tandem. They had to engage in new and complex raid mechanics that weren’t simply decursing creatures; players had to move and cohesively engage new targets or halt attacks entirely. Damage avoidance suddenly became paramount, wide-spread planning became a vital aspect. A team of community members suddenly had to work with military efficiency in the face of more difficult to grasp mechanics.

This did not just simply fracture raid teams but shattered entire guilds. Even the world first guild, Nihilim, took 90 days to down Kel’thuzad. While on the lower end of other World First raid kills, the highest being Ragnaros at 154 days, only 131 confirmed guilds ever managed to complete Naxxramas world-wide. It’s believed that only five copies of Atiesh, Greatstaff of the Guardian were completed world-wide prior to the launch of The Burning Crusade.

Two days ago, ASPE, an EU raiding guild, killed Ragnaros. Afterwards they killed Onyxia, a boss DESIGNED to be done prior to the Firelord’s entire raid as a stepping-stone for gearing. So what has changed? Classic certainly isn’t any easier than what Vanilla used to be, so why are guilds managing to kill Ragnaros? A boss that took 154 days when it was live has just been downed by a raiding team that bypassed a vital part of gearing. Technology has a major impact in it, surely, but what else has changed?

We have changed. It’s hard to imagine a time without WoWhead, Thottbot, r/WoW, Addons, people in the know, experienced raiders and raid leaders, but that’s what Vanilla was. While today Progression Style raiding guilds, teams who like to go in blind and pull apart encounters, are more of a commodity than a real method to progress that’s how all of Vanilla was. There really was no centralized system of information and guides could often be rife with misinformation through malice or straight confusion.

Experienced raiders didn’t often return to ‘old content’ except to put an instance on farm. Unless you were in a large guild and a particularly unfortunate officer (like me), you weren’t raiding Molten Core in and out every week. You put a raid on farm until your team was done, and then get ready for the next one. Nights were full of a slew of trial and error failure, testing new techniques that your Rogue’s brother’s cousin’s friend heard. You had to deal with waiting when five people forgot their resist gear because it wasn’t their normal gearset. Bugs were rife throughout encounters, some for better and for worse.

Such is the problem with returning to older content. Now that we have all this information and technological infrastructure, the point rather becomes moot. There’s no need to explore without new incentives simply because we know what’s around the next corner. What need is there to push into raiding, unless you’ve never seen it before? What challenge can there be in the mighty Ragnaros if now we can skip an entire gearing raid and dive into its depths?

The epitome of this fallacy falls under Method’s new initiative. They’re currently involved in the World First races with their off team, in partnership with the World Showdown of Esports. It leeches the idea of experiencing the wide world of Azeroth into a race. Instead of looking at the emphasis on the journey, we’re now more focused than ever on the far, far end of the path. Maximum level and the real endgame are the goal, because there’s clearly nothing worthwhile in the levels before.

That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Despite the increased difficulty, despite the slower pace of gameplay, we’re still approaching Classic in the exact manner in which we approach Live. While current Warcraft has arguably far less substance than the original game, there is now an emphasis on both versions to press to the end. Whereas Live has that infinite treadmill of content, an aspect that is arguably without substance, Classic never possessed it. While the Honor System could be seen in such a view, it requires such a steep investment of time that even those who play multiple hours per night cannot easily rely on it to be a recurring time investment in the long term.

So that brings us back to the question I posed in the beginning. How long can Classic last with how we are approaching it? The answer is simply not long enough, and that’s not due in any part to Blizzard’s intent of design. Classic is a true and realistic adaptation of the original with some mild updates such as the mini-map clock for quality of life. It is unlikely that for Blackwing Lair, the dev team will alter numbers to increase overall difficulty for the sake of authenticity.

Where do we go from here then? Ultimately, as more and more guilds clear the first raid tier and put it on farm, the demand for the next release of the Classic roadmap will emerge. As Blizzard has demonstrated in the past, they will push content out quicker if the demand is high enough as seen in aspects of Legion and Mists. Quite possibly, we could see Naxxramas launch as early as six months from now.

Then whathat is left for us to explore in Azeroth?

When we pull apart every aspect of the world, ignoring the journey for the destination and glorifying those that do, what’s left for us to really call Classic anymore?

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