One of the big recent developments in World of Warcraft is Blizzard’s announced plans to create Classic servers on which players can play “Vanilla” World of Warcraft, that is, the original game as released in 2004. It is something that a fair amount of people want, as demonstrated by the fact that people have been playing homemade versions on pirate servers for years. I first started playing WoW in 2006, shortly before the release of the first expansion. Although I’m not much interested in playing on a Classic server myself, I do feel some nostalgia for the original game as I first experienced it. I’ve been thinking lately about that nostalgia and what it is that makes me remember those early experiences with such fondness.
The Way We Were
Part of my nostalgia for early WoW is separate from the game. I started playing during my last few years of grad school, when I was writing my dissertation. WoW offered a break from the long daily slog of research and writing. I also have fond memories of the tv shows I watched then, the meals that Eppu and I shared, the podcasts I listened to on the commute to and from my adjunct teaching job in the next state over, and other things that distracted me from the work. Also, fairly soon after starting to play, I joined up with a guild (a collection of players who shared an in-game chat channel and played some of the game’s harder content together), and some of my good memories are not so much of the game as of the friends I made through it.
But there is also something about the game itself that stays in my mind. I am nostalgic not just for who I was when I first played WoW but for what WoW was when I first played it, and I’ve been trying to pin down just what it was about the game that made it feel so different from the other games I played then and have played since. The conclusion I’ve come to is: the ideas were good, but the execution was flawed.
2004 was a different time, in gaming terms. While massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) had existed before, in titles like Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot, the MMORPG genre was still relatively new and unfamiliar to most gamers. The Blizzard team that created WoW didn’t have much to go on in figuring out what an MMORPG should be like. Playing through that original game, you can tell that they weren’t working toward a polished vision but were doing their best to translate experiences drawn from single-player games, pen-and-paper role-playing, novels and comic books to a multi-player online format.
Into the Woods
The game world is divided into numerous regions, called zones, each of which has its own map, terrain, and set of quests for characters to complete. Most zones also have their own theme, aesthetic, and background story. One of the zones that my first character encountered early on was Duskwood.
Duskwood was a creepy, dark forest, halfway between fairy tale and Gothic novel. One lone human village, Darkshire, held out against a menacing forest full of werewolves and a decrepit graveyard that spawned undead monsters. The road to Darkshire was a long, lonely path through the woods. Now and then, on either side, your character might see a distant lantern winking in the darkness, but wolves and giant spiders prowling the forest edge encouraged you to stay on the path. Once you got to Darkshire and started doing quests, you began to discover the horrors of the place bit by bit. One long series of quests took you back and forth between the village and the graveyard, doing favors for a crazy old man who lived out there, but if you paid attention to what he was asking you to do it gradually became clear that he had sinister intentions. At the climax of the zone, the old man unleashed Stitches, a fleshy undead monstrosity that lumbered towards Darkshire to attack the town. In your culminating act of heroism before leaving for the next zone, you helped the townsfolk stop Stitches and defend Darkshire.
The aesthetics of the zone were amazing. Everything from the creepy music to the small points of warm light made by the Darkshire torches against the looming forest contributed to the overall feel of Gothic horror. I still remember the thrill of waiting for Stitches to shamble out of the darkness as the NPCs (non-player characters) in the zone called out warnings from the road. The idea of the zone as a sort of Frankenstein by way of “Little Red Riding Hood” was brilliantly conceived.
The execution, though, was full of flaws, missteps, and poor choices. From the perspective of modern MMORPG design, it is clear to see what Duskwood did wrong. A large part of the zone is taken up with the road into Darkshire, where nothing happens and there are no quests to do or monsters to fight. Once you’ve taken that first trip to town, it’s just wasted space. Another large chunk of the zone is taken up with a mountainous area where higher-level players could sometimes fight a dragon, but which players at the level of the Duskwood quests had nothing to do with. Numerous quests, including the long Stitches chain, sent players repeatedly back and forth from one end of the zone to the other, so that a large part of players’ time in the zone was spent just traveling. Now, there are two ways in which WoW characters can travel faster: by riding a mount, which increases your movement speed, or by taking a flying “taxi” service from one designated flight point to another. In WoW‘s original design, characters at the Duskwood level did not have access to mounts, and there was only one flight point in each zone (Duskwood’s was in Darkshire). That meant that an awful lot of time wasted just running back and forth rather than fighting monsters, completing quests, exploring new areas, talking to NPCs, or anything else more interesting.
The execution of the Stitches quest chain, the core of the Duskwood experience, was also shaky. Getting the full effect of the slowly creeping horror required paying attention to subtle cues from NPCs, something that was easy to ignore when focusing on collecting the right parts from the right monsters to complete the latest quest. If you didn’t know Stitches was coming, you might not realize to stick around in Darkshire and wait for its onslaught. With multiple players in the zone, the Stitches attack would be triggered whenever any player got to the right stage of the quest chain, even if there were other players still on earlier phases. The result was a regular stream of attacks that could get annoying: Stitches was notorious for slaughtering lower-level players on the road to Darkshire (death in the game is not the end for your character, but getting yourself resurrected and ready to get back to questing costs time and in-game money), and, while waiting for Stitches to arrive, some of the NPCs in Darkshire would go on alert and stop responding to characters who were trying to do quests for them.
Many other zones in Vanilla WoW were similar: there were fascinating aesthetic and narrative ideas and you can see what the design team was trying to create, but they didn’t always know how to execute their vision or realize how their design would play out in practical terms.
Goblins, Why Did It Have to Be Goblins…
In the decade-plus since its release, WoW‘s design team has learned an enormous amount as the wider gaming community has developed more collective experience with what works and what doesn’t in an MMORPG. The functional design of more recent zones is much more polished, but that practical experience hasn’t always been put to use in the service of equally good aesthetic and narrative ideas. One place where the ideas failed to live up to the execution is Uldum.
Uldum was one of five zones introduced in the Cataclysm expansion, which came out in 2010. Uldum is a desert zone, a fantasy version of ancient Egypt inhabited by cat people. Compared with old Duskwood, Uldum was polished and smooth: quests were laid out to lead your character in a logical progression around the zone, other players’ actions did not interfere with yours, and crucial story transitions were carefully planned so that the world could change as your character progressed through the story. Half of the zone’s quests revolve around helping the cat people prepare for a civil war. The other half of the zone, though… Well… It’s different.
There’s a character in WoW called Harrison Jones. He’s an Indiana Jones parody. Harrison Jones had existed before Cataclysm but he was only used sparingly, in one-off joke quests. In Cataclysm, Harrison Jones took over. Half of Uldum was devoted to an extended parody of The Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with a Hitleresque goblin antagonist who spoke with an outrageous fake German accent. The questline made extensive use of new technology that allowed the game to render cutscenes—where the game pauses and shows you a short movie—that included your own character in with the NPCs. The execution of this quest chain was flawless, even innovative, but it was still at heart just an over-long Indiana Jones gag.
The Harrison Jones story also thoroughly undercut your character. Rather be the hero of your own story, you became Harrison Jones’s bumbling sidekick. All of the important story moments were up to him, while you were just there to do the grunt work. This storytelling choice did more than make for a boring, aggravating questing experience; it crushed the suspension of disbelief on which the game relies. We play in order to lose ourselves in a fantasy world, to imagine ourselves as heroes whose actions make a difference. Harrison Jones aggressively stomped on that illusion by turning our heroes into unimportant side characters and the game world into one long, tedious joke. The polish of the execution only served to make the hollowness of the idea more obvious. In Duskwood, even though we weren’t any more in control of the story than in Uldum, at least we got to explore it and experience it on our own terms. In Uldum, we’re just along for the ride.
In Duskwood, as elsewhere in the Vanilla world, the ideas were good, even if the execution was flawed. As the mechanical design of the game has gotten better, we’ve experienced a different kind of flaw. When WoW goes wrong today, it’s less because bad execution gets in the way of a good idea than because good execution exposes a bad idea.
Sunsets and Car Crashes
The difference between Duskwood and Uldum, I think, helps explain why I have such nostalgia for Vanilla WoW. In Vanilla, we had to struggle through a lot of poor mechanical design, but the reward for that struggle was a narrative and aesthetic experience that was bold, creative, and expansive. The experience was a bit like scrambling up a rocky cliff face and seeing a gorgeous sunset from the top. The climb itself wasn’t always fun and we might not want to do it again, but the effort it took was part of the experience that made the sunset worth seeing. Uldum, by contrast, was like driving a brand new car straight into a tree.
In the years since Vanilla, the mechanics of the game have been improved in numerous ways. The experience of playing is now smoother, more reliable, and cleaner than ever. I’m happy with that. I don’t miss the old design’s flaws and missteps. Despite some serious mistakes, like Uldum, the aesthetic vision of the game has not, on the whole, gotten worse. Most of current WoW‘s zones combine smooth mechanical design with a polished, well-developed narrative and artistic sense.
My nostalgia for the original game is not because there is anything wrong with the current game. I wouldn’t trade the current play experience for Vanilla. But the maturing of WoW‘s mechanical design means we have fewer experiences of laboring against bad mechanics to see good ideas shine through. There was something rewarding about old WoW that really can’t be recovered.
Will I ever play on a Classic server? Who knows? Maybe. I might make a new character and putter around a little bit, visiting old quests and NPCs who aren’t around any more, reminiscing about what it was like the first time I walked down a certain road or killed a tough monster. But that’s the problem with nostalgia: you can’t discover something a second time. My nostalgia for Vanilla WoW is tied up with overcoming problems that I’ve now gotten used to not having to deal with at all. If I go back and play original Duskwood again, my experience won’t be about uncovering the secrets at the heart of the dark forest, it’ll be about cursing the designer who made me walk all the way from one end of the zone to the other again, just to be squished by someone else’s Stitches halfway there. I could only consider seriously playing on a Classic server if the improved mechanics of the modern game were brought into it, but that would defeat the purpose of a Classic server.
Still, there are clearly plenty of people who feel differently, enough of them that Blizzard is making servers just for them. I wonder what it is that appeals to those players. What are they nostalgic for that’s worth going back to? What makes playing through the clunky mechanics of the old game worthwhile from their perspective? If you’re one of them, please share. I’d love to hear about what draws you back to Vanilla.
Images: Screenshots from World of Warcraft
Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.