This article is part of our History of PC Gaming series.
John Staats, former Blizzard developer and the original 3D level designer for World of Warcraft, remembers people thinking he was crazy when he told them the seminal MMORPG would last for decades. It didn’t help that Staats had made this prediction before the game had even released on Nov. 23, 2004.
“The first day on the project, [Blizzard] said, ‘Well, it’s going to be like Everquest but we’re going to simplify, take out all the pain points that EverQuest players were suffering under,'” Staats says. “It was obvious to me it was going to be a huge title. When we finally announced the game, we would go to trade shows like E3, and I would go way off script and I would say, ‘WoW is probably going to have a 20-year lifespan.’ They would all give me a double take and look to see if I was joking.”
Thinking on how the game has evolved since its launch and what lies ahead, Staats now thinks even he was being a bit conservative with the numbers: “As it turns out, I was underestimating the length on this game.”
World of Warcraft might not be quite at the 20-year mark that Staats once predicted, but it has been 15 years since adventurers around the world first set foot in Elwynn Forest and Durotar. With World of Warcraft‘s current expansion, Battle for Azeroth, nearing its conclusion and the game’s next major update, Shadowlands, on the way in 2020, it’s clear that World of Warcraft still has enough momentum to hit Staats’ 20-year milestone and perhaps even beyond.
Den of Geek recently had the opportunity to chat with Staats as well as current Blizzard production director Patrick Dawson about the making of World of Warcraft, giving us a glimpse into the earliest days of the game’s development.
World of Warcraft was announced to the public in 2001, but the game was still a few years away. First, Blizzard released RTS title Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and its expansion The Frozen Throne in 2002 and 2003, while World of Warcraft finally went live on the 10th anniversary of the Warcraft franchise.
Dawson remembers World of Warcraft‘s first day quite clearly. His launch day experience came as a regular player, not a developer.
“Those first few levels, those first few moments, just the way the game felt, I think was really what captured me,” says Dawson, who joined Blizzard as a server engineer in December 2005. “It just felt like a really accessible game. The combat was smooth, it was streamlined.”
Staats, on the other hand, had worked on what would become WoW for years before Dawson or anyone else had logged into Azeroth. He said his earliest experiences with the game were anything but streamlined.
“The first thing that struck me [about Blizzard] was just how flat the organization was as a structure,” Staats says. “I noticed that there wasn’t really anybody in charge of anything. It was just a group of people. You would not know if you were a fly on the wall who the leads were. It was more like a jazz band than an orchestra. So it was just an open atmosphere, very collaborative.”
Staats, who recently published The World of Warcraft Diary, a behind the scenes look at World of Warcraft‘s development based off notes he took while at Blizzard, says he was brought on as a developer at a time when the company was still trying to figure out what WoW would be. The company wanted to make an MMO built in a 3D world, but didn’t actually have much experience in that arena.
“I could tell while they were interviewing me that they were pumping me for information on how to actually build 3D levels because, at the time, they were only doing tile-based stuff,” Staats says. “Diablo was tile based, Warcraft 3, StarCraft, all of that was 2D, so it was a big jump.”
Even after he got the job, Staats said he and the rest of the team struggled to get going.
“We started building using BSP editors from Quake, so it was a completely different technology. That’s where my expertise was, but it was totally inappropriate for a massively multiplayer game,” Staats explains. “I was the guinea pig for the first year of the project, just trying to force a square peg into a round hole. There was no system in place, everybody was just learning as they were going.”
Today’s players may be surprised to learn that a lot of vanilla WoW‘s content and art assets were created without really knowing just how or where they would be implemented in the game. Staats claims to have built more than 90 percent of WoW‘s non-instanced caves, dens, mines and hive tunnels. He also designed more than 15 of vanilla’s original dungeons and raids, including classics like Molten Core, Upper Blackrock Spire, and Scholomance. Don’t ask him to make sense of the order in which he worked on them though.
“We built the dungeons completely out of order,” Staats confirms. “My first dungeon I think was Ahn’Qiraj which is a raid dungeon, and I had no idea how many people were going to be in a raid. We didn’t know if it was 10 people, 50, or 100 people. We had no idea.”
Case in point: Dawson’s first real experience after being hired at Blizzard was also with Ahn’Qiraj. The raid dungeon was released in a special one-time only event in January 2006, more than a full year after the launch of the game.
Dawson recalls the opening of the AQ gates fondly today, but his story again demonstrates that Blizzard had to learn a lot by trial and error during World of Warcraft‘s initial development and vanilla era. No one had ever made an online game that was this successful before.
“With The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj, we decided to put everyone from an entire server in one zone to watch an event happen,” Dawson says. “This was a very harrowing and fun experience for us.”
Dawson says he and the other developers spent the night reacting to the unexpected actions of the players while trying to keep the servers up.
“We knew our game was popular, but we didn’t quite understand just how much people wanted to participate in an event like that,” he says. “It opened on [the] Medivh [server] first, and I remember a lot of developers just sitting there, watching how many people were going to Silithus. There were people at like level 30, the alts of people from other servers that really shouldn’t be there. It was me, the live [operations] leads and a couple other people just frantically teleporting out the lower levels.”
Blizzard eventually worked out the kinks, and World of Warcraft took off to unprecedented heights. The game’s first two expansions, The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, dramatically increased the size of the subscriber base, and by the launch of the world-breaking Cataclysm expansion in 2010, the game had reached its all-time high of more than 12 million subscribers. It might be hard for some to remember in a gaming landscape that is today dominated by the likes of Fortnite, but World of Warcraft was at one time arguably the most popular video game in the world. And a game that popular brings with it lots of passionate but sometimes misguided fans.
Staats says he started writing The World of Warcraft Diary largely because of the great number of misconceptions he realized people had about Blizzard, World of Warcraft, and game development in general. In other words, no, Blizzard did not nerf your class because this one developer hates Paladins.
“There’d be tons of speculation on the internet, and because people only see a few pieces of the puzzle, they try to put it together because a natural human thing to do is just fill in the gaps yourself,” Staats says, who notes that players often come up with conspiracy theories as to why Blizzard is nerfing this class or that item and so on. But the reality is usually much simpler.
“If they guessed it was financial, it was usually because there was a tech limitation. If it was a tech limitation, other people would think, ‘Oh, it’s a game design decision.’ It’s just amazing how no one ever guessed the real reason why we did things.”
Dawson says Blizzard embraces the passion of the fans, though.
“Probably one of the things that really spoke to the team that the community did recently was back when Saurfang was leading and started rebelling against Sylvanas in our Old Soldier cinematic. He actually removes his shoulder pads, and the community in response to this decided, ‘If you’re with Saurfang, hide your shoulder pads.’ So if you’re a member of the Horde, you walked around without shoulder pads. That was crazy.”
Dawson notes that removing this in-game item was actually a loss of power for the players because Blizzard didn’t have an in-game option to cosmetically hide shoulders at the time. So, the team developed one.
“It was just something the community did to cause us to say, ‘Hey, we need to provide an option for players to be a defector or a loyalist,’ which in turn caused us to start providing more choices in game. So we notice these things that the community does and we appreciate it,” Dawson says. “Ultimately, I know because I’ve lived this game for 15 years, this is a lifestyle game. This is something that is near and dear to all of our hearts.”
After cresting above 12 million subs during the early Cataclysm era, World of Warcraft began to roll back down the mountain. There are a million blogs and YouTube videos out there as to why exactly WoW started losing subscribers, but suffice to say, development decisions aside, the bubble was bound to pop at some point as the game and its player base grew older. But while Blizzard stopped revealing official subscriber totals years ago, the franchise is clearly still loved and played by millions.
The game’s most recent expansion, Battle for Azeroth, sold 3.4 million copies on its first day, which Blizzard claims makes it the fastest-selling World of Warcraft expansion of all time. The game’s most recent cinematic trailer for the upcoming Shadowlands expansion already has more than 5 million views on YouTube in just a few weeks after its release. And when Blizzard released World of Warcraft Classic servers in August, allowing players to travel back in time to what the game was like during the vanilla era, WoW fans watched a combined 55 million hours of Classic live streams on Twitch within the first seven days, and at one point topped more than one million concurrent viewers to set a new Twitch record.
While it’s true that World of Warcraft is showing its age in some ways, Dawson says he and the rest of the team at Blizzard are constantly looking for new ways to modernize the game and keep up with the times.
Dawson’s first real experience adding a major new feature to the game, or at least the one he is most proud of, is when he was tapped to work alongside WoW designer and current Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan on the game’s achievement system. Dawson, who has a jaw-dropping 29,730 achievement points himself, says the system was originally going to be much more barebones before he and Kaplan stepped in.
“The original vision for that was very small. It was going to be like 10 achievements and it was going to be like really basic stuff that tracks through hard coding.”
Dawson explains that he and Kaplan had a “much bigger vision for what it could be,” though: “That was a big engineering challenge. I worked with our database engineers and other programmers to come up with ideas and brainstorm ways we could make a flexible system. We worked hard for weeks to try and make the thousands of achievements the game shipped with rather than 10.”
Dawson added that Kaplan was so grateful for his help with the project that he essentially made a special achievement just for him.
“He asked at one point, is there any achievement I wanted to see in the game? And I was like, ‘Well, I’m kind of a collector and I do all these [reputations],’ and a lot of these, if you ever played [vanilla], there was no reason for a mage to get Thorium Brotherhood rep or Shen’dralar rep. And [Jeff] was like, ‘That is insane and ‘that’s what I’m going to call it,” Dawson says. “So he made this Feat of Strength called ‘the Insane’ and that achievement was for me in many ways. I wasn’t the first person to get it, but I wear that title with pride knowing the origin of that story and how personal it was for me.”
Dawson says every expansion brings another opportunity to shake things up and keep the game interesting, although, just like with the development of the achievement system, this often involves a lot of testing and hard work.
“A lot of it is experimentation, followed by evaluating what went right, what went wrong.”
He pointed to today’s Mythic Plus dungeon system as the natural progression of something Blizzard has been playing around with for years. Blizzard started creating more difficult five-man content with heroic dungeons in The Burning Crusade and then introduced the concept of speed runs with Challenge Modes in Mists of Pandaria.
“There was definitely room to grow and improve so when we got to Legion, we were able to iterate on the system a little bit more and we went to something called Mythic Plus, which has turned out to be a fantastic hit.”
Dawson says developing new content like this on top of old legacy content can be complicated at times, but it also provides the team a chance to update old content for today’s sensibilities.
“We’ve had to go back and do level-scaling in Legion, the stat squish in other expansions, and now we’re doing the re-sequencing of the levels down to 60 [in Shadowlands]. We’re going back over all of the 15 years of content for our games and making it all scalable so that we are effectively future-proofing any content from that era if we need to go back and modify it again.”
So where will World of Warcraft be in another 15 years? That’s difficult for anyone to predict, but Dawson is confident that the game will still be alive and kicking far into the future.
“It’s something I know we will all continue to play and enjoy up through 2034 and beyond. It’s just a matter of what cool stuff is going to happen between now and then.”
As for Staats, the man who was the first to make that 20-year prediction, he says Blizzard’s decision to simplify Everquest‘s systems while making World of Warcraft is something that is going to cement the game’s legacy in the industry for a long time to come.
“I think it really showed the elegance of simplicity. Just the beauty of simplifying the experience for the first-time user. That really wasn’t one of the goals for a development team in 2000 before World of Warcraft. That’s how WoW has influenced the industry, the beauty of simplifying.”
Jason M. Gallagher is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.
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