If you're still holding your breath for Blizzard to make a firm ruling on official servers running older (legacy) versions of World of Warcraft [official site], jeez, you must be tired. A month of holding until you pass out, over and over? Rough. Well, a Blizzard livestream today deftly stepped around that, but one dev get nicely into one of the problems fuelling interest in legacy servers: modern WoW's bad pacing at lower levels.
That's the plan for Legion's beta, anyway. Excluding unexpected last-minute badness. Remember to check your Battle.net beta opt-in settings if you want a chance. The livestream was mostly about Legion, full of details about things it's adding, so get stuck in if that's what you want. What interested me far more was the talk about legacy servers, or around them - about modern WoW's rubbish pacing.
Assistant game director Ion 'Watcher' Hazzikostas spoke surrounded by disclaimers that this isn't the authoritative word and that Blizzard's official stance hasn't changed since that statement. However, he did talk a lot of sense. He said that negative feedback to Blizzard's proposed 'pristine' servers "sheds some light on something that I think is a problem with the game in general right now, that I think we can address outside of the context of legacy servers, pristine servers."
Which is that the levelling-up experience through older zones at lower levels is "pretty broken right now. It's not really very well tuned." He added, "It's not even about difficulty; it's about pacing."
Basically, low-level players now plough the game, killing everything easily in unsatisfying combat so they spend comparatively far more time simply running between objectives. Some of this is down to changes made with the end-game in mind.
"There have been a lot of trickle-down effects from balances changes made to the max-level game. Things that used to be talents we now bake in as passives, we buff abilities, we move things that used to be high-level abilities down to make them available at level 10..."
Some of it is down to intentional speeding-up of lower levels, especially with the Cataclysm expansion's arcing story missions pushing people along far quicker. Hazzikostas said that was partly down to wanting to remove barriers to entry. Blizzard were concerned about new players who'd joined to play with their pals but were so far behind, and about returning players not wanting to grind through zones they'd seen. So they sped it all up.
"With every new expansion that came out - and this is a process that started really as early as Burning Crusade and continued on through Wrath, through Cataclysm... - we made levelling through the prior expansions a bit faster, and a bit faster, and a bit faster, because we didn't want levelling to be such a barrier to entry."
He would like to change this. "The point isn't to make the game brutally hard", he explained, it's to ease back on the pace. Besides, the barrier he spoke of is already partially solved. WoW offers instant boosts to max-level, including one redeemable boost with each new expansion and selling them separately too.
"There isn't this need for us to try to rush people through the level-up experience any more. If you're levelling a character from 1 to 100, we should make that a satisfying, well-paced experience. The goal isn't to go back to the 'it takes 13 days played and hundreds of hours of, y'know, you're spending a week in Stranglethorn Vale' but you shouldn't be out-levelling zones before you've finished their story. You shouldn't be doing one dungeon and finding that the zone you're in is no longer relevant to you at all."
Which, yeah, I agree with that. I first played WoW before the first expansion then returned shortly after Cataclysm and sure, it had a lot of cooler moments and the story wrapping of lower levels was good stuff, but the rush ruined the feel of the world.
So Blizzard are thinking about solutions, and something made for the next expansion might potentially help.
"There's some promise for the 'flexible zone' scaling tech that we're using in Legion and how that could be applied to other parts of the world, to solve the pacing problem. Imagine if a zone like Hillsbrad or Silverpine had a broader level range that it could apply to, you could level through that zone at your own pace without running out of story or getting ahead of where you're supposed to be in the plot."
That's just an idea, of course. But it's good Blizzard are finally thinking about this.
"It's something that we haven't paid enough attention to recently, and that we need to pay more attention to. From a company-wide perspective, the discussion of legacy servers, pristine servers, what we want to do with that - that's above my pay grade, that's a different organisational level. But as the Warcraft development team focused on the live game of World of Warcraft, it definitely has shone a light on some deficiencies and areas where the game has been lacking recently, and that's something we want to do something about."
I've trimmed out a lot Hazzikostas said, for brevity, so do watch the full stream if you want to know everything. You can watch the whole stream archived on Twitch (skip to 29 minutes for the legacy chat). I'd embed the video for your convenience but Twitch often misbehaves and autoplays even when told not to. Naughty Twitch.