Will World of Warcraft legacy servers ever happen? Are content updates going to drop more frequently? And when are we getting that ship expansion?

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During a recent Blizzard event in Irvine, California, I had the chance to sit down with some of the team behind World of Warcraft’s next expansion, Legion, which comes out on August 30. Game director Tom Chilton and senior art director Chris Robinson joined me for a brief chat about a variety of topics affecting the popular MMORPG.

Interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

On Nostalrius, and the idea of legacy servers:

Schreier: Legacy servers: is it something that can happen? I’ve seen Blizzard representatives say it’d be a big challenge, but I haven’t really seen specifics as to why. If it’s not gonna happen, why won’t it happen?

Chilton: It’s very challenging, and we love the idea of it. We met with the Nostalrius server guys last week, and we even had the opportunity to play on the server. It was kind of a moving experience to get to re-experience classic WoW.

Schreier: 40-man Molten Core!

Chilton: Totally. We made a Stratholme run together. It was hilarious. John Hight, our production director, forgot that his pet was only level 8, so he’d go and pull, and it’d pull half the instance, and we’d wipe, and had to run back, and all that good stuff. So that’s really cool, and we like that idea, but it is extremely challenging to actually execute. A big part of the reason is that our database, the way it works is live data. So when somebody goes in there and says ‘Fireball does 200 damage now instead of 100,’ that’s it: Fireball has changed forever.

In the past, there was no archiving of older data. So while we have the capability of doing that now, and in more recent years when we make changes we can ‘version’ the data, we didn’t have that back in 2004. And so as data changed, we effectively lost that stuff to history. And so we would have to go back and try to reverse-engineer it ourselves.

Schreier: Don’t the Nostalrius people have that data?

Chilton: No, they don’t actually. So what they did is went back and reverse-engineered it. They spent countless hours researching on YouTube, looking at, ‘OK how many hit points do you think that monster has, I think I saw a video that showed it with, you know, 2,152 hit points, so that’s the number of hit points we’re gonna give it.’ And they’re just kinda guessing and approximating on a lot of stuff. Which is cool, and they did an amazing job of making it feel like a very authentic experience. But ultimately the way they implement their data is in no way similar to the way we do it. So it’s not like we can even take that data and put it in the game, because they actually aren’t even really compatible - they have a completely different approach to creating content.

Schreier: The non-technical savvy and non-copyright savvy person might ask, why not just find a way to let them keep running their thing without violating copyright somehow?

Chilton: I don’t have an answer to that, not being a copyright guy.

Schreier: Couldn’t you just hire them to run their servers as Blizzard employees?

Chilton: There are definitely challenges with being able to do that. I also think there would be challenges with getting people to be able to connect through Battle.net to their stuff, which is completely different. And so these are cool ideas, but they are actually hard to execute.

Schreier: Sure, it just feels like the type of thing that—I didn’t even realize how many people are such huge legacy server fans until the recent outcry, but it seems like the type of thing that it would be a shame to not give them what they want.

Chilton: Yeah, and we certainly hold onto hope that some day we’ll be able to do that.

How new expansions are designed:

Schreier: I’m curious about how you guys decide what the next WoW expansion is going to be: where it’s going to go, what area it’s going to cover, what it’s going to include. How do you do that, and how do you stop yourself from over-scoping?

Chilton: We tend to do it multiple expansions at a time, so part of the way or maybe halfway through Panderia development we started to think about what our next set of expansions was going to be. We think about it in two terms mostly that end up driving everything else, and that’s story and setting. We think about, ‘OK what’s a natural evolution of the Warcraft storyline, what’s happening in the world and what makes sense to be happening next? And given what makes sense to be happening next, where would that take place? Where would that story play out?’

Those two things end up forming what the feature-set is going to be, what the content is going to be, all that kinda stuff. So we think about that multiple expansions in advance and we really plot that out. There’s always some room for flexibility.

Schreier: So right now you have a gameplan for the next two expansions?

Chilton: We totally do.

Schreier: Interesting. Do you know that they’re going to be two years apart?

Chilton: That ends up being driven more by what progress we’re making. We have enough experience to be able to scope them to ‘Oh OK we think this is doable in a year and a half, two years, whatever it is’ and then really it ends up being, how long does it actually take us to do it.

Schreier: Is there an internal mandate about whether to go in a lighter or darker direction? It seems like you guys have been trending dark since Panderia.

Robinson: I don’t think there’s a mandate, no. It’s really, like Tom’s saying, we like to think about not necessarily just expansions as they stand on their own but this overarching storyline that we’re carrying along. And then we thematically take a look at that and go do we want people trudging through darkness for three years or do we want them to have this really hard— It’s just like a good story, a good movie, right? Where you want to have peaks and valleys. So there’s no mandate of like, ‘OK we did the dark one, the next one has to be light.’ It could be like, ‘This was dark but we want to take it really dark.’

On pushing more frequent content patches:

Schreier: I think after Draenor it was only two content patches—I believe people were hoping for more? What’s the plan for the future?

Chilton: Yeah. We certainly have a richer patch content lineup plan for Legion. We ended up not being happy with the amount of patch content that we did for Warlords. Some of it was because we believed that we were going to make Legion faster than we were actually able to, and so when we were planning the patch cycle for Warlords, we were being aggressive. We thought, ‘OK this time we’ve got our ducks in a row and we’ll be able to make the expansion faster and so we won’t be able to fit in more patch content.’ We just ended up being terribly wrong about that.

Schreier: How come?

Chilton: I think that one of the things we have a tendency to underestimate is that even though we scaled up the team a fair amount to be able to do more stuff, what it allowed us to do was more stuff in a similar amount of time, not the same amount of stuff faster. And then of course it was getting people trained up—a lot of that happened during the early parts of Warlords’ development.

We have a large and capable team now, and it does allow us to do more stuff in parallel, but ultimately there’s so much preproduction work that goes into an expansion to really identify the place and the culture kits and all that kinda stuff that kinda roadblocks other stuff farther down the line. Even if you have more people here, it just means that once you’ve figured this stuff out, they can do more stuff parallel but they can’t really make a single zone faster.

What development on World of Warcraft is like:

Schreier: How many people are on the team now?

Chilton: Around 235.

Schreier: Oh wow. So that’s the entirety of the WoW team?

Chilton: Yeah, that’s the development team so artists, designers, engineers, and producers.

Schreier: Are you guys using the same development tools that you’ve used since the original WoW?

Chilton: Yes, although highly evolved. We have a tools engineering team of 5-6 people or so, it varies somewhat, sometimes more sometimes less. We have a tool for example called WoWEdit that, since WoW’s inception, we’ve used to create the game data. And that tool has grown in power and complexity over the years to where it’s incredibly powerful, and it’s also big and complex.

Robinson: The name is probably the only thing that remains the same.

Schreier: I once heard someone describe game development as a series of bottlenecks. I’m curious, as a team that’s been working on the same game for many years, do you still find that you run into bottlenecks? How does having that kind of experience and consistency help with that?

Chilton: Each individual expansion is a little bit different, so it’s inherently going to have different bottlenecks. Even if you staff in a way to try and fix a bottleneck you have, it’s not the same bottleneck the next time. For example, in Warlords, we updated the character models. And so that was a huge amount of pressure on our character art team. So in some ways the character art team was a bottleneck for that expansion. There were other bottlenecks too, but that was one of them.

Whereas with Legion, we’re doing updated combat animations, which puts a huge amount of pressure on the animation team. Even though obviously all the team is under pressure all the time because there’s just a lot of stuff for everybody on every part of the team to do, those ratios change in each expansion. So it makes it very difficult to staff in advance for that, if you know what I mean. And so you end up with different bottlenecks each time.

Robinson: It really feels like a new experience every time.

Blizzard’s boat fantasy:

Schreier: So talking about expansions, are there areas of WoW lore that you guys have wanted to do but haven’t been able to, for whatever reason?

Chilton: Yeah, we’ve internally talked on many occasions, I think even externally sometimes about doing a ship-oriented expansion, so an expansion where you can get a boat, and upgrade your boat, and sail around to places. It’s a really cool idea, but there are huge design and tech and art challenges with being able to actually pull that off, to where at some point— It’s funny because it’s kind of the expansion we always imagine. ‘Two expansions from now, it’s gonna be the boat expansion!’ (laughter) We’ve been saying that for a dozen years.

Schreier: What’re some of the challenges with that?

Chilton: Just realizing that kind of fantasy in World of Warcraft, where your actual moment-to-moment gameplay experience is, ‘I’m casting fireballs on the gnoll and then I pick up my next quest, and I’ve gotta, you know, go and kill a bad guy over here, and etc. etc.’ How do you deliver this alternative fantasy within the World of Warcraft while not also just departing too much from what the core gameplay is?