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Five Years In The World Of Warcraft

A bit of reminiscence about Blizzard's little juggernaut from a few of the developers who have been there.

See, a logo! It's official! 
See, a logo! It's official! 
Ready to feel old? World of Warcraft turns five years old this week. That's five years of grinding for your mount, five years of weird murloc sounds, five years of unchecked Defias slaughter, five years of LFG. After about two years I personally had to stop playing World of Warcraft at the risk of never doing anything besides playing World of Warcraft ever again, but millions of you are still going strong half a decade later. The sheer scale of the game's success boggles the mind to this day.

Before the next expansion, Cataclysm, comes along and ravages all the old lands of Azeroth you once got used to and then quietly forgot about, I wanted to grab a hold of a few of the people at Blizzard who made World of Warcraft happen and have kept it running all these years to see what they remember about what must have been a whirlwind period of their lives. Big thanks to art director Sam Didier, production director J. Allen Brack, lead world designer Alex Afrasiabi, and cinematics project lead Jeff Chamberlain for sitting down for a short chat. You can find some of their memories below.

On the early days and the madness of development

Brack: The World of Warcraft team started out pretty small, and worked its way up. For a while it was between 20 and 30 people, and slowly ramped up, so by the time the game shipped it was at 60 people.

Didier: art director by day, metal god by night. 
Didier: art director by day, metal god by night. 
A lot of us were playing EverQuest and Ultima Online, so that was probably the main influence. We kind of took the things that we liked and then started doing things that we wanted to improve on, but that was basically it. A lot of our games here at Blizzard are basically, we'll play a game for a while and go "Wow, that game is so awesome. I wonder if we could do something like that." Back in the old days, we made The Lost Vikings because everybody was playing Lemmings. Same thing when we were working on BlackThorne, we were playing Out of This World. And the RTSs, we were inspired by Dune II. WOW was the same way. We just really wanted to get into the Warcraft world, but this would be our first chance to do it on a completely different visual level.

Brack: The story that gets told around the office a lot is about Allen Adham, who's one of the founders of Blizzard, who got the team together at one point and was talking about how WOW was great, was going to be fantastic, everyone was really going to love what we were doing, and giving a huge motivational speech to everyone. He said, "This game is one day going to have a million subscribers." And everyone was really fired up and happy and excited--and no one believed that at all. No one believed that, that was crazy talk. How could any game ever have a million subscribers? That was just ridiculous.

Didier: We had just gotten finished working on Warcraft III, and I think we were starting WOW about then, but a lot of the [artwork] we were doing was a lower-poly version of what the WOW team was going to be doing. So we would make some of our characters, and then the WOW team was looking at "Oh, OK, that's what their guy looks like from top-down, three-quarter view. What does he really look like  when you look at him straight forward?" So a lot of the early work was working with some of the artists to just get that style that we had from the top-down perspective, but have that carry over so when you're looking at [the characters] face-to-face they're not too goofy or cartoony looking.

One of the things was, did we want to make it a pure evolution of Warcraft? Did we want to make it 60 years in the future, and orcs were now completely demonic and they had black skin and red tattoos? We were going through a lot of that sort of thing and doing some tests on it. But we figured out that we just wanted to make Warcraft. We didn't want to change up the characters that people already knew and loved. A lot of that iteration happened probably about a year before we announced in 2001.

 I don't know if you noticed, but that scarecrow is actually an evil robot.     
 I don't know if you noticed, but that scarecrow is actually an evil robot.     
We crunched a lot. It wasn't unusual to be here at 4 or 5 in the morning, especially later, the last couple of months before ship. When I came onto the project, it was pretty much in the middle of crunch, so that was a pretty amazing environment to jump into. Crunch at Blizzard is a beautiful thing in my opinion. Some people may disagree, but, you know, it's alive. You're buzzing. You're going through, and there's work to be done, and there's people who do that work, and everyone's on the same level. You're just jamming.

Chamberlain: There are pros and cons. You're killing yourself to get it done, but it's a labor of love so we're putting everything we can into it at the last minute just because we want it to be as good as it can. We were pretty much in a 24-7 crunch mode in the cinematics department.

Didier: [The scope of the project] definitely got bigger as we were going, because there were more things that we wanted to showcase. We didn't just want to do human lands, we wanted dwarves, and we wanted everything to have its own feel. In terms of popularity, as well, we weren't expecting the game to be this big. A couple hundred thousand [players] and we would be like "Yeah, alright! We made it!" Everquest had some numbers like that, and that was the level where we'd know we were successful. So this game, on every front, has just grown and gotten bigger than we ever expected.

On launch day and the technical challenges therein

Afrasiabi: I think the first week took everybody by surprise. There was no way we could have expected what we got, and in between the elation and the happiness that we shipped a successful and good product that everyone's happy about, there were certainly a lot of people running around with their heads cut off, trying to put out fires.

Decisions, decisions. Remember the first time you made this one? 
Decisions, decisions. Remember the first time you made this one? 
One of the ways that we knew we were going to be successful was that we had 20 servers on launch day, and then we had 20 other servers that were built and dark and ready to be used. The idea was that over the coming year, those 20 servers would get brought up, they'd replace other servers that had hardware problems, they were sort of like the backup. Within the first couple of hours of the game being available for people to buy, all the existing servers were full and we had to bring up the other 20 servers. So all 40 servers, we went through a year's worth of hardware allocation in a couple of hours, and still needed more. 

That was an interesting problem to have. When we talk about a server, when we talk about 20 servers on day one, a server is not actually one box, it's a collection of boxes that are linked together to form what we call a server. Obviously there's a database backend for that as well, that stores all the data for players and updates and things like that. So it was a pretty sizable number of machines, and of course these are not machines you can go down to Best Buy and get, so when the 40 servers were up on day one, there were many panicked discussions, phone calls and meetings about "Where in the world are we going to buy more hardware that usually takes two, three, four months to buy, to get built and get deployed? How are we going to do that quickly?"

[On server efficiency] You've seen recently within the last few years a huge push toward, "This server takes 40 percent less power." The way datacenter power works is, you get a power allocation based on the number of boxes you're storing there, and the footprint, and things like that, and that's a big battle at datacenters because they only have a certain amount of power coming in. Most people on the consumer side think "Oh, 40 percent, not that big of a deal, how much is one computer really doing?" But when you've got 10,000 computers you've got to power, that's pretty significant.

[On stability over time] There is a database architecture that provides some redundancy, and then we have a backup system that also provides redundancy, so theoretically we feel like we have a good amount of backup. We've had a lot of technical issues in the last five years, but none of them have led to any lost data, so we're very happy about that. Very fortunate.

On playing the game as a Blizzard employee

      The real reason anyone plays WOW.
      The real reason anyone plays WOW.
I haven't been playing as much lately, because there's been a lot of other games that I've been wanting to check out. The last time I logged on was during Brewfest. I wanted to see about getting another Brewfest mount, sometime in mid-October. But I still go back to it. Sometimes my kids want to play, so I'll log on with a lower-level character with them, run around, that kind of stuff. It's always on, but whether I play it every night of the week, it hasn't been that for a while.

Chamberlain: I get in every once in a while, but not as hardcore as originally. I've moved on to other games as well, like Left 4 Dead, and to be honest, I probably fire up Warcraft III more often than I should.

Brack: I play about 10 to 12 hours a week. I had a raid last night. I got two pieces of loot! And there's no way for players to know who Blizzard employees are [in-game]. The number of people purporting to be Blizzard employees vastly exceeds the number of actual Blizzard employees. People are always in the game going "I work for Blizzard and therefore I know blah blah blah!" and... they don't work for Blizzard.

Didier: I've met myself.

Brack: Oh, congratulations!

Didier: I had a conversation with Sam Didier, online. It was pretty impressive.

On WOW's path, how it evolves, and how long it will last

Afrasiabi: We do have a roadmap for where we want World of Warcraft's story and flow to be, over time, and what we release. But how strictly we stick to that is up for debate.

Expect many more villains to come.
Expect many more villains to come.
Blizzard is obviously well known for having an iterative design philosophy, and that plays a huge role in where we are today and where we [will be] tomorrow. In terms of knowing the next one, two, three expansions down the line, we really don't know. We plan about one expansion ahead, and right now the team is focused on delivering patch 3.3, which is the end of the Arthas storyline, and then we know about Cataclysm, and we have a good idea of what's going to be in that. We have a couple of good ideas for what the Cataclysm patches could be, but nothing that's firm, and nothing really beyond that. The reason for that is, we're going to be much smarter, when we release Cataclysm, in terms of what the right next thing is for us to do. Why spend huge amounts of time on this plan that you know is going to change?

Most of the time, [the core design changes come about through] player desire and player requests. The game is successful and fun mostly when it's a social experience and you're playing with your friends, so most of the services we've introduced, and the leveling speed-up and things like that, are almost universally with the idea that it's better to play with your friends, so how can we facillitate that? How can we make it easier for you to get together to play with a group, in the case of leveling speed? Faction change, you've got friends in another faction. Faction transfer, you've got friends on another server. All these things are really designed to help people play together and get the most enjoyment out of the game.

[On WOW's lifespan] I think Ultima Online just had its 13th birthday, and EverQuest is 10 years old, so [we hope WOW lasts] at least as long as that. We have those guys as guideposts to help us know how things are going. Those are sort of the grandaddies of the grown-up MMOs.

Didier: I think as long as we have cool ideas that we want to do, there will be expansions. There are so many things we want to do that we haven't done yet. 
Thanks again, guys. In case that official logo up top didn't tip you off, Blizzard is serious about this anniversary business; they've launched a new site celebrating the event where you can find extensive video interviews, a podcast, and some other fun stuff rolling out over the next little while. 
And hey, why not share your own tales of addiction and recovery in the comments? I think a little part of me would still like to play nothing but WOW for the rest of time, if that were actually an option.
Brad Shoemaker on Google+