For a good few years, World Of Warcraft (WOW) was the biggest game on the planet. What started life as an online spin-off to a niche strategy game, rapidly grew into an unstoppable pop culture phenomenon.
Not only has the subscription-based MMO managed to rope in over 12 million players, its even permeated film and TV, being name-dropped everywhere from episodes of How I Met Your Mother to being the butt of jokes in films like Night At The Museum 2.
The less said about the terrible 2015 Warcraft film adaptation though, the better. Yet despite now being just as much of a household name as Mario, at the time, WOW’s success came as a shock to the small 50-person team who lovingly created it.
“When I got there, I was number 30 on the dev team, back in 2001,” recalls Ex-Blizzard alumni and current Rend developer, Jeremy Wood.
“I think I was number 14, back in 2000,” remembers Wood’s colleague Solomon Lee with a grin.
World Of Awecraft
Back then, WOW was viewed as a risky experiment for Blizzard. The game was quietly announced during the ECTS tradeshow in 2001 to little fanfare and so Blizzard’s newly formed (and modestly sized) team spent the next three years quietly building the MMO they’d always wanted to play.
With genre leaders like Everquest and Ultima Online only finding niche success, Blizzard assumed it was creating an MMO that would largely only sell to hardcore Warcraft fans. Little did they know, they had accidentally created the most successful online game ever made.
“We’d been working so much on this game just heads down, we had no idea what was going on in the world,” says Wood. “I remember Saul asked one of our other co-founders: ‘Do you think this game is going to be a success?’ and he was like: ‘Yeah, of course it is.’ But honestly?” Wood pauses. “We really didn’t know…”
“There’s actually a speech at one point by one of the Blizzard founders who was leaving – this was six months before we launched – he said, you know what, you guys might think I’m crazy — but I think we can sell a million copies of the game. And everyone looked at him like: ‘You’re crazy! That could never happen with an MMO!'”
As we know now, Blizzard’s prediction was far from crazy. But it wasn’t until WOW finally hit store shelves that Lee, Wood and the rest of the team began to realise they may actually have a hit on their hands.
When Fantasy Becomes Reality
“Launch night came around and we did this signing event at an electronics store down the street called Fry’s,” Wood says, with a smile. “We show up and there are just lines of people going around the building, around the parking lot and down the street and across the freeway.”
“We expected 3 or 400 people to show up… there were 8000.” Wood shakes his head in disbelief. “We were like, ‘What is happening, this is the craziest thing!’ It just took over the world. For us on the development team, it came out of nowhere.”
Make Love Not Warcraft
Before long you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing a star-studded advert for the game. At its peak, World Of Warcraft became unstoppable, roping in celebrity fans like Chuck Norris, Ozzy Osborne and infamously, becoming the subject of an episode of South Park.
“Some of the depictions in that show, some of those characters are spot on depictions of actual developers! It’s really fun to watch from an insider perspective,” beams Wood.
“I didn’t personally [work on the episode, but] a guy who later ended up being my boss was one of the guys doing the setup for that,” Wood continues. “Running a special server for [Matt Stone and Trey Parker] to do this kind of things on it was a very unique experience for the guys working on it. The way the South Park guys can put together an episode in like a week is phenomenally amazing, so getting a glimpse into that was really cool.”
While Lee jumped ship to League Of Legends creators Riot, Wood stuck around to work on a bold new product: Project Titan.
“I was at Blizzard for ten years. I spent seven years working on WOW, all the way up to Lich King and then I went to Project Titan which became Overwatch and did that for a few years.”
From Project Titan To Overwatch
While we all know Overwatch, the ambitious FPS-cum-MMO, Project Titan still remains shrouded in mystery. Announced in 2007 and cancelled in 2013, Titan was touted as Blizzard’s WOW beater. Infamously though, it never saw the light of day.
“Titan was this massive collection of talent. Some of the most amazing developers that I’ve ever seen… from all over the world. It was largely not a homegrown team. It was the first time Blizzard pulled a lot of external talent in.” Woods hesitates.
While he’s no longer working for Blizzard he explains that he is tightly bound up in NDAs and can’t reveal gameplay specifics about Project Titan, but when pushed, he reveals a bit more about Blizzard’s now legendary failure.
“Overwatch came directly out of Titan,” Wood reaffirms. “At some point, we had basically built a combat tech demo of one of the forms of combat that would be in Titan and it was basically Overwatch. There was real magic there and they didn’t need the 300 person team that was working on Titan in order to pull that off. So, sadly, the team kind of dissolved a bit but I’m SO excited to see Overwatch come out of all that.”
He pauses. “It was one of the most impressive teams I’ve ever been a part of so I’m glad something came out of it.”
“Titan.. was very tightly guarded. I can’t give you any more than I gave you, sadly. The biggest lesson we learned from Titan is to make sure you know where you’re going from the beginning, you can’t just feel your way there, no matter how much talent you have. You’ve got to have a strong, contained vision from day one. Talent can’t get you everywhere.”
Now though Wood and Lee are hoping to recreate some of that original WOW magic with their upcoming MMO meets survival game, Rend.
“People don’t realise that the original WOW was made by less than 50 people,” shrugs Lee. “ It was a relatively small team doing exactly the kind of thing that we’re doing now [at our new studio, Frostkeep Studios]. People that are empowered to make decisions, people that are not waiting for someone to tell them what to do, they’re actually driving the game forward. Eventually, when a team is 300 people, it can no longer function that way.”