All Your History: Blizzard Part 2
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By 2004, Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft series was one of the most successful in all of strategy gaming. But the game’s reputation stemmed as much from the rich storyline and colorful world as it did from the deep gameplay, and Blizzard believed it could work in a different genre. So it was that they decided to make a game that explored that entire world at a more personal level, trading armies for heroes. The new game would allow gamers to do whatever they wanted in a gigantic space filled with quests, monsters, and endless loot. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games — MMOs for short — were popular in the mid-2000s, and the studio hoped their new Warcraft venture could be as big as EverQuest. But when it released in November 2004, it blew away their expectations. Their initial goal of 400,000 units sold in 12 months was achieved in one month. Almost immediately, they reached the point that every business hopes for and dreads: their demand outpaced their supply. As 2004 turned into 2005 and the rest of the decade, the guys from Irvine still had no idea just how big Warcraft’s World was about to get.
At the end of 2004, World of Warcraft was officially the fastest-selling PC game of all time. When the game went back onto store shelves after Blizzard’s shipping freeze, it continued to sell at a break-neck pace that not only astounded the studio, but the rest of the industry. At a time when the most popular MMOs had a few hundred thousand subscribers, WOW cleared 1.5 million subscribers in March 2005, barely five months after the game’s launch. Those weren’t only insanely high numbers, but they had been achieved insanely fast. There was absolutely no way the game could sustain that kind of momentum.
Except that it did. By August, they had 4 million subscribers, and by next March, 6 million. And all of them were paying a monthly fee. While this meant unparalleled profits for Blizzard, it also meant that fans demanded something in return. What they got were frequent bug fixes, balance tweaks, and brand new content. Big as the original game was, it only got bigger with time, with new areas to explore and new items to collect.
It went on to be the best-selling PC game of 2005. And of 2006, too. But Blizzard refused to rest on their laurels. As good as their free content updates were, they knew that to really keep interest in the game, they’d have to drop something a lot bigger. And so in January 2007, after another beta testing period, Blizzard released World of Warcraft’s first expansion pack, The Burning Crusade. It opened up brand new areas to explore, brand new races to play, and brand new quests to do. It introduced a flood of new items and raised the maximum level a player could reach. There was nothing dramatically different in the expansion, it was just more of the same experience that had already hooked players for two years. Still, with a title so obsessed over, even minor changes encountered resistance.
Aside from being a reward for players starving for new adventures, the expansion pack was also meant to revitalize interest in the World of Warcraft as a whole. In this regard, it did alright. It just sold 2.4 million copies on its first day alone, which was not only ten times what the original sold on day one, but was more than any other PC game had sold in its first month. When you have a game whose expansion pack obliterates sales records, you know you’re onto something.
Oh, and that same month, they cleared 8 million subscribers. Must be a coincidence.
And the numbers kept going up and up, as World of Warcraft’s sterling reputation refused to tarnish. In June 2007, 9 million subscribers; in January 2008, 10 million; in October 2008, 11 million. In November of that year, the game’s second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, released to sell 2.8 million in one day, breaking the unbelievable record of Burning Crusade. And yet, despite this massive popularity, the game’s subscriber base finally began to plateau. Where the game had been regularly adding a million players every six months, the rise from 11 to 12 million took two years. From the outside, it looked like WOW might finally have reached its peak. But Blizzard never played by ordinary rules.
Then at BlizzCon 2009, Blizzard announced their third expansion: Cataclysm, and this one was a whopper. Where earlier expansions had unveiled new territories to explore, this expansion would instead upend and destroy all the territories players already knew. The entire World of Warcraft would be remade into a brand new space. It was the greatest single change in the game’s history.
As a point of fact, this sundering of the world event wasn’t even tied into the expansion. Even players who never bought Cataclysm would see their lands torn apart. On November 23, 2010, Blizzard released a patch to all WOW players that forever changed the World of Warcraft. Old quests and areas were never to be seen again, as new quests populated the scarred landscapes.
While Blizzard cites the sundering of the world as a narrative choice, it will also have the effect of rekindling interest in the game. With a whole new world out there, even gamers who had set WOW aside will have a reason to try it out again. And with Cataclysm about to release, Blizzard might just be able to start adding subscribers at breakneck pace again.
Even if they never go one player past 12 million, that still means they’ve created a virtual world with a population bigger than Belgium. And that entire population is paying a monthly fee, believed to net Blizzard about $100 million a month, or $1.2 billion a year. Most companies would consider that a success beyond belief. But Blizzard isn’t most companies.
Going forward, Blizzard will continue to expand on the World of Warcraft for as long as players want them to. Given the sheer momentum of the game, that should be another few years at the bare minimum. MMOs in general have notoriously long shelf lives, and WOW is the biggest there’s ever been. In many ways, Blizzard is paving new ground. (30:00; 19:30; 18:45) No one knows how long it can last, not even Blizzard. But at the moment, even six years after the game’s launch and with strong competition on the horizon, World of Warcraft remains one of gaming’s single greatest accomplishments, one of the most popular and culturally iconic works the medium has ever produced. No matter what happens, even decades from now, the world of gaming will never forget the World of Warcraft.