It was leaked yesterday, but Blizzard has now made it official: World of Warcraft Classic, the retro version of the huge online game, will be extended to include first expansion The Burning Crusade this year.
That means an increased level cap of 70 (Classic players will actually outlevel players on the modern game, which has had the cap squished to 60); an inter-dimensional adventure through the Dark Portal to the trippy, broken world of Outland; the addition of the Blood Elf and Draenei races; arena player-versus-player, flying mounts and more.
As before, World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade Classic (it's dropped the "the", for some reason) will be included for free in a WOW subscription. Players whose dedication is really to the original version of the game won't be forced to upgrade; you can choose whether to progress your character onto the Burning Crusade expansion along with the rest of your server, or move to a server that will stay forever on the current version of the game - which I guess we now have to call Vanilla Classic. Original Classic. Classic Classic? (Blizzard is calling them Classic Era servers.)
Serving a retro community as it splits into camps who want to experience the game as it was in different eras is a potential minefield, but Blizzard does seem to have thought through all the options. Lead producer Holly Longdale and production director Patrick Dawson told me over Zoom that players who don't want to choose between the two versions of the game will be offered a paid service to clone their character across Classic Era and Burning Crusade servers. Furthermore, diehard Burning Crusade fans who haven't been playing Classic and can't face the long grind up to the level requirement for the expansion can pay for a boost to level 58. This option is strictly one-time-only, because "we don't want to minimise the accomplishments of those who have worked so hard in Classic to get their characters ready," Dawson said.
Blizzard now finds itself maintaining three versions of its flagship MMO simultaneously; potentially more, if this model continues through to subsequent WOW expansions. That sounds like a headache, although the Classic community is clearly big enough for the effort to be worth it - Activsion Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick has spoken approvingly of the effect Classic has had on WOW subscription numbers. "Yeah, it is more complicated to run multiple products in this environment," Dawson said. "But we have a world class lab operations team that is up for this challenge. Even going from one mega game to two mega games when we [launched WOW Classic] was a big change for that group as well. So the good news is, we've done that before, we know what it's like to add a new game to World of Warcraft."
As with WOW Classic, content from the original game will be rolled out in phases over time, so the raiding community can look forward to the Black Temple, Zul'Aman and the Sunwell opening up over the next year or so. But systemically, Burning Crusade Classic will actually start from the expansion's endpoint. "Our starting template is that final patch," Dawson said. "It is the class abilities, the class balance and everything that existed for the final version of Burning Crusade... and then we're going to go ahead and take a look at what else makes sense to change on top of that."
Ah yes. New changes. Originally Blizzard took a purist approach and made only very minimal changes to the game as it was for WOW Classic, but that approach has evolved as the team has listened to player feedback. "As a team, we're calling this... I hesitate to say this, but I'm gonna anyway... we call it #somechanges," laughed Longdale. It turns out that players wanted the game exactly as it was - but better.
Longdale gave a few examples of changes that will be made in Burning Crusade Classic. Spell batching, a latency in processing player actions to work around the limits of mid-2000s server hardware, was emulated in WOW Classic, but will now be ditched for a "more reactive" feel to the gameplay. Seal of Blood, an ability granted to Horde Paladins in Burning Crusade and known to be more powerful than the equivalent Alliance ability, is being granted to Alliance Paladins too. The Blood Elf and Draenei races will be unlocked before the Dark Portal opens, to give players a chance to level up new characters.
Most controversially, perhaps, the team is opting for a "pre-nerf raid approach". In Classic, players got later versions of raid bosses that had been tuned down (wisely so in the case of a fight like C'Thun, the pre-nerf version of which, Dawson said, was proven to be "mathematically impossible"). With Burning Crusade Classic, however, the community will get the chance to test themselves against bosses in their terrifying pre-nerf forms. "We're taking a look at that raiding community and it is extremely vibrant, they're extremely talented raiders, and they know a lot more today than they did 15 years ago," Dawson said. "So we want to give them that pre-nerf version of those fights." (Well, mostly. Some poor game design choices, like spell pushback on the original version of M'uru from Sunwell Plateau, will be left out, but "that hit point nerf and damage nerf that we got a few weeks in - let's not do that right away," Dawson said, with a glint of mischief in his eye.)
The WOW Classic team has learned that returning the game to its exact state at an earlier point in time is not really what the community wants - and nor does it take into account how things have moved on. "Like, back when Burning Crusade first released, you were having the beginnings of YouTube, right? It was a very different world - the community sites, the guilds weren't as savvy and robust as they are today." Dawson said. "The game that was designed for that community holds up amazingly well today, which is something that is just awesome to see. But the way people are engaging with it is a little bit different. And that's okay. But that's partly why we want to make a few of these changes to say, hey, let's let's serve the needs of today's community, but keep that same nostalgia, keep that feeling that people had back in 2007."
Nostalgia is a powerful force, and memory is subjective. One of the oddest problems the team faces is that players' memories of the game - even the development team's own - can diverge a little from the facts. ("A lot," interrupts Longdale.) Should they remake the game as it was, or as players remember it?
"One thing that we always have had both for Classic and for Burning Crusade is a reference client, so we can actually go back and look at how things actually were," Dawson said. "With Classic, people would bring things up and we would do a deep dive and be like, 'Hey, this is exactly how it works.' And they're like, 'Okay, but that's not what I remember'... With Burning Crusade, rather than have us just answer 'this is how it was', the question is, well, what do you think it should be? And we'll listen. Because ultimately, we're making a game for the people that want to play it."
"Our goal is to bring the best experience possible to the greatest number of players, even though, you know, I might not like it so much when Pat was mounted in PvP and killing me constantly over and over again," Longdale laughed. "It's about keeping the nostalgia, the spirit of Burning Crusade and Classic for that nostalgic experience. But we want to make sure that it remains as fun as possible for the greatest number in the community as possible."