World of Warcraft has its stalwarts, players who’ve been around since the good ol’ days of Onyxia and Ragnaros. It also has its transients. Maybe they were diehard players for a couple years in high school. Maybe they were living that sweet bachelor life. For whatever reason, they left. Now, thanks to the recent release of WoW Classic, many of them are back and reuniting with old friends.
The promise of WoW Classic, which came out on August 26, was not merely a return to gameplay systems and settings from the expansion-free “vanilla” iteration of WoW; it was an attempt to recreate the feeling of the community at the time. Modern World of Warcraft streamlines dungeon-running, raiding, and PVP, but back in 2006, the time period that WoW Classic recreates, players had much more direct interaction. More organic conversations spurred by a need to group up, more chance meetings between strangers destined to become lifelong friends, more getting backstabbed in the jungles of Stranglethorn Valve by rogues who didn’t have anything better to do at the time. Let’s not rewrite history here: Compared to earlier MMOs, WoW has always been a rigidly designed theme park first and a living, breathing world second. But in the vanilla days, many players argue, it felt a little more alive.
This feeling has brought back lapsed players in droves, and many WoW players have been surprised to find that old bonds between pals—the chains rusted thanks to 10 or 15 years of neglect—still hold up.
Chris Price, a player who started a Discord for more than 300 old WoW friends, was worried about possible drama flare ups at first, but has been relieved to find that, so far, everybody’s getting along.
“At first I thought there would be some awkwardness and friction because, let’s be honest, not everyone was on good terms back then,” Price told Kotaku in an email. “Some people rubbed other people the wrong way, old drama, etc. But I’m surprised to see that most people put all of that behind them and have met each other with open arms.”
One thing that might help: Everybody’s grown up now, where many of them were teenagers back in the day. “We often joke about a lot of the drama back then, laughing at how ridiculous things were now that we’re all older and have a bit of perspective,” said Price.
Of course, there are also drawbacks to the maturity that accompanies the unceasing march of time—namely, people now have less time for the game that once consumed most of their waking hours.
“The group I played with back then were full of hardcore raiders,” Price said. “A lot of us were doing server-first raid content with our respective guilds and hitting Grand Marshal/High Warlord and PVPing for 20+ hours a day to do so. Now we’re older and we don’t have that much time. Most people haven’t even hit [level] 60 yet, barring a few outliers (myself included). Even those that have hit it are reluctant to hit up the raiding circuit again because we’ve ‘been there, done that’ and are more in-tune with the social aspect that the game offers.”
Perhaps, though, it’s for the best, said Price. “We often joke about doing the Marshal/Warlord [PVP rank] grind again and usually just laugh off how much time we’d probably have to sink into the game to be able to achieve it, and how little time we all have now that most of us have full-time jobs, families, and kids.”
Another player, who goes by the handle Kroguardious, mourns the old days in which he and his friends used to get together in real life and host late-night LAN parties, but says that WoW Classic has allowed them to split the difference between their raucous, sleep-deprived high school marathons and their more complicated adult lives.
“Now we’re all moved out of our parents’ places and in our own apartments, and all but one of us are cemented in our career fields,” he said in a Twitter DM. “We all moved apart, and our computers have all gotten much bigger, so dragging everything to one spot for a LAN party like we used to is not going to happen. Having an online way to reconnect has been perfect, and its something we all had ties to, as our interests have grown apart slightly over the years and we haven’t all been able to get into and enjoy the same game since we left WoW.”
WoW Classic has allowed some players to rekindle even closer connections. Dusty Braddish, who was 14 when he first started playing World of Warcraft in the vanilla days, has reconnected with someone who he says was like a father to him. At the time, Braddish’s parents had just gotten divorced, and he was going through “a not-so-ideal living situation in the real world.” His mom was suffering from depression, he didn’t get along with his stepdad, and his father, who he loved dearly, was suddenly no longer consistently in his life, he says. His guild master, who was older, gave him a shoulder to lean on.
“My GM had had some life experiences that my father hadn’t that I think prove useful when being a mentor/meaningful figure for a young man,” Braddish told Kotaku in an email. “He had experiences with many groups of people and always treated everyone as equals without hesitation, and showed that you can be serious/professional while still being silly… My GM was the shining example of how to lead in the creation of a warm and welcoming environment.”
Braddish said his guild master mentored and encouraged him, letting him lead raids and organize guild activities “despite knowing I was quite young.” He’d also make sure Braddish got a chance to talk during officer meetings where more brash personalities were dominating. “Considering I went on to become a leader in college/grad school and now in my professional work, I have to think that played a fairly large part in my development and where I am now,” said Braddish.
Now Braddish is playing the game again, and he’s been overjoyed to discover that he and his old guildmates—including his guildmaster—have been able to pick up right where they left off. It’s been an interesting experience for him, given that he now perceives himself as a completely different person.
“I should say nothing has changed in our dynamic within WoW,” Braddish said. “Personally, I am a completely different person these days. I’ve finished high school, gone to college, gone to grad school, and been working in the ‘real world’ for years now. My GM seems to be largely the same, but I would say that’s because he was much older in the vanilla days. Whereas I began playing at 14, he was in his late 20s and already been through his most formative years.”
They’re now making new memories in old haunts, marinating in memories and reforging old bonds. “Oddly enough, many of the new ‘good old times’ are the same as the old ‘good old times’ just because we’re playing the same game as we were back then,” said Braddish. “Running Deadmines and Scarlet Monastery again, getting Dartol’s Rod of Transformation—which turns your character into a furbolg, a sort of ridiculous looking bear—and spamming our warcry while fighting and at the end of battles. It’s just a combination of small moments such as those.”
There is, however, a potential storm cloud hovering over the glow players are currently basking in: This could all be temporary. Many WoW Classic players are now adults with families and other responsibilities, and even if that wasn’t the case, WoW Classic itself is finite. Eventually, everyone will hit level 60 again, or raid until they have all the best possible gear. Some haven’t even stuck around long enough to reach the top of that proverbial mountain.
A player who goes by the handle “WestEschaton” told Kotaku that his old friends only messed around in WoW Classic for a couple weeks. Then they bounced. For all of vanilla WoW’s strengths, its grind often nosedived straight into tedium territory. The same is true of WoW Classic.
“In a couple of cases, the fond nostalgia of leveling in vanilla was replaced by the frustration of killing five dozen goretusks to get eight livers,” WestEschaton said in a Twitter DM. “I think that mostly [my friends] wanted to come back for a couple of weeks and just see how it went.”
WestEschaton said he thinks that even though WoW Classic is like stepping into a time machine, the environment, community, and culture surrounding it is still very much a product of 2019—not 2004. WoW Classic’s plains and wastelands are well-charted territory at this point, with countless guides available via Google and YouTube, and many WoW Classic players pre-formed their own guilds and groups on platforms like Discord (which was not around back in 2004) instead of allowing them to emerge organically in the game. These things do not intrinsically make connections between players any better or worse than they were in WoW’s vanilla days, but they do change the nature of interactions in the world itself.
“Community for me back then was a lot of not knowing anything about what was going on and there not being a lot of help available other than what other players knew,” WestEschaton said. “That’s entirely different now… Video gaming is in a very different place now than it was in 2005, and if you play games at all, it’s very likely that you’ve changed with it. In essence, it’s pretty unlikely that you can take a large group of 2019 gamers, put them down in a 2005 game, and have them be happy. Museums are nice places to visit.”
Then there’s the question of what comes next. At some point, WoW Classic will have to advance beyond the halcyon vanilla days, or else even relatively casual players will eventually run out of things to do. If Blizzard opts to slowly dole out the same old expansions, there’s a good chance that lapsed players will just lapse again, given that many of them burnt out on Burning Crusade and the content that followed.
Kroguardious is concerned for WoW Classic’s future. “My fear is that they will just continue re-releasing each [expansion pack] and eventually we’ll no longer have our common place,” he said.
What he’d prefer, then, is for Blizzard to use WoW Classic as the jumping-off point for a divergent timeline. “I’d love to see a new timeline that follows the Classic style of gameplay,” he said. “No new level cap, or maybe only going up by one with a new expansion. Maybe we chase Kel’Thuzad’s phylactery to Northrend right away and defeat the Lich King before he’s built up such a powerful armory, and an entire new story takes place. That’d be a dream come true.”
For now, though, many players are just trying to savor their present moment of reliving the past.
“For some people, it might be temporary,” said Price. “Some people I know hit their 30s-40s, when the game really starts to hit its grind, and trickled off to play other things, and I totally understand that. I think others may get tired of it and stop playing altogether, but the community has made a lasting impression on most. The amount of expression seen in chat when an old friend or known community member hops in never gets old… I’m happy that it was able to help these people reconnect and hope that those connections continue for a long, long time.”