Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Now That I Think About It... : WoW Classic

If there's one thing Classic's doing, it's generating a seemingly endless torrent of interesting, thought-provoking blog posts. MailvatarMarathal and Azuriel all put up pieces yesterday that really made me think.

I replied to all of them but I also wanted to move some of those thoughts over here, where I have at least a slim chance of being able to refer to them in future, rather than leaving them to sink into the Lost Swamp of Old Comments on Other Peoples' Blogs.

Apologies to anyone whose already read this stuff. I'll try to freshen it up a bit!

Marathal was pondering the effect Classic's popularity might be having on Retail:
"The problem is that even though we have seen a resurgence in players coming back for Classic, we are seeing a drop off in those logged into retail.  Where I might have seen 25 people logged into Retail, now I see 10 and 20 logged in over on Classic. "
While this is only anecdotal evidence, I've seen a number of Retail players making similar observations. I would bet that Classic's success is impacting many MMORPGs right now, but quite possibly Retail most of all.

There's a really unfortunate and quite ugly schism developing between a faction of Retail players and those playing Classic. Actually, I'm not sure how much the Classic fans care or even know about it - the vitriol and snark seems to come mostly from the other side.

Gnomecore, a blogger previously unknown to me, pops up on a lot of Classsic threads making the anti-classic case. "I’m amused by hypocritic duality of those who play Classic", he observes, wryly, going on to list examples, most of which appear to be either straw man arguments that I've not heard anyone express in game or straightforward misunderstandings of other peoples' perspectives.

He's very far from being the only voice taking this perspective but one of the few who comments on blogs I read. I imagine the bulk of that conversation is taking place in the Retail bubble, where I rarely set foot.
I believe the antipathy is driven by a quite unfounded fear. As I said on Marathal's comment thread:
 "It’s counterproductive to compare the two as if they were versions of the same thing. They are two different games, appealing to two different audiences. The negativity and competition between the two groups is unfortunate, but it only exists because one group feels threatened by the other. Should one prove radically more commercial than the other, everyone knows their personal preference could suffer as a result."
My feeling is that the more successful Classic is, the better it wil be for Retail, for Blizzard and for the genre. It's a massive data point for the industry that can and should lead to real improvement in developers' understanding of their audience.

Moving on to Mailvatar's post, in which he gives a very fair and considered "outsider's view", I wanted to quote a chunk of my comment, in which I re-iterate my long-held conviction that one of the biggest reasons why World of Warcraft broke out in 2005-6 was its very wide appeal to people who didn't think of themselves as "gamers":
"Around the time WoW was blowing up, with the South Park episode and all, I remember hearing a ten-minute piece on a BBC Radio 4 current affairs show where the interviewer talked very sensibly and unsensationally to a couple in their 60s who played WoW. Sounding like anyone’s parents or even grandparents, the two well-spoken, educated, middle-class, late-middle-aged adults explained what they did in game (levelled, crafted, chatted to people they knew), making the whole thing sound as natural and normal as an evening at the pub or a barbecue at a friend’s house.

I was struck at the time by just how ordinary their experiences were. I’d been playing that way for years in MMORPGs but I hadn’t yet played WoW. It reminded me strongly of a number of reports I’d read about Star Wars Galaxies, where many people famously spent their time decorating, dancing and hanging out in space bars chatting."
I have never forgotten that interview. It rang so true to me from the people I'd been guilded with in EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot and EverQuest II. I was forty years old when I started playing EQ in 1999 and over the next decade I found myself mixing with people not much younger, and sometimes a lot older, than me in almost every MMORPG I played.

I met guild leaders in their fifties and sixties as well as many guildies in their thirties and forties. Parents playing EQ with their children was not at all unusual. Most of these people played for months, years, many hours a week. Few of them raided, many didn't even do dungeons. Some barely engaged in any combat-related content at all.

Instead, they crafted and levelled and worked on making their characters look the way they wanted, all while chatting to their online friends about what they were doing both in and out of game. Once MMORPGs began to get housing, some of these people became full-time builders and decorators, only venturing out to try and get quest rewards or drops they could use in their home-planning schemes.

Vanilla WoW, with its hugely expanded casual access via questing and solo content and its relatively low player-skill barrier, made this kind of gameplay more welcoming than it had ever been. I firmly believe that explains a very significant degree of WoW's astonishing penetration into the mass market and into the mainstream culture of the time.

Sadly, video games are made largely by people who play video games. For every Domino there are a thousand bearded men in their twenties and thirties. Most of them are hardcore gamers and to them everything looks like a video game. It's the old "If the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails" thing.

Times change. Classic players are older and, I think, more articulate, or at least more confident about expressing themselves. Developers have, perhaps, grown up a little. too, and the industry is at least a little more diverse than it was fifteen or twenty years ago. There is hope that lessons might be learned and this time they might even be the right ones.

Finally, there's Azuriel's post, to which I replied in a somewhat tangential fashion, neglecting to address his main point, which he summed up as:
"WoW Classic is Something To Do. Which is not to be confused with “something to do.” "
I agree with this one hundred per cent. It entirely fits with the phrase Everwake used: 
"... it feels good to have a goal in my life that both feels important and without real consequences."
MMORPGS are entertainment, first and foremeost. Everyone will have their own criteria by whaich they judge whether or not they are being entertained. As I commented to Azuriel, "For me, what counts is “engaging” and “unengaging” or, if you will, “interesting” and “uninteresting”." I want my entertainment to make me think.

Where MMORPGs differ from some (not all) video games, though, is that as well as being entertainments they are also hobbies. Hobbies can make you think - and think hard - but they also have the ability to let your thoughts slow to a comfortable hum. A hobby is exactly that thing you do that has no "real consequence" but that "feels important".

Your partner and all your friends may well shake their heads and make jokes about your model railway layout or your terrible watercolors. You may groan inwardly as you force yourself to admire your aunt's latest embroidered antimacassar. It doesn't matter waht they think of you or you of them.

Hobbies settle people. They make life not just bearable but worth looking forward to. It matters that they don't matter - that's the point.

If you don't get that then you may (or may not) count yourself lucky. Many, many people don't have a genuine hobby. They don't want one. They don't need one. They feel fulfilled and satisified by doing the practical, purposeful things they need to do.

Well, bully for them. As I also said in the comments to Azuriel:
 "It’s equallly pointless to try and equate what’s interesting or engaging for you with what’s interesting or engaging for me. We are different people. We have different personalities. We respond to different stimuli".
A big part of the problem in the ongoing discussion over Classic is the propensity of people to tell other people why they're doing what they're doing. I'm at risk of making the same mistake myself, although I'm trying hard to ride the line.

As an academic manqué I can't help but over-analyze everything. It's another kind of hobby, almost. In the end, though, fascinating though the discussion is, what matters is what people are doing.

In Classic, right now, they're kicking back, relaxing and having fun. That ought to be enough to satisfy anyone.


  1. Gnomecore is 'he', not 'she', you should've checked 'About' page.

    1. Doh! That'll teach me to go by an avatar picture! Thanks, correcting it now.

  2. There is another important point to consider. There are a vast number of MMO gamer's who have now grown older, and wiser, of the shift away from the subscription model as a means of maintaining the ability to relax, have fun, and be entertained. You cannot whip out your wallet and bypass the immersive elements that Classic provides on the social front with the ability to freely group with anyone in the world that you meet, join guilds and so forth.

    Even if it's short lived, the success of Classic proves that there is an importance in maintaining the 'fourth wall' of immersion. Even if it gimps the shorts of the F2P advocates who would argue otherwise.

    1. I think the point about not being able to buy your way out of playing the parts of the game that don't appeal to you is well made but I'm not at all convinced that having a subscription prevents that happening. It's hard to be sure since there are so few purely subscription games left but my feeling is that most developers like to double-dip. Are there any sub games that don't have cash shops? And how many don't offer xp boosts or level skips?

      Also, the way those games that have kept subs have tended to go, and it began before the F2P revolution, is to increase the ammount of gates, timesinks and repetitive content in order to keep those who are subbed paying. Classic benefits hugely from being a game at the very beginning of its journey. Most of them feel a lot purer then.

      Still, I completely agree that it's a positive learning experience for the genre. I just hope it's the right lessons that are being learned!

  3. "There's a really unfortunate and quite ugly schism developing between a faction of Retail players and those playing Classic. Actually, I'm not sure how much the Classic fans care or even know about it - the vitriol and snark seems to come mostly from the other side."

    I find it surprising you'd say this, as my experience has been exactly the opposite. In my experience most retail players seem at worst bemused by classic. They tend to write it off as a nostalgia trip that people will tire of, but they rarely do so with any hostility.

    Meanwhile I've seen ENORMOUS amounts of bile thrown at retail and its players by the classic community. I was probably never going to play classic anyway, but if I needed another reason not to, the community's made it abundantly clear "my kind" aren't welcome there.

    Mind you, I don't doubt your experience. I don't find it all hard to believe that there are also retail players who are toxic to classic. I personally haven't seen it, but I believe you. I do find it bizarre how we can have had such wildly different experiences, though.

    1. I'm not hanging out in either Classic or Retail forums or reddit threads. I'm making a point of playing as close to 100% only using in-game information so my usual sidebars, where I look up a fact and then spend an hour reading threads that spiral in all directions haven't happened.

      My impression comes only from the links I've followed from various pieces on Massively and on blogs, going to twitter feeds or other blogs. It's all anecdotal of course and anecdotes from an infinitesemally small sample at that. Worse still, I didn't make a note of where those links were and now I can't find them again so it might as well never have happened.

      One very pertinent fact that Classic has reminded me of, though, is how intensely different individual servers can be in a game that keeps them entirely separate. I've read a few bloggers talking about how unpleasant general chat on their Classic server has been and about the bile directed there towards WoW Retail. On Hydraxian Waterlords, where I'm playing more hours every day played almost 10 hours yesterday and over five already today, at tea time) I have General open most of the time. I can say that I have literally not heard anyone even mention Retail or Live for more than a week. For the first couple of days after launch there was some banter about the two versions, most of it pretty mild, but in no time at all it became as though Classic was the only WoW there is.

      I used to go on about this a lot. In EQ, where I played on maybe a dozen servers, often swapping between them many times a month, the cultures, attitudes and prevailing norms of behavir differed wildly. On some you could almost think you were playing a different game. Most people, of course, stick to just the one server. I always found it next to impossible to convince them that other servers might be different in any meaningful way. You really have to play regularly on several over a fairly prolonged period to understand how it happens.

      Modern MMOS, with the drive to have everyone on one server, or to facilitate easy and fast movement between them, have lost that concept of "server culture" completely. I think we're really seeing it again in Classic, where my experience on an EU RP PvE server may be scarcely recognizeable to that of a US Normal server or an EU PvP server.

      But then, if I don't go and play on them, how am I going to know?

  4. 14-15 years ago the debates centered around being able to bypass the grind elements that WoW Developers purposefully put into the game. The purists among us would argue that the trend of putting gates, time-sink's and repetitive content into WoW didn't occur until the first expansion. At least it wasn't noticed as much because Vanilla WoW was about the journey from 1-60 and everything it entailed. But in efforts to appease those concerned with these things, Blizzard began making changes to each successive expansion that saw the erosion of the all important social aspects and simplistic gameplay that we have seen bloggers gushing over in the past two weeks since Classic went live.

    People will either enjoy playing Classic for 40 hours or more a week with a $15 month sub, or they won't. The same as others will enjoy playing Classic for less than 20 hours a week at the same subscription price point, or they won't.

    My point is that people are gladly paying Blizzard $15 a month for this experience(that they asked for), and a vast number of people are enjoying it for the first time as well - while still happily paying the same sub fee.

    I think there's a lot to be learned on the MMO genre front in that regard. I also think that there's a whole slew of people in my age group that thinks we have been overlooked in terms of what we want in gameplay and immersion in that regard.

    1. Can't really argue with any of that. The other thing to take into mind is that the outside culture has changed radically when it comes to paying a monthly fee for access to services. I remember very clearly the widespread disbelief exhibited by the wider gaming culture in 1999-2004 over the very idea that anyone would be crazy enough to pay a monthly fee to play an online game. MMORPG players who did were considered extremely odd.

      WoW's vast popularity made a lot of developers think they could also get millions of subscribers to pay them ten or fifteen dollars a week to play their games but they were wrong. Possibly because their games weren't good enough but more likely because WoW made its own rules. The change to F2P came as much as anything because almost no MMORPGs could attract a sufficiently large and stable playerbase with a monthly fee.

      Just as that switch was taking place in the genre, though, there was a much bigger swing in popular opinion happening outside the gaming bubble. In the 90s and noughties very few people willingly paid a monthly fee to watch television or listen to music but the advent of mobile technology and social media changed all that. Subscribing somehow became something completely ordinary. THese days people don't just have one or two subscriptions to a single music service, a single streaming video service and so on - they often subscribe to multiple suppliers for the same type of thing.

      We're seeing something of a recognition of this in the F2P market as many games that used to be just F2P + cash shop add in Premium Memberships that are subs in all but name. I think that online game developers will be very keen to adoppt the old-new sub model as son as they think they can sell it to enough people. What I doubt is whether they'll also row back on al the other ways they've discovered to wring money out of the players. I suspect we may end up paying a subscription and still paying out plenty in extras on top.

      WoW, though, will carry on its merry way. I think that before Classic, with MAU and Subs supposedly in ongoing decline, there was a real chance Blizzard might have looked at some kind of B2P or modified F2P option for the next 5 year plan. As things are now, I'm sure any such plans will have been shelved as they work out how best to monetize Classic specifically and WoW Nostalgia in general.

      I just wonder if a whole lot of other developers will once again think they can copy WoW's (new) formula and in doing so, yet again get their fingers burned. Let's hope not!

  5. I'm sorry to say Bhagpuss, but do you know how it has been playing WoW for the past 6-7 years, people constantly bashing what we now call Retail WoW in other MMO's, bloggers like Syncaine going on a literal crusade against WoW. People who liked vanilla WoW or private servers have been doing literally not else for years. So it has been far more worse for someone who plays Retail than the bit of bashing on Classic that I've noticed so far. I'm playing both now and enjoying both, but painting Retail players as the negative ones here makes my blood boil. As someone who played WoW all those years we had to endure far worse. Just my 5 cents. I've enjoyed your blog al these years, but this I couldn't let pass without commenting ;)

    1. That's fair enough and an interesting insight. Since I neither play WoW (other than the free trial) and scarcely even follow it other than major news stories, I have very little direct or even indirect experience of what the atmosphere within the game and in its supporting media envelope might be. I take my cues from what I read in the part of the blogosphere I inhabit and over the last couple of weeks I haven't really seen anything particularly harsh directed from Classic towards Live but I have seen a number of very direct and pointed remarks going the other way.

      It is, as I said above, an extremely small and statisticaly meaningless sample. I really shouldn't have extrapoloated my handful of enecdotal experiences into a trend. I'm going to try to avoid doing that in future. Poor editing on my part, for which I apologize.

      That said, there's a reason I don't play WoW Retail and haven't for nearly ten years, apart from a couple of months during the Legion Pre Events. It's the same reason I don't play FFXIV. And the same reason I do play the free trials for both. The kind of gameplay that makes up the majority of content in modern MMORPGs bores me to tears. I never enjoyed repeating the same dungeons to earn tokens. I hated the mechanic from the first time I encountered it in Darkness Falls in Dark Age of Camelot in 2001/2. In fact, rather than blaming WoW for the track-switching that, for my tastes, all but de-railed the entire genre I really should start blaming DAOC. They started it!

      My take on the whole Classic vs Retail spat is that it shouldn;t be happening at all. Neither side has anything to worry about in terms of the other eating its lunch. Both can and should and hopefully will prosper. If Retail regains some of the worldliness of Classic that can only be a good thing. I'm positive those who don't want it will easily be able to avoid and ignore it if it ever happens but chances are they'll enjoy it too. Classic, meanwhile, will be perfectly safe so long as enough people want to play it. If they don't then it will disappear, as all MMORPGs that don't attract an audience do (except of course most of them stick around anyway, so even then Classic will probbaly survive in some form).

      As my Warlock's imp used to say back in WotLK, but doesn;t seem to say in Classic, "Can't we all just get along?"

  6. Marathal here, I don't have a google account so using anonymous to reply.

    On thing I have noticed concerning Classic, is that it is bringing back people that just gave up on the direction current WoW has taken, be it the complexity of Azerite Power in gear choices and needing to endlessly grind Azerite Power, the endless rotation of repeatable quests, even the direction of story, Horde bad guy needs to be defeated at all costs. People are coming back to the game. Alunaria, over at Alunaria's Ave, one of the most upbeat people I have ever had the privilege of reading had stepped away from the game, or at least talking about it, but she has a new found passion for Classic.


    By any standards even if Retail ends up with 3 million subs, and Classic with 2 million, both would be considered a successful game. I think for a lot of people, myself included, was that World of Warcraft was about the journey and the Exploration, not just getting to the end as fast as possible to play for a few weeks then go off to play other titles while you waited for the next content patch and raid. Certainly that has appeal to many, but not all. The push to get you to max and into the end game game, has been noticeable to me. I once knew a lady that started months before me, would pop in every so often to play, sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes an hour, she logged in when she had a few moments of time for herself. She never asked to be carried to get to max, or run dungeons, she just loved exploring the world and doing things as she came across them. I think sometime near the end of Cataclysm she hit level 80, we all cheered for her and congratulated her on making it to there, we asked if she wanted to see ICC and fight the Lich King, and she said, that's ok, I am having more fun wandering the world. I will get around to it some day. I don't know what ever happened to her, I think she just didn't log in one day, week, month, and she became another in a long line of people I have known that have played this game.

    Hopefully they will look at what aspects of each game are appealing to everyone, and maybe not the next expansion, but the one after that, they find a middle ground that will appeal to everyone. I am on the fence, there are the improvements to the game in retail I enjoy, and aspects of Classic I do too.

  7. Thanks for the link to Alunaria's blog. That's a really great post and here screenshots are amazing. I've added her to the blog and I hope she keeps on poasting now she's back. I particularly liked it when she said "I wonder, if any of you are playing Classic, and having as wonderful a time as I do? I sure hope so. And if not, I hope you are enjoying the current version of the game instead. And that the real world is treating you well!" That just about says it all.

    I also knew a number of people like your slow-leveling friend, in EQ and DAOC and EQ2 and other MMORPGs of the period. I was in several guilds that had members who played fairly often - a couple of days a week and at weekends, say - and never even came close to reaching level cap. No-one suggested they should buck up and get on with it. People used to go at their own pace and it was accepted without much question. If anyone was actually struggling, rather than strolling along, smelling the roses, all they had to do was mention it and they'd get plenty of help.

    On the other hand, we had some horrific guild drama sometimes, but you can't have everything :P

  8. For us at least we are seeing some interesting patterns. Sure we are drawing a few people from retail, also can I comment on how weird it is that we have seemingly settled on the term retail for modern wow. Since I am BNet or Real ID friends with a lot of them, I can see when they are logged into their other characters and generally speaking it is only to maybe do a quick round of Mechagon dailies or to attend raids.

    So we are absolutely draining resources from live, and I think that is where a lot of the anti-classic sentiment comes from. I’ve seen the same sort of sentiment when Warhammer Online or Rift were the thing that were pulling players away from the game and causing raids to not be able to happen due to lack of attendance. The same thing is happening to some of our Final Fantasy XIV raids, because people don’t want to log over and play that game and are instead laser focused on leveling in Classic.

    There will always be a group of players that only play or care about the live client. For them Classic existing and pulling players away will always be a bad thing. However like I said this is a few of our players. The overwhelming majority however are folks who were not playing WoW and in many cases had maybe not played WoW in the better part of a decade. They are coming back to play the game because the game is back to a state where they actually want to play it. This can only be good for Blizzard as a whole because they are bringing players back to a well that was long poisoned for them.

    The modern MMO design is far too narrow focused. It because a cattle chute into the abattoir that is the raiding grind. If your gameplay choices don’t align to that model, then there really isn’t a lot of meat left on the Warcraft bones. The games that stick with me and see me returning to them over and over tend to be games that have quirky mechanics that draw me into them further. Otherwise, I seem to be stuck in a pattern of level up, gear up, drop out… until something new comes into the game that makes me want to explore it again.

    I think part of the problem with raid design and why I dropped out of being a raider… is it has become extremely formulaic. Raiding used to be something that I did to make me more efficient at the parts of the game that were not raiding. I chased after better and better gear because it improved my enjoyment of the rest of the game or allowed me to play in different ways. I was chasing a specific item because it did something unique, and not that it was just an incrementally higher version of the same item I had been seeing since I first hit the level cap.

    That sort of interesting item based gameplay doesn’t exist in modern WoW, or at least not in the same manner that it used to. It appeared briefly with the introduction of Legendary items during Legion, but was a ham handed implementation that relied entirely upon random chance of drops and didn’t allow people to focus activities that gave them a better chance of getting the specific item that they wanted. A boss with a fixed drop table still has an element of RNG, but you can at least target it and increase your chances of getting the drop.

    … and apparently I left an entire blog post here. Oops!

  9. "… and apparently I left an entire blog post here."

    Welcome to my world hehe!

    I agree with everything you say and you've expressed it a lot more coherently than I did. Also you have the direct experience and knosledge to assess the situation far bettter than I could.

    I am increasingly convinced that games like WoW Retail (and yes, it is a weird name but that's what Blizzard chose to call the folder) and FFXIV are diverging from what we used to call MMORPGs to tthe point that they represent a separate sub-genre entirely. There's been a clear split between "MMOs" and "MMORPGs" for a long time but it hadn't occured to me until Classic came along that some games we have always thought of as MMORPGs have moved so far away from what that used to mean that they are also just "MMOs" now.

    I don't see this as a problem so much as an opportunity. The success, on a smaller scale, of EQ/EQII progression servers and of emulators like P1999 and the recent City of Heroes was already suggesting the existence of an entirely separate market for the kind of gameplay that was the norm 10-20 years ago but it took the emergence of Classic, with its evident mass appeal, to demonstrate just how large that audience could be. Really, we probably should have known that from Old School Runescape, but no-one ever pays attention to what Jagex do, even if they do have tens of millions of players.

    Classic may well lead to some developers re-imagining theire current MMOs, which may or not be a good thing. What I think might be better would be for a proper split in the market to develop, with mainstream publishers and developers focusing on the badly-served market of millions of ex-MMMORPG players. Indie devs have been trying to do it for years but they lack both the resources and the profile. I see no reason why a large company shouldn't run both new and old style MMO/MMORPGs, possibly even using the same I.P.

    Of course, there's a real question over whether there are any major development houses left in the genre. Apart from Blizzard and Square Enix, both of whom already have a foot in both camps with Retail/Classic and FFXIV/FFXI, I struggle to think of another AAA developer who isn't struggling to maintain the games they already have.

    1. I may end up remixing this statement into tomorrows post, because I feel like I have more to say on this whole topic heh.


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