The Game Archaeologist: Ten strange pre-release facts about World of Warcraft


An endless ocean of words, a tsunami of thoughts, and a riptide of fan devotion has flooded the gaming world about World of Warcraft ever since the title launched to critical and popular acclaim in November 2004. Chances are that most of the people reading this article have played it at one time or the other (and the few that haven’t will certainly boast of that fact in the comments below).

But while the explosion of WoW’s population, the infamous Corrupted Blood plague, the expansions, the conventions, the pop culture references, and the plunge of its subscriber base over the past year are all well-known and -documented, what I don’t hear most people talking about is what the game was like before it launched. Oh, fans were certainly tracking it, especially throughout 2003 and 2004, but how the game began, what factors went into its design, and the drama of its beta program are all receding into distant memory.

Today I want to share with you a list of ten strange, interesting, and illuminating pre-launch facts about World of Warcraft. What was this game like before it took the MMO genre by storm?

1. Work on it began in 1999

Five years, 50 developers, and about $63M: That’s what it took to make vanilla World of Warcraft. Development began at Blizzard back before the turn of the century, the same year that EverQuest and Asheron’s Call released.

2. It was revealed just days before 9/11

At the London European Consumer Trade Show on September 2, 2001, World of Warcraft was publicly announced. Fans thought that Blizzard would be announcing StarCraft II and were instead stunned to hear Bill Roper say that the company was going to dive head-first into the MMORPG genre.

A month afterward, a somewhat dorky-looking cover (ack, check out that Orc art!) for Computer Gaming World announced that it had scored a 10-page exclusive look into World of Warcraft. It was among the pages of this magazine that many readers first caught their glimpse of  the MMO version of Ironforge, the Tauren, Orcs, humans, and a Harvest Golem. No other races were announced and class names were kept under wraps.

“Although no one expected this, it is as exciting an announcement as they could have made,” the magazine gushed. In the article, Blizzard promised that WoW wouldn’t feature loading screens between zones, the need to camp mobs, and quests to kill 10 rats.

3. World of Warcraft was announced before Warcraft III released

Informed fans know that Warcraft III set up many of the events and cemented the art style that would be popularized in World of Warcraft. But delays in the RTS title caused the game to come out well after WoW’s public reveal, which meant that the MMO news wasn’t quite as exciting or understandable as it could’ve been. Warcraft III’s planned 2001 launch was pushed back to 2002, but considering how well the game did, players got over the disappointment fast.

The twinning development paths of these two games caused another interesting connection: The team originally used a modified Warcraft III to run some of the first versions of WoW.

4. Trolls, Gnomes, and Hunters were the late additions to the vanilla game

Wonder why Gnomes and Trolls didn’t make it into the launch cinematic of World of Warcraft? Other than a (probably true) conspiracy involving Blizzard’s hate for the diminutive race, Gnomes and Trolls squeaked in the alpha door long after the other six races had been cemented — and presumably long after work had begun on the trailer. Another latecomer was the Hunter class, which made it onto the beta servers only three months prior to launch.

5. Its rest system used to penalize players

In April 2004, a test center patch unveiled a new “rest state” system that was fairly new to the genre. If your character was rested and well-fed, then he or she would get an XP bonus to killing monsters. However, the longer a character was played, the more exhausted that character would get, ultimately resulting in kills only awarding 25% of the normal XP.

The penalty for the system caused some controversy, and Blizzard quickly decided to remove the penalty and leave in only the bonus for well-rested toons.

6. Originally, Outland would have been a part of the core game

Instead of waiting three years to jump through the Dark Portal and set foot on Outland for the first time since Warcraft III, players were originally intended to visit the region much sooner. The design for Hellfire Peninsula was already being constructed for vanilla but was never released during public testing. It looked much like the early Orc areas and shared only a few similarities to the version that shipped with the first expansion.

7. You can still see the 2001-era version of World of Warcraft’s website

Thanks to the Internet Wayback Machine, the very first days of WoW’s website are preserved for all time. Blizzard didn’t skimp on reveals, either: The website contained screenshots, videos, the trailer, wallpaper, and the (shudder) forums.

“One of our main goals is to ensure that players can enjoy World of Warcraft without having to invest huge amounts of playtime,” the initial FAQ stated.

8. WoW was originally designed to take place 100 years in the future

Imagine a World of Warcraft that isn’t quite so cartoony but instead sports a depressing, gothic tone. That’s what it used to be in its earliest days of development, as the team thought that it’d be wise to set the game 100 years after Warcraft III in a much darker world. After some work was done on this vision, the decision was made to retain the colorful, classic Warcraft look for its characters and put the action only four years after the events of the RTS.

9. The Forsaken originally had the option to talk with Alliance characters

The issue of cross-faction communication was a heated topic during World of Warcraft’s development. It didn’t make much logical sense that the two sides couldn’t communicate (after all, they did it in Warcraft III and the MMO NPCs seemed to have no problem with it), but the developers were worried that cross-faction talk would ruin PvP and cause no end of verbal grief between the sides.

Interestingly enough, before this decision was cemented, the Forsaken — as undead people that were partially made up of former Alliance members — could indeed speak Common and had the ability to talk with the other side. This was eventually changed to take that away.

10. World of Warcraft owes its existence to EverQuest’s popularity

This is fairly well-known, but without EverQuest, World of Warcraft might never have existed. While fishing around for new project ideas, a small 10-person team at Blizzard was neck-deep in this new 3-D MMO and became enamored with the notion of making a similar game, just better and more accessible.

“Around that time, a lot of us were playing EverQuest. We were in the EverQuest beta, and we’d played it quite a bit. Our previous games had had an online multiplayer component to them, so we were used to the idea. We were very enamored with EverQuest, and it was an obvious evolution of where we were headed — we thought we should do something on that scale,” said Producer Shane Dabin.

The World of Warcraft team didn’t just stop at inspiration from EverQuest; it poached Rob Pardo and Jeff Kaplan, members of one of EverQuest’s top raiding guilds, to come work on the new game. Yippee?

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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