Blizzard Reflects on Five Years of World of Warcraft

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On November 23, 2004, Blizzard Entertainment launched what would become one of the most successful games in video game history — World of Warcraft. Two expansions, 11.5 million global subscribers and an Emmy-winning South Park parody later, the massively multiplayer online fantasy game is still going strong.

Blizzard’s Jeff Kaplan, formerly WoW‘s game director now working on the company’s unannounced MMO, talked to Techland about the title’s five-year anniversary, and where he sees it five years from now.

Techland: What were your expectations when the game first launched? Did you ever think it would get this big?

Jeff Kaplan: I never thought it would get as big as it is. I remember one day we were having this great insecurity… it was after one E3 where we had seen Star Wars Galaxies show this beautiful movie. We were still kind of under wraps working on WoW, and we had this meeting with about 40 of us and everyone was like, “I can’t believe that our game is going to come out in the same time period as Star Wars Galaxies and EverQuest II!”

And these were all games that we were looking forward to and were really excited about, so there was some doubt on the team. We were having these moments where we’re like, “Are people going to like our game?”

And Alan (Adham) — who was one of the founders of Blizzard and the original lead designer on the game — stood up in front of the team and said, “We’re going to have a million subscribers.” And then he just gave us this amazing pep talk about how talented the team was, how hard they were working, and it was very inspirational to us because he was such a great leader here at Blizzard.

I remember thinking, “Wow, it would be amazing to even try to reach the numbers that EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot achieved, let alone reach one million subscribers.” It was almost like a fantasy. Now looking back, here we are in 2009 — not only was Alan right but he was right eleven times over. It’s basically amazing and it has exceeded every expectation that I personally had.

Techland: When did you guys know the game was a success?

Kaplan: That moment happened I think about 20 minutes after the game went live, where we went, “Oh crap, we need to get 50 more servers right now!” We had, in our vast knowledge and experience back in 2004, this whole plan of rolling out of servers and how over our first year we were going to expand. Should we be fortunate enough to have a successful game, we had what we called, the “dark server plan,” which were servers that weren’t on yet but were ready for production.

Then the day that the game went live, we had to flip the switch on our entire back lot of servers! And suddenly, it became more of an issue for our purchasing guys. Like “We need to get hardware,” and “How are we going to get it fast?” and “Who are we going to get it from?” It was insanity. That’s the only way I can describe the launch period.

Techland: What’s your favorite thing or memory about WoW?

Kaplan: My favorite thing, and this is going to sound really boring but… I have this weird nostalgia for the (in-game) zone of Westfall. Which, is not a particularly epic zone, if anything if you compare it to other WoW zones, the storyline is sort of pedestrian, you have these beautiful wheat fields. The story is about these farmers driven off their farm, these workers that never got paid for the job that they did and then they turned into a gang.

World of Warcraft's Westfall is overrun with unruly bandits thanks to Kaplan.

But I just have a nostalgic feeling for that zone because it was the first part of WoW that I was really fortunate enough to get to work on. It was really where I began to hone my development skills. The sad part is, even though I feel the art stands up to this day and I still think it’s one of the best-looking zones in the game, my quests are horrible in that zone! (laughs)

Which is why I’m so excited for (the third World of Warcraft expansion) Cataclysm. I keep talking to our lead world designer, and I’m like, “Dude, you’ve got to fix Westfall. I can’t believe I put those quests in there!” At the time it really held a place in my heart, and it still does to this day, just because of it being one of the earliest areas that I worked on. Not every part of WoW can be a big dragon fight or whatever, and I think Westfall plays into that.

Techland: If you could do it over what things would you change about WoW?

Kaplan: I think the development team on WoW is doing an amazing job right now, and they’ve really honed their craft. I think where you can really see the difference is, if you compare WoW of 2004 to where it’s at now, you see all those lessons that we’ve learned on how to do things better.

Flying mounts were added in WoW's 2007 Burning Crusade expansion.

I think the evolution of (player-versus-player) and all of the PvP systems in the game really shows what we’ve learned. The change in the raiding paradigm… I wish we could’ve come out with raiding at a smaller size back in the day and always embrace that. I think we could’ve spent our time in ways that would’ve delivered content to even more players had we done that. We learned how to evolve our quest system, and there’s some amazing changes coming up in the upcoming 3.3 patch.

The nice part about a game like WoW is when you ask, “What would you have done differently?” is that we’ve been able to do all those things differently. We have been able to change the game, and I think that only comes by having a dev team that is super passionate about it. And luckily, we’ve been able to make those changes.

Techland: How much does WoW come into what your new project?

Kaplan: I definitely can’t go into any details on the new project but I can tell you that — without a doubt — WoW comes up in every conversation that we have. We talk about player psychology a lot. What motivates players, what causes them to have fun and those types of things. And WoW is the ultimate test case for that because there is such a broad array of playstyles represented.

You really have a diverse community there. That really applies to all Blizzard games, not just the new project. I think when we look at (Blizzard’s other upcoming titles) Diablo III and Starcraft II, we’re constantly evaluating, “What would the WoW playerbase think of this?” and “What types of gameplay do they react well to?” WoW has really broadened our view of players because the players are so broad in their demographic.’

The upcoming Cataclysm expansion includes a new race of goblins.

Techland: Where do you see WoW five years from now?

Kaplan: If I was still part of the development team, that would be a stressful question, because I know all the work that needs to go into that next five years. But now I feel very fortunate, having been someone on that team, and knowing the road map and all of the exciting content that that team has and are actively working on.

Also, the refinement of the service. There are technological advances that actually cause WoW to be a better game. These are things that the WoW players are never going to have any insight to, like “Wow, the servers now have more capacity than they ever had before!” or the cross-server instancing (in the upcoming 3.3 patch).

That’s something we couldn’t have done five years ago, even from a technological standpoint. So there’s a lot, I think, as technology advances, you’re also going to see. Using Cataclysm as an example, on the art side, our artists are constantly evolving the style and have more tools in their toolbox than ever before because of the advancement in technology.

So it’s the combination of the creative ideas, the expertise of the development team and the advancement in technology that mean WoW will be an even greater game five years from now. It’s really really exciting from a pure fanboy standpoint of the things that are coming down the pipe. I can’t wait.