The Game Archaeologist: Revisiting the first three months of World of Warcraft

Were you there?

Many of us were. Many weren’t. Either way, November 23rd, 2004 was a watershed date for the MMORPG industry and one watched and experienced by millions of gamers. It was on this day 13 years ago that Blizzard finally transitioned World of Warcraft from beta testing to live operation, ushering in an age of Azeroth, DKP minus, murlocs, and Leeroy Jenkins.

I was there, both at the end of beta and the start of launch. As time had made a mockery of my memories, I can only remember brief bits: The server downtime, the rise of the phenomenon, making footprints in Coldridge Valley with my Dwarf Hunter, and pretty much shoving every other game to the background for the next year or so.

I thought it might be worth the effort of dusting off the cobwebs of my — and your — memories by revisiting the first three months of World of Warcraft’s live operation, taking us from November 2004 through January 2005. What happened during this time? How did Blizzard respond to the floodgates of players pouring into this game? How different was it from what we play now? Let’s reminisce together!

November 2004

The lead up to World of Warcraft’s launch was one of the most brutal waits in gaming history. Fans were forced to be patient while Blizzard alpha tested the MMO in 2003 and ran a beta from February through early November 2004. By the time that the studio sent demons to rampage all over capital cities as the end-of-beta event, players were beyond ready to experience the live game.

There were doubts about the timing of the launch, as some thought that Blizzard had waited too long to pull the trigger. By beta testing for so long, the studio had allowed Sony Online Entertainment to launch its own highly anticipated EverQuest sequel on November 9th. While there were those who engaged in the whole “which game will rule the roost” arguments, it was hard to deny the potential of 500,000 beta testers that had already passed through the Dark Portal login screen.

Then the 23rd finally arrived. Players lined up around stores to buy copies of World of Warcraft, and in some places, to meet the developers and have them sign their game boxes. One Fry’s Electronics had 5,000 to 7,000 players show up, with only 2,500 copies available.

In North America, Australia, and New Zealand (the three regions that WoW initially launched in) saw this happen all over. The day one PC sales record was broken, with Blizzard having sold 240,000 copies in the first 24 hours. Blizzard had called it its “largest undertaking to date,” and it was not kidding.

Players took their boxes home and installed the game via CD-ROM — as an online download option didn’t exist yet. Heck, there was a segment of the community playing over dial-up back in 2004. Even with the beta numbers and 88 NA servers online, the studio simply could not handle the massive influx that WoW drew. Almost instantly there were significant issues that plagued the game for weeks, including server downtime (measured in days, at times), disconnects, and constant lag. Add on top of that low respawn timers and mobs of low level characters competing for quest objectives, and playing could be more of a struggle than a pleasure.

At launch, the game was on Patch 1.1.1, which had only recently added in features like racial traits, the Onyxia and Molton Core raids, kodo mounts, dozens of skills, the remainder of several crafting professions, and talents for Paladins and Hunters. Spears had recently been patched out of the game (changed into polearms) and players had no way to train or purchase a mount that didn’t belong to their characters’ races. The level cap was 60, and it would be a long while before a majority of the playerbase would get up to it.

As fans of Vanilla WoW will tell you, it was a different gaming landscape back then. Priests had racial skills, Hunters wrangled with mana, Warlocks had to farm soul shards, and everyone had to level up weapon skills one point at a time.

December 2004

As World of Warcraft turned into the holiday season, its issues did not improve. Player counts continued to rise and the constant downtime and queues spurned complaints among the community. Oh, and there were bots. There have always been bots.

Blizzard wasn’t idle or deaf during this time. New servers were brought online as fast as the hardware could be installed, and the studio kept apologizing to the community for the issues. Perhaps more well-received was the credit of free days of game time for some of the more egregious outages.

Sales continued apace, with 350,000 units moved by December 1st. The funny thing is that this number could have been a lot higher; Blizzard intentionally throttled sales to keep too many players from logging on to the studio’s already taxed servers.

World of Warcraft’s anemic mid-game got a shot in the arm with Patch 1.2 on December 18th. Mysteries of Maraudon introduced the titular dungeon, some holiday events, and allowed players to disable the visuals on their cloak and helm. Without, I might add, having to visit a transmorgifier.

January 2005

By January, the World of Warcraft train showed no signs of slowing down. Blizzard reported sales of more than 600,000 copies by January 10th, with in-game concurrency levels rising as high as 200,000 players.

By the end of Q1 2015, one-and-a-half million players would be logged into World of Warcraft. These numbers, of course, would rise exponentially over the next few years, but even during these first few months they were staggering to an MMO community that wasn’t used to seeing this scale of popularity and success.

Blizzard continued to seem as surprised as anyone else regarding WoW’s popularity. Morhaime issued a statement this month saying, “The public’s response to World of Warcraft has been simply amazing. We are very proud and excited to see such an overwhelming demand for the game, and we hope that the enthusiasm continues to build as we further enhance our online service.”

The rest of the globe was itching to get in on the fun, and it was in the new year that Blizzard began to expand into other territories. South Korea’s launch took place on January 18th, followed by Europe the next month on February 11th.

The community still had to contend with WoW’s problematic service. Servers kept getting taken offline and queues could occasionally balloon into the hundreds, sparking fury and frustration. If only they knew what was to come, these players would have paced themselves in the nerdrage department.

Special thanks to WoW Archivist and WoW Wiki for some of this information!
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.
SHARE THIS ARTICLE
Code of Conduct | Edit Your Profile | Commenting FAQ | Badge Reclamation | Badge Key

35
LEAVE A COMMENT

Please Login to comment
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Reader
JP Andrews

I was in love with EQ for about four years, then EQII came out. So much for love. I didn’t know anything about WarCraft, but I’d played a lot of StarCraft so I checked out the WoW website. By the time I’d finished reading about crafting I was eager to give it a try. Anyone who was a grand master craftsmen in EQ knows why…

I had to go find a box, they were sold out at every retailer in town, so I called around and found one at a Target store about 20 miles away and had them hold it for me. The next day I went and picked it up, and that extra day made all the difference. If I had gotten it that day I’d have been hosed, because there were only the original 20 servers, and they were all packed. But I started on day 4 after the game when live, so I started on one of the expansion servers, with better hardware, more memory, and a lot fewer people. Lightbringer! During the trailer I saw the dwarf hunter and his bear and knew that was gonna be me.

You know it’s gonna be a great game when you realize you started playing ten hours ago, have stopped answering the phone, missed two meals and loved everything about it.

obsessite
Reader
obsessite

I was one of the UK-based players to participate in the closed US alpha testing, before the beta was a thing. The end-of-beta events that Blizzard put on are still one of my most memorable gaming moments. Everyone running about in the nude truing to defeat the neigh-on invulnerable demon horde! Hilarious! I still have some of the screenshots I took back then, come to think of it!

Through alpha and beta, I learned the vanilla maps, and so on release day, having stayed up late to make sure I got my account registered when it was possible to do so, I created a Night Elf Warrior, and decided I wanted to level it in Goldshire.

Oh how I came to hate the damned crocodiles in The Wetlands on that fateful run! It took some time :P

In the end, I re-rolled a Human warrior, and played him all the way up ’til the end of Vanilla. At that point, my best mate decided he wanted to roll Horde (“I’m fed up with all the carebears!” he used to cry, although as he played a rogue, it’s no surprise, suppose :P). So, despite my heart belonging to the Alliance, I dutifully followed suit, and parked my warrior.

I still play WoW, although nowhere near as fanatically as I used to. I log in once or twice a month for a session, but it’s not the same game as it was. Many of the so-called ‘quality of life’ improvements, such as the dungeon finder, make the game feel more like a lobby than a living, breathing world, which is a real shame.

Let’s hope the rebirth of vanilla will allow Blizzard to look at how the game felt to play before all these time-saving immersion breakers came in, and prompt them to roll some of them back. For instance, people should have to get to, and know the directions to the dungeon entrances, for goodness sake!

All ranting aside, I have played most MMOs that have been released since WoW, and not one of them has captured my imagination like it did back then. It’s truly a unique game, and one that, despite it’s ‘improvements’ over the years, remains a fun, and safe, place for the young and old to enjoy themselves.

Reader
Loyal Patron
Byórðæįr

Actually anyone who had alpha status, anyone who was in the beta, anyone who had the fileplanet stress test client was already on a later version than the retail client. You got to play for thirty days before putting a key in, after that point you had to put in your retail cd key in, to continue playing. There was a big deal at the time about because for some of us the collector editions were taking too long to print the manuals or something because when we pre-ordered they were supposed to show up by postal mail and main did not get there until about two months after launch so I remember having to go out and buy a standard copy to keep playing and when my collectors edition finally came in the postal mail I was able to type the key in and have it upgrade my account to collectors edition. Which back then really did not mean much since we had gotten our digital content from our pre-order codes like the three pets.

Reader
Droniac

I was there for beta and the Feb 2005 EU launch.

The main thing I recall about launch is how Blizzard hadn’t taken any lessons from the overload on NA launch. There was this extremely fancy-looking registration page that got hammered by hundreds of thousands of people trying to make an account. The result was that most people (myself and most of my friends included) didn’t manage to make an account until three days after launch.

The best thing about vanilla WoW was world-PvP on PvP servers, until the honor patch killed it overnight. I had a small guild (barely 20 people) and we’d lead raids of 60-100 Horde players into Darkshore or Redridge almost nightly. Ah, the experience of being the only person high-level enough to take on Darkshore guards – while everyone else hopped on the boat to Night Elf town – or having 60 players in Redridge and defeating 120-player Alliance zergs :p

It was also a ridiculously easy game with a surprisingly low amount of grind compared to its competitors. Only Guild Wars had less grind, but that was also a much more difficult and complex game. Whenever I see people claiming they want the challenge of vanilla WoW back, it’s immediately obvious that they never actually played vanilla WoW. Modern Guild Wars 2 or Blade & Soul PvE is a lot more challenging than vanilla WoW’s was.

KatsPurr
Reader
KatsPurr

I was there towards the end of beta and as a die hard fan of Blizzard and especially the Warcraft series, I was most definitely there on the first day of EU launch. Unlike many players for whom WoW was their first MMO, I had played several others before WoW, such as UO, DaoC and Anarchy Online – so whilst WoW didn’t give me the thrilling experience of playing online with other players for the first time, it was still a very solid game and had that stamp of quality that all Blizzard games have. The first year playing as a roleplayer on the EU RP servers was absolute magic. Back in those days, Blizz was very attentive to our needs and if we complained about non-roleplayers trying to crash our party, harass us or log on with silly immersion breaking names, Blizz ACTUALLY did something about it! Even the names! This made the RP server Argent Dawn a safe haven for roleplayers to play the game IC (in character) when out and about. So when going to Ironforge for instance, you’d actually see players walking gallantly about, strutting their stuff in their finest RP garb and you’d see people having IC conversations at the bank. These days RP is long gone from the public eye since other players are free to do whatever they like on RP servers. And most players just run from place to place and speak publicly about real world things, completely killing all immersion. Thus, most RP players have pulled back from public areas and instead play together in small groups and guilds. Such a shame. This decline of RP “purity” on RP servers is one of the main things that killed the magic for me in WoW. I mean, as an MMO, WoW does a lot of things right, sure. However there is nothing exceptional or inventive about it as far as game play goes. Besides, it never felt like a virtual world you can live in and get attached to since it never brought true player housing in the end. So when you play WoW, you feel like you’re visiting someone else’s game versus making your own mark in the world. Ultima Online is a great example of the complete opposite, where you actually feel like you live and belong in that world. Regardless, I played WoW regularly for many years quite happily. When Pandaria came along, it was however the last straw and haven’t really dipped in much since. When Vanilla WoW is brought back, I’ll probably give it a go, if for nothing more than a bit of nostalgia, but without player housing and proper RP server rule enforcement, I probably won’t stay long.

Reader
Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor
Kickstarter Donor
Winter

I was there I was in the beta and then when it launched. I remember the runs from Menethril Harbour to Ironforge :D good times trying to avoid those gators!

Reader
Loopy

Unfortunately i didn’t start WoW until about 3 months into the launch, so i didn’t get to claim the “i was there from beta” title. I still remember rolling a human paladin on Bronzebeard server, spawning into Elwynn, hearing the music, and falling immediately in love with the game.

kjempff
Reader
kjempff

I was late to the party, as I was deep in eq2 from launch plus 6 months, and only tried wow after I was done with eq2. Comming from years of pretty hardcore eq1 gaming, vanilla wow felt small and simplistic compared, so I maxxed a character and got bored. When burning crusade came I returned and with fresh perspective and lower expectations it stuck with me for much longer.
Though I have many days played in wow with full house (10 chars) of max level in wotlk and I enjoyed the smoothness and easy play, wow just never (to this day) could step up to the level, size and complexity that eq1 was at in 2005..it was forever teased and closing your eyes you could almost see the potential greatness, but forever out of reach – A perfect carrot on a stick, and that mentality drove this donkey forward for a long time. Eventually by the launch of Cataclysm I was done with wow..never again..probably..err..maybe

Reader
Bryan Correll

If the “I kill two dwarves” joke for male Trolls isn’t back then the entire classic server project will be a mockery of the true game and a slap in the face to players.

Reader
thirtymil

I was there for the UK launch. Rolled an orc hunter on Dragonblight. I still like going back to The Den occasionally, but I’m disappointed the mobs are all neutral now, unlike back when I started and Sarkoth killed me multiple times over :)

I see they’ve enhanced his reputation somewhat on Wowhead…
http://www.wowhead.com/npc=3281/sarkoth#comments