Published December 13, 2019
It’s no secret that we live in an age of manufactured nostalgia. In the summer of 2019 alone, you could go to your local movie theatre and watch Aladdin, Men In Black, Godzilla, Toy Story 4, Child’s Play, or The Lion King. Sequels, Remakes, TV adaptations, and Spiritual Successors define the media market, capitalizing on the warm familiarity of childhood memories for hype, minimizing the investment costs inherent in developing new properties, and defusing progressive criticisms either through superficial ‘representation’ or post-modern winking at the audience.
Given this cultural backdrop, it would be easy to criticize the biggest game release of 2019 – World of Warcraft Classic – as just the latest and most egregious offender in the nostalgia industry. At the urging of fans, WoW Classic’s developers built it to be as close to a replica of the game as it existed in 2006 as possible. The integrity of the project, and therefore its appeal lay in this #nochanges mindset. But, while the one-to-one re-creation of an old game may seem at first glance like the logical conclusion of game development in the age of nostalgia, it in fact represents something far more authentic and promising.
WoW Classic is not mere homage. It is not a highlight reel, or a wistful sigh, or a girl in a wheatfield. Rather, it is an affirmation of principles that worked in the past and can still work today. “Tradition” as Mahler said, “is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” And WoW Classic has passed the torch to a new generation of players who want to game in a world uncorrupted by the progressive innovations that the last decade and a half has wrought on the World of Warcraft.
You see, much like the modern world, Retail World of Warcraft is a soulless, masturbatory, atomized shell of its former self plagued by the consequences of technological innovation and a foolish belief in the perfectibility of man. At each step along the way, supposedly rational decisions aimed at improving “quality of life” instead alienated players by optimizing mere efficiency at the expense of emergent experience.
Take the “Dungeon Finder” tool introduced in WoW’s second expansion, for instance. Whereas prior to its introduction, players were forced to communicate with each other in order to form parties for group-based content, afterward the Dungeon Finder allowed them to bypass any social interaction with the click of a button. The game itself would sort players into groups and the rest of the action would proceed from there. From a market optimization perspective, the Dungeon Finder was a miracle. Yet though friction and transaction costs were slashed, the individual player found the game drained of its vitality. The real magic of the game, it seemed, had flourished in the spaces created by inefficiency.
As the years dragged on, the developers continued to make changes, to tear down fences, always in the name of greater “choice” for the player. After all, who could object to more choice? You can imagine a Steven Pinker – a liberal optimist – describing the history of World of Warcraft.
“Look at the bad old days” he might say “when almost nobody had an epic-quality item. Look how far we’ve come since then. Look at the variety of zones, of mounts, of cosmetic options. Now, everyone can get a full set of purples!”
But the player numbers never quite seemed to support this narrative of progress, and eventually Blizzard Entertainment decided to stop publishing them altogether.
Demands for a Classic World of Warcraft server option were initially met with snide dismissal and accusations of false nostalgia. But as the Retail version continued to degenerate, the movement advocating for a return to tradition, to the philosophy of game design that had made WoW a success in the first place, steadily gained momentum. These players were driven by the conviction that WoW had been good because of the structural differences – the adversities and inefficiencies – that idealistic reformers had eroded over time. They did not want the pandering or empty gestures at a long-gone childhood that the nostalgia industry promises. They wanted a restoration, and a future built on the lessons of the past rather than a contempt for it. And, in August of 2019, they got it.
WoW Classic has its problems. Its secrets are all known. 15 years of analysis and communication have sapped it of the mystique it once had. Balance remains an issue. But Blizzard’s subscriber numbers have registered the single largest increase in the game’s history and the game remains alive and popular.
The success of WoW Classic is, perhaps, the single most reactionary event of 2019. Gamers have shown that – when given the option – they will pick the unforgiving, random, and brutally hierarchical world of the mid-2000’s over the spiritual torpor that the meddling of liberal technocrats has since produced. The desire to return to the WoW of days gone by was not mere nostalgia. Sometimes the past really was better after all.
Follow Kashiwagi on Twitter at @kwamurai