COMPUTER BILD SPIELE (CBS): Why do players want almost 15 years old content back? Is that just pure nostalgia? Or is there more to it?
Brian Birmingham (BB): World of Warcraft Classic has a lot of unique gameplay to offer. The Classic experience is mainly the challenging exploration of a hostile world, and you'll have to turn to friends and teammates to help you accomplish your tasks. In WoW Classic, it takes effort, ingenuity, and cooperation to succeed.
A perfect example of this is the dungeon finder from today's World of Warcraft, which didn't exist during Vanilla-WoW. In the current WoW, players can queue up for the group search during their lunch break and concentrate on what's happening in the instance. In Classic, what happens before you even enter the dungeon was already part of the challenge: you had to find a group via chat, communicate with them, and get to the entrance of the instance as a team. And when you went through all of this with your fellow players and then successfully fought your way through a vast dungeon, it created a different kind of unifying social dynamics. The next time you wanted to go into an instance, you were most likely looking for the same players. It was all part of what made the original WoW experience unique. And that is what we want to preserve in WoW Classic.
Omar Gonzalez (OG): This solidarity between the players was partly due to the lack of fine-tuning that the classic WoW had in comparison to the modern WoW. For WoW Classic, this is a critical aspect that we want to preserve. Yes, we are aware that there may be friction between players trying to master more difficult content. But it was precisely this friction that helped to weld groups and guilds together to tackle the different challenges of the game together. Later, we came up with other ways to build that social dynamic in WoW.
Another big difference between WoW Classic and other classic games: There is no way of digging up old World of Warcraft installation discs, disconnecting from the Internet, and just gaming. While playing an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), you interact not only with the mechanics of the game but with thousands of other players. The two M in the word MMORPG are an essential differentiator. WoW players not only yearn for Classic due to nostalgic reasons, but they also have - just like us - a strong desire to reconnect with a community of like-minded players looking for a special kind of gaming experience. We are not only restoring a game; we are restoring a once familiar structure in which adventurers from around the world must unite in order to survive in a dangerous world made of power, magic, and mystery. Just as Brian said, the spirit of collaboration was a trademark of the classic WoW. We made conscious design choices that prevented players from being completely self-sufficient. If you wanted to defeat dungeon and raid content, you had to find allies - or at least convince others that you would make positive contributions to their groups.
CBS: What was different during the Vanilla times in WoW than in today's version? Not only from a player’s point of view but also regarding emotional and immersive aspects?
BB: The first thing I can think of is the challenge of the outside world. Leaving the city was terrifying! Even a harmless looking creature could pose an extraordinary challenge. In the current expansion, Battle for Azeroth, you are a powerful hero who has already earned many achievements. The outside world also has its own challenges, but you usually do not have any problems with that. In Classic, however, you are a newcomer to adventure who has a lot to learn in a dangerous and hostile world. This difficulty drives you to rely on other players to help you - and that in turn strengthens the emerging social connections. You begin to learn who you can trust and who you can rely on, and who may use you for their own advantage. The gameplay also requires you to try many different skills and strategies to deal with unexpected situations. At Blizzcon 2018, many people were surprised and delighted to rediscover how frightening it was when a second Murloc suddenly entered the battle because that often meant a third one was not that far away.
OG: Battle for Azeroth benefits from over a decade of additional polishing. WoW Classic is a much rougher game with more difficulties and friction in its game systems. However, we don't see it as a problem, but as one of its strengths. Take, for example, reaching the maximum level. In the WoW expansions, we use the level phase up to the new maximum character level to tell the story of the respective expansion and provide the world with context. The real game starts, once you reach maximum level. Your character becomes stronger as you collect new items, find allies in the form of guildmates and dungeon finder groups and rush headfirst into the next raid to defeat the strongest enemies. In Classic, leveling while experiencing your adventures in the world was a big part of the actual gameplay. The world itself was one of the main characters who played an important role in the history of your hero. In today's WoW, quest content is more of a fast-paced, curated, story-driven experience. In classic WoW, questing is more open and freer. Players found their own paths around the world and developed strong connections to the world and to other players they met on their way.
BB: I totally agree with you. I talked to one of our game designers about it, and he said that modern World of Warcraft was about learning a big story about the game world, while WoW Classic was about discovering your own story. I still remember that one day when my friends and I decided to spend an entire Saturday clearing the whole of Maraudon (a 5-player dungeon in WoW, ed. note). Normally, people would split this dungeon into three wings. Since none of us played a healer, we looked for one, and they always asked us if we would do the purple or orange part of the dungeon. A good portion of the day was spent finding healers for the different wings. But we kept going and completed the entire instance in one day so that we could teleport to the bosses more easily in future rounds. I think we called it the Princess Runs since Princess Theredras was the last boss of the instance. I also remember that upon teleporting in with the group for a Princess Run, we slid down a waterfall and fell into a lake. The water was actually supposed to lighten the landing; however, that sometimes did not work out, and we fell to our deaths. (grins)
CBS: What other personal experiences do you recall when it comes to Vanilla?
BB: One of my favorite memories is leveling an undead warrior in Silverpine Forest, with werewolves being everywhere. Among them were patrolling sons of Arugal. They were much more difficult than the standard enemies and usually fatal until you reached a higher level. So, while questing in that zone, I had to watch out for the sons of Arugal and see if any of them were approaching me. Once I saw one from a distance, I had to choose: Do I hide and lose a lot of time? Or do I take the risk of completing my current task quickly? Naturally, it was frustrating when they caught me! But this feeling of fear and danger in the world is something that I like remembering from that time. And the feeling of relief and achievement when I could successfully avoid the sons.
OG: I really liked the way the world interacted with the day/night cycle in Pyrewood. During the day it was a safe haven, but at night it was dangerous! I also must think about pancakes. No, really! Pancakes! After raid evenings, some of my guildmates and I, who all lived in the same area, met in a local 24-hour diner. It became such a regular ritual that the staff not only had our usual table ready for us but had also already served the drinks. There we indulged in new milestones like a certain boss first kill or analyzed evenings during which we endlessly wiped on an opponent. We reconstructed the fight right there on the table: The ketchup bottle was the boss, the maple syrup bottle was the place where the healers and ranged DPS should gather, and the melee DPS were the sugar packets - because they were disposable and easily exchangeable. (laughs)
BB: That is awesome. My guild used to meet after milestones like the first kill of Ragnaros (final boss of the 40-player raid The Molten Core, ed. note.) at Philippe's in downtown Los Angeles. Some people came all the way from the Bay Area to meet us all. It was a really fun time!
CBS: What are the biggest challenges for you in restoring WoW version 1.12?
BB: The biggest challenge is integrating the classic gameplay into our modern infrastructure. In the past 14 years so much has changed regarding patches and distribution, account security, hardware, cloud services and more, and we want to make sure that people who want to play WoW Classic are challenged by the game and not by the installation process. The starting point is our modern code base, to which we then add our old game data so that our modern servers essentially behave like our classic servers. This combination does not work perfectly because the data has changed its form and the parts do not fit. So, our job is to smooth these connections and teach them to work together to create an authentic gameplay while maintaining our modern infrastructure.
OG: I came across a very early code which I wrote when I just began working as a software engineer. Now that I am much more experienced when it comes to my job, it was a big challenge for me to ignore my instinct to clean up my old work when it was not absolutely necessary. Many of our players have not only loving but also very specific memories of how certain game mechanics work. A big part of our work is to line up the memories with the way the game works. It turned out that in many cases our memories were flawed or incomplete. That is why it is crucial for us to have an internal, original 1.12 build which we can use as a reference. One concrete example was what happens when a warlock summons a demon while he has already summoned one. In the Blizzcon demo of WoW Classic, once the spell started casting, the demon immediately disappeared instead of at the end of the cast. In Battle for Azeroth, the pet despawns at the end of the cast. Many players reported this as a bug or at least felt it contradicted the original way the summon worked, so we checked the problem through player feedback. While many bug reports handed in by players are correct, it turned out that it is not the case in this instance. After a thorough review of our 1.12 reference code, we found that we had correctly replicated the classic behavior and that the demon pet indeed should disappear at the beginning of the spell.
BB: Yeah, some of my own memories were inaccurate, too. I thought the warrior's charge would always throw you in combat the way it does today. But it turned out that the charge in Classic only activated the auto-attack and only the attack momentum actually triggered combat. If you attack a neutral creature and turn off auto-attack while your character is still heading for the enemy, the stun ends, and he will walk away as if you were not even there. When I verified this on our reference server, I was shocked - but it shows that your memory can deceive you after more than 14 years.
CBS: How far are you with the development of WoW Classic?
BB: We were very excited to present our progress in a demo at Blizzcon and to show our players the Barrens and Westfall in their classic look. We showed player abilities up to level 19 for all classes and demonstrated that this approach can work. There is still a lot to do as of now, including dungeons, guilds, and the auction house. But the basic parts now fit together. We are very confident that all active WoW subscribers will be able to play Classic in summer 2019.
OG: Over the past few weeks, we have focused heavily on tunings based on the feedback we have received from the Blizzcon demo.
BB: Indeed, the community was really helpful. We are blessed to have such enthusiastic and passionate fans!
CBS: If WoW Classic is successful, would you also consider servers for The Burning Crusade and/or Wrath of the Lich King?
BB: There is still a lot of work to be done to get WoW Classic ready for launch, and we are primarily focussing on that. We are always interested in feedback from the community; however, at the moment, we have no plans for the time after the launch of Classic.
OG: We are very focused on providing the best possible Classic experience. How Classic will evolve and change after launching is a discussion that will take place after that in collaboration with our community.
CBS: Is there anything else you want to say about WoW Classic?
BB: The classic WoW remains a great game that will appeal to both, new players and players who have played it before. While we are proud of all the improvements, upgrades and refinements we have added to WoW over the past years, there is a desire among some players for the distinctly different, often more challenging style of play that WoW once represented. WoW Classic fills this gap. Many players who are active today missed the classic WoW when it first hit the market. We are happy to give them the chance of seeing it the way it used to be and experience the challenge of exploring World of Warcraft. Personally, I cannot wait to show it to my kids.
OG: As great as the original Word of Warcraft was, what really made it special was the players. This project is in many ways a tribute to the beginning for many players. WoW opened a new chapter in the gaming culture back then and we want to create it not just as a faithful replica for those who played it back then, but also as a gateway to the past that will be available to a whole new generation.
CBS: Thank you very much for the interview!