What’s Vanilla?

In the context of video games, Vanilla, otherwise known as Classic, is a term referring to the original game prior to the release of expansions. Themepark MMORPGs require expansions and major content patches in order to function since the developers do not provide the community with the tools to generate content, thus, when the players have consumed the existing one, more must be released.

In November of 2004, Blizzard Entertainment released their new MMORPG World of Warcraft to astonishing success. Following the thriving RTS series Warcraft and largely based on the EverQuest model, WoW conquered the gaming world and became one of the most famous (and infamous) games of all time.

The period ranging from WoW’s release date to the date in which its first expansion, the Burning Crusade, came out is known as Vanilla WoW. Such a period lasted more than three years and saw twelve major patches, both expanding the content of the game and modifying the existing one. Talent trees, price tags, item drop rates, damage, health, crafting, combat mechanics and so forth: these were all subject to revision. Nonetheless, the core of the game, its main mechanics, its nature and the feeling it conveyed remained unaltered.

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WoW and the other MMOs

Blizzard’s MMO wasn’t the first in its genre. Lineage 1, Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot and many other brilliant games were pushing the envelope of gaming design and giving tangible form to the fantasies of thousands. Ultima, for instance, launched with a virtual ecology in which carnivorous animals survived by hunting down the herbivores, while the latter thrived by eating the dynamically spawning grass which grew higher if not consumed providing more food for the remaining herbivores. The carnivorous animals were much richer in resources and much more aggressive, inducing the players to hunt them down.

Let’s admit it: the system was a disaster! As soon as the servers went live, the players exterminated every living virtual being, predator, pray and vegetation alike, destroying the fragile ecosystem in a matter of hours. The team at Origin Systems tried to take care of the problem by greatly increasing the spawn rates of wild animals and splitting the player population into multiple shards, a concept largely corresponding to the contemporary realms or servers. Nothing could be done: the ecosystem was scrapped and the more widely known spawning system, quite common nowadays, took its place.

It didn’t work out, but it was the years 1997 and this attempt was carried out utilizing technology we would now consider primitive. A true pity that such a revolutionary idea would be all but forgotten, in many cases unnoticed by the players themselves, and never to be seen in subsequent titles, not even at the time of writing of this post, 21 years later.

The differences between Sandbox and Themepark MMOs are widely discussed amongst those who dedicate time to the analysis of the genre, but it’s generally accepted that the first MMOs, whose creators didn’t have such concepts in mind, were altogether sandboxy. These games were incarnations of fantasies recurring in the human consciousness: living in an alternate reality, less boring than the mundane, common, petty everyday life; being a shadowy thief, a mystical spellcaster, an adventurer lost in the unknown, a hero or a simple trader, a brilliant alchemist, a dark witch. Furthermore, video games were not as popular back in the day (imagine how sad humanity must have been) and the developing studios had small teams and humble budgets, thus the concept of user-generated content, meaning content produced by the players interacting amongst themselves and with the environment, was more popular.

EverQuest, numerically the most relevant game up until 2004, child of Sony Entertainment Online (today knows as Daybreak), had adopted a more streamlined approach, with content largely produced for the players by the developers. The hunger of the former was satiated through a regular output of expansions and patches that altered the gaming world and increased its volume. EQ was by no means simple, as it featured a plethora of game elements that would be considered odd and “unfair” in today’s MMO market. The race and religion of your character mattered greatly: not only certain races were statistically too weak to perform given roles in combat, but the gaming world and its NPCs would respond differently to such characteristics, eventually giving or precluding the player the possibility of venturing in some areas or accessing determined quests. There was no virtual market, such as an auction house. In fact, the UI elements and in-game mechanics that we are accustomed to today, such as a map, an automated stats distribution or even a quest log, were absent. As veteran EQ players explain, the game was satisfying to play not only because of its sizeable learning curve, DnD-esque gaming elements, novelty, and sense of community and accomplishment, but also because of the fact that it felt, and still feels, like a living virtual world, where death is punishing and victory sweet.

The sole fact that today Everquest is still alive and at its 24th expansion, Ring of Scale, is a testament to the quantity and quality of the production and proof that exploration, role play, difficulty, and creativity are intrinsic and unreplaceable parts of the MMORPG experience.

The Drums of War

Needless to say that, at a time in which MMORPGs took pride in having 3D graphics and a third person perspective, World of Warcraft was simply astonishing. The game wasn’t exactly good looking, not even for 2004, but its innovative cartoonish style and its immersive, well-designed environments conveyed a strong sense of beauty and anchored the player’s mind to the wonders of Azeroth. Furthermore, the game used a design similar to the one of EverQuest, but simplified the formula and made it much more intuitive. Gone was the bitter taste of death, the harsh consequences of bad choices, the strenuous NPC conversation system. The game featured a map, a player tracker, a market where one could auction their loot, a bank, some automated transportation and a plethora of delicious quests, kindly provided by NPCs with huge exclamation marks over their heads.

The dichotomy of accessibility and complexity is one that cannot be explored quickly and requires a separate blog post, but one thing must be understood: simplification and dumbing down are not the same thing. The first implies that the object in examination retains its core features, while the latter doesn’t. In a certain way, you might say that the early WoW was the simplification of the MMORPG formula, while the current WoW is its dumbing down.

Giving credit where it’s due, streamlining the gaming experience wasn’t the only appeal this new and exciting MMO had. With its extremely responsive commands, flawless animations, immersive sounds and exceptionally low latency, not to mention the beautifully composed musical scores, the game was a technological marvel: a polished, buttery smooth, crystal clean quality that has always been, a staple of Blizzard’s game development.

As related in a previous post, I was one of the millions who fell for WoW’s charms and soon made Azeroth their new home.

The Adventure Began

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Shortly after logging in for the first time, I had already created a list of characters, eager to explore every facet of the game. Each character had their own flavour and distinct purpose within the world itself, and not only in terms of combat. Mages could open portals to different cities across the two continents, while warlocks were the only ones who could summon their teammates to a location, after harvesting a soulstone and finding two others players in order to perform the summoning ritual. These characteristics wouldn’t be anything so special if Azeroth was not so difficult to traverse. But it was: portals were rare, flying mounts didn’t exist, automated flight paths were scarce and hard to acquire, and the world was populated with high-level mobs, some of which elites, ready to take a bite if you came too close. And that’s not even taking into consideration the opposing faction.

This exemplifies very accurately the relationship between an object (or a power) and the virtual reality it exists within. The ability to traverse space acquires importance only in a world difficult to navigate; the ability to conjure food and water is precious only if such resources are costly and hard to acquire; a great survivability is an advantage only in a dangerous land; an epic mount is extraordinary only if the others are more common. Classic MMORPGs were largely based on uniqueness and merit.

This challenge-reward apparatus was seamlessly integrated into the gaming world: it took the form of long and arduous quest chains, adventures spanning across Azeroth and not grouped within strict quest hubs, which required careful planning, strategic usage of spells and resources and, above all, made the company of others a necessity. The latter element should be obvious: what would the purpose of a Massively Multiplayer Game be if multiplayer was not a cardinal part of it? And what would be interesting in multiplayer if players didn’t socialize naturally, throughout their journey, while exploring, crafting, gathering, questing, and hunting for their enemies? How could multiplayer possibly benefit from automated, anonymous systems hurling players robotically into undemanding and quick dungeons where they would be showered with gold and “epic” loot?

The in-game economy was a constitutive element of WoW. Dost thou desire a fancy new gown? Perhaps an uncanny potion? Well, then. Thou should move thy fat ass and craft it or gather the coin to buy one because there was no easy way to obtain the gear and goods that the game’s difficulty would require you to have. Everything was in high demand, while resources were arduous to obtain, given the lack of flight and the lingering danger intrinsic to the world. The economy was thriving and inflation was handled through a series of high gold syncs embedded in the game.

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WoW’s class uniqueness was superb. Rogues were masters of ganking and good at prolonged, melee, single target combat, but they couldn’t AoE; warlocks and mages had good AoE, but ran quickly out of mana; druids were versatile, but not best at anything; shamans had mediocre heal and DPS, but they provided great buffs and benefits to the party; paladins were useful and protective, but didn’t have strong damage; warriors plunged courageously into combat, but had no way out, thus laughable survivability. Movement speed buffs, slows, stuns and crowd control were not evenly distributed and gave each class a distinct set of advantages and weaknesses. The game and class mechanics themselves were used by the developers to convey class identity, thus players didn’t require other RP elements. But we got them anyway: strange spells and abilities, such as Eye of Kilrogg, Eyes of the Beast, Ritual of Doom, Sanctity Aura, Detect Magic and many more; prolonged and arduous class quests with quirky, sometimes rather useful, rewards.

There can never be enough space to write about the wonders of Vanilla World of Warcraft. Suffice it to say that its impact on the gaming industry, both culturally and monetarily, was dramatic. It trumped its main competitors, sold more than expected, and soon became the most widely known product, both within and outside of gaming circles. The game’s great success had to be mimicked, its core features duplicated. Soon the gaming industry would invest abundantly in the attempt of claiming a portion of Blizzard’s market.

I’ll explore such dramatic and greatly disturbing events in my next post: The Importance of Being Vanilla [Part 2].