Blizzard Entertainment turned the nostalgia up to 11 earlier this year with the release of World of Warcraft Classic and players now have the chance to get an ever deeper dive into the development process thanks to John Staats, a veteran Blizzard game developer and the first level designer hired onto the World of Warcraft team.
Staats offers an unfiltered look inside the development of the game in the late 1990’s in The WoW Diary: A Journal of Computer Game Development, recently released digitally on Kindle and physically through Amazon. It is also available as a PDF through Staats’ website, thewowdiary.com.
The game had been in development for 18 months before he became the 20th member of the team working on the unannounced title.
“I was the shiny thing because I was the first 3D level designer the company ever had,” Staats said in a recent interview. He moved from New York City, working advertising, to California for the job.
“I wasn’t happy [in NYC], but I was making a good living and it was okay,” he said. “I was [creating] Quake maps for fun on the side.”
This side hustle (and the experience he gained with using a BSP editor) combined with a love of creating dungeons for table-top roleplay games gave him the leg up he needed in securing the job with Blizzard.
“I went into [the job blind],” Staats said, recalling that although the project was unannounced, there was a buzz about Blizzard’s foray into massively multiplayer online game development. “They said that it wasn’t a first person shooter, it’s not a racing game or a sports title, but you will be designing dungeons. So I kind of narrowed it down at the time.”
Staats is the level designer responsible for building 90% of vanilla World of Warcraft‘s non-instanced caves, crypts, half of the instanced dungeons and almost all of the raids (The exception being Onyxia and he only took partial credit for Naxxramas and Karazhan). He also lays claim to creating the game’s first Druid character on a live server and was the third account created, behind Mike Kern, the team lead on the title, and Joe Ramsey, the server programmer.
The WoW Diary shines a light on many aspects of early development on the project, including many of the mistakes, arguments and surprises along the way. In showcasing all aspects of the game’s development, Staats said he is also highlighting what makes Blizzard a successful video game publisher overall.
The book combines four years worth of notes taken by Staats in addition to interviews with Blizzard staff, from the top of the company all the way down through development.
“When I went to Blizzard [in 2001] … I learned Blizzard does things differently,” Staats said. “It was such a fascinating thing. I’m like, ‘God, somebody ought to write a book about this.”
15 years later, he said he finally got around to doing it. The book was Kickstarted twice and the second campaign raised nearly $600,000. He self-published the book in June.
After ten years on World of Warcraft, Blizzard moved Staats to the unannounced project Titan.
“They did end up firing me after a year or so on the project, but my foot was out the door halfway, anyway. So, you know, I shook hands. … Honestly, it was a gilded cage. I was making such good money there, I would have never left the court,” he laughed. “And there was no justification to have me there, [Titan] wasn’t ready for level design and eventually it was cancelled.”
Blizzard held onto the engine and some character designs, he said, rolling them over into what became Overwatch. (I asked later on if he could remember which character designs stuck around and he recalled Tracer, Reaper [‘Oh, they kept his name too!’], and Reinhardt.)
Afterwards, Staats worked at another game company with some other ex-Blizzard developers for a time, but a medical condition affecting mobility of his hands has hindered his ability to create and recreationally enjoy video games. Now, he is developing board games and plans to self-publish it, much like he did with The WoW Diary.
“I’m using the Blizzard formula and applying that to board games,” he said. “I’m taking a genre that is very popular and identifying the flaws that everyone is making.”
The focus? Dungeons.
“I’m making a game that is a simplified version of a boss fight game,” he said. “I want somebody to walk into the room and see my game and instantly know how to play the game. Everybody has their own colored set of dice and you just go. You don’t have to learn any rules before doing that.” The game is under development and undergoing play testing at this time.
In addition to The WoW Diary, I spoke with John about his career in gaming and more about what came after he left Blizzard. You can listen to our full interview on my video game history podcast KakeBytes via the web, Spotify, iTunes or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.