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World of Warcraft's game director on why Classic isn't just 'a flash in the pan'

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

When World of Warcraft Classic was first announced two years ago, the ensuing tidal wave of hype was undercut with skepticism. Do people really want to relive their memories of getting repeatedly ganked in Stranglethorn Vale? Do they really want to spend hours just running from zone to zone, or standing in cities trying to put together a party just to run a dungeon? Does World of Warcraft Classic really possess some intangible quality that made it worthy of all the forum threads, tweets, and memes pleading with Blizzard to make it a reality?

Apparently it does.

Over a month after its record-breaking launch, where 1.2 million people concurrently watched their favorite streamer brave server queues 20,000 players long, World of Warcraft Classic hasn't lost its allure. It's still one of the top games on Twitch and its servers are still bustling with players. But with the launch behind us and the next phase of dungeons, raids, and PVP features on the horizon, I wanted to catch up with WoW game director Ion Hazzikostas to talk about Classic's resurgence, its future, and why people seem to love it so damn much. "It's been amazing, really, and humbling to see this excitement across this broader community to explore and visit the world of Azeroth as it stood 15 years ago," Hazzikostas says.

Kingdom rush 

When World of Warcraft Classic launched, I'm not sure many people were expecting it to blow up the way it did—not even its own development team. "It definitely exceeded our expectations," Hazzikostas tells me. "We had the infrastructure planned to accommodate the number of people that showed up, but it was certainly not something that we were expecting."

With seven expansions under its belt, Blizzard has greatly improved its ability to launch online games that don't immediately buckle under the weight of millions of players jumping in at once. But that isn't to say Classic's launch was perfect. During that first week there was simply too few servers, forcing players to endure painfully long queues that sometimes took four to five hours to get through.

As painful as that situation was, Hazzikostas says it was necessary. "From the start we wanted to be conservative in our projections because we didn't want to open a huge number of servers only to find some of them underpopulated and unable to support healthy communities in the long term," he says. "But it also meant that we had to react very quickly opening dozens of servers on a daily basis during that first week."

Even with the long server queues and over-populated starting zones, it was immediately clear that Classic was special. In my review, I wrote about how authentic it felt not just as an emulation of 2006-era World of Warcraft as a game, but also as a community. Playing Classic made me feel like I was experiencing WoW for the first time again.

When players approach the game with that mindset, it leads to an overall greater environment of positivity and cooperation and generosity.

Ion Hazzikostas

"One of the things that's magical about it—part of it is the game systems themselves that lend themselves to cooperation—but another big part is the number of people who are approaching Classic with the mindset of it being about the journey," Hazzikostas says. "Many players have already seen and done Molten Core, they can go in and one-shot Ragnaros on their level 120 characters if they want to. It's not about rushing to complete that raid. It's about wanting to experience the journey through the world. And when players approach the game with that mindset, it leads to an overall greater environment of positivity and cooperation and generosity. People taking time out of their schedules to make a bag for someone else or buff them or help them out with some quest boss they're stuck on. It's not always about efficiency and rushing to get to the end as quickly as possible."

Players' collective mindset makes Classic feel like a living world in ways that many modern MMOs still struggle to create. And it's something that Hazzikostas says the team is observing and learning from. "It's something that we're still trying to figure out. It's challenging in this modern age with the rapid spread of information across the internet and the way players as a whole approach games, there is this efficiency-oriented mindset with theorycrafting and min-maxing and games being solved which changes the way games are approached by many. This is a unique situation because everyone knows where the story ends, everyone knows what's coming next."

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

A priest walks onto a boat... 

One of my favorite things about Classic is all of the funny ways players can screw one another over. Take priests, for example, who have a spell called Mind Control that lets you temporarily take over an enemy player and use some of their abilities. In a PvP fight, a priest might mind control a mage and use their powerful spells to assault their own party or turn their tank into a sheep. But that's for amateurs.

Any priest worth their salt knows the best way to use Mind Control is to take a boat from a neutral location like Booty Bay and wait for an enemy player to board. When the boat departs and is far out at sea—but not so far that you've hit the invisible wall and triggered the loading screen that teleports you to the boat's destination—you Mind Control an enemy player and make them walk the plank. If you do it right, they'll have to spend minutes swimming back to shore just to wait for the next boat. Or they'll just die.

Hazzikostas' own favorite jerk move is using rogue's Distract ability, which throws an object that forces enemy players to turn to face the thrown object. If that player is running forward and not paying attention, the sudden change of direction can be fatal. "I saw a great clip on Reddit the other day of a rogue camped in Blackrock Mountain who would just periodically Distract people, making them face off to the side which would then make them run into the lava and fall to their deaths," Hazzikostas laughs.

Above: Reddit user rpsychonaut11 mercilessly trolling a player with Distract.

It's some of those little wrinkles that have been slowly ironed out over the years—whether by changes to how these abilities work, players having more options to counter them, or just the simple fact that most players are more spread out across Warcraft's increasing number of zones. But it's these idiosyncrasies in Classic's design that make it so endearing.

"Classic represents an era full of rough edges and inconveniences and there are things that have been smoothed out over the years," Hazzikostas says. "But there is a certain charm to some of those rough edges. They have clear upsides. The lengthy travel time, the fact that it can take you 30 minutes to get from Thunderbluff over to Silverpine as a tauren shaman wanting to get their water totem is offset by the fact that it encouraged you to rely on mages or warlocks for easier transportation. The fact that your pet would run away and leave you forever if you didn't feed them enough was offset by a greater feeling of connection to the pet."

Just as importantly, Hazzikostas says, is that Classic "is what it is" and that players have to take "the bad with the good"—even if that means missing a boat because a priest mind controlled you. "There is no lobbying the developer to change that because the game is what it was in 2005," he adds. "It has to be accepted, which then frees everybody to find all the positive aspects, all the upsides of that friction and those inconveniences because there's a certain acceptance of the downsides."

Set phases to fun 

Though time will ultimately tell, the first phase of Classic's post-launch updates has shown that players are more than willing to live with any rough edges. It begs the question of what, if any, aspects of Classic might find their way back into Warcraft's next expansion and beyond. "I don't think this is the case where the lesson or the takeaway is to ever to borrow specific mechanics directly or remove things that we added just to return to Classic," Hazzikostas says. "Classic is there for those who want to play it, and I don't think that, say, removing flying mounts permanently will suddenly endear World of Warcraft in the hearts of millions of players. We've learned that lesson trying that a few years back." 

We want to make sure that we're not rushing players through content ever and not obsoleting stuff before it has a chance to breathe.

Ion Hazzikostas

"The different path, really, is looking at some of the purely positive outcomes. The sense of community, the reasons for cooperation with others, the meaningful progression, that feeling of striving for rewards that you don't think are going to be replaced right away, and asking ourselves how can we incorporate those elements into Modern World of Warcraft in a way that's consistent with the world and the systems without compromising the game."

Classic's influence on modern WoW might be unclear, but it's own future isn't. Earlier this year Blizzard announced its plans to expand Classic over six phases that mirror the original updates Warcraft received from 2004 to 2006. Each one will add new raids, dungeons, and PVP systems like Battlegrounds and PVP-specific gear.

But Blizzard has never been clear on what tempo these updates will take. Hazzikostas says that's because the team isn't sticking to a set timeline but will instead roll out updates when they feel the community at large is ready for something new. "We want to make sure that we're not rushing players through content ever and not obsoleting stuff before it has a chance to breathe," Hazzikostas tells me. "If we're rushing players onto Ahn'Qiraj when most of them only have three or four pieces of their tier-2 sets from Blackwing Lair, that's kind of cutting the content short. We want to avoid that."

That said, Phase 2, which adds world bosses like Kazzak and a rudimentary PVP honor system for tracking kills against enemy players, should arrive before the year is done. "I think it's a matter of later this year, I think we can say definitively," Hazzikostas says. "It's going to depend on a few factors."

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Hazzikostas says there's still some bugs that need to be squashed, but one of the biggest factors is that some servers are still using layering to spread their populations out and ensure stability. Layering is one of the biggest ways Classic deviates from its Warcraft's original release as it's a new technology that drops players into instances of a zone so everyone wasn't in the same place at the same time during the initial launch rush. As new servers have been opened and "natural attrition" is thinning server populations somewhat, layering is gradually being turned off for all but the busiest realms. Once layering is disabled entirely on all realms, Phase 2 will be much closer to launching.

Beyond that, though, Hazzikostas didn't want to commit to any deadlines. But it's that inevitable conclusion that I find so fascinating. Once Classic stops evolving, will players stop playing? In response, Hazzikostas reaffirmed what Blizzard president J. Allen Brack first told me when Classic was announced: "We view this as a long-term World of Warcraft experience that we are committed to supporting for all the players that are enjoying it."

At the end of Classic's six phases is a crossroads that leads to destinations unknown, but one possibility is that Classic will continue forward with The Burning Crusade and the expansions that followed. Now that Blizzard has already recreated Classic, why stop there? "I'm certain those conversations will happen and I think it's premature to commit to anything one way or another," Hazzikostas says. "All I can say for sure is that we will be listening closely and it's something that we'll discuss at all levels as a team."

Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.