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‘World of Warcraft Classic’ Is a Nostalgia Trip For a Game That Doesn't Exist

‘World of Warcraft Classic’ Is an attempt to capture a gaming moment that’s long passed, but many of us wish would come again.

by Matthew Gault
Sep 3 2019, 12:00pm

Image: Blizzard

World of Warcraft doesn’t change. Except it has. World of Warcraft Classic is an attempt to capture something special—the game, as it was, when Blizzard released it in 2004. It’s a nostalgia trip for anyone who played at the time, and a curiosity for those who grew up playing different versions of it. A lot has changed in 15 years. The games industry has changed. MMOs have changed. I’ve changed. Azeroth, World of Warcraft's fictional world, is not somewhere I want to be anymore

When I logged into World of Warcraft Classic for the first time on last week, I chose a low population server to skip the lines, and appeared as a newly raised Undead in Tirisfal Glades, a haunted forest near the Undead capital. I spawned next to another new player named “Beanflicker.” In the general chat, someone was talking about how the only thing that had changed with him since 2004, the year World of Warcraft first released, was his hemorrhoids.

World of Warcraft was, and is, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). It’s hard to understate how much of a revelation it was when developer Blizzard released it in 2004. There had been MMORPGs before WoW, but the genre was chaotic and strange. Often, the games felt antagonistic to their players. In EverQuest, dying meant losing experience—which represented hours of play time—and it was possible to lose your corpse and all the loot that was on it. A bad death in EverQuest meant losing months of progress.

People have mocked the launch of World of Warcraft Classic for long wait times to login to servers, but this was the norm back in the day. 2001’s sci-fi MMORPG Anarchy Online was unplayable at launch. Other MMORPG’s barely functioned at all. I spent long hours of my teenage years staring at the EverQuest login screen, typing and retyping my password until I’d get into the game.

World of Warcraft was the first time an MMO struck the balance between difficult and fair. When you died in Azeroth, you had to get your corpse, but you were never in danger of losing your body forever. From the first hour, everyone playing WoW understood they were playing something different. There had never been anything quite like it, and there never would be again.

There have been other MMOs, but the genre barely exists anymore. Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV are doing just fine. But those are outliers. Dozens of companies tried to capture the magic of World of Warcraft and failed. Warhammer Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, City of Heroes, The Matrix Online, Lord of the Rings Online. Every year after World of Warcraft saw the release of another game with a popular license that couldn’t quite succeed. MMORPG’s are expensive to make, and nothing was quite as good as World of Warcraft.

For decades, the gaming industry tried and failed to capture the magic of those early days of World of Warcraft. The most successful MMOs have been those that do their own thing and didn’t bother trying to copy WoW. See, EVE Online. Now, after 15 years, even Blizzard is going back to the moment of its origin, trying to capture something that’s long passed.

Last year, I dived into its latest expansion after 10 years away from the game. I enjoyed playing for a bit, but it didn’t take. I played the original World of Warcraft an inappropriate amount of time. I spent long hours grinding for gear, hunting the Alliance around Nesingwary’s Camp, and looking for groups in Orgrimmar. I ran Molten Core, farmed the Barman’s Shank on a rogue alt, and purged my enemies in Hillsbrad Foothills. When it comes to vanilla World of Warcraft, I’ve done it. And the new expansion just didn’t resonate the same way.

The promise of World of Warcraft Classic, though , is that it would. Fans have run private servers running early incarnations of the game for years, a source of tension between the community and its creators. Then Blizzard announced World of Warcraft Classic, an official form of those vanilla servers. A chance to play the game as it was, a chance to experience the genre-defining game before the patches and content updates and the quality of life upgrades. A chance to dive into a game from 15 years ago that defined my early adult life.

I rolled a Warlock, just like I did 15 years ago. I remembered all the old quests by heart, hardly needing to look them up. I listened to podcasts while I played, ordered delivery food, reveled in the general chat, and tried to capture some of that old magic. But it wasn’t quite there. Not for me.

Nostalgia is a delicate thing, and World of Warcraft Classic is trying to conjure something specific. That doesn’t mean World of Warcraft Classic won’t be a success. There’s always money in nostalgia. But it’s an attempt to recapture something that may never have existed in the first place. With World of Warcraft Classic, players are looking back at a game with rose colored glasses.

Nothing can be World of Warcraft. There was a game, not a genre. And that game was World of Warcraft.