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World of Warcraft will be revisiting its most popular expansion ever when Wrath of the Lich King Classic launches later this year. And Blizzard wants players to have as good a time in Northrend in 2022 as they did back in 2008.
I had a chance to talk with Kevin Vigue, senior software engineer, and Holly Longdale, lead producer, about Blizzard’s plans for Wrath of the Lich King Classic. We discuss what’s changing, what’s staying the same, and Blizzard’s general philosophy for Classic.
Back to Northrend
GamesBeat: Wrath of the Lich King is a lot of people’s favorite expansion. Does that add any pressure when giving it the Classic treatment? Or is this business as usual?
Holly Longdale: I wish there was such a thing as business as usual. I think, to be honest with you, one of the beautiful things about this team is we are just as excited as players, as our players are. Starting with the launch of Classic and through Burning Crusade, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing what makes Classic classic. What are the pillars and foundations of what Classic is? Through that we’ve determined that Classic is intended to be highly social, with the world as a character. We’re distinguishing ourselves. In fact, it’s the players that have distinguished us from a modern audience. We want to make sure we’re constantly leaning into that.
As I sometimes say, releasing Wrath is not as simple as just digging up the old code and “save as Classic.” It’s a lot more complicated than that, as I’m sure you can imagine. What was a requirement or a technical limitation in 2008 is not necessarily what was imagined or what was desired in 2008 for Wrath of the Lich King. We look at each of those features, and there’s a lot of healthy discussion amongst the team about what’s a good idea, what’s good for the community, what’s good for our Classic community in particular, and how they prefer our game.
As you know, we went from a #NoChanges to, well, #SomeChanges? And then #AFewMoreChanges, as the community asked for those things, and as it seems appropriate for the game that we imagine Classic to be. It’s never business as usual, because the community is this ever-changing tide. We want to pay attention to what they’re gravitating toward and what they’re not. That informs some of the decisions we’ve made, which I’m sure we’ll go into.
GamesBeat: Was Wrath of the Lich King Classic a foregone conclusion for the team? Once vanilla Classic was a hit, did you know you would get this far?
Longdale: Not necessarily. We always hoped, right? You have to adjust and move with the community itself. Kevin’s an OG on Classic. He was on the team when it was seen as, oh, this is a cute project that the community has asked for, let’s do that. Then it exploded into what Classic is today. There’s this constant adjustment. You never know what’s going to happen.
We hoped beyond hope, half because we wanted to go back to Wrath, and then half because the community was asking for it. The great success of Classic is leading us there. We were constantly watching what the community and press were saying, influencers and content creators. There’s been so much talk about Wrath that it seemed like the obvious next step, something we should do for our players.
GamesBeat: How is it going to work with the servers this time? When Burning Crusade Classic came out, some servers split into two. Is something similar going to happen here? Will we have three tiers now, with vanilla, Burning Crusade, and Wrath?
Longdale: No. I don’t mean this disparagingly. It’s more like, we keep learning. When we went into Burning Crusade we had no idea what was going to happen. In our heart of hearts we thought a lot of our players would want Classic to remain Classic, and then others would want Burning Crusade. What we saw when we released Burning Crusade was this momentum carrying the bulk of our players into Burning Crusade. We didn’t want to lean into that, because we want to make sure our communities remain healthy.
To your point, we don’t want to split our audience into three. We’re deciding, primarily, we’re not doing Burning Crusade Classic era. We’re going to move all of our live servers with Burning Crusade into Wrath, and we’ll keep Classic era. One thing the Season of Mastery taught us is there’s this wealth of opportunity with seasons. There could be a future where we could offer a Burning Crusade era season and do something interesting with it, like we did with Season of Mastery. If the community demands it, nothing is off the table. That’s one of the beautiful things about doing what we do. There are always opportunities. If the community asks us for it, we’ll deliver.
Deadly death knights
GamesBeat: One of the major talking points in the original Wrath of the Lich King was death knight balance. They were overpowered for a large portion of the expansion. What’s the balance approach to that class for Classic?
Kevin Vigue: That was definitely a thing, especially at the launch of Wrath of the Lich King. Similar to what we did for Classic and Burning Crusade Classic, we’ll base our class design on the last patch of Wrath of the Lich King, which was 3.3.5. We’re going to be launching with those versions of the classes. There’s still a lot of awesome things about the death knight class, even if they’re not the kings and queens of PvP. They can still tank and DPS with any spec. We’re bringing back the old rune system. There’s all those flavorful abilities like rune carving. All that good stuff is still there.
But we’re not planning on bringing back the launch versions of death knights in particular. We think the versions of the classes from the last patch are, overall, the best designed, best balanced, and most fully thought out versions we can offer while still being true to Wrath. That’s where our starting point will be.
GamesBeat: Another change is that you no longer have to have this level requirement to roll a death knight. Why was that decision made? Was it just a matter of realizing that those requirements didn’t really add much to the experience?
Longdale: One of the principles we’ve always had is we want Classic to remain as inviting as possible, especially with an expansion release. In Burning Crusade and again in Wrath, we made the decision to offer a boost to players. I had, back in the day, taken a short break during Burning Crusade, and I came back. I’m an alt-aholic, so I thought, I don’t know what this death knight thing is, but I did have a 55, so I was able to jump in and play a death knight. The first heroic class, it was incredible for me. I’m chilling with the Lich King. He’s giving me jobs. All the incredible abilities that a death knight afforded. It was a really unique experience for me.
We want to lean into, what’s going to be the most fun for players? Let’s say you missed Classic or Burning Crusade. We want to give them the opportunity to be able to jump in and be relatively close to their friends, try this new epic opportunity, and get to know Arthas as one of his crew. We’ve been leaning toward being more open. We talk a bit about barbershop, for example. This is an opportunity for us where there were technical limitations then, and barbershop was literally a barbershop. You could get your hair changed. For us, we thought, well, that was a technical limitation. For a lot of us, being in WoW means being able to represent your character the way you want to. Some of the things we’ll be adding are face changing, gender change will be included with it, and we’ll be looking to add options as we go to make it more inclusive, make it a more holistic system so you can express yourself the way you want to. With the death knight, again, it’s about access. Get in, be with your friends. That’s our primary goal, to get you into Northrend. It’ll be a happy place. The death knight will come with pre-patch. There will be a healthy amount of time to level those up and jump into Northrend when we unlock our content, at a date to be determined!
Vigue: With the death knight, back in the original release of Wrath of the Lich King, there was a lot to throw a new player into and say, roll a death knight. You’re level 55. You have a mount. You have all these systems, all these zones you can go to. You have all these different spells. Complicated resource system. That’s a lot for a fully fresh player to jump into the game with. That said, we know our players are more advanced this time around. We know that for a lot of them death knight is synonymous with the Wrath of the Lich King experience. They’re like, I was still leveling up in Wrath of the Lich King, and then partway through I got to 55 and I could roll my true main, the death knight. That’s when I truly found my calling, to be this awesome undead knight. If that’s the class they’re coming back for, we want to give them access to that right off the bat.
GamesBeat: Lich King upped the presentation for things like in-game cinematics in World of Warcraft. How are they going to look in Classic? Will events like the Wrathgate cutscene see any any changes?
Vigue: No plans to remaster them, cool as that would be. You’re definitely right that Wrath of the Lich King upped the ante on that sort of in-game storytelling. The Wrathgate is still one of my favorite moments in my World of Warcraft career. It’s been going on for way too long sometimes, it seems like. But that stood out to me as a moment — going to the Wrathgate and then the battle of the Undercity after that, all that awesome stuff, those moments we’re still going to work on re-creating within the game, but no plans to remaster the cinematics in particular.
GamesBeat: You said there won’t be a dungeon finder in Wrath of the Lich King. That was originally added later in the expansion. Can you talk about that decision and how it’ll affect gearing in some of the later patches?
Vigue: For sure. On that decision in particular, the dungeon finder, the automated dungeon finder, was added in the last patch of Wrath of the Lich King, patch 3.3. When we started looking at Classic, going into Classic Wrath of the Lich King and whether we would have the dungeon finder, we knew that would be one of the big questions. The community had been discussing it a lot, and we were discussing it as well. We really went back to our roots of, who is our audience for this game, and what do they love about it? Why do they choose to play Classic when they could play other variants of World of Warcraft, or different excellent games out there? We wanted to celebrate those things that made World of Warcraft Classic special.
Players, when they asked us to bring back vanilla originally, because that was a player-driven effort, a lot of that was because of the social experiences that they remember having. We wanted to carry those going forward as something we wanted to protect. That experience where you see someone in trade chat and they ask you to join a dungeon group, you meet up with them, and you start having small talk along the way. You travel to the dungeon as your group starts building up, and you get to know those people. Maybe at the end of the run if it went well you ask them to join your guild, or you add one to your friends list, because you wanted to find a dungeon group more quickly next time. Those are the sorts of experiences we wanted to protect in Wrath of the Lich King, because we think that’s what makes our game special. We think that’s what players came back for, what players were asking for when they first asked us to release Classic. And it’s something we’ve fallen in love with all over again as we’ve gone to play the game.
In terms of gearing, that’s definitely something we have talked about. We don’t have any specifics at this time. I will say we’re lucky to have some of the original designers who were involved with those systems and the gearing and rewards, how that whole flow was supposed to work back in the original Wrath of the Lich King. Those people are on our team and are thinking actively about those questions to make sure that we still keep something that doesn’t feel like we’re just taking something out and leaving some incomplete system. We want the entire thing to still feel like Wrath of the Lich King in all those other ways, still feel balanced and like it’s been fully fleshed out. We’re lucky to have those designers on our side.
Just in terms of how players are going to be able to find groups, we know that also, with the dungeon finder, there’s a level of convenience. People could just hop into a group over their lunch break and not have to worry about those social barriers, talking to people, stuff like that. We do want to still make it easier to find like-minded players to run the content with. We have a redesign and a bunch of improvements planned for the looking-for-group tool that’s currently in Burning Crusade Classic going into Wrath of the Lich King, because we want to make that experience more friendly, more inviting to users, a better user experience overall, because we want you to be able to find people to run your dungeons with. We just want that sense of adventure along the way, the social element where you view these as other human beings that you might be able to consider friends one day.
GamesBeat: Talking about the modern WoW experience, that is getting cross-faction support. Is that something you ever see coming to Classic, or is that a bridge too far for this iteration of the game?
Longdale: It’s funny. I think we talked about it two weeks ago. It comes up. Brian Birmingham (WoW Classic lead), he raises this a lot. Like, maybe … ? We have this incredible opportunity where nothing’s off the table. We did same faction battlegrounds, so … I feel like if the community is asking us for it and it’s healthy for the game and the community who want to engage in PvP, then I don’t think we would just say no. That’s not how we approach the development of Classic and our community.
GamesBeat: Modern WoW’s next expansion is also adding some UI customization. Is that something that is possible for Classic?
Vigue: There certainly is a very nostalgic aspect to our UI. It’s the lens through which you view the game. That’s how you as a player get information back from the game. The way that’s presented to you does affect the experience. That said, we share a code base with the mainline. We can share a lot of their features. There’s work to actually get the features over, but we can share them with some effort put in. For instance, when we re-released Classic, there are some UI improvements we kept along the way, such as the ability to move your player frame in the default UI. That’s one of those places where we knew we wanted to have an original looking player frame, so that when you saw it it was still in the original position. You got that nostalgia hit.
But at the same time we also recognized the reality that monitors are bigger in the modern year. Having your player frame all the way in the top left isn’t the option everyone wants. Let’s let them move it down toward the middle. That’s one of the awesome things I’m excited for the Dragon Flight team to be bringing to their UI revamp, the ability to move your UI elements all over. We could see that coming to Classic someday. Not at launch, because it’s not in the timeline cards right now, but certainly if players want that, then let your voice be heard and we’ll be keeping an ear out for it.
Longdale: That’s Kevin’s way of saying he’s going to steal it.
Vigue: When no one’s looking!
GamesBeat: You talked about some of these bigger changes coming. Are there maybe some smaller differences from the base Wrath of the Lich King experience that you’d like to mention?
Longdale: I’ll throw this to Kevin because he knows all these kinds of details, but there are things that we’re waiting until beta. We really want to engage a lot with the community on some things like item level. That’s a bit of a hot topic. Also raid difficulty. Do we do shared lockouts? There’s a bunch of things that we’re not ready to make a call on yet. We want the community’s input first before we make those critical decisions.
Vigue: I also feel like those are maybe some of the potentially larger ones, certainly with the amount of work required from our side. But we’ve mostly been talking about the big picture, big ticket items right now in terms of what changes we could potentially make to Wrath of the Lich King, to make it the best version of Wrath of the Lich King overall that we can provide for our Classic community. One of those, just to elaborate on what Holly said, there will be information forthcoming on this in the coming months, because we want to get this in front of players as quickly as possible so we can start getting their feedback on it, but we have talked about the potential of maybe 10-man and 25-man dropping the same item level. And then incentivizing running 25-man with additional loot or some other vector where you can get more items per person out of 25-man, but 10-man can still feel like they’re getting loot that’s as competitive with everyone else as the 25-man raider.
I was a 10-man raider back in the day. I was in a really tight-knit guild. It’s the closest a guild ever felt to feeling like a family to me, just because we all knew each other, knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses as players, knew each other as people. It was an amazing experience. That’s something I’m so excited to have come back for Wrath of the Lich King, where players who want that smaller raid experience can do those sorts of raids and feel rewarded for it. One thing we’ve talked about there is possibly equalizing the item level with 25-man. That would also be a way of gradually ramping up the difficulty over the course of the raid tiers.
This is getting into some big picture things, as you can imagine. These are the big picture things we’re talking about right now. We have one of the original lead designers from the original Wrath of the Lich King who’s kind of been brainstorming all this. How does it work? What will be the gaps here? How do we fill them in? I’m really not the person who can provide all the details. But that will all be forthcoming. Hopefully I didn’t spoil too much of his surprise when you watch him come out with that. But yeah, that’s definitely something we’re looking at and potentially investigating.
Longdale: I feel like, honestly, even when we talk about small things, they come day after day. Quite frequently it’s Kevin saying, “Hey, I noticed…” or “I remember a time when this thing happened. We shouldn’t forget to either adjust it or improve it or take it out.” We’re pretty good about noting where we’ve made those decisions. But right now we’re internally playtesting. Our focus right now is to get this into the hands of the community and start figuring out what will make them happiest and how we can deliver the best Wrath of the Lich King Classic for them.
GamesBeat: I might be in the minority on this one, but the Argent Tournament was actually my favorite patch in Wrath of the Lich King. I just want to know if you’re both as excited for jousting as I am. Will that experience remain the same?
Vigue: Spoiler! There’s a tournament! (laughs) But yeah, I loved the jousting too. I’m with you there. Those are things we’re actively discussing, because we know that, frankly, Trial of the Crusader is a raid tier with a mixed reception. I actually really loved all the fights in there. The mechanics are great. But then after following Ulduar, which is the best raid the game has ever put out, in my personal opinion — and it’s put out some really good raids — and Icecrown Citadel coming after that, Trial of the Crusader being smushed in the middle is something we’ve talked about, and how we can potentially think about making that tier still exciting for players. Nothing to announce at this time, but definitely something the team is talking about.
GamesBeat: After Wrath of the Lich King, we’re maybe getting into a territory where the expansions are less “classic” in a sense. Do you maybe have to rethink the way Classic works moving going forward? Is it going to be #EvenMoreChanges, #SomethingCompletelyDifferent?
Longdale: It’s a #NoIdea right now. Again, we will see how things are trending as we start releasing patches for Wrath. We’ll start evaluating. What’s going to be continuing and increasingly important as we continue to move forward is feedback from the community. We’ll be asking some questions. You have your perspective. Even on our own team, and even the larger World of Warcraft at large team has their own ideas about where we should go as well. We’re just focused on Wrath right now. That’s plenty. But yeah, we’ll want to start talking about that relatively soon, for sure.
Vigue: Certainly anything we do after Wrath of the Lich King, we want to keep it going through that Classic lens and with that Classic ethos. Being frank, Shadowlands and Dragon Flight are going to be great World of Warcraft expansions who want that sort of expansion. That’s wonderful for those players. We want to offer something different, something that our community asked us to bring back, that our community has celebrated through Classic and Burning Crusade and hopefully into Wrath of the Lich King as well. Anything we do after that is going to be with that mindset of serving that community and emphasizing those things that make Classic special to people.