In part one of our exclusive look at how the biggest game in the world was made, key Blizzard developers took us through development from the earliest concepts to the game's launch. In the second and final part this week, we look at how Blizzard reacted to its unexpected success, and how it's changed in the years since.
Before the launch of World of Warcraft one of the game's lead designers, Tom Chilton, estimated that it might sell 750,000 copies - possibly even a million if the team really struck gold. "I don't remember a specific moment when it really hit me," he says now, "but I'd say that within the first six months or so, we realised that this was really going to blow away all of those expectations." It now counts over 11 million subscribed players.
Veterans of the first six months of World of Warcraft know just how badly the company that made it, Blizzard, underestimated the audience for the game. Servers filled to capacity, with immense queues forming as gamers tried to get online to play their characters. Blizzard struggled to get new servers online, but supply couldn't keep up with demand - each new realm that appeared filled up straight away.
"We were surprised by the number of people that jumped in and wanted to play, certainly in those early months, that first year," recalls Blizzard's vice president of creative development, Chris Metzen. "There were a whole bunch of hard lessons to learn."
"It stressed us operationally," admits Chilton. "We didn't plan for that kind of success in terms of our server infrastructure or our data hosting, all that kind of stuff. It really stressed us, and it freaked us out a bit: 'Oh my God, is our game going to collapse under the weight of the number of people trying to play?'"
Meanwhile, the creative team had to try to distance themselves from the operational problems and focus their minds on the updates which players were already demanding. The breakneck pace of the last 12 months of development barely faltered when the game launched, as the team's energies had to be refocused on patches, new dungeons and, crucially, the player-versus-player features they had longed, but failed, to implement for the game at launch.
Chilton, a veteran of Ultima Online, knew that WOW's rudimentary PvP wouldn't cut it for very long. As he'd expected, players learned to make their own fun - largely in the form of giant battles which raged between the towns of Southshore and Tarren Mill, turning the Hillsbrad Foothills zone into a no-go area on PvP servers - but his plan for PvP would move it from open-world events to instanced Battlegrounds, in line with the team's vision for "Battlefield 1942 meets Warcraft III" combat.
The decision to launch Battlegrounds which were separated from the game world was controversial - but Chilton is adamant that it was right. "Instanced battlegrounds have provided a much better experience for players than non-instancing would have," he insists. "Having come from working on Ultima Online, which was entirely non-instanced, having experienced what can be compelling about non-instanced PvP there - that also taught me a lot of the problems that go along with it.
"There is what I would call a fantasy of world PvP - raging world battles that are meaningful, players taking control of stuff and so on," he says. "What I have found over the years is that that fantasy is really cool from a very high-level perspective, when you're looking at the game from a god point of view. But actually making that fantasy work, making that fantasy play out in a way that each individual person feels like it was satisfying... That's not something that anybody has solved yet. It wasn't something that we thought that we were going to be able to solve.
"We felt like instancing was the only way to make sure that the fights were fair, because what happens in that fantasy of world PvP is that the fights are never fair. Ultimately, that ends up breaking the experience for PvP in general."
As the game was launched around the world and its audience continued to grow, and as the PvP and raiding endgame continued to take shape, Blizzard started looking to the next giant challenge. An expansion pack was inevitable - but first, there was to be a major change at the top of the WoW team.
Most of the key people on the game were long-time Blizzard staffers, and new blood was being sought to bring a new perspective. That led to the hiring of J. Allen Brack, who is now production director on the game. An MMO veteran, he had been working on Star Wars Galaxies for several years before jumping ship to Blizzard - where he was dropped in at the deep end as the team geared up production on what would be one of its best-loved updates, the stunning level 60 raid dungeon, Naxxramas.
Naxx, as players would quickly dub the dungeon, was the last major content update to the original World of Warcraft. For Brack, it would be a rapid baptism in Blizzard's development philosophy, as he observed the team's comprehensive post-mortem of its previous major content launch - the raid dungeons of Ahn'Qiraj - and its handling of feedback from the player community.
But as the game's audience stretched into the millions, picking through the sheer volume of feedback became difficult. "It's an imperfect process, definitely," Brack admits. "We have a lot of different types of inputs - our community team and what they find on the boards, our customer service team, our cadre of friends who play the game, or players we know well...
"I think the team is actually very good at taking those inputs - hundreds of thousands of them, literally - and coming up with changes to make, things to do and not to do. Could we do a better job? Absolutely - but I think this is something the team is actually very good at."
Chilton, for his part, isn't intimidated by the large community. "If you're trying to use the forums as a good source of ideas, then sure, it's harder to have that big community because you're looking for a very small signal in a lot of noise. But if you're looking for the noise, then it helps, because the the noise for certain topics is so clear and so obvious - you know that this is what people really care about, this is what they're really upset about right now."
The content update cycle for the original World of Warcraft ended with Naxxramas. The team's focus now moved to new territory - the launch of WOW's first expansion pack, The Burning Crusade. The scale of the expansion would dwarf previous updates to the game, providing an entire new continent for players to explore.
"Really, the main thought was just that we definitely wanted to add ten more levels of content," explains Brack. "WOW is a content game, so we were trying to think of the types of content that players want to experience, whether they know that they want to experience it or not."
For Chris Metzen, the expansion represented an opportunity to push the creative boundaries of what World of Warcraft was. In creating a whole new continent - in WOW's mythology, actually the shattered remains of a different planet - the team would be able to create something radically different.
"Burning Crusade was a strong removal from the tones and values of Old World Azeroth," Metzen says. "You had broken, burning, alien landscapes, primordial fungal swampland and giant crystal spaceships - these were definitely far out, comparatively.
"If you had never played [Warcraft II expansion] Beyond the Dark Portal all those years ago, if you knew nothing about those concepts, it was pretty funky, right? Even internally, we went round and round on whether this was the right idea, whether it was too far away from what our players would expect. Just how far can you push away from people's expectations - both our own and those of the players - before you have alienated them?"
In order to keep players involved, improving WOW's storytelling was especially important, says Brack. "Giving players the idea of an overarching story... of these villains and the reason why you're doing this stuff - that's much more present in Burning Crusade than it is in the original game."
It wasn't just the setting that was off the wall. One of Brack's favourite innovations in Burning Crusade was the invention of bombing run quests, which send the player on flying sorties over enemy territory. "That just started out as a crazy idea," he recalls. "Some guys made this bombing run, and I saw that and just felt, holy crap, this is amazing. It's the first time that you get to kill hundreds of units all by yourself - you feel very powerful. It's an awesome, epic moment."
Tom Chilton, too, viewed the expansion as an opportunity to make radical changes - changes he'd debated for a long time, as some of the flaws inherent in WOW's Battlegrounds and PvP honour system became apparent to him.
"The honour system was one of those things where I think we made a mistake in our original philosophies," he admits. "Both Rob [Pardo, Blizzard's design chief] and I had pretty strong feelings that we didn't want just a grind-based system, a system that was based entirely on time investment. We wanted to be able to rank PvPers based on success."
It didn't work, because the team didn't want to punish players for being "ganked" - dispatched by far more powerful opponents. Just as WOW doesn't subtract experience when you die, it doesn't subtract honour when you are killed by another player, because the game has no way of knowing if it was a fair fight. As a result, Chilton acknowledges, "it turned into a competitive grind, meaning that time investment still mattered the most. On a weekly basis, it was a question of how much more time you could put in than the other person.
"We ended up realising that, OK, we really need to separate the competitive system from the grind system - we can't try to jam those into the same system. That's how the Arena system evolved, with the chess-style rating system where we really control the scenario. We were able to use that as the measurement of skill in PvP, while we could use Battlegrounds as the fun activity that you could grind out points in and get stuff."
The launch of the Burning Crusade on January 16th, 2007, confirmed just how insanely popular World of Warcraft had become. Over 2.4 million copies were sold in the first 24 hours after its launch, stretching to over 3.5 million within the first month in Europe, North America and Australasia alone. At the time, it was the fastest-selling computer game ever - a record it would hold for almost two years.
Nonetheless, the same in-depth post-mortem process which Brack had witnessed in operation on Ahn'Qiraj and Naxxramas was brought to bear on The Burning Crusade, and the team found plenty of room for improvement. Some of the things they learned would have an impact on the next expansion pack. Others, however, caused more urgent problems.
One of those things was the immense and almost immediate success of Karazhan, a ten-player dungeon which was launched as part of The Burning Crusade. The team had debated hotly the decision to drop the raid size from 40 to 25 in the expansion, with this smaller dungeon a mere afterthought. As it turned out, the sweet spot for many players was neither 40 nor 25 - it was ten.
"We were very surprised by the success of Karazhan," admits Brack. "It's probably one of the most popular pieces of content, just in terms of number of players that have experienced it, that we've ever done."
That success upset the team's plans to push ahead with 25-man raids, in the form of the massive Black Temple, but it was too late to change course. "We made a mistake in releasing Black Temple when we did," says Brack. "If we could wave the magic wand and go back, we would have released ten-man Zul'Aman, and then Black Temple afterwards."
There were problems brewing, too, for Chilton's PvP systems. While players had embraced the Arena combat, enjoying its highly skill-based nature, there was discontent over what were termed "Welfare Epics" - high-level gear which, as far as many players were concerned, was being handed out like candy to PvP players without having to put in the kind of effort that raiding players needed.
"The path of least resistance for the player base was that PvP allowed you to get gear easier than PvE," Brack admits. "In the Burning Crusade days, the PvE stuff was very hard on the 25-man content side. It took a lot of coordination and a lot of effort, and it felt like, on the PvP side, it didn't quite have the same level of commitment, the same level of expense, of time, of everything that you needed to have."
"The idea of having ten-person raids and 25-person raids in Lich King stemmed directly from the popularity of Karazhan and the realisation that people really liked ten-man content," says Brack. Simultaneously with the updates to The Burning Crusade, Blizzard had started work on the second expansion Wrath of the Lich King, which would return the action to Azeroth and bring back Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne's major villain, Arthas, the Lich King.
"A lot of people's comments were, I never got to see Illidan! I never got to do that content - he's the big boss, he's in the intro of Burning Crusade, but only the very highest-end guys could ever really get to see him," says Brack. "We thought, OK, what if we make two versions of the same thing and give more players that opportunity?"
Meanwhile, new technology created for Wrath of the Lich King would give Chris Metzen and his creative team new tools for storytelling. At last, the static world which had given him so many creative headaches before the launch of the original game was going to become a little bit less static.
"We developed technologies that allow us to push the envelope a little bit: the phasing technology," Metzen says. Phasing, which allows players to move seamlessly and in large numbers between world-states, was exemplified by the spectacular starting quests for Lich King's new character class, the Death Knight.
"If you play through the Death Knight experience, we make great use of phasing in terms of concluding certain chapters of the story. The world begins to change and the plot can really change on a dime with phasing. It frees us up to construct less of a static world," Metzen says. "If you play through the old-world quests, and then you play something like Wrath of the Lich King, I think it's so much more rewarding and satisfying - from a fictional standpoint, from a game design standpoint. You can definitely see us learning on the job."
It's not just quality but quantity which has increased. "WOW at release had about 2000 quests," reveals Brack. "Burning Crusade had 5500 quests. Wrath of the Lich King has, I think, around 8000 quests - and those are on just ten levels, versus the first 60 levels in the original game."
Another facet of storytelling which Blizzard has learned on the job is how to handle its villains. From hiding Illidan away in a deep dungeon in The Burning Crusade, the team moved into Lich King with the intention of making Arthas much more of an out-and-about, man-of-the-people kind of bad guy.
"The big villain needed to be much more accessible," confirms Brack. "You can see a lot of those changes in how we handle Arthas in low-level quests - and there's an entire chain of quests in Icecrown that players can do at level 77 where you actually get to control Arthas, to live through his story.
"There's the Culling of Stratholme where you actually fight beside Arthas, before he becomes the Lich King. You see his moment of decision, the moment he decides to start down the dark path. Those kind of things help people to understand why they're here, what it's about, what they need to be doing. This is why I'm conquering Northrend. This is why I'm levelling up - beyond just wanting better gear and achieving the next level."
Not everything that went into Wrath was brand new, however. One important decision harked right back to the beginning of Brack's tenure at Blizzard. Naxx was back.
"It was one of the most popular dungeons that we've ever made," says Brack of the floating necropolis. "The encounters were awesome, really well done and well tuned, and the players loved it - but so many players didn't get to experience it. Getting that out in front of more players, having more players experience it and being able to have other players have that same kind of shared experience... that's really compelling from both a game developer and a game player standpoint."
Tweaked and updated, and now divided into both 10-man and 25-man versions, Naxxramas was to be the first raid dungeon players would encounter in Wrath of the Lich King. Despite being based on an existing dungeon, Brack confirms that "many, many work-weeks of effort" were involved in getting it up and running - a time commitment which makes the team wary of player petitions to update other old favourites, such as Molten Core, to "Heroic" level 80 versions.
Other ideas in Wrath were the culmination of many years of effort and experimentation - most notably the variable difficulty level of the Obsidian Sanctum raid, where players can decide how difficult they want the encounter to be by killing or ignoring any of three drakes during the battle with the dragon Sartharion.
"The three drakes that we did with the Obsidian Sanctum is something that we've wanted to do for literally years," reveals Brack. "We've wanted to have an encounter that you could beat in different ways, and depending on if you beat it the easy way or the hard way, you would get better loot. We tried once with the Twin Emperors in Ahn'Qiraj, but that didn't really accomplish the objective. We tried again again with the Twins in Sunwell - we learned a lot from that, but Obsidian Sanctum was the time when we really feel like we nailed not only the difficulty, but the reward versus the effort."
Wrath of the Lich King launched in November 2008, and to nobody's great surprise, it became the world's best selling computer game - shifting 2.8 million copies in 24 hours and overthrowing the record set two years previously by The Burning Crusade.
Today, the Blizzard team is working on content updates for Wrath of the Lich King, but is undoubtedly also plotting its next expansion behind closed doors. Five years down the line, you have to wonder if deja vu is setting in - but the team's enthusiasm for creating more WOW seems not to have dimmed.
"Every time out, we want to outdo ourselves," says Metzen. "We're certainly aware of the competition, the amazing games that have popped since WOW came out - just stunning vistas, stunning world visions - and certainly we want to be competitive. We want to provide a vision for our fans that is as good as anything else out there, but really, we have always been our own worst critics.
"As a group of artists and designers, we always want to outdo ourselves, and really stretch ourselves, get outside of our comfort zones and really push this thing, maybe by inches, into new territory."
Art director Sam Didier chips in. "Warcraft is really fun to create art for because anything goes," he says. "We now have motorcycles in World of Warcraft! We have giant guys running around on mammoths next to guys that are on gyrocopters next to guys who are on transparent nether-drakes..."
"With giant crystal spaceships from other planets crashing down," Metzen interjects.
"I don't know that we ever decided to do this, specifically, but what has happened over time is that WOW has become the kind of fictional exercise that can substantiate almost any whim," he continues. "We want to go and chase crazy Cthulu mythology or Egyptian art sets, we can do that. It'll handle it. Like Sam said, if we want to chase gyrocopters and motorbikes and steam tanks, it can handle that. Somehow the fiction has developed into a playground, or a sandbox if you will, that can really integrate almost any goofy idea we want to chase.
"My great hope is that we can continue to push the boundaries, and continue to show players visions of this world and of this franchise that they do not expect, and that we continue to take risks with this world overall," Metzen concludes. "I think that's where we're going to maintain our integrity as artists - and really just take people for a ride."