Inside World of Warcraft Plunderstorm: experimental fun for all WoW fans

We talk to the Warcraft team behind the 10.2.6 Plunderstorm patch to find out more about secrecy, pirates, and WoW’s six-week spin on Battle Royale.
plunderstorm WoW

Pirate Battle Royale with a hint of RTS and MOBA in a limited time MMORPG event? Sounds like it’ll be easier to play it rather than explain it. Maybe that’s why World of Warcraft decided its super secret 10.2.6 Plunderstorm patch, launched today, should just be dropped on players instead of revealed ahead of time.

It’s pretty much a first for the game to avoid the Public Test Realm (PTR) entirely with a big new event experience. But talking to the team, they wanted the surprise to be about giving players a truly fun start to the event.

“The reason for no PTR and treating this as a big drop really is for the players,” says Orlando Salvatore, Lead Software Engineer. “We get a lot of benefit from putting things on PTR. We test out bugs, we see issues crop up early and get time to fix them. We intentionally want to make this a surprise. Dragonflight has done such a great job of surprising and delighting our players and this is the next step in that.”

“The community is a limitless supply of passion and ideas of what people want to see. There’s definitely been community thinking that pirates were going to be involved in the future. There have also been people thinking things like ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have open world PvP that’s a bit different to Battlegrounds and Arenas with alternative rule sets.’

Salvatore admits keeping things under wraps “puts a bit of pressure on us, of course”, but the key is to deliver something new that is fun for everyone and make the experience drop with a truly level playing field.

So here we are. Plunderstorm has landed. What on Azeroth are we dealing with?

plunderstorm wow
Image: Activision Blizzard

What’s a Plunderstorm?

A quick look at the World of Warcraft launcher today shows just how unique Plunderstorm is. You don’t load into Retail or Classic WoW, you click a special banner icon and create a new blank character – no classes here. Then, Battle Royale style, you can queue solo or team up for duos and join a lobby to play. And, yes, there’s a storm closing in as you strive to be the last pirate standing.

But the team is clear where the inspiration for Plunderstorm comes from. “There’s skill shots like in MOBAs. There’s camps you can kill like an RTS,” says Salvatore. “So many different people have contributed ideas to this and we’ve done a lot of internal playtesting to make sure this felt right.”

“We have put tremendous thought into leading with Battle Royale, but Plunderstorm pulls in so much more inspiration,” says Ray Bartos, Lead Producer, Live Game. “From MOBAs, from first-person shooters, from RTS. Players level up to a max level of 10. At its core there’s a lot of samples here and for WoW players with quite a bit of experience with WoW there’s some new stuff in here. No fall damage and double jump totally changes things.”

“We build a lot of different experiences for a lot of different players in WoW,” says Salvatore. “This is a new opportunity to have a different flavour of what WoW can be. We have people on our team who aren’t great at Battle Royale but they said they are great at fighting games. So they suggest ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we did *this*?’ and we put in another new idea. We didn’t have a set vision. We’re constantly adapting to how players are receiving this internally, how people are playing this, and making adjustments.”

plunderstorm wow
Image: Activision Blizzard

Pirates need loot

While it’s a limited time event that exists outside the core game, there’s rewards galore to earn for your main characters to enjoy. Through a 40 level Renown track aligned with the pirate faction we’re fighting for, you’ll earn pirate-themed mounts, pets, costumes and other cosmetics, and for those who land a Plunderstorm victory there’s a pretty slick eyepatch to commemorate the moment forever.

“The Renown track is now very familiar within modern WoW and it fits here really well,” says Bartos. “You’ve got 40 levels to earn and it fits with the story of building your reputation with Peg Leg’s Crew. You start as a swabbie and earn your way up. You progress by playing matches, you’re earning rewards through matches and winning. I don’t win so much, but it’s not just about winning. It’s about picking skills and experimenting with different abilities and seeing what works well for you. And getting rewards across both modern and classic – that parrot mount and the hermit crab pet!”

“We started designing the experience and that brought so much inspiration to the rewards,” says Salvatore. “Even the logo and the trailers players will see, and the in world events, it was all a lot of collaboration between a lot of different people. Someone on the team said ‘it’d be cool if you flew in on a parrot’ and so we thought that’s cool, somebody go make the parrot. We kept going and going with ideas and that’s been the cool part of working on Plunderstorm. It’s been a never ending optimistic feeling of doing cool thing after cool thing.”

“The Renown track makes sense. You’re collecting gold to earn rewards. Totally makes sense because it’s all like treasure! And there’s no separate other thing you need to do to unlock it. You already pay a sub. It’s all here for the players to enjoy and we really want to make sure the players are having fun.”

plunderstorm wow
Image: Activision Blizzard

Testing without a Public Test Realm

A big idea needs to be tested, but keeping it secret limits how much testing you can really do. For Plunderstorm, the team started with a small internal test crew, then expanded to the wider WoW team, and eventually had all Blizzard staff involved with making sure the format works.

“Playtesting and feedback has been an absolute pillar for us on Plunderstorm,” says Bartos. “We’re feeling the support from our fellow devs at the studio and as this gets set to go live people are feeling over the top excited to be able to share this with players.”

“Internally we had to keep asking ourselves ‘Are we having fun or are we just playtesting this to play test it?’,” says Salvatore. “A lot of us become very familiar with the game. You play it enough you begin to master it. So we also wanted to avoid the PTR leading to Plunderstorm being spoiled in that kind of way too.”

But this internal iteration helped make some big shifts away from WoW traditions. In an early prototype the game still used a trade window for sharing items. It took too long, so Salvatore knew they needed something “snappier”. Items will drop in the world – completely foreign to the standard way items work in WoW.

“We thought a lot about what felt right in a fast-paced game mode,” he says. “Slowly examining loot drops and comparing stats is core in the WoW RPG environment. But Plunderstorm is the polar opposite. You don’t have time to compare stats. You’re at a glance looking at what’s rare. This or this?

“We even changed how item rarity is displayed to show an icon instead of just the colours. I’m actually red-green colourblind so I can’t tell the difference between blue and purple. So we added these ‘pips’ underneath the icon that go through one to four so you can tell what rank you’re picking up. That’s all to keep you in the action to make decisions as fast as possible rather than doing management mid game.”

Plunderstorm is also addon-free. “We want this to feel like a level playing field,” says Salvatore. “No one needs to find the perfect addon for Plunderstorm. But this also creates a challenge to make sure the game is approachable and things are clear. We need to not overwhelm the player with too much – so we have a more limited action bar. You only have a certain amount of abilities and you only have 10-15 minutes to build mastery with what you’ve got to play with. Even choosing a class would add too much weight to the event mode.”

plunderstorm wow
Image: Activision Blizzard

A space to experiment

A feature of creating a unique self-contained game event in WoW is that the team didn’t have to be scared of shifting the balance in the core experience. They could just run with their ideas as far as they wanted.

“If we took a lot of these abilities that are coming in here and a bunch of consumables that you’re using in combat and all of a sudden these were dropped into modern WoW? Or even a variation of Classic? That’s a lot of stuff and it might just break,” says Salvatore.

“If there’s a guild working on Mythic Fyrakk and they can suddenly Fire Whirl? I mean, that would be interesting – but it’d be hard to wrangle! This gives us a different environment where we can try new things. We can try new changes in combat in a safe space without impacting Classic or Modern WoW.”

“There’s a lot of excitement for us about getting to do so much experimentation with Plunderstorm,” says Bartos. “Not just with the feature itself but, yes, how we are launching it. We are looking forward to the feedback. As soon as this goes live into players’ hands we are pushing to make that a fun experience for them. And we’re anticipating a lot of feedback and that helps us as we continue our work.”

The team sees this as the starter gun (starter pirate cannon?) on the game’s 20th anniversary celebrations. After this, Cataclysm Classic is just around the corner, and The War Within expansion just a few months further ahead.

“Plunderstorm kind of kicks us off with all this,” says Salvatore. “We feel like this is the right time to do something like this instead of right at the launch of an expansion where it might impact some other cool awesome thing players want to put their time into. It’s the right opportunity to do something experimental and new.”

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Are we having fun?

After all the secrecy and all the speculation, what does success look like for the Plunderstorm event for the team who made it?

“This is a love letter to our players and a chance to show what we can do when we experiment with something new,” says Salvatore. “Our measure of success is – did people like it? Did people have fun? Do people build up stories that they can talk about with their friends and family about what happened in Plunderstorm that one match on a Tuesday? They’re the things we’re excited about and curious to hear.”

“We’re hoping to get a lot of feedback from the community now. Beyond just nerfing or buffing abilities, we’d love to hear what else players want to see. How do they like the mode? Do they enjoy it?”

“As a player of WoW since the beginning and before that Warcraft 3 and Diablo, I feel very honoured and proud to work on this and this is a dream come true to create a unique experience for players. To be part of that is humbling,” says Salvatore.

“To get to really blue sky and have all the toys in the toy box and say what should we use? That’s been really exciting to be around and now we get to share this with the world.”

Seamus Byrne is a human content machine covering tech, digital cultures, and the future of everything. He first dabbled in games writing in ye olde print publishing era for titles like Hyper, PC Powerplay, and Atomic, before turning digital to work with sites like Gizmodo, Kotaku, and CNET. You'll bump into his voice on ABC radio, find his other writing at Byteside, or follow him on Threads, Mastodon, and BlueSky.