My brother and I started taking World of Warcraft Classic seriously again two weeks ago. We both played during the mid-2000s Vanilla period — the era Classic attempts to replicate — and jumped into Classic last year, grinding to the mid-20s. Back then, it really seemed like Blizzard’s experiment was going to work.
Stormwind and Ironforge, the two most important hubs of the Alliance, were vibrant and flush with players looking to group up for excavations of Deadmines, Blackfathom Deeps, and Gnomeregan — the early-game dungeons that give World of Warcraft its lasting colour. That was a welcome surprise. Nobody knew for sure what was going to happen during that initial re-origination period — have players simply learned too much and grown too cynical to create the culture that once existed in the Windows XP days? But none of those fears came true. Only a few grognard weirdos hit the level cap at launch. Everyone else seemed pleased to take this game as it came; slowly exploring every corner of Azeroth like the dewy-eyed newbies they once embodied eons ago. It really seemed like it was going to last.
So reader, I regret to inform you that World of Warcraft Classic’s early game is now dead and buried. I’m currently level 29, and my questing hubs — Duskwood, Wetlands, and Hillsbrad Foothills — are essentially deserted, suffocating the group content in those zones.
The other night, I spent hours in Trade Chat desperate to find a party for The Stockade, the quintessential mid-20s Alliance instance. Instead, I found a number of level 60 mages, equipped in gleaming top-tier raiding gear, offering power-levelling runs through the gauntlet for a five gold fee. They will group up with you, smite the many mobs inside the dungeon in an instant using their over-equipped spellbook, and rinse and repeat until the characters in their party sop up enough experience to skip over the hardships that are supposed to define the journey to the endgame.
It was honestly shocking to see how common those game-breaking, ultra-capitalist offers were, and how impossible it was to find anyone else within my level range who wanted to conquer those trials the old-fashioned way. Any chance of progressing through Classic as it was intended has been derailed. For the foreseeable future, levels 1-59 are essentially irrelevant, which isn’t good news for me.
In the original incarnation of World of Warcraft, levelling was the crux of the game. My brother and I started playing in 2005, one year into WoW’s existence, and the map was saturated with people just like us. Late-adopters, casual players, and high-schoolers, who were there to see what all the hubbub was about. Level 60 loomed on the horizon, but that was never the goal. We did every dungeon and delved into every zone, and there was always a cadre of adventurers alongside us.
Yes, we cowered at the sight of the seasoned Horde toons that terrorised our townships, and grew envious of the custom armour sets and baffling damage capable of those who had already conquered the most brutal bosses, but I never enforced a time limit on my own experience. The game was designed to feel eternal, which is why it’s so disheartening to quest through ghost towns on today’s Classic servers. Early adopters have already capped out their characters and grown fat on the high-end summits, and there is not another wave of players to replace them in their wake. My brother and I are no longer playing a game that exists. I guess we waited too long.
From the conversations I’ve had with the few other players in my same position, most of the characters levelling through Classic’s early game right now are the distant alts of players who hit 60 long ago. Because of that, they can usually request the help of a few guild members to power through whatever content is in their path to make the journey to 60 as painless as possible. I don’t know how widespread that practice is, but I’ve seen enough memes on the Classic subreddit that speak to the experience of being the only person left on a realm looking to run Razorfen Downs, and feeling like everyone else has passed you by. That is the only World of Warcraft community we have left; me and the other late-comers wondering what the hell happened while we were gone.
If there is one miscalculation the Classic contingent made when they were preparing to delve back into Azeroth, it is the overestimation of how long its ancient bounty could satisfy us. The time-dilation effects of nostalgia can make it seem like you spent decades trying to conquer, say, the game’s first raid instance, Molten Core. And to be fair, back in 2005, I was absolutely in a guild that slammed its head against Golemagg for hours on end.
But the mechanical and navigational strategies for vanilla WoW have existed for decades now, and the average player in Classic has years of experience under their belt killing Archimonde, and Arthas, and every other extremely difficult encounter Blizzard laid out for them in the expansions that followed. Maybe, then, we should not be surprised that in 2019, World of Warcraft Classic’s Ragnaros was downed less than a week after launch by players in mediocre gear. The game got a lot easier when we weren’t looking. Those exacting thresholds that we remember — you and your friends hardstuck on Chromaggus in Blackwing Lair — simply cannot exist anymore. I’m not sure if that’s a triumph or a failure of the playerbase.
Blizzard does have one potential option on the table. Modern World of Warcraft includes a tool called the Dungeon Finder, which allows players to match into parties across different servers. If Classic implemented that, no longer would I have to sit in the interminable Trade Chat, trying to find a like-minded healer around my level. Instead, I could source adventures across the whole expanse of World of Warcraft Classic, which would, at the very least, allow players like me to actually experience the content.
But that’s also the rub. The Dungeon Finder is cited as one of the banes of modern WoW; people wanted Classic so they could go back to a time where you had to work to establish a warband. Pressing a button and teleporting to the Stockade’s doors destroyed the fantasy, but waiting around in Ironforge for hours on end without a tank is equally as destructive. And so, Blizzard is staring down an impossible paradox. World of Warcraft Classic needs a tuneup, but it can’t be the tuneup that encouraged players to want a product like Classic in the first place. If there is a path forward, it will need to be a structural reconsideration of Blizzard’s previous game design. Nobody has a good answer for what that should be.
For now, I’m about to take my first steps into Stranglethorn Vale, as I watch the quests I have for Gnomeregan become increasingly irrelevant. I guess we’re soloing to 60. What a bummer.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Kotaku, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Polygon.