Blizzard’s Holly Longdale on World of Warcraft’s intergenerationality

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Blizzard hit upon a successful idea with the launch of its World of Warcraft Classic. This relaunch of the original MMO has accrued millions of players alongside its modern counterpart, with its population almost overflowing in its release. It’s remained popular through continued Classic rebuilds of original expansions Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King. But what about this title keeps it so popular across generations of gamers? GamesBeat spoke with Blizzard’s Holly Longdale on the subject.

Longdale was recently appointed vice president on World of Warcraft (she was already its executive producer). She’s worked on MMOs for over 20 years — before World of Warcraft, she was the executive producer of the EverQuest franchise with Darkpaw Games.

GamesBeat spoke with Longdale about the continuing popularity of World of Warcraft — and MMOs in general — across multiple generations. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: Have you noticed any differences between the audience for Wrath of the Lich King Classic and the original Wrath of the Lich King?

Holly Longdale: One thing that’s been an ongoing education for our team is that gamers are different. They have a lot more skill and a lot more knowledge than they did then. And of course there are a multitude of guides and webpages and sites of information on how to tackle the content. There’s all kinds of things that weren’t so important to the community then, but are an element now.

Just as in original Wrath and now just in the past week or so, a lot of new players, which is fantastic — we can determine when we have a bunch of new accounts. It’s so exciting to see the people that may have missed it the first time and heard all about it finally get to go in and see it with our launch. There’s a healthy amount of returning players who were there originally, with original Wrath. People who started in Classic and are now going along this journey, who’ve been with us through Classic Burning Crusade and now Wrath. And then we have these beautiful new players coming in to join us and be part of the community. It is different.

It is a really interesting world of nostalgia, how people take joy in reliving that nostalgia. And then that blends with people being inspired by seeing new areas for the first time, like getting on a boat or a zeppelin to Northrend with literally hundreds of other players as it opens. It’s incredible. We’ve been watching all the feedback. It’s why we do game development, to be able to take part in that joy. It’s awesome.

GamesBeat: Has there been a shift in the average player between the two versions of Wrath of the Lich King?

Longdale: At its core, I would say no. They still represent this really dedicated community that understands what RPGs are about in the sense that you get to live out your player fantasy and be the character you want to be. Again, we have influencers that we didn’t have then, that really drive a lot of the excitement in the community and get people on board and share information about the game.

You’d think that doing something the second time around might not be as awe-inspiring, but to see the joy — it was a smooth launch. It’s surprising how similar it is when you get the momentum of a really positive community that really enjoys something. The tone is very similar, just like it was originally. And originally I was a player. I remember it well. It feels very much the same. It’s pretty exciting.

GamesBeat: Since you mentioned you were a player originally, what’s it like standing on this side now with the Classic release?

Longdale: Incredible. It’s really hard to put into words. The same occurred on my original game. I was a player and then I ended up working on it. MMOs are my life’s passion. I’m fascinated by everything with regard to MMORPGs specifically. I’m a fantasy geek. I love living in that world. That’s my escape. But to have played WoW for as long as I have, and had a sort of outside view of it, and now to be on the inside and be shoulder to shoulder — so to speak, even in a COVID world — with these incredible people who’ve made it, it’s really hard to describe what a joy it is for me. They’re so incredibly inspiring and passionate and unequaled in their devotion to the players. It’s fantastic.

GamesBeat: Wrath of the Lich King is a pretty timeless story. I don’t know if you added anything necessarily. But has there been anything big that you’ve changed in response to community feedback for Classic?

Longdale: Yeah, that’s an ongoing conversation. It goes from minutiae to larger areas of the game. Initially, when we launched Classic, it was this idea of #nochanges. You’re going to get the original experience. They did that, and there was one area along a path — I’m not sure where it was. I’m going to say it was probably in Darkshore. Anyway, throughout the life of the [original] game, it was missing a texture. It was a different color. When we launched the game, we got called out on one single lamp where we fixed the texture, because it was technically a bug. We got called out for changing it. At that point it was very much like, we have to commit to this, no changes.

As the players were getting more immersed in the game and really becoming a bonded community, they started asking for things. A bit of quality of life — looking for group, for example. With Burning Crusade, we added a boost so that you could bring your friends in and they could join you. That had momentum in the community, so we wanted to provide that. It doesn’t take as long as it used to to level in the original WoW. But it still does take a long time compared to modern. So we did make a slight adjustment there. Again, that’s because players are different. Even during beta, you could see that it didn’t impact players in a positive way how we intended. It felt like the momentum just wasn’t there. There was some tuning there.

But as far as content, we typically don’t tinker. We want them to experience it the way it was. We create an old build of the original WoW, and then Wrath and Burning Crusade as well. Then we put that into our modern engine, and we use that reference build to make sure that it feels the same. But we have all the benefit of, now you can get three times as many people in a realm as you could originally. The realms are a lot larger than they used to be. Those are the kinds of changes we make. But we are very much committed to maintaining the nostalgia and being authentic to what Classic should feel like.

GamesBeat: You’ve been in the industry for a few minutes at least.

Longdale: Just a few!

GamesBeat: What do you think is different for the people who play MMOs and the appetite for MMOs compared to, say, a few years ago, or 10 years ago?

Longdale: From my perspective, in the early days, playing Ultima Online and EverQuest originally, then it was about being in a 3D world. To be able to be live that player fantasy, running around in a game, speaking in Elvish, knowing that I’m not going to survive unless I find friends, and seeing other people with their names over their heads — it’s really hard to describe that experience of knowing these characters you’re seeing running around in the world are other people like you. And you’re helping each other, because you’re in the same area, and it’s a sort of unspoken beautiful evolution of teamwork where everyone’s trying to help make sure you survive if you’re in trouble.

Then you form a group, and then you’re on your friends lists, and then it becomes — you’re able to tackle more complicated things. You’re getting to know people. Especially, what I find then and now –you can equate this to Classic as well. Because there’s time involved — time to travel, time to do your business in the city if you’re banking or selling, to have that incidental chat with other people. You don’t even need to be in a group. It can be in your area, where people are telling jokes or asking questions. You can share what you know. It builds this living, breathing community, which really got me passionate and excited. What is it about this medium? What is it about MMOs that gets people immediately bonded together? They want to help each other, even in passing.

I started in Classic several months before I ended up working on the Classic team. But I always start a Night Elf. I always run from Teldrassil to Ironforge. And every single time I do it, even in 2019, there was someone else running the same journey, I could tell. And he slowed down to match my speed. He buffed me to make sure I was safe. We just ran together. To me, that is the magic.

When you ship a game, an MMO specifically, as soon as it is out of your hands as developers, it becomes the community’s. And how they form it, how they organize themselves, how they determine, in a raiding guild — the whole evolution of how you get the item you want when there’s only a handful of items from a raid boss. They create these structures. It’s just incredible to me, the social structures that form. I’ve met hundreds of people I’ve played games with in real life, because we’ve made these lasting friendships. To me, that’s the heart and soul of what MMOs are. It’s working together, living a player fantasy, and being able to live in this incredible escape that’s yours for the taking.

GamesBeat: What do you think has been the biggest influence on modern MMOs?

Longdale: Technology continues to evolve. I feel, and the team feels, that the opportunities for us are endless, as long as we remain true to what the heart and soul–particularly World of Warcraft and what that is. And that is delivering a world that tells a story, characters that tell a story, that focuses on living in Azeroth and how that revolves around the community itself. And I feel like that is going to be our journey. What’s the next technology that enables us to deliver an escape into our fantasy world, that allows people to live in Azeroth and live this wonderful player fantasy, to be the character you want to be and take a break from the world?

GamesBeat: What do you think comes next for WoW specifically?

Longdale: For us, our commitment is to the community. As I mentioned before with Wrath and the modern game, we’re constantly listening. We’re committed to listening to the community and what the community wants. We recognize that’s why we’re here. We also want to delight our communities, find these great inspirations and ideas, innovate where it makes sense to be able to deliver our stories and our immersive world and this incredible experience, and see where it takes us. But at its heart this is all about the community. Inviting new players and delivering this incredible experience where you create friendships, long-lasting friendships. And I will say, I have friendships 20 years on now from playing in MMOs. More than anything, all of us, we want that for everyone else, to be part of this community that shares a lot just by being in this game, that shares a purpose.

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