Random Rambles – Would Wrath of the Lich King Classic Be Better Received than Vanilla Classic?

I’ve talked about wanting World of Warcraft Classic to evolve, moving towards Wrath of the Lich King as the pinnacle of the original game. Today, however, an interesting thought occurred to me about how we judge the relative quality or reception of an expansion.

The prevailing narrative that I don’t think we’ve questioned much (at least, I know I certainly haven’t) is that the subscriber metrics reflect a degree of quality and player acceptance of the game at certain points in time, by which metric, Wrath of the Lich King is easily World of Warcraft at its most popular (and therefore “best”), where it sustained an 8-digit subscriber total for the vast majority of the duration of its release, spiking at Cataclysm’s launch around 14 million before falling off the mountain to around half of that player base.

What this means in relation to how we evaluate Classic is that Vanilla is seen as the tip of the iceberg, not close to the game’s most popular point and therefore hardly the “best” content. If we follow the subscription metrics, well, surely Wrath of the Lich King is the best, as it had the highest and most consistent subscription volume!

And well, sure – in a world where these things are released in order as original, you could make that argument.

However – an underrepresented but important factor is the story hook. How many people would have preferred Vanilla gameplay but held out until The Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King because of the presence of Warcraft III big names like Illidan or Arthas? If we evaluate solely in a bubble of the original release order, well yeah, it seems like Wrath of the Lich King was the “best” – but how many people skipped Vanilla because of a lack of big-name lore NPCs?

The thing about Classic that fascinates me is this: should we reach a point where Blizzard begins Classic Expansions, there is a lot of interesting potential for people to test how much they really liked the gameplay at a given point in the game’s history. For Classic, some people are seeing things they forgot and dislike about the original game – whether that is gameplay pacing, the inherently time-sinky nature of certain components of the core gameplay loop, or issues with other quirks specific to their classes, races, or the content they like. Some people are discovering those things having never played vanilla and finding themselves on one side or the other of a conflict over judging the quality of these elements of the classic game.

Vanilla isn’t the only point in WoW’s history where contentious design decisions are often papered over in the glow of nostalgia. Burning Crusade gated Heroic dungeons behind reputation, and had a raid attunement tree much worse than Vanilla’s, with faster leveling and a smaller amount of endgame content than we might remember it as. Wrath of the Lich King had the 10/25 player raid split which gave lesser rewards for the often-harder 10 player fights, the Emblem system which cluttered up UI panes and faction hubs in Dalaran (imagine if Titan Residuum in BfA was tied only to the season earned and could only be converted downwards!), and while I could do this for every expansion, Wrath is likely where the hype train for Classic servers ends for most folks.

The idea that Wrath is the best expansion takes a legitimate claim to highest quality, obscures it through the lens of market metrics like subscriber count and raw profit for the expansion lifecycle, and discards anything else that might also explain the relative dominance of WotLK within the WoW discourse. I do think that WotLK has a very legitimate claim to being the peak of WoW, but I wonder how much of that peak was time and place as opposed to it simply being outstanding on its own merits.

The thing about Wrath is that it is easy to view posthumously as both the best point in the game, but also the beginning of the slide into the modern game – Dungeon Finder was added in 3.2, 10/25 player raid splits made getting into a raid with strangers easier than ever but still cultivated a sort of community, loot began to get easier than ever with more epics, more players in full epics, and most players having access to current tier raid level gear without doing said content.

To someone like me, gameplay focused and otherwise a loner in play outside of my guild, Wrath was the first expansion where I played comfortably – I leveled DPS alts for the first time ever, I tried more content and pushed the boundaries of what I did in game. To a purist Classic player, this is the part where the game begins to downturn, where a comment with arrogant phrases like “this is where the game went wrong” might start to pop up, where some elitist jerk might pop up with phrases like “welfare epics” or things of the sort.

Wrath over its lifespan had something for everyone in that way – the early part of the expansion was full of server community, building friendships and opening content to more players via the ease of building PUG raids in the 10 player format, and the daily dungeon quests encouraging players to band together and push into content with whomever else was willing (TBC had these too, but the ease of accessing Heroic dungeons in Wrath arguably made this more popular). Later in its life, Wrath kept many of these features but also opened up dungeons and added more dungeons than any prior point in the game, and made dungeons easier to run by regionalizing them, opening up as datacenter communities before fully expanding to the semi-anonymous hives we have today.

Would vanilla have been more popular than Wrath if it had Arthas and Illidan in it, continuining the story of WCIII directly rather than giving us the (relative) fluff of vanilla before reintroducing those tales? It was an interesting idea – players new to Warcraft as a franchise had enough to learn as it stood, so maybe removing these plot elements was a good idea!

But all of this rambling is dancing around the core idea of this post – let’s say we reach a future where Classic consists of vanilla, TBC, and Wrath servers. Which content set do you think is most popular, and why? I’d bet on Wrath, but at the same time…some people may prefer Vanilla or TBC!

Either way, I think we’ll get to find out at some point in the future, and I think this will be an interesting topic to revisit at that point!

10 thoughts on “Random Rambles – Would Wrath of the Lich King Classic Be Better Received than Vanilla Classic?

  1. There is certainly a contingent of players who seems to believe that Wrath was the beginning of the end for Wrath.

    FWIW, I disagree and think of Wrath as my personal favourite expansion. I liked TBC too, but I had the most time with Wrath out of all the expansions and enjoyed it on many levels, from alts through to hardmode progression raiding ahead of the nerf patches. (Ended up with both 10m and 25m Frostdrakes while they were current, a proud moment for me, although I ended up actually feeling cheated when they weren’t removed like the Ulduar drake initially was, lol.)

    But having said all that, I have no way to really be objective about it without the chance to revisit. There is a lot of emotion and sentiment tied up with Wrath that has nothing to do with how good as an expansion it otherwise was or wasn’t.

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    1. One sentence sums up my feelings on retro servers in general as a concept – “no way to really be objective about it without the chance to revisit.”

      I’m in the same boat with Wrath, though – I maybe have a bit more nostalgia for Cataclysm because it was when I felt like I truly mastered the game, but Wrath was a wide-open field of possibilities for me – and it having a classic server officially would likely sucker me in!

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  2. Well, I’m one of those people who thought that Wrath was where things started to go downhill, though I’m not sure what makes this more arrogant than pointing out flaws in other expansions.

    I certainly won’t claim to have seen it coming: While I remember some initial disappointment about the low difficulty of Wrath heroics compared to the BC ones and having a strong dislike for the changes made to shadow priests (which is why I switched to holy), there were a lot of things to love otherwise. I also thought that the dungeon finder sounded like a really cool idea and found people’s newfound propensity to quit any group at the drop of a hat more amusing than irritating.

    Over time lots of small changes really soured me on the game though. And I think that’s another case one could make against Wrath having been the pinnacle of WoW: that in an MMO, some changes don’t cause people to quit immediately but cause slow attrition instead. And while Wrath had the highest number of subs except for the Cata launch, it’s also where the game stopped growing, after years of sub numbers rising and rising.

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    1. The point on “where things go wrong” being arrogant is a point of order for a future post – an attempt to delicately bring it up without really getting into it. In short, without spoiling that post – non-and former WoW players tend to push a narrative that a thing they don’t like is “wrong” or shouldn’t be, and it tends to be used as a cudgel against people who like the thing. My comments are free of all but the most gentle versions of that idea, thankfully, but it is something I have strong feelings on.

      Evaluating Wrath, I think it is hard to disagree – it conveniently dovetails that Cataclysm comes into focus before the game’s playerbase stalls much or dips, so the prevailing narrative is that Cataclysm marks the fall, although I think that is worth looking at. Wrath was easier, and early Cata attempted to swing that back without addressing the social dynamics that changed during Wrath. Classes ballooned – I loved Wrath’s talents, but they were also the most cookie-cutter because there were just so many of them. DK was a fun first new class, but it also had some serious design gaps that ended the flexible spec setup within two years.

      I did stop my old revisit series in reverse order at Cata, so perhaps I should write up Wrath soon…

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  3. The success of Wrath was not about gameplay, but other things. Here we wrapped up the story of the best hero/villain Blizzard ever produced. After that, Blizzard had to build expansions from scratch, and we had to make an effort to get engaged in the stories. This is imo the main reason of WotLK being a pinnacle – it’s where Warcraft major story started with RTS ends, the story of this world. Cataclysm stands on its own as a transition. And the next major chapter starts and rolls from Pandaria – the Old God/Legion bonanza which is continuous throughout 4 expansions so far.

    Northrend was a snowy ground which many like – and the only known continent we haven’t been to yet. Outland was a dumpster, all ruined and too weird to be a pleasant place. Northrend, on the other hand, is down-to-earth and beautiful. A the same time, Blizzard made all zones diverse – even ice and snow is different zone to zone.

    The undead are an archetypic fantasy enemy which is pleasant and easy to fight with.

    Viking theme didn’t hurt. Dragons, dragons everywhere didn’t hurt. Cherry on top, a brand new class – and a first added class – when you could finally be super evil and cosplay Arthas himself.

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  4. Here’s a thought. What if they are planning on just going through the entire patch cycle, say every 6 month advance to the next. No expansion names, just the banner of it being Classic WoW. They can easily monitor the level of progression of the player base to ensure there are enough able to move forward. You could even speculate that they might use Classic as a means to fill content drought periods in retail to have players constantly logged into one or the other, always advancing.

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  5. Although I played WoW first in the WotLK era, I really only experienced the Wrath systems and mechanics, not its actual content. I leveled a Hunter right through the original zones and BC. I loved the core zones almost without exception. I strongly disliked just about everything about the Burning Crusade zones and content. By the time I got to the WotLK zones I was fed up and burnt out by slogging through BC (appropriately). I got to 72 and quit.

    I didn’t resub or level that character until the Legion pre-events, which I loved and which took place in the original zones. I’d play on a Wrath Classic server but I woudn’t go anywhere near a BC one. I’d also play a Cataclysm Classic server – 95% of it would be new to me and I’d like to see what they did to all those old zones.

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  6. Everybody has their own reasons for liking or disliking certain expansions. Personally what ended my time in WoW was the dungeon finder and cross-realm features. I blame those for the toxidity levels going through the roof and it totally wrecked my gaming experience. The rushing through dungeons, players addressing others as “TANK” or “HEALER” or “DRUID”, FFS, L2P and more along those lines. I ended up only playing with guildies and avoided pugging. I missed traveling to instances, having to go into a Horde city to find the entrance to some instance was actually fun. Nowadays a lot of players have no clue where those instances are and how to get to them. I’m leveling on Classic at my own pace and I look forward to progressing through the update phases.

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