Five Years of World of Warcraft Interview

To celebrate the fifth anniversary of World of Warcraft, ZAM sat down with Cory Stockton and Greg Street to talk about the humble beginnings of World of Warcraft to where they are today.

Celebrating the fifth anniversary of World of Warcraft is a surreal experience. Only yesterday, many of us were searching through store shelves in places like Target and Best Buy, yearning to find the world’s most coveted MMO. Now it’s five years and two expansions later, and people from all over the world are still seeking out the fantastical world of Azeroth.

Even though the game remains fresh through constant content updates, it has gone through a number of changes to its gameplay throughout the years. To learn more about these changes and the history of WoW, we interviewed Blizzard’s Cory Stockton and Greg Street, a pair of individuals who were pivotal in the creation of the conflict between the Alliance and Horde.

For Stockton, there were a number of memorable changes that have gone into WoW. “Dual specs, the transition from 40-player raids and the introduction of 10-player raiding,” Stockton began, “there’s just been a lot of changes that we feel were necessary to make to the game at certain points in the game’s life.”

One of the biggest changes to the game, at least in the early years of WoW, was the eventual transition to a more casual raiding experience. Although raiding is still considered to be the activity for the most intense players, compared to the early days of 40-player marathons - where it took just as long to bring people online as it did to actually run the encounter - the current raiding scene is much more casual. If you don’t believe me, have a listen to the Onyxia Wipe Animation and you’ll see what we mean. 

We asked Street and Stockton when the idea to make raiding more casual really hit home. “We’d thought about it for awhile,” Stockton said. “But it really hit home for a lot of us with the introduction of Black Temple and Naxxramas... especially Naxxramas. We had worked on Nax for an extremely long time, and yet the numbers we saw were really low. It was something that only a handful of players saw, yet we’d put so much work into it.”

“That’s also one of the reasons why we decided to bring Naxxramas back in Wrath,” he continued. “We wanted players to see the content that we made.”

To put Mr. Stockton’s comments into perspective, imagine that you’ve just painted the most beautiful picture in the world. It took you months to craft – a little dab of paint here, some happy trees there – but your love object is in a remote region of Antarctica. It may be the most beautiful painting in the world, but people won’t ever see your work because you’re too difficult to get to. 

The other problem with 40-player raiding was the storyline dilemma – most of the game’s lore was tucked away in these encounters that no one really saw. In reality, how many people (back in pre-BC WoW) ever mounted Onyxia’s head on the pike in Ogrimmar? Even after the post-40 transition, players still weren’t getting to be a part of the most epic encounters – many downed Illidan, but not the vast majority.

“There’s been a transition to move some of the storytelling out of the raids. You can see that in action with our Wrath Gate questline,” Stockton said. “With Icecrown we’re doing a 5-player dungeon to allow players to feel they’re still a part of the Arthas storyline. You’ll be encountering famous NPCs [like Sylvanas and Jaina Proudmoore], the Lich King, and others.”

If you want a preview of what to expect when you’re running the dungeons, head on over to our MMO video series section – the BFF Report – to check out the Horde side of things.

Humble Beginnings

While it’s easy to look back at World of Warcraft now and hail it as a blockbuster, originally the developers weren’t that certain. But their uncertainty was short-lived.

Much like the success of the Wii in recent years, players eager to jump into WoW were faced with empty store shelves when searching for a boxed copy of the game. For years, people wondered if Blizzard purposefully kept the number of game copies limited to drive up player anticipation, or if they were really not expecting the success the game would face.

You couldn’t find boxes because we didn’t think we’d sell that many up front,” Stockton admitted. “We really didn’t think that people would be so eager to buy and try out the game. We knew that there would be growth and we’d add users over time, but I think it caught us off guard how quickly that growth happened. We needed to deliver content to keep those players going, so we expanded to meet those needs – but we didn’t have any idea just how big it would become.”

“At launch, I think the development team was 50-60 people, and now we’re pushing 140,” he added. “So on the dev side, we’ve tripled in size. “

Where do they think World of Warcraft is headed, now that they’ve seen the results of their labor?

“Initially, WoW was really designed for a few years of activity and then we expected to either be coming out with a new MMO or something along those lines,” Street answered. “But WoW just keeps going and going and there are no signs of it stopping. So we really don’t know what WoW will look like a few years from now, and we have questions that will obviously need answering when we get to them. Is it possible for our character classes to get to level 100? Can we keep introducing deeper and deeper talent trees? Should we keep introducing new spells and abilities to players?”

Speaking of spells and abilities, one of the major challenges facing the Blizzard team – especially with the introduction of the two new races (and therefore an introduction of new and returning users) – is the challenge of making sure players don’t feel left behind and aren’t intimidated by new things they need to learn.

In this particular area, both of the developers feel the game has improved over the last few years. “With Patch 3.3 we looked at a lot of improvements to that area,” Street said. “We’re looking at raids trying to catch up rather than having to go through the progression. We’re also looking at talent trees to make them more accessible to returning players.”

As it stands now, new players often have to go and do research on the current talent tree layout and make decisions based on what they think serves them the best. It can often be daunting to find that your level sixty mage’s talents have completely altered, making him much less of an uber-badass and more of just an ass when he gets into his first group.

 “Vanilla WoW” Players

Interestingly, one of the most vocal communities—at least in terms of being anti-Blizzard—has been those World of Warcraft players who constantly yearn for the “vanilla WoW” – meaning the World of Warcraft that existed pre-Burning Crusade. Fabled “private servers” are rumored to exist, that give players a pre-BC and WotLK experience, but what do the developers think about these players?

“I think the old players are reminiscing about the thrill of experiencing WoW for the first time,” Street suggested. “They don’t remember the annoyance of not having raid symbols to mark targets or having the UI improvements that have been made over the years. The strategy now is to give players who want to try that the opportunity to do it – more and more players to experience it with. Everyone can go back and do these encounters.”

 “The achievement system has been the answer for a lot of those players… they can do things in the classic world and be rewarded for it.” Stockton stated. “They can do something that may be difficult, that may not be current content and still receive something for their efforts.”

Most Memorable Moment as a Developer

At the end of the day, both Stockton and Street were very happy to chat about their experiences over the past five years of World of Warcraft, and it’s easy to see that there is a loyalty to the world and its players that spans far beyond just “the game.” Perhaps nothing made this truer than when we asked Stockton what his favorite moment as a developer has been over the past five years.

It wasn’t a comment about the total number of sales or some figure about the continued rise of Warcraft. No, it was a comment about the fans.

“BlizzCon is the most memorable experience I’ve had,” Stockton said. “It’s realizing how much larger the game is than we actually believe. You see all of those people at BlizzCon, attending with family and friends. When you meet those people… you see the impact of what we’re doing.”

Congratulations Blizzard. Here’s to at least five more great years of World of Warcraft.


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