World of Warcraft’s Half Decade of Dominance
By Neil Kewn (Murxidon), OnRPG Journalist
It’s staggering to think that World of Warcraft is now six years old. Blizzard Entertainment’s video game masterpiece has spent over half a decade dominating the online role-playing scene, with no sign of letting up. Nothing comes close. Player opinions of Azeroth may have waivered through the years, but critics unite in praise each time a substantial update or expansion pack adds to the already bulging install size. Whatever your thoughts on the game are, and no matter how many times you have cancelled your subscription (only to resub later), World of Warcraft is arguably the greatest MMORPG in the world.
It is almost six years to the day since World of Warcraft arrived on store shelves. Announced in late 2001, the fourth game in the Warcraft series had a lengthy development process. Longstanding fans of the series hoping for another round of real time strategy wept as Blizzard revealed Warcraft IV to be an online role-playing title, similar to EverQuest. Intrigue was naturally high, and by the time the game entered beta testing in March 2004, anticipation for what would become the world’s biggest game had reached boiling point.
In the beginning
Of course, the Azeroth of early 2004’s beta period is drastically different to that of today (The Shattering made sure of that). For those who didn’t land a slot in the testing phase six years ago, beta footage posted on YouTube goes some way in justifying the immense hype for World of Warcraft. Blizzard didn’t set out to reinvent the core mechanics of massively multiplayer gaming; they merely focused on what made MMORPGs so enjoyable to play. Even before the game’s release, praise was given to the vast, seamless world, attractive visual style and the large emphasise on player freedom. It was shaping up to be one special game.
After many months in testing, World of Warcraft finally went live in North America on November 23, 2004. Priced at $49.99 with a $14.99 monthly subscription, admission to Azeroth carried a relatively expensive price tag for day one buyers. Warcraft did not avoid the “teething issues” that plague the majority of MMO releases, yet video game magazines and websites considered the game to be an overwhelming success. Universal praise was given to the approachable yet profoundly deep online world Blizzard had created. Many considered the release of World of Warcraft to be a turning point in online gaming, a breakthrough title that would revolutionise the MMORPG market. They weren’t wrong.
By 2005 the subscriber count had already hit five million, merely a year after the game went live. Hoping to cash in on the enormous success of World of Warcraft, a number of high profile MMO titles were released with much anticipation. Some have fared better than others, but zero have come close to emulating the sheer number of players adventuring in Azeroth. Two of which, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, faded into relative obscurity after being labelled as “WoW Killers” by gamers looking for something other than Blizzard’s traditionalist MMO. Meanwhile, a widespread advertising campaign, celebrity endorsements and the rocketing popularity of the MMO genre itself brought more and more players into what had already become a game boasting more players than both of its nearest rivals combined.
2007 saw the release of WoW’s first expansion pack, subtitled The Burning Crusade. Along with a rise in level cap (from 60 to 70), two new races joined the fray and an entirely new continent awarded high level players with more zones to explore. Coupled with the introduction of flying mounts, numerous new raids and a plethora of new dungeons, TBC was an important milestone in the game’s history. Mimicking the release that preceded it, The Burning Crusade enjoyed critical acclaim across the board. A number of players were vocal of the changes, with negative opinions attributed mostly towards class balancing, but the midnight openings and mainstream news reports did nothing but increase World of Warcraft’s already immense popularity. The expansion pack shattered records with first day sales of 2.4 million.
Wrath of the Lich King was revealed as WoW’s second expansion, released almost two years after the first. Arthas’ return brought a new Hero Class, the level 55 tank/DPS Death Knight, and the continent of Northrend. Wintergrasp debuted as a completely PvP zone, where Alliance and Horde players battle constantly for control of Wintergrasp Keep (and the exclusive raid content that came with it). Over a year later, Patch 3.3.0 brought Icecrown Citadel, bringing the expansion pack to a conclusion in the form of a thrilling twelve boss raid, culminating in a battle with The Lich King himself. Wrath of the Lich King continued the tradition of sweeping accolade after accolade, winning the respect of critics and the majority of players. It was during the Wrath period, and its subsequent release in mainland China, that the game reached twelve million subscribers.
How the mighty haven’t fallen
For all of Blizzard’s success over the past six years, decisions made by the company have been met with a storm of criticism on more than one occasion. World of Warcraft’s anti-cheating software, Warden, was labelled as spyware by organisations in 2005 after it was found to be gathering information about programs running on player’s systems. Five years later, the company found itself embroiled in a privacy war with the millions of players who use Battle.net, their online gaming hub. Blizzard’s decision to force players who use the official Battle.net forums to post using their real name was met with a damning response. Thousands of players feared it would lead to identity theft, personal attacks and compromised account security. The subsequent backlash eventually lead to Blizzard abandoning the idea.
Next week sees the release of Cataclysm, the long awaited third expansion. Visually aware players may have already seen a substantial amount of what Cataclysm has to offer, with Patch 4.0.3 revamping both Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms in the wake of Deathwing the Destroyer’s arrival. Cataclysm will only add to the long and fruitful ride that Warcraft has enjoyed across the picturesque MMO landscape, and it’s a safe bet to suggest that it will continue to steamroll the competition months, even years after Deathwing has fallen. The question is, how long will you be along for the ride?