Burning Crusade first came out back in 2007. It added a new world, Outland, and two new playable races, the draenai and blood elves. It helped keep World of Warcraft’s insane popularity climbing, and now we can relive that trip through the Dark Portal.
During last week’s BlizzCon Online, I talked with executive producer John Hight and lead engineer Brian Birmingham about bringing back the Burning Crusade and what changes (if any) players should expect.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
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Starting the flame
GamesBeat: When Classic launched, it wasn’t a given that Burning Crusade was going to happen. When did the team realize that was going to be in the cards?
John Hight: It was about 5 minutes into the announcement of Classic and the opening volley, first on the internet, was, “I wonder if they’re gonna do Burning Crusade?! When are they gonna do Burning Crusade?!” Then questions came up in the Q&A. Yep, I think we’ll end up doing Burning Crusade. What we didn’t know is how big the audience for Classic was going to be, what the reception was going to be, and quite frankly how long people were going to stay with it. Classic was a love letter from us to our most loyal players, and we thought that was what it was going to be. It turned out to be not only that group, but a large group of people across the planet, some of whom had never played classic before, some of whom had never played WoW before, who came in and took the rallying cry to check it out.
GamesBeat: With vanilla World of Warcraft Classic, you centered all the balancing on a specific patch. Are you going to be doing the same with Burning Crusade?
Brian Birmingham: 2.4.3. That’s the last patch of Burning Crusade, the same kind of philosophy we had with Classic. We want to take the most complete and finished version of Burning Crusade and use that to base our major decisions for the baseline. That said, of course, we’ll do a similar approach as we did with classic, where we’ll have a phased rollout of content over time. You won’t be able to go immediately into Sunwell Plateau on day 1, but the game will be based on that stage of the patch. You’ll initially go into Karazhan, Gruul’s Lair, Magtheridon’s Lair, and then in Phase 2 we’ll unlock Serpent Shrine Cavern, Tempest Keep, alongside Arena Season 1, and then Mount Hyjal and Black Temple alongside Arena Season 2. Zul’aman alongside Arena Season 3, and finally, in Phase 5, Sunwell Plateau alongside Arena Season 4. I think I got that all right. It’s a bit of a mouthful. But we’re also looking for feedback from our fans on if they feel like that’s the right progression. We’re interested to pay attention as people progress through to see if there are other snippets we’d want to unlock in terms of daily quest hubs and things like that that we might want to tweak.
GamesBeat: In Classic, even the best patch can have some quirks. For vanilla Classic, mages and warriors were pretty powerful. Do you have any concerns with picking a single patch for Burning Crusade that something might be out of tune?
Birmingham: Not super-heavily. It’s obviously a possibility, but at the same time, we want to give people that authentic experience. We want to capture that moment in time so they can live through it. We don’t want to be twisting the knobs all the time to make it feel like a moving target that nobody can get their head around. We want to pick a spot and keep it that way. Some people, that’s what they meant when they heard “no changes.” Oh, at least they won’t be changing things all the time. We actually meant we were aiming for the authentic experience. We wanted to bring back what was true then. But some people said, no, just whatever you do, leave it alone. [Laughs] We don’t want to be making too many tweaks over time.
GamesBeat: I think I saw on an FAQ page for the game that there is going to be a level boost system of some kind. Why decide to bring that to Classic?
Hight: We did some surveys, some stealthy and some less so, to figure out where everyone’s head was at in the player community. First off, hey, if we have Burning Crusade is that something you would do, you and your guild, and how likely is that to happen for you? And then the other was, given the choice to go to Burning Crusade or stay in Classic, would you do that? Given a choice to have both at the same time, what would you do? The majority of people we talked to were going to go play Burning Crusade, but there’s still a pretty strong contingent of folks that wanted to play Classic. I’m leading into your exact question. We know that a lot of people, their first experience with WoW was Burning Crusade. During that point in history the WoW community was literally growing every day. A lot of people jumped on the bandwagon when Burning Crusade came out. We know that for them, that’s their nostalgia, going back and playing that. It’s also the first expansion we did. It has a lot of extremely cool content, even among the folks that started in the very beginning like me. I can’t wait to play in Burning Crusade because of the variety of things to do and the cool encounters that are there. And we’ll have new players.
If Classic is any indication, a lot of people are going to jump into WoW when we start talking about doing Burning Crusade for real. So, given all that, we felt like had we had this back then, we would have done a boost then, because we don’t want to leave folks behind. I use the analogy of, Brian is a serious raider. He has a ton of cool gear. Although he says he doesn’t have much gold, he has enough to keep that cool gear in working order. I’ve been a bit of a laggard, but I want to play together. I want to walk through the Dark Portal together.
With the boost, there will be restrictions on it. It’s optional. You don’t get it automatically. For your subscription you get access to Classic and Burning Crusade, but the boost is an additional thing. That starts at level 58. You can only have one per WoW account for a character. And that will be the limit, so that we don’t have people loading up a whole stable of characters. We want to honor that achievement that Brian made by going through and getting the super cool raid gear and waltzing around in Hellfire Peninsula, and then having to turn it in for greens, ha ha. [Laughs]
Birmingham: The tier three lasts a bit longer, but you’re right. You get to the end of Burning Crusade and you definitely … .
Hight: I just remember, I did Naxxramas back in the day. Working so hard and begging to get into those groups. And then when Burning Crusade started it’s like, wait a minute, greens?
Birmingham: Oh, I know, yeah. Back then originally I was only doing Blackwing Lair when Burning Crusade came out. That stuff got replaced pretty quickly as you leveled through Burning Crusade. I feel like the tier three lasts a little bit longer, but it’s still eventually replaced.
GamesBeat: Does the boost work for draenai and blood elves?
Birmingham: Good call. It does not.
Hight: You’re actually going to have access to start leveling up blood elf or draenai when we do the pre-patch. You have a bit of time before the portal opens. But no, we didn’t want a preponderance of everyone just saying, I’ll use this to have a blood elf and be the first kid on the block to walk in with a level 60 blood elf. There will be people in the pre-patch who’ll do that race, and they’ll figure out a way to level up in time, but they’ll have to do it the hard way.
GamesBeat: In the game economy, mages will charge gold to level-boost other players. Is it good to have the level boost hurt that practice?
Birmingham: I’m not super-worried about that. It’s more about, we don’t want people to feel like they have to do that. Or honestly, level through classic if that’s not what you want to play. If you come back for Burning Crusade, we want you to be able to play Burning Crusade. We want to make this an option where it’s clean and straightforward. This is what I want to do. Let’s get it taken care of so you can walk through the Dark Portal. The thing we don’t want is for everybody to be arbitrarily separated from their friends. Their friends have been playing classic and are ready to go in Burning Crusade right now, and they’re coming back for Burning Crusade and they go, wait, I have to do all this without you before I can play with you? Let’s just put you guys together and you can play together. Obviously we want to honor that achievement, and that’s why it’s not just a free option. But we do want to make sure there is a way we can put people together right away.
A second dose of Classic
GamesBeat: Were there any lessons you learned from launching Classic that you believe are going to serve you well in the release of Burning Crusade?
Hight: As I said earlier, we didn’t necessarily realize how popular it was going to be. What we’ve had to develop and learn along the way. We support Classic as we do modern WoW and the expansions in modern WoW. Brian has a dedicated team, but we also share a lot of resources from the WoW team proper. All of our live ops and server operations have to support both games. Keep both communities running 24/7. And so it was interesting for us to effectively be running two games. I guess they are two of the biggest MMORPGs on PC on planet Earth. That meant we’ve had to grow. We’ve had to scale to do that. We’ve had to organize behind the scenes. Brian’s team has certainly had to do a lot of work on deciding how much of our modern technology under the hood they bring in, and at what point they bring it in. It’s gotten us organized in the sense that we’re having to essentially manage two communities.
Birmingham: It’s been exciting to see how big the reaction was, and make sure we’re prepared with technologies. We had to offer free character migrations after Classic launched. That was something we had to rapidly develop and make sure we could deploy it quickly. We’ll make sure those are ready and able to be used if we need them for the Burning Crusade launch. There’s things like that in terms of how popular it was that we want to make sure we’re ready for. One technology we did use before, and we’re planning to use again, is layers. We know that layers are not everybody’s favorite thing, but when you’re talking about having to wait in an hours-long queue versus just spinning up a second copy of the world to let us all play at once, the choice seems clear to us. We want to make sure that these big launch moments, when everyone comes back at once, we have an option to let everyone play.
GamesBeat: Players can choose to move on to Burning Crusade or stick with vanilla Classic. What does that look like? Is each server getting split in two, into a Burning Crusade version and a vanilla version?
Birmingham: Kind of, but not exactly. It’s more that the existing realms will become Burning Crusade realms. We’re going to start calling them progression realms. They will progress to Burning Crusade. Then we’ll stand up new realms that are Classic era, and take a snapshot of your character at the moment we do that. Then you can choose which one of those you want to play. Do you want to play the snapshot that went to Burning Crusade, or do you want to play the snapshot in the Classic era? Or buy the clone service to be able to do both at once. That way you have that same choice. It looks the same to you. If you are a player who wanted to play classic era and you go and select classic era from the dropdown in Battle.net and launch the client, you’ll see the realm list with the same realm names you recognize, and you’ll find your character where you expect to find it, and you’ll be able to log in and play it. We want to make sure that’s seamless, and especially seamless for people going to Burning Crusade, since we know that’s the expectation for most people. They’ll bring over their guild and their auctions and their mail that’s in flight. We’re going to make sure that as much as possible, we get everything feeling like the original launch of Burning Crusade for people who want to do that.
GamesBeat: I know that when WoW Classic launched, there were people who thought that there were two possible roads. There’s Burning Crusade and there’s making new Classic content. Was that latter idea ever given much consideration?
Hight: It comes up a lot, honestly. It’s a little odd, because people wanted to play Classic. Maybe they’re reacting to, yeah, we want to play Classic because we like this aspect of the game mechanics, the way the game works. They’re happy with their particular class and the way it works. But the essence of Classic is really the community. We want to make sure that we let it play out. Let’s deliver Classic as we promised, make it as true to the original as we could, and then we’re going to repeat that with Burning Crusade, but we’re constantly keeping our ears to the internet and to our players, getting an idea of what do they want. If the preponderance of is growing that’s saying, we want new content, that’s something we’ll certainly consider. But if you’re starved for new content, you can play modern WoW. You can play Classic. And you can play Burning Crusade, all for the same subscription. There’s a lot of content out there, and we want to make sure that we try to deliver things a bit staggered so we give people the opportunity to check it all out.
Birmingham: I agree. It’s a cool idea. We hear a lot of cool ideas from fans. One thing I miss about having BlizzCon in person is being able to walk around and talk to people and hear all their exciting feedback. Although I did just get an unsolicited email. I don’t know if I want to encourage people to do this. But a fan just sent an email saying how excited they were about the announcement, and offering their own suggestions for what to do next. It gives me a bit of a taste of that BlizzCon experience, having fans walk up and tell you how excited they are. I love that. It’s always exciting to hear their cool ideas. Last year I had this group of three friends. One of them was so passionate, bring it back, Burning Crusade exactly as it was, like a history book in a museum. Leave it exact. All the bugs, all the warts, everything. And then another person was like, I have this re-envisioned world of Burning Crusade! Completely turned on its head, a hundred different things. All these are cool ideas, and I love engaging with people and all the ideas they have. It helps fuel our ideas for things to do in the future.
GamesBeat: Speaking of the future, two years from now Wrath of the Lich King Classic seems like a bit of a gimme.
Birmingham: [Laughs] I don’t know if I’d call it a gimme, but I see where you’re going.
Hight: Is that something you want? Because this is the first time I’ve heard that. [Laughs] I think I have one vote now.
GamesBeat: I know it wasn’t a very popular expansion or anything.
Birmingham: Right. And if you asked that last year at BlizzCon, I don’t think anybody cheered for it. Maybe one or two people did? I mean, the real thing we want to focus on is making sure we’re doing the right thing for the chapter we’re doing right now. Right now we want to focus on making sure we’re doing Burning Crusade right, that we make sure we retain the people who want to stay in classic and don’t want to move on. If things keep going and people keep loving it, obviously the options are open for us to deliver things people want in the future.
GamesBeat: If people complain about anything in Burning Crusade, it can be that the story is a bit muddled. I’m assuming the philosophy is to make as few changes as possible, but is it tempting to make more alterations around things like narrative and story?
Hight: We have no plans to alter the story. I think that’s probably the most sacrosanct. We want you to see that experience and relive history. The only exceptions to that are if there happens to be a dialogue or text line that when we look at it years later, we feel it might have been not progressive, maybe somewhat divisive. Because, hey, that was written a long time ago. The social standards were a bit different. People’s thoughts were a bit different. Occasionally, we have caught a line where we’re like, whoa, especially taken out of context, that doesn’t sound too cool. But it’s not in an attempt to rewrite the story or change what the authors originally intended.
Birmingham: I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head in Burning Crusade where we’ve had to do that.
Hight: We had maybe three lines in Classic. It was pretty minor.
Birmingham: In general, that’s our guiding principle, to be as authentic as possible. We don’t want to rewrite the story. There’s always a temptation, because sometimes you look at something that feels like it’s maybe not exactly right, and you wish you could change it, but that’s not our mission. Our goal is to hold ourselves back and try to be careful. As you’ve heard, we’re doing things like the boost where we feel a targeted change makes sense, but not to the core story or core game experience. We want to make sure that, in general, the game feels like the game you remember. It’s what you think of when you think of Burning Crusade. Each of these expansions is like a period in history when there were different things that were celebrated. Burning Crusade is particularly an expansion that was all about balancing the Horde and the Alliance, giving them access to the same set of abilities and classes, whereas classic was more about dissimilar, uneven, or asymmetric gameplay. That was cool. Depending on which one you like, if you want Horde Paladins or Alliance Shamans, we have Burning Crusade for you now. We’re excited to deliver that there. If people had asked us to put that into classic because, oh, maybe that makes more sense to level the playing field, we would have said, no, that’s not what Classic is about. That’s what Burning Crusade is about. Each of these things has a distinct flavor. We want to make sure we’re authentic to that flavor.
GamesBeat: I remember the announcement of actual Burning Crusade, and all the fun we had trying to figure out what the new Alliance race was going to be. You guys should have just showed us Blood Elves today, so we could have relived that.
Birmingham: Oh, man. I used to have the T-shirt. I had it for so long, but it finally got worn out. The old green T-shirt that said “Welcome to the family,” with the pictures of the blood elves on it. I still had one of those from Burning Crusade launch.
Hight: I wasn’t on the team then, although I was a player. I’ve heard rumors that at one time someone proposed that that would be when the pandas should arrive. It would have been pretty crazy to do space pandas. I don’t know if I could have handled it.
The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.
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