With the excitement of BlizzCon and World of Warcraft nearing its 5th anniversary, it's hard to remember a time when the Warcraft universe wasn't the center of attention for countless gamers.
With the excitement of BlizzCon right around the corner and World of Warcraft nearing its fifth anniversary, it's hard to remember a time when the Warcraft universe wasn't the center of attention for countless gamers. Actually, countless isn't the right word. According to Blizzard's last announcement in December 2008, the chart-topping MMO is played by more than 11.5 million subscribers worldwide. And that number doesn't take into account the PC games, books, comics, board game, pen-and-paper RPG, trading cards, miniatures, action figures and the upcoming movie that all bear the familiar yellow and orange logo of the franchise.
So how did Azeroth get its start and become the stomping grounds of so many avatars? Well, the MMO behemoth actually has its roots set in some very humble beginnings. Blizzard Entertainment was founded in 1991 by Michael Morhaime, Allen Adham and Frank Pearce as Silicon & Synapse. Luckily the name changed, or we'd all be attending or downloading streaming footage from SiliCon this weekend. The trio had just graduated from UCLA and initially focused on making ports before developing such gems as The Lost Vikings and Rock N' Roll Racing. I'm personally hoping we'll hear plans for a Lost Vikings III at BlizzCon, but I'm not holding my breath.
It turns out 1994 was a big year for the company. First it changed its name to Chaos Studios, but quickly switched to the Blizzard Entertainment moniker we're so familiar with today. This was also the year that marked the launch of Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, the real-time strategy game that signaled the company's first foray into the original franchise we've come to know and love. And thus, the Warcraft universe was born a decade before World of Warcraft would hit shelves.
It's interesting to note that Ultima Online and EverQuest, the titles that brought massively multiplayer games to the forefront, were released in 1997 and 1999, respectively. The lore behind World of Warcraft was taking form years before either of these titans found their way onto the PCs of excited gamers, which is a fact newer WoW players may take for granted. Sure, the gameplay and mechanics of WoW are fun, but there's a detailed story in there, too; one that quickly began to branch out from the initial RTS game. (EDIT: As two ZAM readers mentioned in the comments section, Ultima Online lore is based upon Richard Garriott's Ultima series of games, which date back to 1980).
Blizzard released Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness in 1995 and Chris Metzen, the company's current vice president of creative development, gave some interesting insight on the creation of the game's story to Dan Brodnitz of About Creativity in April 2008. Basically, Metzen's start at Blizzard was totally random when a friend of a friend approached him at a bar and commended Metzen's drawing of a dragon on a cocktail napkin. The friend suggested Metzen apply at then-Chaos Studios as an artist and he got a job working as an animator on Justice League Task Force. Here's what happened next:
"By the time we began Warcraft II, I stayed late and wrote up a few paragraphs of what might have happened between the games that would set up a sequel, or begin to set up the scope or anticipation of the sequel. I didn't plan to show it to anybody, and I guess one of the other designers showed it to the boss one night, unbeknownst to me. A couple days of later we're at a meeting, and the boss says, 'Oh, and, by the way, Chris is our new designer on Warcraft II.' I'm like, 'Holy crap! Really?! Why?' But he knew. He knew that while I loved drawing...ultimately he knew I just wanted to make stuff up."
So Blizzard was started by three guys straight out of college and Metzen, the company's go-to guy for Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo lore, got noticed in a bar for drawing a dragon on a napkin. These probably aren't the business practices most students learn about in school, but thankfully for the 11.5 million WoW subscribers, it worked.
Beyond the Dark Portal, the only expansion for Warcraft II, was released in 1996, which left fans waiting in anticipation for Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos in 2002. The return trip to Azeroth was immensely popular, and even introduced us to Night Elves and the Undead. But just because new Warcraft games weren't being churned out during that six-year gap (well, aside from the Warcraft II: Battle.net Edition) doesn't mean the lore was going unnoticed. Richard A. Knaak's "Day of the Dragon," the first novel set in the Warcraft universe, came out in February 2001, kicking off an important year for WoW players. In September 2001, Blizzard's Bill Roper (who has since joined Cryptic Studios), announced at the European Computer Trade Show that the company was working on an MMO set in the Warcraft universe. Art Director Sam Didier recently looked back at the decision to switch from an RTS to an MMO with Eurogamer:
"I'm not sure if this is exactly where it started - but at one time, we had a behind-the-character camera in Warcraft III, much like you see in WOW now. We were thinking of a slightly different, RTS-slash-RPG vibe for the game. We ended up going back more to the RTS side, but I remember seeing those first builds of the game: you're running around with the Archmage or the Blademaster, right behind him. You see the horizon, and the enemy camps in front... I think that helped to establish the feeling that, wow, our game would look awesome like this."
Metzen also tells Eurogamer,"At the time a lot of us were playing EverQuest and Ultima Online," which shows how much of an influence these two MMO grandfathers were for the industry. In fact, both have expansions coming out this year, demonstrating the games still have life in them more than a decade later.
So what kind of lifespan can we expect to get out of WoW and the Warcraft franchise? The trading card and miniatures games still offer players a different way to explore the world, although they certainly haven't obtained the popularity of the MMO. As far as fiction is concerned, Wildstorm is publishing comics and novels, such as Christie Golden's recent "Arthas: Rise of the Lich King," still line shelves in bookstores.
And then there's World of Warcraft. The game is already turning five years old in November, but excitement remains high as fans prepare for BlizzCon this weekend and rumors surrounding the possible expansion have started some big discussions among players about what a revamp of Azeroth would mean for both the game and the lore. And let's not forget Blizzard announced last month that Sam Raimi will be directing the World of Warcraft movie, which means we'll still be seeing the Alliance and Horde for at least a couple more years.
On the other hand, WoW is not the only MMO on Blizzard's plate. A few months ago on the official forums, Zarhym stated the new endeavor is "a shell of a game thus far" and "it'll be a brand new franchise," which has led some players to wonder if World of Warcraft is no longer the company's top priority. Eric Heimburg of the MMO game development blog Elder Game suggested last month that WoW is currently being run by its B-team since A-teamers have left WoW to work on the unannounced MMO. For example, Jeff "Tigole" Kaplan said farewell to WoW in February for just this reason.
Only time will tell what the future holds for WoW, but it's safe to say the lore will stick around for the foreseeable future. When the first Warcraft game came out 15 years ago, I doubt anyone at the young Blizzard knew the lands and characters in their original universe would be part of stories rivaling those of Middle-earth, Norrath, or the multitude of other fantasy worlds that inspired World of Warcraft. So whether you enjoy the amount of merchandise that currently carries the Warcraft name or feel the franchise is being spread too thin, I'm sure you'll be seeing that familiar logo on monitors and in stores for quite some time.
Darryl "Togikagi" Gangloff