The World of Warcraft Classic team recently announced that they are adding Tokens to Wrath of the Lich King Classic. A modern staple of the “Retail” WoW experience, Tokens essentially allow players to convert in-game gold into subscription fee payments. Crucially, though, those Tokens can be purchased with real money and then sold to other players for in-game gold via the auction house. In essence, that means that Tokens also allow players to pay Blizzard money for WoW gold.
Tokens have been a divisive feature ever since they were added to World of Warcraft in 2015. While tokens do allow people to grind for their playtime rather than pay a monthly subscription fee, they’re also seen as a way for Blizzard to take the money that was previously going to third-party gold sellers. Mind you, those are the same third-party gold sellers that you could get banned for using. Many WoW fans have long argued that Tokens were just Blizzard’s way of sanctioning and profiting from a controversial practice that compromised the spirit of the whole adventure. Gold was meant to represent your efforts, adventures, and guile. Now, it could just as easily represent how much money you’ve spent on the game.
In some ways, though, those Tokens were a byproduct of WoW‘s evolution from 2004 to 2015. They weren’t universally beloved, but they represented certain changes in the community and the game’s design philosophy that had occurred during that time. That’s a big part of the reason why their addition to Wrath of the Lich King Classic is such a big deal. After all, the WoW Classic experience was at least spiritually founded upon the idea of winding the clock back.
From the moment Blizzard announced Classic, they emphasized the authenticity of the experience. While the studio acknowledged that certain modern infrastructure and interface additions would need to be made, the nature of the arrangement was made abundantly clear. This was a chance to experience WoW as it once was in an official way. That promise was fuelled by vocal members of the WoW community whose cries of “no changes” reinforced the idea that Retail WoW‘s biggest problem was that it had strayed too far from its roots.
From the moment it launched, the reception to WoW Classic was mixed. For some, there was no going back. They had clearly forgotten about (or chose to ignore) many aspects of the game that simply hadn’t aged well or were never that great in the first place. More often than not, though, those most disappointed in Classic simply realized that they couldn’t recreate their exact memories. Maybe much of the game was roughly the same, but they had changed, the other players had changed, and gaming had changed.
However, WoW Classic was successful, and I’m not just talking about the ways it attracted thousands of new and returning subscribers. As someone who barely experienced WoW back in the day and bounced off the modern version of the game, I immediately fell in love with Classic. The refresh the game offered was certainly welcome (try not to feel left behind jumping into a game nearly 20 years after its release), but there really were elements of the base WoW experience that had been tragically lost over the years.
Most notably, the slow pace of the game’s leveling process and the challenges you faced along the way often made interacting with the community a necessity. That probably sounds like a simple concept for an MMORPG, but it isn’t. Retail WoW is designed to expedite so many parts of the process in ways that often cater to the solo player experience. That approach is convenient, but it compromises the fundamental concepts that games like WoW were built upon. MMORPGs are supposed to be epic adventures that can only be properly experienced alongside (and with the help of) others. Being forced to abandon your solo play comfort zone and embrace the struggle was a strange part of the magic.
Yet, Classic was a game constantly torn between what was and what is. There was no way to completely roll back the clock on years of progress. So much of the Classic experience had been “solved” by the game’s original players and those who had kept playing the “vanilla” version via private servers. It was a double-edged sword. While all of that information made so many parts of the game more accessible than ever, it also removed a lot of the mystery from the original experience. More importantly, it fostered a community of players who believed in playing WoW the “right” way.
As Classic grew, that problem grew with it. End-game raid content filtered out some of the more casual players who lacked the time and commitments that part of the game often required. Those who were left often looked at that part of the game in a strict way that the rest of the experience didn’t always demand. Finding time and making friends wasn’t always enough. You were now required to be optimized in accordance with the ways that a series of online graphs and charts defined an optimized WoW player.
Some servers suffered from that problem more than others, but even slightly more casual raiding teams began emphasizing optimization in ways that alienated otherwise dedicated players. Certain classes, certain builds, and certain equipment soon determined who earned valuable spots on a raiding team. Sometimes, those requirements helped to filter out players who were not really ready to raid. Too often, they were used to incorporate a toxic “pro gamer” approach to a game that had otherwise benefited from an expanded community knowledge base. It didn’t take many raid leaders with more time on their hands than actual leadership experience to fuel the idea that seconds of efficiency were suddenly worth more than the hours of experience players had otherwise been perfectly willing to put into the game.
And so, more and more people who stuck with WoW Classic turned to gold sellers. Buying gold was often seen as the most efficient way to keep up with those increased demands, risks be damned. Gold bought you better equipment, more resources, and saved you from the sometimes social pressures that went along with playing the game. Along with the gold came bots designed to harvest slowly replenished resources before human players could often get to them. The influx of gold also fuelled the rise of GDKP runs, which let you bid on items acquired during a raid. The prices for those items (which were often dictated by those who had acquired a suspicious amount of gold) could be absurd. Still, some found such runs to be the best way to get into a raid group at all.
Even in the more casual Wrath of the Lich King guild I last raided with, buying gold was simply seen as another way to increase efficiency. Many of those who bought gold weren’t trying to be detrimental to others’ experiences. They were just trying to make things easier on themselves in a game that suddenly felt more demanding. Yet, the very act of purchasing gold soon widened the already notable gap between the “haves and have-nots” that was naturally formed by community expectations and the demands that go with them. Though WoW could be experienced and enjoyed at many paces, the idea that you needed to clear content as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to properly experience the game had taken root.
That’s why the introduction of Tokens to Classic feels like such a defeat. In so many ways, Tokens represent the many things that went wrong with the game. That demand for more and more that drove so many players to gold sellers in the first place has now inspired the Classic team to make a decision the Retail WoW team made years ago. It’s an admission of defeat to the ways in which the fundamental design principles of the game have been corrupted and compromised. It doesn’t help that the admission is wrapped in a package that will inevitably make the company admitting defeat even more money.
So who is to blame? Well, Blizzard is an obvious culprit. At the very least, many members of the Classic community have been quick to lay much of the blame at Blizzard’s feet. It’s hard to fault their logic. It’s been clear for quite some time that Classic needed (and deserved) more care than Blizzard gave it. There were disagreements over what that care should look like (the “no changes,” “some changes,” and “many changes” groups were in constant conflict), but the response to those cries was too often to do nothing or to do very little. You got the sense that WoW Classic was really seen as a way to profit off an old game while establishing early on that the spirit of the whole thing involved Blizzard making little effort. Yet, one of the company’s most meaningful changes to the game in quite some time is the introduction of those Tokens. Classic deserved a better long-term plan than what it got.
Yet, some of the blame has to go to some of WoW‘s most toxic players. After all, most MMORPGs are inherently something of a social experiment. In this case, those who cried most often and loudest for everyone to play the game a certain way clearly got the last word. Mind you, many decent payers long rebelled against the fierce optimization requirements that often inspired people to buy gold in the first place. More often than not, though, the appeal of getting just a little bit better a lot faster was too strong to defeat. In any case, Blizzard certainly caved to the pressure and left many people wondering if “cash for gold” is just the natural evolution of the WoW experience over a long enough timeline.
Classic will linger on. The upcoming addition of “hardcore” servers is already generating quite a bit of buzz, you can still stick to the game’s pure vanilla servers (which remain Token free, for now), and Blizzard will inevitably find some way to continue the game once the Wrath of the Lich King expansion is finished. Yet, for a game founded on the idea of bringing things back to the way they were, the expedited introduction of Tokens has to be seen as the final failure of that mission. Now, those who think of trying to keep up with the WoW Classic experience in the ways that were initially intended (and often most special) are forced to feel like even more of a fool by both the game’s developers and players.