Every longtime World of Warcraft player remembers the day the Dark Portal opened. In the hours leading up to the launch of The Burning Crusade expansion in 2007, thousands of Horde and Alliance characters descended upon the Blasted Lands to await their journey into the gates of Outland.
The crowds duelled, chatted, and generally wreaked havoc upon Blizzard's servers, which struggled to keep up with the intensified traffic, but any technical hiccups were just part of the ride, as getting to enjoy the initial taste of WoW's first expansion amongst thousands of others made for an experience like no other. Now, with the release of Burning Crusade about to hit World of Warcraft Classic on June 1, Blizzard is hoping to replicate that same feeling of wonder and chaos, albeit with a little less server downtime.
"I think we can hold around three or four times the number of players in a single realm than we could when the original Burning Crusade launched," says executive producer John Hight. "We're using all of our modern server code that we use for World of Warcraft Shadowlands. It's gonna be pretty crowded, and things may get a little crazy, but it'll be so incredible. There's only a handful of games, even today, that can support thousands of players simultaneously in a world together."
Of course, entering the portal is just the beginning of your adventures in The Burning Crusade. From the bioluminescent fungi forests of Zangarmarsh to the serene, afrofuturist plains of Nagrand, the original Outland is a fan favourite World of Warcraft continent for good reason, and Classic is giving us the opportunity to experience it all over again.
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"When Blizzard came out with the very first expansion, I think it was pretty mind blowing," says Hight of Burning Crusade's impact. "It essentially said that this isn't the end, you know? There's a whole other shattered world out there, with demons trying to burn it down! The imagination of the design team at that time was just off the scale. There's a lot of really cool topography to explore, interesting races to interact with, and then there's the exhilaration of flying; being able to just go over that incredible landscape and swoop down and do mischievous things to other players! People can just have a blast in Outland."
To preserve those memories, Blizzard is once again taking a fairly hands-off approach in bringing the Burning Crusade back for World of Warcraft Classic, making only a few minor quality-of-life tweaks here and there while retaining many of the features-not-bugs that reflected the design philosophies of its time. As Hight explains: "I think it's important to recognise the areas where we can adjust things to make it a little more fun. Not everything is always 100% perfect; we want an authentic experience, but we also want a really fun experience. We regard what we do as the caretakers of this incredible universe."
"One of the reasons why we are so careful not to make drastic changes is that we are really looking for the things that look like rough edges," adds lead software engineer Brian Birmingham. "The things that were limitations at the time or, you know, occasionally mistakes, but broadly, we're restoring this game because it was a game that people loved so much. So the point, of course, is to try to get to that as close as possible"
Of course, Burning Crusade itself brought a number of improvements to World of Warcraft when it launched 14 years ago, so those who were initially put off by Classic's antiquated design and excessive grind may find more reason to sign up now. To help with onboarding, Blizzard is also providing the option to boost your character straight to level 58, albeit for a small extra fee on top of the usual subscription required to play both Classic and contemporary World of Warcraft.
In addition, when the Burning Crusade expansion hits World of Warcraft Classic next month, players will be given a choice. They can either transfer their character to what Blizzard is calling a Classic Era Realm, which is pre-expansion Vanilla World of Warcraft, where last year's Shadow of the Necropolis update will remain as the final update to the game, preserving its status as the OG WoW experience. Or, alternatively, they can initiate the transfer to a Progression Realm, which is where Blizzard will be updating World of Warcraft Classic with all Burning Crusade content, including any post-launch updates. For Hight, offering this choice was an important way of "honoring a deal with players with Classic to preserve the original World of Warcraft experience."
"We felt like we had established a contract to make Classic as authentic an experience as possible. But then we recognised that for a lot of people, the very first expansion they played was Burning Crusade, and so many Classic players are starving for new content, so we wanted to make that available to them. So having this option to play in both worlds was a ton of work for the server live ops team. Originally we just took everyone from Classic to Burning Crusade, but to be able to preserve that and give them the ability to have characters in both worlds… it was no joke!"
Prepared for the future
The division of Era and Progression Realms poses an interesting question for World of Warcraft Classic going forward. Does Blizzard intend to keep re-releasing old expansions for its ambitious restoration project and, if so, will that eventually lead to a point where every major chapter in the MMO's timeline will be available to access across different realms? Could I, for example, have a Gnome Rogue in Wrath of the Lich King era WoW, and a Worgen Mage exploring Pandaria in Warlords of Draenor era WoW, all available to access under that single subscription fee?
While that idea sounds tantalising at first, it threatens to splinter World of Warcraft's userbase across multiple versions of the game that are cut off from each other, with serious impacts on the health of its communities and Guilds. Hight doesn't offer any answers to these tough questions for now, whoever, explaining that the "number one game plan is listening to our players".
"We have the capability to do many things. We could obviously do every expansion again, but I think it's super important that we listen to what players are saying, see what they're enjoying, and figure out what they want to see next. So right now we're focused on getting through the next couple weeks, seeing how everyone receives it."
"We will continue to listen and we will continue to be ready," he promises, before rounding off his comments in a way that only a Burning Crusade fan could: "We will be prepared!"
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