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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Battle.net-based Real ID system all saw release during the Lich King's reign.
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.
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.
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.