Ode to the Barrens – Classic WoW Zone Design

When it comes to Vanilla World of Warcraft leveling zones, two stand out the most: Westfall and the Barrens. Each represent the 10-20 leveling experience for both Alliance and Horde respectively. While Westfall was one of the first leveling zones developed for WoW, it’s easy to see how much love and care went into the development of the area. There are long quest chains that tell the story of a gang of bandits and a global conspiracy, as well as smaller, more charming quests that litter the zone. The Barrens, on the other hand, stays relatively true to its name; it’s pretty barren when you get down to it.

That being said, there is still a large population of the World of Warcraft community (especially those who frequent private servers to get their vanilla fix) that holds the Barrens close to their heart. Nostalgia is a helluva drug, but there might also be something beneath the rose colored glasses worth exploring to discover what made Barrens such a beloved leveling zone, despite it’s obvious short comings.

5. Crossing the Plains

One of the biggest complaints about The Barrens (both from the developers and from many players) was that there was far too much walking for a 10-20 zone. Without a mount, having to cross the entire zone on foot could be tedious, running from quest givers in the Crossroads, Ratchet, and Camp Taurajo to their requested destinations across the wild plains. Not only are these areas nearly flat and devoid of vegetation (except for a few oasis scattered around), but what they are heavily populated with is mobs that want to kill you dead.

In this way, the Barrens is a great example of what made vanilla World of Warcraft so immersive. The wide, open plains reward exploration, provide a unique sense of scale to the world, and offer a wholly unique aesthetic to what we were used to seeing in traditional high fantasy fiction. Despite what modern game design might describe as “barriers to entry” that need to be improved by “quality of life” changes, vanilla World of Warcraft thrives when the player feels like part of a larger world. Sometimes these aspects of Azeroth can be annoying (.e.g Getting stuck on a continent with no idea where to go, etc), but they can often make the results of your labor feel all the more rewarding.

4. Flight Paths

On a similar note, thanks to the lack of mounts for players before level 40, the Barrens is a great opportunity to show off Kalimdor in all its glory from above. Flight paths (WoW’s version of taxi cabs or Uber) offer players a great view of the plains, the tops of mountains, and the luscious oasis that pop up throughout the Barrens. Once again, forced downtime (a mechanic that is often considered a sin among modern MMO designers) offers players time to reflect on their quests, plan for their future adventures, and take in all that the world has to offer. Flight paths offer this in spades, giving players a new perspective on the world around them and, perhaps, providing enough of an incentive to explore newfound opportunities while traveling by air.

3. Wailing Caverns

World of Warcraft’s instanced Dungeons are almost as much as a part of Azeroth as the open world is. This is especially true of early leveling dungeons, like Deadmines and Wailing Caverns, as they introduced newbies to group content and provided plenty of opportunities for player killers to wreck havoc on the PvE-focused populace. Wailing Caverns is a spectacular dungeon that represents a lot of firsts for fledgling Horde players; not only is it the first dungeon most Orcs, Trolls, Tauren, and Undead come across where they’re in danger of being ganked by Alliance players but it also blurs the line between instanced and open-world dungeon content. Although the maze of caverns can often feel tedious after a few runs through, WC will forever be pillar for why the Barrens is such a memorable leveling zone.

2. The Crossroads is Under Attack!

Along a similar train of thought to the Wailing Caverns, the corresponding central quest hub, called the Crossroads, was a bastion for early-WoW world PvP. Low and high level characters alike would duke it out over control of the Horde leveling town. Having quick access by way of the neutral town of Ratchet, Alliance players were given a perfect opportunity to gank unsuspecting Horde lowbies. As is a common pattern for content that stands out in vanilla WoW as particularly memorable, the Crossroads was a hot bed for player interaction, both in group questing and group debauchery and it will forever be synonymous with the pleasures of leveling a Horde toon.

1. Flavor of the Horde

One of the most charming factors that brought me to World of Warcraft initially was how different the Horde felt as opposed to other, more traditional high fantasy stories. Most games didn’t revolve around the ugly monsters or the more mundane aspects of life as an orc. The Barrens provides a perfect example of the diverse background of the Horde, giving players a more calm, nature-focused lens through which to view the warriors clans from Orgrimmar. From the scattered outposts to the shimmering oasis, the Barrens will forever be a quintessential part of the leveling experience for Horde players, and as such, outlives whatever perceived flaws designers may have attributed to it over the years. Creating a flat, barren space doesn’t sound like a recipe for game environment success, but the Barrens achieved the nearly impossible.

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