If you had told me in 2004 that in fifteen years World of Warcraft would be re-released to as much fanfare if not more than modern MMOs, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. At the time, WoW seemed like a natural extension of the success of Warcraft 3, but it would be impossible to correctly guess just how culturally significant the game would become. Even Blizzard, the company best known for adopting successful ideas and polishing them for a mainstream audience, didn’t see the prize-winning goose that they had sitting in their lap. “You think you do, but you don’t,” is the infamous line uttered by Allen Brack, now president of Blizzard Entertainment.
As someone who played lots of World of Warcraft, both on retail and on a myriad of private servers, I scoffed when I first heard Mr. Brack’s condescending comment to Warcraft’s most devoted fans. “If that’s what they really thought about the fans of their original product, then screw them,” I thought. Thankfully, Blizzard came to their senses and released WoW Classic to a resoundingly enthusiastic response a few years later.
And low and behold, the original World of Warcraft is rumored to be outperforming the retail version of Battle for Azeroth 15 years after its initial release. I hope Blizzard executives feel just a little guilty every time they cash their humongous checks from the success of WoW Classic. While they’re wallowing in their riches and cursing themselves for their complete lack of foresight, there are also a few other lessons that Blizzard and other MMO developers can learn from the success of the return to Azeroth.
5. World Player Vs Player Content
While open-world PVP has been fetishized by the MMO community to a dangerous degree over the past decade, there is a reason it has been generally phased out of modern game design: there are only so many sheep that are willing to be preyed on by wolves. Theme park MMOs like WoW thrive off of catering to as many players as possible, but whether it’s because of players queuing for dungeons in major cities rather than exploring the world or because the griefers chased away all their victims, world PVP just doesn’t feel the same anymore.
Although I don’t think that the conflict between Tarren Mill and Southshore is the epitome of PVP action, there is something unique to WoW Vanilla that brings people back to the wilderness to either gank or be ganked. Perhaps it’s the glee of picking off enemy faction raiders, forcing them to reapply all of their buffs or picking off lowbie questers, but either way, it’s clear to see that WoW Classic fans were excited to jump back into the midst of old-school PVP chaos.
4. Class Identities
One of the biggest successes of WoW’s original design are the archetypal class fantasies that were ingrained in each specialization and talent tree. Nowadays, thanks to the constant “quality of life” improvements, most classes play similarly, most racial bonuses don’t matter, and the only real differentiating factor is how you’ve transmogrified your gear. Class-specific quests, class-specific raid utility such as Mage’s conjuring beverages, and non-combat abilities made each class/race combination feel unique and interesting.
Sure, if you get down to the brass tacks, there isn’t much reason to keep non-combat abilities or class quests if your goal is to bring in as many new players as possible (many of which ignore all quest text and treat WoW like a murder simulator). However, filing down those edges has resulted in a bland, repetitive, and homogeneous experience. If some kid doesn’t like having to travel across the “world” to complete their quests, they can go play a game that isn’t explicitly about that very thing.
Games as a Service is a mixed bag in terms of its mutual benefit to both game developers and their fans, but one major issue with that approach is how quickly complexity creep starts to catch up with them. Having to release new content every few months to keep people subscribed results in bloated games that either force players to slog through years-old content or clear a clean slate every few years, all but erasing older content entirely. Either way, you slice it, MMOs have a complexity issue and going back to the very beginning when rocks were soft and games were simpler is bound to appeal to fans of older titles. Vanilla World of Warcraft isn’t a “simple” game by any means, but some players are more interested in proper positioning, preparation, and teamwork than how many buttons they’re required to press when executing their rotation.
2. Gameplay Over Graphics
Although retail Battle for Azeroth hasn’t strayed very far from its roots aesthetically, it’s clear that World of Warcraft’s initial success can at least partially be attributed to its ability to run on just about any machine back in 2004. Add an extra 15 years to that mix and you have a game that can probably run on your Apple Watch at this point, and yet, WoW Classic and Vanilla WoW’s popularity throughout the years has shown that good gameplay trumps graphics, at least in regards to long term longevity. A game’s graphics will look dated in 2-3 years, and that shelf life is only decreasing as technology improves. Blizzard instead took the success of Everquest, made it more accessible, and slapped on their signature stylized aesthetic and commitment to polish.
1. Quality of Life Improvements Erode All Things
World of Warcraft is a great lesson in how to draw the line between quality of life improvements and creating an immersive and believable world worth exploring. That is to say that Blizzard was really bad at dancing that line, instead deciding to leap even further past it with each new expansion pack. While there are many factors in an MMORPG’s loss in subscribers, many attribute the beginning of WoW’s decline to Cataclysm’s attempt at recreating Azeroth.
Through a combination of dungeon finder queues, flying mounts, instanced single player areas, removing quests with any sort of scale or difficulty to them, removing class quests, favoring instanced PvP over Open World, and a myriad of other “features,” World of Warcraft became less and less about exploring the actual world of Azeroth and more about completing daily objectives, AoE clearing dungeons with a pickup group, and AFKing in the same exactly major city as everyone else despite the plethora of other interesting places to inhabit and explore.
World of Warcraft Classic’s popularity is a clear lesson that some of the best parts of playing an MMORPG are overcoming obstacles with others. Remove the obstacles and any meaningful way to interact with strangers and you end up with a single player chat room simulator. Players are willing to put up with archaic game design decisions, dated graphics, and humongous time investments to play an MMORPG that actually plays like one.