It’s a busy time for Ion Hazzikostas, game director for World of Warcraft. His team is hard at work fussing with a new major patch for the game’s retail version, while at the same time they’re preparing to effectively re-release the game’s first expansion, The Burning Crusade, as a part of World of Warcraft Classic.
Hazzikostas doesn’t seem too stressed out, though. In fact, he says the hardest parts of putting together Burning Crusade Classic’s launch (including making sure players didn’t lose all their in-game mail when the pre-patch dropped) are already done.
“Given the nature of the work that goes into reconstructing Burning Crusade Classic, so much of it is actually engineering,” he says, speaking to IGN. “It’s code work. We’re not as worried about like, do the quests work? Do the creatures have the right stats? All that is in. Taking the entire game and updating it to use the Burning Crusade combat formulas, all of that stuff, that’s behind us now.”
Now it’s just a matter of making sure the servers don’t fall apart on launch day, and aside from ongoing bug fixes, enjoying the ride. Hazzikostas, a World of Warcraft development veteran since the tail end of the original Burning Crusade launch, has a deep love for watching the community discover the worlds he’s helping to create. It’s understandable, given his history as a guild leader and enjoyment of high-level raiding that he maintains even to this day. And he’s been delighted to see that the rediscovery of an Azeroth he’s intimately familiar with in Classic has been met with enthusiasm from the World of Warcraft community.
“The reaction over the last couple of years has been a mix of affirmation of our initial thoughts, and surprise,” Hazzikostas says. “Plenty of people did have that exact experience. There are plenty of people who went in, checked it out, they were like, ‘Okay. Yep. Super not for me.’ And they went back to, back then, Battle for Azeroth, now Shadowlands. And that was fine.
“And then of course there were plenty of other people who were like, ‘I’ve been waiting for this forever.’ And they dove in headfirst. And they were the people who were the most passionate about Classic. The thing that was a surprise was the number of people who were new to World of Warcraft in its entirety, who came in because they just wanted to see what it was all about. They had heard about the legendary game of 15 years ago. And they have been happily playing there ever since.”
The ongoing community interest in Classic is what ultimately pushed the team to move forward into The Burning Crusade, but Blizzard has learned some lessons along the way. With Classic, Hazzikostas says, the theme was “#NoChanges.” Their goal was to represent the original release of World of Warcraft as faithfully as possible, warts and all. But with The Burning Crusade, they’ve embraced the philosophy of “some changes.”
World of Warcraft The Burning Crusade Classic Screenshots
Much of that is inspired by the simple fact that the Blizzard team, the game community, and video games themselves are no longer what they were when The Burning Crusade first came out, and they are now in a position to recognize and embrace that. For one, Blizzard has the advantage of years of institutional knowledge, both from the original Burning Crusade developers who are still on the team, as well as those who have joined the World of Warcraft team since and worked on subsequent expansions. While they don’t ever want to erase the original intent of the expansion’s creators, Hazzikostas says the team is far better equipped to understand why certain decisions were made, and make changes where current understandings of technology, game design, and community would better honor those wishes.
“[Burning Crusade] is running with an authentic foundation, but trying to faithfully reproduce and deliver the intent of the original development team,” he continues. “I think a lot of this experience has been melding my own memories, as a very engaged player from that era, with early development philosophies. Right when I joined the team was when I was able to firsthand absorb a lot of the thinking about, ‘Hey, what worked and what didn’t in Burning Crusade? What do we want to change going forward into Wrath?’ It’s in part because of a philosophical shift in development, which we wouldn’t necessarily want to reproduce, versus, ‘What do we want to change because it didn’t work out in Burning Crusade, and there are regrets?'”
For one example, Hazzikostas offers the leatherworking profession in-game. By the end of the original Burning Crusade expansion, the community had realized that leatherworking was far and away the best profession to take. That knowledge wasn’t there for most of the expansion — if it had been, people would have played differently. But the knowledge is there now, and will impact how people play. Had the 2007 team known that from the start, Hazzikostas says, they would have changed things at the time.
“From my perspective, part of the process has been melding memories with conversations, with a lot of the same folks who are still around Blizzard, whether they’re on World of Warcraft or on other teams within the company, to really reconstruct and dig into why decisions were made or not made. Which is a fascinating space that we just closed off entirely when it came to Classic Classic, because we were just like, ‘We don’t really care why they were made or not made. We’re just reproducing them as they were.'”
Hazzikostas’ point about leatherworking is an especially interesting one, and as we talk about The Burning Crusade it becomes apparent just how much collective community knowledge has influenced the expansion’s re-release. At another point in our discussion, he references a bug in one dungeon that lets players get every enemy in the instance stuck on a single ledge, allowing them to farm them and power level.
“15 years ago, no one knew how to do it, and no one did it,” he says. “Now everyone’s doing it and making videos, showing, ‘Hey, this is the way to level from 60 to 70 as a mage in three hours.’
“That’s the part that we can’t change, or that’s the genie you can’t put back in a bottle. The community is so much more sophisticated at this point. They’re just a giant engine that exists to disassemble and solve World of Warcraft. And whether it’s in Shadowlands or various forms back in the day, as developers, we’re trying to add a sense of mystery. We’re trying to add a space to be explored, whether it’s narrative content or whether it’s figuring out how to optimize the system, and what the best way to play a mage is. Part of the novelty of Burning Crusade Classic is seeing, in some ways, what the modern community with all of their knowledge will make of encounters and content that stumped millions of people around the world 15 years ago.”
Along those same lines, I ask Hazzikostas about an internal office pool he told me about at the launch of Classic, where employees were guessing how long it would take the first raid team to beat Ragnaros. Hazzikostas admits that players were way, way faster than anyone at Blizzard expected, again in part thanks to that growth in community knowledge. I ask him if they have any pools going for Burning Crusade raid bosses.
“At this point, I think we know better,” he replies, but then adds that he thinks the Sunwell will be considered challenging, “even by modern standards.”
“I think that, by the end of Burning Crusade in 2008, that’s actually when the community at large was starting to reach its modern level of sophistication, particularly around information sharing.”
He reminisces about the early evolution of the World of Warcraft community, which he says entered the game with an inherited ethos from games like EverQuest, where raiding wasn’t instanced. Instead, on a single server, there’d be one dragon. If a guild killed it, no one else could. As a result, guilds had a tendency to keep their strategies incredibly close to their chests, and carried that belief in secrecy over into early World of Warcraft.
“Burning Crusade was really the first time we started to see kill videos released by World First guilds, sharing of information, but also things like public logging sites, and leaderboards that were global. So you could look at like, ‘Hey, there’s this mage in Korea that’s doing ridiculous damage. What are they doing? What is the rotation? What abilities are they using?’ So I can learn from it. And that exponentially accelerated the rate of sharing knowledge and community mastery. And Sunwell was the first raid that Blizzard ever made that was tuned for that era. It was tested by Cutting Edge guilds, using every trick in the book that they knew on the public test realm, and tuned to challenge them. Are players today even better and more sophisticated? Yes. But the gap, I believe, is far smaller there than it was at any point prior.”
As an MMORPG, World of Warcraft has always thrived or wilted based on the strength of its community, more so than many other games. Though Hazzikostas and the team were always aware that some people would bounce off of Classic and some people would stick, it was never a given that The Burning Crusade Classic would happen. Had Classic been a flop, or a flash in the pan, we might not be here at all. And that attitude, Hazzikostas says, holds true for Classic’s future post-Burning Crusade.
When thinking of what comes next, Hazzikostas recalls the original launch of Classic, in which everyone was asking in interviews what would come after. Would it be Burning Crusade? At the time, the response was that Blizzard wanted to “wait and see” what the community did. And he affirms that for now, an eventual Wrath of the Lich King Classic is “kind of in the same place.”
“…Just as we say when people ask us with Shadowlands, ‘How long are you going to keep doing this? You’re coming up on your eighth, ninth expansion. Is there an end?’ And my answer there is: no. We have no plans to stop making this. We’re going to keep telling awesome Warcraft stories and expanding this world as long as players want to experience it. And there are no signs of that stopping.
“Similarly, in the growing Classic communities, we’ll see what Burning Crusade versus original Classic ends up looking like in the long run. We are committed to them long-term. And we want to continue to offer an evolving journey, set of experiences. What form that takes — and I know it can sound like just platitudes. It truly will reflect what we hear from that community, What they’re looking to do, how they see the journey ahead of them unfolding. And we have a few options that we can consider, but first things first, let’s get them into Outland. Let’s make sure that experience is smooth and everything is as it should be for them. And then we’ll figure out where we go from there.”
But while numbers and interest may ultimately determine the viability of future content, they’re not explicitly what define success for Hazzikostas personally. Aside from pretty understandable hopes that the launch is technically stable, he’s ultimately interested in watching players go through the Outland journey he’s familiar with and loves — not by burning through it without thinking as players can now on the retail version of the game, but as a slow, epic adventure.
“There’s something freeing about a large chunk of the community going in to experience the journey. They know the destination. They’re not rushing to the end. Some people in competitive guilds, who want to get their server first or whatever, are. But for a huge chunk of people, they’re there to savor the experience.
“When everyone is sharing that mindset of wanting to appreciate the journey, it’s just a great community to be a part of. And I can’t wait to experience that all over again.”
World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade Classic launches on June 1. The pre-patch, which includes the Draenei and Blood Elf races and other updates, is available now.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.