World of Warcraft will never be the same as its vanilla launch fifteen years ago, despite Blizzard’s careful devotion to bringing every aspect of the original game back.
The character I rolled during my vanilla experience is now the same age I was when I started playing her; she’d be in high school now. It’ll never be possible to recapture the magic of vanilla, but World of Warcraft Classic is set to become its own, fascinating beast. In a world where dozens of MMORPGs have risen up in the wake of vanilla World of Warcraft and then faltered, and World of Warcraft itself is hardly recognizable, what sort of cultural footprint will Classic leave?
“I expect piles of bodies,” laughs Omar Gonzalez, the senior software engineer on World of Warcraft Classic. “Rivers of blood.”
We sat down with Gonzalez and Brian Birmingham, the lead software engineer, to talk about the launch of World of Warcraft Classic, and what it might mean for 2019.
Technicalities and troubles
Fans have been flooding onto the servers, and the developers are attempting to ferry them onto emptier realms in the days before Classic’s release, lest launch be (once again, like the original release) plagued with log-in queues and server issues. It’s a familiar issue, but they now have new tools.
“We definitely have a lot more buttons and dials and settings at our disposal to find the optimal launch experience,” explains Gonzalez. “On our backend, we have a number of backup and contingency plans. We can grow and expand our servers, and we’re ready to adapt immediately, but we want to be very cognizant about how we’re managing our server populations because we don’t want to be disruptive to communities.”
The stretch between Southshore and Tarren Mill should now be able to support the legendary PVP battles that would erupt between Alliance and Horde, seemingly at random. Those conflicts would be sparked by a single gank, and players would call in reinforcements. That used to crash the servers, but shouldn’t be an issue anymore.
There will be another change from the early days, however: layering. This separates players in an area, ensuring that the servers aren’t overwhelmed by clusters of players. This will avoid congestion around areas like the Valley of Honor and Northshire Abbey, and lessen the load on launch.
“I know it’s not super popular,” admits Birmingham, but it’s a valuable tool for “keeping content coherent across the world.” Layering will be reduced over time as launch demand tapers off and, after the rush is over, players will finally be back to the same Azeroth that they had explored fifteen years prior.
A whole new world
Other things have changed, both culturally and technically. The first is that Blizzard has been able to polish up aspects of the game and use its knowledge of what will serve as a flashpoint to reinforce the servers and improve performance.
There are more channels of communication surrounding World of Warcraft now, and they’re easier to access. Fan Discords, social media, and streams mean the developers can always watch. Sometimes that offers a purely practical benefit, like being able to watch a streamer replicate a bug.
But the developers will also have their fingers on the pulse of developing situations. Players in vanilla World of Warcraft were able to pull off infamous exploits. Protection paladins could stack buffs and then cash them out to one-shot fearsome bosses. Lord Kazzak was pulled all the way from the Blasted Lands to Stormwind City, handing out naps to low-level players in his path. Zul’Gurub unleashed the Corrupted Blood plague, turning cities into streets of skeletons.
Now, the developers will be able to follow these situations, and Patch 1.12 has removed the most egregious bugs. Classic is built upon the modern World of Warcraft code base, lending stability. They also know, in advance, to prepare for certain scenarios that weren’t able to work on their first iteration.
The original rush to the gates of Ahn’Qiraj was plagued with boats teleporting, players disconnecting, and wild bugs that blocked players’ progress. Trying to make it across the ocean to Kalimdor was tough; trying to get to the south of the continent to swarm SIlithus was nearly impossible. The Scarab Lord title and mount could only be obtained by ringing the gong in this event, but scores of players never even had a chance. The developers are hoping that “take two” will be significantly smoother.
When it came to recreating World of Warcraft, the developers had to have conversations about some of the intense requirements, like the Rank 14 grind. Rank 14 in PVP granted a special title, special armor and weapons, and a whole lot of clout.
“We had a conversation [about Rank 14], and the impact the system might have on players in this day and age,” says Gonzales. “But one of the core tenets of this whole project was a commitment to authenticity. That extends all the way from large scale systems like PVP to the number of chairs in the capital cities.”
“The world is like a character all by itself, right? It’s almost the main character,” Birmingham says. “It’s a dangerous and hostile place and you’re going out there, exploring it, and discovering all of these challenges.”
Those challenges are tuned to be tackled with friends — and if you don’t have them, you’re expected to make them. That scales all the way up to raids, where 40 players would come together to tackle challenges like Ragnaros the Firelord or the Old God C’Thun. And from there, players would get together for lunch ... or meet up in Vegas for a vacation, or meet their best man, or their future spouse.
Many experiences in World of Warcraft were barred by access to raids, and waiting for items to drop. Now Hunters will stream the unique quests connected to Rhok’Delar, Longbow of the Ancients. Method is planning to race through the first tier of raid content in a massive Race to World First event.
World of Warcraft Classic will be more than just an old game, and that’s not because the game itself has changed all that much. The world around it, however, definitely has.
UPDATE: A previous version of this article said that Retribution paladins could unleash a Reckoning bomb. Reckoning was actually a Protection paladin buff. The article has been updated to reflect this.