WoW: Classic vs BFA – Game Design Analysis
World of Warcraft now has two “live” versions, “Classic” and “Battle for Azeroth”, one is a 15 year old “Vanilla” version of World of Warcraft without its many expansions, and the other is the current state of the art, with many years upon years of game design and iterations that kept the crown of the most popular MMORPG to this day.
The question that now can be further analyzed is: Is one of the versions better? Prior to the release of Classic, every discussion on this topic would be fruitless hypothetical debate, but now we have actual data! And to the surprise of some, World of Warcraft: Classic is rising like a star, taking the lead as the most-watched game on Twitch, and one of the most commented and played PC Games of the moment.
How a 15-years-old game can make such a powerful comeback? Blizzard marketing is powerful, but even they couldn’t make Diablo Immortal into an automatic success, and that proves the importance of the community view.
Some people are attributing it all to “rose-tinted glasses”, expecting the game to become bland and unfun really fast, and people to give up playing it. Others point that the game is good, and since many people are willing to watch others playing it, then, for sure, it is not boring to actually play it.
The Modern WOW (currently Battle for Azeroth Expansion) received many critics along the last years of its existence, and the number of players has declined since the last days of WoTLK expansion. There is even a common discourse that is often used to explain this reduction on the number of players, as can be seen by the explanation given by Will Partin, in Shannon Liao article[i], saying that "The big challenge is that many of the players who left WoW left because life took over and their priorities shifted”, he concludes saying that “(…) And releasing WoW Classic can't really address those lifestyle shifts.". Heater Newman, from Polygon[ii], points that the most recent versions of World of Warcraft are designed in a way that a player is not forced to interact with others if they don’t want to, changing what she sees as once a “hardcore endeavor” to now “welcoming to anyone who wants to play casually”, and concludes that its good for both players and Blizzard, as many players are lacking time or real-world friends online to play with.
For Heater, it wasn’t even a Blizzard shift of view, but a natural evolution of the game based on what the players asked. Raph Koster, one of the lead designers that worked on Ultima Online, and the creative director behind Star Wars Galaxies, said to Motherboard[iii] that "The experience we've had with MMOs all along is that people play them, and most players play for a couple of years, then they say okay I get it, and they're done, and they tend not to come back. (…) It's usually with excuses like I'm older, I don't have the time, I need bite-sized play, or whatever. (…)”.
Kevin Jordan, one of the early members of World of Warcraft development team that created the original game, points, on an AMA he attended at Reddit[iv], that convenience is hard to deny for players. In his opinion, when a developer refuses to listen to the community “for its own good”, it risks angering its player base. He concludes saying that most of the time its easier to “just buckle and give them the convenience they want and damn the cost.”.
So, all that said, it would seem like a lost cause, as games would always have aging player bases, and demands for convenience that designers would be forced to accept. But then, how people are having so much fun with Classic, a game that goes back 15 years of those mandatory changes?
Both Heather Newman and Kevin Jordan seems to provide some useful hints. Heather talks about don’t grouping up on most modern WOW quests, and the minimum interactions she has when she meets people thru LFG system. And Jordan points out that his last WOW experience felt rushed, with him feeling like other people in the game were more in his way then being potential social experiences. He even points out that he didn’t make friends or had even a positive social interaction during his leveling. He said that he remembered things to be very different in the past.
If you look at the players that wanted Classic to exist, the words you will find appearing often are: Meaning, Dedication, Hard Work, Relationship, Socialization.
Socialization and relationship seem to be the first problem we found, with both Heather and Jordan somewhat reaching similar feelings. But why it was different in the past? Katherine Cross, wrote on Gamasutra[v], her view on this, and pointed out that it was the community that created those meaningful experiences. She admits in her article that grindy 6-hour long Blackrock Depths runs were noxious but provided pride and deep memories. But she concludes that those experiences could not be recreated today on Classic, even if her old friends and “guildies” from the past were to rejoin her in Classic, as her and those people would already be different people by now.
As we can see, again the blame seems to be shifted to the “aging” and “changing” of the player base.
But why would current players be unable to form new friendships? Yes, it’s different when you are fifteen and when you are thirty, time constraints and life is widely different. But so is our social experience and our goals. And what about new players? Let’s be frank, Twitch is not known to be watched mostly by old people, and right now World of Warcraft: Classic is taking huge chunks of the audience, topping games like Fortnite by a big margin.
Why are the players feeling a lack of interaction on Modern WOW, but also asking for tools and changes along the years that reduce the social aspects of the game? Answer: Interaction is hard work, and any game designer worth of his salt will tell you that people will take the path of least resistance even if it is less fun for then!
The polemic and popular World of Warcraft Twitch Streamer Asmongold doubles down on that road, pointing often that he feels that modern version of World of Warcraft lacks the commitment required, the idea of applying work and effort to obtain results, which he sees as one of the big flaws of current game design of modern WOW.
He and many others blame blizzard, saying that they now give everything the players asks to make the game easier, caring only to sub numbers and satisfying casual players. They point that original WOW was different, as things required effort and dedication.
If Kevin Jordan view on player convenience pointed to a path of always increasing reduction of effort needed to play the game, as players keep asking for more conveniences, what somewhat sides with Asmongold and other critics of modern WOW that believe that original WOW was “hardcore” and modern WOW is “softcore”, another Jordan testimony goes the other way around when he talks about the early stages of development and how Blizzard was thinking about the Factions (Horde/Alliance) and PVP, and trying to make a game for a bigger audience, and not for the hardcore MMORPG Players of their time. John Staat points that Blizzard treated PVP as synonymous with grief, while Jordan tells us about how he needed to make a paper to plead for PVP in World of Warcraft, as most of the team was very against it. The team didn’t want big punishment on death and feared the grief aspect of world PVP. This shows that Blizzard wasn’t really a team of “hardcore” game developers that got “soft” over the time, but that they were always looking to make a more accessible game overall.
World of Warcraft's original design intent was to create a game accessible to a very wide audience, and not catered to a very “hardcore” niche as some people claim. So why it feels like it changed? Why everyone feels like in the past there was work, effort, pride?
The game got better on its storytelling, as Kevin Jordan points. Interacting with big-name NPC’s in the history and advancing the plot was a great step forward from the old Classic quests. But yet many people say that questing on Classic WOW is more interesting then questing on BfA WOW.
A commentary made on Katherine Cross article points to what players are expecting. Andrei Pandelescu said that he hoped for meaningful leveling experience, where content would not be “blitzed” through but worked on. He wants in-world interaction, both good and bad, and to form a meaningful friend list.
Oli Welsh, from EUROGAMER[vi], said in his article that he does not want to “wish away the game WOW has become, (…).” But that he is “(…) excited to have original WOW back, warts and all. It’s a different game, sterner, more grueling: an epic hike rather and a guided tour.
And here we can see the crucial point of the discussion about Classic vs Modern WOW, guided tour, convenient and solitary, versus epic, interactive, time-consuming, effort-oriented.
But before I can give my analysis on a game designer perspective about the underlying issues present in this discussion, lets first get actual data and arguments in favor and against WOW Classic.
In favor of WOW CLASSIC:
Let’s start saying that it blew out all predictions. On CNN article by Shannon Liao[vii], she reports that Michael Pachter, analyst at financial services firm Wedbush, modeled growth of 460,000 active users from World of Warcraft Classic. And as data has shown us so far, numbers way above that are found in Classic right now.
Queue times were above 17 HOURS in some servers, with average queues of 10,607 players over all servers, as noticed by WOWHEAD on its official Twitter account.[viii]
On TwitchTracker you can see how World of Warcraft received a huge boon of views after the release of WOW Classic, a burst way bigger than BFA caused, and that so far is keeping WOW on first position for most-watched game on Twitch platform. Both the peak and the retention is way higher on Classic release than on the Battle for Azeroth one.
In Oli Welsh's article, he talks about how slow the game feels when compared to Modern WOW, and how much more work it requires. He talks about the Combat having more rhythm, with looting and regeneration being slow, as you need to regularly eat and drink. In his opinion, Modern WOW is easier to enjoy, but became a “frictionless vehicle for delivering story-lines and progress (…) at expense of actual gameplay.” He proceeds to argument that you never need to think about skill rotations outside of instanced content on Modern WOW, while in Classic WOW demo he frequently died in simple quests, and took long journeys back to his corpse. He pointed out that mobs two level over his was enough to cause a problem, and a wandering patrol could wipe him easy. So, he was forced to stop and think before moving, checking enemy positions, and pull sequences, as well as use utility skills, and even small buffs and consumables.
As we can see, slow here means better gameplay not worse. It feels more “grindy”, and “punishing”, as well as it requires more hours of dedication, but the overall gameplay feels more interactive not less.
Think about Modern WOW rotation of skills. Many procs, cooldowns, talents, and specific sequences of casts that require precise movements and knowledge of raid and dungeons fights to produce top-notch DPS. Classic World of Warcraft had very simple rotations, with very little number of simple procs or cooldowns. Most fights where simple, and there was way less mechanics happening at the same time. World of Warcraft Classic is not harder than the Modern World of Warcraft, on the contrary, the game is way more forgiving on your personal player-skill. You don’t need to pay attention to three different timed cooldowns, two skill procs, a DOT, four different boss skills, a phase transition health percentage, and your position to avoid truffle shuffle all at the same time to meet the necessary performance to complete high-end content. You could be a way worse player, and kill Ragnaros. But you needed to dedicate your time to the game. Leveling was slow, gearing was slow, enchanting took gold and time, getting resist gear took time, each step was slower, as combats, dungeons, and everything was more rhythmed.
Classic World of Warcraft feels better to many players because it is simpler, not because it was more hardcore. But what it lacked in fast-paced action, it required in dedication and effort.
And you know what is hard to find? Dependable people that can put effort into things!
Go to any CEO and ask what are the most important skills in his set, and most surely, he will include “the ability to find and keep a good team of people under me”.
That is why the social aspect of World of Warcraft was more prominent in the past. You needed dependable people to run dungeons that took hours. When you finished one with a good group you would add then to your friend's list because you always risked lost runs by people leaving in the middle of it, especially when playing with unknown players.
This is again showing itself on World of Warcraft: Classic, as people are making friends, not to make friends by itself, but because doing so will reduce their chances of losing time on an incomplete runs in the future.
Again, give players an easier path, and they will take it. If you create dungeons that can be done with low time investment, with an automatic system of party finding, easy way to reach the dungeon fast, and little consequence for failure, then people will most likely just run with anyone they can find, even if the experience overall becomes worse.
Against WOW CLASSIC:
Most arguments found against Classic are based on the idea that the experience that the players had cannot be reproduced. Lief Johnsons, on his article at Motherboard[ix], even said that WOW Classic was “shattering” the concept of a shared history, as he sees a clear difference between the original World of Warcraft and the current World of Warcraft – Classic.
In his PC Game Word Article[x] he points that for him, the world was innovative in 2004, as the internet was still new in his eyes. He points out that information was scarce, videos where hard to find or upload, and bosses’ strategies were kept hidden by guilds as they occasionally tried “wacky” tactics. He proceeds to talk about how even gear was a mystery and whole books of “theorycrafting” were wrote at the time. But the current Classic WOW would have nothing of that as anyone can look for guides and videos about everything and find how to gear or kill Ragnaros.
It is important to point that Lief has very high achievements in raiding, as he points that he participated in world-first and world-second kills of many bosses in the early days of World of Warcraft. And that is important because it serves both to give credit to his points, as well as to raise an important question: What about the 99% of players that never had the opportunity to kill Ragnaros without a well laid and public strategy posted on online forums?
I remember that time as well, as I also did my share of raiding on original World of Warcraft, but I was not a member of a first-world boss killing guild, so all my memories were of fights we knew pretty well by guide and images way before we first pulled, yet it was all very interesting. So, we need to take his idea that fun comes from novelty with a bit of a grain of salt to use as a generalization, as in fact most players that raided never played this kind of discovery game. Yet his point still stands, as at that time information was harder to get. You needed to know an elitist forum, or endure the hundreds of useless posts crying about class balance on WOW official forum just to find useful information, that now has specialized sites that are very easy to find and enjoy.
For Lief, World of Warcraft: Classic is like trying to watch Game of Thrones knowing how it will end and being unable to forget the disappointments that will happen.
On the other hand, he admits that the last decade of changes to wow design might feel excessive. Yet he believes that WOW would not had retained the popularity it has by now if it had kept the same design of Classic, as he points that World of Warcraft is, in his opinion, one of the most stunning cases of success in gaming.
For him, Classic may spell doom for the entire franchise, as it may split a community that stuck together through good and bad times. In his opinion, it is better to look for the future of world of warcraft then to turn back to its past.
Josh Brown wrote two articles about World of Warcraft: Classic on Digitaltrend[xi], where he explains why he sees Classic as a “relic of bygone times”. He points out that he cherishes the memories, without forgetting that he feels sapped of many hours of life unnecessarily. Yet he points out that he is the only one to blame for playing twelve hours per day and that he remembers quitting expansions very soon, not because of the story of the zones, but because it felt lonely and repetitive, to grind levels with an unfulfilling combat system.
He proceeds to tell that the drop rates and the grind aspect of the game felt like a chore for him, that was only bearable when he had real-life friends playing with him, concluding that for him “World of Warcraft Classic is an unfulfilling slog without friends”, as the title of his article points.
For Katherine Cross, writer for Gamasutra[xii], Classic owes its existence to nostalgia and a common sense that the game traded “magic” for accessibility. She points that what others call “magic”, is, in fact, huge 40-man raids, “ostentatiously huge questlines”, “microscopically low drop rates”, willingness to farm with RNG stacked against you, and the fact that having endurance was confounded with having technical skill in the game.
She points out that in her opinion she can’t see how it will be possible to create and sustain a community who is there to get one thing Blizzard cannot give them. For her, the nostalgia is premised on the “bonds we forged in that world”. She recognizes that new communities could be formed, but she questions if those communities could keep playing for long, as Classic would not receive new expansions and content.
What will happen when raiders clear Naxx and everyone is decked in epic and legendary gear? That is a great point she brings. Currently, we don’t know.
Couple that with Josh view of how slow and unfulfilling World of Warcraft Combat is by today's standards, and we see why so many were skeptical of World of Warcraft Classic success.
For Josh Brown, new games like Final Fantasy XIV, Black Desert Online and TERA shows how more action-oriented the new games are, and how they evolved more than just in graphics. For him, attacks lack impact in WOW, and the long global cooldowns and skills that were tied to “next attack” created a slow combat that felt more like a game of Dungeons and Dragons than a traditional MMO. (Which is an odd view in my opinion, as “traditional MMO’s” are exactly slow-paced, and mostly D&D inspired games, like UO, EQ, WOW, TIBIA, etc...)
So, for people that want a game of high-paced combat, Josh makes a fair point that World of Warcraft: Classic might not be the perfect game. But what bothers me is the perception or supposition that fast-paced, action and high player-skill oriented is what games are evolving to, and what players are looking after.
We see a lot of people playing Chess, and a new wave of pen and paper D&D players. We also see games like Divinity II, Dota Underlords, Teamfight Tactics, Pillars of Eternity, etc… all with very engaged communities and active players. This supposed “progress” towards more action and fast-pace gaming is simply not true.
As I will point in the next part of the article, the most important thing that is being ignored is what really made the most successful MMORPG being successful. And if you look historically, it is not fast-paced combat systems, as I will try to show.
What Made World of Warcraft and other MMO’s successful:
The excellent article by She Sells Sea Chels, on Medium[xiii] can give us many insights on what I think is needed to answer this golden question about what made World of Warcraft the giant it is.
“She sells”, as I will call her to shorten the name, explains how she feels like in Classic leveling wasn’t fast-paced, was repetitive and with slow combat, as melees mostly auto-attacked, with a single button every couple seconds, while casters repeated the same one or two spells for hours, as people walked very long distances, minute-long flights, and long death walks to resurrect from eventual deaths. All that while in Modern World of Warcraft, leveling is made by picking few quests on a hub, killing couple enemies in fast-paced ten seconds combat, and then returning with all completed quests. Quests on modern WOW takes only around five minutes in her view, as you quickly move from one area to the next.
Compared to Classic, where a quest hub may take you an entire day of playing to finish, she is right on her view of the difference between Classic and Modern leveling experience.
“She sells” then presents her view on the paradoxical wow game design.
“I hope I don’t need to explain the logic behind “sit there and hit the same button even ten seconds to kill the same monsters for 20 minutes” being poor game design. In almost any objective sense this violates every design principle under the sun! And yet, these experiences were some of my fondest moments.” – She Sells Sea Chels
She hit the jackpot there, that is a major part of the problem. By the end of this article, I will try to uncover why in fact it is not a violation of every design principle, but instead good game design that made World of Warcraft shine in its first release, and is making Classic shine now.
She questions why would a slow, repetitive combat with extreme time sink be fun. And her own answer is the feeling of time investment in the world. She proceeds to recognize that downtime in combat was not equal to doing nothing, but was spent on looking at the scenery, music and reading quests. And I might add more to her list, as you often needed to keep a look for patrols, re-spawns, the enemy faction players, and the next mob you would go after. As she pointed, it is immersive. Blank open spaces and open time can also be important for game design, and that knowledge “She sells” see as now growing its way into the mainstream of game design as she points as an example the Zelda: Breath of the Wild game with its minimalist aesthetics and vast world.
She comments on how long corpse runs took, five to ten minutes for a run back, and how they were not bad, as you had time to learn what the NPC that killed you was capable of, and as a side dish, you learned the geography of the region. The slower pace made management and preparation more important in her eyes, and she felt that stopping by Auction House for consumables, or an Inn for water was important. Getting a new weapon meant something while leveling because you would use it for a very long time, and the change in efficiency could be clearly felt.
In The Gamer Sage opinion, the fact that now mobs scale with your level was the last fatal attack on this concept for Modern World of Warcraft, as now you will never feel empowered, as you always face enemies that are scaling at the same rate as you. The raiding gear brings you a sense of progress on open world, but that is it for Modern World of Warcraft, as entering on old raids is pointless, and the dungeons that matter (Mythic+) also scale with each tier of gear, making progress be felt less strongly.
As “She sells” points, the original World of Warcraft made you feel progress, rewarding you at the entire leveling process.
To “She sells”, some design decisions are trade-offs between flavor and gameplay. For her, the choice was pro flavor in the original WOW, while current modern WOW chose to embrace Gameplay first. She uses some examples like Water Elementals frost immunity, and I would add the entire Molten Core Fire Immunity to the list, as being an "unfun" mechanic when you were a frost or a fire mage. Yet, as she points, these things added variance and flavor to the game.
She even goes as far as question if it was a good choice or not to make some content accessible only to elite players, saying that it gave special mystique to certain zones, pointing that it was not made of oversight or limitation, but as a conscious decision between values of design.
Where “She sells” sees Gameplay versus Flavor, I see “Crafted Experience” vs “Cool Experiences”. And I will try to explain why I use different terms. The most important aspect of any game design is gameplay if you have the option for a better gameplay with worse flavor, or better flavor with worse gameplay, 99% of the time you should pick better gameplay. But Gameplay is a wide word, and there arises my distinction from “She sells” opinion.
The problem is not that the current development team thinks first on mechanics than on flavor, but that they design how people will experience each situation point to point. On Classic WOW it is possible to see that the designers did not have a precise idea about how people would do things, as they made things that made sense, seemed balanced and fun, tested then and buffed and nerfed outliers, and in the end players would proceed to do what they found more efficient. Sometimes it required a change, others it made interesting builds, like 3-minute Mages with PoM-Pyro + ZG Trinket on Battlegrounds. The game felt alive because there is no one right answer that was designed "a priori" and handed to the players.
As Kevin Jordan pointed in his YouTube channel[xiv], the idea of balancing gear by use of spreadsheets, mathematical points, and pure data is part of what is damaging the game. For Jordan, items are way more interesting when they are human-created, with diversity than when they are just products of cold mathematical logic looking for balance.
You make things that will enable cool experiences, and not design exactly what experiences you are trying to achieve. Yes, it is part of the game designer job to craft player experiences, create meaning, see patterns of play, and cause an emotion, but most often causing emotion is akin to art not to mathematics! You talk with culture, values, own emotions and memories, and you create Thunderfury not because it is balanced, it is not, it’s a “vanilla item” that is one of the best swords far into TBC for tanking because it is so overpowered, but it worked! Thunderfury made the game better, not worse, because it played with what we feel in a genuine way that was relatable.
Kevin Jordan, also talked, in his YouTube channel, about how on Blizzard things turned from “listening to the Game Designers” to “listening to analytic quantitative data of in-game player engagement”. Jordan is very critic of this mathematical approach as he sees that Game design is about creating emotions and experiences and not numbers.
It’s important to point that no talk about qualitative research is made or is shown to us so far. And scientifically speaking we know the importance of understanding what data means to create intelligibility and predictability, especially when we are talking about data related to actions, reactions, and feelings of humans. Without good qualitative research, you can’t correctly understand what your quantitative data even represents, and you risk huge misinterpretations.
As Jordan points, game design is about promoting behaviors and playstyles, but instead of looking for designs that promote interesting long run interactions, the current version of the game look to incentive behaviors that are dictated by timed effects, like dailies, so that players keep getting back to the game for fear of losing something, at the same time that it does not let them play too much to prevent player burning too fast from the game and unsubscribing. For Jordan, this time-gated content is equal to the end of the player enjoyment.
It is a very sensible point that Jordan makes against weekly chests, daily quests, and other mechanics that were created to give a sense of progression without letting players burn thru insane number of hours of play. On the other hand, can you all remember what was the last successful thing to be added to World of Warcraft? Mythic+ as AP farming in the Legion model. And when it started to feel bad? On Battle for Azeroth, where they wanted to keep the players from running the same dungeons over and over for AP and forced Island weekly.
Sometimes mistakes of design are made. For example, a very efficient and small dungeon that gives the best AP per hour would make everyone feel obligated to run that same dungeon the entire day. But those mistakes can be fixed easily while changing an entire mechanic of an expansion because it feels bad is not as an easy of a choice.
The idea that we should protect players from themselves is important in game design, but its applications must be done in precise ways, and not with the goal of keeping the player paying monthly subscriptions for as long as you can milk it. Game Designers need to look always in the long run, as a good game can retain people for decades.
Make a good game and people will play it! Blizzard knows the right formula. They did great games in the past, and they gave up on projects that they knew were not good. So why are Modern World of Warcraft suffering so much, while Classic receives such a huge attention right now?
Both Venruki, from Method Venruki Youtube Channel[xv], and Preach, from Preach Gaming Channel[xvi], had made similar points that are also similar to what Asmongold points and to what “She sells” explained: World of Warcraft Classic is engaging and interactive. The pacing is slower, the quests are harder, and not in the sense that you need very high player skill, but in the sense that the world is dangerous and you need to pull slowly, move with caution, pay attention, as any extra mob can mean your death. Because of that people help each other, good dungeon runs ends with people being added to friend lists, and when things are done there is a sense of accomplishment.
Both Venruki and Preach were skeptical about Classic and were not really into going to Classic as both had already seen and played it before. But both of then felt that playing it was great when they gave it a chance and had much more fun with it then they were having with World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth.
The important aspect to point is that all the people that are playing and loving classic points to the same general feelings:
- Slower leveling, but more meaningful progress. You can feel your character grown.
- Dedication and hard work. You need to play long hours and put time into it, but when you accomplish something you feel rewarded.
- Interaction with other players matters. They happen spontaneously, as you form new online friends while playing the game.
- The slower pace of combat enabled you to enjoy the game more and understand what your character is doing better.
But what is the key to all this difference? Is it only the Looking for Group System? Or it is the class design? It is the speed of combat? Or the tuning of enemies’ difficulty? Is it Raid Finder? The new looting system? What exactly makes Battle for Azeroth feels as a worse game for those players than Classic?
The original World of Warcraft was made not as a hardcore game, but as a casual game that everyone could play and be somewhat successful. What enabled a player to be successful was not how incredibly skilled he was, how intelligent or how you good at theorycrafting, or how fast was his reflexes or how powerful was his concentration, it was his dedication. Time invested was everything.
If you were good at something, like very good theorycrafter, or very socially skilled, or had a very fast reflex, it all could help you be successful in Vanilla WOW, but what would make or break it was your effort, and the time you dedicated to the game.
This was what made World of Warcraft a huge game at its release. It was a game everyone could play and stand a chance of being seen as good. Current modern World of Warcraft is a game where you need a very specific skill set to be successful, be that on high-end PVP or high-end PVE. Most people just don’t have the talent or the reflex, or the concentration, to really compete for the raid spots on content ending guilds or to form partnership with gladiator level players.
We need to be clear here, I am not saying that it's impossible for someone of low skill to complete mythic content, or pick gladiator. But those are the exceptions and not the norm. Most of the players that try to PVP or PVE will simply fail to have enough ability to compete for it.
On Vanilla World of Warcraft everyone could see themselves killing Ragnaros, and when they didn’t, they would think “Those guys that killed Ragnaros are not better than me, I am good at this game, it is just that those guys have no life and I do.”. But on modern BFA WOW, you are handed enough gear to enter Mythic raiding, and you enter and fail, and you will wipe, and feel miserable, and see that you are the problem. You will notice that your DPS is pathetic in comparison with the guys from Method, and it’s not because your gear is worse, as they killed those bosses on lower ilvl then you. It’s just that you are a bad player in comparison.
This makes for a far more elitist game. Not a more open and casual one. And that is one of the big mistakes, changing from an effort-based game for a skill-based one.
An MMORPG works better when it is about time and effort. To run a raid on Classic WOW you needed good geared people that would be cool and not leave in the middle of the raid. They could be very skilled players or not. The combat is slow, procs are rare, boss mechanics are simple, and there is not much truffle shuffle. You can have a low APM and be very effective on Ragnaros fight. You can’t do that on Siegecrafter Blackfuse. (I really liked facing 25-HC Siegecrafter, loved the challenging raids, but I know that it is not the right path for WOW.)
On Classic, it is better to have a trustworthy player that you can give gear to on your raid group then an amazingly skilled guy that you do not really trust. You needed to progress your entire raid gear to be able to face the next bosses. It was always a constant progress and a constant farm.
All contents were relevant at the same time. There would be guilds progressing on Molten Core, others on Onyxia, some on AQ, and others yet on BWL all at the same time. The world was alive and dedicated people were sought after by the guilds.
Socialization mattered not because it lacked Raid Finder or Group Finding Tools, but because your reputation mattered. You needed dependable people that could place effort on farming the gear, enchants and everything that was needed. If someone leaves a guild it was a major problem, and depending on the way things ended it could tarnish that players ' reputation, as other guilds could be skeptical of accepting him, for fear of him getting gear and also leaving. The guilds NEEDED people with gear.
On Classic WOW there were no gear resets, no easy catch-ups, nothing. You needed to work your way from where everyone else did. On Modern WOW the playing field is evened on the release of each new tier of raid.
On Modern WOW, the pressure is for guilds to kick unskilled players and recruit more skilled ones so that they can progress faster. That is why guilds are breaking apart, and not because of Raid Finder. On Classic WOW, guilds needed geared people, and they would not feel like they should kick a low skilled trustworthy player to replace him for an amazing skilled one that has less gear.
Again, players will take the easier route, the game should use systems that promote a behavior that is fun and works in the long run, and the way progress, gear, and the combat difficulty worked on Classic made a game that had more stable social aspects, because the pressure was to find dependable people, and staying with said people to progress on their gear, but on Modern WOW it is always better to bring a new character played by a skilled player and rush and gear him, then to keep your old less skilled pal on the roaster. On Modern WOW you can start a new account and be rushed and ready to face the last boss of mythic raiding in less than one month.
And when did this game design philosophy got changed? It was with small incremental changes, starting with TBC, with badge gear, loosened up attunements and some hard raid nerfs as the expansion progressed. But TBC was still mostly guided by the idea of effort. The introduction of Arenas was another step into the idea of “Player-skill over Played-Time”, as the focus of PVP changed from endless farm of battlegrounds to a more challenge of skill-controlled scenario, but things still worked pretty "vanilla", as gear a was important, and all raid tiers were alive at the same time.
But it was on WOTLK that this new philosophy, of current modern wow, gained traction. The logic was that on each new raid tier released it was necessary to “even” the playing field so that new players could just jump right into the new raid content, instead of progressing raid by raid. Starting on WOTLK, World of Warcraft started to have mostly only one content alive at any time, which as not true for TBC, for example, where on each server existed guilds doing progress on Kharazan, SSC/TK, BT and Sunwell at the same time.
The success of Arenas on TBC, and the success of the increased difficulty of the raids (KARA/SSC/TK/BT/SUNWELL), now with more meaningful mechanics, made Blizzard change even more into this new direction, and WoTLK progressively adopted more and more of this mentality, including the creation of hard modes, heroic difficulty, and 10/25 man separation. By the end of WoTLK, we reached the current modern World of Warcraft overall design.
If you look at the subscription numbers you will see that WoTLK was not a great expansion. Many people talk about how its was on WOTLK that WOW had it peak of players without really looking more deeply into the actual data we have.
On WOTLK, for the first time since the release of the game, it STOPPED GROWING!
At the beginning of the expansion, it gained new players, like what happened on all other expansion releases. But as soon as the initial hype was done WOW reached a growth of zero for a first and long time.
It wasn’t until the very end of it, because of the Lich King importance, and the expectations for a new expansion, that the game got a small growth spike and reached the famed 12 million players. After that, the game started to suffer big periods of loss of players with spikes of new ones at the beginning of each expansion.
Many people claim that the game got more “casual friendly” because it was losing subscriptions and Blizzard wanted to reduce those losses, but the numbers show another story!
The game was growing EVERY quarter up to the end of TBC. No negative quarter ever happened. Then WoTLK started, with its new design philosophy, more focus on “player-skill” instead of “effort and time investment”, and the idea increase of catch up mechanism created to enable new players to jump directly on current raid tier. Immediately after the release of this new expansion the game stops growing! It wasn’t yet losing more players then receiving, as that would only start to happen on Cataclysm where they delved even more on this new way of designing the game, but an expansion with the most iconic villain was not growing while we had growth on the entire TBC.
WoTLK was not the best expansion, it was the first failed one.
It was the first time that WOW stopped growing. Could it grow infinitely? No, but why people assume that it was already too much at that point? What data shows it? None.
I can agree that this total player data is not enough to prove my thesis. But it is as good as a thesis and as based on data as the one that says WOTLK was the best of WOW, and the problem with the game is the aging of it and it’s player base, that caused the loss of subscriptions, and that it was inevitable, and Blizzard did all the correct steps to reduce said loss.
The advantage my argument has is that Classic is showing to be a success, and people are having fun with it. And that might tip the scale in my favor here as it shows that the game did not need a change in the philosophy. Only new and interesting content was necessary.
Ghostcrawler has a citation on an usgamer.net article[xvii] where he talks about how Cataclysm's hard difficulty dungeons were a problem because they had created a community of “casual dungeon runners in Lich King”. He has talked before about how he invested in the new dungeons design, and how he wanted to bring the hardcore aspect of dungeons back to the game. This is an exact example of the failed design philosophy I am here talking about.
Not to say that Ghostcrawler failed as a designer, far from that, the guy is amazing and very much more skilled and knowledgeable than me. But the Blizzard team as a whole delved down the wrong path, and he got there with them. I only have the advantage of being in the future to see Classic and Modern WOW side by side to judge their decisions. A bit unfair to Blizzard team, but we need to learn from those mistakes as game designers, and nothing better than studying cases like this.
The fact is that Blizzard team assumed that an MMORPG would be better if more player-skill was involved in playing the game. But a hard dungeon on Classic WOW is not hard because it involves complex pulls, many mechanics, or a lot of movement. They were simple and direct. Most bosses almost had no relevant skills at all! It was hard because it needed patience for pulling, it took longer to kill each mob and pulling extra mobs often caused a wipe. You were forced to drink after some pulls, and you could not AOE things down efficiently. It didn’t require a lot of player-skill, it required time and effort.
What makes Classic a great game is the fact that it is slow-paced, effort-based and rewarding. This created a structure of play that enabled socialization and created meaning for players to play the game.
Blizzard tried to answer to claims about the grinding by giving hardcore players the very difficult contents and leaving easy content made for the casuals, but it ended alienating the fun for both groups.
It was the elite players, the most hardcore ones, that asked Blizzard for harder content, more complex boss fights, more dynamic rotations, faster-paced combat, less grinding. And Blizzard listened to then. They created arenas, separated raid difficulties, very intensive raid fights, complex proc based class rotations, mythic+ competition, etc… But Blizzard forgot that listening to players is not a wise game design decision, players will take routes of less resistance for themselves, and for high-skilled players, it was reducing time investment and increasing difficulty. But it did not create a better game for them or anyone else. Game designers need to listen to what players are feeling, and try to understand their experiences with the game, and not listen to how they think it should be fixed, because more often then not they are wrong, and are only asking what feels more comfortable for they, and not what they will enjoy playing.
The “magic” of the original World of Warcraft, that made it the giant above games like Ultima Online, EverQuest, and many others at that time was that it was an easier to approach game. It was better polished, easier to play and understand, and could be played by people with very different skill levels in gaming without alienating then from the game.
Blizzard did at the time what they do best, create very high polished games with good mechanics taken from other good and successful games, and making it accessible for a wider audience. This is what makes Overwatch the success it is, as people with low aiming skill can play and have fun in it without feeling alienated from the game. And it was what made World of Warcraft huge.
Classic has many game design problems of its own, but it has two rights: The game design is not based on pure mathematical analysis of player behavior, but on actual game designers insights and ideas, and the game is designed to reward time invested and effort, and do not require other talents to enable you to be successful in the game. Everything else is a consequence of those two options.
To the ones that might disagree, time will tell us what will happen to World of Warcraft: Classic, and we will be able to better analyze where it succeeded and where it failed, and then make further comparisons, and see what Blizzard truly needed to change on its original design, and what would had been better staying like its original creation.
I, as a fellow gamer, will be playing Classic. I had the same preconceptions that Venruki and Preach did, and I too played it just to see how it would fare, and I was amazed by how good of an experience it was to me. I recommend everyone to give Classic a try, and drop it if you don’t like to style, but I bet many will stick.
As a game designer this will be a great experience for study, as we will be able to see an MMO compete with its former self on equal footing, and I am pretty sure that we will be able to learn a lot about how to make better games if we delve into more analysis of this case in the future.
For sure I will be writing over it again as news appear and as some dust settles, so we can better understand what is working well and what is not both with Classic and with Battle for Azeroth and the future of World of Warcraft.
Liked this Article?
Aid The Gamer Sage in creating more content by supporting the site on Patreon.
[i] Shannon Liao, “'World of Warcraft Classic' draws on gaming nostalgia”, CNN Business, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/08/26/tech/world-of-warcraft-classic/index.html
[ii] Heather Newman,” World of Warcraft Classic review: The players grew up”, Polygon, https://www.polygon.com/reviews/2019/9/5/20849704/world-of-warcraft-classic-review
[iii] Leif Johnson, “There Will Never Be Another 'World of Warcraft”, Motherboard, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/wnxqzz/there-will-never-be-another-world-of-warcraft
[iv] Kevin Jordan, Ohn Staats and David Ray, AMA - Former Wow Developers, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/9huows/ama_former_wow_developers_kevin_jordan_classes/
[v] Katherine Cross, “Opinion: World of Warcraft: Classic will disappoint you” , Gamasutra, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/331148/Opinion_World_of_Warcraft_Classic_will_disappoint_you.php
[vi] Oli Welsh, “World of Warcraft Classic is compelling in ways that modern WOW isn't”, EUROGAMER, https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2018-11-14-world-of-warcraft-classic-is-compelling-in-ways-that-modern-wow-isnt
[vii] Shannon Liao, “'World of Warcraft Classic' draws on gaming nostalgia”, CNN Business, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/08/26/tech/world-of-warcraft-classic/index.html
[viii] Wowhead Twitter, Status of Server Queues, https://twitter.com/Wowhead/status/1166175944081661952
[ix] Leif Johnson, “There Will Never Be Another 'World of Warcraft”, Motherboard, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/wnxqzz/there-will-never-be-another-world-of-warcraft
[x] Leif Johnson, “WoW Classic is a step back in time—and a step back for World of Warcraft”, PCWorld, https://www.pcworld.com/article/3433928/wow-classic-is-a-step-back-for-world-of-warcraft.html
[xi] Josh Brown, “World of Warcraft Classic is an unfulfilling slog without friends”, Digitaltrends, https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/world-of-warcraft-classic-is-an-unfulfilling-slog-without-friends/
[xi]Josh Brown, “World of Warcraft Classic review: Waste your time” Digitaltrends, https://www.digitaltrends.com/game-reviews/wow-classic-review/
[xii] Katherine Cross, “Opinion: World of Warcraft: Classic will disappoint you” , Gamasutra, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/331148/Opinion_World_of_Warcraft_Classic_will_disappoint_you.php
[xiii] She Sells Sea Chels, “How Bad Design Made Vanilla World of Warcraft a Classic” Medium - Gaming, https://medium.com/@seachels/how-bad-design-made-vanilla-wow-a-classic-8498ff2518ea
[xiv] Kevin Jordan, Youtube Channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwojRc4ZAOM
[xv] Venruki, Method Venruki, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-k5K4a-teWo
[xvi] Preach, Preach Gaming, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2C8lcUSQHjk
[xvii] Ghost Crawler on Mike Williams article, “How World of Warcraft Was Made: The Definitive Inside Story of Nearly 20 Years of Development”, USG, https://www.usgamer.net/articles/how-world-of-warcraft-was-made-the-inside-story