Monday, September 23, 2019

Month One: WoW Classic

It's been almost exactly a month since the launch of WoW Classic so I thought it might be time for a recap. I only thought of doing this half an hour ago, while I was closing in on Level 20 with my Warlock, so don't look for any detailed analyses or amazing insights!

When Classic was announced it barely registered. I was five years late to the WoW party. I have a Vanilla nostalgia rating of zero. As the months passed, people with a closer attachement to Azeroth than mine became increasingly excited and even impatient for the thing to arrive. My own interest grew somewhat.

Obviously it was going to be a Major Genre Event and you never like to miss out on one of those. Also I was pretty sure I could mine Classic for a few blog posts. Always an incentive. And it would be a (weak) chance to experience somethinng (not much) like the original launch frenzy. Maybe.

My expectation, which I expressed freely and often in comments all over the place, was that I'd play for a week or two, write a bunch of posts about it, then move on (or more likely back) to something more to my taste. I was all but certain I wouldn't be renewing my subscription when the first month ran out.

Well, I renewed my sub a few days ago. If I ran one of those activity monitors that a few bloggers swear by it would probably show the huge majority of my PC time these last few weeks was taken up either by Classic or by Blogger, where 60% of all my posts since August 27th have been about the game. For the last month I've either been playing Classic or writing about it.

I've also played it for more hours and with greater intensity than any MMORPG since the launch of Guild Wars 2 seven years ago. I wasn't expecting to get bitten this hard again until and unless Brad ever gets Pantheon out the door.

I've thought long and hard about why this is. I've written a bunch of lengthy posts about it and left comments almost as long on the threads of other bloggers, many of whom have been wrestling with the same concerns. I wouldn't claim I've gotten to the bottom of the mystery but I have come to one important conclusion: Classic works becasue it has the kind of consistent, considered, coherent design that we haven't seen in a very long time.

This, I think, accounts for more of the reasons why the game clicks with me than any other single explanation. Classic runs like finely-tuned clockwork. Every piece meshes seamlessly with every other and together they drive the machine forward.

The effect Classic has on some players.
By comparison, other MMORPGs are a hotch-potch of mismatched parts, many of which don't fit together and some of which actively grind against each other. Take Guild Wars 2, for example. I've played it for seven years so it clearly has a lot going for it but with the best will in the world no-one could say it has ever been either coherent or finely-tuned.

Take the languishing, desperate World Vs World as a prime example. It's a walking disaster now (even though I still enjoy it, on occasion) but when was it ever anything else? I wrote a post in October 2012, just a couple of months after launch, which I titled "What's Wrong With WvW".

Back then I outlined four problems:
  1. Free Server Transfers
  2. Orb Bonus For World That Needs It Least
  3. Ladder-Style Server Matching System 
  4. Night Capping (not as much fun as it sounds) 
Of those, the only one that's been fixed in seven years is #2, for which ANet's nuanced response was to remove the entire Orb mechanic and replace it with... nothing. The Ladder has been tweaked and fiddled with and as a result is now even worse than it was. Free Server Transfers, now Paid Server Transfers, remain one of the most contentious issues as does night-capping, now expanded to include all "off-hours" play.

ArenaNet launched a major MMORPG with three disparate game modes, none of which had any synergy at all. All of those modes were compromised, flawed and poorly implemented at launch (sPvP crashed and burned as an eSport, a huge number of PvE events were bugged for months - some for much longer than that). In the succeeeding years Anet showed little sign of understanding how to fix any of their mistakes, nor in knowing what a fully-integrated, holistic MMORPG ought to look like.

Based on what I see and experience in Classic, the Blizzard team of the Classic era suffered few doubts, either over what their game should be or how to make it function exactly the way they wanted it to. Everything seems to have been designed to within an inch of its life and yet nothing feels stilted or formal or forced.

The much-discussed "difficulty" of Classic consists almost entirely of two things: patience and forethought. The developers evidently expected their players would be willing to stop and think before they acted. They trusted players to read quest text and NPC dialog, understand it and act on it.

Finally getting Unending Breath was one of the highlights of the last month's play for me.
They had no intention of facilitating any kind of "action" gaming as we understand it now, even though, in comparison to the MMORPGs the designers themselves played and loved, they were providing a smoother, faster (yes, faster) and easier overall experience.

When WoW launched in 2004 I chose not to play it for two reasons. Firstly, after three months of beta and two weeks of Live, I was already committed to EverQuest II and, secondly, everyone I knew in-game at that point was of the same opinion of World of Warcraft; it was a kiddie MMO.

I'm glad I didn't play it back then. I think I would indeed have found it "too easy" and "for kids". Five years later, when my views on many things, not least MMORPGS, had mellowed, I came to WoW and found it surprisingly good fun. A decade on from then I find I've changed enough that the recreation of the original game suits me almost perfectly.

Classic has most of the elements I love in games of the era that preceded it; a plethora of complex, interwoven systems that reward patience and close attention; combat that relies on the brain more than the fingers; pacing that allows plenty of time for thought.

I find that pacing almost ideal. Much though I love EverQuest, these days the pace of progress I enjoyed in the early years of the 21st century is just too glacial. I've proved that to my own satisfaction when playing on Progression servers over the years.

Unlike Isey, I don't see myself ever finding my happy place on P1999, even with that new server smell. Very much to my own surprise it's the accelerated pace and increased convenience of Classic that hits the sweet spot.

Amusing myself by making my Voidwalker run through the water while I stay on the shore. Serves him right for moaning all the time.
Which is ironic considering just how much the pacing and satisfaction of Classic's gameplay is built on inconvenience and what seem to many to be some very rough edges indeed. I guess it depends where you're making your comparisons.

Those "rough edges" are, of course, nothing of the kind. Almost without exception they are well-thought-out design choices, intended to structure and direct gameplay. All the running, all the fetch and carry quests, all the side-trips and searching and unexpected discoveries, the wandering vendors and elusive trainers are there to ground you in the world.

If you don't like that then, in 2004/5 at least, you really didn't like MMORPGs. That's what the genre was at the time and Blizzard, doing what they were known for, took what others had created and polished it until it glowed.

And that's why we have so much controversy over whether Classic is immersive or tedious, addictive or alienatiing. In the decade and a half since WoW launched, the entire genre it bootstrapped into the mainstream has fractured, split and changed out of all recognition.

We live in a world where PokemonGo and Dark Age of Camelot are supposedly both part of the same family. Where Black Desert Online can offer combat that largely consists of hammering one mouse button while EverQuest II can accomodate six hot bars of skills, most of which you might use in a single fight.

It's no surprise to me that players are deeply split over Classic and Retail. They're different games that appeal to different audiences. It's not aboout whether one is "better" than the other; it's about which one you want.

It seems I want Classic. No-one could be more surprised than me.


  1. To your voidwalker picture, I was wondering the other day if pets always walked on the left. My bear will occasionally sit in front or a bit to the right, but he always seems to reorient to the left side with enough movement.

    Certainly with this second coming of old WoW and having since played through later expansions and other MMORPGs I am noting some of the less obvious design thoughts that I probably didn't note back in the day. You can see some point to some of the running back and forth quests in a way that you might not in, for example, some of the early LOTRO quests than had you running between Bree and Buckland multiple times in a transparent effort just to slow down your progress. Running that road once would have been discovery. After the third time you're just yanking my chain, and especially back at LOTRO launch when the stable system was hilariously over priced so you had to keep running as a new player.

    As my post today noted, the game kept inviting us to move on to new vistas.

    1. I hadn't noticed that pets stay on the left but I've been watching them for the last half hour since I read your comment and I haven't seen any that don't. Also they do move quite fast if the player veers towards them so they can get back on the left as quickly as possible.

      Pathing in Classic is very interesting. I have a post in mind about it but really I would need to take some video or draw some diagrams and I'm not sure I want to go to all that effort. I have watched a lot of mobs quite closely now, though, and the degree of unpredictability and apparent randomness (which is neither if you can be bothered to watch them long enough) is surprising.

      Respawning is also a lot less predictable than in most games and aggro ranges seem to differ markedly according to several factors, not al of which are clear. I think all of this has a lot to do with the perceived "difficulty". Certainly, compared to EQ, it's far harder to settle in one spot and have everything recur reliably around you. It happens in some places, like the Defias camp I wrote about a while back, but that's the exception rather than the rule.

      Another example of just how highly orchestrated this game is.

    2. Aggro radius is an interesting one, and something I recall appreciating even back in the day. There is a default range for aggro between you and a mob the same level as you. It grows bigger the higher the level of the mob and smaller the lower the level of the mob, relative to your own level.

      But once you're engaged in a fight with a mob, that mob's location extends your aggro radius, making it an oval. And if there are like mobs around, it extends even further, so if you're fighting a spider and another wanders by out of normal aggro range, you may still get it as an add.

    3. Oh, I didn't know that! That's very illuminating. I was going to include aggro range in the post I just did on pathing and spawning but I realised I didn't really understand it well enough yet and this comment proves it.

      The original Guild Wars actually displays the aggro range as a circle around the mobs on the mini-map, something I always found very irritating. I wouldn't ever want to replicate that but I would like some kind of indicator - I get the feelign some mobs have bigger ranges than others, regardless of level difference, for example, but I can't be sure without some measurement device or indicator to test it.

    4. You can find a bunch of theories about aggro radius. I think somebody proved that there are mobs with a modified default aggro radius, and I seem to recall some speculation that mobs with certain name modifiers (e.g. starving) came with a larger default radius. There is also a maximum radius, so if you wander into a zone as a level 1, some level 60 world boss at the other end of the zone won't immediately come at you.

      I remember vividly discovering variable aggro radius back in vanilla when I wandered out of the Wetlands and into Arathi only to find even if I stuck to the road that mobs quite far off would make a bee line right to me well before I thought they would.

  2. I jumped on the Classic bandwagon a bit over a week ago.

    My sense is that the game perfectly balances two sets of sensibilities, one exemplified by retail WoW and the other by P1999. I don't think the game could have been made by any other studio or at any other time. Someone else certainly would have tried to make "something like EQ, but fun." It was a pretty obvious idea. However, no-one else would have been able to pull it off with such panache.

    1. I agree. It takes the key factors that made the MMORPGs that came before it so addictive and adapts them for a mass audience. If you compare DAOC with EQ, for example, there's a visible attempt by Mythic to be more "user friendly" but the changes they made are very minor and cautious compared to the wholesale rewriting of the genre Blizzard went for.

      It's very plain, though, that the developers of Vanilla WoW fully understood *why* EQ and other, older MMORPGs were addictive. In later iterations on the theme by other developers (and indeed by waht SynCaine calls Blizzard's B-Team thatt came later) that's very much not the case.

  3. Playing Classic has greatly increased my admiration for the original WoW devs. I always knew that I was going to have fun with it, but an extra decade of MMO experience has really made me appreciate just how well it is put together.

    I used to attribute WoW's breakout success to luck / being in the right place at the right time - and while I'm still sure those played a big role in the sheer scale of its success, Blizzard clearly also just made a damn good game.

    1. Pretty much how I feel. Even though I played WoW in mid-WotLK era, when it still felt very coherent and disciplined and I thought it was a very good game, it had already started to drift. I didn't appreciate the degree to which it was precision-engineered until I played Classic.

      There's some interesting analysis to be done on how developers can maintain the integrity of the games they design behind closed doors as a fixed entity after those games turn into ongoing development projects subject to changing personnel and customer feedback. I think most MMORPGs have veered too far towards listening to customer complaints and strayed from their initial "vision". A post in there somewhere but I have too many idas for posts right now and not enough time to write them because I want to play Classic!

  4. Just a quick note on BDO'S combat. What you're saying is only true for low levels (which, in this case, means below 50 or so).
    Once you start fighting scroll bosses and mobs above 50 you don't get away with just mashing left click anymore.

    At 56, once your character has awakened, you have even more skills at your disposal, and you really need most of them to fight at high levels.
    It's pretty complex too. Not only do you have to memorize how to execute each skill, you even need to know how to switch from awakened to non-awakened stance and back at the right moment. It's really fun, at least to me. I can only evaluate the Striker though, so other classes may feel different.

    1. I think I only played into the 30s - maybe 40s? Can't remember now. I really liked the "run into the middle of a mass of mobs and hammer LMB until they're all dead" combat. I started off playing far more circumspectly but it became obvious after a while that the game, at least at the levels I played, expected and rewarded berserker frenzy.

      Most MMOs change direction at cap or endgame, though. I'm not surprised to hear that's the case with BDO. Must be a bit of a re-learning curve if you;re not expecting it.

    2. Indeed it is (a re-learning curve). I actually didn't mess around with the awakening skills at all for a couple of weeks after I'd hit 56 because I really couldn't be bothered to relearn my rotations and stuff. Once I did I turned into a walking killing machine though, so I'm glad that I did.

      I wouldn't exactly say that it's a huge directional change at endgame though. After all you totally 'can' use a lot of skills well before that if you're so inclined. It's the game's low to very low difficulty below 50 that lets you get away with not doing that, which, in my opinion, could well use a balance pass. It's fine until level 20 or so, from that point on the game could really ramp up the difficulty somewhat.


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