Vanilla Challenge: Levels 1-5

And so it begins.

To start with, let me just confirm that the process of pirating Blizzard’s IP by joining a private vanilla server is remarkably easy. I posted the instructions elsewhere, but the steps I followed were:

  1. Find website.
  2. Click the torrent link they helpfully provide.
  3. Wait for 5GB torrent to download.
  4. Create an account on a linked website in the meantime.
  5. Copy & Paste 1 line of text in the file.
  6. Double-click the WoW icon.

That’s it. There isn’t even an “installation” of vanilla WoW; the torrent has the folders already unpacked for you. So when people were stating that private servers are easier than getting into retail WoW, they were correct.

All that set up, I was in.


Someone apparently took my name already.

I went with a human paladin because that seems to be the experience that most people can relate to. Plus, if I recall correctly from my TBC experience, the Dwarven starting area is even worse in terms of running around aimlessly. Maybe some other time. Probably not.

The general paladin experience was pretty much as bad as I remembered. You start with two buttons: Seal of Righteousness and Holy Light. Combat consists of casting Seal and auto-attacking. For around 12-28 seconds. Per mob. I’m not joking:

For the full vanilla experience, you should watch the entire video. It’s exactly like playing!

Aside from the Time-To-Kill metrics and general pants-on-head asinine class design, I was also struck by smaller design issues that were blasts from the past. For example, the first quest you get is to kill Kobold Vermin behind the church. The steady stream of new players/alts ensured a general sort of Kobold holocaust, but it wasn’t until about the third dead Kobold that I realized I was killing the wrong ones. There were, in fact, three different layers of Kobolds: Vermin, Workers, and Laborers. Not to be racist, but they kinda all looked the same.

The other issue was boomerang quests, which is perhaps one of the more annoying quest designs in gaming to me. Specifically, a quest giver asking you to go to an area to kill mobs, then asking you to go back to the same area again and killing mobs slightly further in, and so on. The “Christmas tree” effect (getting to a new quest area and seeing dozens of “?”s) is kind of the result of bypassing the boomerang, but it is a far preferable state of affairs, IMO.


Also super important.

Then again, there weren’t any Christmas trees in vanilla or a portion of TBC, as quest givers did not appear on the minimap unless you were ready to turn something in. Indeed, that was my first exposure to absurd design Luddittes – post after post in the TBC forums crying about how much the game is diminished by having quests show up in the minimap. But I digress.

Upon hitting level 3, I decided to travel over to the dreaded Defias Vineyard. This was WoW’s “The Butcher” experience, introducing millions of players to a hostile, uncaring universe of pain and suffering in the form of rapidly respawning, high aggro-radius having mobs. The Vineyard was as advertised: hostile and uncaring. Well… mostly.

(Video starting from 6:06 from the prior one.)

I was invited to a group by a warlock who was also hunting for Defias bandannas and we aggroed in tandem for quite some time. Having been a solo player for so long, I almost felt uncomfortable being “confined” to a group, as if we were sitting next to each other on a bus with plenty of empty seats. Anyway, he DoT’d the enemies up, and I uselessly auto-attacked and tried to keep aggro. There were always other people running around the area, being chased by their gray-tagged mobs and occasionally stealing our own. It made me think about MMOs like GW2 where anyone can help anyone at any time, and still get credit for kills and the like even if you just dealt one blow. There is more cooperation there, but less socialization.

Not that I and the warlock talked much anyway.

Turning in the bandanna quest unlocked two more quests that required going to the exact same area and, by consequence, killing the same mobs. Classic boomerang. One of the quest mobs was named, but I don’t believe he was marked as an Elite or anything. Still, three mobs at once is a bit tough to handle when it takes you 20 seconds of auto-attacking to bring down a single dude, so I started inviting everyone who showed up near the mob respawn. There were three of us, and two more sauntered in, not accepting my invite. They ended up stealing the tag right from under us, because of course they did. Three to four minutes later, we collected four heads from one body and I dinged level 5.

Total time played: 1 hour, 15 minutes.



For the sake of science and amusement, I went ahead and rolled another human paladin, this time via the F2P Starter account in retail WoW. The differences, as you might imagine, are quite stark:

Time-to-Kill is sometimes 0.0 seconds, with mobs dying in the press of Crusader Strike and simultaneous melee auto-attack. Crusader Strike’s cooldown is 4.5 seconds, so we can just say 0-4.5 seconds TTK. And do note that I did not have any heirlooms or anything of the sort – the Starter account is not associated with my actual (lapsed) account at all.

The Defias are gone from the Vineyard, which is now aflame and overrun by orcs. It still teaches new players about aggro mobs, but there is essentially zero danger when mobs die in 2-3 hits. There was a quest to kill a specific named orc ala X, but he too went down in a manner that makes you question the robustness of the Horde’s espionage program.

Experiencing this new paradigm for the first time in years, sans the heirlooms which I had hitherto believed caused it, I am willing to make some concessions.

Nils has described the vanilla way as giving players the time and opportunity to keep their mind busy without actually being busy. I think I can appreciate this sentiment now, but not quite for the same reason as he. When it takes 20+ seconds to kill a mob, you are pretty much forced to “settle in” to an area. It will, after all, be where you will be questing for the next 10+ minutes. There is ample time to smell the roses, as you conspicuously not press buttons.

Conversely, when you are all but one-shotting mobs in retail, you are on the fast track. Move to blue area, kill 10 mobs, run back. Your focus is on the UI rather than the screen because that’s all you have time for. Pushing buttons is still always better than not pushing buttons, in my opinion, but you can’t exactly just stretch out the TTK numbers and insert button presses in all the empty beats. Which, now that I think about it, might be why I didn’t exactly enjoy the FF14 or Wildstar gameplay experience.

In any case, I hit level 5 with 15 minutes /played.

The funny/sad thing is that the speed is both too fast and not fast enough. If leveling is easy because the designers want more people to be in the current expansion endgame, well… put people in the current expansion endgame. The first couple of zones in every expansion are more or less tutorial zones for returning players already, so it should accommodate re-rollers just fine. Conversely, if the leveling still exists as some kind of nod to new WoW players or nostalgia junkies, it’s much too fast to satisfy anyone.

This split baby needs thrown out with the bathwater.


The challenge continues. I have little to no interest actually hitting 60 in vanilla, especially given the number of hours it supposedly takes, but I will play for a while longer. My next goal is to unlock the talent system, which traditionally started at 10, I believe. Can’t wait to start unlocking +2% damage for the next dozen levels thereafter.

Posted on April 25, 2016, in WoW and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. I know you are trying your hardest to paint vanilla in a bad light (hates paladin, rolls paladin…), but even in this post you don’t really accomplish that task. Case in point, you grouped in the first 5 levels in vanilla multiple times because it was actually beneficial (and this is you, someone who is intentionally ‘playing wrong’), while you didn’t group once (or even mention other players) in current WoW. In a nutshell you just displayed why vanilla is superior to current WoW for anyone looking for something more than rolling their face across the keyboard as fast as possible.

    Also saying the install is easy and having the word ‘torrent’ in the same sentence doesn’t work, as most people don’t torrent software, and for multiple good reasons.


    • Grouping is playing wrong. Maybe it was worth it for a paladin due to abysmal killing power, but in general you were better off soloing in classic WoW. Accordingly, the requests dried up past the starter zones.

      However, this could be different on a private server due to selection effects.


      • That’s… not correct, at least for vanilla back in 2004.

        Grouping meant you could complete all of the elite quests and kill the random elites, both of which dropped better gear than solo quests (not to mention grouping for dungeons was better all around), plus in a group you could complete higher-level quests for again better gear. Better gear = faster killing/less dying = faster leveling solo when you aren’t in a group.

        And in vanilla it was very, very possible to fall behind in gear, meaning even if you are level 30, unless you have been grouping or spending a lot of time making money to use the AH, you’re likely far behind in gear at that point, which made even at-level quests harder, elite quests out of the question, and your contribution to dungeons would be lower, to the point that (especially in a key role like tank or healer) your group might fail the dungeon entirely.


      • We’re only talking quests here, you have to group for dungeons.

        xp/hour was better solo, because you got (kills + turnin) xp instead of (kills / #ofmembers + turnin) xp. Solo was better even with faster killing speed, since travel time was constant and killing speed wasn’t faster enough. Everyone knew this in 2005, and it was very rare to group for a regular quest (mainly if you found some poor soul trying to level as a healer or something).

        There were some elite areas that were worthwhile to PUG for. The main one that comes to mind (for horde) is the troll area in the Hinterlands. For one off elites it was far more worthwhile to just kill them yourself if you could. Otherwise you tried to find a group, but waiting around was boring and bad xp/hour, so you were usually better just moving on unless there was a very good quest reward, which there often wasn’t. Vanilla quest rewards were bad.

        Ironically it is actually pretty easy to fall behind on gear now, both because you level much faster and because you don’t need to do every quest. In vanilla, by the 40s you had to scour the land for quests and do some grinding when you inevitably ran out. I’m not sure it matters at all now, but in Vanilla if you kept your weapon up to date you could let everything else slide, and casters didn’t even have to do that much.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Even in the video Az shows it takes 6min to kill one mob (assuming, didn’t actually watch), so I don’t agree that solo killing was faster (perhaps for rogues and other pure-dps, but certainly not for all classes). Plus a lot of times you would have a few quests, so by playing smart you could reduce travel time while increasing the kill time ratio.

        Not to say that grouping was always ideal, but it certainly had far more of a place in vanilla than it does in the 1hr-to-cap WoW of today.


      • The respawn timers in vanilla are easily 3-5 times those of current WoW, so if there was 2 of you competing for spawns it was always better to group. Also you could save each other with CC and stuff if one of you overpulled.


    • If you think this post is me trying to make vanilla look bad, I don’t know what to tell you. Other than you clearly have a low opinion on my writing ability, and that makes me sad.

      No, this post is me trying to be objective in the scope of the challenge. Otherwise, I would have conveniently left out the grouping, not included the retail experience, and so on. The paladin thing is legit though, and I don’t know why you keep glossing over the poor class design. This would be an important factor for a legacy server.


      • The Pali thing is a factor for people who want to mash keys. It’s the same as playing a healer and then complaining you can’t dps as well as a rogue, or intentionally picking a cloth wearer and commenting how the class can’t tank well. YOU PICKED THE CLASS THAT DOESN’T MASH KEYS, stop expecting to mash keys.

        There are people who like a slower style of play (See: FFXIV success), Pali offers that in early WoW. (Not to argue that it’s perfect, but the larger point still stands that vanilla > current, level 1-5 pali included) Want to mash more keys? Play a faster class, they exists in vanilla, might have to make it past level 5 though.


      • The paladin factor is for anyone who rolled a paladin because they enjoyed the mythology of the class, or liked Uther, or played D&D or any of the myriad of reasons people pick a class. It’d also be a factor for anyone who made it to vanilla endgame only to find out Blizzard stuck the Protection and Retribution specs in there as a joke, because they’re terrible class designers and couldn’t be bothered to fix the problem for 6+ years.

        Your FF14 comment is cute, because while it has a longer TTK and longer GCD than retail WoW, it absolutely didn’t have stretches of 28 seconds of auto-attacking. In fact, I’m pretty sure everyone talks about how many buttons you push by the time you hit 30 and beyond.


      • Again, you’re basically projecting your idea of fun to everyone else. Millions of people played a Pali to end-game and stuck with them, so clearly what you find broken worked for many (its like you jumping through a million hoops to play GTA:V while millions got it for $5 more and played it instantly. You justify the hoops, most consider you insane for doing what you do).

        My FFXIV Pali basically has 4-5 buttons at 60+ that I use 90% of the time, and it was 3 prior to like 30 or 40. My guess is you would say the class is highly flawed and in need of ‘fixing’ to be more mashy. I enjoy it, and would hate if SE ‘fixed’ it ala New Blizzard by making it a masher class, or turning the whole game into a brainless mashfest.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You are kind of hurting your own case by misrepresenting FFXIV paladin. You have 6 attacks in your main combos, plus 3 oGCDs on relatively short cooldowns, flash, and a million and a half damage reduction cooldowns. And most importantly, you are always pushing one button or another, at least once every 2.5 seconds.

        But it’s true that the paladin is by far the most simple class to play, and that as such it appeals to different players than say, a monk, or even a dark knight.


      • 6? Is that in the expansion? Because I’m on the post-2.0 quests at the old cap and my main combo is 3 attacks, or 2 if I go the short route. And the 3rd attack wasn’t gained until something like lvl 30, with the off-gcd attacks coming later than that.


      • Thats’s with the expansion, yes. Since you said 60+, I assumed you had it. At 50 pld is 1-2-3 all day long, with 2 oGCDs and flash to spice things up.


  2. The slower pace does have its uses. You remember the lay of the land more, and can eventually navigate without using the map. They didn’t make leveling faster to improve the new player experience though.


  3. What I take from this has very little to do with whether one version of the game is “better” or “worse”. All you are really saying, and all SynCaine and Matt and Nils are adding to the discussion, is that different people find different activities entertaining.

    That’s not just an opinion or even a belief: there you are, on this server, finding poor game design and uninvolving content at every turn, while all around you, as you observe, there is a “steady stream of new players/alts” arriving to spend their free time doing for pleasure what you are only doing for science.

    It’s really pointless to argue over whether a TTK of 30 seconds is more or less entertaining or satisfying for a given individual than a TTK of 1-2 seconds. You can meaningfully analyze which is more commercially successful or which is attractive to a greater number of players but self-evidently you can’t point at people who are choosing one over the other in an open, unrestricted market and say one group is wrong and the other right. Unless you’re willing to assume that avoiding the cost of a subscription is sufficient motivation to get people to spend their time doing something they don’t actually like doing then clearly these people (150,000 of them on the doomed Nostalrius server) enjoy the “poor design” more than they enjoy, or believe they would enjoy, the “improved” version.

    Personally, thirty seconds at low levels come very close to my perfect TTK. I think that a mob a minute with plenty of recovery time between fights is ideal pacing. I do like the xp to be adjusted accordingly, though. I’d go for around an hour per level up to level 10 and maybe fifty kills per level to get there. I also like fetch and return quests. I find getting quest rewards without having to go back to the person who gave me the job in the first place unsettling, unless there’s a sound reason in the story. But then, I’m the kind of person who not only reads every word of every quest but thinks about the implications for the NPC’s backstory!

    In fact, your account and video made regret, once again, that i never tried WoW in its early days and I’m keener than ever to try a version of Vanilla. Nice promo!


    • This series is less about “everyone is enjoying the wrong things” and more about “hey, do you actually remember how it was?” If you do and still find it fun… okay then, vanilla is for you. My general assertion is that most people liked finding friends (etc) but not the game itself, at least in comparison to the games of today. Sort of like how we remember games of the 90s fondly, but can’t bring ourselves to actually play them again.


  4. Honestly, I think you did a pretty good job at analyzing and comparing vanilla with retail. And you also agreed that vanilla has something going for it. In fact, you played that game for 1 hour and intend to play even more.
    How much time do you spend with bad games nowadays? I’m pretty sure it is less.

    I know that it is hard to grasp why, but vanilla wow does a good job at the paste. You have written it yourself: clicking buttons for 20+ seconds per mob isn’t a good alternative, either. Nor is one-hitting every mob.

    If you are like me you are really interested in level 10 right now; as you are in advancing to the next zone. The Anticipation!
    It is ridiculous, is it not? After all, you know WoW by now. And you could easily look all the next talents up. And still it is, in its own special way: fun

    Welcome to science that I spent almost 2 years on: answering the question why classic WoW was as successful as it was. It is a most intriguing question!!


  5. I think part of the main issue you describe (very low TTK, not involved enough) is mainly a problem with low level paladins. For example by level 14-16 a vanilla warlock has access to more abilities than a level 110 will in Legion.

    Of course being less involved is not always bad for some people. A lot of players that mained paladin did so exactly because they found the experience soothing (plus they were the ultimate trolls in pvp).

    I think that;s another point in favor of the good game design of early WoW; you could pick the experience you liked best. Today, if you want a class that plays with more than 1 bar you will be called an elitist.


  6. The funny/sad thing is that the speed is both too fast and not fast enough. If leveling is easy because the designers want more people to be in the current expansion endgame, well… put people in the current expansion endgame. The first couple of zones in every expansion are more or less tutorial zones for returning players already, so it should accommodate re-rollers just fine. Conversely, if the leveling still exists as some kind of nod to new WoW players or nostalgia junkies, it’s much too fast to satisfy anyone.

    And my final note: I really, really agree with this paragraph of yours.


  7. I’m pleasantly surprised by how interesting your analysis is. The direct comparison between the first five levels of vanilla vs. live was great!

    However, I do not understand your dogged instance on levelling a paladin when you already know you don’t like the play style, and all of your commenters have agreed that the play style will not change much while levelling. If you’re trying to address problems with nostalgia, shouldn’t you pick a class that you actually like? Because people who do enjoy the paladin play style would certainly feel differently in this scenario.

    And you mentioned getting to level 10 and starting the (incremental) talent tree. I have to say, the old talent system and having to purchase your new spells and spell upgrades from trainers are the things I miss most in live. They added so much meaning to my levelling – I could exactly see how much more powerful I became as I levelled.

    I really enjoy playing on vanilla servers, and I also enjoy playing on live ones. But they are two completely different games that share and IP.


    • My main is/was a paladin, and I leveled her around the beginning of TBC. And I remember it being a dumb experience even then. Endgame was worse, as Blizzard barely let paladins tank dungeons until the end of TBC, along with making Alliance Ret paladins have 50% less DPS than Horde and so on.

      In any case, part of this Challenge is precisely to play vanilla’s worst classes as a way of driving home the point that improvements have been made in later iterations. Class balance, for example, or even spec balance. The leveling game is radically different/worse, of course, and to a degree I had not been anticipating. So we are all kinda learning something.


      • If I understand you correctly, your goal is take people who say “gee, vanilla was great and I really miss those times” and show them that vanilla wasn’t so great for a variety of reasons. However, you are not in the position to look back and say that playing your pally was great back in the day. You didn’t enjoy it then, so it would make sense that you don’t enjoy revisiting it. It seems like your goal and your method don’t marry up.

        Regardless, I’m looking forward to your next post on the subject :)


  8. “So when people were stating that private servers are easier than getting into retail WoW, they were correct.”

    That is such whitewashed, understated nonsense as to beggar belief. Are you suggesting, just for openers, that everybody has BitTorrent or some like client installed and ready to go on their system? And if you are telling me that editing config files manually is easier that installing the real WoW client, I would suggest that you spend some time working on a tech support line. I know people who managed to get onto WoW fine who couldn’t manage that.

    Basically, your message is that it was easy for you, because you had all tools and knowledge in place, and therefore we can assume that anybody else must also possess those same items.

    And that doesn’t even go into the dubious and uncertain nature of such servers, where only the dedicated fear to tread.


    • Sorry, the BitTorrent install would be another 1-2 steps for the X number of hardcore vanilla enthusiasts who never installed an add-on for an MMO in the last decade. Because if they have, they either already have uTorrent (or whatever), or are savvy enough to browse folder structures after clicking buttons.

      Been a while since I’ve had to install from scratch though, so perhaps they’ve streamlined the process. Would be an interesting experiment, but it’d be tough to justify redownloading all the Blizzard games. Hmm.


    • “And that doesn’t even go into the dubious and uncertain nature of such servers, where only the dedicated fear to tread.”

      Isn’t this why Class Servers are so loved? A community of the dedicated?

      Once the great unwashed join in, they will start demanding all the things they demanded that got WoW to where it is today…


  9. Geez, levelling a paladin in Vanilla… That was painful back then! I wouldn’t be able to stomach that in 2016. I’m in a different place now in my gaming life. With less time to commit to gaming (back in Vanilla, WoW was basically my second full time job), I don’t have the patience anymore to bash my brain out at deficient mechanics or mindless grinding. If I’m not having fun quickly, I’m out.

    I imagine I’m not the only one in this situation, hence why I believe a full vanilla experience might not be as desirable by the masses as some people are arguing. Many quality of life changes might have to be backported to make this kind of server a gigantic success. Taking the Average time to kill as an example, 30 secs isn’t a problem in itself, but if you’re just staring at the screen for this time, not being in an active experience, that will be an issue with many players. I also particularly do not miss being forced to eat/drink every three mobs.

    Liked by 1 person

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