World Of Warcraft Turns 5: How Blizzard Built A Nation

World of Warcraft was launched five years ago today, and Kotaku is celebrating all week long, starting with a look at the Warcraft franchise’s fifteen-year history with key members of Blizzard’s development team.

World of Warcaft is important. The developers tell Kotaku they even dared to dream that they’d some day get a million subscribers. But to tell the story of the fifth anniversary of WoW, we first have to look at the game that started 15 years ago, Warcraft.

It All Started On Arrakis

In 1992, Westwood Studios released a game that changed the way real-time strategy games were made. It was Dune II, the first RTS to incorporate mouse movement, resource gathering, technology trees, and unique weapons and units per faction, all elements that are still being used in RTS games today.

The game caught the eyes and imaginations of several members of Silicon & Synapse, a game development studio that had mainly focused on porting games from other studios. After a brief stint as Chaos Games the studio took on the name Blizzard Entertainment in 1994.

As Blizzard art director Sam “Samwise” Didier explains it, the team’s fascination with Dune II led directly to the development of its first blockbuster hit, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans.

“Back in the Jurassic period we all loved playing games like Dune II. We got inspired and thought this game was awesome and wanted to make something like it. We were all big fans of Dungeons and Dragons and Tolkien, and we wanted to make a fantasy world real-time strategy game.”

Taking cues from existing titles was the norm for Blizzard in the early days. Samwise points to another early Blizzard title, The Lost Vikings, which was born out of the team’s love for PC puzzle game Lemmings from DMA Design, the studio that would go on to become Rockstar North of Grand Theft Auto fame.

So Blizzard took the formula established in Dune II and expanded upon it in Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, adding goals beyond simply building your army and decimating your enemies. Players found themselves rescuing friendly forces from enemy camps, assassinating key members of the opposition, and rebuilding ruined towns. It was also the first RTS game to feature hand-to-hand combat and magic.

One more important innovation was borrowed from a decidedly different sort of game – Doom. Inspired by the fun of playing Doom together, Blizzard added the ability to play multiplayer battles via modem and local area network to Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, a feature that would become a key feature of the RTS genre.

Expanding The Story

While Orcs & Humans laid the groundwork for games to come, it was relatively light on story. Blizzard rectified that oversight with the game’s 1995 sequel, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, elevating Azeroth from game setting to fully realised fictional world.

The game saw the Orcs and Humans gather allies in the Trolls, Goblins, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Gnomes, laying the foundations for the Alliance and the Horde as we know them today. The game and it’s expansion pack, Beyond the Dark Portal, introduced characters and locations that would play a large part in the games to come.

Tides of Darkness also expanded on the multiplayer of the original game. In 1999, Blizzard released both the game and its expansion as Warcraft II: Battle.net Edition, allowing players to engage in multiplayer matches over the internet using the Battle.net service introduced with 1997′s Diablo.

Class Clowns And Failed Comedians

Along with solidifying the world of Azeroth and strengthening the foundation for the fiction that would grow with each new game in the franchise, Warcraft II also established another signature feature of the series: its sense of humor.

“We had lots of class clowns and failed comedians on the team,” explains Didier. “We never really took it too seriously. We wanted really cool characters and events while making fun classic fantasy stereotypes. We included anything we thought was cool, serious or humorous.”

For instance, clicking on a unit once in Warcraft II elicits a normal verbal response. Click repeatedly on a unit for no reason and they become annoyed, spouting humorous phrases like “are you still touching me?” Samwise cites this feature as a prime example of adding humor to a game without alienating those craving a serious experience. “Only the people who wanted the comedy had to deal with it.”

The Lost Chapter

As Warcraft was inspired by Dune II, Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans was inspired by classic LucasArts adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island. Development on this adventure game began soon after the completion of Warcraft II. Using a combination of cartoons and point and click adventure gameplay it would tell the story of the Orcs trapped in Azeroth following the destruction of the Dark Portal, and the rise of the famed Orc warchief Thrall, Sadly, the game never saw the light of day.

In a move that Blizzard would later repeat with StarCraft side-story Ghost, the company canceled the game days before the 1998 E3 Expo in Atlanta, despite the game being mostly complete. The animation was finished, the puzzles in place, and even the voice over work had been fully recorded, but Blizzard felt the game wasn’t up to their high standards.

In an announcement issued on the 22nd of May, 2008, Blizzard explained the cancellation to fans. “The decision centered around the level of value that we want to give our customers. In essence, it was a case of stepping up and really proving to ourselves and gamers that we will not sell out on the quality of our games.”

When asked if there was ever a chance of Adventures being released, Samwise was skeptical. “We’re not taking the old one and finishing it. It wasn’t up to par and we’d have to polish the hell out of it. DVDs are really popular because of deleted scenes, but when you watch them you can see why they weren’t included in the movie. That’s what Warcraft Adventures is.”

Still, Blizzard felt the story of Thrall too important to gloss over, commissioning Star Trek novelist Christie Golden to write Warcraft: Lord of the Clans, a novel that bridges the gap between Warcraft II and the next game in the series, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos.

Further Evolution

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, released in 2002, delved deeper into the lore of the series than ever before. It chronicles the rise and fall of Arthas Menethil, the prince who would become the Lich King; introduces the Night Elves and the Undead; and introduces the Burning Legion, the demonic scourge of the Warcraft universe.

Deviating from previous entries in the series, Warcraft III and its expansion, The Frozen Throne, integrates storytelling into the gameplay itself, rather than feeding the player through mission briefings. This allowed for a more seamless and immersive game, further cementing Blizzard’s reputation as top-notch storytellers.

Warcraft III, like Warcraft II, included a World Editor program, allowing players to craft their own scenarios and maps, and players took full advantage of the feature, creating their own game types. One such custom game, defence of the Ancients, gave rise to a new sub-genre of RTS, in which players control a single champion that gains levels and abilities as it battles alongside computer-controlled units. defence of the Ancients-inspired games like Gas Powered Games’ Demigod and the recently released League of Legends from Riot Games serve as a lasting reminder to the legacy of Warcraft III.

Welcome To Our World

In early 2000, Blizzard’s development team found themselves fascinated by another type of game.

“Everyone here had been playing a bunch of Everquest and Ultima Online,” says Samwise Didier. “It goes all the way back to the whole Lost Vikings/Lemmings thing. It was a genre we enjoyed, and Warcraft was a good fit.”

Blizzard announced World of Warcraft, the massively multiplayer take on the Warcraft universe in 2001, and for three years fans eagerly awaited their chance to take their first steps into the world of Azeroth, unfettered by the rules of the real-time strategy genre.

The game would pick up the story four years after the events of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, with the world split into two major factions – the Alliance and the Horde. Players would experience the battle for Azeroth from an entirely new, more personal point-of-view.

As the 2004 release approached, Blizzard was aware it had something special on its hands, though some members of the development team had more faith than others. World of Warcraft production director J. Allen Brack relates a particularly amusing story about a pep talk given by Blizzard co-founder and lead designer Allen Adham.

“Allen Adham got everyone on the team in a room to talk about how great his confidence was in the game, and how he thought we had something great. He said, ‘One day this game will have a million subscribers.’ No one believed that. We thought it was crazy. We thought, ‘You’re a liar.’ There was no way that any game would have a million subscribers.”

World of Warcraft launched in North America on November 23, 2004. Fan reaction to the release was so massive that the game was plagued with downtime and server queues for the first week, as Blizzard opened new worlds to deal with the exploding population. By December 2005, the game had 3.5 million subscribers. By December of 2008, that number had jumped to 11.5 million.

How does a PC game attract 11.5 million players? World of Warcraft game director Tom Chilton says the game has something for everyone.

“It’s easy to learn, but hard to master, which attracts different sorts of gamers. The hard to master part keeps the hardcore players around, while the casual players enjoy the wide variety of things to do,” Chilton explains. “Ultimately it’s just a really good game.”

Massively Mainstream Appeal

The success that World of Warcraft has achieved over the past five years is nothing short of astounding. It was the best-selling PC game of 2005 and 2006 according to NPD data, knocked from the top spot in 2007 by its own expansion, The Burning Crusade. In 2008 the game’s second expansion, The Frozen Throne, took the top spot.

The success of the game goes far beyond sales numbers. World of Warcraft has become a pop culture phenomenon. It’s been used to advertise products like Coke and Toyota, while its own advertisements have feature pop culture icons such as Mr. T and William Shatner. A 2007 episode of Comedy Central’s cartoon South Park, “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” won the 2007 Creative Arts Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program.

Like Super Mario Bros. or Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft is a game that has gained recognition far beyond its already expansive audience. For a fantasy game that is strictly PC-based, that’s no mean feat.

The Future

So where will the World of Warcraft be in another five years? Tom Chilton delivers a blissfully blurry outlook for the world’s most popular subscription-based MMO.

“One of the cool things is: who knows where it will go next? The world itself is filled with so many possibilities. We’ve got outer space demons. We’re about to add little green guys and werewolves (in the upcoming Cataclysm expansion). There are so many different directions you can go in. Magic, guns, machines – anything we want to come up with we can fit into the World of Warcraft with no problem.”

And the continuing success of World of Warcraft doesn’t preclude the possibility of a Warcraft IV. Just don’t expect it any time soon, with teams tied up with Diablo III and StarCraft II.

Real-time strategy or massively multiplayer, the Warcraft universe continues to make its mark on the world, with each new game and expansion adding layer upon layer to a tale that J. Allen Brack believes could go on forever.

“We’ve got quite a bit to do before we run out of ideas. New people are constantly joining the team, bringing their own ideas with them. The full story will never truly be written.”

Check back all week for more stories related to World of Warcraft’s fifth anniversary.