World of Warcraft: Retrospective

Paul Sams and Rob Pardo look back on five years of success - and how it happened

By Phil Elliott.Published Tuesday 26th January 2010, 8:00am GMT

It Could All Have Been Very Different...

In the first part of this feature, The Path of the Blizzard, we looked at some of the reasons for the Warcraft developer's rise to prominence, generating the conditions that paved the way for the creation of World of Warcraft - a game which has transformed the way we look at MMOs and connected gaming today.

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But while the company's approach to creating games has led to success, you'd have to argue that the adage about making your own luck also runs true. It's been said that part of WoW's success was down to wider factors which Blizzard couldn't control - such as the handy rise in broadband penetration and an older, subscription-friendly average gaming age.

However, in order to take advantage of a market that's ripe for a product, you've got to have the right product to succeed - and when Blizzard's MMO project was first devised, it wasn't actually a Warcraft game at all, says Blizzard COO Paul Sams. You wonder, inevitably, just how different things might have turned out.

"Well, candidly, it was a completely different game," he recalls. "We were developing a new franchise that wasn't Warcraft, StarCraft or Diablo, and we were looking to do a massively multiplayer game. We were very inspired by Ultima Online and Everquest and wanted to build a new thing. There was a selection of people on the development teams that were very hot on this product, they were excited - they wanted to build it next, to play it next.

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"They were keen to take what had been done with Ultima and Everquest, and could see so many ways to evolve it - to Blizzardify it - and really create the Blizzard formula of easy to learn, yet hard to master."

Layers of Polish

The term "to Blizzardify" is an interesting one, and it's a notion that several others have characterised as 'adding a few layers of Blizzard polish' - but what does that actually entail?

"The [developers] wanted to go in and try to take things that were done well and make them better," explains Sams, "but also there were a lot of things that hadn't been done perfectly - or even close - in certain aspects of those types of games. So we saw so many opportunities to try to improve and evolve that... there was a high level of enthusiasm about doing that in a certain group of people."

But despite that enthusiasm, the 'wrong' non-Warcraft setting wasn't the only thing that might have derailed the project, with some concern internally over the viability of creating an MMO at all.

"There was also a selection of people in the organisation - me included - that was very sceptical about it, and the reason for that is that our games had historically been quite big sellers and had quite a bit of reach in terms of the people we'd been able to attract.

"There were some of us that were a bit concerned the game would be too niche, that it was only going to appeal to the hardcore - and not only that, but at the time the idea of charging a monthly fee was one that was pretty mind-blowing to all of us. We had this experience of having which was free, and we thought the greatest thing to do would be to create the game we wanted to create, but also to do it without a subscription.

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"What we found was that in making the kind of game that we wanted to make and play it kind of required us to do a lot of ongoing development, to have huge amounts of service as a key component to the experience - so we decided to use a subscription.

"But the challenge of that is, all of those things pointed to the fact that it was going to be niche, and as a result would have limited success potential. There was an internal debate about that, and I think that the gaming purists - that didn't have to worry about the business aspects - were very good at saying we could do this... and the guys that had more of a business responsibility were nervous."

Making the Right Decisions

As was referred in part one of this feature - and looping back to my point about making your own luck - in this case the decision wasn't made by the business people, but by the developers. In this case the trust was well merited, and while it's tempting to suggest this should be a lesson for other companies, the development talent has to be strong enough in the first place to make those decisions.

"So we went down the road, and ended up thinking that the new franchise we were trying to develop was not the right one for the type of game we were trying to make," continues Sams. "We weren't getting the kind of enthusiasm and traction internally that we thought we would from creating that - so the team came back and said they wanted to do a restart, to approach it from a different perspective, and do it in the Warcraft universe.

"We said yes, that it sounded fine, and they went about doing it," he added.

Of course, just allowing a development team to work on a project is no guarantee of success, and as WoW's executive producer in the early years (and Blizzard's EVP of game design today) - Rob Pardo - admits, it wasn't as if they had a ready-made blueprint for a product, much as they may have looked at what others had been doing in the space.

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The Ongoing Process

The biggest difference to products they'd worked on before - even with the experience - was the persistent service mentality.

"I'd say for the most part we were pretty na´ve about all that - we approached the game development of WoW in much the same way we approached development on our other games," he says. "But I also think that was a strength, because a lot of MMOs at the time really approached it from the community side first, rather than the game side first. When we started developing WoW, we looked at it as a game like any other, except that it was multiplayer only - and we had a lot of experience doing multiplayer games previous to that.

"Obviously it was a client-server game, and we hadn't done one of those before, so there were some differences on the general philosophy side, but as far as game development philosophy I think we approached it in the same way as previous games."

And while many of the aspects of what was released may have been new, the instinct for balancing classes and professions from the Warcraft and StarCraft days was invaluable.

"Absolutely. I definitely think that because we had so much experience with doing multiplayer balance and game mechanics, that really gave us a leg-up when we started doing WoW. We really knew how important that was.

"There were a few studios out there that made the multiplayer last, at the end of the project, and they really don't have the time to developout gameplay mechanics or do all the tuning that's necessary for a game to last 500-plus hours.

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"Just our general philosophy to how we approach multiplayer really helped us in developing WoW - certainly the approach we took to game balance, tuning the game in general and pacing were all things that carried over to World of Warcraft."

The Beta Test

As the game progressed and entered its first beta stages, plenty about it was materially different from the way that it was at launch. Pardo recalls the very early days, when only friends and family were given access and the player cap was still level 10.

"There were things like the whole ghost world death penalty - early on in the beta, wherever you died you just teleport automatically back to your bind point. So what people would do, when they were done questing they would kill themselves so they could get a free teleport.

"It was really funny - we'd go to certain quest areas, I remember by Sen'Jin Village you'd be playing a troll and you'd go dive into a lake to drown yourself... and your whole system would block out because there were a thousand other corpses at the bottom of the lake.

"Then there were all kinds of other features that went in - the auction house went in during beta, the talent system was revised several times, the whole system for being able to attack other people's towns and guards... a lot of those things weren't necessarily pre-designed during the beta, they were things that we were trying to continue to evolve in the game towards what we hoped it would be."

That emergent behaviour is something Pardo's watched with interest over the game's lifespan, working on a philosophy that players will in general take the 'path of least resistance' when working through content.

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"It's really important as a game designer to know that your game population is always going to use the path of least resistance. If you realise that, stop fighting it and actually make the most fun in that path, then I think your game stands a chance of being much more successful."

High Class Problem

Finally, in the latter stages of 2005 the game was ready for release, and few would argue with Sams' characterisation of the post launch period when he says: "I guess the rest is history." But what does he remember of the big day itself?

"I was at the midnight opening," he smiles, before getting to the crux of the matter. "And I was watching the performance of our servers, and stressing out because we were having what I like to refer to as a very 'high class problem' - that was that the servers were filling up far faster then we expected.

"We sold more units than we expected by far, and in that first period... fortunately we'd learned some very hard lessons back with Diablo II - that also sold significantly faster than we thought it would, and back in 2000 we got caught with our pants down a bit, not having enough capacity to accommodate demand. That was a very, very painful experience for us, and potentially limited the success of the game - although it was a mega-hit. Had we had more stable capacity with that product at the beginning it probably would have done better than we did.

"With World of Warcraft, because of the investment that we'd made, because of the heart and soul, blood, sweat and tears we'd put into it - and, candidly, the risk we took to do something this big - we didn't want to find ourselves in that circumstance.

"So we were excited to see how quick it was going, but we were also pretty freaked out because it was moving so quickly. The good news is that we'd bought, built and installed enough capacity for what we thought was unlikely, but could happen - and that was basically hardware for what we thought we'd do in the first year, but we doubled it.

"That was the learning from the Diablo II lesson, and thank God we did, because we had to light the second year hardware in just a small number of weeks from launch. Had we not planned for the worst, we'd have been in the same circumstance as Diablo II - maybe not with the stability challenges, but certainly with the capacity challenges.

"Within a couple of days I placed more orders for hardware and set up more data centres together with our IT team, to accommodate what was becoming a runaway hit. We started dropping millions of dollars more within launch to start pulling in more hardware, in anticipation of what we felt was going to happen. It was mind-blowing to be honest."

The Numbers Game

In fact, the game surpassed all expectations from anybody internally - while 1 million users was the ambitious target for peak subscriptions that's been mentioned before, company president was even more optimistic. Mike Morhaime confidently predicted that 4 million people would one day be playing World of Warcraft, says Sams. "Mike was far and away the most optimistic, which is why he gets paid the big bucks and is the founder of the company, because he knew it was going to be bigger that all of us did.

"But it was even bigger than he expected - it's been quite an experience, and one that's very humbling to all of us, that we've been able to create something that would have the kind of appeal, following and impact that it's ultimately had. It's been incredible for us."

Since launch over five years ago World of Warcraft has pulled in unprecedented levels of subscription revenue and undoubtedly transformed the way that people view persistent online worlds.

Other companies have been and gone, while others still remain - but none have yet come close to the worldwide success that Blizzard's game has enjoyed. A big part of staying ahead of the competition has been the ongoing development that's happened post-launch, and anybody who played the game in its early days would notice the changes in design philosophy that have occurred in subsequent patches and expansions.

"We're always asking which areas of the game do we need to focus on, what are the issues with the players, or what do the players need more of?" explains Pardo. "We're always looking at that.

"Certainly if you look at Burning Crusade I think a lot of what we focused on there was the end-game content - where you drag your character through those ten levels, we really weren't planning on people staying in that for too long, so we had to really focus on the end-game content, the raid content, the 10-man dungeons, bringing down the raid cap from 40 people to 25... those sorts of things were the big things.

"Once you go forward to Lich King we introduced stuff like the phasing technology to try to create more of a dynamic world.

"And then also with the patches, there are some that are a little more focused towards casual gameplay, there are some that are aimed at PvP - so there's never just one thing. We sit down whenever we're doing a patch or a feature and really try to plan out whether we want to focus it on PvP and raids, PvP and casual, is it more of a five-man dungeon patch... we're always looking at that focus, because the reality is that we can't do it all with every patch and expansion. We need to focus, to make sure we can do a great job."

The Road Goes Ever On?

When World of Warcraft was first released I remember asking one of the lead designers, Shane Dabiri, how long the game would last. Back then his answer was that they could keep expanding the content for "five, 10, 20 years to come."

Now we've passed that first milestone and the third expansion - Cataclysm - is on the horizon, but with no firm release date, and those words could yet prove true.

So, finally, what about some fond memories of the game itself? Funnily enough, both Sams and Pardo give similar answers.

"I've played with my friends a lot, but in recent times my sons are starting to play, so being able to do that with them has been a lot of fun," says Sams. "Have them go to BlizzCon with me, to see what dad does, and see the enthusiasm in their faces about World of Warcraft. I have them asking me every day if they can play once they've gotten their homework done - and that's been something that's been pretty exciting to me to be able to see.

"It's one thing to be able to see how Blizzard games have affected me, or my friends - but it's much closer to home to see your kids being totally geeked out on what your company does too, to see how much fun they have with that. That's probably one of my more special memories."

And Pardo echoes that sentiment directly: "One of the things for me from years of playing WoW is playing it a lot with my daughter. She's ten years old now, but I remember when we were first playing a lot of it together and she was six, maybe seven, and she was playing a warlock... Here was this little girl, and we were doing Scarlet Monastery together and she was doing a great job on crowd control, off-mobs, helping with DPS.

"It was so much fun with the two of us, brought together, playing Scarlet Monastery in WoW - and there are probably ten or twenty other memories like that."

Paul Sams is COO and Rob Pardo is executive VP of game design at Blizzard Entertainment. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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