It’s five years today since World of Warcraft first opened its doors to the public, something I’ve been writing about on our website as it’s an anniversary that lies close to the heart of my gaming life (and millions of others’). I also wanted to take the chance, though, to mark a slightly less-celebrated but equally significant anniversary—the fact that it’s now 15 years today since the very first Warcraft game burst onto the global scene.
In 1994, videogames still looked faintly embarrassing to the uninitiated: cheerful, blocky collections of pixels that represented a variety of mythical creatures, but which resembled nothing so much as an artfully arranged set of technical lego. They were impressive—but they were also, really, a toy for boys. My friends and I played Warcraft, Warcraft II, Warcraft III, and their space-age companion, Starcraft, huddled in our bedrooms. All four were examples of the genre known as “real time strategy,” and involved directing tiny armies of troops and harvesting resources in a frantic effort to destroy an opponent’s base. The games got prettier and more complex over time, of course. But they were still the kind of games we had grown up with: playing at war with pixels, with four players at most involved—and some seriously fiendish mouse and keyboard work to learn if you wanted any chance of victory. That was what videogames were all about.
Then, the rumours started. Something different was on the horizon. We all knew about what were rather portentously being called “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” (the first, Ultima Online, had come out in 1997) but we had never played them. They were for real, proper, hard-core geeks; and we, as mere ordinary geeks, had never considered going near them. The rumours, though, said that Blizzard—the company responsible for our beloved Warcraft series of games, and the equally beloved Diablo games—was making its own massively multiplayer online game. And this one was going to be fun. Eagerly, nervously, we waited.
We were waiting for World of Warcraft and I, at least, knew precious little about it beyond the fact that this would be a game world that thousands of people could enter simultaneously, and where teaming up with other players was not just an advantage, but essential. How would that work? I wasn’t convinced that it would, and nor was the world: if, in 2004, you had predicted that over 12m people would eventually sign up and pay good money to play, the wisest industry heads would have said you were mad. Things like that didn’t happen in video games. It’s easy to forget just how much has changed in five short years, let alone 15.