Six Degrees: Frank Herbert and WoW – Part 2

This is the second part of a nearly 40-year journey that examines the link between Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel, Dune, and World of Warcraft. You can read Part 1 here.

5. Blizzard’s rise to dominance
By the dawn of the new millennium, the popularity of the RTS was past its heyday and Westwood Studios, sadly, was essentially no more, having been acquired by EA and basically locked in a storage closet and forgotten. But the Command & Conquer-Warcraft rivalry managed to continue. Despite significant delays, Blizzard went first in this round, releasing the highly-anticipated Warcraft 3 in the summer of 2002. Command & Conquer: Generals followed several months later in early 2003. It is worth noting that not only did Generals introduce a new C&C universe, but it also significantly changed several aspects and mechanics of traditional C&C games, and often in ways that made it feel and play much more similar to Warcraft 3 than to its C&C forebears.

Before its release, the announcement of Generals came as a surprise to many fans who were expecting a third entry in either the Tiberium or Red Alert universe, not an entirely new one altogether. Both series did in fact receive a third game later on, with gameplay that retained the mechanics of the earlier games in the C&C series (and then a fourth game in the Teiberium universe, largely reviled by fans for introducing yet another new style of gameplay to the C&C Series), but it is at this point that we bid a fond adieu to the Command and Conquer universe.

Over a decade after its release, Battle.net servers for Warcraft 3 are still active, a testament to its popularity, craftsmanship and game balance. But besides these things, Warcraft 3 possesses something else of significant value: a setting that has now been fleshed out over the course of three games, and an epic storyline that brings the setting to life and creates characters that players care about. In a move taken from the playbook for Starcraft’s storyline, the story of Warcraft 3 is a continuous tale that players get to experience from the perspective of each faction as they play through the game. This not only gives the story length and continuity (as opposed to previous RTS games which normally told entirely different stories based on the faction that was being used), but helps to further flesh out the world and its characters.

6. Genre reassignment
Intellectual property such as characters, setting, storylines, and lore are assets that can be transferred from one game genre into other another, or even into entirely different forms of media (for example, the countless number of movies made based on books that are made). As the popularity of RTS games waned, a new type of game was rising: the massive multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. By this time, video game RPGs had been popular for quite some time, and with the increasing popularity of multiplayer games, the natural progression was to move from single-player experiences to multiplayer games set in a shared, persistent world. (It is worth noting that multiplayer online RPGs had actually existed for quite some time in the form of “multi-user dungeons” or MUDs, predating the widespread adoption of residential internet access. But these earlier games were limited by the technology of their time and would be considered quite primitive compared to MMORPGs that exist now.)

In addition to the game design and mechanics that have to be programmed and developed, a huge amount of work involved in making an MMORPG is creating the world in which the game takes place. Among other things, this includes creating the geography and various adventure sites that players can travel to, creating a history, populating it with non-player characters with whom the players can interact, and developing storylines by drawing from all of these prior elements.

Over the course of three RTS games set in the Warcraft universe, Blizzard had completed a significant portion of this world-building and now had at their disposal a rich IP from which to develop an MMORPG. In a mere 10 years, Warcraft went from a successful series of RTS games to what has become the most popular MMORPG to date since its release in 2004, World of Warcraft.

Final Thoughts
To recap: Frank Herbert wrote an epic sci-fi novel (1), which was later made into a movie and a series of computer games (2), one of which helped establish an entire genre of games (3). In this new genre (4), one series eventually rose to prominence above all others (5), not only for its gameplay, but for its rich world and storyline, which was eventually used as the setting for an MMORPG (6).

All of these factors contributed in some way to the creation of World of Warcraft. Of course, there are other contributing factors that led to the development and incredible success of World of Warcraft. Blizzard’s string of successful games from the mid-90’s to the early 2000’s helped fill their coffers to the point where they could afford to invest in a project as massive as World of Warcraft. It definitely helped that WoW’s release coincided with a period of time that saw a significant increase in the adoption of high-speed internet by residential customers.

Finally, Dungeons & Dragons was also experiencing significant growth in popularity at the time of World of Warcraft‘s release and during its early years. The interplay and cross-pollination taking place between the tabletop RPG and the MMORPG should not be overlooked. Not only was the the popularity of tabletop RPGs (and D&D in particular) vital for helping to create the target audience for MMORPGs, but many themes and mechanics were translated directly from their analog (tabletop) form into digital form as well. (Then, in what is perfectly symbolized by the ouroboros serpent featured in D&D‘s iconography, the 4th edition of D&D, released in 2008, in turn borrowed many concepts and mechanics from World of Warcraft.)

Of course, it’s also possible that World of Warcraft could have come about in a different way. If Westwood had not made Dune 2 or if it had not been so successful, perhaps another company would have created the game that defined RTS genre as we know it (although this scenario is somewhat dubious given the dearth of RTS games released between Dune 2 and Warcraft). If, for whatever reason, RTS games had not risen to the height of popularity that they reached in the 90’s, perhaps Blizzard would have still created enough source material to develop World of Warcraft — not insignificant portions of the lore contained in Warcraft 3 were created during development of their unreleased Warcraft Adventures game, and Warcraft 3 was originally not intended to be a traditional RTS, but a new sort of RPG/RTS hybrid (some vestiges of this early phase of development remain in Warcraft 3 in the form of the hero-focused gameplay, and the leveling and inventory systems). Warcraft 2 and Warcraft 3 were big sellers for Blizzard, but it’s possible their success with Starcraft and the first two Diablo games alone could have given them enough financial stability to pursue creating an MMORPG.

However, the fact remains that the most successful MMORPG of all time can trace its lineage back to a novel published in 1965 written by a man named Frank Herbert.

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Six Degrees: Frank Herbert and WoW – Part 1

As often happens, the other night as I was drifting off to sleep, my mind started wandering off to strange places and I realized that there is a direct, traceable link between Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune… and World of Warcraft.

Say what? How can an esoteric sci-fi eco-parable (with overt religious and messianic themes thrown in for good measure) from the 1960s possibly be considered a progenitor of the most successful MMORPG of all time? What madness is this? Read on, and prepare to be dazzled! (Or, undoubtedly, bored, if you find this type of exercise pedantic and uninteresting.)

1. Point of Origin: Frank Herbert’s Dune
In 1965, Frank Herbert’s seminal novel, Dune, introduced the world to the spice mélange, giant sand worms, Fremen, and their homeworld of Arrakis — otherwise known as Dune. Much to my embarrassment, although I’m familiar with the main story and some of the lore, the books remain on my list of must-reads, and not my list of have-reads. But I’ve played most of the computer games and seen all of the movies based on it. That’s gotta count for something, right?

2. Diversifying into other media
Once in a while, a book, song, movie, or game –that is, a piece of art or culture — is created that is too spectacular in its artistry and craftsmanship, too far ahead of its time to be widely accepted. The first Dune film, by David Lynch, was not widely accepted, but not for those reasons. But it did probably help keep up awareness of the novel, which helped pave the way for the first Dune computer game, which was one of those spectacular creations that was too far ahead of its time.

Released in 1992, it featured engaging hybrid gameplay (strategy, resource management, and some adventure-game elements thrown into the mix), great voice acting, and an incredible soundtrack. Sadly, as is often the case with trailblazers, the world just wasn’t ready for something as unique as this game, and it never achieved the level of popularity that it deserved. However, like the movie before it, it did help pave the way for the next step, by bringing the universe of Dune into the world of computer games.

3. The rise of the RTS: Dune 2
While not the first actual RTS game to be created, Westwood Studios’ Dune 2 (formally titled Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, as well as other names, depending on the country and gaming platform) was the game that established real-time strategy games as a genre. Also released in 1992, the second Dune computer game deviated wildly from the storylines of both the book and the film, jettisoning almost all of the plot and established characters, and using only certain elements of the setting and the various warring factions before introducing a new one, House Ordos — because hey, if you’re going to basically gut an entire story line, what’s the big deal about introducing new content? (Of course, the introduction of the Ordos made sense from a gameply perspective, as it added more variety and options to the game, with the Ordos being the “fast” faction, compared to the slow but powerful Harkonnen and to the Atreides, who possessed a balance of speed and power.) It was only one game, but the floodgates to an untapped genre were about to be thrown open.

4. The Golden Age of the RTS: Blizzard and Westwood
Aware of the success of Dune 2, Blizzard Entertainment, who up to this point was a relatively small player with no major hits, tried their hand at making an RTS of their own called Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Released in 1994, it went on to spawn an entire franchise of video games that you may have heard of. In what makes for a fascinating “what if?” scenario, Blizzard originally wanted to license the Warhammer IP from Games Workshop in order to help Warcraft appeal to a larger audience. Luckily for them and for the legions of World of Warcraft players worldwide, it didn’t pan out. But that’s skipping ahead.

Westwood followed up in 1995 with the first game in the eponymous Command & Conquer series, which became an instant classic. While having nearly identical mechanics and some similar themes as Dune 2, Command and Conquer was light years ahead of its predecessor in terms of production values, as was Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness, released at the end of 1995. Dune 2 codified the modern RTS, but it was Command and Conquer and Warcraft 2 that made them mainstream.

The golden age of the RTS was at hand, but as with any golden age, numerous contenders for the crown appeared; many RTS games were released during this time, some good, but many that were mediocre or worse. In a crowded field, Westwood and Blizzard stood out as the two rival powerhouses of the time, putting forth during this era such notable titles as Command & Conquer: Red AlertStarcraft, Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, and Red Alert 2. (Honorable mention goes to Cavedog’s Total Annihilation, one of the few examples of a great RTS not made by either Westwood or Blizzard, and another example of a game that didn’t achieve the level of popularity it deserved.)

So we’ve gone from a science fiction novel to RTS games in the 1990s, but what does that have to do with World of Warcraft?

Go to Part 2