Warcraft began its life in 1994, as an MS-DOS based Real Time Strategy title. It was no different to a number of games at the time, and required you to build a base, then an army before you went off and destroyed the enemy. You could either play as a Human or an Orc, and in multiplayer mode the objective was to wipe out your opposition. It was, in many ways, unremarkable. However, it was undoubtedly successful, so much so that Warcraft 2 followed in short order in 1995, and with it came the first major success for Blizzard. As the game’s Wikipedia entry states, the game ‘won most of the major PC gaming awards in 1996, and sold over 2 million copies.’
The sound effects for the Warcraft games are as recognisable now as they were back then, coming from the back room PC in our first house, as my husband played campaign after campaign. It was also a popular LAN game: were it not for that co-operative element I’d have not gained an interest in the Company at all when, in late 1996, Diablo was released. At that point Blizzard existed in two forms: the main company began its life in Irvine (a very affluent city in Orange County, California) whilst Blizzard North, who were responsible for this new dungeon crawler were in Redwood City, south of San Francisco. It was their brainchild that combined LAN elements with the story of Angels and Demons fighting over the land of Sanctuary, and it was at that point I was hooked, in a manner I cannot remember with any other game either previously or indeed since.
The most compelling hook for me was the simplicity of gameplay: a selection of spells that became more complex as you levelled, a decent level of difficulty for someone like me who took time to learn the business of fighting and moving, and a really compelling story. In fact, as stories went, it was simple but perfect, and the end boss fights were genuinely challenging. Even now I can remember the quickest paths from area to area as you levelled, and I did so many times, and the joy when you’d pick up something really useful from a chest or after killing a difficult dungeon boss. Mostly however it was the fact that my husband would hit stuff, and I’d stand behind him and support. This is how I’ve always done my best work: I’m not a leader, and doubt I’ll ever wear that mantle with comfort. Diablo gave two of us an affinity together that was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my entire gaming life.
That’s where my love affair with ranged weaponry also began: the Amazon gave me power yet safety at distance. I know this is why I have a lot of Hunters in my Warcraft accounts too, because old habits do die hard and sometimes it is easier to enjoy something when you don’t need to spend all your time working at it. When I try and explain Azeroth to people who do not understand or grasp the complexities of how this journey began, it is really important to understand how early LAN functionality created the co-operative elements of conflict and support that the World of Warcraft now relies on for pretty much all of the elements of gameplay. Yet, having said all of this, many players still preferred the solo campaigns and have never played co-op in their lives, and will likely avoid this if other people are involved. After last weeks observations, it is perhaps easy to grasp the reasoning, but if you do so undoubtedly a part of the experience’s central significance is lost.
This game began its life as a complete Universe: living and breathing, with a complicated timeline that has been rewritten now on many occasions. However, and this is the most important factor of all in dictating the success that would occur going forward, it was based on a foundation that actively encouraged conflict in all of its forms, and never shied away from that most basic of tenets: there will be a winner, and a loser. RTS (Real Time Strategy) is, like it or not, what Azeroth will always remain. If you’re not able to think on your feet, and adapt to rapid change, this game is not for you. If I am honest with myself, that reason alone was enough on a number of occasions to drive me to stop playing. I just was not good enough, in my own mind, to do what the UI and other people asked of me, even in a virtual environment. Once you accept your limits and ability? Things become considerably easier to rationalise.
It would take a decade from Diablo’s initial release for Warcraft to evolve into an MMO, and I played many games in that period: Baldur’s Gate stands out, and is now on my tablet for moments of nostalgic distraction but it was Dungeon Siege that paved the way for my interest in Azeroth. Now I have discovered this is on Steam, I may be forced to go buy a copy and relive those halcyon early days when my son would sleep in my lap and I’d fight my way through the Kingdom of Ehb. For me, however, without Diablo’s significant contribution to multiplayer mode, I’d still be happy playing alone twenty years on. However, when I finally signed up for World of Warcraft in March 2005, two weeks after my daughter was born, I don’t think I ever grasped how much of a life changing experience this would be.
Now you get the back story, it’s probably time to start explaining how WoW itself works.