I’ve always disliked using the term “vanilla” to describe pre-expansion WoW servers. There are a number of reasons for this.
Just to get this out of the way first, I don’t prescribe to the ideas that “Classic WoW was Better” or “Modern WoW is Better.” They are different, just as every expansion has been different, and my perception of their quality isn’t the point here. I’m saying that calling Classic “Vanilla” ends up framing the discussion in a bad way, because people carry how they think about ice cream into how they think about Classic WoW, and that fails for a number of reasons.
1. Classic WoW was not “vanilla”
It does a disservice to the experience of Classic WoW. That game was a remarkable microcosm of MMO iteration and content delivery done at what feels even now like a breakneck pace. “Vanilla” frames it as being plain and lacking in more than the most basic, default flavor, and that doesn’t accurately describe how rich the world was, from the diversity of the zones up to the wild dynamism of the raids.
Yes, you can have high-quality top-shelf vanilla ice cream, but no one is talking about that when they say “vanilla.” You can talk about Classic forming the basis for the game just as vanilla forms the basis for ice cream flavors, but there are so many ice creams flavors that straight up don’t use vanilla as an ingredient that it falls apart. “Ice cream” is the format, and “vanilla” is a flavor. “Classic WoW” describes a series of iterations of a game, while each successive expansion title describes THOSE iterations of the game, because even looking at the differences between 2.0 and 2.4 are striking, even if they aren’t as momentous as the differences betweeen 1.12 and 2.0.
2. That’s not how flavors work
It frames the discussion of classic servers as a spread of ice cream flavors. In the modern, developed world, you can go to the grocery store and find rows of vanilla next to rows of chocolate chip, pistachio, rocky road, peanut butter cup, low-fat and sugar-free iterations of all the above, and that’s barely scratching the surface of the flavor spread. The key thing is that unless you’re looking for something really esoteric, you’ll ALWAYS find vanilla. It’s always there, along with plenty of stock of the other accepted standards.
That doesn’t accurately describe MMO iteration and it fails as a metaphor, because the whole point of WoW’s iterative cycle and the imposition of expansions is that the old model gets replaced with the new model. For the flavor metaphor to work, you’d have to imagine a world where one year, you’ve got vanilla and THAT’S IT. The next year, you’ve got mint chocolate chip and THAT’S IT. Vanilla stops existing completely, and mint is where it’s at, and if you want vanilla, you’re just living in the past, maaaaaan.
3. You can’t get that flavor anymore
By framing Classic WoW as vanilla, it creates this illusion that people just want something that you can easily get again, and that’s not the case. Getting to walk into Molten Core at level 60 stopped being the same as Classic once Patch 2.0.3 hit the live servers and introduced all of the expansion’s class mechanical changes. That experience couldn’t be replicated without using an emulated server and an old client. (PS, that’s how pirate servers work.)
For the ice cream metaphor to work, it’s like saying that handmade vanilla ice cream and mass-produced vanilla ice cream taste exactly the same. Anyone who’s sampled both knows there’s a difference, and whether that difference is meaningful enough to declare one or the other as being higher quality is purely a matter of opinion. But the bottom line is that calling Classic WoW vanilla gives the impression that it’s still accessible when it really isn’t. You change the ingredients or the process and the end result is different.
So by saying “you can just lock yourself at 60 and play Molten Core forever if you want” it’s disingenuous, because so many other aspects of the game have changed that your engagement with the game content in 1.12 vs. your engagement with the content in 6.2 are hardly able to be reconciled with each other.
4. Vanilla implies a choice of flavors when there is no choice
The experience of eating a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a plain cone is going to be different from eating a banana split that has scoops of vanilla with cherry syrup all over it. Yeah, both things have vanilla in them, but when you can’t isolate the vanilla component from the rest, it’s no longer a fair comparison. The imposition of expansions is Blizzard’s mandate that the only way you can get vanilla is in a banana split, and not in just a cone.
At the end of the day, using “Vanilla” to describe Classic WoW fails. The particular experience that a player has interacting with a game, or their memories of how they interacted with a past version of the game, should not be compared with a dessert you can buy in a store for a few dollars. Calling it ice cream removes its meaning, its importance, its significance.
You don’t remember the free vanilla soft serve you had after lunch at Jason’s Deli because it’s ice cream. You probably remember the chocolate fondue you had after dinner at the Melting Pot, but not because it’s ice cream.
… yeah I just wrote 900 words on ice cream and Warcraft. Come at me, bro.