World of Warcraft Classic Cataclysm/Season of Discovery Q&A – ‘We Want to Explore Some of the Unfinished Bits’

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For a long time, the World of Warcraft vanilla experience was relegated to private servers (such as Nostalrius, which was shut down) until Blizzard finally decided to accept the community's feedback and create World of Warcraft Classic.

Launched in August 2019, WoW Classic turned out to be a big success and is considered to be nearly as popular as the modern version of the MMORPG. As such, Blizzard has continued to dedicate resources to this version of the game, advancing Classic through the various expansions: The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King.

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At BlizzCon 2023, it was announced that Cataclysm is indeed coming to World of Warcraft Classic in the first half of 2024. Moreover, a new Season of Discovery is coming on November 30 with major changes like rune engraving (allowing different builds like Mage healers or Shaman tanks), a reimagined Blackfathom Deeps 10-man raid, and more secret discoveries.

While at BlizzCon, we had the chance to join a roundtable press interview with Tim Jones, Assistant Lead Designer, and Linny Cooke, Game Producer, to learn more about their exciting plans for World of Warcraft Classic going forward. Here's the edited transcript.

Obviously, you have vanilla, you have The Burning Crusade, you have Wrath of the Lich King, and now you have Cataclysm, so people are already expecting Mists of Pandaria. Eventually, is it just going to be where every expansion has its own server at some point? How is that going to go?

Tim Jones: I think we continue to evaluate what expansion or what people want to do on progression servers on a case-by-case basis. Does it make sense that we eventually land on Classic Dragonflight? I'm not sure. But we've had some special moments with attendees here today. Some of us have been playing World of Warcraft when Classic was what was out at the time.  We've been playing WoW for 20 years at this point.

Just like Chris Metzen talked about, there's different generations who've played World of Warcraft, and they've started at different points in time. For some of our players, Cataclysm was the very first World of Warcraft that they ever got to experience, so to them, that's sort of like their vanilla. I think it's our responsibility and our duty on the Classic team to allow people to relive those moments in the best way that we can recreate that nostalgia. We talked with the community, we sent out polls and surveys, and there was a fair amount of people who desired Cataclysm and really wanted to play that.

There's so much amazing content in Cataclysm. There were some rough edges at the time because the old world got destroyed. I think that was one of the biggest points of contention, but now we're in a world where there's a version of the game where you can go back and you can play through all the original stories, so there's not that moment of friction that people had originally.

We will continue to ask our community. So much of what we do on the Classic team is community-driven, hardcore case and point. There's purely just the passion and excitement and nagging of our community. I mean, World of Warcraft Classic itself is born directly from them. Nothing is off the table. We'll continue to look at Mists of Pandaria and beyond to see what's appropriate and what players want.

In terms of features, where do you think you'll draw that line? It was announced how you're going to be able to share a lot of currencies and stuff between accounts. Is that something that could work in World of Warcraft Classic, or would that be too radical of a difference than what people would expect?

Tim Jones: I think there's constant lessons to be learned between the modern team and the Classic one. We're learning from each other. There's definitely influence from the old World of Warcraft talent system in the new talent system that was built in Dragonflight. Are there things that we can learn from the accessibility that modern WoW is incorporating in terms of transmog accessibility?

I think that there's definitely lessons from that. We've gone to great strides to incorporate account-wide toy collections, mount collections, and transmog going into Cataclysm. A lot of that's already available in Wrath of the Lich King. We're definitely open to lessons learned and changes in philosophy that aim to respect players' time. I'm a much different gamer than I was 20 years ago.  I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old now, so most of my gaming time is playing Mario Kart and Kirby with my girls. We mature as gamers and as developers, we have to take into consideration our entire audience to make sure that our philosophy is aligned with respecting players' time.

Linny Cooke: We definitely want to make sure we're preserving that nostalgic feel that you go into the game and it feels like Classic, but if there are quality-of-life things that will make your life a little bit easier and not disrupt that Classic feel, like having a new collections UI. That's the kind of thing where we love to bring it so you don't have to cart all your items over to the transmog guy. You can just have it in collections.

What approach are you taking to adding the new content in the Season of Discovery? It was hinted at in the panel that we might see the Karazan Depths eventually. What are you considering for future updates?

Tim Jones: We were just talking about how the Seasons are such an exciting sandbox for us on the Classic team. We get the chance to take risks and we get the chance to experiment with different gameplay features. They might have a really positive reception with players they might have a negative reception with players, but the goal is to take risks and learn from those lessons, use that to continue to make better decisions for the future of World of Warcraft Classic.

We were super excited to build on the old world. There's an insane amount of content in vanilla, where the heck do you start? Really keying in on the artificial level bands that were in the original vanilla beta or the WoW Classic beta and how people created their own end game, their own meta, their own best-in-slot lists. So, putting those level bands in Season of Discovery lets us focus on smaller portions of Classic to look at at a time. That's where we're like, well, what's the endgame of level 25? What are some of the endgame zones? Can we transform a dungeon into a raid? Can we add more outdoor content, whether that's PvP content, new world bosses, new discoveries that you can find that aren't necessarily tied to the new Rune engraving system?

The level banded system allows us to focus on specific parts of it, compartmentalizing Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms to an extent, allowing us to just build upon the existing world and all its richness. We're excited about where Season of Discovery will take us. We have some plans that we're not ready to announce yet in terms of what are the next level up raids. There will be more level up raids.

I think that there's definitely a desire on my part and our team's part to build truly new content, whether that's some of the stuff that we hinted at on accident or on purpose in our What's Next panel, you'll have to wait and see, but that's that's part of the excitement. We want every phase release, every patch of Season of Discovery to be an epic moment for players to have the opportunity to not know things together.

That's really special, to share in that few days or weeks of finding new stuff together, sharing information whether it's in guild chat or forums or YouTube videos. It gives people a chance to discover things together. That's the spirit of the season.

Linny Cooke: We also want it to feel natural in the World of Warcraft Classic world. We really like the concept of you're running around and you see a mob and you're like, wait, was that there in the original game? I don't remember! And literally have the little arguments of, no wait, I'm pretty sure it was here before and just have everything fit that well into the world. The concept that we've kind of talked about of the found photograph. Like when you are going at your parents' place and you find an old photograph of them in Italy, and you're like, I never knew they went to Italy!

It doesn't change how you see them or how you view them, but it gives you more in-depth background to their world. We want to do the same thing in WoW.

The opening ceremony touched upon the future of Blizzard. I'm curious about your perspective on how that relates to Classic because it's in this interesting place where you've got Cataclysm coming through and you're also experimenting with completely new ideas with Seasons of Discovery. How do you see World of Warcraft Classic fitting into this wider discussion?

Tim Jones: The Classic team has evolved a lot since the announcement to where we are now. There's been huge philosophy changes and a lot of that has been just in response to what the community wants and needs. I think a lot of people originally wanted the no-changes version of vanilla and they got that. A lot of people were really satisfied with that. Is that what we want to continue doing? I think we've experimented with some no-changes. As I said, we're all about learning lessons and trying different things. Through Burning Crusade Classic and Wrath Classic, we started experimenting with the pre-nerf systems with no-changes. Can we provide the original challenge that people had to face in these raids? There's some people that that really resonates with, but at the same time... Ulduar is a great example of this. We went to great lengths to make pre-nerf Ulduar true to its ridiculous difficulty levels.

Some people really enjoyed it, but the lesson from that is we now have sort of divergent difficulty paths. Raids originally in Classic WoW were sort of a place for everyone. There's no alternate difficulties in original vanilla, so your most hardcore players who wanted to get their orange parse could potentially co-exist with a dad who's trying to help his baby fall asleep and he's just literally clicking to move and playing with no hotkeys doing his rotation. They could kill those bosses together and they could both fulfill what objectives those players had set for themselves.

But in the case of Ulduar, we're making something that's incredibly difficult and this version of the game is sort of splitting the player base. The casual players and the competitive players, their communities are diverging. Is that healthy? We have data and analytics that show us this player behavior, and we're learning from that. We're making sure that we try to make the correct choices when it comes to preserving and nurturing our communities as best as possible.

Whether that is some changes, a lot of changes... Sometimes, it's appropriate for a lot of changes, too. I think the Titan Rune Dungeon system is a great example of that. Dungeons are an incredible piece of content and for them to become completely irrelevant once you're in a specific raid tier, is that a good use of content? I think the modern team does a fantastic job of maintaining the relevance and excitement of being able to participate in dungeons through the Mythic+ system.

Is Mythic+ the system that we want in World of Warcraft Classic? Not necessarily. But is there a version of that design philosophy that we can apply to our content? Definitely. I think what Mike was saying in the opening ceremony is incredibly relevant to how we've changed on the Classic team, going from a hardcore no-changes philosophy to what's best for players, how we respect players' time, how we make something that's fun and exciting.

Linny Cooke: Honestly, Cataclysm and the upcoming Season of Discovery have given us the chance to be kind of creative and playful with things. It's really exciting going forward.

With the success of hardcore mode, will we be seeing hardcore move into the Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King, or even into the new Seasons of Discovery?

Tim Jones: That's a great question. Hardcore is so interesting because it's a community-driven force of nature. The participation of people, the creation of the hardcore add-on, an amazing add-on. It allowed people to just create a new way to play World of Warcraft that was completely driven, controlled, and run by the community. We're so impressed and we applaud everyone who's involved in that. They created that community in vanilla. There's something special about the classic World of Warcraft leveling experience in Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms that really resonates with the hardcore player base.

Does that mean we'll never incorporate the hardcore ruleset into progression servers, seasonal servers, or modern WoW if they want to do that? I don't think that those things are off the table. What's important for us is to check what the community is passionate about right now. There are some hardcore communities on different aspects of the game, but they're definitely not as big as the World of Warcraft Classic one. We want to make sure that we put our effort and support into what players are most passionate about right now.

Seeing the reception to that Mak'gora tournament that OTK put on was amazing. Super props to the crew for organizing that. It was so exciting for everyone to see all these players putting so much effort in doing level 60 duels. It was insane, but it was super exciting, and I think people want more of that. We're excited about putting our effort into having those key moments available to people in hardcore. Hardcore is very special to us; we want to find more ways of making hardcore exciting and continuing to support the communities who want to play hardcore. Nothing's off the table, but we want to pay attention to the community as much as possible.

During the announcement of Cataclysm, a couple of features were missing or not shown, such as Reforging and Dragon Soul. Are those expected to be tweaked or removed?

Linny Cooke: No, we're definitely planning to have those in there. Honestly, in the panel and opening ceremony, we wanted to highlight some of the high-level stuff in there, but we do definitely plan on keeping those systems. One of the things that we talked about was with the raids and speeding up the cadence. We know sometimes they just maybe go on a little bit longer than we want them to go on. We want to make sure that we're putting out Cataclysm at a cadence that makes it fun to go through the raid tiers. But yeah, Dragon Soul is definitely going to be, it's a very iconic moment.

WCCFTECH: Lately, the community has been abuzz with the idea of Classic+, essentially just adding new content and mechanics to World of Warcraft Classic in a different direction than retail. Would that be feasible?

Tim Jones: Classic+ is interesting. It means so many different things to so many different people, whether or not that's just to keep vanilla the way it is but make slight tweaks to certain underrepresented classes to make sure that Retribution Paladin and Balance Druid are more viable, but don't make any changes to Molten Core. Then there's some people who are like, I want completely new dungeons, I want a new zone, new content.

There's no one thing that we can do to satisfy all players. I will say that seasonal content is the opportunity for us to explore the things that people might be interested in that exist in whatever they're pitching for their ideal Classic+. We hope to learn what resonates with players and maybe the things that people are really attached to, maybe there is a new forever home for those types of mechanics that is a type of Era server that those changes can live in that isn't purely seasonal. But we definitely want to use seasons as the vessel to take those risks, add content, and see how players respond to it.

I will say the response to the Blackfathom Deeps raid on the show floor has been astounding. It's really humbling to see so many people come in and play that raid and enjoy it, and give feedback on it. I feel like we're on the right path initially with Season of Discovery so far.

Is there going to be another progression reset?

Linny Cooke: That's a great question. We don't have anything to talk about with that today. It's not impossible, but honestly, as we've said so many times, World of Warcraft Classic is inspired by the community and absolutely a love letter to the community. If it's something the community is interested in, it's definitely something we'll look into and consider.

Will there be a PTR for Season of Discovery?

Linny Cooke: Season of Discovery specifically is very unique in that because we want to make sure that the discoveries are completely brand new surprises that really give players that moment and pull the community together, like, did you see where this one is? Have you tracked that one down yet? We really are excited about that community moment and going to PTR would just kind of make that sad. We definitely highly believe in the value of PTR. That's something we absolutely want to do, but when it makes sense and when it makes sense not to do it, we're experimenting and seeing how it goes.

Tim Jones: There was an immense amount of value in having the PTR for Icecrown Citadel in Wrath of the Lich King Classic. That's definitely something we're going to continue to do. There will be a PTR for Ruby Sanctum. It definitely helps the people and the raiders who participate help us find critical bugs so the launch of those patches can be as clean and bug-free as possible.

Are there going to be discoveries just in a random chest that someone has to come across before they find it, or are there going to be breadcrumbs leading people to the right places?

Tim Jones: There's definitely going to be a mix. There's going to be some that are simple discoveries like maybe there's a chest in a location that you've overlooked before. We really want people who are going through zones and leveling through, let's say, the Elwynn Forest, to really take the time.
On the flip side of that, there's definitely going to be discoveries that are more sort of epic quest related where murky spells will have a good amount of ceremony and exploration and traversing the world and going between continents to find NPCs or materials and stuff. There's going to be a good mix of small scale to epic scale for these discoveries. It's going to be exciting for players to see.

You mentioned earlier that one of the original issues of Cataclysm was losing the old world. Was there any thought put into keeping Onyxia accessible, maybe through things like timewalking?

Tim Jones: There was a fair amount of work by one of our engineers to make sure that the 40-band version of Onyxia could exist in Wrath Classic. This is the same problem that Naxxramas ran into when going from Classic to Wrath of the Lich King. When designers in the past built the new thing, there was no intention of re-releasing it 15 years from now. No one knew that. A lot of that data was completely cannibalized. Like the creature records. It's not as easy as just saying, oh well, we'll make a copy of the old thing and just have that exist alongside the new thing.

It's definitely not that simple. It is an enormous engineering mountain to climb. I'm sure that they considered that when making the original choice for Cataclysm, but a lot of those creatures were just like, this creature will never exist again, and the designer making that quest was like, I'm just going to reuse this creature. So now this creature exists in a different place, it provides a different quest, it says something different, or it drops different loot.

You can no longer copy that creature and say, let's set up the old world to do that. That's not to say it's impossible; it would just take an enormous amount of work, and I think it's a better use of our resources to, well, let Cataclysm be Cataclysm. Also, it's still one subscription. You can play Cataclysm Classic on the same subscription as you can era. I would say that we're okay with that.

Linny Cooke: Also, a big shout out to our amazing engineers for all of the work they have done in restoring things.

In Season of Discovery, we've got the runes. Let's say they turn out hugely popular, or we get to another season and there's some other feature in there that's hugely popular. Would you bring some of that stuff forward to whatever comes next in Classic?

Tim Jones: I think Season of Mastery is a great example here. There were definitely faults with Season of Mastery in terms of the emphasis being on endgame and us probably not doing enough to make that accessible to people. I think the absence of world buffs also hurt participation because we were simultaneously making things more difficult and taking away a lot of the tools that made things a little bit easier, so players really had to put in an enormous amount of effort to be able to even participate in that content. But it was fun. The people who did take the time to participate in the raid content, the changes that we made in Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, Ahn Quiraj and Naxxramas, I think people really enjoyed those.

Is there a world where some of that content gets to live again in Season of Discovery? Quite possibly. Again, nothing's off the table. If people are passionate and excited about something and they want that in a new season because that would be fun and it fits within the theme, context, and fantasy of the season, then for sure. We're not going to put something in when it doesn't make sense. I think we're definitely open to making those changes and incorporating features and things that people thought were really cool from previous seasons into future projects.

I was curious. The Warlords of Draenor expansion brought new player models for the races. Will any of the classic stuff ever get a visual overhaul for the player races?

Tim Jones: I think in Warlords actually, when the new player models originally launched, there was a UI togglable thing where you could toggle in between. That made life difficult for artists because they simultaneously had to make sure that the new armor that they were building worked for the old models and the new models. There's a reason why they took that UI option out.

It's something that if that's what players want, right? There's even players now who would say I want the high fidelity character models because there's some people who just like higher fidelity art, but does that make sense when everything else is super low fidelity? Some people love the super pixelated aspects, they love the chipmunks or rabbits that are literally like four polygons.

So we have to make sure and work with our art directors. This is where cross-collaboration between modern and Classic is really important because we don't have an art director on Classic. So we talked to Eli Cannon and the other art leadership to make sure that whatever changes that we make to art... We incorporated the male Incubus into World of Warcraft Classic and a new model was created, but there was a texture down rez so that it would fit thematically fits.

That's not to say, if we do future progression servers, that we won't also incorporate the higher fidelity models.

There was a question to Holly Longdale about World of Warcraft potentially being added to Game Pass. She said there have been no conversations yet, but I'm just curious from your perspective. Do you have data on how new players are finding Classic?

Linny Cooke: It's actually been really interesting recently with hardcore and how popular hardcore has been both for playing and for streaming. That's something that's actually gotten new players interested because they're like, this is really fun to watch, I'm going to go do this! That's actually been really neat for bringing in players.

Tim Jones: Yeah, it was super interesting to see data that showed us that there were actually a lot of people who never played any version of World of Warcraft before come and try hardcore out. That might be counterintuitive because hardcore sounds like it's only for the most dedicated and crazy World of Warcraft players, but it's the exact opposite. With hardcore, you're encouraged to play the game more slowly, take your time, level up your professions, analyze combat. There's no rush to the endgame. That's not the purpose of hardcore. It's all about the leveling journey. Also, everyone's dying all the time, so the low-level zones are constantly populated with new players. The capital cities and the low-level zones feel alive. You really get that MMO community feel in hardcore.

Phil Spencer and Mike Ybarra were talking about making games accessible to everyone and however they want to play. I think the future of World of Warcraft Classic is going to be super exciting because hardcore makes it really interesting for new players. I think Cataclysm Classic is actually an excellent way for new players to start. The changes in the questing zones and starting zones are actually incredibly player-friendly. We have our quest POI system that helps people out without the use of add-ons to find quest objectives. There's the new talent and spell system where you lock yourself into a specific specialization. You get key abilities super early on, so you have access to Mortal Strike as a Warrior at level 10. You don't have to do 40 levels as a Priest in order to actually feel like your class is semi-complete. There's going to be a lot of opportunities for new players to jump in and have a really great time in the Classicverse.

Earlier, you were talking about how some data is cannibalized. I am curious: when you're going back and working on this Classic stuff, how much of that original work is preserved and can you pull from when you are remaking an expansion like Cataclysm? Have you seen that improve with each expansion? 

Linny Cooke: As far as what we have to pull from, we do literally have older builds so that we can actually pull up a client and be like what was happening in here. So, we have those pieces preserved and we do have a lot of the old data and we are able to do a big data conversion project at the beginning. Which the amazing engineers I've been working with have been streamlining and working super hard on it. Our overall process on it has been cool to watch.

Tim Jones: Just another example is the pre-nerf content for The Burning Crusade raids and heroics and the pre-nerf Ulduar. We have access to old data. Something that I did was build sequel queries that basically reconstructed data changelogs so we could see how this creature's health changed over every single patch of its life cycle. In the context of pre-nerf, we were looking to make the most difficult version of certain bosses, but for the sake of recreating those nostalgic experiences and finding the best way to use our historical data to do that. Again, super props to our engineers who take that on

We're starting off at level 25 in Season of Discovery. Do you have the full Season of Discovery plotted out to a max level? Can you reveal how many bands there will be with the X amount of levels per band, or will each be differentiated on a case-by-case basis?

Tim Jones: I think there's something announced on Twitter or something like that. The level bands have been announced, so the first level band will be 25 and the level up raid will be Blackfathom Deeps. The second level band will be 40, so there's some murky stuff that happens at 40. You get your major talent points, like Bloodthirst, Mortal Strike, and Shield Slam. You get that special talent and you have enough talents to go down into your talent tree that deep. You get your mount. There's just a lot of special moments that happen at 40. There's a good amount of dungeon content. There'll be a new level up raid. Can't talk about what that is just yet. Then after that, there'll be level 50, and the level bands sort of shrink. But remember, the amount of XP that it takes to get to level bands is higher.

We just want to continue to be respectful of players' time to make sure that the level bands make sense. Then after 50 is 60. We feel like there is just the amount of zones that people will have relevant content in and each phase has a healthy amount of dungeon content along their journey to 60. Then there will be another sort of exploration of existing raid content.

What does that mean within the context of Season of Discovery? Do we look to make new tier sets for the new classes and specializations that we've manifested with the Rune system? Are there different rewards or challenges within the raids themselves? Do the raids appear in the same order? Is there new content that appears in between certain raids? There's a lot of things to explore at max level, and we're super excited about that.

Linny Cooke: On the topic of just preserving and respecting people's time, we are planning on having boosted XP when we go into the new phase or the new end level. When the 40 comes out, the 1 to 25 will be a speedier version, kind of like we do with Joyous Journeys.

Do you have a timeline for how long this Season of Discovery will last?

Tim Jones: We want there to be a healthy amount of time. It's definitely not going to be as long as content patches. I'm not going to give you an exact amount, but it'll probably be more than a month at the very least, just so people have time to level up characters, make some alts, experiment with the new runes and discoveries, and run the raids a couple of times.

It's not our goal to make you feel like you have to play Season of Discovery and that can be your only game. We have a menu of options. If you want to play Season of Discovery casually, make a character, get to the max level, find your runes, do the raids a couple of times, that's totally fine.  Go raid ICC a couple of times. Check out the new 10.2 patch. There's so many cool things.

We're not trying to steal you away. I think the goal is for there to be a lot of fun things to discover but for it to be extremely approachable with every phase. The one thing that's been so special to hear is a lot of people who aren't even World of Warcraft Classic players coming up to me and saying like, I could level to 25. That seems reasonable, I could try that out. That is what we're going for. We definitely want the season to be approachable and people to be able to jump in any time.

In an earlier question, you talked about the possibility of Karazhan Crypts. WoW Classic has got some more fragmentary things in it that players are still eager to discover. Are you open to exploring such things?

Tim Jones: That's the magic of Classic, right? Like, why did the questline for the Shade of Eranikus end abruptly in Winterspring, where do the gates of Timbermaw Hold lead to? Why are the gates to Karazhan Crypts locked? There's so many mysteries. That's one of the funniest things about Classic: people's headcanon or speculation of what those places were that we never went to. Personally, I would love to be able to solve all those mysteries. My producers would kill me if I tried to do that. But within reason, we want to find maybe a few of those unfinished bits of World of Warcraft Classic and see where we can explore them. We're excited to look into those places just as much as you are.

WCCFTECH: Classic 9.0 is obviously very far off, but I did want to ask if cross-faction play would eventually come to Classic.

Linny Cooke: It's a really good question. That's a tricky one. I'm really really excited about it on modern, but as far as Classic goes, we have to make sure we're staying true to the feelings, the nostalgia, the setting everything that is Classic. If there's a feature that seems like that would fit, okay, cool, we'll analyze that, but if there's stuff where we are not so sure that it really fits with where we're going...

Tim Jones: We're just so jazzed. We've been working hard on Season of Discovery for the past year. We are excited to see people's response to speculation from hearing the news of the convention. We're so happy that there wasn't any major leaks before the convention that's a huge win. We're so proud of the work that we get to do. We have a really special team on the classic team and we're also supportive of each other. Just seeing everyone's response and excitement at BlizzCon has been a joy. We're so excited to see the new things that we created get into players' hands.

We really want people's feedback. We want to hear how everybody feels about it, what they think once they jump into the season, what's your favorite discoveries, and what spells you like.

Thank you for your time.

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