Five years ago, Blizzard thought they were ready to launch their ground-breaking new game, the genre-defining World of Warcraft. They had twenty servers set up, with twenty more in reserve. The plan was, over the next year or so, to replace broken hardware and potentially start up new servers as needed - but that wasn't something they'd have to worry about for a while.
In conversation with J. Allen Brack, who is currently Director of Production for World of Warcraft, he reveals that Blizzard had much less time than they thought - setting up all twenty reserve servers "very early on the first day". Even at launch, the game was far, far more popular than anybody could have imagined, causing the developer to frantically try to source server-class hardware to expand the available resources.
Today, Brack explains that Blizzard have come a long way from their modest beginnings, writing and re-writing server code many times over. The company is now in a position where they're implementing technology they once thought was impossible. One such impossible task, which has taken a year and a half to complete is the new looking for groups system to be implemented in the upcoming 3.3 patch. This "monstrous project" will see the introduction of cross-server instancing, enabling you to play with (or against) more people in your battle groups.
"It's one of those things where we knew it was the right decision, but we could not see the light at the end of the tunnel for a long time," he laughs. Whether or not this light is an oncoming freight train is yet to be seen, with Patch 3.3 due for release in the very near future.
Looking back on the five years of World of Warcraft, Brack gets philosophical, explaining that the company has a "never say never" attitude - something they've learned the hard way.
He explains that "The things that you have today, and the principles that you have... it's not necessarily going to be the principles that you have tomorrow, because the game is going to change, the players are going to change, the needs of the player are going to change..."
Sometimes, these changes happen almost overnight, with some pretty major adjustments being made to the game in just the past 12 months - Brack explained that nobody would have predicted dropping the level at which characters can acquire a mount from 40 to 20, and yet, that change has been made.
Brack ponders: "If you had a time capsule and you went back to launch day and said 'Hey, would you believe that in this amount of time you're going to change what seems like such a core, fundamental part of the game...' I bet the answer would be no."
By the same token, it's pretty difficult for Blizzard to look into the future and predict where they think they're going to be in the next five years. At this point, they're focussing on getting all the bits and pieces of Patch 3.3 out of the way (rumoured to be the final content patch for Wrath of the Lich King), before concentrating properly on the launch content for Cataclysm. According to Brack, there are some ideas being thrown around the office about what might be included in upcoming patches once Cataclysm is on shelves, but nothing's been finalised.
"That's about as far as we've planned - about a year to a year and a half," he explains. "So many things are going to have changed by the time we get to that feature point that we'll make much better decisions - why go through all this exhaustive planning that by the end you'll just have to throw away?"
Illustrating just how this works, Brack details the fact that Patch 3.3 is actually the third time that Blizzard have attempted to incorporate an improved looking for group system. This time around, they're hoping to overcome some of the earlier problems and implement cross-server compatability, all while sweetening the deal with player incentives awarded for playing in random groups. (Nerd detail: one of the incentives is an in-game pet, based on a pug. Geddit? PUG? Pug?)
Speaking of pets, Blizzard have just introduced two new in-game companions, a Pandaren Monk and Lil K'T (the littlest lich). The interesting thing about these two is that they're being sold for real-world money - and even more interesting, half of the purchase price for each Monk sold before December 31st are actually going to the Make-a-Wish International Foundation.
Brack told me that for several years now, there have been many people on the WoW team (and at Blizzard in general) who've wanted to do something that "gives back" to the community. While it's early days yet, he believes that this new charity pet is a step in the right direction - and something they've already discussed doing again in the future, depending on how many people pick up the Monk.
From many people's perspective, however, this is the first step on a slippery slope of microtransactions - the exchange of real-world money for in-game gifts. Brack begs to differ - "We've had rename services, we've had transfer services, we recently introduced paid faction changes... we've had many services that are very similar to this for many years. It's not a new thing, in terms of how WoW does things." In a very carefully-phrased response, he goes on to explain that Blizzard are not talking about, or planning, to introduce a system that involves microtransactions for in-game gear, weapons, armour or other objects. Harking back to earlier comments, it seems that the future of this sort of trading is firmly in the hands of the gamers, who can effectively vote on the matter - with their wallets!
Obviously, everybody's main focus is on World of Warcraft, but I know there are still some RTS junkies who won't be satisfied until Warcraft 4 is announced and in their sweaty, strategic hands. Like many of you, I wondered if perhaps an announcement was on the cards, tying in with this special occasion (or maybe the Sweet 16th scheduled for next year).
"Warcraft 4 is certainly something that gets talked about on a pretty regular basis," Brack explained, but his next revelation throws a bit of a spanner in the works - the team that worked on Warcraft 3 is actually the same team that is working on StarCraft 2! "While I think we're all excited about a Warcraft 4, in concept, they're going to finish up StarCraft 2, and then they're going to work on the two StarCraft expansions that we've announced, so they're booked for the next few years."
(He does go on to explain that there's nothing set in stone that says that Warcraft 4 has to be created by the same people who made Warcraft 3, but "it does sort of make sense" for it to be done that way. Never say never, I guess.)
Brack himself isn't just an employee, like most Blizzard staff, he's an avid gamer as well, and has dedicated a fair chunk of the past 15 years to playing the various games in the Warcraft universe. Over that time, he looks back fondly at a handful of "hugely awesome, throw your hands up in the air and scream" type of achievements, including playing with "not a great guild" to finally defeat Ragnaros, back in the day.
"This year, I had another great experience like that, right after we launched Wrath of the Lich King, everyone levelled up, then they got geared up, then we started running Naxxramas, and one night, we just sort of jokingly said 'Hey, let's try to go for the Undying title', and that was an awesome experience, to get that... that was another huge kind of throw your hands up in the air and scream, high-fives all round type moment." (It is at this point that I learn that Mr. Brack has a tendency to understate things. The Undying is an end-game raid achievement that one can earn by killing all 18 of the Naxxramas bosses, with no deaths in your 10-man party. It is, according to most people, one of the more difficult challenges in the game, and a highly-sought after title. So yeah. Kudos to you, Mr. Brack.)
Cataclysm, the upcoming expansion, is being taken as an opportunity to "go back and apply a lot of the learning that we achieved on both Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King". Brack explains that the knowledge and expertise will be taken into the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor to revamp the 1-60 experience. It seems that Blizzard, like most developers, has a "We can make this better" mentality, which they're acting on to improve the game generally speaking, "fix sins of the past", and to add new twists and new flavour to the game.
Many local gamers would say that one of the "sins of the past" on Blizzard's part is the complete lack of any local servers for the Australians who enjoy playing a bit of WoW from time to time. Of course, the question was raised, and we got a slightly different answer to the one being recited a few months ago at BlizzCon.
This time around, we're told "That is something that we do talk about on a pretty regular basis, and talk about how we can actually accommodate that. I don't have a timetable or a specific plan for that, but I can say that as recently as within the past three months, I have had a significant conversation about that."
(Blizzard fans, I can also point out that in addition to local servers, an Australian English language pack is now - at our insistence - officially on the list of things to do. It might be right at the bottom, but it's there.)
So - for those of you planning on doing something in-game for its 5th birthday, your presents have been worked into the game already. The newly revamped Onyxia, complete with shiny level 80 equipment and a few other bits and pieces is actually part of the anniversary celebrations, despite being launched a month or two early.
When I asked him whether or not there would be in-game birthday parties to celebrate this 5/15th anniversary, Brack chuckled: "I think we're still putting everything together - I don't think we're quite ready to spoil it! We definitely have some things in the works that we're excited about." ...so, just like a real birthday (and a real Blizzard event), you WoW players are just going to have to wait and see what's in store.