World of Warcraft Classic is here, giving new and old players alike a chance to return to the gurgling infancy of the biggest MMO on the planet. For some people, it’ll be an entirely new experience; a chance to experience the-world-that-was, before fresh races and environmental cataclysm altered the landscape of the game. For others, it’s a chance to remind newer players exactly how good they’ve got in now, in their easy, elegant world of Dungeon Finder, tutorials, and quest instructions that actually make sense. This feature, then, is primarily for people who lived through the horror and excitement of pre-Cataclysm WoW, who want to shout at clouds like an angry old man and remember how much harder things were in the olden days. Young MMO players today, eh? Don’t know they're rezzed.
Queuing for hours
An obvious place to start. At its peak, you’d load World of Warcraft, pop in your details, then eat dinner, paint a bridge, or grow a full-length beard while waiting to enter the game. It could take hours. The only consolation is that you could listen to the excellent menu theme over and over and over—and it never got better than the one in vanilla WoW—and imagine all the cool things you’d be doing it you were actually playing. And the authentic-but-irritating news is that WoW Classic has recreated this with stunning accuracy, because there aren’t enough servers to accommodate demand. Great work!
Travelling everywhere on foot
This sounds like a weird one, because yes, you can technically still run everywhere in modern World of Warcraft. You just don’t need to. Current WoW players get their mounts at level minus-20, three months before they’ve made the decision to start playing the game, and they’re basically free. But in Vanilla WoW, you’d spend levels 1-40 running everywhere like a peasant, driven by the tenebrous hope that one day you too would be able to afford a basic white goat like the other, better dwarves. If you were lucky, a class skill would help you traverse vanilla’s vast expanses slightly quicker—thanks, Ghost Wolf!—but it was still excruciatingly slow.
Many of the areas were massive, and, prior to Patch 4.2.0, flight paths had to be "discovered" before a player could use them. Learning to ride was expensive, too. Trainers would teach apprentice riding at level 40 for 100 gold, and when you finally hit level 60, you had to pay again for the journeyman riding skill that would enable you to buy a swift mount that would double your speed—in this case, a cool 1000 gold. Was it worth it? Yes, if only so you could find a use for the ‘walk’ key and saunter into Goldshire or The Crossroads like a high-fantasy cowboy. Can Tauren be cowboys? Is that weird? Let’s move on.
Did you just scoff at the thought of saving 100 gold? If so, it’s likely you never experienced the crushing poverty of vanilla WoW. Just like real life, there were players who were absurdly rich and had all the best gear, and there were others who’d scrape a living selling vendor trash just so they could rub two copper coins together.
For many players, making money was a grind. Everything was costly. Even training your skills came at a price, diverting funds away from that precious mount you were saving for. Making money involved repeated trips back to traders to sell your grey junk, and many vanilla players saved time by inventing their own get-rich-quick schemes. As a penniless herbalist, I used to farm swiftthistle—a herb used by rogues to make thistle tea, popular with high level players who couldn’t be arsed to pick their own. And because swiftthistle doesn’t have its own node, this meant literal hours of plucking briarthorne and mageroyal to find a randomly dropping herb.
Others would spend days angling for Deviate Fish in Lushwater Oasis, or murdering turtles in HIllsbrad in the hope they’d drop pearls. A friend of mine had a successful venture butchering gorillas in Stranglethorn so he could game the heavy leather marker on the auction house. Everyone had a business plan, and most of them were awful. I could pretend that being disgustingly impoverished gave everything an increased sense of value; but truthfully, it sucked.
Relying on wiki sites
Learning to play WoW now is a streamlined experience. Yes, you’ll still need to supplement your knowledge with websites, but you can learn most of what you need in-game. In the early days of vanilla WoW, however, your entire existence was split between actually playing the game and tabbing in and out of your browser in an attempt to work out what the hell you were supposed to be doing.
The in-game tutorials were essentially non-existent, and that meant relying on sites like WoWhead, WoWwiki and the sadly departed Thotbot. To have a hope of knowing what you were doing you had to actually read the quest logs, and even that wasn’t foolproof—see Mankrik’s wife in the entry below. Essentially, your first ten levels in WoW were like trying to assemble IKEA furniture while buried alive. It was often so confusing that players would resort to adding third-party add-ons such as Quest Helper just to get some sense of purpose of direction.
Grind, grind, grind
Ah, yes. If you currently play WoW, you think you know grinding. You’ve spent an evening or two killing the repetitive mobs in a dull area. You’ve paid your dues. But mention the ‘g’ word to a WoW veteran and you’ll see the thousand-yard stare of a special forces veteran. Can you really call it grinding unless you spent three weeks—and I do mean three literal weeks—killing plainstriders and zhevra charger in The Barrens? The problem was acute in the famously sprawling Kalimdor zone, but the grind was present everywhere. It was compounded by the lack of quests and the limited ways to gain XP. You didn’t get XP from PvP or professions, and without Dungeon Finder, running an instance wasn’t always worth the time it took to assemble a group. Eventually, however hard you tried to avoid it, you’d have to spend a few evenings killing mobs. Or, more accurately, a few weeks.
This one is a bit partisan, because it’s a faction-specific experience (I did play Alliance too, honest). But mention vanilla WoW to a Horde player and it’s likely they’ll recall the majesty and depravity of Barrens chat: a frothing piss-cauldron of Chuck Norris jokes, tepid bants, and new players searching for Mankrik’s wife in Consumed by Hatred, the most famously vague quest in the history of the game. Much of how active Barrens chat used to be was due to its unusual design. It was a gigantic area with isolated flight paths. Moreover, it was constantly under attack by Alliance players who could simpy hop off the boat at Ratchet, sprint to the Crossroads, and murder all the quest givers. On top of this, it was an area you could waste months in, with enough size and variation in mobs to accommodate players from levels 10-25. This combination of scale, time, and activity meant there was plenty of time for chat - most of it spent running between towns because of the lacking flight paths—and there was lots to discuss. ‘Chuck Norris doesn’t have an ESC key on his computer’, etc.
Learning was horrific
As well as being permanently lost and confused, training new skills was a challenge for vanilla WoW players. Nowhere is this more obvious than with Pet Skills. Your pet’s offensive abilities all had ranks, which you had to learn using a different pet before you could apply them to your main. So if you wanted a skill outside the ones your main pet came with, you’d have to stop using them. Of course, the game never told you this, so many Hunters were running around with the basic skills their pet came with. And then there were weapon skills, which were removed in Cataclysm. You’d pick up a sweet new weapon, go to attack a mob, and spend the next hour swinging, missing, and causing Glancing Blows as you levelled up your skill in it. Yes, it sort-of made sense; no, it wasn’t very satisfying.
Vanilla WoW had an old-school honour system that was removed in Patch 2.0.1 when Burning Crusade arrived. This let you unlock military titles and gear, and made world PvP somehow more exhilarating. You could even lose honor by killing civilians from opposite faction—see the Barrens chat entry above. I spent months in vanilla pretending to be a highwayman before I discovered that it was much easier and faster to gain PvP ranks in the Battlegrounds, added in patch 1.5. But even then, it didn’t compare to the immersive, exhilarating feeling that every player was part of a greater struggle against an enemy force. I may have only made it Senior Sergeant—which feels a bit being deputy manager in a team of two—but it’s still one of my proudest vanilla WoW achievements.
Installing from discs
Let’s finish with a nice, tactile one. This is an entry that’s true of every old game, but there was something prestige about the boxed copies of WoW, even if the thought of installing an online game from discs now feels like jittering madness. From the vague boxed instructions that could only hint at the levels of depth within the game, to the gorgeous artwork and satisfying velcro tab that kept the box closed, everything about the vanilla WoW box feels delightfully antiquated. There’s also something special about knowing that the version that comes on the disc is a venerable, unpatched mess, exactly as the Blizzard gods first intended. A true relic of the age.