Monday, December 8, 2014

Ten Years of World of Warcraft

By Bixyl Shuftan

This November, the most popular of Multiplayer Online Games celebrated it's tenth anniversary. It was November 2004 in which Blizzard Entertainment launched "World of Warcraft." Ten years and five expansions later, the game is still going strong.

Blizzard did not invent the Massive Online Roleplaying Game, or MORPG. The first one to achieve a hundred thousand players was Ultima Online in 1997. A couple years later, Everquest would come on the scene, which was the leading MORPG in the early 2000s, with 450,000 subscribers in September 2003. This was what Blizzard Entertainment wasup against when they were developing it's own based on it's "Warcraft" series of real-time strategy games from the 1990s and early 2000s, the last one Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne released only a year before. According to PC Gamer writer Leif Johnson, most of the development team thought they would get somewhere around 350,000 subscribers.

Imagine the surprise when they sold 240,000 copies of the game on their first day, and the numbers kept climbing. By October 2010, the game had a whopping twelve million subscribers. They weren't just the leaders of the MORPG market, they dominated it to the point that people always thought of them whenever these kinds of games were brought up. While other MMOs were continued to be developed, many were little more than clones of their far more successful competitor. People talked about who would develop the "WoW Killer," but it eventually was accepted they would be around for a very long time.

So why has World of Warcraft succeeded so well, beyond all other MORPGs? For one thing, there was the detail of the world. The forests of Ashenvale are richly detailed, with beautiful music in the background. Enter the Orcish city of Ogrimar, and you see a savage looking place with tough guards and the player hearing sounds of war drums beating. Each place was done with detail with music in the background. One could easily entertain oneself just exploring around (and get a few experience points for it).

There's also a plot and story behind the game as well. Although the original "Warcraft" had a fairly simple story of Orcs trying to conquer humans, by the time "World of Warcraft" came around, it had changed to become more complex and interesting. The Orcs had attacked because they'd become tainted from demon blood that eventually they were able to overcome. So are the Orcs sorry? Not really because they'd had to spend time in internment camps, plus some outright enslaved under the humans. Both races have a history that means an uneasy relationship at best (not unlike some peoples in real life), which has lead to the world being essentially divided between the Alliance and Horde (which those who remember the Cold War can relate to). While some races are of the classic Fantasy variety, others are unique to the game or have special tweaks. While trolls are sometimes enemies to clobber in games, in World of Warcraft you can play one. The Forsaken allowed players to take on the role of a tragic hero, died and brought back as undead, reviled by their former humans and distrusted by their allies.

The way gameplay was designed helped it catch on as well. From the very start, players could take on quests to help level, and get little perks such as a little coin and a piece of gear as a reward instead of just grind, grind, grind. World of Warcraft also introduced talents and talent trees, giving players a choice about what direction they'd like their character to take, then ask they progressed in level giving them a choice of perks. Then there were the instances, which allowed a set team of players to take on a dungeon in which everyone got a share of the loot. Raids allowed players to take on tougher dungeons for even better loot.

Character classes had some interesting perks. Priests had mind control spells that could temporarily possess an NPC and make it attack others. Druids could take on several different animal forms, each having different qualities such as bears for hitpoints or "tanking," and big cats for damage-dealing. Hunters could tame animals and use them to attack NPCs, distracting it while the hunter fired at it from a distance.

The world was not a small one, but quite large. Getting around on foot could take a while. Fortunately there were locations one could rent a flying mount to speedily fly to a location, or get a ship or zeppelin. When a player reached level 40, they could get a mount. What kind one could get depended on your character's race: wolves for Orcs, horses for humans, etc. at the maximum level of 60, one could get a faster mount.

Crafting was also an option. Players could choose two profession skills, crafting, resource gathering, or one of each: blacksmithing, alchemy, leatherworking, herb gathering, mining, and skinning. There were herbs and ores at various spots on the map, as well as skinners being able to get hides from certain killed animals. Players could make armor, or potions which either healed, gave magical energy, or gave a small bonus. They could use the goods themselves, hand to friends, or sell in the auction house along with loot they picked off dead enemies. Wearing an item would bind it to you, so after that it could only be sold to NPCs, usually for less money. There were skill levels, which one improved through doing them. The higher the skill, the better ores herbs, or leather one could gather, or better goods one could make. But the more often something was made, the less of a chance it had to raise your skill level until there came a point that particular good wouldn't raise it at all.

If clobbering monsters wasn't enough, there was the option of fighting other players. There were Player vs Player battlegrounds one could go to, join a team of your faction, and fight the opposition. There was the "capture the flag" of Warsong Gulch, the scramble for resource locations in Arathi Basin, and the charge to take the enemy camp and clobber the general in Alteric Valley. Players were awarded with marks that could be used to purchase special goods, armor and weapons, and mounts. On occasion there were speciial events, often coinciding with real-life holidays such as Children's Week, All Hallows, and the Winter Festival. Players could do activities appearing only at the event's time of the year. And on every anniversary of the game in November, active players got a little gift of some kind. For it's tenth for instance, they got a pet dog made of living lava, a "Molten Corgi" (a play on the "Molten Core" dungeon name).

There was also an element of humor. Characters had dance animations, a specific one for each race, male and female. They could also tell one of several jokes and flirts, a specific group for each race, male and female. Some examples are, "Do you ever feel like you're not in charge of your own destiny, like ... you're being controlled by some invisible hand?" "I don't mind the gnomes, but I'm always worried about tripping over one." "Ugh, I hate Thunder Bluff! You can't find a good burger anywhere." "I dabbled in gold farming, but I couldn't get the coins to sprout." They also sprinkled the world of their game with occasional pop culture references, such as a mechanical "Robot Chicken" in the town of Booty Bay, A girl at the Shimmering Flats racetrack named "Daisy" wearing shorts (or "Daisy Dukes"), the Stormwind Archeology trainer is named "Harrison Jones," a reference to actor Harrison Ford's famous character "Indiana Jones," the character John J. Keshan is a dead ringer for "Rambo," quest chain and all, and many, many others.

The result was a game with no shortage of things to do, exploring, questing, resource gathering, and team player versus player fights. Through design, story plot, and perhaps a little luck, Blizzard's team had made an MORPG that would take the gaming world by storm, getting numbers far beyond Everquest, Runescape, and other competing games of it's early days. The games that stood out were in different settings, such as the space combat "Eve Online," the sci-fi "Star Wars Galaxies," and the superhero "Champions Online." Or they didn't required subscriptions and adopted a free to play model such as Rifts.

The game has made it's way into popular culture as well. There were cartoons showing people playing the game (often hopelessly addicted). Comedians poked fun at it. Youtube showed numerous short films of both players playing the game, as well as short cartoons and films about it or poking fun about it. There were even movies, or machinima, made using World of Warcraft to play out the scenes. National and World news made stories about it's success, as well as looking at it's players. They showed both the dark side, stories of addiction, and the positive, such as people who met on the game and ended up falling in love and getting married.

Sometimes what the players did caught the design team, and everyone else, completely by surprise. Early in the game's history, the designers had a monster high level monster "infect" players fighting it with a "disease" that caused characters an amount of damage over time, one that could be passed on to others nearby. Blizzard never expected some players to respond by heading to populated areas, such as the banks and auction houses of capital towns. There they passed on the infection, causing low level players to die almost instantly. Soon they were littered with the skeletons of deceased characters. Instead of being a disaster for the game, people reacted with fascination instead. There was even a serious scientific study about the incident, the investigators wondering if this was how real people would react in a real plague.

Blizzard didn't just rest on it's laurels. They kept making small updates, and eventually in 2007 they released an expansion: "World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade." A new world was opened up to the highest level players at the time, Outland, and two new player races were made available: Draeani for the Alliance and Blood Elves for the Horde. There were also flying mounts available for those who reached the new maximum level of 70. There were new dungeons and new player versus player battlegrounds. There was also a plot that fit in with the game's story, both the Alliance and Horde taking on new allies and taking the fight with a mutual enemy back to their base of operations. For the Horde, there was also encountering Orcs that had remained uncorrupted from "The Curse," leading to a rather dramatic scene with the Warcheif. Players could now sail through the skies on personal mounts wherever they wanted to. Sales, and membership levels climbed, 2.4 million copies of the game being sold on the release day alone. Later on, seperate patches would allow players two additional challenges, taking on a fortified city of trolls hostile to both Horde and Alliance, and the former leader of the Blood Elves whom had returned not to help them but to subjugate them.

In 2008, Blizzard released it's second expansion for the game: "Wrath of the Lich King." Here, the characters had a chance to fight the undead minions of Arathas the most feared of Azeroth's villains. As a character, he had a developed background, both a prince and a paladin. But the decisions he made while fighting the undead Scourge eventually resulted in him becoming what he once fought, a death knight, then the Lich King, killing his father and his kingdom, and destroying many former allies. Players had a new continent, Northrend to adventure on. There was also a new class, the death knight, which gave players a chance to play a fallen hero on the path to redemption. In a patch released on December 2009 came the "Fall of the Lich King" raid, in which players could take part in putting an end to the great villain's rein. More players continued to sign up, and by October 2010, the game was at it's peak in subscription numbers with twelve million.

Unfortunately "Wrath" had given Blizzard a problem in addition to it's opportunity. After you've beaten the gaming world's greatest villain, what's left? Blizzard's response was the third expansion, "Cataclysm," which quite literally rewrote the face of their gaming world. In "Cata" as gamers sometimes called it, "Deathwing the Destroyer," a huge evil dragon, reappears after a period of hiding, resulting in numerous earthquakes, avalanches, floods, and volcanic activity across the two main continents. Blizzard took the opportunity to both change the landscape as well as update the quests. And so the first two continents were brought several years into the future.

Instead of a new continent, there were several new zones, one under the ocean, one under the earth, and some scattered across areas once inaccessible to players such as Mount Hyjai. Two new races were made available for players, the Worgen for the Alliance and the Goblins for the Horde. In the plot, both were from areas among the most affected by Deathwing's appearance, and forced to choose a side in the Azerothian conflict, which was heating up as the Horde's Shamanistic Warchief Thrall stepped down to personally help put down the evil dragon and Garosh Hellscream took his place. Hellscream, whom first appeared in "Crusade" and was the leader of one of the Horde forces in "Wrath," saw little need to negotiate for what could be taken by force, and was more eager for battle with the humans, whom he despised, and their allies.

The appearance of the bestial-looking Worgen drew cheers from some gamers who felt it was now "cool" to be an Alliance player. They had previously seen the Alliance races as a little too mundane, made of up in the words of one "Humans, tree-huggers (elves), and short guys (dwarves and gnomes)," while the nonhuman races of the Horde were much more different. So some players whom had either passed up Alliance characters or gave them no more than a short look out of curiosity began playing then as its werewolves (writer's note: this was the time when I saw most of my Second Life friends playing World of Warcraft).

Players could now level to rank 85. Some character classes that were closed to certain races were open to a few more, such as druids for trolls, hunters for undead, and Paladins for Tauren. More dungeons and PvP battlegrounds were introduced. The Archeology skill was introduced, giving players a chance to learn some tidbits about the world's history, and dig up an occasional interesting toy or powerful piece of equipment. Also introduced was the "Darkmoon Faire," which gave players a chance to boost some profession skills a little.

Despite the new content however, subscriptions soon began to drop. Although the release of the expansion in December 2010 boosted numbers that had sagged to 11.4 million back to 12 million, they soon began to drop again. By the time of the "Hour of Twilight" patch released in November 2011 in which players could take part in the final confrontation with Deathwing, numbers had fallen to just over ten million. By August 2012, numbers had dropped further to 9.4 million. Different people had different explanations as to why numbers were falling. Gamepro for instance simultaneously called "Cataclysm" "much improved in terms of its overall design," and "not quite as impressive as previous designs." PC Gamer felt as a villain Deathwing just didn't have the appeal Arthis did, lacking the tragic background and being so larger than life due to his sheer size.

In September 2012 came World of Warcraft's fourth expansion "The Mists of Pandaria." To begin with, the panda-like Pandaren were originally an April Fools joke on the game's official website. But the response from the players was cheers rather than jeers. So the Blizzard team introduced them as a playable race. But unlike others, these characters would start out as unaligned until near the end of their beginning quests in which they would choose a side. In the plotline, the continent of Pandaria had been hidden from the rest of Azeroth until mists surrounding it were suddenly lifted. And the warring factions landed on it's shores, looking for resources and allies. Further patches had the plotline show the Horde's warchief Hellscream becoming more ruthless, escalating the war with the Alliance and alienating his allies in the Horde. Eventually the other factions in the Horde rebel against him and join with the Alliance in toppling him.

In addition to the new race, there was a new class introduced: the monk. Pet Battles were also introduced, and the companion animals players collected over time were now more than just collectibles, but could be used for activities. Also introduced were scenarios in which three player teams cooperated in carrying out objectives. Often in an event in the game's history such as the destruction of Thermadore or thwarting the attempted assassination of Vo'jin by a minion of Hellscream. The talent trees were replaced with a tierd system, awarding players a talent about every 15 levels. The level cap was raised to 90. Top level players could farm food needed for cooking.

While subscriptions went up temporarily, again it didn't last. Once again, they began to fall. By June 2014, subscriptions had fallen to about 6.8 million players. While still far more than other MMOs, the game had a little more than half the numbers of it's peak. Different people had different explanations. Some thought WoW had softened the edge of the game a bit, calling the Pandaren too cartoonish and the Pet Battles too much like a kid's game of "Pokemon."  The idea of the "Sha," manefestations of negative energy, as enemies was also ridiculed. Hellscream's tyrannical ways in the plot was also dispiriting to some Horde players. Despite the showdown at the end, many players felt Pandaria was just too "Cheerful" compared to other expansions.

As the numbers plummeted, more people began to wonder if Blizzard had somehow lost it's edge. While no one was predicting the game to be shut down anytime soon, some thought the day would soon come that it would no longer dominate the MORPG field like it once did, but just had slightly higher numbers than the others, or even falling behind one or more of the competition. There were calls by some, such as Hamlet Au of New World Notes, that Blizzard needed to abandon it's "Pay to play" subscription model and adopt "Free to Play," in the words of one, "This is a dinosaur that refuses to die out."

With some predicting Blizzard's next expansion would either rejuvenate the game or witness it's slide into commonness, "Warlords of Draenor" came on the scene in November 2014. In the plotline, the former Horde tyrant Hellscream is about to be tried for war crimes, but is freed and sent back in time to Draenor to stop the demonic corruption of the Orcish clans. The result is an alternate timeline with Draenoe's orc clans united under Hellscream's "Iron Horde" and bent on conquest, not just Draenoe but Azeroth as well. Players join heroes of the Alliance and Horde in storming the portal, and setting up a base of operations to put a stop to Hellscream once and for all.

"Warlords" was in a way a return to the past for the players. They would be up against noted characters from the days of the "Warcraft" games preceding the MORPG. For this, players have a new world to fight on: Draenor, which is far different from the Outland of "Crusade." One big feature of the expansion is the player's Garrison, which serves as a center of operations. Players can recruit followers which can be sent on missions to gain experience, gold, and resources (making players quest-givers as well as takers). Player caps were raised to 100.

One feature was developed even before "Warlords" came on the scene: new character models. All races except for the Worgen, Goblins, and Pandaren have been given a graphical upgrade, looking sharper and more defined. The Darkmoon Faire was done away with. There was also a readjustment in the numbers of hitpoints and damage inflicted by higher level players and NPCs. A few player abilities were done away with to keep the game from being too complicated.

The immediate result surprised just about everyone, Blizzard included. Over three million additional people signed up for the game, and World of Warcraft was back to ten million subscribers. Clearly, there was still interest in the decade old MORPG, which also celebrated its tenth anniversary that month.

There have been other changes in the game over time. For instance in the original game, Hunters had to keep food in their inventory to feed their pets, otherwise it would become unhappy, and if unhappy for too long it would run away. Later things were changed so pets didn't run away even if unhappy. Then came more changes so players no longer had to feed their pets, unless they were badly hurt. Hunters also used to be able to wield melee weapons in addition to their ranged ones, but that feature was done away with. Rouges once had to mix their own poisons, by getting ingredients and flasks, with a poison-making level that was raised not unlike the alchemy skill. Later the poison making ability for rouges was done away with, replaced by vendors selling the completed poisons. Today, all but lower level rouges automatically carry some poisons, the variety depending on the level. And then there are the mounts. It used to take a player a long time to be able to get one, Level 40. Then the level required was lowered to 30. After while, it was lowered yet again to Level 20, with players about to get fast mounts at Level 40. the locations for items or actions needed for quests are now visible on the map instead of players having to figure them out themselves.

Some players feel these changes have left the game a shadow of it's former self, that it isn't as good as it used to be, players able to travel faster and finish quests faster. There have been bootlegged private servers which offer players the original World of Warcraft experience. But the game's performance speaks for itself.

As it turns out, I've read that the World of Warcraft design team might not that be as concerned about numbers as some might think. One writer talking to them came away with the conclusion they were concentrating not on how many would play but just trying to make a great game. "On a daily basis, nobody's spending a lot of time paying attention to subscriber numbers," one designer was quoted as saying.

From a personal point of view, I can't help but wonder if many of the current subscribers are not from the recent past. the majority of my Second Life friends, as well as my real life friends, no longer play the game. So perhaps many of current numbers are playing for the first time or played in the past and took a break for a few years. The people whom first talked me into playing are gone as well. I took a break myself for a while, I may do so again.

So what's the future of the game? Had the game dwindled down to numbers comparable to other MORPGs, it would still have a legacy as being the trendsetter of it's genere of games. But it didn't. Ten years after people first signed up for it, it still dominates the field, and with ten million gamers, it will almost certainly be a force in the gaming world for some time to come. It could very well be around in another ten years, by which time there will be people playing it whom weren't even born yet at it's beginings.

And the next expansion? So far Blizzard isn't talking. So in the meantime. we might as well go "For the Horde!" or "For the Alliance!" and go to whatever journey that guy with the yellow exclamation point over his head put us on.

Sources: WoWWikiPCGamer, SL Newser

Bixyl Shuftan.