November 27, 2011 3:00 PM | Eric Caoili
Seven years ago today, Blizzard Entertainment launched World of Warcraft, the company's most successful game to date and one of the most influential online games of all time.
The MMORPG, with 10.3 million current global subscribers, has seen tremendous success since its launch in late 2004, and still serves as the gold standard by which the industry judges the commercial success of an MMORPG.
Of course, the game has gone through quite a bit over the last few years. It has seen three major expansions, broken numerous sales and activity records, and has certainly been the focus of its fair share of controversies. Yet despite how the game or the industry may have changed since 2004, World of Warcraft remains a highly relevant force in the games business.
To celebrate the game's latest anniversary, Gamasutra's Tom Curtis took a look back at the history of World of Warcraft, recalling its most pertinent developments, its significant milestones, and the most memorable moments from throughout its development.
The story starts to take root even further than seven years ago, as it was in 1994 when Blizzard introduced us to the world of Warcraft with the real-time strategy game Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.
The company officially announced World of Warcraft in 2001 at the European Computer Trade Show in London. Shortly after that announcement, DFC Intelligence analyst David Cole, years before the game's launch, was quoted as saying, "I expect World of Warcraft to reach 300,000 to 400,000 users very quickly--three to six months would not be unreasonable. The question will probably be: Can it keep those subscribers?"
The analyst's comment exemplifies just how no one could have expected Blizzard's first MMORPG to become such a worldwide phenomenon. Here are the past seven years of World of Warcraft:
-November 23, 2004 - World of Warcraft Launches in North America, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the Warcraft franchise.
-December 2, 2004 - World of Warcraft becomes the fastest selling U.S. PC game in history.
It begins. World of Warcraft sells 240,000 units in one day, selling faster than any previously-released PC game in the U.S.
-December 13, 2004 - Blizzard cracks down on World of Warcraft item sellers.
Just shortly after launch, the studio threatened strict penalties against those who broke terms of service, including deletion of characters and accounts, and even legal action. Blizzard's bouts with virtual item sellers won't end here.
-February 11, 2005 - World of Warcraft Launches in Europe.
-March 14, 2005 - Blizzard bans more than 1,000 accounts for gold farming.
-March 17, 2005 - World of Warcraft reaches 1.5 million subscribers worldwide.
By this point, World of Warcraft was available in North America, Europe, and Korea. Along with this record subscriber number, the game also broke the record for the most concurrent users, surpassing 500,000 players simultaneously.
-June 7, 2005 - World of Warcraft debuts in China.
Several months after the initial U.S. launch, Blizzard goes after China, whose internet cafes and time-based subscriptions will add substantially to the MMORPG's user base.
-June 29, 2005 - Blizzard announces its first BlizzCon convention will be held in October in Orange County, California.
-July 21, 2005 - World of Warcraft accumulates more than 1.5 million paying customers in China, pushing the worldwide consumer total over 3.5 million.
With World of Warcraft quickly gaining steam, Blizzard decided to consolidate its North and South branches into its Southern California headquarters. With this move, the Diablo team at Blizzard North now shared a roof with the StarCraft and Warcraft teams at Blizzard South.
September 13, 2005 - Blizzard is put to the test as the "Corrupted Blood" epidemic spreads throughout World of Warcraft's player base. A glitch in a fight with high-level dungeon boss Hakkar saw his highly contagious "Corrupted Blood" attack spread unexpectedly from player to player, killing them off. Blizzard had to reset the servers as the virtual disease spread out of control.
-October 28, 2005 - Blizzard announces Burning Crusade.
At the very first BlizzCon, Blizzard officially announced World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, the game's first full-fledged expansion. Most notably, this update introduced Outland, the game's new otherworldly continent, as well as two new playable races, the Blood Elves and Draenei.
-December 19, 2005 - World of Warcraft reaches 5 million subscribers.
Just over a year since launch, the game hits a new record milestone, further bolstered by the game's steadily increasing European subscribers. In early 2006, the game hit more than 1 million European players, pushing the worldwide subscriber count over 5.5 million.
"World of Warcraft's growth continues to exceed all our expectations," said Mike Morhaime, president and co-founder of Blizzard Entertainment. "We want to reiterate our thanks to the millions of players worldwide and to all the retailers who have enthusiastically supported the game over the past year."
-December 22, 2005 - Blizzard closes 18,000 accounts for gold farming and item selling.
-February 10, 2006 - Blizzard apologizes for trying to stop a gay and lesbian-friendly guild.
In early 2006, Blizzard found itself in a bit of controversy after a game master threatened to ban player Sara Andrews for advertising a "GLBT-friendly" guild.
At the time, Blizzard head of customer service Thor Biafore said, "[the warning] was an unfortunate interpretation of our current policies, which are under review."
-March 1, 2006 - Worldwide subscriber numbers surpass 6 million.
-April 14, 2006 - Blizzard reconsiders its deal with Chinese distributor The9.
Following a number of complaints that players in China experienced "widespread delays of over an hour when logging into the game," Blizzard put out a cryptic press release noting that the company "is currently actively exploring and discussing cooperation opportunities and further expansion of its business with local potential partners for mainland China." This release foreshadowed a number of future management and service-related problems the game would eventually face overseas.
-September 6, 2006 - Blizzard VP of game design Rob Pardo emphasizes World of Warcraft's accessibility.
"First we try to come up with what are really cool things, things that will get people to play for two to three years. Then we actually start talking about accessibility, how to make the content approachable and easy to learn. But it starts with depth first," said Pardo at the 2006 Austin Game Developers Conference (now known as GDC Online).
-October 4, 2006 - World of Warcraft receives its very own episode on the hit TV comedy South Park.
During South Park's 10th season, show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone collaborated with Blizzard to create an episode titled, "Make Love, Not Warcraft." Much of the episode was set within World of Warcraft itself, and used machinima animation featuring assets taken straight from the game. The episode was received warmly by fans and critics alike, and went on to receive an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program (for Programming Less Than One Hour).
-January 11, 2007 - World of Warcraft reaches 8 million subscribers.
-January 16, 2007 - Burning Crusade launches in multiple territories, including North America, Europe, Australian, Thailand, and more.
-January 23, 2007 - Burning Crusade sells 2.4 million copies in 24 hours, breaking the sales record previously set by the game's initial release.
-February 1, 2007 - Blizzard signs deal with The9 for Burning Crusade release.
After months of speculation over Blizzard's plans to continue World of Warcraft in China, Blizzard announced that The Burning Crusade would debut in China under the supervision of the game's current overseas publisher, The9. Under this renegotiated agreement, The9 would supply "provisions for hardware upgrades to the existing World of Warcraft infrastructure," local community management, tech support, and customer service, and would run the game on local servers.
-March 7, 2007 - Burning Crusade sales hit 3.5 million units.
-August 3, 2007 - Blizzard announces the game's second expansion: Wrath of the Lich King.
At the second BlizzCon, Blizzard officially debuted Wrath of the Lich King, which brought back Arthas, a fan-favorite character from Warcraft III, as well as the frozen continent of Northrend. In addition, the expansion introduced the the game's first -- and so far, only -- hero class: the Death Knight.
-December 3, 2007 - Vivendi and Activision merge to create Activision Blizzard.
In a sudden and shocking move, Activision and Blizzard parent company Vivendi announced that the companies would soon merge into a single entity, to be known as Activision Blizzard (dropping the Vivendi name in favor of Blizzard's). Of course, this new company now exists as one of the biggest and most influential publishers in the industry, serving as home to some of video games' biggest juggernauts -- from Call of Duty to World of Warcraft itself.
-January 22, 2008 - World of Warcraft hits 10 million subscriber milestone.
-February 7, 2008 - Rob Pardo discusses Blizzard's slow build toward World of Warcraft.
"We've taken steps toward our success. We didn't come out of the gate and try to do World of Warcraft from day one," he said at the 2008 D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas.
-April 14, 2008 - The9 announces plans to release Wrath of the Lich King in China.
-July 10, 2008 - Activision Blizzard merger becomes official.
-August 4, 2008 - Blizzard announces cross-game achievements between Diablo III, StarCraft II, and World of Warcraft.
Prior to integrating the game with its revamped Battle.net service, Blizzard announced that World of Warcraft's impending achievement system would function in tandem with upcoming titles like StarCraft II and Diablo III. Just over a year later, these features would become a part of Battle.net itself.
-October 28, 2008 - World of Warcraft reaches 11 million subscribers.
-November 13, 2008 - Wrath of the Lich King launches in North America and Europe.
-November 20, 2008 - Wrath of the Lich King beats Burning Crusade's sales records, selling 2.8 million units on day one.
-December 23, 2008 - World of Warcraft attracts more than 11.5 million subscribers.
-April 16, 2009 - The game's Chinese operation moves from The9 to NetEase.
With The9's contract due to expire in June 2009, Blizzard announced that it would move control of World of Warcraft in China over to competing publisher NetEase. This move came as a huge blow to The9, as the game has served as the company's primary revenue driver.
-July 7, 2009 - Players in China temporarily lose access to the game.
While the transition to NetEase was intended to take place in early June, things became a bit more complicated when bringing the game back online, and Chinese players were left without access to the World of Warcraft for weeks on end.
-July 29, 2009 - The game returns to China as a closed beta.
The turbulent transition continues in China, as NetEase announces that, the game will only be available as a limited "closed beta" as the company continues to work out the kinks.
-August 6, 2009 - Government censorship hits World of Warcraft in China.
Eventually, news surfaces that the game will see some drastic changes before it ever fully returns to China. The Chinese Government's General Administration of Press and Publication mandated that in order to return to service, the game would have to see some distinct content revisions. Due to these new regulations, the NetEase-run version of the game featured innocuous sandbags instead of piles of bones, re-colored blood, and edited skill icons, which removed references to skulls and other assorted viscera.
-August 21, 2009 - Blizzard announces Cataclysm.
BlizzCon 2009 marked the announcement of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, the game's third expansion. This time, Blizzard went beyond adding a new continent for players to explore, and re-worked the majority of the game's original zones, now torn asunder by a series of natural (and not-so-natural) disasters. Cataclysm also introduced the Goblins and Worgen as playable races, and of course added some new zones for high-level players to explore.
-September 21, 2009 - World of Warcraft restarts operation in China.
-October 12, 2009 - Blizzard announces all World of Warcraft accounts will be merged with Battle.net accounts.
-November 3, 2009 - The Chinese government causes more snags in the game's re-launch in the region.
Following the game's re-launch in China, the Chinese government ordered NetEase to stop allowing new accounts, as the country's Ministry of Culture and General Administration of Press and Publication clashed over who controls online content.
-November 4, 2009 - Blizzard introduces the first monetized in-game pets.
-February 8, 2010 - NetEase once again blocks new user registrations as it applies to government for Burning Crusade license.
-February 17, 2010 - Blizzard earns $1.1 million from the Pandaren Monk pet, donates proceeds to the Make-A-Wish foundation.
In April 2010, Blizzard sold two virtual items for the game on its website: a Celestial Steed mount for $25 and a Lil' XT pet for $10. These items became so popular that Blizzard has to create a queue for players to purchase them. While the exact revenues never came to light, if all 140,000 users in the queue (not counting those who actually paid for the items) bought the Celestial Steed, for example, Blizzard would have made $3.5 million from a single virtual item.
-June 22, 2010 - Blizzard implements its Real ID system.
Blizzard's cross-game real ID system goes beyond simple usernames, and allows players to connect with their real-life friends by using their real names. This service also allowed cross-game chat between World of Warcraft and StarCraft II (which was then in beta-testing), and is now a fully-integrated part of Blizzard's Battle.net.
-June 23, 2010 - Activision Blizzard COO Thomas Tippl unworried about World of Warcraft "franchise fatigue."
"Look at [World of] Warcraft, right. They go from strength to strength, but it's because they innovate all the time. [Blizzard] improves the customer experience all the time. They improve the gameplay modes all the time. You can't be lazy. You can't get complacent," he said in a Gamasutra feature interview.
-July 6, 2010 - Blizzard announces that Real ID will show real names on the official World of Warcraft forums.
In an attempt to "promote constructive conversations" on the infamously rowdy World of Warcraft forums, Blizzard announced that its Real ID system will require players to use their real names when posting online.
"The official forums have always been a great place to discuss the latest info on our games, offer ideas and suggestions, and share experiences with other players -- however, the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild," explained a Blizzard known online as Nethaera.
"Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven't been connected before."
This plan, however, completely backfired, and an outraged fan base demanded that Blizzard abandon the new policy.
-July 9, 2010 - Blizzard revokes plans to put players' Real ID names on the forums.
After a few days of persistent fan outcry, Blizzard decided to keep the forum in its original state -- the Real ID system was never implemented on the forums.
"We've been constantly monitoring the feedback you've given us, as well as internally discussing your concerns about the use of real names on our forums," said Blizzard's Mike Morhaime in a Battle.net forum post. "As a result of those discussions, we've decided at this time that real names will not be required for posting on official Blizzard forums."
-October 7, 2010 - World of Warcraft hits 12 million worldwide subscribers.
This milestone marks the current all-time peak for World of Warcraft subscribers. The game hit this mark just a few months before the much-anticipated Cataclysm expansion.
-November 23, 2010 - "The Shattering" patch launches, forever changing the game's classic zones in anticipation of Cataclysm.
-August 28, 2010 - Wrath of the Lich King announced for China.
-December 7, 2010 - Cataclysm launches in North America and Europe.
-December 13, 2010 - Cataclysm sells 3.3 million in one day.
Just like every version of World of Warcraft before it, the Cataclysm expansion set a new record for day-one U.S. PC game sales. After a month on the market, the game had sold 4.7 million copies.
-May 5, 2011 - Blizzard donates an additional $800,000 from in-game pet sales to Make-A-Wish.
Just a few short months after Cataclysm's debut, World of Warcraft showed its first signs of notable decline. Nearly every expansion had seen waves of players re-subscribe and eventually drop the game, but Cataclysm showed players dropping out faster than ever. As a result, Blizzard planned to limit the time between major expansions.
"As our players have become more experienced playing World of Warcraft over many years, they have become much better and much faster at consuming content," said Blizzard president Mike Morhaime in a conference call.
"And so I think with Cataclysm they were able to consume the content faster than with previous expansions, but that's why we're working on developing more content."
"We need to be faster at delivering content to players," he added. "And so that's one of the reasons that we're looking to decrease the amount of time in-between expansions."
-June 28, 2011 - Blizzard announces unlimited free trials.
In an attempt to further revitalize the game, Blizzard introduced a new trial that allowed players to play for free until reaching level 20, effectively turning World of Warcraft into a free-to-play game at low levels. In addition, all existing and future accounts would receive access to the Burning Crusade content, meaning players no longer have to buy the game's first expansion.
-August 3, 2011 - Subscriptions decline to 11.1 million.
-August 5, 2011 - In-game pet sales generate $1.1 million for Japan earthquake relief.
-October 10, 2011 - Chris Metzen, SVP of creative development, explains how Blizzard gives World of Warcraft a "heart."
"To us [writing] is not about the best [story] hooks in the world, or the most clever hooks," he said. "...It's not about being the most unique in the world, or the best-written dialog in the world. To us it's about heart, it's about the engagement," Metzen said at this year's GDC Online.
-October 13, 2011 - Blizzard auctions original World of Warcraft server hardware for charity.
-October 21, 2011 - Blizzard reveals Mists of Pandaria.
Just last month, Blizzard announced the fourth expansion: Mists of Pandaria. This newest update will add the much-requested Pandaren as a playable race, and the melee-based Monk class. As usual, this release will introduce a host of new zones, this time on the continent of Pandaria.
-November 8, 2011 - World of Warcraft loses another 800,000 subs.
-November 23, 2011 - World of Warcraft turns seven years old. The game remains the dominant subscription MMORPG by far, despite the fact that key development talent has long since moved on to work on the next Blizzard MMORPG, project "Titan." At its seventh birthday, the game remains formidable competition even for new MMOs.