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.
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.