Former Lead Producer Looks Back on WoW's History

The World of Warcraft mini-anniversary site just received a couple of updates. The most noteworthy addition is an interview with former World of Warcraft Lead Producer Shane Dabiri, who has been a Blizzard employee for 15 years and started out working on the original Warcraft. While the massive Q&A session doesn't contain any earth-shattering news, it's an interesting look at the history of WoW through the eyes of a man who was there from the start.

For example, Dabiri's favorite moments as a WoW player are when they took down Onyxia and Ragnaros: "We developed it, we tested those areas, and people think, 'Oh, yeah, they tested it, they know everything about it, they’ll just waltz through there…' I don’t remember how many times we wiped, but we were looking up strategies on forums from players, even though we knew how the encounter was tuned!" You can read many more interesting anecdotes after the jump.

In addition, the second tile of the Battlecry Mosaic has been revealed. Have you submitted your photo yet?

Blizzard Insider: Just to lay out a bit of your background for the readers -- you were the lead producer on World of Warcraft, you’ve been with Blizzard Entertainment now for 15 years, and you started out working on the original Warcraft.

Shane Dabiri: Yes, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. I was one of the original beta-testers on it.

You were basically the first ‘producer’ at Blizzard, the guy who they based that role around.

I was. We had to kind of figure out what a producer was in order to give me that role.

When you started working on World of Warcraft, did you come on from the very conception of the idea, or did you join later in development?

There were actually two important milestones before I started working on World of Warcraft. I was the lead producer on Starcraft: Brood War. After that wrapped up, we were trying to figure out what kind of project I would go on to next. I was doing some localization work for Brood War, but then we started up a new team, working on a top-secret internal project. It ended up that we spent probably six months to a year on that game before we realized that it wasn’t any good and didn't live up to our standard of quality. We really didn’t have enough design focus on it and we didn’t have a full-time art team on it, so we ended up scrapping it. But we put together a team, so we started talking about what we would do next. Around that time, a lot of us were playing EverQuest. We were in the EverQuest beta, and we’d played it quite a bit. Our previous games had had an online multiplayer component to them, so we were used to the idea. We were very enamored with EverQuest, and it was an obvious evolution of where we were headed -- we thought we should do something on that scale. So we sat down and started to discuss making our own MMO. It didn’t start out as World of Warcraft, though. Initially, we were trying to figure out whether we wanted the game to be StarCraft, Diablo, Warcraft, or something else. After much discussion, we settled on Warcraft because we felt that the fantasy genre would be the most approachable to gamers in general.

It was in vogue with a lot of MMOs at the time.

We’d thought about a StarCraft MMO, but we figured that a science-fiction MMO would be a little less approachable. So we were excited to go down that path, and we transitioned the top-secret team to become the World of Warcraft team.

Was that a mostly well-loved decision? Was it like, “yeah, MMO, let’s do this!”

Within the group -- our really small team of ten -- we thought it was a great idea. The company didn’t necessarily think it was a great idea. Even though some of us were playing MMOs, the MMO genre was still a new paradigm for gaming.

With most games, you eventually beat them and move on.

Yeah, and you were done with it. Well, the whole point of MMOs is not that you’re supposed to say you won, or beat the game -- it’s that you have these many successes along the way. For me, and for Allen Adham, who was one of our co-founders, and some of the other guys on the team, we had grown up with EverQuest, Ultima Online, and with Meridian 59. We played Gemstone, where we spent 300 bucks a month on a text MUD. We knew that there was something about this genre that was going to break out, and it was just a matter of trying to convince the rest of the company that it was going to happen.

How did you do that?

It was very hard. I don’t think there was anything that we could say to convince them. We had to show them. To be honest, through our entire development, it wasn’t until we did our company alpha, and let the company play the game, that they really started to go, “Wow. Now I get it. This is actually really fun.” I have a really interesting story that I always share about our executive vice-president of game development and co-founder, Frank Pearce. Back in the day, he was one of the big naysayers. He was one of the guys saying, “Why the hell would I ever play this? Who’s gonna pay fifteen bucks for this? How do you win?” When we moved into our company alpha-test, he was there after work, playing it all the time, on the weekends, and he actually said, “this is really fun.” That’s when we knew we’d made it. If we could convince someone who was totally on the other side of the fence, to all of a sudden be on board, we figured that we’d created something really special.


At what point does the switch flip in your mind that says, “this is gonna be pretty big?” When did you realize that it was going to be a) a success and b) the success that it wound up being?

That’s a good question. We didn’t go into it thinking, “Let’s have millions of subscribers.” We went into it thinking, “Let’s just make a game that’s really compelling, that has persistent features, where you can level up your character, play with your friends from around the world, and live that MMO experience that we really wanted to have.” I keep bringing our Alpha test up because, until that point, I think we were really unsure of ourselves. We were thinking, “Is this going be any good?” That’s a common theme with a lot of our games -- there’s always a point in development where we lose perspective after being so close to the project for so long, and we wonder, “This might not be good,” or “this doesn’t feel fun anymore.” We went into alpha testing, and we had all these fears, like, “This part’s not done, that part’s not done, this part is horrible, people are gonna hate it,” -- we were just bracing ourselves for bad news. Well, we immediately started to get very, very positive results from people, like, “This is fun,” “I’ve never played anything like this,” or “This is amazing.” We thought that, since it was a company ‘friends and family’ alpha test, people were going to say that, so we prodded them, “Come on, there has to be something wrong with it.” We found out that they were being very honest with us.

Now, there were things wrong with World of Warcraft -- I’m not gonna say that it was perfect, but people were having a lot of great times with the game. The other thing that happened during the Alpha is that we really started to see where we should focus our time. Game elements that we’d previously thought would be incomprehensible, people understood, and they didn’t comment on those things, so we knew we’d done a good job there. The feedback really helped us solidify what we should work on next, and the things they’d told us they didn’t like, we were able to improve. The Alpha test lasted a long time -- this was in 2002, going into 2003.

What were the “big hits?” What were the things that people absolutely loved about the game, the things that they gushed about to you?

It was primarily the risk/reward system. It was the first time they were playing a Diablo-style game, in this perspective, with this rich world. I think the first thing that everyone started gushing about was when we added gryphons in the game, and you could fly from one end of the world to the other. That was a “wow” moment. Another thing that impressed people was the seamless nature of the world. There wasn’t a lot of loading, and people were like, “how did you guys make this happen? This seems like an engineering feat!”

To be honest, we did it by the seat of our pants -- none of us had ever made an MMO before. None of us had ever made a 3D game, or worked in a 3D environment -- it was a new endeavor for all us.

It seems to have worked.

It’s kind of like the moon landing -- the thing that never should have happened, but did. I look back at World of Warcraft itself that way. I could tell you mechanically a lot of how we got there, but, man, it’s amazing that we made it through.

What elements of the team and the culture saw you through all those challenges?

The one answer, for me, is naiveté. I think we were a little naïve when we were making World of Warcraft -- we really didn’t know what we were getting into. There’s something about being naïve when you go into something that you’ve never done before that lets you accomplish things you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. You simply don’t know that you can’t, or shouldn’t.

What areas of the game do you think came through strictly because of naiveté, and your lack of cynicism?

I think the open-world, persistent nature of the zones. At the time, a lot of games were heavily divided into zones, but we only instanced our dungeons. The presence of the auction house was also a pretty naïve effort -- up until that point, most games had done open trade channels, and there was this fear that if we did auction houses, we’d ruin our community. With trade channels, people post their descriptions, they meet up, and there’s a bit of forced socialization. There’s a good side to that, but then there’s a tricky side to it too -- what if the guy scams you, or he doesn’t show up? You also have to be online at the same time as the other traders -- there were a lot of things we didn’t like about just relying on trade channels. When it came time to create the auction house, we didn’t know how exactly we’d do it with our servers, because there was a lot of data we needed to push around, but we saw that it made the game better, and we didn’t lose out on people wanting to interact with each other, because people still wanted to do that.

What’s your baby, your brainchild in World of Warcraft? What’s the thing that you’re the absolute closest to? It’s fair for you to say “the whole game,” but I’m wondering if there’s any one thing you fought for, that you had to have in.

Gosh, that’s a good question. You know, I’m gonna go out a limb. It’s even less about the game for me -- the game was an endeavor that all of us participated in, and I don’t think there was a whole lot of fighting on how to get my points in versus somebody else’s -- we all tried to get our preferences in. To me, what I’m most proud of is the team that we developed, the team that made that game. They were some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with, but, at the same time, they had no experience working in this type of genre, and they still pulled it off. That’s the thing I’m most proud of.

Can we talk about the team a little bit? After The Burning Crusade, you moved on to work for a different team here -- what do you miss about working with the World of Warcraft team?

I miss the people. To me, there are a few things that keep people at a game company. First is the games, and the second is the people. I absolutely loved both of those things working on World of Warcraft. Leaving the game was actually easier for me to do than leaving the people. These are the people that I bled and sweated with in the trenches for five years of development and two years of post-ship. They’re people that became family members; the ones that you remember picking you up when you were down. They’re more than just co-workers -- they really became friends.

So, people notwithstanding, what do you take from working on World of Warcraft to your new team?

I take a lot more knowledge of what not to do with me. Even with World of Warcraft being the success that it is, we had to make a lot of mistakes along the way, and really learn how to do it right. I’ll be the first to tell anyone that it was not a perfect trip. There were a lot of ups and downs. We took a lot of false turns. All of that experience is invaluable to another MMO endeavor. It’s just something that you can’t really talk about until you’ve done it.

While you were working with the World of Warcraft team, did you guys have any interesting rituals or anything that might make for a good anecdote?

Whenever we shipped a product, we did a champagne celebration -- I think that’s something that everyone always looked forward to. That was always really fun. Every month we had birthday cake -- we have this all around the company, but we followed a tradition from when I first started at Blizzard of singing the birthday song. “Happy Birthday” is a pretty well-known song, but at Blizzard we kind of sing it a little differently. The Blizzard version of the birthday song has its roots from when we were a small company -- we were not very good singers, so everyone would sing it in their own key, at their own speed. They’d have to sing all the words, but that was it -- so when you’d hear us sing the song, it ended up not being “Happy Birthday” the way you normally hear it, but just a cacophony of sound, a big dissonant wail through the whole thing. That was an experience for any new person on the team.

Good answer. I want to move on to some broader questions. The first and most important one is “what is it about World of Warcraft that makes it as successful as it is?” It has its own coke cans, its own miniatures, it doesn’t necessarily feel like just a game anymore -- how did it get to that point?

It goes back to who we are as gamers. We had such a diverse group of gamers at the company that like to play such a broad variety of games -- we were known for RTS games, but we still like to play every type of game out there. Part of the challenge for World of Warcraft is that we were trying to make this game for everyone. We weren’t able to make it for everyone, but we did try to make it as broad and accessible as possible. The analogy I always used is that we didn’t want World of Warcraft to just be ‘good rewards, heavy PvP’ or ‘good exploration, good questing’ -- we wanted it to be more of an amusement park. When you go to an amusement park, you have your carousels, and your fair games, but then you’ve got your thrill rides, your rollercoasters, and things like that. We wanted World of Warcraft to have that same type of appeal -- we wanted it to appeal to anybody who came to the amusement park. We wanted there to be questing, exploration, tradeskills, places for people to meet each other, dungeons, PvP, and massive raids. So we focused on a broad range of those types of activities, and then tried to make them as deep as possible. To me, that feels like a big part of why World of Warcraft is successful.

A second part of the success of World of Warcraft is the art style that we chose. With a lot of games at the time, 3D graphics were prevalent, people were trying to do bleeding-edge 3D graphics, and the problem with that is that they’re only bleeding-edge for that year. Next year, there’s always something new -- and that’s if your computer can even handle it. We decided that we didn’t want to chase that idea -- we really wanted to create an art style that was timeless. The art that we enjoy the most is more stylized, more 2D, and less realistic. We felt like we didn’t need a bunch of bells and whistles to make the game look the way that we wanted it to. Creating art the way we did in World of Warcraft made it more approachable. If a realistic-looking game is released, you and I -- core gamers -- will definitely try it out, but my mom, my sister, people like that won’t necessarily want to pick it up because it feels too gritty or too real. Something that’s a bit more tongue-in-cheek or a bit more whimsical can appeal to a broader range of people.

Has that success spiral created any pressure to put more and more stuff in to fulfill that amusement park approach? Where do you draw the line?

Yes and no. We always want to do more to make the game more compelling for people, but at the same time, there are lines we don’t want to step over. We’re still figuring this balance to this day. It’s been five years, and we’re still trying to make sure that we keep the game’s integrity. We try to be very careful about the types of things we include. One of our core values is “gameplay first,” which means that if it an addition doesn’t provide something fun and compelling for our players, it’s not important for the game.

Good answer. Did anything happen during World of Warcraft's development that took you completely by surprise?

Oh, many things. When we shipped the game, the industry leader at the time had a peak subscribership of 450,000, and we thought, “That’s a lot of subscribers; that could be a real success.” We wanted to at least do that many, but we were targeting twice, if not a little more than that. We thought, “Let’s shoot big; let’s set a difficult goal for ourselves.” We set a goal of a million players within a year of the game’s release. Well, we shipped the game, and within the first month, we had already reached that milestone.

The crazy thing about it was that we had a plan for how we were going to deploy the realm hardware: they’d deploy at such-and-such a rate, and we’d bought all these systems, thinking, “We’re so prepared, we’re gonna have the most awesome launch ever.” We had 100 servers that we were going to deploy over 12 months, and we ended having to deploy all of those within the first month. We just could not meet the demand

Going through The Burning Crusade, there are elements of World of Warcraft that have changed -- progression and leveling, PvP and Arenas, adding in sockets and glyphs, the level cap change. What do you think is the most significant philosophical shift from day 1 to when you left the team?

I’d probably say PvP. We did quite a bit of stuff with PvP to make it more relevant to players and more interesting. Early on, we had an idea of what we wanted to do with PvP, but we never brought it to fruition until much later. We tried a few things along the way with the Honor System and Battlegrounds in the early days, and iteration is something that is core to who we are as Blizzard. We couldn’t just settle for what was out there, we had to improve upon it, iterate on it, take our players’ feedback and make it better.

What we’re doing with Cataclysm makes me feel really proud. By returning to the Old World, we think we can improve it using many things we learned in the last two expansions. Technology has advanced a bit, we have much better understanding of the development cycle, and we do a much better job in general developing new content. Cataclysm is going be a huge improvement to the game as a whole. All those Old World zones that everyone kind of left when they moved on to Outland and Northrend can actually be experienced in a new light.

Is there an Old World relic you’re particularly excited about?

I have to say that my most favorite zone is still Stranglethorn because it was the first jungle we’d done. With designing Stranglethorn, we really got to play a lot more with the art style, saw a lot more richness come out in the art, and it wound up being a really big zone.

Do you have a favorite moment from World of Warcraft as a player?

Yes. There are actually two -- first, when we took down Onyxia, and, second, when we took down Ragnaros in Molten Core. For a lot of people, that’s probably a memorable moment, but for me even more so. We developed it, we tested those areas, and people think, “Oh, yeah, they tested it, they know everything about it, they’ll just waltz through there…” I don’t remember how many times we wiped, but we were looking up strategies on forums from players, even though we knew how the encounter was tuned! The moment we did it, it was such a sense of achievement for everyone in the party; it was if we were playing someone else’s game. It meant a lot that we could get that type of feeling out of our own game. Out of game, it would probably be the Fry’s Electronics signing -- we were worried that nobody was going to show up, and then we got there and there were thousands of people around the building, and people had come from cross-country, even from other countries just to get to this signing. It was really humbling. We were there until 5 or 6 a.m., we ran out of boxes, and we had to send a car back to our office to get more boxes from our own supply. The thing is, I wanted to make sure that every single person that came there got something, a signature or something -- but it was fun. It was rewarding, like when you make a good meal for somebody -- it doesn’t feel like work.

Can you describe the high point of your time working on World of Warcraft?

I don’t know if it’s so much for the game, but a personal high point for me was our first BlizzCon after launch. When we first started the company, we went to CES, the consumer electronics show -- we were debuting Warcraft: Orcs & Humans there. We had a 10x10-foot booth, with a 36-inch TV on this media cart, showing the cinematic. There were a few of us manning the booth in our Blizzard shirts, and people would come and ask us questions -- first five, then ten, then a crowd, and we were in awe, thinking, “this is so cool, we’re making games, and we have a booth!” At the first BlizzCon, having ten thousand people show up in the Anaheim Convention Center -- when I first started at this company, I would never have thought that ten or twelve years later I’d be at that point, that I would be sitting there talking to ten thousand members of our community. We probably could have invited twenty or thirty thousand with the way that those tickets sold out -- it was unreal. We had never gotten into this business because we wanted to be rock stars -- we’re gamers first, and we wanted to make games that we’d enjoy, and that people would love to play. To talk to the community, and hear their admiration for the game we created, was amazing and humbling. All the toil and sweat, blood, tears, ups and downs, five years of development,-- this is what it was about. That was probably my highest point.

What do you see as the legacy of World of Warcraft? When, 20 years from now, people are reading game development textbooks, and they come to the page on World of Warcraft, what is it going to say about the game?

There are so many things, things that I won’t know for the next 10 or 20 years. I can say that we revitalized a genre that people thought was too expensive, and not lucrative enough to get into. At the time, a lot of people were trying MMOs, and their success was limited. When World of Warcraft came out with millions of subscribers after five years, people saw the possibilities. If you do things right, appeal to the amusement park style of gaming, create an environment that’s open, appealing, and makes people laugh and smile, there’s immense possibility.

Another thing that’s been huge for World of Warcraft is that it’s done a great job of bringing people together. I always hear stories of families -- Mom lives on the east coast, her son lives on the west coast, and the way they communicate with each other is through the game. I also hear stories about people who met their spouses in World of Warcraft. We weren’t making a dating service or a phone system -- we were making a game, but, at the end of the day, it ended up becoming more than that. A lot of times, people don’t just log in to turn in a quest or go kill a gnoll -- they log in to see what their friends are doing. That’s probably the biggest legacy of this type of gaming -- you can play a game and still have it be a social experience.

Thanks, Shane.


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