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Spot On: 15 years of Warcraft

Blizzard game design chief Rob Pardo and lead designer Jeff Kaplan discuss acclaimed fantasy franchise's long history, from orcs and humans to the World of Warcraft phenomenon.


9.3, 9.2, 9.3, 9.2, 9.5, 9.2, 9.0.

The Alliance and the Horde first clashed in Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.
The Alliance and the Horde first clashed in Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.

With review scores like that, there's no question Blizzard Entertainment has a track record of releasing some of the best-reviewed games the industry has to offer. Easily the biggest franchise in Blizzard's stable, though, is its real-time-strategy massively multiplayer online role-playing series Warcraft, which celebrates its 15-year anniversary this month.

The franchise reached global-phenomenon status on the back of World of Warcraft. The fantasy-themed game has defined--not to mention dominated--the MMORPG landscape since its launch five years ago this week. Now on its second expansion, WOW's global subscriber base stands at 11.5 million users as of Blizzard's last accounting, although it has run into trouble in one of its largest markets, being at the center of a cross-agency dispute inside the Chinese government.

The industry-tracking NPD Group pegs the MMORPG series' lifetime US retail sales at 8.59 million through July 2009. Indeed, all three games consistently rank in the top 10 of the NPD Group's monthly PC charts, with the tracking firm putting Wrath of the Lich King as the second best-selling desktop game for the first half of 2009. (Blizzard declined to offer total combined unit sales for WOW, Burning Crusade, and Wrath of the Lich King.)

Further, Wrath of the Lich King currently holds the record for the fastest-selling PC game in history. Following its November 2008 launch, the game sold 2.8 million units worldwide within its first 24 hours on the market. Of course, Blizzard bested its own record with Lich King's opening performance, as the prior title holder was The Burning Crusade, which sold 2.4 million units on day one in January 2007.

Beyond initial sales, WOW requires a membership fee of at most $15 a month. Blizzard also pulls in supplemental income from a host of game-related services, ranging from character name changes to the recently introduced in-game pets. All said, WOW drives the Irvine studio's contribution to parent company Activision Blizzard's top line beyond $100 million a month, according to the publisher's recent financial reports.

Rob Pardo
Rob Pardo

Inauspicious beginnings
Rob Pardo, Blizzard's vice president of game design, didn't necessarily see the franchise blowing up the way it has upon the release of that first installment.

"I was working at Interplay Productions when it came out," Pardo told GameSpot. "Interplay was publishing the first Warcraft: Orcs and Humans for international back then. So I had the opportunity to play it, and it was pretty exciting, because I had already played Dune II so I think it was really cool to see a fantasy version of that. I definitely didn't imagine back then that Warcraft as a franchise would get as big as it would get."

Released in November 1994, the original Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was criticized for being uneven, with the endgame dominated by the orc warlock unit and its ability to summon the disproportionately powerful daemon. And while obliterating pathetic little human towns always has its advantages, the franchise didn't hit its stride until the following year, with the release of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness.

"It was really Warcraft II that I thought really blew things open, because of [online multiplayer networking service Kali]," Pardo continued. "Ironically enough, too, it came out within the same month as Command & Conquer, so we had this huge new genre explode at the same time between C&C and Warcraft II. I definitely saw a lot of potential in the future of the RTS genre, and certainly Warcraft was a part of that."

Named one of GameSpot's Greatest Games of All Time, Warcraft II brought with it a finely tuned single-player campaign, replete with memorable cinematics and a host of quotable characters ("Zug zug," "Ready to serve," "I can see my house from here!" and so on). Defined primarily by the third-party application Kali, Warcraft II also featured a strong multiplayer component, where gamers could compete on their own maps as well as refine their strategies in myriad ways.

World of Warcraft's merry band of adventurers numbers in excess of 11.5 million.
World of Warcraft's merry band of adventurers numbers in excess of 11.5 million.

The World goes to Warcraft
Warcraft II spawned an expansion, Beyond the Dark Portal, in 1996, but it wasn't until 2002 that Blizzard issued its much-anticipated follow-up, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. Named GameSpot's PC Game of the Year in 2002, Warcraft III was the first installment in the franchise helmed by Pardo, who cut his teeth at Blizzard on the developer's acclaimed sci-fi RTS franchise Starcraft. Pardo noted that the franchise's pivotal step into the MMORPG realm came during Warcraft III development.

"After we finished Starcraft, we split into two development teams. One of the teams went off to make what would became Warcraft III, and the other team went to go make a game that survived a year, a year and a half before we decided it just wasn't going to turn into something that we thought would be Blizzard quality. And it was then that we started about what we wanted to do instead, and that's when the idea of World of Warcraft emerged."

"During Starcraft development, there was a whole host of us playing that were playing Ultima Online. There was a bunch of us that saw that being a fun genre. It was definitely during Warcraft III development that a lot of us started playing EverQuest. It was during that EverQuest era that we realized Ultima Online wasn't a fluke and it was going to turn into a full-fledged genre. And we really saw what was amazing about that genre and felt like we had an opportunity to do our own spin on it."

Pardo said that one moment that stood out to him was realizing that each of the 30-odd avatars standing around at a crafting forge in Ultima Online were controlled by an actual person. These sentiments were affirmed when EverQuest came along and added a deeper connection between players, Pardo said. The game designer should know, considering he led one of the preeminent guilds in EverQuest--Legacy of Steel--during the early 2000s.

"The unfortunate thing about some of the games of that era is that you had to be a pretty hardcore player to get to that level of fun," Pardo continued. "But that fun was so deep and so satisfying that we really felt like, hey, if we can just broaden this out to a wider group of players, there really might be something magic here."

Jeff Kaplan
Jeff Kaplan

Blizzard lead designer Jeff Kaplan assumed control of Pardo's guild after the Blizzard executive retired from EverQuest to focus his efforts wrapping up development on Warcraft III. In 2002, he was brought on to aid in development of the original WOW, and he said that it was no easy task adapting the franchise from its RTS roots to a more RPG setting.

"It required a huge shift," Kaplan said. "You do a lot of things in an RTS for very different reasons than you would do things in an MMO. As it relates to story, if you look at the ending of the original Warcraft III, you've got the humans, orcs, and night elves all united to overcome Archimonde at the World Tree. That didn't work for the structure of the MMO at all. We knew that we wanted to have Horde and Alliance pitted against each other. We had to re-create the rift that went all the way to the original orcs and humans."

"It's also hard to deal with the psychology of the dev team," he continued. "We would often feel obliged to do things exactly how they were done in the RTS, which isn't always right for the gameplay of an MMO. An example is, we wanted to give an ability called Death Coil to warlocks, because we thought it was really fitting. In Warcraft III, Death Coil was a Death Knight-only ability, and not only did it do damage, but it healed. People had a rough time coming to terms with the fact that it was OK to make changes and do what was right for the gameplay of WOW, even if that somehow contradicted what people saw in Warcraft III."

However, having the RTS as a backdrop did more than create challenges, as explained by Pardo. "We were really aided by the fact that we had so much history in the Warcraft franchise," he said. "So we had all these storylines and worlds, and in a lot of ways, at least early on when we started developing the maps and the zones, there was so much to already start from."

"[Vice president of creative development] Chris Metzen had already done a lot of the lore for Warcraft III and before, so we had this big head start on talking about all the different areas, Stormwind or Lordaeron," Pardo continued. "And you can see it to some extent in the game. If you look at the Eastern Kingdoms, in a lot of ways it is much more developed from just a lore and backstory standpoint than Kalimdor, and that's because Eastern Kingdoms really had three games plus expansion sets to really build it out, and Kalimdor was something new and fresh."

Cataclysm wasn't initially part of Blizzard's expansion slate.
Cataclysm wasn't initially part of Blizzard's expansion slate.

Of course, the scope of an MMORPG is more substantial than that of an RTS. That difference of scale was reflected in Blizzard's initial plans for what it wanted to include with the original WOW when it shipped in November 2004. In fact, according to Kaplan, Blizzard initially intended to include the areas from The Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, and much of Cataclysm with the original launch.

"We planned it out extremely far in advance," he said. "To put it into perspective, Outland and Northrend and a lot of the ideas in Cataclysm were all part of the original shipping plan of the game. Every so often we'll have those moments from a project management and planning standpoint where we'll really go, well, what are we actually getting in and where should we actually be at? But part of what gets us there is scoping the project out for years and years to come and always having an idea of where we want to go, and that's what lets us steer the ship and eventually get there."

Outland and Northrend eventually arrived as part of The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, and Cataclysm is expected to arrive sometime next year. Oddly enough, Cataclysm itself wasn't on Blizzard's list when it first began thinking about expansions.

"When we finished the original game, we began work on expansions," Kaplan said. "We didn't just think of one expansion that we were going to work on. We said, 'What are a lot of expansions we want to make for this game?' Because we want to have this big list that we can then narrow down and prioritize. Outland and Northrend were givens on that list. Cataclysm was an interesting departure from that, because it wasn't part of the original expansion plan that we had. It was something that evolved out of a lot of cool ideas forging together at once."

According to Pardo, Blizzard's initial expansion list also reflected a different release order than what gamers actually got. "As a matter of fact, when we launched WOW, we initially thought we were going to Lich King first," he said, noting that Outland and Northrend were givens on the expansion list.

This unpredictability, coupled with Blizzard's ability to be flexible with its direction, is also what led to the development of Cataclysm as a full expansion, he said. "When we shipped WOW, the whole idea of Cataclysm wasn't there at all. We certainly had the idea to do Deathwing, but the whole idea of Cataclysm came out of trying to determine what we thought was the right thing for the game next. We didn't foresee five years ago breaking the world up was it."

WOW will continue
WOW will continue "for as long as the Internet is up."

According to Kaplan, Warcraft's reaching timeline and Blizzard's boundless creativity equate to no foreseeable end to WOW. "I honestly believe that there are enough compelling ideas to keep WOW going for as long as the Internet is up," he said. "I mean, the Warcraft universe spans well over 10,000 years. You can literally sit [Chris Metzen] down at any point, and say, 'Hey Chris, what should we do next?' And then an hour later you can get your next question in. The future of WOW is only limited by time and resources."

Of course, keeping WOW around forever means that Blizzard will soon have two separate MMORPGs in its portfolio. In May, Blizzard confirmed that the new MMORPG would be part of a "brand-new franchise," one different enough from WOW that the two wouldn't compete. Both Pardo and Kaplan believe that the company has learned plenty of lessons from WOW, ones that bode well for the new MMORPG.

"Probably the biggest [lesson] I'd say is all the different systems in WOW that do not very easily let you play with the people you want to play with," said Pardo. "They are all things that have very good gameplay reasons why they exist, but they really prevent people from playing with who they want, when they want. And that's something we're thinking very deeply about all the time with new MMOs. And not to say we're going to solve them all across the board, but we're definitely thinking about them a lot."

"There's a lot of people working on the new game who have also worked on World of Warcraft," Kaplan added. "So there's a lot of talented individuals from a technology standpoint, from a process standpoint, how to build a game like this, how to position ourselves for a stable launch after going through the experience of the original WOW launch. And then there's also a lot of things that are hard to narrow in on, more in this cloud of general design philosophy, of understanding what players want and the different player types."

Warcraft for the next 10 millennia
With the Warcraft franchise now firmly grounded in the MMORPG scene, some longtime fans of the series are wondering whether it will ever return to its RTS roots. According to Pardo, Blizzard does not consider itself locked into the MMORPG genre with Warcraft.

"We have a very different view with our franchises," Pardo said. "With Warcraft, we started trying to deviate out of that, back in the Warcraft Adventures days. I think it was around that time period that we started seeing these as intellectual properties. They are worlds, they are franchises, they are not specific to a game or even a game genre for that matter. If we had unlimited Blizzard teams to draw upon, I think [Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo] could support all kinds of different game genres within them."

Pardo also believes that, just as the company will soon have multiple MMORPGs, it wouldn't present a problem to have real-time strategy efforts like Starcraft II and Warcraft IV--were it to be made--in the company's portfolio. The secret lies in differentiating the games enough from one another to create different play experiences.

"When we started developing Warcraft III, we were very strategically deviating from what we had done before," he said. "We wanted to try to come up with an RTS game that had a little bit more of an RPG feel to it, a game that relied more on micromanagement than macromanagement, really had more of a focus on smaller numbers of units. These were all very specific decisions that we made, and even when we were making them, we knew that when we came back to the Starcraft franchise, we were going to go back more to the old style of faster-paced games."

"And that's not because we thought Warcraft III was wrong," he continued. "It was because we were deviating the RTS genre into almost subgenres, at least within Blizzard. If we ever did go back and decide to do, let's say, a Warcraft IV, I would guess we'd probably go back toward the Warcraft III model, or more toward the hero model, rather than continue to follow down the Starcraft II way."

Pardo also noted that the things preventing Warcraft IV from being made are the time, resources, and passion to execute. "Let's say when the Starcraft II team finishes up, they decide that they wanted to make [canceled action spin-off] Starcraft: Ghost. We'd probably be supportive of that," he said. "If they decide they want to make Warcraft IV, we'd be supportive of that. Something new? That would be fine, too."

The Lich King has been named as one possible star of the forthcoming Warcraft film.
The Lich King has been named as one possible star of the forthcoming Warcraft film.

Beyond that, Pardo noted that Warcraft isn't even bound by the RTS and MMORPG genres, saying that they consider new ways to experience the franchise "all the time." He also said that Blizzard would be open to giving players the opportunity to go more hands-on with any of the various events along Warcraft's reaching 10,000 year timeline.

"If we ever made a World of Warcraft II, Warcraft IV, or, I don't know, Warcraft Legends, I can see us doing all kinds of interesting things," he said. "Again, if the right idea was out there, I could totally see us jumping around the timeline if we thought that was right. Let's just say we decided to make an, I don't know, Dragon Age/Mass Effect-style RPG, but we wanted to tell the story back around the time of Medivh. We certainly could do that if there was passion around that and it was exciting. Whether or not I foresee that, it kind of falls back in that bucket of "really cool idea." We'd need a team that was really passionate about doing it."

For Pardo personally, the events surrounding the opening of the Dark Portal are a particularly compelling event in the Warcraft continuum. "If you think of that seminal moment around the Warcraft franchise, it's really that opening of the Dark Portal, right?" he said. "That's the event that probably defines our universe more than other fantasy universe, that moment where the two worlds collided, because that's really what started making Warcraft, Warcraft. So I think that's a really interesting time period. A lot of the exploration of the prehistory of the night elves and the time period of Illidan and Tyrande and Malfurion. I think that's a really interesting time period, but there are a lot of interesting ones."

Regardless of where the Warcraft franchise goes, the future remains promising. In July, Blizzard announced that it would be extending the Warcraft franchise to the silver screen, signing on Spider-Man helmer Sam Raimi to direct and Saving Private Ryan scribe Robert Rodat to write the screenplay. While details on the film have yet to emerge, rumors indicate that the plot may adhere closely to WOW's Wrath of the Lich King expansion, chronicling the life and times of Arthas Menethil, better known as one half of the demonic Lich King.

And, of course, the lights will remain on for some time to come in World of Warcraft.

"It would be kind of the worst thing ever if we weren't working on it five years from now, because it would mean that we had done something horribly wrong or we didn't achieve our goals," Kaplan said. "I'm hopeful that we'll be having this conversation another five years or 10 years from now."

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