WoW Wrath of the Lich King Classic interview: Group Finder, morale, bots, and more

As World of Warcraft Classic adds Wrath of the Lich King, we talk to Blizzard about what it means to try and re-create the old days, for better or worse.

Blizzard Entertainment

For players of a certain age, there was nothing quite like the launch of a new World of Warcraft expansion. Few of them got as much hype and fanfare as Wrath of the Lich King. This was an unforgettable tale, one that saw Azeroth tremble in fear of the titular Lich King. On top of the memorable story, it contained exciting new features, like the introduction of the Death Knight hero class.

It's hard to duplicate that excitement exactly, but there are still thousands of WoW players excited to see Blizzard explore Wrath of the Lich King Classic. The development team has worked carefully to try and replicate as much of the 2008 experience as possible. To learn more about how they did it, we recently took part in an interview with two members of the WoW Classic development team.

Skeletons walk Icecrown in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Classic

Source: Blizzard Entertainment

Shacknews: For Wrath Classic, there would seem to be a divide down the middle, 50/50, to add Dungeon Finder or not to add Dungeon Finder. Can you take us into that process of how you decide whether to keep something in or take something out, even if it was in the original game when the community is split down the middle on something?

Brian Birmingham, WoW Classic Lead Software Engineer: I think that one is a special case, partly because it was something that we had really rallied around taking out in the original release of WoW Classic, going back to our original 2019 release of it. We were really excited to bring back that feeling of community and organic group formation that, honestly, we think is important as part of friendship formation. When you get into this new game and you find new friends through World of Warcraft, a lot of that is because you’re repeatedly interacting with the same people and you form these relationships over time. And that happens a lot when you have this organic group formation.

Back in 2019, even, we were saying, "Ha, if we ever get to Wrath of the Lich King, we probably won’t want to do Group Finder even then." But then as it got closer, there were people who were, “Well, actually, we kinda like it.” And so we had to reevaluate. Is it really something that was important to us? And, we really felt like it was.

I think, in this case, I think the biggest argument we hear against it is, "If you don’t like it, just don’t use it." But, it doesn’t really work that way. Once it’s available in an ecosystem, it tends to leech players away from it because it’s so convenient. It is absolutely, undeniably a great feature in modern World of Warcraft that makes it really convenient and easy to find groups quickly, so you can do a quick dungeon over lunchtime. But, at the same time, that quick, easy access to random group members means that if you have a regular group of four friends who are running a dungeon together, you’re going to go get that fifth person from the Group Finder. Then, if one more friend drops, you’ll probably get two from the Group Finder. Then, a third from the Group Finder, and pretty soon, you’re not actually playing with the same people over and over again. You’re just always randomly queueing in with whoever happens to be around.

So, that was something we talked a lot about and really decided that this was something that we felt was important to try to preserve, and we’re going to do our best to do it.

Shacknews: You mentioned server health. I’m just curious, you’re in third-expansion deep with Classic. What have you learned from OG Classic and Burning Crusade in terms of just popularity of servers, the overall health of servers, the economy of servers. For me, playing the expansions I was always Alliance and a lot of the servers were very Alliance-bare, so it would take forever to get into a Battleground or an Arena. And, even with Battlegrounds, it was AV-only because that was the only one we could win. But, I’m curious overall what have you learned from the past two expansions, in terms of server health, including all those things that I mentioned?

Birmingham: I wanna jump on that, that you just mentioned about the queue time differences. One of the things we introduced in Burning Crusade that was controversial at the time, but we ended up liking it enough to keep it, was same-faction Battlegrounds, where you could actually battle against your same faction if the queue time would be significantly longer. So, we were seeing that there was an imbalance between Alliance and Horde regionally, but it wasn’t a huge imbalance, but it turned into a huge queue imbalance, because the kind of knock-on effect of, “It’s easy for me to get in, so I go in, I get out, and I’m done, done for the night.” And, someone else is waiting in a slightly larger pool of players means that they’re waiting for everybody else, and by the time it’s their turn, they definitely want to stay. It has kind of a self-increasing problem, so when we did allow, let’s just say for the sake of an example, Horde to fight Horde, if Horde is the queue that is slightly larger, it meant that all of a sudden that pressure went away. And when the pressure went away, Horde could get in, get out, get done with their matches, and it meant that the queues evened out.

So we saw, even though same faction Battlegrounds were only allowed, or only were allowed on everything but Alterac Valley, we actually saw an improvement in the queue times for Alterac Valley, because it meant that there were other options for people to be like, “Oh, let me go quickly into Warsong Gulch if I just want Honor right now, or into Arathi Basin.” And it meant that people weren’t feeling like that they had waited for a specific Battleground as much, and it really helped overall the health of the entire service. We were really excited about that.

Shacknews: So my question, I’m not sure if you maybe answered this in other interviews, but the WoW token is still not available in Classic, correct? Do you think that’ll be something that will change in the future, similar to the dungeon finder situation?

Birmingham: We don't have any plans to introduce the WoW token in the West. It is actually already enabled in China, but we decided that we didn’t want to have that for Western audiences, because we've heard, kind of resoundingly, from people that they didn’t want it. It is one of those things where the reason we introduced it in modern [WoW] is because it helps address a problem of people going to illicit third-party websites to buy gold, and it does help address that problem by bringing it internally.

But, the real problem still is that there are people who use bots or automation software to do farming. What we really wanted to do is focus on trying to target those activities. It’s an ongoing challenge, we’re working very hard on that in both modern and Classic, trying to find ways to identify and ban bots, and also make their efforts less lucrative by attacking their profits and attacking their costs in trying to make sure that we swing that as much as we can to where it does not feel like it’s an economical advantage to do that thing. That said, that’s where we’re focusing our efforts, is really on banning the bots rather than introducing the token.

Shacknews: I’m just curious [about] outside influence, like really popular content creators and streamers, how does that affect morale at your studio, whether it be positive influence or negative influence? Because I feel that a lot of the time when these streamers have hundreds of thousands of hours in your game, but they don’t have the data that Blizzard has, they don’t get to see that Excel sheet, they don't get to see that chart, where you guys have so much more data than just game experience. How does that affect you, your morale, and how does that affect your design in working with your community?

Ana Resendez, WoW Classic Lead Software Engineer: I mean, something that I love about working in World of Warcraft and recreating Wrath of the Lich King is to see the different kinds of people that play these games. As you mentioned, with data you can really look at patterns of what people do and what are their favorite activities, and you get to see a lot of it that normally you wouldn’t hear from people. Not everybody is engaging in social media or with the influencers. There's a very big group of people that love to come and play the game with their friends, and they might not feel like "Okay, I’m going to go to the farm today and talk about it." We also want to get their opinion, and that’s why we also have these more proactive approaches like having surveys and stuff like that.

But, we definitely look outside of that and we look at data of what kind of activities people seem to enjoy and what kind of activities players tend to not do that often, so we do have an insight on that front. The nicest thing is to see how wide the audience that we have, that love to come to the game and explore it in a very different view. The way I play the game is completely different than the way Brian plays the game and probably than the way you guys [play the game].

Birmingham: Yeah, I think that’s really true about trying to collect those other voices, and I think one of the things that is, in terms of internal morale, is it’s so exciting to hear that people are passionate. The thing to keep in mind is, often, the angriest people are often the loudest, and so you have to take that with a grain of salt, which is not to say that you should dismiss those voices. It’s very important to listen to those voices, but to put them in their appropriate context that this is someone who is angry and why are they angry? They’re angry, because they care. They care, because this is a good game that appeals to them. And does it appeal to other people? Other people who might have a different opinion? Of course!

It helps shift that view from, "Oh my god, everyone is angry at us," to "Oh no, everybody cares about us." And so, sure, they’re angry about some decision maybe, but somebody else might be really happy with that decision. We have to be very careful to listen to all the voices, try to make sure that we’re making the best, the most comprehensive and balanced decision between various opinions that we can, and then recognize that that anger we’re still getting sometimes is actually just passion and excitement, and "I wish you would do it my way," but of course, you can never make everyone happy all the time, right? There’s always going to be a balance between different people who have different opinions, and we have to make a decision.

Resendez: And overall, we really want to have a safe environment for people to log in, and come and play the game and enjoy it, and feel secure and included in the game. We’re definitely always looking for opportunities on how we can create safe spaces for people to come and join us.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Classic is now available on PC.

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