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WoW Classic will send millions of players home again tonight

Azeroth, untouched by Deathwing’s Cataclysm, is waiting.

They say you can never go home again. But tonight at 6pm ET, countless adventurers will do just that, as they return home to Azeroth.

The original Azeroth, untouched by Deathwing’s Cataclysm. Without a functioning Dark Portal to allow us travel to Outland or its alternate-universe counterpart, Draenor. An Azeroth where Pandaria is still shrouded in mysterious mist, the Broken Isles are still submerged, and Kul’Tiras and Zuldazar are none of our concern. The Alliance and Horde have no Draenei, Blood Elves, Worgen, Goblins, Pandaren, or any allied race in their ranks. Arthas is alive and well. Illidan is a bad guy on another planet somewhere. We’re no longer Champions of the Horde/Alliance, but unremarkable adventurers trying to make ends meet.

For better and for worse, we will be traveling back to the game we all fell in love with back in 2004. The game that revolutionized MMORPGs, and launched a series that is still going strong (relatively speaking) today. This is an ambitious project from Blizzard, and one many of us never thought we’d see — the infamous “you think you do, but you don’t” answer given at Blizzcon 2013 seems like a distant memory now.

So what changed in Blizzard’s philosophy to make them want to switch gears and give players what’s now known as WoW Classic? Well, cynically, the answer is more Monthly Active Users, but still, launching Classic is far more involved than dusting off an old server rack and flipping a switch. At last year’s Blizzcon, the Classic team outlined the herculean effort it took to make this blast from the past a reality — essentially, the team took the game engine as it was in Legion and then replaced nearly everything in the game with vanilla data, from quests to textures to polygon count, and removed features that were introduced to the game after patch 1.12. While it feels like it as you’re playing, Classic isn’t quite the original vanilla WoW on the backend; instead, it’s a painstaking recreation of it.

Blizzard seemed to realize the demand for such a game wasn’t going away, and frankly, in today’s nostalgia-obsessed pop culture climate, they’d be crazy not to try to capitalize on it. But that’s not to say this is a quick cash grab. When servers went live August 12 so players could choose a realm reserve their character names, the demand for Classic became apparent. Since then, multiple new servers have been added as every single PVE or PVP realm ended up classified as “High Population” or “Full” — weeks before the game was even playable.

The interesting thing about WoW Classic is it will mean different things to different people. For some players who have stuck around since vanilla WoW, like myself, it will be a surreal trip back home to the game that launched an obsession. I’ve already recreated my original WoW character to the best of my recollection, down to my Night Elf’s facial markings, and I can’t wait to jump back into the original experience, warts and all, with fifteen years of hindsight and experience sitting in my bags next to a dozen stacks of ammo and treats to keep my pet happy.

For others, who play WoW now or have in the past but missed out on the original vanilla experience, it will be an interesting look back at how things used to be. Veterans for years have talked with reverence in trade chat about how things used to be; now, everyone will get to live that experience first hand.

Some will stick around, grind out level 60, and even kill some raid bosses. But many will end up being tourists in this world, curious travelers looking to spice things up in between Battle For Azeroth raid nights, maybe getting to level 10 or so before burning out. The real test for Classic will be how server population looks after a couple of months, and all those “tourists” have gotten Classic out of their systems. How many people are really going to stick around to kill Kel’Thuzad by the time the Naxxramas phase comes around? Only time will tell.

But that’s a long way away, and people who are already dreaming of 40 man raids and phat loots are already missing the point. Vanilla WoW was just as much about the long grind to level 60, and the friends you made along the way. Without a Looking For Group tool to autonomously shuffle you into groups of silent mercenaries (silent until somebody messes up, of course), and without cross-realm functionality at all, social skills and integrity suddenly become much more important. Treat others as you’d like to be treated, lest you get a reputation as the realm’s ninja looter or otherwise jerk, which will preclude you from getting into groups to do the things you need to do.

For years, players ran and participated in private servers, which would preserve the vanilla experience as best they could without official Blizzard support. But due to an apparent change of heart (and Blizzard bringing the legal hammer down on these servers), we’re going to get the real deal tonight, opening up that experience to millions more potential time travelers. Credit must be given to Blizzard for recognizing they were wrong on their original stance against old-school servers — thanks to them, I can finally go home again.

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