World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade Classic Interview - The Dark Portal Re-Opens
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 11:29am 07/05/21 | Comments
It’s 2007 by the way of 2021, and with The Dark Portal about to open on June 1 we sit down with Blizzard to talk about bringing back another classic WoW experience and why some changes are better than none.
It’s no secret that fans had been asking Blizzard to release a ‘vanilla’ World of Warcraft for years. Prior to the release of World of Warcraft: Classic back in 2019 it was often brought up during panels and other community events. Calling it ‘vanilla’ is of course in relation to being able to log-in and play the game as it existed back in 2004.
Fast forward over a decade, and several expansions later, logging into WoW was fundamentally different -- both in terms of content and the underlying systems. Going back in time made sense, even though for an ever-evolving online game like WoW it wasn’t going to be as easy as dusting off an old server and flipping the ‘on’ switch.
The appetite for ‘vanilla’ was palpable, so Blizzard put in the effort to recreate that classic feel using the modern Battle.net infrastructure and WoW code-base. And on June 1, it’s set to do it all again with the release of World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade Classic. WoW's first expansion.
“We're doing all of this because players asked us for it,” Holly Longdale, Lead Producer on Burning Crusade Classic says. “They asked for that authentic experience with Classic. And of course they began asking for Burning Crusade. This is our love letter to the fans, to recreate the experience they had, and to see how it evolves with the players we have today.”
The Dark Portal Re-Opens
By the time of its release back in 2007, as the first expansion to WoW, Blizzard’s new online-RPG was becoming one of the most talked about and played videogames of all time. As something of a cultural touchstone, the opening of the Dark Portal as seen in the opening moments of Burning Crusade became synonymous with the game, franchise, and studio, expanding its reach and scope to a much larger and wider audience.
"This is our love letter to the fans, to recreate the experience they had, and to see how it evolves with the players we have today.”
Where Blizzard had a pretty set-in-stone ‘no changes’ policy with Classic, one that meant no modern features or changes to that 2004-experience no matter how small, the studio has loosened its belt -- so to speak -- with Burning Crusade. “We learned a lot with Classic, we learned that sometimes some changes are okay,” Holly Longdale says. “The community seems to be more open-minded about that, now that we've been living with Classic for a while.”
With Burning Crusade Classic’s Beta, this minor shift in direction became one of the touchstones the team was looking for in terms of player feedback. “I think an important thing to call out is that ‘some changes’ isn’t ‘a lot of changes’,” Brian Birmingham, Lead Software Engineer on Burning Crusade Classic, explains. “We are still anchored in the past, what we originally did back then. It’s really targeted, and we made sure we identified places where we wanted to make changes.”
“The guiding principle for us is always to stay true to what the original Burning Crusade offered,” Holly says. “There's some areas where, with hindsight, we understand what the original team was intending to do but maybe there were technical limitations. The team has spent a lot of effort tweaking and, based on community feedback, making sure we're still in line with that feeling of playing Burning Crusade. It can be a better experience, and our goal is to make sure it's as smooth and fun as possible whilst staying true to what Burning Crusade was.”
Some of the more notable examples of this come from balancing and rewarding both Horde and Alliance with equally powerful buffs. Others relate to professions like jewelcrafting, returning behaviour to the original design intent. “In terms of difficulty and challenge for our Raid content we're also going back to earlier versions where the bosses were harder,” Brain continues. “We’re doing that to re-introduce them as they were and as a way to give people a chance to try that content in its pre-nerf state.”
“We’ve also got new stuff in the form of the Arena team system that has modern-day, region-wide, matchmaking,” Holly adds. “We got that into the beta so we could focus our community into different areas -- Raids in Karazhan, Arena. Our pre-patch is coming up pretty quick on May 18th too, so there’s a lot of testing in specific areas happening. The community's been great throughout the whole process, we've had amazing participation. And then, June 1st, the Dark Portal opens.”
As the discussion shifts to the re-opening of said Dark Portal, the topic of server management, and players all situated in a single area comes up. “We definitely try to balance that, but there's still a certain element that needs to be there,” Brain tells me. “Everybody wants to come out on launch date to see what it's like to be a part of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG). You know, massive-multiplayer means something, and when everybody comes out all at one time, it’s exciting to see those big crowds of real people.”
"We learned a lot with Classic, we learned that sometimes some changes are okay. The community seems to be more open-minded about that, now that we've been living with Classic for a while."
That said, as any World of Warcraft fan that has been with the game for many, many, years will know -- big crowds can also lead to queues, network lag, and general instability. It’s here where the modern side of World of Warcraft arrives, in a sense, to say the day.
“We're going to use the technology we developed for WoW Classic called Layers, which is built on technology that allows an entire copy of the world to exist instead of copies of individual Zones,” Brain explains. “This means the transition from Zone to Zone feels smooth, even though there's a second copy of the game running on your Realm. There's still a limit of course, where we would have to queue players -- but we're trying to do everything we can to push that off as far as possible.”
This brings up one aspect of working to recreate The Burning Crusade as it was -- with minor changes -- that has been invaluable. And that is, getting to play The Burning Crusade. Although many on the team were there during the initial launch, a lot of time has passed since 2007. Looking at the design of the first few Zones, it’s clear that Blizzard took into account the game’s burgeoning popularity -- and the problem of population control. Quest content spreads out fairly quickly early on, as does the ability to play through instanced dungeons as a means to level.
“This time there’ll be more people who have their full tier three sets than 2007, so maybe those players will skip Hellfire Peninsula and go straight into Zangarmarsh,” Brian adds. “We're hoping that a lot of that will help spread people out too, and we are anticipating that will be enough on its own.”
Rebuilding a Classic, One Step at a Time
“It's a little bit like putting puzzle pieces together,” Brain says. For those that may have skimmed over that ‘wasn’t as easy as dusting off an old server’ line from earlier, the lengths Blizzard has gone to bring back Classic and now Burning Crusade is worth exploring. These aren’t remasters or re-releases, they’re something of a mix in the sense that the old data is then merged with the new code. The modern-day version of World of Warcraft. And with that, pieces either fit or they don’t. At least not until they’re banged into place.
"You know, massive-multiplayer means something, and when everybody comes out all at one time, it’s exciting to see those big crowds of real people."
“We try to fit them together, make adjustments, make them work,” Brain continues. “The kinds of things we use modern code for are things like authentication and rendering and being able to run on modern hardware and support widescreen aspect ratios. Stuff that doesn't impact the way you play the game. But there’s modern code related to how you play the game and how spells and abilities work, how stats affect things. For those things we want to make sure we’re as authentic as possible. It ought to feel like you are playing Burning Crusade, even though it’s a modern engine.”
Throughout development the team were able to reference the original game, exactly how it existed to make sure the transition was seamless. And accurate right down to the smallest of details. Like, say, grass that rendered a little differently in the modern code versus what you saw back in 2007. Still grass mind you, but maybe a little taller or spread out a little differently.
“We made the effort to recreate the old algorithm for rendering grass because the old data was different,” Brian says. “There was a slider and at any given density it ought to look the same on two different computers. It wasn’t random as much as it was controlled, the density slider makes it bigger and smaller but based on an algorithm. We wanted to make sure we restored the original algorithm so that our original data would put the flowers, the blades of grass, and everything else, in the same place they were back in 2007.”
“It’s kind of trivial,” Brain recalls. “But it's one of my favourite examples because it speaks to the level of polish.”
The Final Push
With the recent Beta testing and the community actively engaging with the team at Blizzard as it makes the final tweaks and changes to Burning Crusade Classic, the focus now shifts to the upcoming pre-patch on May 18. And then, the opening of the aforementioned Dark Portal on June 1.
“It's always exciting to see everybody come together as we get close to the finish line,” Brian says. “Everybody's having those frantic meetings, making sure they're checking over everything. Did anybody cover that? Is this covered? Is that thing scheduled? It's exciting, it's tense, but also fun.”
“It's a little bit like putting puzzle pieces together.”
“I'm thrilled that we're almost there,” Holly adds. "This is my first release with Blizzard and it's been an incredible experience. We have a dedicated and passionate team trying to get this right. It’s been fun too -- because we have been playing.”
For many The Burning Crusade is special and this release exciting because they’ve done exactly that, played it. Whether it was questing and exploring alone, as part of a group, or finding a few strangers that quickly became friends. With Burning Crusade the Warcraft universe received some of its most memorable narrative beats and locations to explore and adventure in.
And with that I thought I’d ask what exactly Burning Crusade Classic means as a release. Something of an open-to-interpretation question, but the very nature of Classic feels unlike anything else. Is it a trip down memory lane, strictly for the fans, a re-release, the sort of modern-day release we’d label a ‘remaster’ or ‘remake’?
“I think the best description is that Classic is a live performance,” Brian says. “It's not going to be exactly the same as it was the last time; there's other people there. If you have a single player game you might be able to present the same experience that existed 15 years ago, but with a multiplayer game you can't have the exact same people doing the exact same thing.”
“It's always going to be different, and there's always going to be new interactions,” Brain concludes. “Like a live performance we're trying to capture the feeling and the design that was present at the time. That sense of authenticity while still making small changes to adapt to the fact that the players and the environment and the world we're living in are all different.”
World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade Classic releases on June 1, with the servers going live in Australia at 8am AEST on June 2.