During Blizzcon it was announced that early next year the Classic servers will be moving on to Cataclysm, as I am sure anyone that reads this blog is already well aware. While likely all but inevitable (crazed ideas like alternate universe classic branches aside), this decision likely ensures that I won't be going back to WoW for another few years.
It's certainly not because I hated Cataclysm. In fact Cataclysm was probably when I got most heavily invested in WoW overall. It's literally the only time I managed to hit the cap and not bounce. In every other era, once I hit the cap and finished farming up all the mounts I cared about I was done. In Cataclysm, I hit the cap and kept playing for at least another six months.
The main reason I stopped playing WoW a little over a year ago was that Blizzard ticked me off by being terrible to their employees, even for a gaming studio.* Now of course it wasn't something they suddenly started doing, it was just back in 2021 when news of what horrible place it had been all along finally leaked. Really egregious revelations like "The Cosby Room" completely soured me on the studio. I kept waiting for some sign that things had improved, but to me announcements and leadership changes always came across as meaningless lip service with little intent behind them.
That may be getting better now that Microsoft is buying out Activision. I presume the worst of Blizzard's cultural practices will begin to be somewhat reigned in. I mean it will still be a large gaming development studio, so it won't be rainbows and kittens. But it does seem likely they will manage to improve (i.e., move up the abysmal industry norms) to the degree that I could begin to support them financially without moral qualms.
Unfortunately, this is coming a bit too late for me because Cataclysm itself is a barrier. Despite how reviled the expansion was, I enjoyed it quite a bit in 2010. However, even ten years on I still feel like I played the PvP to death.** Added to that, with years of hindsight I can also see that the pre-Cataclysm era of WoW is simply a better game to me. For me, Lich King was the largest that the "good version" of WoW ever got, and apparently I only have about six more months (at most) to play that version if I want to.
With hindsight, Cataclysm marked the beginning of the end of the WoW I loved, when the process of gradually simplifying the game began in earnest. Changes to core systems from Cataclysm on don't feel like fully considered quality-of-life changes, like the ones that came in Burning Crusade and Lich King. Instead, they feel like a fruitless attempt to widen their audience past core MMO players. For example, talents became simpler and simpler from Cataclysm on, until they got reduced to one choice every five or ten levels. While that is indeed much easier for a casual player to understand, it also makes most levels incredibly boring. Your hit points and mana go up, and that's about it.
Piece-by-piece Blizzard began removing design elements that existed solely to create the illusion of a realistic world with sensible rules. For example, needing learn how to use your weapons and practice with them to be proficient eventually got tossed aside. Choice of pet for a hunter became almost solely a cosmetic decision. Missile weapons stopped needing ammo. Quests to learn new class abilities got pulled. The process kept going, and by the time I last played retail it felt more like a lobby based dungeon crawler that happened to be embedded in a MMO than a true MMORPG to me.
I was tempted to go back for Lich King Classic. I missed it the first time around because I didn't enjoy the endgame of Burning Crusade, and didn't make it back to WoW again until after Cataclysm launched. However, the revealed awfulness of Blizzard has kept me away recently purely out of protest. Now I have seemingly missed my chance to level through the Lich King era game for a second time, they will be setting it on fire again in just a few months.
What somewhat surprised me is that Blizzard also has no plans to create any permanent "locked in the Lich King" era servers. They already have a few servers for the launch era game, I just assumed they would do the same for Lich King since it's so often touted as the best version of WoW. It's certainly when the game peaked in popularity. If the base game is going to be post Cataclysm going forward, is it really still Classic?
At this point the only upcoming version of WoW "Classic" that seems likely to tempt me is Legion. By all accounts the implementation of Artifacts in it was a lot of fun. Yet that is surely at least two or three years out. So it seems like my long absence from WoW is likely to continue even if the culture of the studio does improve once Microsoft takes over.
*A bar so low that it is already resting comfortably on the floor at most studios!
**It was a little odd that the one era in which I didn't bounce right off the endgame of WoW was in an expansion that everyone seemed to hate. However, what is especially odd for me is that I spent most of my time at the cap doing PvP for gear. I'm not super competitive to start with, and PvP has to be balanced "just so" for me to enjoy it. I want meaningful and disparate choices on offer, yet I also want all of them to be solidly useful to a team. If there is a useful but unpopular role I can specialize in, like setting up to defend a spot, so much the better. Very few MMOs have ever managed that balancing act well to my tastes, and in WoW your PvP specialization options are basically healer, DPS, more DPS, or Even Moar Deeps. Yet during the Cataclysm era I did enough PvP to wrack up the 1000 honorable kills achievement and buy a full set of PvP epics. I even eventually got the staff I was drooling over in that post. For me that's a heck of a lot of time spent doing endgame stuff in general in a MMO, much less PvP. I was clearly enjoying it.