Alex Afrasiabi, lead world designer of World of Warcraft, remembers a betting pool forming at Blizzard in the months leading up to the legendary MMO’s launch in 2004. The bulk of the office seemed confident they could reach around 350,000 subscribers, while others thought they’d be ‘lucky’ to reach 500,000. “Someone had said something like 700,000 and I think everyone laughed that guy out of the office,” Afrasiabi says. “They were like, ‘You’re crazy! That’ll never happen!’ We had no idea.”
Afrasiabi, perhaps best known to WoW’s millions as Furor, won’t reveal the name of the optimistic developer, but it’s a safe bet to assume he had the last laugh. Subscriber numbers reached a peak of 12 million upon the Chinese launch of 2010’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion, and they’ve chugged along at a healthy number despite a much-publicised dip in the years afterward. After ten years of existence, World of Warcraft has achieved a level of cultural prominence that few games can even hope to reach, and its outlook seems healthy for the decade ahead. And now, on the eve of its fifth expansion, its developers are taking the time to reflect on where they’ve been and where we’re going.
It’s impossible to talk about early World of Warcraft without talking about EverQuest. Sony Online Entertainment’s 1999 game showed there was promise in the genre, and that it could lure in people by the thousands if handled properly. Indeed, a number of the early World of Warcraft team suffered from addictions to ‘EverCrack’.
Whenever we’ve tried to shift the audience, it’s been a mistake.”
Tom Chilton, World of Warcraft game designer, recalls that the eventual WoW team was originally assigned to a post-apocalyptic squadbased game called Nomad, but they always struggled to “find the fun.” “A lot of people on the team at the time were playing Ultima Online and EverQuest, and we were actually more interested in doing that,” he says. “And so we said we think we could do a better job of that than what we’re doing right now.”
And so Nomad died, and World of Warcraft began took its baby steps into development. No one among the 65-odd people involved with the project had worked on an MMO before, and they struggled to fill in the blanks left by EverQuest in an effort to design a game that everyone would want to play. To Afrasiabi, every one of those first steps felt like blazing a trail.
EverQuest really didn’t have quests despite its name, he recalls, aside from some hidden objectives that “you had to put a lot of effort into for very little reward.” In World of Warcraft, however, quests became, in Afrasiabi’s words “the main driving force of getting players around in the continents.” That was but one of the many changes to come.
“I remember the first time I saw anything from WoW, Jeff Kaplan was showing me around the office before the closed alpha, and he was showing me a priest doing mind control,” says Afrasiabi. “Now we go, ‘Yeah, of course they do that.’ But back then, that was unheard of. That blew my mind, and that kind of opened up the floodgates as to what we could do with the class system.’”
At the heart of World of Warcraft’s early design lay a classically Blizzard imperative to let other people join in on the fun. Afrasiabi remembers the nights when team members would stay up all night raiding in EverQuest, and they wanted other people to be able to enjoy what they were experiencing without the weight of that game’s ultra-hardcore mentality. “And that leads to the core of what WoW is, right? An accessible fantasy RPG game that you can play with your friends, family, strangers—you name it.”
It’s an idea that people latched onto quickly; even the popularity of the open beta stunned Blizzard. On its first day, Blizzard sold 240,000 copies, more than any other PC game in the US until then, and The Burning Crusade’s 2.4 million copies sold in one day shattered that record. For most of its early history, World of Warcraft’s subscription numbers continued to climb to nearunimaginable heights, and prognostications of doom and gloom immediately followed in 2010 when those numbers started falling for the first time. But according to Brian Holinka, World of Warcraft’s senior PvP designer, who first came to Blizzard a little over a year ago, Blizzard doesn’t worry about such numbers as much as the world outside seems to think.
“On a daily basis, nobody’s really spending a lot of time paying attention to subscriber numbers,” is what Holinka tells me. “We’re trying to make the best game all the time, and I know that sounds like total PR cliché, but I’ve never been confronted with a design decision where somebody was like, ‘Yeah, we did that, and everyone stopped subscribing.’”
The company does worry about the what the community has to say however, although the suggestions from that community haven’t always been as helpful as it would like.
“Whenever we’ve tried to shift the audience or a particular type of content, it’s been a mistake,” says Ion Hazzikostas, World of Warcraft’s lead encounter designer. He particularly remembers the latter months of Wrath of the Lich King, when he and other members of the team started paying special attention to complaints that the dungeons and raids had become too easy. And so after asking themselves if that was true, they brought back a heavy emphasis on crowd control spells and abilities in dungeons and raids for the first few months of the Cataclysm expansion. Hazzikostas didn’t call it such, but he clearly thinks the decision was something of a disaster. “Some players embraced it and loved the difficulty,” he says, “but it also alienated many players who were accustomed to being able to succeed in a more casual environment.” He and the team took it as a learning experience.
“We’ve found that the better way to go is to broaden the approach rather than shifting it—to make our umbrella larger so we can accommodate other playstyles,” he says. World of Warcraft partially accomplishes that through its multiple difficulty modes in raiding environments, which allow casual players to fight most of the bosses in simplified form or hardcore players to fight under conditions unheard of in the simpler raids of WoW’s early days. That’s been the case for a while, but Warlords of Draenor will go so far as to allow players to make flexible raids consisting of 10 to 25 players with content that automatically scales according to the number of players involved.
“We want to let those who want to experience the content, experience the content; it’s important that you get to see the ending of the story,” Hazzikostas tells me. “So ultimately I think we’re just trying to allow as many people to experience the content in the way they want to experience it. And even if that means a little more work for us, it’s worth it.”
That story is important, likely more so than it is for other MMOs. Part of the flagging interest in World of Warcraft circa 2010 might have originated in the death of the Lich King, a beloved tragic figure whose story had been the driving force behind Blizzard’s immensely successful Warcraft III strategy game. The memorable stories behind Warcraft III had helped lure in much of World of Warcraft’s early audience—myself included—and with the Lich King’s death, some players worried that there were few fights in the Warcraft universe to look forward to.
Blizzard had other strategy games in the series, of course, and it turned to the dragon Deathwing last known from Warcraft II for its Cataclysm expansion. But Deathwing just didn’t have the drawing power of the Lich King, whom players had seen transformed from the optimistic, hopeful Prince Arthas Menethil into an evil warlord. It was a very personal story.
Deathwing was so much larger than life that you didn’t really see him or interact with him.
“Part of the issue with the relatability of the Cataclysm villain was that Deathwing was so much larger than life that you didn’t really see him or interact with him or have a sense of him,” says Hazzikostas. “He was literally the size of a city. You fought on his back when you finally encountered him.”
For the 2012 expansion, Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard took the story in directions unexplored by the strategy games of yesteryear. The new star of the show was the son of Warcraft III’s central characters, but his narrative takes place entirely within the context of World of Warcraft. He was discovered in The Burning Crusade expansion, led the Warsong Offensive in Wrath of the Lich King, became the Horde’s new warchief in Cataclysm, was a massive jerk in Mists of Pandaria, and now he’s at the centre of the time-travelling antics in the upcoming Warlords of Draenor expansion. Within the game itself, World of Warcraft found that personal focus once again.
SIX FAMOUS ITEMS FROM WOW’S PAST
The axe of Grom Hellscream of Warcraft III fame. It’s kind of weak despite its importance. Looks cool, though.
An homage to the beloved Arcanite Reaper of early WoW, it transforms you into an Undead who wields it as a guitar.
It talks, it steals from your foes, and it turns friendly factions against you. Puts legendaries to shame.
An early tanking weapon nonpareil, it needed to be forged in dragonfire. Onyxia’s dragonfire, specifically.
Renowned for its uselessness but cool looks, and famed among all early WoW raiders as ‘Vendorstrike’.
The Stoppable Force
Blizzard humour at work. This weak, common-level weapon complements its awesome, ‘unstoppable’ counterpart.
“I think we’re happy to be able to rest on the very strong foundation of the strategy games,” says Hazzikostas, “but at this point, the story of Warcraft is the story of World of Warcraft, and it continues to be told with every new patch and every expansion.”
Some players worry that World of Warcraft is rapidly running out of settings for new expansions, and the return to the orcish homeworld of Draenor (altered by time though it may be) does little to quell these fears. But Chilton believes these concerns have little foundation. He tell me that huge sections of the established World of Warcraft lore remain unexplored: settings such as the Emerald Dream associated with the Night Elves; the world of Argus, where the Burning Legion started; even the “big ogre continent on Draenor where the ogres originally come from.”
“People have been eating Tel’abim bananas in World of Warcraft for a long time,” he says, laughing, “but they’ve never been to Tel’abim.”
After a decade of watching World of Warcraft build up so many features and content, Chilton is just as occupied with taking things out of the world. “I think the game can only support so much complexity at any given time,” he tells me. “Even while some features were cool and interesting, we have to find ways to phase features out to make room for new features.”
The most recent example of this ‘phasing out’ was the removal of flying mounts for Warlords of Draenor, as the team had come to believe that they removed too much of the fun of exploration.
“In some ways,” Chilton says, “I wish we had kept some features bound to the expansions they lived in to make room for more innovation without players feeling like we were taking something away.” He points to the Archaeology profession introduced in Cataclysm as an example; he wishes they’d removed it in time for Mists of Pandaria. It’s a practice he intends to follow in the future. The garrisons introduced in the upcoming Warlords of Draenor expansion, for instance, won’t carry over to whatever comes next.
And what does come next? The future presents its own challenges, and Chilton in particular is well aware that World of Warcraft owes part of its success to timing. In 2004, he notes, the very idea of getting online and playing with a bunch of people still seemed like the stuff of science fiction. There was a magic about it that’s since been lost in this world of constant Facebook and Twitter connectivity.
“I remember getting on Ventrilo for the first time with my guild in like December 2004 to do a Blackrock Depths run, and it blew my mind to hear this guy with this deep Texan accent,” he says. “Some guy was playing from Europe, there were two college kids from the northeast, and we’re all sitting there, running a dungeon, and we’re all starting to talk. That was the first time I’d ever experienced anything like that in my life as a gamer, and I think World of Warcraft was that for so many other people as well.” Today, he says, “that’s just how computers work; that’s just how the world works.”
In the meantime, World of Warcraft’s original fan base has got old. “I think the players who have been with us for ten years have certainly changed,” Hazzikostas says. “I mean, my guildmates as a player were mostly college students when World of Warcraft first came out, and now they have families and careers and a ton of things pulling them in different directions.”
The challenge World of Warcraft faces in the future, he says, is to attract high school and college students finding the game for the first time and allowing flexible playtimes for all types of players.
Many members of the new generation are used to what Hazzikostas calls “high tutorialisation,” and as such, he’s worked on improving the starting experiences to attract new players. This carries over into all aspects of the game’s design. He’s particularly proud of the tutorial system for Warlords of Draenor, which neatly explains such core massively multiplayer essentials as clicking on an NPC, looting a corpse, and similar activities.
Players who have been with us for ten years have certainly changed.
“We have to strike a balance between staying true to what we are while still continuing to innovate,” says Chilton. The key to that balance lies in evolving. “Otherwise you lose your existing audience,” he says. “At the same time, you can’t evolve so quickly and drastically that you also lose your existing audience.”
But Blizzard is keeping pace with the times, he notes, and the team’s already started work on the next expansion. Afrasiabi claims he already knows how it will all end, but like Chilton, he believes there’s a least ten more years of content to worry about before they reach that point. And it’s a journey they all look forward to.
“I’m sure we’ll get somewhere great in the next ten years,” says Chilton, “but we’ll get there one step at a time.”