Like most people my age, I have a few World of Warcraft characters sitting on a server somewhere. I actually just played Hearthstone today, and I spent much of the 1990s playing Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, and Starcraft.
But vanilla WoW changed everything in the aftermath of its 2004 release, not just in my life, but for society as a whole. The game grossed nearly $10 billion in revenue for Blizzard, as of 2017, and the re-release of World of Warcraft Classic in August 2019 surely added to that pile.
When given the chance to read a hardcover copy of The WoW Diary: A Journal of Computer Game Development by the PR company, I was stoked. It’s not often I’m able to read a tech book that doesn’t read like a boring textbook. I rarely ever read any of the story while playing WoW.
This book, however, touched me on a deeper emotional level than my 20-year high school reunion. In fact, I stayed home reading it instead of attending that over the weekend.
Ghosts of Azeroth
There were a handful of my friends always playing WoW. We played Tekken, GoldenEye, and other games together growing up, so it was easy to convince me in my late 20s to dive in. I was hesitant for a long time to level anything, but by the time The Burning Crusade expansion hit, I was using my Night Elf Rogue to power-level other classes.
It was a magical world, where you could level up crafting skills, team up to take on 5-man dungeons or 10+ person raids, go fishing, pick flowers, pretty much do whatever you want. What really separated WoW from similar MMORPGs like Everquest that already existed at the time was its drool-worthy loot, epic quests, and brilliant auction house system.
In fact, WoW’s gold economy was a precursor to today’s cryptocurrency and in-game currency explosion. It’s still running too. John Staats, a 3D modeler working on the project from the beginning, provides a first-hand perspective on how the game came together, and it’s a brilliant read.
Behind the Throne
It begins with the origin story of the project, all the way back in 1999. From there it zeroes in on the three years leading up to the game’s release, providing a deep, detailed look at the work environment at Blizzard at the turn of the century.
Being immersed in both worlds, Staats does an amazing job of intertwining technobabble (i.e the pros and cons of writing an in-house game engine or discussing how the NPC editor works) with in-game lore and glimpses of the business.
And seeing the illustrations and charts/tables behind everything almost feels like you’ve hacked the game. Having had so many third-party macros and UIs installed on my game (at one point, I even had a keyboard skin), these exclusive pics are kinda like seeing celebrity nudes. There are even schematics of the office layout.
The amount of work that went into character balancing is impressive, made all the more so for anyone who’s ever participated in a game’s alpha or beta release.
Every aspect of game development is covered in detail, from the creation of Stormwind, creating and balancing classes, programming NPCs, and more. It’s amazing to see how much overtime and sacrifice everyone on the team really put into making this game.
Even though you know the ending as a reader, it feels pretty tense sometimes seeing how these guys worked under corporate production and quality standards. These guys were truly dedicated to the game they were making, and it shows in the polish and ultimate impact on pop culture they had.
Some of the stories felt very visual to me, since I understood the instance they were talking about. Others just made me smile thinking about South Park’s take WoW, as the developers figured out ways to secure remote connections and play from home. You can see them becoming just as addicted to their creation as we inevitably were.
By the end, I realize Staats had the same problem writing his book that I did with writing my own about whistleblowing. The story isn’t over yet, so it’s hard to make an ending.
For Team 2, even in 2017 (the last days covered), the game was still in a state of constant development. But he did a great thing by releasing this section. I hope we get a part 2 that discusses the development on Burning Crusade and other expansions.
Can’t get enough Warcraft lore? Check out The Art of Hearthstone on Amazon.
The Wow Diary is a must-read for any fan of Blizzard, computer development, or the video game business. It’s an exceptional read that I simply couldn’t put down once I started. I think it’s better than most of the actual Warcraft lore being put out by Blizzard.
If you miss those World of Warcraft days, but Hearthstone‘s difficulty curve is too much and you don’t want to give in to the Scroll of Resurrection, this is the perfect way to relive your glory days in Azeroth. I can not say enough good things about this book.