'We knew that was a pain point … why make that mistake again?' World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Classic devs talk tinkering with the game's first divisive expansion

Deathwing roars with his wings spread over the smouldering ruins of Stormwind, in the WoW: Cataclysm Classic trailer.
(Image credit: Blizzard)

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Classic is arriving May 20, and it's an interesting topic because—as PC Gamer's Andy Chalk pointed out back when it was announced—Cataclysm's changes to the world are part of the reason why Classic exists in the first place. Granted, the infamous "you think you do, but you don't" quote comes from the Warlords of Draenor days—a couple expansions after Cataclysm—but good ol' Deathwing is still the dragon that broke the world.

Quests became streamlined and far more player-friendly, but lost some of their old charm. Stories were told directly to players, leading to some fun moments like Garrosh roaring "you are dismissed!" and hucking someone off a cliff in the Stonetalon Mountains. But then there were the pop-culture references. So many pop-culture references.

That's not to say that Cataclysm was a disaster in the same way that something like Shadowlands was. However, Blizzard broke from its "no changes" mindset a while back—in other words, Cataclysm Classic isn't just an opportunity to relive the expansion, it's an opportunity to do stuff right. 

I had the opportunity to speak with lead software engineer Nora Valletta and principal game designer Kris Zierhut about that process. 

A while back, Holly Longdale remarked that the survey data going into the expansion was better than Blizzard thought it would be, but Valletta "actually did not end up being all that surprised." While the team loves getting feedback from players on social media and forums, Valletta quite reasonably observes that: "the vast majority of our playerbase is not actually going to do that.

"We recognise there are differing opinions among our players about what version of WoW is the best version of WoW, but we also don't want to necessarily deny all the players that have been asking us to continue their journey into Cataclysm Classic … a couple of people on my BattleNet friendlist, their version of Classic is [Cataclysm], so they're just pumped."

As far as changing the past goes, however, it's a fine balance. Zierhut brings up two examples of things the team is (and isn't) changing. 

First off, guilds. This has been known for a while, but Cataclysm Classic won't be using the same guild advancement system it did back in the day. For the uninitiated, Cataclysm introduced levels that guilds could work through, which all conferred various bonuses to their members. XP bonuses, mount speeds, and so on. The only problem? They favoured large guilds, meaning a ton of smaller communities were fractured.

"Those guilds experienced, in 2010, lots of attrition—it was actually very, very bad in terms of how it affected the social system for small guilds, we were immediately regretful about that impact on the game," Zierhut explains. Instead, guilds in Cataclysm Classic will earn ranks by doing activities with guild members, incentivising you and your mates to team up. "We knew that was a pain point, we knew it caused some hardship and unhappiness for our players, why make that same mistake again?"

It's not all sunshine and changes, though. Cataclysm introduced an overhaul to the game's talent system, something that was only walked back as late as Dragonfight—to nigh-on universal praise. It's something the team certainly considered adjusting: "We looked at it, and we could've done it. Partway through development back in 2009, we had talent trees that had one point per level built … we could've dug up those designs and rebuilt those talent trees, but we would've had to invent and develop new talents."

In the end, Zierhut admits that it would've "changed the classes so much that it wouldn't be Cataclysm classic anymore… it would be more like Season of Discovery." 

That seems fair enough from where I'm sitting—though part of me does wonder about the future of Classic, especially with the breakneck pace it's keeping. Cataclysm Classic will work through all of its patches in less than a year, so where does the buck stop? What does a Battle for Azeroth Classic look like? 

Valletta and Zierhut understandably didn't have concrete answers in that azurite vein, given it's years in the future, but I'll be interested to see what further changes will be actioned to meta-mechanics, especially when expansions even more divisive than Cataclysm are next on the chopping block.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.