WoW Classic: Building Old Ideas on Top of New Foundations

We talk to Blizzard about revisiting World of Warcraft's past with the new WoW Classic.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing. Our memories aren't perfect, comprised of strong emotions and fragments of past experiences. It's not uncommon to return to a game that you loved in the past and find something that doesn't look entirely like the artifacts that you hold up as excellent in your memories.

This divide between memories and reality makes projects like Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft Classic interesting. Of the surviving MMOs, there are others that run classic servers alongside their modern counterparts. Everquest offers what it calls progression servers, eight different servers that shift through older content on their own cycle. Trion Worlds' Rift has its Rift Prime server that does the same. But Blizzard had avoided its own classic server until 2017, a year prior to the launch of WoW's seventh expansion, Battle for Azeroth.

Many players' best memories involve trying to kill raid bosses. | Blizzard Entertainment

Playing a second demo of World of Warcraft Classic, this time allowing us to create level 40 characters, I'm surprised at how much I've actually forgotten about World of Warcraft. Reliving memories are what makes Classic worthwhile. I remember choosing my first character, a Night Elf Hunter—basic, I know—and tromping through the purple-shaded forests of Teldrassil. I recall the insane trek I made just to play with my friend on that first character, because they were playing Gnomes and Dwarves; hours of running and dying just to make it to Dun Morogh. Or finding my way over to Scarlet Monastery for my first run, treacherous trek on a PvP server. I remember being lucky enough to heal Molten Core for the first time; it was unsuccessful, but I was there with 40 players from around the United States, trying to kill Baron Geddon or Majordomo.

Even the developers working on World of Warcraft Classic have their own memories. Follow some time on the current build of Classic, I have a chance to talk to Classic technical lead Brian Birmingham and WoW production director Patrick Dawson. Before they were developers, they were players like you and I.

"I think my favorite memory was killing Nefarian for the first time. To me, it was the culmination of my guild's achievements in Classic. We didn't make it to Naxxramas. We didn't even do Ahn'Qiraj, but we were working really hard to get through Blackwing Lair. I had started working at Blizzard at the time. I was killing Nefarian—I think it was the second or third time we killed him—and Tom Chilton came to talk to me in my office. He actually waited!" Birmingham tells me.

Dawson was a raid leader back in the days of Vanilla World of Warcraft. In previous MMOs, he was a PvP-focused player, but in WoW he stepped up to take on progression raiding. "It's really difficult to get 40 people together, at least it was then. I had gone through this entire process of allying with another guild, coordinating events, running a zerosum DKP system," he says. "The effort that it took to lead this group into Molten Core and then being successful at it? The moment that Rag died, I think it was on Ventrilo, the emotion that poured forth when this boss died. It was so cool to see this epitome of a beast die. I will never forget that."

Many players have memories of those days. Those memories aren't entirely correct though. I assumed that my memory was a beautiful pristine thing, and though many of my memories are correct, it's interesting what I've forgotten in the years I've been playing Blizzard's MMO.

Welcome to Stormwind. | Blizzard Entertainment

Rebuilding the Past

It's important to note that World of Warcraft Classic isn't just the game's original code running straight. Around two and a half years ago, Blizzard actually unearthed that old code and put a small team on a research mission. The community interest in a vanilla WoW server was clear, given successful unofficial private servers like Nostalrius, but things had changed since World of Warcraft's original launch.

"There was definitely an outpouring from the community that they were interested in this, but it was always, 'How do we actually do this?' Classic was people using cheat programs like Glider, it wasn't on our current infrastructure, it had performance issues. We thought, 'That wasn't a Blizzard quality experience. We can't just re-publish that.' That doesn't seem like it's doing service to our fans or fanbase. How can we give players what they want, but still be true to our core values of quality and gameplay?" says Dawson.

Battle.net has changed, blizzard service has changed, and with expansions like Cataclysm, the backbone of WoW has changed. The answer Blizzard came to was rebuilding the entirely of vanilla WoW on top of the World of Warcraft client. WoW Classic is a simulacrum of the original state of WoW, not actually the original code. It's a work-in-progress, with Blizzard running the old code internally and checking their digital golem against it.

"We have the old code, so we can get it up and running internally. It wasn't as stable, so we don't want to just ship that, but we do have it. We can look at it and do side-by-side comparisons," says Birmingham.

Ogrimmar has changed vastly since these early days. | Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard has already run up against situations where player perception doesn't match reality. Birmingham told me about a situation with the Blizzcon demo where, players noted that the ground clutter seemed different. In actuality, it was an issue with a settings slider: if you set original WoW and Wow Classic sliders to the same level "every blade of grass is exactly like it was," according to Birmingham. Or there's the Warlock's demon summoning ability. Players remembered that your current demon would remain live while you were summoning a replacement; in reality, as soon as you start summoning another demon, the first despawns, which can leave Warlocks vulnerable in certain situations.

"We have these memories. 'Oh, I think that this thing was like this.' That certainly drives our passion, and the emotional memories are what drives us towards what feels good and right. But when you get down into the nitty gritty details, sometimes you remember something and it was actually from early Burning Crusade," says Birmingham.

The latter mirrors my experience with the Classic demo exactly. I rolled up a level 40 Shaman, one of my characters after I left the naive days of Night Elf Hunter-dom behind. I was prepared to jump right back into Enhancement, my Shaman specialization of choice. I purchased some fist weapons with the meager gold Blizzard gave us, learned the correct weapon skills, and opened the talent tree to customize the spec like I remembered it. But... where was the Dual Wielding talent that would allow me to use both of the fist weapons I bought? A quick Google set me straight: Enhancement Shaman didn't get Dual Wield until the opening patch of Burning Crusade. All that gold, wasted. Goddamn it.

Blackwing Lair is another major encounter in the original version of WoW. | Blizzard Entertainment

Frozen in Time

World of Warcraft Classic does have a content plan in place, which will slowly open up content over an undisclosed time table. So Molten Core, Onyxia, and Maraudon will be available at launch, but Blackwing Lair doesn't come until the third phase, and Naxxramas won't be live until the sixth phase. It's meant to simulate the original progression, but Birmingham and Dawson stress that it's not a one-for-one progression.

Instead, World of Warcraft Classic will find its roots within the balance of Patch 1.12, the end of the vanilla WoW's patch cycle. "We are unlocking the chapters of content on a schedule that mirrors the patch schedule, but we're not trying to do rolling patches that directly mirror each patch's exact behaviour. All the systems, spells, and abilities will be from the 1.12 patch throughout all the content phases, but you won't be able to go into Blackwing Lair initially or queue for Battlegrounds. Those pieces of content will unlock over time. The spells, the talent trees, the stats on items; those are all the 1.12 behaviours," says Birmingham.

So, while the phases vaguely resembles the patch progression in the original game, the spells and abilities are locked in stone. The Druid's Cat Form will retain the innate threat reduction and Rogues can pickpocket targets in combat, as those were how those abilities worked in 1.12. The playable content simply changes around the userbase.

Are you ready to go back? | Blizzard Entertainment

The WoW Classic team also had to figure out which features to bring over to its newly forged monument to the vanilla WoW. Certain features like the Dungeon Finder were straight vetoed in favor of the old Meeting Stones. Others, like the mailbox auto-completing names based on your current friends list, where brought over, because they don't touch upon the core play of WoW Classic.

"We start from [Patch 1.12] because it was the most complete version of the game. There were still bugs there, of course. Some of them are cosmetic bugs, or little inconsistencies that are charming or memorable. When we have those things that are not gameplay affecting exploits, then we put them back in there. UI conveniences, there's no reason to take that out and make things inconvenient just for the sake of inconvenience. As long as we're capturing those core gameplay features: spells and abilities, old quests, and that aesthetic feel of the game," explain Birmingham.

It's about keeping the bugs and features that bring across the feeling of playing the original World of Warcraft. "It's really, 'Did this affect gameplay?' A bug in service of gameplay would be two mages attempting to Polymorph each other at the same time, which actually worked in Classic WoW. It does not work in current WoW," says Dawson. "That was restored because that services gameplay. Whereas as a Mage, if you Blink through a bridge in the Wetlands and fell down to your death, that didn't really serve gameplay. We're not bringing things like that back."

Boots on the Ground

Diving hard into the WoW Classic during the demo, more missteps in my memories become apparent. Since I'm level 40, I figure I should see what questing is like. I'm in Orgrimmar and my vague memory tells me that the correct level of quests should be available in Desolace. Blizzard has helpfully given us all the flight paths, so I hop on a Wind Rider for Nijel's Point in Desolace. I figure it'll take me a couple of minutes at most, but no... it takes forever. I'd hazard it was more than 10 minutes; enough time for me to get up, go do an interview, and come back.

Half of playing WoW Classic is just getting to where you want to go. At level 40, players get their first mount, but these were the older 60 percent speed boost versions. In current WoW, you get 60 percent speed mounts at level 20, with the level 40 versions being 100 percent. Moving from continent to continent takes a while too, as modern WoW has portals and the Cataclysm revamp moved the zeppelin and boat depots inside the major cities. Here in Classic, the zeppelin tower was a trek outside of Orgrimmar. When a group of us decided to run Scarlet Monastery—our dungeon options were limited because none of us had attunements!—I had to make my way to Tirisfal Glades from Stranglethorn Vale, and help my fellow party members summon the rest. That took a good 20+ minutes.

Assume you have two hours to play World of Warcraft. In modern WoW, it's easy to get to where you're going. Around 10 percent of those two hours will be spent traveling to a place to do something, while the rest will be spending killing things and finishing quests. In contrast, WoW Classic is around 80 percent travel time, and 20 percent doing stuff once you get there. This changes your perception of the space you inhabit. WoW Classic feels bigger, because it takes forever to get places, and yes, the content you do get to run feels more meaningful because you have to damn near fight to make it all happen. Modern WoW fits and older version of myself, whose time is limited, but there is something enticing for taking the slow road for once.

Ah, Night Elf Hunter. | Blizzard Entertainment

I didn't find the content much harder overall; I wouldn't say modern WoW feels any easier, there's just a bit more prep time in Classic. This version of Shaman features a ton of different totems, each as their own spell. There was no Totem Bar—that didn't come until Patch 3.2—and no Totemic Recall. This meant, that errant surviving totems could actually pull aggro on their own, bringing the pain down upon me. And I needed to drink to regain mana every few encounters.

We started running Scarlet Monastery, with me healing as Shaman. I didn't find this all that hard either, we didn't finish because I had to leave for another interview. Between Lesser Healing Wave, Healing Wave, and Chain Heal, it was easy to keep my party topped up. The hard part was keeping my mana up enough to heal, I had to drink to replenish my mana after almost every fight. About halfway through, I started drinking for the next fight while the tank was pulling, letting him take hits for a few seconds as I sat down. Different, not necessarily harder or more complex. But actually running Scarlet Monastery, after all the work it took to get there did feel pretty meaningful. Pain creates emotional bonds, and part of WoW Classic is dealing with the pain of tedium.

Moving Into the Future of the Past

I've already stated that I don't miss vanilla WoW as much as some others. My personal sweet spot of balance between vanilla WoW and modern WoW is probably around Wrath of the Lich King. At the very least, I'd like for Classic to get to Burning Crusade, because my long-time main is a Blood Elf Paladin. Paladin isn't all that fun in Classic, because it lacks a combat rotation: it's just auto-attacks and Judgment to break up the action. Blizzard is mum on whether Classic will move forward into other expansions, or if perhaps there will be new servers to cover those games.

"We're trying to focus on getting Classic working. We would love to hear what the community thinks about it. We're really excited to see how the community responds to Classic coming out and what they're asking for next," says Birmingham when I ask about future expansions.

The developers also stated that there are no plans for a content loop, with the Classic reverting to the first content phase after some time at the sixth phase. We honestly have no clue what's beyond Naxxramas in this new (old?) version of World of Warcraft.

Players will get the chance to test out their memories of vanilla World of Warcraft very soon though. Blizzard revealed that the Closed Beta for WoW Classic will be starting on May 15. Yes, that's tomorrow. There will also be further stress tests later this month. All of that is preparation for the full launch of World of Warcraft Classic on August 27, 2019. That's right folks. You'll be slowly tromping your way across the Barrens, listening to inane regional chat talk, this year.

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