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World of Warcraft: Retrospective

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

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.

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.

"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.

"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."

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