Vanilla 'World of Warcraft' Proved Great Stories Don't Necessarily Make Great MMOs

Classic WoW servers and the dissatisfaction with the single-player stories in RPGs

Spawning Thunderaan for the Alleria server-first Thunderfury in summer of 2005. Credit: Leif Johnson

Nostalgia is the crack of contemporary popular culture, and I'm convinced an intervention would do us all well at this point.

But even I felt pride when hundreds of attendees at the most recent Blizzcon erupted in cheers after World of Warcraft executive producer J. Allen Brack walked on stage and announced that a "classic" server would be coming to the game's retail version. This server would recreate the experience of WoW as it was in the ancient days when Tom Cruise was jumping on Oprah's couch and Jar-Jar Binks was, at last, leaving the big screen for good. As a former member of one of "vanilla" WoW's top guilds, it felt like validation that all the memories I’d made during those early years were as meaningful as I'd always thought they were. And never once did I expect that so many people would be so excited about the prospect of arriving at Blackwing Lair raid 20 minutes early to conjure hundreds of bottles of mana water for 39 other players.

I kid, I kid. (Kind of.) Plenty of writers have already written about why WoW's gameplay was "better" than what we see these days, including me. But lately, I'm more interested in the idea that the seeming popularity of classic servers proves that many of us remain interested in game stories that emphasize working together with other people to achieve a common goal. For years now, Blizzard and other MMORPG developers have embraced the principle that players want their games stuffed with the type of rich self-focused stories you find in single-player RPGs like Skyrim or The Witcher 3, but the roar in Anaheim may prove their audiences crave more interpersonal interaction that they've believed.

Some readers are no doubt thinking the story isn't all that important. In fact, they're probably quipping about how they never really read the quest text anyway. But I argue that's one of the reasons why WoW's original minimal storytelling was more than today's comparatively interesting personal story. In an MMO, the design of the overarching story affects almost every other aspect of how you interact with the game. Back then, we were largely supposed to create the stories ourselves. The memory of the wildly popular Warcraft 3 was still fresh in our minds at that point, and the wonders of seeing locations from that game like Stratholme managed to eclipse most desires for a more coherent and extensive story such as we see in WoW's current Legion expansion.

Instead, the quests often focused on group-based objectives that merely gave you some direction with some scant context. Is there a badass gnoll terrorizing Elwynn Forest? Go make a few friends and put him down. Are those crazy Dark Iron dwarves trying to revive a fire god in Blackrock Mountain? Gather your party of 39 other folks before venturing forth. It was cool to see Warcraft characters like Sylvanas Windrunner in "person," but the quests then reminded us that we were the center of the story, often with the plural "heroes."

"The de-emphasis of the single-player experience made us constantly aware of the people around us."

It's no accident that the original cinematic featured no famous heroes from Warcraft lore as did the (stellar) later ones for expansions like The Burning Crusade and the upcoming Battle for Azeroth. Instead, it focused on a group of randos: a night elf hunter, a human mage, an undead warlock, and a Hulk-like orc. These nameless guys were "us"–a group of capable heroes, no doubt, but only a sample of many others. It's a fitting approach for a game that grew out of a real-time strategy series, as it constantly emphasized the change that we could bring about by working as groups.

The de-emphasis of the self as a prime mover of the story wasn't only effective for giving us legit reasons to work with other players in dungeons; it also ensured the story didn't conflict with the massive server-wide collaborative efforts back then such as the weeks-long resource hunt leading up to the opening of the gates of Ahn'Qiraj.

The de-emphasis of the single-player experience made us constantly aware of the people around us. We needed them for quests both in the outside world and in dungeons; we needed them for mats to make gear. Rather than telling a yarn, it created "real" memories through the constant interactions with other players, and so made us feel as though we were a part of a society. I've never stopped playing WoW in all these years, but I find it telling that I remember the details of my guild's long and sometimes bitter rivalry with the Surreal guild on the Alleria server far more than I remember the finer points of the lore that led to the invasion of Naxxramas.

We didn't all like each other, sure, but that added to the fun. The approach, coupled with the way you used to be locked into a single server's community, allowed you to establish yourself as a "character" that was just as important as figures like the orcish leader Thrall. That's a far cry from the way WoW is today, with its dungeon finder that automatically groups you with some random players from other servers that you'll likely never see again. The new design strips MMORPGs of their unique strengths and makes the social experience akin to basically every other multiplayer game. Few things consistently remind me of how much WoW has changed than the way dickish players in modern random dungeons dehumanize you by referring to you by your class name rather than your character name.

Was the actual story less fulfilling as a result? Of course. But I believe it was better understood back then that you came to a game like WoW more for the setting and the appeal of working with other people rather than for the story. If you wanted a better story, you could always jump into a single-player game like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.

To be fair, I believe the idea of cooperating and interacting with other people online was far more appealing in itself back then. Much of the magic of the internet had yet to wear off in 2004, as many people hadn't even had the service just a decade before. The thought of interacting with countless people from different walks of life still felt as though it could lead us to a better future. As it turns out, the history of WoW in large part mirrors the history of the internet. For all of our connectivity and technological advancement, our interests have turned inward rather than outward, with many of us gravitating to those who share our own views and shunning those who don't. Similarly, in modern WoW, you never even have to interact with other players if you don't want to.

"The passage of 13 years has allowed us to see and appreciate how appealing that early design truly was."

This single-player focus gained steam with the Cataclysm expansion. A little too symbolically, Cataclysm required what basically amounted to a near-total destruction of the old Azeroth in order to retool the leveling experience into a single-player focused experience that presaged what we would soon see with Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2. No longer did quests assume that you were but one of many heroes; instead, you were the "Commander," the single person responsible for saving the world. WoW's group activities like raids and dungeons continued to exist, but for the first time WoW found itself confronted with that weird disconnect that reviewers grumble about in other MMORPGs with strong single-player storylines like Elder Scrolls Online: "Who are all these other people running around in 'my' story?"

And it is largely your story now, which has had a massive effect on the socialization that made vanilla WoW so memorable. You can level through the whole game without so much as chatting with someone. There are outdoor world bosses that technically require groups, but as in Guild Wars 2 or Elder Scrolls Online, you don't actually have to party with or talk to anyone to take them down (so long as other players are already beating them up). WoW even seems to have downplayed the multiplayer aspects of the economy, as quests and follower missions now practically throw gold at you and – aside from a few notable exceptions – tradeskills seem aimed at improving your own character rather than outfitting someone else.

This must be great for those players who say they want to enjoy an MMORPG story "without putting up with all that MMO crap," but I've always wondered why these folks are playing MMORPGs in the first place.

MMORPGs by their very nature deliver subpar experiences compared to RPGs like The Witcher 3, and I say that as a lover of MMOs. Even the ones with the "best" combat usually suffer in comparison to single-player games, and they rarely successful impart a sentence of having a noticeable effect on the world through your actions. Some MMORPGs such as Elder Scrolls Online have made great strides toward narrowing the gap but at the cost of the multiplayer focus that should be at the heart of the genre. If you want to come help a friend leveling through the same content, you might find yourself unable to because she's in an earlier "phase."

Classic WoW's de-emphasis of a personal story was superior for the genre because it hammered home the message that "we're all in this together." That was an important part of its multiplayer appeal, as it set it apart from other multiplayer games that generally stick you with random players apart from your friends for only the length of one round of deathmatch. In early WoW, you'd almost certainly have to deal with a person you grouped within the future – be it for groups, specialized trade recipes, or buying rare items – making it more like a real-world society. With today's random dungeon finder, we now have a model that's more like an arena shooter.

All of which is to say that I'd love for WoW return to the way it used to be, but I'm not convinced it really can. Much of WoW's early success springs from the fact that it was one of the few games that offered this kind of experience, and so it became a game that "everybody" was playing. It was part of the greater cultural lexicon.

Frankly, it's also too big now. Classic WoW (and rogue classic WoW emulators like Nostalrius Begins) worked so well because it delivered such contained experiences, set in a world where the bulk of the playerbase hadn't moved on to new lands in new expansions. High-level players and newbies often shared the same space. WoW's many changes helped compensate for the empty and often dull zones left behind when players moved on to Northrend or Pandaria, along with the absence of players for helping with the many group quests. And as many of us older players got older and busier, tools like the dungeon finder respected our increasingly limited time.

Yet the passage of 13 years has allowed us to see and appreciate how appealing that early design truly was.The main problem I see is that, as great as vanilla WoW was, classic servers offer a stagnant experience by comparison. You know what's coming. The optimal builds for each patch were decided years ago. There's none of that wonder that led us to sneak into the then-unfinished zone of Hyjal to see what awaited us in future patches or expansions. The way the original story's minimalism helped establish a "society" is easy to champion, but I'm conflicted about its return as I believe that societies should always be working toward something greater. In reliving the same stories, we're willfully trapping ourselves in the past.

And oddly, that's why I'm hoping Blizzard's experiment with a classic server will prove successful. A popular classic server could lead Blizzard to incorporate more of the "old" style of play into future expansion of the main game while keeping modern classes and other elements that work.

I'd like to see that, though, as it gives me hope that people still have a widespread interest in building a thriving society comprising differently-minded people. It's just a game, yes, but one that many researchers have used to find parallels with real-world behavior, especially in those early days. Maybe I'm naive to expect that a game with a word like "warcraft" in the title can help remind us of the importance of inter-dependability, but right now it seems like a world worth pursuing.