With World of Warcraft's Shadowlands pre-launch event sending us back to Northrend, the torch I carry for Wrath of the Lich King has been growing quite a bit brighter. Now that we can choose what expansion to level through, it seems like a good time to get nostalgic for the WoW that was, and through my rose-tinted glasses it doesn't get better than the return of Arthas and the Scourge.
Back in vanilla, I'd only started playing because I wanted to pick up where I'd left things after Warcraft 3. I wasn't remotely interested in MMOs, but I was still wild about Warcraft. By the time WotLK came along, I'd already been an MMO convert for years, but that connection to Warcraft 3, and the reappearance of its fallen hero, ensured I was invested straight away.
From the moment you make landfall on Northrend, you've got the Lich King in your sights. The expansion's Big Bad looms over everything, so even when you're meandering through throwaway quests or doing a spot of rep grinding, you've always got this grudge match ahead of you. While each zone contains some discrete storylines, the narrative has the sensibilities of a more conventional RPG, drawing you across Northrend through interconnected quests and eventually into a final showdown.
WotLK is the closest Blizzard has come to actually making you feel like a hero, the protagonist of your own adventure, and since then it's actually rushed off in the other direction, shining the spotlight on its NPCs. I'm all for the NPC drama, and I've even enjoyed quite a lot of Sylvanas's divisive Battle for Azeroth arc, but it does make me feel like I'm just witnessing or helping out during major events rather than being key to them. If there's drama, let me be part of it.
This was also a criticism made by former WoW designer Chris Kaleiki, who recently left Blizzard after 13 years. In a video, he explained that he'd been unhappy with the state of the game, in particular the concessions made to create a more solo-friendly environment and the focus on the scripted story.
"Warcraft and WoW has always had a story," he said, "but lately I think in the modern game the story is just a bigger part of it. The characters and all their own dramas really soak up a lot of air in the game. Whereas I think in a virtual world, in an MMO, really the players are the story."
In WotLK, there are plenty of characters hamming it up, scheming, making big speeches and generally vying for attention, but it still manages to feel like a personal journey, even with all these other players going on that same journey. It's a bit insulting when I'm called "hero" or "champion" in the newer expansions, like I'm getting a participation award. I do not need a pat on the head for handing in some animal carcasses, but apparently I do get jealous when NPCs get all the attention.
The story of WotLK did not make WoW feel any less like an MMO. You could spend countless hours questing alone, but to get stuck into the end game you'd need to go out and talk to people, or become an active member of a guild. Blizzard created a LFG interface back in The Burning Crusade, but it wasn't until the last major WotLK patch before Cataclysm that the dungeon finder was introduced. And now we've got the group finder, which means we never have to talk to anyone again. It was the end of an era, really, where the multiplayer part of MMO was the big selling point, rather than something that could be pushed off to the side.
Back in April, Blizzard co-founder Mike Morhaime, who left the company in 2019, attributed WoW's declining subscription numbers to the chipping away of its social appeal. Back in the days of WotLK, it boasted 12 million subscribers, but by 2018 the number had reportedly dropped below two million.
"I would also just observe," said Morhaime, "that as World of Warcraft evolved over the years it actually kinda became less social because, in an effort to achieve more accessibility, we kinda removed some of the reasons why you needed to play with the same group of people over and over."
Blizzard doesn't give out subscription numbers anymore, but it claims that the launch of Classic saw subscriptions double. Classic is appealing because it simply turns back the clock, and I'm really hoping that we'll end up eventually seeing TBC and WotLK getting a similar treatment. If they do, however, I doubt I'll play much of them after I get that initial nostalgia kick. I might have grumbled at first, but I've gotten used to all these quality of life additions, and I rather like not having to stand around spamming the LFG channel or putting up with guild drama just because I need some help killing something. That era of WoW was perfect for me then, but I've not got the time or patience for it now.
Judging by what players have come to expect from expansions, if it was to launch today, brand new, it would probably be received pretty poorly. Compared to pretty much every expansion after it, WotLK is sparse. The giant croissant that is Northrend remains my favourite continent—though Pandaria is prettier—and I'll always have a soft spot for the Death Knight, especially its memorable intro, but there were no big shake-ups or expansion-defining features. Blizzard started using phasing more, so players could see the world subtly change as they progressed through the story, and PvPers got a sandboxy outdoor PvP area in the form of Lake Wintergrasp, so there were still noteworthy new additions and a few experiments, but compared to something like Cataclysm or Legion, it's pretty conservative.
Once you've rebuilt the world, you've set yourself a pretty high bar for future expansions, really, and now they all launch with a giant pile of twists and unique systems, desperately trying to keep things fresh. WoW no longer has to worry about competition from any other MMOs—one of the many benefits of being one of the few survivors of the Great MMO Wars—but there's a growing army of demanding live service games that dwarf it dramatically. Battle for Azeroth didn't make a great case for returning to the now nearly 16-year-old game, but Shadowlands might.
Shadowlands launches next week, but the story is already in motion. Sylvanas has destroyed the Lich King's Helm of Domination, the Alliance and Horde are dealing with a Scourge invasion, and their leaders have been kidnapped and dragged into the afterlife. The pre-launch event is all very WotLK, and Shadowlands even makes Death Knights available to all races, but really the expansion feels like it could be the beginning of a new era for WoW—one where progression is fundamentally different.
Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick recently told investors that pre-sales of Shadowlands were the highest that the company had seen at that stage before release, and it does feel like there's more anticipation and more people talking about WoW again than I've seen in years. The level squish and the ability to pick an expansion to level in are both live already, beckoning people back ahead of launch. Shadowlands was going to be the first expansion I skipped, but the last update got its hooks in me and now I'm in for the long haul.
So while I absolutely do still miss the days of WotLK and doubt I'll ever be that into an MMO again, I don't know if WoW would have actually survived for 16 years had it not adapted and changed, growing with its players and trying to ensnare new ones. The thing that brought me back this time was an overhaul that takes it even further away from that classic era, though in a way that celebrates every expansion. Hopefully it won't stop changing.