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Secret Areas of Warcraft: Where developers go to play


Many of you are no doubt familiar with GM Island (read our 2010 writeup of the place), a restricted part of the map accessible only to GMs. It used to also be accessible to players, if you were ridiculously determined to get there and didn't mind risking a ban. Well, GM Island is not the only invisible zone that exists in the World of Warcraft, and no, we're not talking about Pandaria pre-Cataclsym. There are a myriad of "test zones," places where developers can try out things like textures and mechanics inside the actual game without affecting the places that players inhabit.

The Royal IdP Essploring Fundation (yes, actual name) is a collection of French players dedicated to finding and elucidating unknown areas of Azeroth. What is "Essploration," you ask? Here's a quick translation from their about page for your reading pleasure:

Essploration is the attempt to reach all the hidden zones of Azeroth believed to be inaccessible to normal players. The World of Warcraft is full of places unknown and invisible to the majority of players, sometimes magnificent, often very ugly, and which will never be officially accessible!

If you can understand French I highly recommend reading through the entirety of their about page, as it's very interesting! If not, however, you're still pretty well-off sticking to the English translations of their write-ups.

Gallery: GM Island and the Player Jail | 7 Photos

Redditor Piprap, in particular, called out the RIdPEF's Aléquia Moowisle for this documentation, including screenshot tour and history, of one such restricted zone, known simply as "Development." Development has been in place since before WoW's official release, and has evolved and changed along with the game itself. Aléquia explains that, before Wrath of the Lich King, Development was known from two smaller zones: Designer's Island and Programmer's Island.

More after the break.

A screenshot from designer's isle

In the original WoW alpha and beta the two islands were attached to Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms. The article is a little unclear on the timeline, but it seems that the two isles were cut from those maps with WoW's official release, and then instanced sometime after Wrath. The instance can be seen in the game's map files as map #451, and appears to be where the "Development" name originates.

Picture of map 451 listed in the game maps

From here, Aléquia takes us on a virtual tour of these zones as they have appeared over the course of the game. But the big reveal, after the walk-through of Designer's and Programmer's Isle, is the Development continent, an enormous zone that shares a minimap, and presumably an instance, with the two isles.

This continent has never, ever been accessible to players--except for about one hour, around the release of Cataclysm, after which it was swiftly deleted. Aléquia managed to do some exploring before access was again restricted, and some of the pictures are just fascinating.

Screenshot of developers continent

You can clearly see pieces of Northrend in various testing phases, including building placements, textures, and terrain. If you remember, Azjol-Nerub was once intended to be an entire zone, not just dungeons, but that project was scrapped. On the Development continent, bits and pieces of that zone construction can still be seen.

Azjol-Nerub in development zone

Stuff like this is positively fascinating to me, and gives just that little glimpse into the chasm that separates what we players see of the game and what is actually there, hidden away behind programmed walls. The face of Azeroth from a behind a designer's desk at Blizzard campus must look so different than it does from my desktop at home.

It can also be easy to forget, when looking at a finished product, how many permutations that product went through before its final form took shape. These hidden areas of the game are often the repositories of those early drafts, cut from the final version like unnecessary paragraphs from a story. Designer's Isle, Programmer's Isle, and the entire Development instance are like peeking inside a writer's scrapbook to see what made it to the end and what did not.

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