The world’s first billion-dollar game

Video games now dwarf the film business – and World of Warcraft is king of them all. At BlizzCon, William Leith meets the men who revolutionised online gaming

I’m at the Anaheim Convention Centre, in Orange County, California, with 26,000 World of Warcraft fans. If you didn’t know, World of Warcraft is, by most measures, the biggest computer game on the planet. It is played by 11 million people worldwide. That’s the population of Greece. According to research, the average player spends around 20 hours a week playing it. That’s more than half the time you’re supposed to spend doing your job. And when you play World of Warcraft, you have to concentrate. I don’t suppose many people concentrate on their jobs for 20 hours a week. So World of Warcraft is a game. But you could compare it with the workforce of a whole country.

In the world of video games, then, Warcraft is huge. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, in the world at large, video games are huge. The industry pulls in $60 billion (£37.5 billion) a year globally. Compare that with the music business, which takes $30-$40 billion, and the movie industry, which rakes in around $27 billion. But games are growing – fast. Just four years ago, video games made some $40 billion a year. In four years’ time, some analysts predict, that figure will be pushing towards $100 billion. It’s not outrageous to say that games are taking over the entertainment industry. Soon, they might be its mainstay. And this has happened right under our noses; lots of us haven’t been paying attention. Did you know the Super Mario Bros games have sold more than 200 million copies? Or that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 sold 4.7 million copies in its first day? Or that, collectively, World of Warcraft players have spent more than 50 billion hours playing this game? That’s nearly six million years!

So who are these Warcraft people? And why is the game so insanely popular? The first thing to say about them is that they are incredibly polite and sweet. It’s hard to believe they are obsessed with a war game. But then, when you look under the surface, Warcraft is not exactly a war game. It’s a game about getting a job and helping people while your nation happens to be at war. It’s also set in a weird place, at a weird time; it reminds me of feudal England, if feudal England were full of aliens and weird sci-fi monsters. You might say it’s like a hardcore, computer-age version of The Lord of the Rings.

So I’m sitting here, with these 26,000 fans – or, more properly, game players or geeks – waiting to hear a major announcement about World of Warcraft. Most of the geeks are men. Some have interesting facial hair and creative tattoos. More people than you’d think are dressed as characters from the game. Some look like animals, or monsters, or medieval wenches. Some of the women have dressed up to look sexy. This, by the way, is BlizzCon, an annual event dedicated to aficionados of Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind Warcraft. Right now, everybody is waiting for Mr Warcraft to appear – the president of the company, Mike Morhaime.

The lights go down. The auditorium fills with rumbling noise and operatic music. Giant screens all around us flash with light and pictures. A voice, filled with foreboding, intones: “Let the carnage begin!” The screen pulses with clips. It’s an instant history of 20 years of Blizzard games. It might almost be a history of the entire industry. First, figures darting around. Then they dart around brandishing weapons, hitting each other. As the years go by, the figures become more lifelike, and then more gruesome and fantastical, until we get to World of Warcraft itself; now the screens are filled with hideous monsters, to a soundtrack of diabolical laughter; they might be creatures from deep inside your worst nightmares. Armoured beings with crustacean limbs, prehistoric birds, crows, massed armies of hellish furies. And other creatures – a beautiful humanoid woman with the figure of a model; a rather fetching horned devil. Bats. There is screeching. A voice says: “You must rally the Horde and lead your people to their destiny!”

Then Mike Morhaime walks on stage. He is a slight man in middle age with short, grey hair and a stubble beard. He has the air of being very shy. The crowd cheers respectfully. To gamers, Morhaime falls somewhere between Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg, whom he slightly resembles. He wears jeans and trainers and a short-sleeved World of Warcraft shirt. He has a special Blizzard ring, which employees get after 15 years’ service at the company. Outside the gaming world, nobody knows much about Morhaime, or about Frank Pearce, who was there at the beginning with him. Mike is a geek; Frank is a super-geek. They grew up loving games when not many other people did – Mike in California, Frank in Michigan. They studied computer science at UCLA. They pushed the world of gaming through all its stages – car racing, puzzle, player versus player, and now what’s known as MMORPG, massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Mike is the shy one. Frank is the very shy one.

“It is so cool,” Morhaime says, “to be here with the most dedicated gamers in the world. There are people here from every state, and 48 other countries.” While he’s saying this, I do a quick calculation. To subscribe to World of Warcraft in North America costs $15 a month. Minimum 2.5 million subscribers there, this means that Blizzard must generate… close to $450 million a year, just on this one game, just in North America. Of course, they have two other major products – Starcraft II, a science fiction epic, and Diablo, a Gothic world, where the monsters are nastier. “It’s safe to say we’ve come a long way,” says Morhaime, “since our first game, RPM Racing.”

And now something big is about to happen in the Warcraft world. Morhaime introduces another guy. This is Chris Metzen – to give him his full title, he is Blizzard’s senior vice-president, story and franchise development. You can sense the excitement. Metzen is due to unveil something major – what’s known as a new “expansion’”. In other words, a whole new gaming zone is about to open in the World of Warcraft. Azeroth, the land depicted in the game, with its forests and plains, its deserts and mountains, its 12 playable races of creatures, its cities and oceans, its entire cultures where you can lose yourself – Azeroth, the virtual land that has become a magnet for millions of people, is about to get bigger. Metzen is going to tell us about the discovery of a new continent. Volts of excitement pass through the 26,000 geeks; Metzen is, in effect, their Christopher Columbus.

He strides along, clenching his fist. He’s a man in his thirties, with a busy T-shirt and a sculpted beard. “I am geeked out of my mind right now!” he says. He tells us he will unveil the new land. The crowd rumbles. “Today we will celebrate as one! Today you will be honoured as one! The land that you’re about to adventure through… is a place that is lost to time. A place of balance and harmony and beauty and hope. Behold what the future has in store for you all!”

The lights go down. The screens light up. Music fills the room. It is oriental in tone. On the screen, we see mountains, and trees, and mist, and villages – it’s an oriental landscape. Filled with pandas. It’s called Pandaria. This is the new continent. Pandas! They are peaceful and wise. They are chubby and attractive. They look a bit like the panda in the film Kung Fu Panda. And now the crowds break up. They are moving, in their thousands, to the other side of this giant convention centre. They are moving towards an area where there are long desks, with hundreds of screens lined up on the desks, waiting for them. They are going to play World of Warcraft. Within minutes, they will be immersed in Pandaria.

Later, I catch up with Mike Morhaime. But not before I see what’s on offer at BlizzCon. To the outsider, it’s an enormous hangar, filled with acres of desks, with computers on the desks, and geeks sitting at the computers, playing the games they normally play at home. It looks like the trading floor of the biggest bank in the world. Along the side of this enormous space are endless things that would appeal to a Warcraft player; galleries of artwork, artists giving masterclasses in how to draw Warcraft characters, someone giving you a demonstration of how to make the processor in your computer work faster, using liquid nitrogen. There’s a costume contest. There is merchandise for sale, of every kind you can imagine, including Warcraft playing cards and blankets. But mostly, this is a place where people sit at computers and play the game they love. For these people, it’s almost a job.

Morhaime is still wearing his oversized shirt. We sit down. The thing is, I say, that he’s one of the most influential people in the world of computer games. He’s helped to create a game that people have wanted to play for billions of man-hours. Somehow, he’s found the sweet spot in the human brain. What’s his story? “Oh,” he says, “I wasn’t expecting that. My story? OK. I grew up in Southern California. I’ve lived here all my life. I got my first games console in sixth grade [Year 7]. The Bally Professional Arcade Game Console. I loved it. I could get this thing to do stuff.” Morhaime says he kept detailed records. “I tracked everything. The high scores. Every time somebody beat a high score. I had a notebook. There was no persistent storage on this device.”

He sits there, coiled. He sees the world through a digital viewfinder. “As I got older,” he says, “I became fascinated with how computers worked. How everything evolved. And so I decided to go into electrical engineering… Things were moving so fast. I was just so fascinated.” He looks down at the table, and then upwards, across the room. “I’ve just always been interested in the capabilities of different devices,” he says. “And getting them to talk to other devices. All the inputs and outputs on them, you know.”

I nod. He sits still in his chair. This is the guy who, along with his friends Allen Adham and Frank Pearce, started a gaming company called Silicon & Synapse in 1991. At first, they wrote code for other people’s games, and then began to create their own, starting with RPM Racing, a driving game (RPM stands for Radical Psycho Machines). Then they invented The Lost Vikings, in which three Vikings had to solve puzzles. The friends had a tiny office. They kept hiring people. They weren’t very good with money. They would sit at their desks, in their own world, and when the phone went, someone would pick it up and yell, “What?” in an aggressive manner. Over time, the games became more and more complex. They created Warcraft, in which humans battled orcs. And then they worked out a way of storing the game on many servers, so lots of people could play at the same time. World of Warcraft was born. Now the company is based in Irvine, half an hour down the road. They have their own campus, like a college.

Why is World of Warcraft so appealing? Morhaime thinks for a second. “Well, it’s basically boy scouts, right? It’s a boy scout achievement system.”

The Irvine campus is lovely. You go through the front gate, and find yourself in a clipped courtyard, surrounded by ultra-modern white buildings. There are neat lawns, a volleyball court, a gym, hiking trails and a library. Outside the main building is a huge statue of a monster riding a wild boar – characters from World of Warcraft. At the boar’s feet is a plaque, with the words “Embrace your inner geek”. On the wall inside is a map of the world, lit up to display where people are currently playing World of Warcraft. There is dense light across Western Europe and the east and west coasts of America. You can spot Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. There’s a strip of light running across Russia. China is bright. You can see the border between North and South Korea. It’s bright in the South. But nobody plays World of Warcraft in the land of Kim Jong Il.

“We encourage everyone here to geek out,” says Bob Colyaco, my guide. He walks me around. The place is full of toys – figurines and soft toys and statues and swords and shields, all based on Blizzard games. People sit working at desks that overflow with toys. Colyaco shows me the global network operational centre, or GNOC. It’s like those rooms you see in films about the moon landings – people at desks, surrounded by screens with maps and data on them. Every server, worldwide, must be able to relay information to and from a gamer’s computer in a couple of milliseconds. If not, the game wouldn’t work. You’re not allowed to go inside the GNOC.

Frank Pearce’s office is upstairs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a room containing more statuettes and figurines; there are shelves and shelves of them, representing the population of Azeroth. There are night elves and blood elves and dwarves and orcs. There are trolls, tauren, undead and gnomes. Soon, I suppose, there will be pandas. These are creatures you can be in World of Warcraft. And then, when you become one of these creatures, what you do is this: you get a job. You learn how to do that job. You might be a blacksmith or a herbalist. Over time, you get better and more productive. It’s engrossing. Some say it’s addictive. What it is, really, is work.

Pearce apologises for the mess, even though the office is not messy. It’s just full of toys. “Whenever we release a licensed product, even if I’m not comped a copy, I normally buy it for myself,” he says. We sit down. He has the reputation of being geeky, but a fiend for detail. I ask him to describe himself – what sort of mind does he have? “Left brain,” he says.

“Mike,” he goes on, “is better at relationships and interacting with people than I am.” Pearce says he thinks he’s “evolved a bit” over the years. How? “Well, I used to have attention to detail,” he says. I think I can see what he means. He means that he’s one of these people who could sit there, staring straight ahead, and see, in his mind’s eye, every bit of a digital algorithm, all the instructions in the right order. But now he’s lightened up a bit. He tells me that, when it comes to gadgets, sometimes he’s an early adopter, sometimes not. “I don’t have an iPhone,” he says. “I still carry my BlackBerry.”

He tells me about World of Warcraft taking off. “We felt if we achieved one million subscribers worldwide, that it would be a huge success for us. But we didn’t know whether or not we would achieve a million. And when we launched, we had 400,000 in North America in the first month.” I’m wondering how that must have felt, the sheer, unalloyed joy. “We had to deploy more hardware to support additional players,” says Pearce.

Back at the convention, I sit down at a computer and enter Pandaria. Pretty soon, I can make my panda run and jump and strike things with his paw. I can run up and down hills, into and out of buildings, and interact with other pandas. Soon, I will have to decide what type of panda I’m going to be. What work will I do? Then I’ll have to serve my apprenticeship.

I can see why this game, and lots of games like it, are so immensely popular. As studies have suggested, they keep you busy. They keep your mind engaged. They represent a version of the world that is more honest and simple than our own, where hard work brings reasonable rewards, and people know you by your deeds. This is what the brain loves the most – doing productive work, and reaping reasonable rewards. It’s the world as it might have been without modern banking, without the consumer society and all the anxieties that go with it. Moving my panda around, feeling happy, I suddenly see the sort of world that this, and other games, depict – a world without computers.