It’s been almost 10 years since World of Warcraft’s release. During those first years World of Warcraft achieved an end-game experience like non-other; never in my life had I been a part of such a vibrant, cultured, and dedicated community than the ones forged in each and every realm. These communities were a result of technical limitations, and advances in this tech ushered in an era of cross-server everything and instant party and raid finders. Vanilla World of Warcraft is a relic resting deep in the archives of the Blizzard servers, and there it will remain—fossilized. It’s up to us to breathe life into this dinosaur so we may analyze and learn from it.
I’ve wanted to do a series of articles on the finer points of World of Warcraft’s design for some time now, so what better time than the present? There are so many layers to this monolith that I didn’t even know where to start, so I chose the only obvious point: the beginning. Vanilla, as it’s called within the community, is the first World of Warcraft without any expansions released on November 23, 2004 in North America and Australia. Like many people I can still remember my first encounter with World of Warcraft; I was just a kid with dreams of being a hero in the fantastical world of Azeroth. But this isn’t really about nostalgia, this is about taking a look back at the roots of what has, without a doubt, set the bar for the MMORPG experience.
The first thing I want to address in this series is quick, but possibly the most important design decision World of Warcraft had to make: “What are the minimum system requirements to play World of Warcraft?” This was a game that Mom could install on the family computer for her kids to play. This was a game that you could play on 50 bucks worth of spare tech from your buddy’s basement (I’ve experienced both of these scenarios first hand). Accessibility— this is how World of Warcraft became a legendary game, because anyone that wanted to try it could try it. Before World of Warcraft there just wasn’t anything worthy of being installed on so many machines, no one had the visual quality and tight systems that World of Warcraft offered for such a cheap resource price. Accessibility isn’t what made World of Warcraft great, but it’s what paved its way to greatness.
Low system requirements didn’t put World of Warcraft in front of so many people, that was an amalgamation of so many other design decisions all rolled into a nice and tight experience. It was, however, a pretty clutch move on Blizzard’s part, because in the event of World of Warcraft’s success they would be able offer their product to a much larger audience. Blizzard was able to throw out a massive net with their technical design targeting anyone with a computer, not just people with gaming PC’s. As a result they caught more players that could grow into loyal fans.
This is just one of many stars that aligned to give World of Warcraft the success that it experienced. In later expansions they increased the system requirements, but kept it as close to the low-end mark as they could, allowing it to remain the budget PC game of choice for a massive portion of the market.
Eric Canavese is a soon-to-be alumni of the Game Design program at VFS