Geek Interview: Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas Wagers WoW Classic To Have A Smooth Day One Launch

Come August 27, we’ll get the chance to dive into the Azeroth of yore once again, with the impending launch of WoW Classic.

World of Warcraft has been around since 2004, so the game is essentially now as old as any high-schooler — and in that time has become a household name, not just in gaming, but in pop culture. From toys, merch, the infamously legendary “Leroy Jenkins” battlecry, the “Make Love, Not Warcraft” episode in South Park, and even a live-action movie that precedes the events of the game, WoW truly has transcended from being just a mere video game.

WoW Classic Interview 1

The actual MMORPG itself has since evolved into a more streamlined, yet sometimes cramped and campy, experience, especially with the latest expansion, Battle For Azeroth. In recent years, fans (myself included) have been clamouring for vanilla WoW, and our nostalgia was no doubt appeased when WoW Classic was announced back in BlizzCon 2017.

Fast-forward two years later, and we’re mere days away from WoW Classic’s launch. We’d recently managed to get hold of WoW Game Director Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas, and pick his brain on what we can expect from WoW Classic.

WoW Classic Interview Watcher
Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas, Game Director for World of Warcraft.

Interview transcript has been edited for clarity.

Geek Culture (GC): It has been 15 years since World of Warcraft has been around. At what point did you and your team decide that it was time to roll back the clock and release WoW Classic? Was that something you guys have been wanting to do for a while now, and why was it important for you to do so?

Ion Hazzikostas (IH): The idea [of WoW Classic] has bounced around time and time again. We’ve already had fans and members of the community ask us at previous editions of BlizzCon and other interviews: would we ever allow players to revisit the Old World [vanilla WoW for the uninitiated]? Would we ever make WoW Classic

And for a long time, we didn’t have a clear understanding of how we could do that in a way that was going to give players an experience that’s worthy of the Warcraft name and what they deserved. This was because the old client and server that we had would not run properly on our modern hardware. It was full of bugs, it was unstable, and we didn’t have a clear path to be able to reproduce 10 to 15 years’ worth of improvements to get give players the experience with respect to the modern era. 

WoW Classic Interview Gameplay

Now just over two and a half years ago, a few of our game engineers came up with an idea of using the modern code base, and, instead of [coming up building a new one from the ground up], they modified it to interpret the old data that we once thought was lost. And once we realized that, we had a clear path to being able to deliver the experience the players have been asking for for so long. 

The team is very excited; we immediately started working on making this project a reality. We first realized that we were going to be able to do it in early summer 2017. And only a few months later, BlizzCon announced to the world that it was going to be a reality, because we were excited to share that news with the players as soon as possible.

GC: What were some of the most interesting stories or biggest challenges your team experienced while developing WoW Classic?

IH: As I’ve said before, one way the team approached making WoW Classic was to take the modern code base of the game’s build at the time — World of Warcraft: Legion — as well as the client and server architecture, and teach and modify it to be able to load the old data from 2004 – 2005. 

No doubt, there have been countless changes to the game [since 2004]. That’s everything — from how the client interprets the art files, models and lighting built into the game, to the combat calculations; things like weapon skill and defense and Hunter pet happiness, were all removed over the years. And, so, our engineers had to reimplement, essentially, all of those systems, while making sure they were constantly comparing the work they were doing with the original reference version that we had from 2006. This was to make sure that we were creating a completely accurate and authentic experience. 

In some cases, we actually had to reintroduce bugs that were present in the original game, because they do things that players who come to expect and rely on. These could be things like the way our engine improves certain graphical images, certain spell effects like Ragnaros’ fire. 

WoW Classic Interview Ragnaros

If players go back and look at Ragnaros’ fire [in vanilla WoW], there were particles at the center of it that showed a pure white, and this was actually due to a math error in the renderer. They were supposed to be this orangey, fiery red, but instead they were showing to be white. But when we looked at it in our original versions of the classic engine, it looked more like fire, but it didn’t look like Ragnaros — it didn’t look like the original World of Warcraft. So we actually worked to reintroduce the bug that caused the fire to have those bright, white central spots in the name of reproducing the authentic, original experience for the players that were expecting.

GC: The anticipation of WoW Classic is massive at this point, with so many new and old players raring to jump back into the Azeroth of yore. How will you and your team be expected to deal with denser server populations and the like? Do you anticipate any potential latency issues, and how will you be dealing with such things?

IH: I may regret saying this, but I think that we are prepared for a very smooth launch experience once players are in the game on this coming Tuesday. Because one of the nice things is how fast our servers and the hardware that we run our games on are so much more powerful [compared to] the last 15 years.

I remember that, as a player myself, when WoW first launched, there was terrible lag. While charging up to cast a spell, or even as simple as looting a corpse, I might be sliding around the world for almost up to a minute, waiting for that to actually go through on the database. But today, we’ve had stress tests in the past few months. And we’ve had thousands and thousands of players on single servers and not seen significant lag. So one of the nice things about WoW Classic is that we can provide the original experience with better performance all around.

GC: What can we expect in WoW Classic in the months moving forward? Will it be a series of expansions similar to the ones in the current build of WoW, or are you planning to keep things as is throughout?

IH: In the months to come, we have a six-phase plan of unlocking our content. So, when the game launches next week, what will be available would be what was there in the beginning of 2005. 

So, players can level to 60, access the Onyxia and Molten Core raids, and so on. But Dire Maul is not present; there are no battlegrounds because those things weren’t present when WoW was first released.

Naxxramas, one of the highlights of vanilla WoW.

So, over the months to follow, we’ll be unlocking and adding the world bosses, battlegrounds and the PVP Honor System, and even new raids and dungeons such as Blackwing Lair, Ahn’Qiraj, 20-player and 40-player raids, and Naxxramas, eventually, along with events accompanying those content, and rewards. So we have years of content ready to unlock, and allow players to experience the journey as it was originally intended.

Indeed, the hype leading up to WoW Classic is nigh insatiable at this point, and we’re no doubt raring to roll back the clock and dive into the Azeroth we’ve come to know and love in its heyday. 

WoW Classic launches on August 27.