About 4 months ago...
I had the chance to talk with key members of the World of Warcraft: Classic development team. Two of these members were Production Director Patrick Dawson and Lead Software Engineer, Brian Birmingham.
Patrick Dawson oversees all aspect of game production and supervises the day-to-day efforts of the entire team. Joining Blizzard in 2005, Patrick has worked on every single World of Warcraft expansion and, during the original games launch, played a Mage.
Joining Blizzard back in 2006, Brian Birmingham works as the technical lead for the all the engineers building World of Warcraft Classic. His mission is to help ensure Blizzard’s faithful re-creation of the original WoW experience while simultaneously delivering on 2019 expectations of service and stability. Back in Vanilla, Brian played a Warrior.
As a WoW classic fanatic, I was thrilled to be able to talk to such core members of the development team. As I started our conversation, I felt compelled to first be honest about my fandom and how incredibly cool it felt to talk to them.
I couldn't help it!
First thing’s first. It’s absolutely incredible for me to be talking with you guys. Like so many, I played WoW the most in Classic and I absolutely love the game. To me, it is surreal to think that the same teenager obsessed with that world now gets to have this interview, so thank you so much for all that you’ve done for the game and everything that you’re doing right now.
Brian: Thank you guys for your passion and excitement about it!
I want to ask both of you this generally. Can you tell me about the moment you first fell in love with World of Warcraft Classic?
Brian: Oh my god…
Patrick: November 23rd, 2004. When I logged in to play for the first time. I’ve been playing for 15 years. I’m a hardcore player, I’m a collector, I’m a raider. I’ve played my Mage since day one. I’ve always loved playing caster classes in games and the way World of Warcraft felt compared to anything else that was offered at the time was amazing. Like the responsiveness of casting spells, even something as basic as Frost Nova, being able to walk away and having it be instant crowd control, it was action-based combat, it was just the most compelling experience for me to really get in there and play.
I remember the first time I got Blizzard and was just like chain casting it on nothing just because it was so cool to see that spell go off. It was a magical moment for me and I’ve been playing for the whole time and I haven’t stopped yet.
Brian: And for me, it was in the beta, I think I got access and, if I remember right, I made like a Dwarf Paladin and I really wanted to be like a tank and be able to sustain a lot of damage and to be able to get through that. Then everyone started telling me, “Oh, you need to be a warrior, you’ve got to make a warrior”. So after launch, all my friends were playing on Horde so I played Horde with them and I’m really excited that we did that, we had a great time. I made an undead warrior and I remember tanking all the dungeons, leveling up. I leveled as a protection warrior…
Patrick: Ah, that’s dedication!
Brian: Everyone was like, “No! You gotta go arms! You've got to get Mortal Strife as quickly as possible!”. And I was like, “No, no! I’ve got to be able to tank these dungeons!”. I had an advantage though. I was playing with, she’s now my wife, but at the time my girlfriend and we would play together all the time and she was a warlock -- so we had that combination. She could kill the things fast and I would keep them off of her.
Patrick: Yeah, I remember in Classic too, one of the things that was super cool was Retribution spec Paladins were still supportive. Right?
Brian: Oh yeah!
Patrick: Because you would get Blessing of Kings, which is good, and you could also just heal because that’s just what you did. The way that people would play the game back then was… like, you could have tanked as arms in dungeons, I bet you could have.
Brian: Oh yeah. A lot of people did! That’s why they were telling me you should do that. I was was like, “No! I just want to survive!”.
[Brian and Patrick Laugh]
Look at what is happening right here: It seems as if WoW Classic discussions always have these moments. If you get old players talking about WoW, it gets into this tangle of old stories and all of a sudden, before you know it, you’re talking about a specific mechanic and niche details that we remember so fondly.
That leads into my next question: Why do you think so many players after all this time are so excited for WoW Classic. It seems like there has been an overwhelmingly positive reception towards Blizzard giving fans exactly what they have been asking for forever.
Brian: I think it’s that personal story that everybody has. Everyone remembers that moment when they first got into this game, it has those things that pull it out of you, those memorable experiences where there was some challenge, this dangerous world that you were exploring, and some challenges that you had a hard time figuring out how to overcome and what you did to get past that. Whether it was you leveled up a bit and came back later or you got a friend to come and help you or you learned a new way to play the game or how to manage a class better to be able to take on that challenge.
Whatever you did to get over those obstacles as you explored the world or found your own path through it -- everyone has their own story to tell and share with each other.
Patrick: Yeah, and I also think that a lot of people are talking about nostalgia. I don’t even think it’s that. Those memories are great, those are there, but one of the compelling things about Classic when it first came out was the discovery. It was this new game, this new system, this new world, and what we get to do now is rediscover that.
Classic is such a different game from modern WoW that I think people kind of forgot what that game is. So you get to go back in again and rediscover and kind of recapture that feeling of awe that you really got when you first played back in 2004.
What do you think are the odds of people experiencing WoW for the very first time through this WoW Classic release? Considering all the hype surrounding classic, what are the chances of new players actually sticking around?
Brian: I definitely think people are going to do that. I think there’s something special about this game, that it is a different way to play, it is a different way to interact with the World of Warcraft and it’s something that has its own compelling excitement to it. I think there are going to be people who are excited when their friends are talking about the game when their friends are living through their experiences -- they’re going to want to come back and join them and see what all of the hype is about. And when they do, they’re going to see that there’s something special about this game too.
Patrick: In 2004, we underestimated vastly how many people wanted to play this game. I slightly suspect that we’re going to do that again. We’re going to be prepared this time, but I think the interest in this game, especially when it’s out there and people play it, when you want to start playing with your friends and those communities form, bonds start to form again. That moment is going to be bigger than even what we are expecting.
The social structure of the internet and society has changed, and yet you both mentioned that WoW Classic is a very social game. Today, a very well known Twitch streamer or pro-gamer can join a server publically and, suddenly now you have thousands of their fans hitting that server all the time -- the worry is that it will create lopsided environments because everyone wants to play with them.
That didn’t exist back in Classic WoW and now this is something that very well may happen immediately upon release. What are your thoughts about these new social dynamics and how they are going to affect WoW Classic?
Patrick: So, we kind of had a version of this back in 2004. There were mega guilds like Conquest, there were guilds like Death and Taxes. These were sort of conduits for people to gravitate towards servers. And then, there were just people who wanted to play with their friends and the server mattered when it came to joining up and playing with your friends. We are committed to making sure that that experience exists in Classic.
If somebody was on a black bug mount in your server, you knew that they opened the gates of Ahn'Qiraj on your server. There was something special about that notoriety and that achievement level and we’re committed to recapturing that in this classic realm.
Speaking of community, I’m sure you guys have heard of the hashtag “no changes”?
I think that’s such an interesting message because it implies that a whole lot of people are clamoring to tell you: “You guys don’t have to do anything! It’s that simple, just put out the game!"
But I know it’s not that simple...
Brian: Actually, we talk a lot about that. We actually had it written on a whiteboard at work to kind of remind us of that montra that the community is calling out for, but it’s funny because we’re taking the modern world of World of Warcraft and trying to take it back to the old state and we’re running that on our new technology stack.
In a lot of ways, achieving hashtag “no changes” means making a lot of changes to the way World of Warcraft is today to make it more like it was back then. So it is a lot of work and a lot of effort, but we are committed to getting that authentic feel.
That brings me more into a philosophical question -- do you think that this massive undertaking of bringing back WoW Classic, is it more like trying to put together a ten-thousand piece puzzle that someone just shattered and now you guys have to put the pieces back together or is it more like finding this painting, this ancient painting, and your team has to retouch it, restore it and get it ready to put on display?
Which of those two extremes does it feel like?
Brian: It’s more like a quest of rediscovery, right?
If I had to pick between those two, it’s more like reconstructing that painting. We have this great canvas of World of Warcraft. Like I said, we’re building off of existing technology. We have modern World of Warcraft as it exists today and we have a reference that we can compare to it, say that’s World of Warcraft as it existed in 2006.
We want to make a game that runs well still play like that, we want to get that content. So we are kind of looking and thinking, well that’s different, let's see what we can do over here to paint that picture. Does that make sense?
Brian: But it is also like, we have those old assets too, so in a lot of ways it’s a mechanical rediscovery. For example, we write a tool that imports all of those old art assets, but then maybe they don’t render right so we make a tweak so it renders correctly.
So how much is being recreated? I’m just a layman who’s never made an MMORPG.
[Brian and Patrick Laugh]
How much of the game are you actually putting back together and recreating?
Brian: There’s a surprising amount of mechanical details in the software that we need to write, like the code that we write to dictate the game mechanics and how they play. A lot of it is data that we can recover and restore, but then the details of whether or not two Mages can Polymorph each other pretty reliably when they both cast at the same time, that’s a code change that we had to make to put back in there.
We actually didn’t review that at first as a feature, over time we thought we would want to make the server more responsive, take care of these spells faster, and that’s why in modern WoW they do get processed faster. Then, people started saying, “Oh, I really love the ability to [simultaneously polymorph]".
It had that effect on PvP where you might be able to Polymorph each other and you’re both walking around as sheep.
That was an iconic part of the Mage vs Mage duel.
Brian: Yeah! Or two Warriors charging each other also. It’s the same thing! The start of every duel would be them immediately charging each other and then they’re both stunned. As soon as people pointed it out, we said, “Oh, of course, we have to put that back”, and that’s another code that we have to make.
So, a lot of it is identifying what all these things are and putting them back while still preserving that underlying architecture that’s going to be more stable.
This is a question just for you Patrick. I’ve heard that you’ve been involved in every single World of Warcraft expansion.
That’s incredible. You have seen the game jump, and then jump, and then jump, and now it’s leaped way up to retail. We all agree that WoW Classic is a completely different game so, what do you think is the moment the team stopped looking back and understood that WoW Classic and retail WoW were totally different games?
Patrick: It’s really hard to pick a moment. There have been so many organic changes over the years, always to suit the needs of our players. To try and make World of Warcraft modern while still compelling for the player base as it’s changed over time.
So there really wasn’t a moment, I would say that we kind of went through a few systems that are markedly different between what classic and modern is today. We’ve already talked about talents a little bit, like Retribution spec Paladins that could heal or arms warriors that could tank. Right now you sort’ve had to choose that role which is great, especially for newer players who don’t understand some of the nuances of today’s game.
But from the Classic community, that’s not what they want. They want that sort of Build-a-Bear type feel of experimenting with different specs. I mean, there are other things as well. The concept of a realm has been eradicated in today’s WoW. We want you to play with your friends more. If your friends are on this server and that server, that’s a very modern good thing for our game today, but Classic was a little different in terms of what that community meant through relationships that formed there.
We want to recapture a lot of that and I think those are a couple of features that I feel are markedly different between the two.
Brian, you’re tasked with bringing WoW back to Classic. What do you think is the moment in which you can personally say you’ve achieved that? What will be the thing that would make you feel good about the launch and that you did your part in bringing back WoW Classic. Is there anything specific to you?
Brian: For me, it was that moment when I was logging in, like I’m already feeling it, I feel like we’re on the road to polishing it up now. To me, it already feels like we have it, we’ve got it, I’m holding it in my hands and I know that we’re going to make it now.
And it was that moment when I logged in I was like, this is what I remember from 2004. It felt just like it. I was logging in to Tirisfal, I was walking around, I was doing the quest and I was like, this is the same game! I remember all the things, everything’s coming back to me, I’m taking the boat to Durotar, I’m running into people from Durotar that I saw in Tirisfal. It all felt like the game that I played back then. I was re-experiencing all those quests that I played through before and remembering how I did them.
One of my favorite experiences in Tirisfal was this memory from, I guess, 2004 or 2005 of Agamand Mills being this really hard place where you first get the quest and you go up there and it’s really difficult. I kept putting it off and putting it off because it was really difficult and I figured I was going to do it later.
So [in 2019] I did a bunch of the quest in the rest of the zone, and when I did go to Agamand Mills, it was a lot easier than I remembered because I had leveled higher than when I went there for the first time in 2004 -- but it felt exactly right. Everyone was exactly where I knew they were going to be and it gave me that sense of, this is the game.
Can you recall the newbiest thing you did or misunderstood about your class back then? What was the moment in which you look back and say, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I used to play like this
Brian: Choosing the Whirlwind sword instead of Whirlwind Axe [laughs]. Everyone knows to get the Whirlwind Axe, but I got the sword.
Patrick: I only played Alliance. I didn’t know what the heck a shaman was.
[Brian and Patrick laughs]
Patrick: I remember being in Un'Goro Crater, and I’m in a PvP server and I’m just questing and this Shaman shows up and, you know, I was a mage.
Cast Polymorph. What the heck? Cast Polymorph again. I must have cast it six times and been like, “Why are Shaman immune to Polymorph? They shouldn’t be. Like I get druids are”. I was so infuriated that I went and looked it up online and they were like, “Oh, so there’s this thing called Grounding Totem”, and I was like, "What is a totem!? I don’t know what a totem is!"
It was the most noob experience ever and all I needed to do was one Scorch and it’s gone. I actually sent a harshly written email to our system’s team where it was like, “Why does it keep soaking up my Polymorph? Maybe I should do one and disappear”. And I think in modern WoW, it actually does that, but in Classic WoW it did not and that Shaman kicked the crap out of me.
And I was good at PvP! But it was just like, "why are you beating me?".
I’m really trying to get to the bottom of why every person I know who’s played WoW Classic has stories like this that they can recall in such specific detail even after a decade. Sure, WoW Classic was a massive game at the time, but now that it’s going to be playable in 2019 officially presented by Blizzard, are people going to create those same memories?
Why do you think everyone has those stories that haven't left them?
Patrick: That was just an individual story, but most memories I have of classic WoW are with friends. We had a guild that was very PvP focused. We actually focused on MMOs before this that were very PvP centric. When we would come over as Alliance, we would do these runs through the bulwark in Western Plaguelands. It was just the five of us -- we were like a roaming death squad and we would kill like one or two people and their guilds would come out in retaliation and try to kill us and it would be like five on ten and we would win usually and it felt amazing.
The reason I bring that up is, the times with those people and having those interactions with them, the joking, the comradery, that feeling of community, is something that I remember so fondly. And I think that’s what you’re going to see again with Classic as we go forward. Those moments are cherished and precious and we want to give those back to the players.
The official WoW: classic launch at 3:00 p.m. PDT on August 26.
High-quality in game screenshots provided by www.barrens.chat
Warcraft 3 is my one true love and I will challenge anyone to a game of Super Smash Brothers Melee.