World of Warcraft Classic’s permadeath mode makes a 19-year-old game feel new
If you want to see how a simple rule change can transform a game, look no further than the recently added Hardcore servers for World of Warcraft Classic. Only available in Classic Era form – that is to say the mode which reproduces the game (more or less) as it was during its launch phase, before the release of any expansion – these servers apply a functionality World of Warcraft never had before: permanent death.
This should be an absolutely terrible idea. World of Warcraft Classic is not Diablo, where hardcore permadeath modes are a staple. This is not a fast-paced action role-playing game designed for solo play, with flexible character classes that allow the player to use their skill choices and loot to effectively rethink their class to to guarantee its ability to survive.
No. World of Warcraft Classic is, by modern standards, a glacially slow MMORPG, with strictly delineated classes designed to fit into group roles, where the player’s investment in their character is expected to last for hundreds, if not thousands of years. hours. Its leveling curve is depicted on an epic scale through endless expanses of hardscrabble, peppered with challenging quests, dungeons, and packs of monsters designed to surprise players. The idea of losing all that hard-won progress is horrible. Adding permanent character death to this design seems masochistic to the point of being a bad joke.
Well, if that’s the case, the joke’s on me: I’m on my fifth Hardcore character. I’m one of the thousands of players flocking to the official hardcore servers that Blizzard has set up, and I’m having a great time.
Hardcore revitalizes this early era of Wow completely – more completely, I would say, than the launch of Classic itself did so in 2019. This version went back in time to 2004-2006 in terms of content and game design, and it was briefly exciting to return. But it failed to put the players back into the same captivating state of mind they had enjoyed during this period. Trained, for 15 years, to rush and optimize their journey in the game, the Wow the community ate Classic and either moved on or settled into the endgame of raids. Classic It was definitely worth playing, but there was no way to get the magic back.
Only, it turns out that yes – because, in the context of an MMO like Wow, Hardcore mode isn’t just a set of rules that change the feel of the game itself; it’s social engineering that changes the way people play it and interact with each other.
From moment to moment, hardcore elevates the gaming experience. WoW Classic in the way you expect. It’s tenser, more immersive, and reinforces your engagement in the game design. Wow, especially in its sprawling original form, each class has a toolbox that extends well beyond the basic skill rotation you need to deal damage, tank, or heal (but especially make damage, in the context of the upgrade). Much of this is easily overlooked and, in many cases, has been removed over the years.
But as you look to improve your survivability and get yourself out of sticky situations, almost every skill suddenly gives you a potential advantage. Those racial cooldowns you always forgot about, or caster interruptions that only bothered you when it was a required part of a raid boss mechanic, can now save you when you engage too deep against a group of three normal enemies. Professions, too, can save lives: on Hardcore servers, everyone is an alchemist or engineer, using hail potions and dropping target dummies to ward off threats. If, in Diablo, Hardcore is above all a question of build optimization, in WoW Classicit’s about learning your course thoroughly and keeping everything it can do in mind.
Hardcore mode has also revived the lost art of running away. The hardest skill to learn in Hardcore is knowing when you’re being beaten – or rather feeling it right before you’re about to be beaten – and abandoning your dignity and running away. (Ironically, this becomes increasingly difficult as you progress through the game, as a false sense of accomplishment lulls you into complacency.) This is anathema to the way World of Warcraft has been played for the better part of the last 19 years, the aim of which was to push your character to the limit of their abilities, to better maximize experience gain and leveling speed – particularly during quests in Wow has become more lenient over time. In Hardcore, however, the only thing that matters is staying alive, so you better learn to be a coward.
But the most profound changes brought about by hardcore are social. Daily Quests and Upgrading Wow has been a solitary experience for many years now, as most players go through these parts of the game solo with their heads down. The higher stakes of permadeath encouraged players to open up and include each other again. Party invitations are common, whether to ensure no one misses the opportunity to mark that named enemy for a quest, or to make fighting elite mobs safer, or simply to make it easier to work. There’s not a lot of talking, but there’s a renewed sense that we’re all in this together, which is what MMOs were all about.
I feel foolish for not predicting an even more dire consequence of permadeath: leveling zones are always busy, because people are constantly creating new characters, because people are always dying. Outside of the launch of new expansions or the first few days of a new server, it’s rare for low-tier areas to be busy, as players naturally filter toward high-tier and endgame content. If anything, WoW Classic Hardcore bucks this trend, and it’s primarily what feels like a time portal back to the game at launch. Everywhere you go there are players running. There is life. (And death: The carpets of player corpses around early difficult upgrade points, like Tiragarde Keep in Durotar, are awfully funny. “Take a moment to remember our fallen comrades,” said a companion, and I dutifully typed /cry.)
Redditor centcentcent summed up the appeal of Hardcore servers perfectly in an article titled “For what?»:
It’s 2023, I’m 38 years old and I’m a level 17 cleric in classic hardcore World of Warcraft. Why am I playing this? The gameplay is slow, the quests are tedious, it takes forever to get to anything, my rotation is simple and repetitive. Why is this the only game I’ve been thinking about lately? Hours pass and all I’ve done is kill Old Murk-Eye and collect some condor meat. This is the most fun video game I’ve had in a long time. For what? I spend hours on something that could disappear with one disconnection. I love it. There are people everywhere, the world seems alive. Everything has weight, there is a sense of danger and progress. Soon the dead. What if I die… I’ve always wanted to try a dwarven warrior.
Hardcore is not what World of Warcraft was never meant to. (In fact, one of its main innovations was to lighten death sentences in a genre in which they tended to be quite harsh.) But it was more successful in reviving the spirit of the game when it launched than anything since 2004. Don’t worry. I am wrong; losing a character is absolutely infuriating, especially when disconnected, which happened to me once. Every time I lost a character, I cussed it out. But every time, after a while, I go back.
One day, during this period of mourning for one of my characters, I decided to transfer his ghost to a normal server (a service offered for free by Blizzard), resurrect him and continue my journey. But it wasn’t the same. The place was deserted. The fight seemed hollow and boring. The world didn’t seem alive. And me neither.