I spoke earlier about how much it cost to build a high quality MMO. Back in the early 2000s, it was taking around $25M to make them. For most companies, this was a pretty big investment, especially if you were building the IP (intellectual property, i.e., game world and its lore) from scratch. That drove up the costs and made it riskier because you were hoping to attract an audience that would invest itself in the game world you built. What if you had a game world that was already wildly popular?
In 1994, Blizzard Entertainment published Warcraft: Orcs & Humans as a real-time strategy game with a multi-player capacity. It was wildly popular, selling 100,000 units in it first year, and over 300,000 in its lifetime. This game made Blizzard Entertainment profitable which then enabled it to expand upon this game and its game world. Its sequel, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness came out in December of 1995 and was even more popular than the original, selling over 3 million units by 2001. Unlike the original, this edition allowed more players to connect to each other over the Internet using program known as Kali. It was this success which allowed Blizzard to continue to expand its gaming empire.
They followed up with an expansion to Warcraft II known as Beyond the Dark Portal in 1996 and a space fantasy version of the game called StarCraft in 1998. It too was successful. Blizzard was moving a lot of game units, but it was the start of the Battle.net system and the release of Diablo, which you could play with others via that system and the subsequent release of Everquest in 1999 that set the stage for the development of World of Warcraft. Diablo sold over 1 million copies in it first year and 2 million by the end of 1998. Its sequel, Diablo 2 broke its predecessor’s records in 2000. With Everquest being so successful as a MMO, inevitably discussion about how a Warcraft themed MMO would fare began. At some point in 2000, Blizzard began the development of what would become World of Warcraft.
Announced in 2001, excitement for this game built up, especially when Blizzard released Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos in July 2002 and a sequel for it, The Frozen Throne in 2003. Both were hot sellers using 3D graphics with over a million units sold in its first month, breaking the records for Diablo II. These games served to whet the appetite for World of Warcraft. Finally, after months of hype, the game was released on November 23rd, 2004 where it quickly established itself as the behemoth of MMOs. Remember, EQ2 had already come out and was selling well, but when WoW hit the market, it blew past EQ2 and all other MMOs with ease.
The game setting was from Warcraft III with two continents, Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms. There were two sides players could choose to be part of with their characters, either the Horde, or the Alliance. Like most MMOs released to that point in time, WoW had resource gathering, craft skills, guilds, and plenty of quests. What really began to make WoW better than most MMOs at that point was in how character development worked, with alternate advancement that enhanced the character over time.
Also, there were quite a few World Dungeons in the game that worked off of instancing. Smaller dungeons were still around and everybody in the game could enter those and compete for what was in them. Instanced dungeons were neat in that the first player of a group to enter the dungeon formed a unique instance or separate copy of it. The group did not have to compete with other players for the content. This was a huge step forward in MMO development as previous MMOs did not have this feature which greatly reduced access to the content of most games, thus favoring the creation of super-guilds who blocked many players from enjoying the game. I know some players still dislike instanced content, but when you look at the populations of games with instanced content versus those without, the instanced content games have tremendously higher populations.
The graphics in the game were extremely good, but even more importantly, they weren’t as crazily detailed like the 3D graphics used in EQ2. In other words, you didn’t have to have a cutting-edge computer to play WoW at high settings like you did for EQ2. I still think this is what hurt EQ2 the most. I know plenty of players who chose WoW because they didn’t have a computer that could play EQ2 except at the absolute lowest graphics settings, whereas in WoW they were playing at medium or even higher settings easily.
Transportation features were installed in the game like boats and zeppelins for travel over long distances. PvP was optional or standard depending on servers although the two sided nature of the game was a strong element. Certain races were Kill on Sight (KOS) in some areas to the NPCs, but there was always a secret base of the opposing side giving out quests in each zone. Neutral NPCs would help both sides too through selling items and things.
The lore was outstanding. I enjoyed playing every race in its starting zones and surrounding areas. The Dwarven areas were really fun to play in. As the game progressed, the storyline continued smoothly up in level. It was just a lot of fun to play. Additional expansions added to the content and opened up additional areas to explore. Battlegrounds were added so players could just engage in all out combats and are still super popular. This game is still going strong today after 8 expansions. They did recently add a vanilla version of the game which is the classic original WoW with no expansions. There is also a Burning Crusades version which is the original game plus the Burning Crusade expansion. That was the first expansion of the game.
Unlike most of the MMOs out there today, WoW does not use a full Free-to-Play system which means you still have to buy a monthly subscription to play the game past level 20. To play the Classic WoW version, one has to have a subscription. Basically, Blizzard is still printing money with the game, but not at the pace it once did. This one game on its own has generated over $10B in revenue alone and is still producing more annually. The latest subscription figures have around 5 million subscribers still paying to play the game. As I write this, 1,109,441 accounts are actively logged into an official World of Warcraft server right now, and another 484,720 logged into a Classic Wow server. Not too shabby for a 17-year old game. Note I said official? There are several WoW emulators running online with the game in various levels of play. Some have a fairly large server population.
Unfortunately for many MMOs, WoW turned out to be a huge roadblock to success. Everybody wanted to build the next WoW and so far only a few have come even close to this. Final Fantasy XIV and The Elder Scrolls Online are two of the top challengers and both fall woefully short of the 12+ millions monthly subscribers WoW had at its peak in 2010. That’s just how popular the game was, not a knock on either of those other games which are very good games in their own right. Like Everquest, World of Warcraft would spawn its own tabletop RPG version, but it would surpass EQ and all other MMOs with a line of novels, a movie (successful too!), and its own animated series. Roughly $50M was invested in the creation of World of Warcraft, so that’s the minimum benchmark if one wants to even consider building a high quality MMO these days. Several since then have spent close to $200M on building one, with none having the insane success of WoW, although they were still very profitable overall.
To give you an idea of how popular the game still is, the last expansion, Shadowlands, sold 3.7 million copies breaking records of earlier expansions. If you are looking for a great MMO to play and want to pay a monthly subscription, World of Warcraft may be your thing!