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World of Warcraft General Article: The Evolution of WoW

By Neilie Johnson on November 07, 2013

For many online gamers, time is designated as BWoW and AWoW (“Before World of Warcraft” and “After World of Warcraft”). The release of Blizzard Entertainment's genre-changing (some might say genre-stunting) massively multiplayer online game marks a pivotal point in video game history, and with WoW fast approaching its ninth anniversary, it seemed a good time to look back at the once-revolutionary RPG.

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Upon being given an assignment covering the history of WoW, the impulse was to title it,“The Rise and Fall of World of Warcraft”. The thing is, World of Warcraft hasn't fallen. Nine years after its initial release, it still boasts a subscriber base most games would kill for. Perhaps then, rather than discuss how the game has declined, we should examine how it's evolved.

World of Warcraft was announced in 2001 at the (now defunct) European Computer Trade Show. There, Blizzard execs promised gamers a diverse, accessible online gameplay experience that both hard-core and novice gamers could enjoy. This wasn't an idle affirmation; by then Blizzard had more than proven its ability to design games with mass market appeal. In fact, although officially World of Warcraft took  four years to develop, in a way it had been in the works since 1994. Blizzard's classic real-time-strategy title Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (released in 1994) redefined strategy game rules and served as a litmus test for Blizzard's philosophy of accessible design. The follow-up to that title, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness reinforced that success and convinced the development team it was onto something big.

Released in November of 2004, World of Warcraft was built upon the Warcraft series' well-established foundation. It made use of its cartoonish graphics but presented them on a monumental scale. It also took advantage of, and built upon, Warcraft lore. Set four years after the events of Warcraft III: Frozen Throne, WoW let players join one (or more) of eight races as they struggled to recover from the ruinous war against the Burning Legion. Also, at long last, it let gamers familiar with the Warcraft backstory  step into a world they'd known only in a more distant RTS incarnation. Their minds were totally blown.

Critics and gamers alike celebrated World of Warcraft as a triumph in MMO gaming, and the reasons for this were manifold. Previous MMOs contained mechanics seemingly designed to punish gamers; WoW did away with these. By eliminating or minimizing pointless penalties, skillfully tutorializing, and adding quests into the game to make it more casual-gamer-friendly, Blizzard exponentially multiplied the appeal of the game. Although this strategy seemed to effectively drive the game's initial sales, (240,000 copies on release day made it the fastest-selling online game in history) few could have foreseen just how huge it would eventually become.

For the next five years and through two large expansions, Wrath of the Lich King and The Burning Crusade, WoW continued to be the MMO to beat as its player base grew. It was more than just a game—it became a cultural phenomenon. Obsessed fans not actively playing the game spent hours making videos of it—some of which, like the Leeroy Jenkins video, garnered millions of views on Youtube. The game bled even further into the mainstream media when the makers of Southpark created a WoW-themed episode called “Make Love Not Warcraft”  and DC's subsidary, Wildstorm, created a series of World of Warcraft graphic novels. In perhaps the strangest instance of WoW crossing over into real life, an unintentional in-game epidemic called The Corrupted Blood Plague provided information for doctors and academics regarding human behavior during an infectious outbreak.

Blizzard itself pushed the WoW brand as far as possible with a broad range of ancillary products such as stuffed animals, figurines, t-shirts, weapon replicas, costumes and collectibles coins. The natural culmination of this was the creation in 2005 of a Blizzard-themed fan event held in Anaheim California called Blizzcon. Though ostensibly held to promote all three branches of the company's  entertainment triumvirate—World of Warcraft, Diablo and Starcraft—WoW was clearly the dominant property.

Though WoW made hundreds of millions of dollars for Blizzard and broke plenty of cultural and financial ground, for players its real achievement was creating an online world more immersive than anything they'd ever seen. I myself entered the realm of Azeroth in 2005, and it was an unforgettable experience. Despite its stylized graphics, the world was extremely real, and every area had its own distinct look, sound and feel. Questing the first couple of days with my husband was magical and we commented to one another that it was as close as we'd ever get to stepping into one of our favorite fantasy stories—stories like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Every town, forest and glade held the promise of wonder, reward and excitement—or of course, death.

I'll never forget the stomach-churning time during our pre-mount days, when our cute little pink-haired gnomes crossed The Barrens on foot. We held our collective breath throughout, hoping to complete my warlock's felsteed quest but fully expecting to suffer a violent death. Another fond memory involves a disastrous run through the Deadmines. We met a couple of friendly strangers while creeping around Westfall, and due to an ignominious (and ultimately fatal) un-grouping mistake, took until four in the morning to get through the instance. (By the way, WoW really does change lives. Today these friendly strangers—a husband and wife—are great real-life friends of ours, and it's crazy to think how much time's passed since that fatal run. They had a toddler then; that toddler's now nine years old and plays his own Night Elf hunter.)

WoW gave us seemingly endless opportunities for exploration and adventure and we recorded all of them with folders full of commemorative screen shots. (There's still a framed photo of our guild on my desk.) These moments of virtual bonding had a profound effect on us, and at its peak in 2010, WoW was providing unforgettable experiences like these for more than 12 million gamers. Which isn't to say that people didn't find things to complain about. Over the life of the game, there were a good number of changes made that became subject to heated debate.

Players like us who'd joined the game early on had fond memories of things like risking life and limb to attain that flaming felsteed or hoofing it to a distant dungeon and bribing a Warlock into summoning the rest of their party. We crusty old timers didn't want our memories messed with, and when later updates brought things like auto-queue and low-cost mounts, we groused like a gaggle of granddads.  Some of us also complained about things like the continuity-breaking inclusion of the Draenei race and more recently, the addition of the fanciful Pandarens.

Because of this, pundits spent years saying the game's success couldn't possibly last, but even after the mixed response to Cataclysm, its third expansion, WoW still remained the MMO to beat. (Note: today there 's still a vocal sub-group of players who dream of returning to WoW's glory days via servers dedicated to pre-expansion WoW. They also want you to get off of their lawn.)

Since the game's fourth expansion, 2012's The Mists of Pandaria, subscriptions have declined, and as of July 2013, the population has sunk from twelve to seven million. Still, that's an impressive number for any game, let alone a nine year old MMO. The shrinkage is significant, but could be blamed as much on a changing game audience as on the age of the game. The rise of casual and mobile games, not to mention the free-to-play business model, has console game developers scrambling and hardware makers positioning themselves as purveyors not just of games, but of entertainment. On top of that, gamers these days are less inclined to pay a subscription fee, and WoW's bent somewhat to the trend by offering gamers a free starter edition and free access to the game until level 20. Still, even in this challenging atmosphere and after four expansions, five new races, umpteen new zones, countless patches and one Guinness World Record later, (for world's most-popular MMORPG) WoW is still holding its own.

As far as the what the future holds for World of Warcraft, Blizzard's website shows that they're still hiring developers for the game and this month, they're busily connecting realms to support the less populous ones. All evidence points to Blizzard continuing to support its flagship creation, including its upcoming free-to-play, WoW-themed digital card game Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. At this writing, rumors abound regarding the company's new MMO—code name “Titan”— which is currently in production and due sometime within the next two years. Of course, whether that game reinvigorates WoW or renders it obsolete remains to be seen.

Regardless, World of Warcraft fans remain optimistic that their favorite game's got a good deal of life left in it yet and are happily preparing for Blizzcon 2013. This year, the once more sold-out event (which takes place in Anaheim this week, November 8-9) will give attendees the opportunity to rub-shoulders with Blizzard developers, get sneak-peeks at new Blizzard content, and compete in Blizzcon's own version of America's Got Talent. 

Without doubt, World of Warcraft holds a distinct place in video game history. There's also some question of whether when it passes, it'll take the Golden Age of the MMO along with it. There's really no way of knowing. Current game and economic trends could mean we're headed toward a more level playing field full of great new online properties. It could also mean we're in for a genre full of less-innovative, more metrics-driven games. However and whenever the end comes though, you can be sure of one thing; when World of Warcraft is no more, we one-time heroes of Azeroth will definitely mourn its passing. 

Neilie Johnson / Neilie Johnson is a freelance contributor to MMORPG.com. She''s been writing about games since 2005, developing games since 2002, and playing them since the dawn of time. OK not really, but she''s pretty sure she''s got controllers older than you. Witness her game-related OCD on Twitter @bmunchausen.

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