There and back again.
I died eight times before hitting level 10 in World of Warcraft Classic. Compared to vanilla World of Warcraft back in 2005, that was probably a lot more efficient than the first time around. In 'live,' or 'retail,' or whatever we're calling the current version of World of Warcraft, you really only die in the open world if you make a stupid mistake. WoW Classic is a surprising reminder that the game once seemed to be deeply comfortable with making players fall on their face.
In the two years since WoW Classic was announced at BlizzCon 2017, the mood has shifted dramatically. At first, the majority of the sentiment wondered, "Why would someone want to go back?" But a hardcore tribe of vanilla WoW fans, so serious about the old-school experience they'd been chasing black market private servers to get that OG feeling any way they could, felt very different.
With the Classic beta earlier this year giving many players and streamers a chance to look back and let the nostalgic love flow back into their hearts, it seemed like everyone was ready for launch day.
Indeed, too many were ready for launch day.
The queues were ridiculous, over 20,000 strong and half-day wait times on some servers. Lucky for some, rotten for others, server crashes saw the queues rotate a little faster, but those who crashed out found themselves sent to the back of the queue. Blizzard launched extra servers to spread the load and help people just get in and have fun. But the reason so many stayed in those queues instead of jumping to an easy server is a big part of what exactly people were coming back to Classic to look for.
No, not the queue itself. "A true day one experience lol" was the catch cry, but the reason people stayed put was fundamental--people made plans to play with old friends and reform old guilds, and once the plans were in place you couldn't just swap to a new server on the fly.
Classic is all about community. Even in those early levels the game plays in ways akin to why people are falling in love with more recent games that are lauded for their difficulty. Yes, World of Warcraft isn't really a 'hard' game in the same way something like Dark Souls is, but to succeed with minimal delay, you need friends to get by.
Back in 2005, WoW was seen as so ubiquitous in Silicon Valley circles it built a reputation as a kind of 'new golf'. A place where people would meet and hang out. Run a dungeon together. Do some fishing. Discuss business while sitting in Booty Bay.
Some of that may have been all talk, but in my own experience as an early-career tech and games journalist I did make friends with future colleagues through the game. I joined a guild and spent time regularly with people I'd met in the industry, which helped solidify work contacts and networks. If I'd started World of Warcraft in more recent years, the years since automated random dungeon and raid queues, and tools that let you group with people without ever needing to type a word or know their names, I don't feel like I'd have built such friend networks through the game so easily.
During the first few days of WoW Classic, with everyone at low levels, sharing scant resources and mobs in the earliest areas of the game, spontaneous groups would form as people helped each other complete quests to progress a little faster and with minimal loss of life. I was invited to group while on my very first quest at level one--"Hey, we need to kill some stuff. Let's kill stuff together."
The global chat channel in a multiplayer game was actually full of nice and helpful comments for once, as people answered each other's questions or requests for help. It was like a time before social media had made us all (or at least me) the jaded cynics we've become.
Named mobs for early quests were a particular problem. At first, people just formed circles and partied up in groups of five. If you got the first hit, lucky you and your four friends. But then rumors started to circulate that some servers were forming spontaneous queues for bottleneck kills. If I hadn't seen the screenshots I'd have thought it was an urban myth.
On one of the servers that was launched to alleviate the overly-long queues, I jumped in to just to be in the game, running around, having some fun. One of the most common chat questions was a concern that this particular server, shiny and new, with no queue at the door, was too empty. People wanted to be playing but they wanted to be playing with as many other people around as possible. Delays while waiting for boars or quest bosses were less worrisome than the idea we might end up in Azeroth alone. Again.
Over the years, Blizzard has made World of Warcraft a game that gives everyone something to do anytime they want to do it. Dungeons. Raids. Battlegrounds. Arenas. World Quests. Mount collecting. Pet collecting. Pet battles. Fishing tournaments. Transmog outfits. Whether you have five minutes or five hours, there's something to do. And there's an easy way to jump in and start doing it the second you log on. But all the changes had raised one big question that seemed impossible for Blizzard to answer: "Can you let me play WoW the way it used to be?"
World of Warcraft Classic delivers it. And the reasons to play it goes beyond its graphics and mechanics.
With all those options in the main game today, the easy systems to queue up and Get Things Done like a productivity specialist, the focus became a series of success metrics and trinket collections (and I do love my trinket collection, by the way). The world itself, Azeroth, and the friends you collected along the way, took a back seat. We were gaming in a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, but we were doing it alone.
During one moment in WoW Classic I saw someone calling for signatures for a new guild they were forming. I was on the other side of the zone, but it just seemed like the nice thing to do. I'm not here to blast out XP as fast as possible, I thought; I'm here to interact. To enjoy the journey. I let them know I'd help, finished my current quest then headed back to the inn and signed up.
The guild was called "There And Back Again".
Them: "Thanks for the signature. Once the guild is formed feel free to leave, of course."
Me: "Great name. I think maybe I'll stay."