Pumaras rubbed his eyes and looked around. The frosty ridges of Dun Morogh, a simple Dwarf trained under the discipline of the Light, a wooden hammer, his first quest, and a single spell in a hot bar. For a few moments I would not know how to play World of Warcraft. I’d tug the camera around awkwardly, rotations an inefficient plod and talent trees an incomprehensible matrix of words, cooldowns, cast-times and numbers. I would kill trolls named Frostmane, troggs named Caverndeep, and sickly green gnomes. I used to think general chat referred to some distant “General,” like some arch-authoritarian figure barking orders to us lowly single-digit plebes. It seems crazy now, but it took me almost a week to level through the starting zones and enter the slightly scarier corners of Azeroth. We were all newborns once, free of callousness, exploring on our tip-toes.
We would learn to relish those memories in hindsight. Us, the 10-year veterans, whose parents paid Blizzard the $15 a month until we reached the requisite maturity to siphon off the fringes of our pizzeria paychecks to keep the campaign running. 10 years of elated success and crushing defeat, 10 years of patch notes, 10 years of of insurmountable tasks, and 10 years of remembering every couple of months that this is probably your favorite videogame of all time.
“It’s a huge sense of pride, building something that’s touched so many people,” says Cory Stockton, Lead Content Designer on World of Warcraft, and someone who’s been on the game since the beginning. “When you go to Blizzcon you don’t see a bunch of gamers, you see families. That gives us a huge responsibility.”
He speaks like a caretaker, World of Warcraft’s nurturing deity, and he’s not wrong. In some ways, people like me will always feel like part of Blizzard’s flock. When your parents went to bed, when it’s a lonely Saturday night and your friends aren’t returning your calls, there was always World of Warcraft. You didn’t have to wallow in any loneliness, because you knew full well that this place was far more magical and exciting and everyone else couldn’t possibly relate.
We beat videogames to a pulp until they give up the final vestiges of their mystery. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Vast worlds can always be made small with enough force. 100 percent is the end goal. Skyrim is large, but bordered. It can be thoroughly spelunked with enough patience.
But in WoW’s just-released fifth expansion, Warlords of Draenor, the world map flashes an unknown burlap continent left deliciously out-of-reach across an alien sea. They’ve pulled this trick before; the paved-over “Hyjal” locked away behind an impassable spine of mountains, or the Uldum quest chain, left lingering in front of the locked doors of an old Titan research facility promising the answers to some of the fundamental questions of life on Azeroth.
It might be maddening for some, but to me that darkness around the corner kept me coming back for life. I love that there are things about this videogame that are never seen, but are most certainly there.
Things age here. The glimmer fades. The once-wartorn Hellfire Peninsula sits inert in distant space, the siege on the Lich King’s citadel sits calmly dormant at the crown of the world. Magic brooms sweep up the dust and dirt of an abandoned Silvermoon City. The quiet spots amid the chaos and mystery, the moments for reflection, where we can sit our weary travellers down on the sites of their former conquests to collect themselves before we return to the tip of the spear. There’s never been a world that’s felt realer.
“It’s always hard to figure out if I like an instance because I ran it a bunch to get a specific item, or because of how it made me feel,” says Stockton, after I ask him what his favorite dungeon was. “But I don’t think anything will ever have the impact that Molten Core did. I know that sounds cliche, but being down there with 40 other people… there’s something about that that you can’t do in World of Warcraft anymore.”
Ragnaros was a myth. A 40-foot elemental lord sporting a unique model you couldn’t find anywhere else in the code. You only knew his story if you were reading the in-game books scattered around the dotted inns and cathedrals. Maybe someone linked you to a Putfile for the world-first kill, where bloky players spiked in Tier One armor clocked in the seven-or-so hours required to clear the trash, take down the other nine bosses, and summon the Firelord to a battle. That is, of course, if you also grinded endlessly for the requisite fire resistance gear and worked your way into good favor with the Hydraxian Waterlords. Either way, he seemed impossible. A feat reserved for adventurers far braver and more tenacious than you.
And Stockton is right. It’s something that isn’t quite alive in World of Warcraft now.
It started slowly, with the release of Burning Crusade, with the announcement that raids would go from the massive, unwieldy (and very epic) 40-man requirement, to a suitably smaller 25. The long, winding questlines required for those earlier legendaries? Now they were just a rare drop from the last boss.They still asked for your patience and guild unity, but the substantial no-life dedication was hampered a bit.
By Wrath of the Lich King, all raids were tuned to welcome both 10-man and 25-man groups, opening the door to millions of players who wouldn’t have been able to ever see the content otherwise. It was a brilliant move, the only natural progression for a development staff that marks its patch day with new big-group content, but it was still sad. I remember reading forum threads back in ‘05, us kids speculating that when Arthas finally made his way into Warcraft, he’d have to be on the other side of a 100-man raid. But, no. Not anymore. You can fell him with 10, on easy mode.
“There’s really no way to avoid that,” says Stockton. “When you think of the amount of people that were playing back then (peaking at 12 million,) that had never played a PC game, much less an MMO. We had to pivot, we had to make sure our content was available to everyone while still making sure we remembered our responsibility to the super hardcore. It’s been a balancing act ever since. When we make our heroic, top-tier raiding content now, we know it’s stuff that maybe half of one percent of the player base will see.”
It’s perfectly reasonable logic, and it’s made Warcraft a better, more well-rounded game. What we lost is the fundamental joy of knowing that, when you laid eyes on the pinnacle of the Black Temple, the pits of Molten Core, the scales of Blackwing and sanctum of Kel’Thuzad, you were a rare, rare breed, excavating this digital world, uncovering its secrets, the gutsiest friends you will ever have at your side.
Pumaras is long gone. Probably still standing tall in his Tier Two Paladin gear, somewhere in very out-of-date Ironforge. I’ve left plenty by the wayside, Crog at Shattrath, Waisen at Orgrimmar, Mordin on his flying mount, floating somewhere in Uldum. I’m currently knifing my way through Draenor with Chitlix, a salty Goblin rogue, 45 pounds soaking wet. He’s currently fighting back against the expanding Burning Legion in the glistening blue-green forest of Taland.
I’ve quite enjoyed my time in Warlords of Draenor. Leveling has always been the primary pleasure of this game, because that’s when possibilities are at their most alluring. It’s amazing how Blizzard constantly reinvents their aging engine, easily crafting their best set of zones and levels since, well, since their last expansion, Mists of Pandaria. It’s a wonderful place to live, and now, after 10 years, I think I’m finally comfortable with those earliest memories being just that. Warm, fleeting brushes with a fantasyland that won’t ever feel the same.
A decade changes things, it alters the way we think. There’s a reason we only get about eight of them in a given lifespan. World of Warcraft is just as much about time as it is about its physical proportions. When I think about that fateful day, installing Warcraft across four DVDs, it starts to feel holy. A blessed, magical moment, poetry in motion. I know that’s all bullshit, but it’s the only way I can think about it. It’s the only game in history that let’s us ruminate on our legacies in real, undirected time. I can perch myself on the muddy shores of Lakeshire, and remember when my first serious guild rendezvoused on that patched-up bridge to ride, together, towards our ultimate fate in the Burning Steppes. I can languish peacefully on the edge of the lava flow in Blackrock Mountain, and watch the drakes above circle over, and over and over, knowing only a select few witnessed the wars that rumbled there once upon a time. Those early anxieties and frenetic excitement still wistfully present, the green portal still swirling menacingly.
Yes, Warcraft has changed, but so have we. It’s given us these pure memories, something nothing else in gaming can come close to offering. These very real feelings, this geographic attunement in a digital world. The tender care from Blizzard, the love from our fleeting guildmates—there simply isn’t enough gratitude in the world. Callinicus, Albinozod, Selekeulos… how could I ever forget them…
Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.