World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Classic
sees the return of the iconic second expansion to the MMO that first went live back in 2008. As one of the most popular and historic moments in WoW, it expanded Azeroth with the snow-capped peaks of Northrend, introduced the new Death Knight class, and achievements, and increased the level cap as players took the fight to the Lich King. With the successful releases of World of Warcraft Classic and the first expansion, Burning Crusade Classic, many players point to Wrath of the Lich King as one of the high points in WoW’s long history.
Ahead of the game’s launch, we got the chance to sit down with Blizzard to discuss all things Wrath of the Luch King Classic as the team was in the final stages of getting things ready for release. Speaking with Kris Zierhut, Principal Technical Designer, and Josh Greenfield, Game Producer, we began by talking about the Classic project and how it’s evolved in recent years.
Wrath of the Lich King was huge for WoW, released at a time when the game exploded in terms of popularity. With WoW Classic releasing the game as is, Burning Crusade Classic bringing some changes, has the development process changed in bringing back these classic versions of WoW?
: “We've done this a couple of times now, and the process for how we get the old data and make it work with the newer code and newer engine and things like that is pretty mature at this point. We're pretty solid on it. But as we kind of keep going with these expansions, it gets a little bit more complex every time we do it. Simply because there are a lot more systems, we have phasing and we have vehicles and we have dual-spec, and those additional systems come with gameplay code that the actual code-base doesn't have. We have to retrofit the existing code to work. We're getting better at it, but it's a complex process. And as the game gets bigger, it becomes a little bit more complex.”
"As we kind of keep going with these expansions, it gets a little bit more complex every time we do it. Simply because there are a lot more systems, we have phasing and we have vehicles and we have dual-spec, and those additional systems come with gameplay code that the actual code-base doesn't have."
: “Back when I first worked on World Warcraft in 2005, the team was small compared to what you see today. It was only a little bit bigger than what the Classic team is now. During the development of Burning Crusade, we ramped up the number of engineers, artists, and designers we had on the team. And even more so for Wrath of the Lich King. Lich King has tonnes of new code that was introduced in 2008, and we had to get that code working again in Classic. Due to the way talents and systems have changed over time, a lot of things that were used in Wrath of the Lich King the first time around, well, the modern code-base had removed them because they weren’t needed. The original talent trees are gone and tonnes of stuff had been removed that we needed. And so it was a lot of work to get that back in.”
Has there been anything lost to time with WoW Classic, Burning Crusade, or even Wrath of the Lich King?
: “I have a really good example from Burning Crusade. Classic Arena teams was completely lost to time. We had no real way to recreate that one-to-one, we had to rebuild it from scratch. Unfortunately, we've removed it for Wrath, but it was one of those things that is a purely nostalgic thing to do. Even though players didn’t want it that badly, it was still worth the effort. We're glad we did it.”
: “Some of the earliest patches of WoW, 1.1, 1.2, that stuff's gone. We can't get that, and it wasn’t until 1.6 and 1.7 that we start having data to go back to. For Burning Crusade and Wrath we've got all the data, and that's an interesting way to solve problems. If something doesn't seem like it’s working right I can go back and look at how it worked in Patch 3.0, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, and see how it changed over time. And from there figure out how to get it in the right state.”
: “For the original Alterac Valley, we've managed to piece some of it together but if we ever wanted to do like a pre-1.5 version, we'd have to rebuild it from scratch.”
The concept behind Classic was to bring back the original World of Warcraft as it was, without any changes. And then with Burning Crusade, the philosophy changed to “some changes”. How did that come about and where does that, for lack of a better word, confidence come to make an item level change in Wrath of the Lich King?
: “I was there when we built these systems the first time around. I started on World of Warcraft in 2005 as the only Technical Game Designer on the team, working on all these systems that helped build classes, build talents, build items. So for me, I have a pretty solid understanding of why we made certain decisions. And even some hindsight where maybe we would've made a decision differently. Some of our decisions based around changes come from that hindsight where if we could have made the decision over again, we would've done it slightly differently.”
“Ulduar is a great example of that because a lot of us were sad that when Trial of the Crusader came, players moved on because the items there were so much better. Even with hard modes and things they hadn't seen, they moved on because they were driven ultimately by the items. Making that change to Ulduar, increasing the item levels for normal by six, and for hard modes by 13 item levels, means that all of our items compete with Trial of the Crusader. And so people will be willing to go back. That was something we learned so why not apply it to the game to make it better - especially because it will strengthen the social experience.”
"Some of our decisions based around changes come from that hindsight where if we could have made the decision over again, we would've done it slightly differently."
: “The lens through which we look at this is we're not trying to change the core gameplay. The way that you experience the content should largely be the same. When we talk about changes it’s more focused on smoothing out what were kind of obvious rough edges to create a more cohesive experience that is still approachable and familiar. It has to pass a litmus test before we make any changes; will this dramatically impact the overarching flow and experience in a way that would make it less Wrath?”
: “We were inspired by the way things felt midway through to the Burning Crusade where you would have people doing every single Raid there was every week. And there's this vibrant economy of different groups doing different things, pick up groups, committed Raid groups, progression groups. We liked that so it was also, how can we recreate that experience in Wrath of the Lich King? I should mention that the Ulduar we’re putting in is the pre-nerf version when it was brutally hard. So players are going need those extra items levels to cope.”
: “That's a really exciting thing about Ulduar in particular, we have the data, and not a lot of people got to see it in its initial form. It was this huge step up in difficulty, even on normal, but the average player is now at a skill level way above where they were back then. So we're excited to give more people an opportunity to see it as it was. We also don't want to shackle you to the old content. There's a point where you want to move on, but a lot of times you'll move on to the next tier and there might be that one Shadow Priest that still really needs a wand from this specific place.”
Wrath of the Lich King introduced Northrend, so in terms of recreating that in Classic was it as simple as dragging in those old assets into the new code-base?
: “What we're doing is we're taking the old data, which is in a certain format and we're essentially converting that to fit the format that the modern engine is running. So the same engine that's running Dragonflight is the same engine that is running World of Warcraft Classic - with a few changes that are specific to Classic. And so the data was in a different state back when we did Lich King, so we have to transform it to fit the new engine and fit all the code changes. And yeah, sometimes those transformations have problems, things that need to be fixed where they aren't quite right. There are always bugs [laughs].”
"We were inspired by the way things felt midway through the Burning Crusade where you would have people doing every single Raid there was every week. And there's this vibrant economy of different groups doing different things, pick up groups, committed Raid groups, progression groups. We liked that so it was also, how can we recreate that experience in Wrath of the Lich King?"
: “The visual fidelity of modern WoW has improved over the years, and there have been many engine changes made to drive that. Sometimes the old assets, the old spell effects, and particle effects don't translate one-to-one. So we might do a little bit of extra work there or even re-evaluate things. One of the benefits of being part of the larger WoW team is that we can kind of call on folks to see what they think. Should we try and retrofit this? Does the modern version look better?”
Classic is different in that it’s a version of the game as it once was. As Wrath of the Lich King won’t be getting the Dungeon Finder tool that was added, was that an easy decision to make, and what was the thinking there?
: “The tool didn't arrive in the game until Icecrown Citadel, but as for why we decided that we don't want to have it is driven by our Classic value of community and social relationships and protecting those relationships. We've decided that for Classic, it’s not about getting people into Dungeons and getting them adventuring as fast as possible. If that was the case we would put it in. We have different varieties of World of Warcraft and all are valid, but for Classic, we felt it was more important to protect that sense of community that comes from playing with people on your server.”
Switching gears to the backend, and things like servers, realms, and capacity. A lot has changed on that front since 2008.
: “Our server capacity is significantly larger. If you look at the number of realms we had, there were hundreds of realms in 2008, and now there are dozens. But, the capacity of each realm we have now is several times larger than what a full realm in 2008 would be. In fact, most realms that we would consider to be low or medium population now are usually two to three times larger than a full 2008 realm. We've got more than 15 years of improvements to things like server infrastructure and backend tech to draw on. We know that people want to play together so we’re always looking at ways to improve things even further. But yeah, there are more people on a WoW server now than ever before.”
: “A good illustration of this is with Wintergrasp. We've made this cross-server instance because we have all the changes that have come with improving our technology. 15 years of engineers making the software run better, finding new optimisations, and finding new algorithms to make it able to support more players. For Wintergrasp we can have 120 versus 120 people in this Battleground, and it works better than it did back in 2008.”
With Classic receiving multiple expansions now, what’s the long-term vision, will we continue to see re-releases for expansions like Cataclysm?
: “The entire Classic project, the recreation of the game, was really driven by what players asked us for. And that’s the driving force for what we do next. We've learned a lot from the last few years of making Classic, recreating the expansions, and then doing a seasonal version of the original Classic. There’s a lot more we can do and we have a lot in our back pocket, but we want to know what players want. We want players to guide us on what to do next.”
"The entire Classic project, the recreation of the game, was really driven by what players asked us for. And that’s the driving force for what we do next."
: “There's a lot of work left to be done for Wrath of the Lich King. We still need to get Ulduar ready, Trial of the Crusader, and Icecrown Citadel. New dungeons, there's a lot of work left to do. As we’re working on that, we do want to hear from the community. What do you want to see next? What is your dream world of Warcraft?”
World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Classic is Live Now on PC