Azeroth and beyond: Nine years of World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft
In 1999, Blizzard Entertainment was well on its way to becoming something of a titan in the PC gaming space. Riding high on hits like Diablo, Warcraft II, and the barely-a-year-old StarCraft, Blizzard had established itself as a purveyor of quirky, well-made, and entertaining games mostly of the RTS variety.

However, something else was brewing behind closed doors at Blizzard's Irvine campus. While sequels to Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo were all in development (and hotly anticipated), the company had also quietly started work on a brand-new massively-multiplayer online game set in one of the studio's existing game universes. That game, of course, was World of Warcraft. And nine years ago tomorrow, it completely changed the face of MMO gaming.

Early history

November 23rd marks the official ninth anniversary of World of Warcraft's North American release. But the game is much older than that. First announced in 2001, World of Warcraft had already been in development for two years and would require another three before seeing release. Beta testing began in 2003. It may come as a surprise to outsiders, but World of Warcraft has been an integral part of the lives of Blizzard employees for over 14 years.

World of Warcraft - Vanilla Azeroth Map
The World of Warcraft that hit shelves in 2004 is far different from the World of Warcraft we know today. The level cap, of course, was 60. There were two continents, Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor, and several areas within those continents had yet to be finished or populated with content (Hyjal, for example, was a mystery). The game launched with nine classes: Warlock, Hunter, Mage, Rogue, Priest, Warrior, and Druid, which were available to players on both the Horde and Alliance factions, as well as the Horde-exclusive Shaman and Alliance-exclusive Paladin.

Many people forget the limited state in which World of Warcraft launched. The game's first few patches, pushed live in the months immediately following release, introduced several of WoW's most iconic dungeons, the game's "Looking for Group" chat channel, meeting stones, and the PvP honor system. World of Warcraft's first two battlegrounds, Warsong Gulch and Alterac Valley, didn't go online until June of 2005, seven months after release. The game, like most new MMOs, was something of a work in progress.

World of Warcraft - Harvest Golem
In fact, when you look back through the patch history of WoW, you find that the World of Warcraft so many players lovingly refer to as "Vanilla WoW" didn't really take shape until September of 2005, when patch 1.7 introduced the Arathi Basin battleground and Zul'Gurub raid instance. While Burning Crusade, World of Warcraft's first expansion, was announced in October of 2005, it was the 16 months between September's update and that expansion's release that many WoW players consider to be the game's golden age.

The evolving Azeroth

2006 didn't bring a World of Warcraft expansion, but it did bring plenty of big changes to the way the game worked. January provided players with a world event and two new raid instances in the form of Ahn'Qiraj. March brought linked flight paths and the conversion of quest XP to gold for max level players. Naxxramas, the crushingly difficult raid seen by very few players and finished by even fewer, appeared in the skies above Eastern Plaguelands in June.

World of Warcraft - Jaina Proudmoore
It was during this time that hype over World of Warcraft hit a fever pitch. The game's subscriber base continued to rocket into the stratosphere. Five million players in December became six million in March and seven million in September. The World of Warcraft trading card game launched in October, and the now-famous South Park episode set in WoW's universe aired the very same month. Blizzard even announced that it had teamed with Legendary Pictures to make a live-action World of Warcraft film (one we're still waiting to see).

By the time Burning Crusade hit shelves in January of 2007, World of Warcraft was more than a game -- it was a phenomenon.

The Dark Portal opens

Burning Crusade landed on January 16th, 2007. The expansion moved 2.4 million copies in 24 hours, setting a day-one record for PC game sales in North America and Europe. Within a day of launch, 1.7 million players had logged in and tasted the wilds of Outland. The expansion dramatically shook up some of World of Warcraft's core systems; two new races were introduced (Draenei and Blood Elves), the level cap was raised to 70, flying mounts became something more than a forum fantasy, and the Paladin and Shaman classes became available to both factions.

World of Warcraft - Burning Crusade
World of Warcraft's development pace, at least from a player perspective, slowed down dramatically in 2007. Patches came on a nearly monthly basis, but big content additions were few and far between. Black Temple, in which players were offered the chance to face off with Illidan, the main Burning Crusade bad guy, hit in May, bringing with it World of Warcraft's first collection of daily quests. Zul'Aman showed up in November, along with guild banks. And while the game's second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, had been announced that August, that was pretty much it for 2007 in terms of content.

World of Warcraft - Illidan
Subscriptions, of course, continued to rise. By the time Fury of the Sunwell landed in March of 2008, World of Warcraft had 10 million subscribers. The game still had room to grow.

Wrath of some lich things

2008 was a big year for World of Warcraft. Authenticators debuted in June. Wrath of the Lich King's beta began in July. The Recruit-a-Friend program, through which players could invite buddies to receive a collection of special friends-only benefits, went live in August. In October, Blizzard prepped the world for the arrival of the Lich King by introducing the Inscription profession, removing the original Naxxramas, picking Dalaran up (and leaving a crater behind), and launching a zombie infestation event that rendered most of the game's capital cities completely uninhabitable.

World of Warcraft - Wrath of the Lich King
Wrath of the Lich King smashed into release on November 13th. Like Burning Crusade before it, Wrath obliterated existing sales records; the game moved 2.8 million copies in 24 hours and took Burning Crusade's place as the fastest-selling PC game ever made. December of of 2008 marked another high point in WoW history: Blizzard could then claim 11.5 million active subscribers.

Wrath of the Lich King introduced a number of new features to WoW. The level cap went up to 80, the harsh climates of Northrend became accessible to adventurers across Azeroth, Death Knights became a class, and Naxxramas became a level 80 10/25-man raid instead of a level 60 40-man. Over the next year, Blizzard brought new content to WoW in the form of Ulduar, dual-talent specialization, the Argent Tournament, and a revamped Onyxia's Lair raid encounter. It's worth noting that Wrath of the Lich King brought some of the biggest innovations to date; the dungeon finder tool, built-in quest tracking, random battlegrounds, cross-server instancing, and the Real ID system all saw release during the Lich King's reign.

World of Warcraft - Wrath of the Lich King
It was in 2010 that World of Warcraft shone the brightest. Wrath is widely regarded as one of the best expansions the game has ever seen, and under it subscriber numbers reached their all-time peak of 12.1 million. Even though Blizzard announced the Cataclysm expansion in late 2009, 2010 belonged strictly to Arthas and Co.

A cataclysm, but actually

Cataclysm launched in December of 2010. It, like Wrath and Burning Crusade, sold quite well -- 3.3 million units sold in the first 24 hours. Once again, Blizzard had broken its own record for fastest-selling PC game in history. Cataclysm represented perhaps the biggest change so far to the existing World of Warcraft universe; the original world of Azeroth was completely overhauled, flying mounts were enabled in classic zones, Goblins and Worgen became playable races, and a bevy of new class/race combinations was introduced. The level cap went up to 85, Archaeology became a profession, and guilds were given the ability to level up and provide benefits to their members.

World of Warcraft - Cataclysm
Cataclysm, like Wrath, brought a number of key features to WoW over its lifespan. Transmogrification, cross-realm raids, the raid finder tool, void storage, and reforging were all part of Cataclysm in one way or another. However, if 2010 marked the peak for World of Warcraft, 2011 marked the start of its descent. Despite relatively steady content additions (new raids or dungeons were introduced in April, June, and November), WoW's subscriber numbers began to sag. By the end of the year, Blizzard had lost two million subscribers and was reporting numbers close to 10 million. Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's third expansion, was announced in August, but responses to the announcement were mixed at best.

Could Mists restore WoW to its former glory?

Into the Mists

On September 25, 2012, nearly two years after the Cataclysm, players set off toward Pandaria. It was in Mists of Pandaria's first-day sales that World of Warcraft first showed signs of faltering on a larger scale; the expansion moved an impressive 2.7 million copies in its first week but failed to overtake Cataclysm or Wrath's records. It didn't help impressions any that in August of 2012, Blizzard reported yet another massive loss of subscribers: WoW was down to 9.1 million and falling. The tough sales news, loss of subscribers, and Blizzard's decision to cancel BlizzCon, its yearly celebration of all things Blizzard, hinted that World of Warcraft might be headed toward disaster.

World of Warcraft - Mists of Pandaria
Mists of Pandaria included plenty of new features to keep players busy. The level cap moved up to 90, the Monk class was introduced, an entirely new continent of content was added, class talent trees were redesigned, and the Pandaren became a playable race. Over the course of Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard added the Brawler's Guild, a pet battle system, new raids, and a revamped Recruit-a-Friend system. However, the new content didn't seem to click with many existing WoW players; World of Warcraft continued to hemorrhage subscribers by the million. By the time the obligatory main bad guy face-off raid encounter (Siege of Orgrimmar) was added in September of 2013, subscriber totals were already down to 7.7 million. In other words, World of Warcraft's subscriber base had dipped to nearly half of what it had been at its peak.

And then came BlizzCon 2013.

Draenor and beyond

Just a few weeks ago at BlizzCon, Blizzard unveiled World of Warcraft's fifth expansion. Titled Warlords of Draenor, this new expansion will introduce players to the world of Draenor (before it became Outland), raise the level cap to 100, revamp WoW's classic (and aging) character models, enable player-owned garrisons, and add an option to instantly level one character to the current cap of 90. The announcement has raised WoW's profile yet again, and responses seem to be mostly positive, but it's unclear whether Warlords of Draenor can shift the downward momentum of the last two years. Whatever happens, one thing is for sure: World of Warcraft is an enormous force in the MMO world and has been since it debuted nine years ago. Countless challengers to the throne have come and gone, yet WoW has somehow managed to hang on to millions of players in a field saturated with free-to-play competition and a wide range of compelling titles.

World of Warcraft - Warlords of Draenor
It's true that the game might not be able to hang on as the undisputed king of MMOs for another nine years. Technology changes, markets shift, and games age. But with the largest existing subscriber base in the industry and one of the most reliable developers in the field behind it, World of Warcraft likely has a long, profitable future ahead.
This article was originally published on Massively.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.