It's fitting that World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas' community alias is "Watcher," complete with the staring eye of an Old God as his identifying avatar.
Originally, this came about because he was "watching" raid testing as part of his job when he first joined the team during Wrath of the Lich King. Now, he has a view of the entirety of World of Warcraft, from the expansion he started in to its latest endeavor: World of Warcraft Classic, a return to the game as it was when it first released in 2004.
The idea of a place where players could experience World of Warcraft as it was in its early years isn't a new one, with private servers dedicated to recreating "Vanilla" World of Warcraft having existed for some time. And it's from the popularity of such servers that a longer conversation about an official version gained broad traction in the community. For a long time, Hazzikostas says, the team was dismissive of the idea despite community interest, simply because Blizzard was more focused on expanding. But continued conversation began to change the minds of the game's developers all the way up to executives like Mike Morhaime.
One major catalyst occurred in 2016, when a cease-and-desist letter from Blizzard prompted Nostalrius, by far the most successful of the private Vanilla servers, to shut down. A popular petition and community discussion prompted Blizzard to meet with the Nostalrius team to discuss the viability of official servers, but the gears for Classic didn't begin turning right away, a delay that Hazzikostas says was mostly a matter of technical challenges.
"Every time the idea came up, we couldn't find a viable path to make it work"
"A big part of why there had never been any meaningful traction was that this was not an easy thing for us to do. Every time the idea came up, we couldn't find a viable path to make it work. We had the old client, but it was basically full of bugs and exploits and incompatible with the modern hardware we use to run the game, and there was no clear path other than literally redoing ten years plus of engineering work that led to the evolution of the client to get from there to here.
"Obviously, ingenuity happened: the idea of using our modern codebase and teaching it to speak the old data, finding some old backups we thought had been lost, all this came together to make us think that this is something that could become a reality. It was just over two years ago that this project was truly born. Summer 2017 was when we realized, after a lot of discussion, over a year after Nostalrius came out and met with us, that we actually had a viable path to make this real."
For the most part, the version of World of Warcraft that launches tonight as World of Warcraft Classic remains unchanged from the game that existed during Patch 1.12 in 2006. The game is based in the current, modern client, but Hazzikostas said the team effectively deleted most of the modern conveniences that come with that, such as the system for allowing people to find random party members to complete dungeons.
The biggest difference, says Hazzikostas, is the game's integration with Battle.net and the social features that accompany it.
"For the team it was whether [Battle.net integration] was consistent with the spirit of the original Classic experience, and communication across games whether back then using AOL, IM, ICQ, or whatever else wasn't that uncommon. And we know that people tell you to use tools like Discord or whatever else to talk to friends, so actively isolating people from their friends who are playing Overwatch and not letting you talk to them in-game didn't feel like it did a whole lot to [disrupt] the nature of the Classic experience."
Other tweaks include what Hazzikostas calls "add-on level conveniences" such as a feature that made removing items from in-game mailboxes simpler. But that isn't to say Blizzard has left in everything modern that might make World of Warcraft Classic a smoother experience. The team has said before that they've had to effectively "recreate" certain bugs that were a notable part of the original experience, and an amusing post on the official forums notes a long list of reported bugs that are actually just features.
For Hazzikostas and Blizzard, it's all about preserving the original experience.
"Some of the things that were hard to justify preserving but that we had to preserve were things that were technical limitations at the time that no longer apply to us, but which had mechanical impacts on the way the game was played," he says. "An example that came up is that various characters have the ability to put debuffs on their targets. There was a limit of 16 total on an enemy target in Classic. And the raid content was designed for 40 players, so you have 40 players, many of whom require putting debuffs on their targets to actually be effective, and a small number of them were actually allowed to do so. That was not because the original developers thought the game was better that way. It's because there were memory restrictions.
"We understand there are going to be some who look at it and say, 'Cool, that was a good nostalgia trip, I'm leaving'"
"Years down the line, that number was raised to 255. We easily could make that change, but the original class balance of the game and the way encounters play out was tuned around the understanding that you can only have 16 debuffs on the boss. So we're going to keep the game as it was, even though we could do better."
The fact that World of Warcraft in its original form was a bit of a tedious, buggy experience isn't lost on the community, with one of the main criticisms both from within and without being that players are likely to pick up the game with rose-colored memories of their first experiences in the game, only to drop it five minutes later when it's far more frustrating than they remember.
It's not lost on Hazzikostas, either, who agrees that "a good number of people" will probably be disillusioned and walk away. But he also thinks a number of people who step in just for a look will find themselves staying for the long haul -- which is part of the reason for tying in Classic's subscription to that of the current, main World of Warcraft game.
"All the folks who are playing Battle for Azeroth, there's no barrier for them to go check it out. We want to make sure we have enough capacity in our servers on launch day so people can get in and play the game, but we understand there are going to be some who look at it and say, 'Cool, that was a good nostalgia trip, I'm leaving.' Or those who run away screaming in terror the second they see quest text start to scroll one character at a time across their screen.
"But there will be others who go in skeptical, and this is a story we've heard time and time again across some of our recent stress tests and our beta, those people end up loving it. We want to make sure we have healthy communities in the long run, which is why we've been very conservative with how we've been introducing servers, the servers are going to be very crowded up front and we're kind of accepting it as a downside and a cost that is worth it to make sure we have thriving, healthy communities months and years down the line."
Hazzikostas may be optimistic, but the flurry of interest in Classic's launch (and the resulting addition of numerous new server realms over the last week to handle the load) still doesn't guarantee long-term success. And it's tough to gauge, at least from the outside, what success for Classic would mean. Because Classic access is bundled into the subscription for the current game at no additional charge, and because Blizzard hasn't released subscription numbers for the last several expansions, it will be challenging if not impossible to tell what both the short and long-term response to Classic is outside of anecdotes and PR claims.
That's even more eyebrow-raising this year, a year that Activision-Blizzard has said will be a quiet year for releases especially on the Blizzard front. That's because the company is restructuring following a "record year" for profit that nonetheless saw it lay off approximately 800 people back in February. Looking from the outside, this makes World of Warcraft Classic a perplexing choice, as it requires personnel and resources to create but may not necessarily drive a dramatic uptick in subscriptions.
"We want to reduce the barriers between what we see as the parts of a single, larger community, rather than asking people to choose whether they're a part of one or the other"
There isn't a lot about that narrative that Hazzikostas is in a position to answer specifically as game director. But he does reassure me on two fronts: first, that Classic is more about supporting and further building the existing World of Warcraft community than about creating a new revenue stream, and second, that it isn't a resource-intensive project (and will be even less-so after launch).
"We want to reduce the barriers between what we see as the parts of a single, larger community, rather than asking people to choose whether they're a part of one or the other -- it's a single World of Warcraft community," he says. "Obviously we have other efforts going on, supporting Battle for Azeroth, working on a new expansion to follow that.
"The team is as large as it's ever been. Classic is a very different sort of effort. It's not like half the team is making Classic. Classic is largely an engineering-focused effort, because the game already exists. It's our programmers getting the client and server architecture up and running, a handful of people, such as me, I've been consulting and helping make design decisions in terms of what is in and what is out along the way, our QA resources support finding and fixing bugs, but it's not something that detracts from our efforts on the main World of Warcraft going forward. It's just a cool project we're excited to bring to a wide range of fans new and old."
That also begs the question of future plans, as Hazzikostas mentions multiple times that Classic is a long-term project he expects to go on for years. At the moment, Blizzard has approximately two years of content planned out by releasing the original Vanilla raids and related updates bit by bit so players can tackle them in order. But beyond that, what does Blizzard do? Leave the game as it is? Start releasing expansions indefinitely until the game catches up to the current one?
"If you gain a reputation for being a jerk, you're going to have a harder time engaging in those group activities because your name and reputation follow you"
Hazzikostas answers that at the moment, the team is just focused on the launch this week. But once the community has been established, Blizzard plans to let them dictate the future of the game.
"Once the community is there and they're inhabiting this new Azeroth we've unfolded, then we'll be listening to them. We'll be paying attention to our players and trying to get a sense of where they want to go next, what they see as the future of Classic. There are a few different options we could explore, but I think that's a discussion we'll have once Classic is out there and stable."
Aside from the necessity of a healthy in-game player population, another key factor in building the Classic community is adapting to how online community interactions have changed in the last 15 years. Current reporting and cheat detection tools will remain in place, which Hazzikostas says is a necessity given that GM tickets opened back in 2005 normally had a five- to seven-day wait time for a response -- not helpful if someone's harassing you.
But Hazzikostas also notes that in one way, World of Warcraft Classic's limited features may also help improve community interactions. While the current game allows for groups to gather and tackle content across servers, in Classic, you can only join parties, do dungeons and raids, and communicate publicly with those on the same server as you. Back in the day, this meant that server groups were tighter-knit communities where those who exhibited bad behavior could become community pariahs who no one would group with, and Hazzikostas suspects we may see the same thing happen again in Classic.
"I'm geeking out over what 15 years of knowledge is going to do to the endgame of Classic"
"We see the phenomenon time and time again that when people feel they're truly anonymous and can say something without consequences or repercussions, trolls tend to be trollier, and it brings out the worst in some people," he says. "But because of the nature of closed communities where your reputation matters, if you gain a reputation for being a jerk, being someone no one wants to group with or being someone who is offensive or hurtful or doesn't play well with others, you're going to have a harder time engaging in those group activities because your name and reputation follow you."
Additionally, Hazzikostas says that revisiting the ideas behind those server communities for Classic has led to the team brainstorming ways they could recreate a similar experience in modern World of Warcraft.
"There's value in going back and charting the course that WoW's communities have taken from the very server-based origins that they had back in 2004 to the much more interconnected world we live in today. On the one hand, while yes, you probably don't have that sense of reputation on your server anymore, on the other hand, if you meet someone in real life and learn that they play World of Warcraft, they're not going to tell you they're on a different server than you are and therefore you're never actually going to play with them even if you might like to do so. Today you actually can bridge those boundaries.
"There are cons and benefits on both sides. But thinking about those and digging into the social systems and support features has spurred a lot of conversation around the office and raised questions about ways in which we might try to recapture some of the best parts without sacrificing the things we've gained in modern World of Warcraft."
The knowledge and perspective gained from revisiting the original version of a 15-year-old game goes both ways, too. Hazzikostas didn't join the Blizzard team until the lead-up to the second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, so while he's certainly played (and is excited to play again) the original World of Warcraft, he says there's a lot of excitement at the studio to see how an old game recreated as faithfully as possible will nonetheless look different simply by virtue of the passage of time. And it sounds like he'll be doing a lot of his namesake activity -- watching raids.
"From a development perspective, I'm geeking out over what 15 years of knowledge is going to do to the endgame of Classic," he says. "We have a pool internally on how long it's going to take for the first group to kill Ragnaros. The first time Classic launched [November of 2004], I think it took until April of 2005 -- granted, there were some bugs along the way. This time it's going to be measured in days, not months. That's going to be fun."