Why Vanilla World of Warcraft is still the best version and deserves a re-release.

Posted: July 3, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features


A lot of people who are WoW curmudgeons will tell you the older version the better. Their reasoning pretty much boils down to the fact that WoW has gotten progressively easier and they feel that unskilled players have ruined the game. While I can definitely understand that point of view, my reasons for missing the original World of Warcraft are a little more nuanced than that.

My wife and I are avid players of whatever 1.12.1 private server we can find that is stable and remains in operation. Gaming media seems to think for some reason that Nostalrius was one of very few Vanilla WoW servers, but there are actually hundreds. Most of them are just run on someone’s home server and barely meet the definition of playable. As someone who started playing right before TBC was released, I remember how the game played and want something at least close to that experience. Fortunately there are always at least a few 1.12.1 servers in operation that meet my standards.

If you consider private servers piracy, I can live with that. If Blizzard would make this content available in any way, I would gladly pay for it. You see, when Cataclysm was released in 2010, the entire original map was remade. Besides a few time-travel instances, there is no way to access any of this content anymore. So it isn’t just a few old players wanting to go back to older versions of spells and talents, we actually can’t even play the quests anymore that we fondly remember. So that is why I have been begging Blizzard to re-release this content (preferably for a one time charge, with no monthly fee) on any platform. This article is about some of the reasons that even people new to it would love a chance to play Vanilla WoW.


Story and Lore, front and center.


If you have only been playing WoW in recent years, it may be hard to believe that there was a time when it had really interesting original lore. Recent versions have pretty much filled every quest and dialogue with pop culture references and clear nods to movies and television. While there is still definitely a central plot, it doesn’t really concern itself with adhering to any central lore. The WoW universe has become like the Marvel and DC universes, where killing characters and bringing them back to life can be done for convenience.

The Warcraft universe has always taken some inspiration from other series, most notably Warhammer and Lord of the Rings. At its core though, it has always had an original universe filled with different history and factions. It used to be important to know who these people were and what they were doing. If you were a dwarf, the feud with the Dark Iron dwarves was part of your history. Players would recognize factions like the Argent Dawn and the Steamwheedle Cartel that were featured in the plot of previous Warcraft games. You could even decide for yourself how to interact with neutral factions. If you decided that you hated pirates, you could go into your character panel and mark all neutral pirate factions as hostile, so your character would attack them on sight. In modern WoW all of this has become completely irrelevant.

The thing I really miss about Vanilla WoW, was how each race and quest had a plotline that really made you feel that role. Your starting areas would establish your culture, often creating traits that permanently molded your character and how you play them. As you progressed from 1-60, your class quests were also much more intense and personal. While the class quests of today are basically glorified tutorials for the new abilities you get, old class quests really tested your dedication to your role. You were expected to do things like infiltrate higher level areas, using your class skills to avoid certain death. The rewards were actually relevant too, because dungeons were much harder to farm for better loot.

Even some of the things people complained the most about, like globe-trotting quests and quests that required huge spending of gold, often fit in with the plot and made sense. As a servant of your chosen order, it makes sense that your boss would send you with an important message to Theramore, even though you are questing in Stranglethorn Vale. It also helped you discover flight paths and other dungeons, since you were not automatically given the former and there was no Dungeon Finder. Besides word of mouth, these random annoying quests were often the way you discovered new parts of the game.

Overall it just felt more like a real, living world. The reason it was so easy for so many of us to get lost in the World of Warcraft, was because it was such a compelling and deep universe to immerse in. The farmers and their never-ending need for bear asses were still annoying, but the game did a better job of making them seem like people who mattered. I remember fondly the first time I completed the level 12 paladin quest line. One of the steps required you to give a bunch of cloth to the guy walking around begging for cloth for the orphans. He tells you this should be enough to last them all year, but since the game had no instancing then, he goes right back to begging for cloth right after. So we decided he was a scammer and spent the next 10 minutes following him around Ironforge and warning people not to get scammed. It was pure RP gold.


Classes felt unique.


World of Warcraft has really become a disgustingly simple game at the basic level. I’m not mocking the skill of high ranking players, the toughest content is still a challenge. But in the most basic sense, WoW classes have been reduced to different flavors of the roles Healer, Damage and Tank. While other MMORPGs like Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV have fully developed support and crowd-control classes, in WoW these are just secondary functions that most classes can choose to help with. It doesn’t really matter that much if you are a Druid tank or a Warrior tank, as long as you can hold enough threat.

It used to be very, very different. It’s not even just combat balancing either. Classes used to be balanced across the entire game, but not in each aspect. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in some ways and that’s why it isn’t like that anymore. Basically, it’s easiest to explain like this: A mage was undeniably better in PvP than a Warlock, but a Warlock got a free mount at level 40. Since mounts cost 80g, which was almost inconceivable back then, this was an enormous bonus. So yes, the Mage could annihilate the Warlock in a duel, but the Warlock was already galloping from dungeon to dungeon, while the Mage was grinding gold to purchase a mount. It was the same with Warriors vs. Paladins. Other classes were balanced in ways like Priests were by far the best healers, but Paladins and Druids could also tank if needed.

There’s also something to be said for the fact that being able to create a portal was once a skill that would make you rich. Before flying mounts, long range travel was a humongous pain in the ass. I could go on and on. There was just this strange sort of balance across all parts of the game, that really required you to get to know a competent player of each class.


Crafting and Professions were actually fun.


These days it’s difficult to understand why crafting even exists in WoW, besides achievements. It has become little more than a boring chore to attend to between expansions, when you have absolutely nothing better to do. Blizzard has even so much as admitted this with recent expansions, by allowing you to craft plot-based weapons that are totally separate from and superior to traditional crafted gear. This all started when level progression got faster and faster. Crafting has been streamlined somewhat to keep up, but it’s like a turtle and hare race. You will blast up to whatever the current level cap is long before you can craft anything useful, then spend hours in low-level zones catching up your crafting to eventually make things that are moderately useful in endgame content (mostly consumables).

Would you believe me if I told you there was a time when even fishing was fun? There are a lot of changes in gameplay that have slowly made professions the awful tedium they are today. The faster progression is the biggest, but not the only one. There is also the fact that before Dungeon Finder, everyone wasn’t farming every instance for the very best gear. These days every single level 40 player is walking around with the best complete set for their class. In the old days, those random green items you would get from your professions would actually be useful. Not only that, the stuff you were crafting was actually useful, because your gear wasn’t already OP. The party leatherworker unlocking the next level of armor kit could literally be the difference that allowed you to complete a dungeon.

It’s really hard to even explain all the ways that WoW has gotten easier and made professions obsolete. Getting adequate bag space used to cost a fortune, so knowing a tailor was almost necessary. Basic potions were essential, even at low levels. There were also far fewer consumables in the game, so things like bandages and the many gimmicks made by engineers, were really useful items to have. This is another area where I could just go on and on. There are so many items and practices that are just made completely pointless in modern WoW and many of them relate to crafting.


Now I want to touch on a few things that are both good and bad. Most of these are things we remember fondly, but have been changed for obvious reasons as games have evolved. There are some things that people just plain will not tolerate, because standards have changed.


World PvP


In Vanilla WoW, there were only what are known today as PvP servers. While in modern WoW, this mostly marks a server where players are focused on competition, it also means that players of opposite factions can fight in contested areas. In Vanilla WoW, this was the only way to play and there were a lot more contested areas. Basically anywhere outside of your starting area, it was open season for the Alliance and Horde to go at it. This was parodied famously in the South Park episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft”. That episode may not make a lot of sense to people anymore, as nobody has participated in much world PvP in years. It’s honestly just more fun to do it in many battlegrounds WoW has made available, with their various level ranges. Just the effort to get enough people in one (non-instanced) place to have any lengthy combat is almost prohibitive today.

There are a lot of good reasons for this. While it’s fun to remember those massive battles we had in The Barrens and the Hillsbrad Foothills, that was like 2% of the time. What constant PvP mostly involved, was higher level players of the enemy faction camping in questing zones and griefing people for hours on end. It was super annoying and caused many a keyboard to be broken and account to be cancelled. So these days, anyone who wants to enjoy the quests and content should just go to a PvE or RP server and avoid this entirely.

In order to bring old players back and introduce new ones, something would have to be done about this. I think it’s essential to bring that conflict back for a successful Vanilla revival, but it would have to eliminate the griefing issue. The best methods I can think of is by making battles timed events, like Battlegrounds, to draw players in to compete at certain times. The other would be to just make certain zones contested only at certain times. Say for example you could have contested zones become PvP during peak hours on a server. So if you are questing in one of these zones and it hits about 7-10pm local time, you know it’s time to evacuate if you don’t want to fight.


Some Classes Sucked


What I said up above about class skills balancing out combat effectiveness is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s also the part where you go into a dungeon and all of that is useless. If you are playing a Warlock or a Paladin, it’s easy to look around at the other classes and their abilities and just think “F**k, why do I even exist?”. That was just the reality back then. For Warlocks especially, you were pretty much the black sheep of the whole community. Nobody wanted you in a party if one of the many other classes who could do everything better than you were around. Sure, they would take you if there wasn’t already a rogue and a mage, but you would never be selected over another class unless you were an absolutely godlike player.

Now that is a really sh*tty feeling.

I think for the most part, the class balance by patch 1.12 was decent, but there are a few changes that really should be made. Warlocks should be slightly better in general and Paladins should be able to excel in a role as long as they specialize. There is a reason that Paladins are now focused by moving the best bonuses way down each talent tree. The first solution Blizzard tried during WotLK was to just make them better, which lead to broken tanks that could also cast Lay on Hands every 20 seconds. It was really great after sucking for so long, but I admit it was a terrible solution. You could just have a party of 3 Paladins, that could steamroll anything intended for a party of 5. For Warlocks though, it worked very well, because they just got screwed on everything besides the mount.


The Graphics need the “Rose Tinted Shades” effect.


There is a practice in re-releases and remakes that I like to call the “Rose Tinted Shades” effect, after the similar term in psychology. Basically this means you shine up the graphics enough to not be an eyesore, while still preserving the look of the original. Nintendo did probably the best example of this with Wind Waker HD. The game looks exactly the way you remember it, without the crappy tube tv effects it actually had back then.

It would be pretty easy to put in things like better looking water and shadows, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. Really all Vanilla WoW needs to be functional on modern hardware is an HD facelift. To my mind that would mostly have to do with draw distances and textures. On modern higher resolution monitors, it’s easier to make out just how awful the terrain in the distance looks. It’s also quite noticeable when NPCs pop into view. Just a few little tweaks (much like what can be achieved with console commands already) could make it very playable, even by modern standards. Similarly it would be very easy to upscale the menus and UI a bit.


Make Meeting Stones Matter


You may have noticed those funny looking obelisks with Hearthstone emblems on them near Dungeons. Those actually used to do something. You see, before Dungeon Finder, someone would trek out to the Dungeon (often in hostile territory) and put out the call for their friends to join them. It was a pretty crude system, but it lead to many fun and frustrating moments. Obviously there were too many of the latter and that’s why we don’t use them anymore. I’m not saying I have the solution, but something would need to be tweaked.

I would be strongly against just adding Dungeon Finder. I think that was probably the biggest thing that changed how it feels to play WoW. There must be baby steps we could take in between though. Like maybe making it possible to create portals to meeting stones with a consumable item or something like that. If players didn’t have to spend up to an hour and risk death to get a party together, it would make the experience much more approachable. Not saying I don’t miss some of those random conflicts around Deadmines and Wailing Caverns, but it was definitely something best left in the past.


I just want to wrap up me love letter to classic WoW by saying it is just plain stupid not to make money on this content. Almost every other game Blizzard has made is available for sale in some shape or form, yet there is no way to play a version of WoW that is only 13 years old (well besides private servers of course). Sure, I can see that you would not want to cannibalize sales of modern WoW, but that’s not very realistic. Nobody is going to only play the tiny bit of content in Vanilla vs. the giant buffet that is modern WoW. Realistically it should have no monthly cost or be included with a retail WoW subscription. I would totally see it as an experience like Diablo being patched to run on modern systems. You may crack out on it for a while, but you aren’t going to stop playing newer games.

Realistically, Vanilla Wow could run on mobile platforms, but it would still require a keyboard. Most tablets can be equipped with one though, so I don’t really see this as a significant barrier. In an ideal world, it would work similar to Gameloft’s very WoW-like Order and Chaos, where you can play it on both PC and mobile, preferably on the same servers.

I’m not really expecting Blizzard to read these posts, but if you read them and also want to play Vanilla WoW again, spread the idea!

  1. Dennis Castello says:

    I wouldn’t mind going back to the Vanilla content if we could keep all the interface refinements.

    • ryanlecocq says:

      That would be extremely difficult working with only the release versions. There’s actually a good reason that the private server community just picks one popular version of each expansion. Without Blizzard’s internal files showing how they implemented certain things, it’s hard to just plop it into older versions.

      Some things can be done, like I have played on WotLK servers that had flying mounts in Azeroth, Worgen and Goblin races and mounts from later versions. Figuring out the steps Blizzard took to make it work can be really difficult for things like gameplay mechanics and interface though.

      There is a version I want to see on a private server. Most are not aware, but there was a compatibility update released right before Cataclysm that had the game engine changes of that expansion, but still featured the un-altered old world. So you can run in 64-bit mode with DX11, which makes it run way better on newer PCs. Also has newer graphics effects. There are some debatable things though, like it has the wider class selection (ie Human Hunter, Tauren Druid etc) and class changes introduced in Cata.

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