Friday, September 6, 2019

Are You Trying To Be Difficult Or Are You Just Slow? : WoW Classic

Telwyn's post this morning touches on something I've been mulling over for several days. SynCaine was talking about something similar yesterday. It's a question that's been hanging over WoW Classic ever since the game launched - all of a week although it seems so much longer.

That question is: is Classic World of Warcraft "harder", or more "difficult", than either WoW Retail specifically or modern MMORPGs in general? The answer, perhaps unsurprisngly, seems to come down to how you choose to play.

I'm talking only about the leveling game. I'll let someone else delve into whether raiding has gotten easier, harder or simply changed so much no meaningful comparison can be made. My conclusion is this: Classic is no more difficult than pretty much any MMORPG you care to name. It's easier than many, even those that launched long after WoW.

But... and there's always a but - Classic is slower. Much, much slower. I struggle to think of any MMORPG I've played in the last few years that can match its stately pace. Yes, leveling in Classic may be faster than even modern-day EverQuest, although I wouldn't count on that, and it's much, much faster than an EQ or EverQuest II progression server, but those are Vanilla WoW's contemporaries and pre-decessors, not games developed after WoW's success had already been established and the trail blazed.

Telwyn puts his finger on one of the many drag anchors Classic drops to slow you down. It's only one of many but it's a big one:

"...many of the quests are super basic kill animals and bring back their bits. The drop rate on these are often pretty low and, unlike in the modern game, not shared pickups...for all four of us in our leveling static to get those six crab legs, we have to kill a minimum of 24 (because each crab has only one leg!), but in actuality it’s more like 70+ as the drop rate is below 33%… This wasn’t the only quest like this at all, all of the animal culling quests are the same."
This affects him directly because he runs with  a static group, who naturally like to quest together. As many have learned, when being asked to group for quests in Classic, which happens a lot more than in any modern game I've played for a very long time, you have to assess the quest before accepting.

My Hunter accepted two invites in Redridge the other day. One was a kill quest for gnolls. I'd been soloing it but the gnolls were two or three levels higher and I could only pick off singles. With a partner, even though he was three levels below me, we were able to take pairs easily and trios at great risk.

We knocked that quest out much faster than either of us could have done it alone. My Hunter then moved on to a quest that required ten drops from Murlocs. There was someone there when I arrived and he invited me right away.

Wetlands at night. This zone would be perfect for quad kiting in EQ.
In Classic, after just a week, I am already breaking the habit of many years and accepting pretty much every invite that's thrown my way. Since I've had more invites in a week than in the rest of the year, I've been grouping quite a bit.

This one was a mistake. Not a bad one. It was fun for a while. We added a third player and between us we culled Murlocs as fast as we could find them. After about twenty-five minutes or so I had only acquired five of the ten fish I needed.

I'd found a few fins, a quest item for which I didn't have a quest. One of my groupmates did and since most quest items in Classic are tradeable (when did you last see that?) I passed them on to him. Eventually he had all his fins and was about to leave.

We agreed to do one final spawn on the little island. I'd had about enough of swimming down to the bottom of the lake, killing a Murloc, running out of breath and swimming back to the surface. Another drag anchor.

When we'd killed the previous spawn, about five or six in total, the Murlocs' deaths had been reasonably spaced. Habituated as I am to EQ spawn timers, I expected the mobs to respawn in the order and at the intervals they'd been killed. The Defias I'd camped a day or two earlier did exactly that.

The Murlocs didn't. The entire island respawned as one. We were standing in the middle and the whole lot aggroed before we could even react. All three of us died. Since we were going to stop anyway we said our goodbyes and the group broke up. Unpredictable respawns; another drag anchor.

It's quiet. Too quiet...
I'd had enough of Murlocs so instead I went to kill Black Dragon Whelps and Gnolls for a couple of quests that had drops attached. I got two invites while I was doing it but I turned them both down.

Even though I had to kill far more Whelps and Gnolls than the number of drops, because as we know, drop rates in Classic are excruciatingly low, I made far more xp in half an hour than I'd made in the group, and I finished both quests. I also got all the coin that dropped and all the loot.

Most importantly, it was a lot more fun. I was in control of the pulls, the pacing and how long I wanted to stay in one spot. I roamed a lot. I did enjoy the conviviality and conversation of the Murloc group but I found the lack of progress frustrating, especially since I was convinced I could go faster alone.

Telwyn challenged anyone to suggest that the way drops work in Classic is better design than the shared drop system in Retail. It is counter-intuitive but I have an argument in favor of the Classic version: it teaches you not to focus on quests but to hunt, explore and experience the world more fully through your character in the game.

WoW introduced the concept of leveling primarily by questing but it also popularized the idea that MMORPGs could be comfortable for solo players. It's very clear to me, playing Classic, that most quests have been specifically designed to meet the requirements of solo players but also to lead them gently into the grouping part of the game.

Chains frequently start solo and end with Elites that can't be soloed at level by most players. SynCaine's player skill does come into consideration here and Shintar, writing on her WoW blog Priest With A Cause, recounts watching a Level 24 mage almost soloing a Level 25 Elite, but for the huge majority of players leveling up, Elite equals group required.

All your gnoll are belong to us.
The quests that aren't long chains were almost certainly never intended to be done in groups, which is why drops aren't shared. The low drop rate is self-evidently calculated to keep progress to a desired pace. Grouping up to do "Kill Tens" (or more likely "Kill Eight/Kill Eight/Kill Six", another drag anchor) can be efficient but I'd wager that wasn't intentional.

If your goal is to level as quickly as possible then grouping may be the way to go - in dungeons, preferably, assuming you can get a group. Belghast can help you with that if you're finding it a challenge.

For the regular leveller, interested in seeing the world and all it has to offer, and especially for anyone looking to settle in to a virtual world, there's far more to Classic than how fast the xp rolls in. Quests are important but they can all too easily become a to-do list that sucks the fun out of the game.

I spent an hour the other night in Wetlands, farming Level 23-24 gnolls for Wool with my Level 20 Hunter. It was fun, engaging and profitable. I got enough wool to send to my Warlock/Tailor to make us both several 8-slot bags.

It was very good fun indeed. It kept me thinking. It was involving and entertaining but most importantly I felt I was there, in the world. It was a place that made sense and my Hunter was doing something meaningful that he'd chosen.

The xp was pretty good, I got some nice drops and I achieved what I set out to do. I also had a wide area with many spawns almost completely to myself, and that in prime time with the server at High.

What have you seen, Bear?
The next night I took the Warlock (Level 11) out to level up a bit. He has to level up because tradeskill progress is locked to adventuring level, one of the few design decisions Blizzard went with that I unequivocally dislike. He was doing quests involving targets level 12-13. They were Kill quests and he would have grouped, had anyone invited him, but they didn't.

Again, honestly, I probably had more fun going solo than I would have had I grouped. I have some control issues, I know, but it's not just that. I really like the pacing of Classic's solo play. It just seems right. I'm very happy to group for quests that were meant to be grouped - the social aspect there is most welcome - but quests meant to be soloed I prefer to have all to myself.

Making all quests completely comfortable for groups, as was done later, risks making the leveling process go that much faster. It's not what I personally would want to see. A small step on the road to perdition, perhaps, but a step all the same.

So, Classic is not difficult. As SynCaine quite rightly points out, "Pre-60 there is NOTHING in WoW that would be a challenge to anyone serious about a challenge in videogames." The very fact of the game's lack of true difficulty in a niche genre famous for being hard work was one major reason WoW blew up the way it did.

It does, however, require more thought and a lot more patience than we've become used to in MMORPGs and that can take some adjustment even for those of us who are familiar with the concept. I have to admit my own solo leveling skills are rusty – spacial awareness, how to manage adds with very limited resources, how to split pulls... (WoW gives far fewer tools for this than some other MMORPGs of the period).

Not the fanciest bridge I've ever seen.
Also, the consequences of death are much lighter, meaning there’s a tendency to stay with a dangerous situation too long before bailing (also the relatively short leashes on mobs mean I tend to run late – sometimes too late). As SynCaine points out, "... if you aren’t paying attention or generally play below-average, you will progress slower. You will die more often which delays you".

The light death penalty actually works as another drag anchor. Not only is your progress interrupted but you also have to run back to your corpse, contributing to Classic's greatest drag anchor of all, travel time. Vanilla WoW's contemporaries often had much heavier penalties for dying but that made players determined not to die if they could possibly help it. I wonder which approach really slowed progress the most?

I could go on. The number of design choices and mechanics Classic uses to keep leveling speed where the designers wanted it are legion. Long runs to get almost everywhere, no mounts until Level 40, aggressive, relatively high level Elites roaming leveling areas, five or even ten  minute griffin rides masquerading as "fast travel"... those are just a few of the techniques Classic employs. The game is nothing but timesinks or, if you will, drag anchors. And yet, they are largely invisible to anyone deeply immersed in the world.

And for me it all works very well. I don't want to go faster. Progress already seems very fast compared to what I was once used to. In just a week of not that heavy play I already have a Level 20 Hunter and a Level 12 Warlock. 

I played a Ranger, EverQuest's closest match to a Hunter, in my early EQ days. It took something like two weeks to get her to Level 12 and I would have been playing twice, or more likely three times, the hours I'm putting into Classic.

Competetive ground spawns for quests. Another drag anchor.
After that I leveled a Necromancer, a close match to the Warlock, to seventeen in a few weeks, although that was on Test, which was slow leveling at the time. I think it was before they added a permanent double xp bonus to compensate for the endless disruption. Leveling in Dark Age of Camelot was even slower. I never managed to hit the cap of 50 there even though I played for almost a year. The closest I got was the low 40s.

Whatever way you choose to look at it, Classic is slower to level in than almost any MMORPG made since 2007 or so but much, much faster than most of the games it was launched to compete with. In terms of difficulty, by which I mean the degree of player skill required to prosper, it stands well towards the "Easy" end of the scale.

None of that matters. As I said earlier, the pacing just feels right. Combat is viscerally quick compared to any of Vanilla's contemporaries and fairly fast even by today's standards.It allows the game to feel both fast and slow at the same time.

But who cares if its easy or hard, slow or fast, compared to other games? We're not playing other games. We're playing WoW Classic and it just works.

Okay, it works for me. I'm not claiming it's intrinsically "better" than either WoW Retail or any other game in the genre. I am saying that it has a coherency and throughline of design that later development, both for WoW and most of its progeny, has lost. And that's a big part of why I'm playing it and enjoying it when I wasn't expecting to find all that much to hold my attention.

In the end, Vanilla WoW wasn't broken. It didn't need fixing. Let's see if Blizzard and other developers can learn that lesson.


  1. My theory about doing quests that require drops as a group has been that since you get less XP per kill Blizz is merely balancing that out by making you do a lot more kills so you end up with the same eventual XP gain for mobs. Or such was my thinking way back in the day.

    Far more annoying is the simple drop rate, which feels too low on some quests. I once did a survey asking if people would rather get a "kill 20" quest or a "5 drops" quest, and kill 20 won pretty easily in the poll.

    You will note that for quests that need a drop from a named mob Blizz generally has a drop for everybody in the group. If you need a guy's head, he'll turn out to have 5 heads if you have a full group.

    1. Yep, I had it in mind to mention named mob group quests and the guaranteed head drops but the post was running crazy long so I had to spike it. I am sure now that the devs deliberately balanced everything to achieve a desired average leveling rate. All the indicators point to it.

      The xp curve level to level is extremely consistent (so far - not sure if it has step changes later on) and on-level kills give 100% xp, which seems to be 145 points as far as I can tell. Information on Classic is sketchy. Mobs above your level cap at 120% for higher Orange cons. There's no advantage in killing reds.

      That makes it quite possible to calcualte how many mobs you need to kill per level just to grind xp without questing. At level 20 it takes 160 level 20 kills to fill the level, which isn't all that many. If you can combine those kills with some kill quests and some rested xp it drops fast. I've been managing my gameplay this way and it makes for a pleasant experience.

      Drop quests work fine so long as you just let them fill out as you hunt and don't go cherry-picking to get them done. I did that on Bear Meat and it took me nearly 40 kills to get the required three drops! During that time I spent far too long running about trying to find bears. I could have doubled my xp intake by just staying in the bear areas and also killing boars, spiders and kobolds whenever I saw them.

      Classic is absorbing to play because of this well-constructed and coherent design. It makes the whole thing feel convincing - well, it convincesd me, anyway!

  2. First, I just wanted to say that I absolutely love this post's title.

    Second, sometimes I wonder if we should start to acknowledge "patience" as a skill. It seems quite underrated to me.

    Third, your last two paragraphs really resonate with me. I keep thinking of how well balanced the game feels, with all its systems complementing each other just so. Which is funny, because one thing Vanilla/Classic often gets accused of is lack of balance. But why do people always talk as if dps in raids and power in PvP are the only things worth balancing? (I might work that part into a proper post.)

    1. Thanks! Sometimes titles just pop into my head as I'm writing - this one did.

      A lot of nonsense is tallked about "balance". GW2 players never shut up about it. What it usually seems to mean these days is making sure there are no OP classes or skills and that everyone is basically the same, at least in terms of parse for their role.

      That's not balance. That's stasis. If it was ever achieved, which it never is or will be, it would be the death of any RPG although it might make for a good competetive video game. "Balance" in an MMORPG means creating a holistic environment in which all players can feel useful, successful and integrated. That can and should allow for huge differences in effectiveness between classes and even races in specific situations. Players should be able to create characters that are baseline playable in most scenarios but who shine in the appropriate role.

      The designers of the first wave of MMORPGs tended to understand that. The second wave, beginning with WoW, did too, for a while. Then the number-crunchers seized the controls and we've been struggling with their impossible demands for their kind of "balance" ever since.

  3. So I wouldn't say that Classic is harder than a certain block of MMORPG experiences that are of a similar age. However as compared to the current live client, I would say it is a night and day difference. I am used to being able to roam around with impunity and pull entire packs of mobs on the way to an objective "named" and pretty much ignore whatever adds. Often times my limited casual melee AOE will have burned down the adds by the time I kill the mini boss.

    In Classic however I have to pick my way through the world trying not to get more than one mob at a time. Potentially hunter isn't that different because I remember back in Vanilla playing that class in part because I couldn't reliably solo anything else. Hunter has always been extremely powerful and I could see it feeling effectively the same. However melee, especially Warrior melee is a significant difference.

    1. Of note that is only addressing the pure difficulty aspect. Past that I agree that I enjoy the pacing of the game way more. I just realized that my comment sounds like I was disagreeing with your post as a whole >.> The gameplay feels more meaningful than World of Warcraft has felt in years.

    2. One thing is, my impression of the current state of WoW Retail is drawn 90% from playing the Free Trial. I've levelled several characters to the trial cap of 20, all with no assistance of any kind from other characters on my account, not even bags or coin.

      For the first 10-12 levels of that I'd say the fretrial was harder. I certainly died more and leveling took longer. I also had worse gear. Once you get out of the racial starting areas and into Elwyn/Westfall or Don Morogh/Loch Modan, Retail, even on the trial, does change gear and accelerate away from Classic. Gear improves and at 16 my Panda Monk could solo quests my Classic Hunter couldn't.

      I have to also say that even on my sub-20 characters I can now play on Free Trial, but which were created when I was last subbed, I don't find leveling particularly fast or easy. My Druid has been stuck in the high teens for ages because every time I play her it's a struggle. She is in the horrible Night Elf realms, though.

      I think most Retail players are so used to having Heirlooms and massive twinking assistance from their high levels they forget what it's like to level a completely fresh, unassisted character. It's easier than Classic, for sure, but it's not face-roll.

      I hugely prefer Classic, though. The pacing is just spot on for me and the hybrid theme-park/virtual world mix is extremely comfortable and inviting. Looks very likely I will resub at least a second mont, which i never thought would happen. After that we'll be heading into EQII's expansion so we'll see.


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