I have very fond memories of my time playing Final Fantasy XI, which is an MMO that was at its most popular around 2004. Things were different back then, and sometimes it’s hard to remember exactly how different. I went back recently to see if I still enjoyed the game and, in all truthfulness, I had an amazing time. But that isn’t actually suggestive of anything; as the game has changed immensely in order to adapt to modern design as well as player schedules and expectations. Without jumping on a private server, I am basically unable to go back. But would I even want to?
I also played World of Warcraft a bit when I was younger and, while I wasn’t nearly as obsessed, I did have a good time. There are many people who share that experience combined with a plethora of players who are simply curious about what the yesteryear of one of the world’s biggest MMOs might have looked like. Enter World of Warcraft: Classic, an official version of the game that seeks to recreate the experience of its earliest iterations. It’s almost comical how mixed the response has been.
You see, old MMORPGs were hard and almost totally devoid of handholding. This is even true for World of Warcraft, which has helped pioneer the friendly, “theme park” style MMO. Despite being a game that was accessible to casual and hardcore players, it wasn’t perfect. So imperfect, in fact, that players are genuinely confusing the game’s realities with bugs and Blizzard has had to release a list of items that players erroneously believe to be bugs. Included on this list are things like “quest objectives and points of interest are not tracked on the map or minimap” and “creature respawn rates are much slower than in Battle for Azeroth.” Oh, how soon we forget.
There’s a part of me that longs for these “not-a-bug” days, even if that’s probably entirely a product of nostalgia. My rationalization is that older games did a lot more for the community because they were so hard. Essentially, players had to cooperate in some capacity. The “gear treadmill” that frustrates me currently also seemed to be absent. And a lot of the content was played in the open world and not in “instances,” which meant a lot of epic performances were on a world stage of sorts. I’m likely conflating these experiences with the people I played with and more innocent times. Nostalgia is hard like that.
It all makes me wonder if there’s a good middle ground, though. Modern MMOs don’t really have a comfortable place for players in the middle ground between casual and hardcore. I’ll use Final Fantasy XIV, Square Enix’ current popular MMORPG, as an example because it is fairly representative of how a lot of these games are designed. In that game, acquiring the best gear is a result of top tier, practiced play and usually requires scheduling playtime with a dedicated group. The next best gear is attained by playing the same content over and over again in exchange for currency which can then be traded for pieces of gear. Then a patch comes out and all the best gear is quickly replaced and you just have to sort of watch everybody start wearing the same things. Gear just doesn’t feel as epic as it used to.
I guess what I am saying is that nostalgia blinds us and video games are a medium that are still quickly evolving. It will be interesting to see how things play out with World of Warcraft: Classic because developers and gamers could end up learning quite a bit about what does and doesn’t work. But I also feel that the current model is a bit outdated and hope that a new, popular game can come out soon and teach the modern forerunners a thing or two about design. That way, it’ll be easy to get excited and surprised by patch notes and expansion releases again.