Wrath of the Lich King Classic launches on September 26. Often hailed as World of Warcraft's most beloved expansion, Wrath continues the story of the Prince of Lordaeron, Arthas Menethil, which started back in the days of Warcraft 3. We'll get to (re)explore the vast continent of Northrend and ultimately confront the Lich King himself at the Frozen Throne, at the top of the legendary Icecrown Citadel.
Ahead of Wrath Classic's release next week, I had the chance to sit down and chat with two of Blizzard's lead software engineers, Brian Birmingham and Ana Resendez. To kick things off, we started with the elephant in the room—the Wrath Classic server queues.
The price of popularity
Spending hours sitting in a queue to log in to your favourite game isn't a new experience for most MMO players. It's something that's plagued every remotely successful game in recent years, and World of Warcraft has its own history of server troubles with new expansion releases or big updates. Wrath Classic's pre-patch has been no exception.
"One of the things that we have been doing over most of the history of World Warcraft is leaning on letting players play what they want, where they want, and trying to increase server capacity to allow that," says Brian Birmingham. "Classic philosophy originally was to try to get everybody back down to one layer after launch. We eventually abandoned that effort, especially with a big surge of players when the pandemic hit."
The launch of WoW Classic allowed Blizzard to add layers to servers to help alleviate the strain—something that is used successfully in modern WoW. Essentially, layering means that players would be spread over different server instances, even if they were stood at the same exact spot in the same zone. But this also leads to problems with areas potentially feeling empty when in reality, they're not. But as Birmingham goes on to explain, not all server problems can be solved with layering.
"We're at that point where we have to change our strategy a little bit, too many people are clustering onto too few realms, and causing those realms to be over capacity in a variety of ways. So while layers can help the problem of too many people in one tight space—we can make multiple copies of that—there are other server capacity problems that we can't solve with layers. There are things like the auction house, for example, which is not layered. But that's just one example. There are all kinds of bottlenecks behind the bottlenecks."
The large servers that are locked right now are likely to stay locked for the foreseeable future, but it's not all doom and gloom if you're planning on playing. "So at this point, we have a lot of really healthy realms," continues Birmingham. "Some of them are really too popular, and we have stopped transfers and character creations on those. But then the rest of [the servers] have really healthy and vibrant communities. And so if you're allowed to make a new character there, you're gonna have a good permanent home. That's what we want to be able to guarantee."
As for the future, the World of Warcraft team encompasses both Classic and modern WoW and server technology is something that both groups discuss. "I'm really happy to see all the technological advancements," says Ana Resendez. "It's a conversation we have all the time with our partner teams in the modern game. And that helps us continue exploring different solutions for the future. But I just want to really reiterate that it's something that we are constantly looking at and we monitor the health of the servers closely."
The introduction of the fresh start servers for Wrath Classic was mainly due to the team's expectations for the number of players jumping in for the popular Wrath expansion, especially those playing Classic for the first time. It's also partly what prompted the XP buff, Joyous Journeys, which sadly ends on September 26.
"We were [always] planning to have it stop at launch. We knew as we were introducing it that the longer we left it, the more people would come to count on it forever," says Birmingham. "We do really like what we've seen from it—it has invigorated the community to make new characters, level them up together, and go explore old dungeons. And so maybe it'll come back at some point in the future, but we don't have any specific plans for that yet."
Dungeon (finder) decisions
Earlier this year, Blizzard announced that the Random Dungeon Finder tool wouldn't be added to Wrath Classic and this has been a point of contention for some. The original Wrath expansion added the tool during one of the later patches, allowing players to form five-person groups with the click of a button and be thrown into a dungeon with randoms. This is something that modern WoW still makes use of, but many feel that the tool was the start of the decline of the social aspect of the game, when the feeling of community the early game fostered began to fade.
"The original experience was without the dungeon finder, at least at the beginning of Wrath," says Resendez. "But that said, it's something that we've been talking about a lot inside the team. I don't think that it was an easy decision. This automated system of already picking who's going to be grouped with you can create less personal communication. So we're really leaning towards the opposite side of that—you go and pick out the group that you want to experiment with and have some social interactions."
"Automatic dungeon finding is a cool tool if you want to get a quick game over lunch, I get that," adds Birmingham. "But there's also value in a kind of a game where you have to put a little bit more effort in to make a new friendship, to try to reach out to somebody else to say, 'Hey, do you want to come do this?' Opening up that conversation means that you have those chances to make those off-spec groups or try something a little bit zany. Rather than wait as long as it's gonna take for DPS to find a tank and a healer, you can try to figure out some way to cobble it together yourself. And we want that kind of opportunity to have those social engagements, and also those opportunities to creatively solve problems."
Blizzard is well aware of the split in the community on the subject of the Random Dungeon Finder. In fact, it first surfaced internally, according to Birmingham. "We wanted to make sure we announced it early. Partly because we knew it would be contentious from talking internally on the team. There were some people who were like, 'Oh, I can't wait that we're gonna get to Wrath and get [the Random Dungeon Finder],' and we're like, 'No, we're thinking we aren't.' And we did have a conversation at that point."
If you're hoping the RDF tool will be added in a later update, you'll likely be disappointed, though Birmingham said it hasn't been ruled out entirely. "I do know there has been a popular request that maybe we should introduce it with Icecrown Citadel. But that's not the plan right now. That said, our plans are always evolving. We're always still listening. So I don't want to say for sure, one way or the other. But right now we're thinking we're not going to add it."
It has to be a difficult line to walk with regard to what changes to implement without messing with what players loved about the original Wrath—especially when the instincts of a developer are to make the best experience possible with the technology at hand. I asked if there is some sort of criteria in place that must be met before a change will be considered.
"In general, we like to keep as much as true as we can with Classic," says Resendez. "A big part of it is we want to recreate experiences, and we wanted to have the same feeling. It's something very difficult to make, especially when the community has evolved so much over the years, and we're looking at it through a different lens. Part of it is we look at what the community is saying, we keep this open communication."
You don't have to be active on the forums or social media to be heard, as a great deal of feedback is achieved through player actions, as Resendez goes on to explain. "I am a big fan of looking at data. There are a lot of people that enjoy the game and are not vocal, but we still want to listen to them. So our way of listening to these people is through data. Seeing how people are actually engaging with the game and what sort of activities they are doing, what sort of activities they enjoy the most, and what they keep repeating. So looking at data is another avenue that we use."
There are some minor changes arriving with Wrath Classic that have originated in modern WoW, such as body types replacing genders in character creation, as well as the barber shop changes. This made me wonder if any other low-impact modern systems had ever been considered for Classic, such as the party-sync function which allows players of vastly different levels to quest together.
"It's actually funny that you bring this up because Wrath of the Lich King is the first [expansion] that introduced phasing," says Resendez, "We were looking through different ideas because we discovered that phasing can introduce certain situations that are not ideal—you want to go help someone, but they're in a different phase. So we talked about what other solutions already exist in [modern WoW]. But on that front, we decided, for right now, not to make any changes."
"On party-sync specifically, we did actually talk about whether or not there was something we could bring back to try to adjust phrasing," says Birmingham. "And it turns out it's more than just the technical capability of being able to sync with your party. There are some design changes around what it means if I can redo that quest a second time. And so we decided it would invite too many changes to Wrath of the Lich King, although we do kind of like the idea of being able to bridge that gap with phasing."
"What we decided to do instead was add additional rewards to some of the quests that put you in later phases. So hopefully you feel like there's a good reason to finish the zones and get to that final phase where you're in the same place as everybody else. Because there's a little bit more of a reward we put like, in I believe it's an Emblem of Justice on the end of all of those phase cappers. So if you do all these zone capper requests, you can have a sizable head start on your first piece of gear."
So, Heroic Plus dungeons?
A new type of content, potentially arriving when the Ulduar raid is released, is the additional difficulty level of heroic dungeons, coined as Heroic Plus dungeons. "We're planning to introduce a new harder version of the Heroic modes that will have additional rewards attached to it, probably the next badge up and maybe the old 10-player, Naxxramus gear as well," says Birmingham. "Because we're planning to have, as Ulduar unlocks, the 25-player and 10-player versions drop the same [25-player] loot and then move the 10-player loot to the harder heroics."
With both 10 and 25-player versions of the same raid traditionally available in older WoW expansions—and with different loot drops for each—it's easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of repetitive content you need to do if you want to get the best gear for your character. Especially once there's more than one raid available. The solution of moving 10-player raid loot to the new Heroic Plus dungeons once Ulduar unlocks also means the dungeons themselves present a challenge to players for a longer period of time, as Birmingham explains.
"Part of the reason for that is because we want to give a little more life to people who are saying, 'I'm moving on to Ulduar, but I want to do pick-up groups in [10-player] Naxxramus still'. And if you want to do that, we want to make sure that you still feel like that's rewarding, and something that will supplement your activities and feel like a worthwhile effort. But also, we want to make sure that we don't have the problem that we saw with the original Wrath launch, where people were always chasing this easier and easier version of the heroic—easier because they were more powerful, and it didn't change with them."
I asked if the harder heroic dungeons would be a set difficulty, basically a harder version of a regular heroic dungeon, or if there will be some spin on that, like a time limit (as with Mythic plus dungeons in modern WoW).
"It's a little early to say for sure," says Birmingham. "We're looking at ideas right now. This is still an idea and we're not fully committed to it yet, but we feel pretty strongly that we're likely to go in some direction like this. So I don't have a lot of details to commit to. Like I said, this is going to come with the release of Ulduar at the earliest. So we're not ready to pin it down yet. But we are excited to have that opportunity and to hear feedback from what people want to see in this kind of approach."
Life after Wrath
A Cataclysm survey recently went out to gauge players' interest in what comes after Wrath Classic. Many players consider Wrath of the Lich King to be the last 'vanilla-era' expansion, and I wondered if Blizzard had always expected Classic expansions to run that far.
"I'll say we're always looking to the future," says Birmingham. "Of course right now we're primarily focused on Wrath of the Lich King. We always want to get these conversations started early. It's one of the reasons why we talked about some of the things we were planning with Wrath of the Lich King early on in its development. [...] And that way we can get that feedback and that community discussion going so that we can hear that and find out what players want so we can try to deliver that."
That raises the odd thought of convergence. If Classic comes to an end—and let me be clear here, there's no suggestion that it will—would it be hypothetically possible to transfer a character from Classic to modern WoW if that's the path a player wanted to take? Surprisingly enough it might technically be possible, though it's not something Blizzard would ever plan on implementing.
"We've always said that we wouldn't do that," says Birmingham. "One of the reasons was that we didn't want players to go play Classic because they wanted to get some achievement in modern World of Warcraft. We really want you to be playing Classic because you want to play Classic. And so we've always tried to keep those environments separate. So it's not really a technical restriction. If we ever got to a point where we wanted to change our minds there, we probably could. But right now, that isn't in the plans."
Wrath of the Lich King Classic is set to arrive on live servers on Monday, September 26, and here's everything we know about it.