World Of Warcraft: Shadowlands' Designers Are Learning From WoW Classic's Success

If you’ve been following Blizzard news lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that the company had bulldozed its meticulously expanded World of Warcraft and replaced it with the humble township of Warcraft Classic. Modern WoW, however, is still kicking, and at BlizzCon, Blizzard announced a new expansion, Shadowlands. That said, even Shadowlands’ designers can’t help studying Classic’s blueprint for success.

WoW Classic strips the 15-year-old fantasy MMO to the bone, but in doing so, World of Warcraft executive producer John Hight and senior game designer Johnny Cash (yes, that’s his real name) feel like it’s revealed some essential truths about the series’ systems. Hight has been especially inspired by the way Classic facilitates social bonds and spontaneous collaboration among players.

“It’s been informative seeing how well people play together, even in the face of—there’s no rules,” he told Kotaku during an interview at BlizzCon. “You can just get in front of everyone, click on the box, and run away. And yet you see this queue forming because everyone is being polite with each other. That social system—I’m going to help you out if you help me out—that’s resonant in Classic has shown us that you don’t have to beat people over the head to get them to understand things. It’s best when they talk to each other and help each other out. A little bit of complexity is OK, a little bit of friction is OK as long as you have a good social system to support that.”

As a result, the modern WoW dev team is now trying to figure out how to slather Shadowlands—and even iterations of WoW beyond it—in some of that secret sauce.

“As we look at Shadowlands or even talk about the future, I think we’re challenging ourselves to think more about, ‘OK, this has to be fun as a solo experience, because sometimes you just want to go online and not be bothered by anyway, but how can it be more fun, more engaging, or more rewarding with others?’” said Hight. “If you have forced systems that bring people together, they seem to be more reluctant to stay together. Whereas, if they have a common goal they have to chase and we create a lot of situations where they bump into each other and keep crossing each others’ paths, they wind up being like ‘Oh, you’re also doing this thing? Wanna do this together?’”

Cash, meanwhile, is a big fan of Classic’s approach to world and ability design. He thinks that, in both cases, modern WoW’s reincarnated ancestor does a good job of encouraging players to go off the beaten path, whether that means exploring the world for exploration’s sake or using abilities that aren’t always at the tippity top of the tier mountain.

“As a designer, I’m really inspired by people’s love for the world in Classic,” said Cash. “You know, stopping to smell the roses and really enjoying these huge swathes of abilities that, especially in the tuning of the day, aren’t necessarily especially useful. But they’re cool and satisfying. So when we’re looking at class design and zone design for Shadowlands, we’re asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to bring back some of the flavour that we really like about that?’”

Cash pointed to the Hunter class’ “Eyes of the Beast” skill. It allows players to take control of their pets for a minute. Is it overwhelmingly powerful? No. But, Cash said, it’s “fun to jump around, troll your friends, and maybe scout a bit.”

He hopes that Shadowlands’ world will be “super immersive” and believes the expansion’s more linear, faction-based narrative—a shift back onto the straight and narrow after recent expansions’ experiments with letting players work their way through zones in any order—will lead to a world that feels more like a “cohesive whole.”

Ask many longtime WoW players, though, and they’ll tell you that pre-expansion Azeroth feels more like a real place because of a tangible sense of danger. Occasionally you’ll encounter an enemy that’s got a few too many levels on you, or another player will sneak up behind you and cut your adventuring days embarrassingly short. Cash hopes that Shadowlands’ new max-level open-world “Maw” zone, the hell to the rest of Shadowlands’ afterlife, will evoke a similar feeling.

“There are some people who want something a little more approachable and people who are super hardcore,” said Cash. “A great example of that influence and where we’re taking it is the Maw, especially the outdoor area. It’s an unforgiving place where there are a lot of mobs with really nasty abilities and combinations of mechanics. There’s no safe haven. There’s not a hub. You’re not binding your Hearthstone there. There’s not flight points. It’s a place where you’re gonna dip in and see how long you can last.”

As ever, the modern WoW team has a tall order on its hands. Hight, Cash, and company have to address what people liked and didn’t like about the not-entirely-beloved Battle For Azeroth expansion, cater to very different casual and hardcore crowds, and figure out where newfound WoW Classic influences fit into all of this. All this while WoW players are still figuring out what it means to suddenly be able to time warp back to the mid-2000s whenever they want to.

“We can see that we have a significant number of players who are actually playing both games,” said Hight. “But there are definitely some distinct parts of the community that are only playing Classic or only playing modern WoW. It’s still too early to tell with Classic if we’re stabilizing or if this is just a novelty.”

So while there’s bound to be some influence on modern WoW from WoW Classic, the broader plan right now is to ensure that both games retain their unique identities.

“We’re supporting them as though they’re two separate communities,” said Hight. “A lot of people play modern WoW because they love the stuff that’s in it, and they love the conveniences they have. They don’t want to run a long way from the graveyard to get back to their encounter. By the same token, a lot of people in Classic are creating what I hope will be long-term social bonds.”


    World Of Warcraft: Shadowlands' Designers Are Learning From WoW Classic's Success

    Ahh, but what are they learning?

    OK, this has to be fun as a solo experience, because sometimes you just want to go online and not be bothered by anyway, but how can it be more fun, more engaging, or more rewarding with others?

    Oh no.

      I like how they mention bumping into the same players.... Which doesn't happen in Retail because of Sharding.

      A lot of retail WoWs issues exist purely because of Sharding.

        Not wrong, I consistently bumped into a few players in Classic night after night in different zones because we were roughly on pace with each other. Didn't even need to add them to friends because I'd see them around somewhere.

          I think a lot of us who played vanilla had that experience. Killing a wolf and it's like "oh hey good to see you again, wanna team up". That said because of the branching nature of the quests some would wander of to a different zone never to be seen again lol.

          I find this quote interesting, and at the same time annoying.

          Ask many longtime WoW players, though, and they’ll tell you that pre-expansion Azeroth feels more like a real place because of a tangible sense of danger. Occasionally you’ll encounter an enemy that’s got a few too many levels on you,

          That should be qualified to say areas that you didn't out-level were dangerous. I actually really enjoyed being 60 and going back to a level 40 area and just stomping mobs for crafting mats, or rep or quest completion. I think the scaling tech can be problematic because you fight a mob that you stomped a week ago and it's suddenly kicking your arse because it's scaled to your level but you haven't got gear upgrades to keep pace.

          I found that particularly frustrating in BFA once the legendary powers "turned off". You basically went from dominating multiple mobs and higher level elites to getting stomped on in one level. To me that's not great design.

        Server communities were one of the things that made vanilla so fun. Each server was its own community with its own characters and even memes.

        I remember on the first server I played one, there was a guild called "Lighting Strike". It was a long-running joke on the server that the GM had misspelt the name when they created the guild, but nobody in the guild refused to admit it. Even on the server-specific forum (remember those?) it was an ongoing joke.

        Anyway, one day I was questing in Winterspring when all of a sudden a character came bounding past me with the guild name "The Missing N" and I have never, ever laughed so hard at a guild name ever.

        That kind of in-joke just doesn't exist anymore, sadly.

        Last edited 07/11/19 5:08 pm

      Gotta keep 'player engagement' up or we don't get our bonuses from Activision!

    Just bring back PvP gear with resilience and I will re-sub.

    lol, lets just remake the game as original. Sorry, in my own opinion (and I've been playing since original release), going back to original is a waste of time. If they added group&raid finder it might be worth it but for me a big waste of time just releasing a game from 15 years ago.

      There are currently more people playing classic than there are 'Modern'.

      Maybe there is something in that?

      Unbelievable. You want to ruin classic with group/raid finder?

      Just stick with retail.

      and yet it is more popular with the retail epic loot gravy train you seem to yearn for. I wonder why?

      Lack of raid finder and group finder is one of the big reasons why people like classic.

      Stick to retail.

        Ironically I prefer the system of classic (vanilla) but still want raid finder and group finder. I prefer *most* of the classic design, but being able to form a group easily (and fly) are two really big things to me.

        *shrugs* everyone is different.

          There is lots of stuff in Retail i would love in classic if i still played. But if we added those things it wouldn't be classic anymore.

            Absolutely. I said it elsewhere, if you got ten people to put together their favourite aspects of WOW you'd probably wind up with 10 different versions of the game.

    A lot of that "politeness" they talk about is due to the fact that Classic seems to have attracted a good chunk of the more mature player base who don't feel the need to be asshats 24/7. That's not something you can design for.

      It's also got a lot to do with the fact that there's a personal reputation sort of thing due to the nature of how vanilla/classic servers work... If you were an asshat constantly in vanilla people would remember and you'd end up blacklisted, wouldn't be invited to guilds, dungeons, raids, etc. It was in your own best interest to not be a tool all the time.

      Now? All the cross server, sharding, group finder, etc, in current WoW means there are no repercussions of any nature to just being a tool to people 24/7.

        Amen. Our GM and officers used to have strict rules about griefing and other ass-hattery because of guild reputations. Not every guild did, but all the serious raiding ones I knew of did. I remember guildies being kicked for talking trash in trade chat, or griefing a raid that was trying to kill the world dragons. Stuff that no one would bat an eye at now in BFA.

      I had to opposite experience with Classic. Levelling as a rogue I was constantly getting mob spawns stolen from underneath me by casters and people of my own faction spitting on me because I picked a herb they wanted lol. Maybe that was just my server, but yeah I generally felt most people I ran into out there were just complete piecosts.

        My experiences on a pvp server in vanilla and BC were enough to put me off games with pvp as anything but a sideshow forever. Getting ganked while questing and corpse / graveyard camping were some of the experiences on offer that I’ll happily never go back to.

          Oh yeah 100%, because for the lvl 60 player there is nothing to do right except gank lowbies. The game is just a cesspool of shit humans.

        Were you stealthed when the mobs were tagged or was it blatant? There will also be jerks when the anonymity of the internet is a thing.

          No it was blatant, to the point they could obviously see I was running to a mob and they would just instant cast to tag it. I even went out of my way to invite these people so we could get kill quests done quicker and got nothing out of them. Most of i twas just shit greedy humans. Got to lvl 56 and couldn't be bothered to continue lol my life has been better without it.

            Aww man 56. You were so close though.

              Yeah I know, then I thought to myself what exactly am I working towards. All I was interested in was PvP, which I got my fair taste of it open world, that was fun. I didn't want to grind dungeons to hope for loot to drop, and I was not interested in raids one bit. So I bit the bullet and left.

        I suspect that has more to do with the fact you're a rogue. I remember seeing a herb and running over to pick it only for a rogue to de-stealth and "steal" it at the last second. That would happen a lot and frustrated the hell out of me. I also remember have mobs "stolen" because a rogue would tag it while my cast (wrath) was still in the air. So they'd get the credit not me. Even worse some of them would vanish or just stand around watching while I got agro and did *all* the work for them.

        Similarly when I was playing a rogue I'd be stealthed and sneaking up on a mob only for someone to tag it first. But the reality was they didn't know I was there (yay stealth) so they were just doing their own thing.

        The worst though were rogues (and hunters) pulling a heap of mobs and training them onto me when I was using aoe so I'd wind up with agro from all of them and die. That's why people hated rogues so much and would /spit on them so much.

          they could obviously see I was running to a mob and they would just instant cast to tag it I wouldn't be bothered if mobs were getting stolen from stealth but I wasn't. I just think that Classic brings out the worst WoW players, sure it also brings out the best of WoW players but there was just too much of the greed for me to enjoy.

    Every expansion they talk about what they've learned from the past, and what they're going to do differently this time to be better...

    Honestly, if we see ANY meaningful changes resulting from classic's success I don't think it will be until the expansion after Shadowlands... At this point it would have been in development for some time before classic even released, so they're not going to retool a great deal.

    They don't have time to, they need these expansions out sooner and not later... Especially with BFA about to wrap up as it is.

      I've been around long enough to know that once the final patch of a WoW expansion launches, you've still got a good year or two before the next expansion actually launches.

        Yeah, the Shadowlands pre-order says release is by end of (or start of? Can't be bothered checking again) December 2020. Typically it'll be October or November based on previous releases. So another year of dev time isn't out of the question.

        Although based on the BFA launch they weren't willing to change anything even if they knew it was bad until well after they lost a lot of players over it.

          Although based on the BFA launch they weren't willing to change anything even if they knew it was bad until well after they lost a lot of players over it.

          They changed anything? You could've fooled me... When I logged in a month ago it was still a dumpster fire of awful itemization and progression.

            To be fair I never said what they changed fixed the problem, but they did change some stuff as opposed to outright ignoring it in feedback from beta.

            Personally I played for a couple months at the start of BFA and haven't been back since. Kept track of their changes a little after I left but not much lately other than asking people who are still playing how things are atm.

              Pretty much the only reason I'm still playing is the friends. I'm raiding with people I like, and I regularly do mythic+ with a small group of really good people. If they drop out I'll probably wind up quitting (again).

        Doesn't change the fact they're not going to do any major retooling of an expansion that was already in development, even a year out.

        Not really. It's normally the same year. We'll probably get the last patch (8.3) in January and we'll wind up with a pre-patch in the second half of the year to get us used to the upcoming changes (and fuck with raiding), likely in May/June. Followed by Shadowlands later in the year probably August/September.

    Step 1: Undo every rule and system change you've made since Burning Crusade. You are now ready to create your Shadowlands expansion.
    Step 2: Create your Shadowlands expansion, without repeating the mistakes of all the expansions that went before it, that you've got rid of in Step 1.
    Step 3: Nerf 'locks and rogues. Oh, and shamans.
    Step 4: Profit.

      This could also easily be replaced with:

      "Stuff Shadowland and 'Modern' WoW. Scrap it, turn Classic into your core product, expand it and do not fuck it up like you did last time."

        I know they won't do it, but I'm going to keep hoping anyway...

      As a lock I take affront to that, primarily because it actually took skill to play them in Raids since BC was the 'all CC classes must CC' xpac. That and from when I started playing in Vanilla shortly before BC launch, every patch had warlock nerfs in the patch notes even after we were one of the less viable classes.

      And rogue buffs every patch, since the Dev's pet class was rogue. I remember when priests got a nerf because one beat the Dev in a fight. So yeah, nerf them.

        When people talk about nerfs, they're generally referring to PVP.

        And in PVP, Warlocks were the kings of late vanilla. Rogues were the kings of early vanilla.
        From 1.12 onward, rogue is bottom tier.

        And even then, both Warlock and Rogue were high tier in PVE for both AQ40+Naxx. Not that it really mattered so much for PVE.

        Sorry. I only added Step 3 for the Lolz, and because every second forum post in that era was 'locks calling for rogues to be nerfed or Rogues calling for 'locks to be nerfed.

        And of course Shamans were the Developers' Chosen Ones and ceased to take any damage at all post 1.12.

          All good. Can see all around this bit of the thread the counter nerf calls :D

          I quit back in Wrath, and I’ve come back briefly every other xpac and left again shortly after. It comes down to no longer remotely resembling the game I used to love (mechanicswise).

            So did I. Achieved everything I wanted to in Wrath, culminating in FINALLY getting my neck piece (lifebender's locket?) from Malygos 40, then walked away. It was too much like a full time job, running healing for a mid-sized guild.

            "Hi. I'm a WOW addict. It has been 10 years since my last raid."

          *practically everyone calling for rogues to be nerfed in PVP.


      As a vanilla rogue, I strongly support the call to nerf locks and shamans, but would like to replace rogue-nerfs with warriors, who sorely need it.

        Shaman in classic are nowhere near as good as some people think they are.

        Enhance is just... hilariously bad. Elemental is quite good, especially with EM and spell batching... but they only really shine in organised BG's when sniping from the sides and aggressively purging.

      I'd prefer they built on Wrath (the end of it anyway). I feel like that's about when they had the majority of systems and gameplay concepts best nailed down. Stuff like a branching raid where you could choose which wing to do. Talents trees rather than a talent "grid". Catch up buffs in raid so that you would ultimately complete it organically. A better range of talents and spells.

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