The Cultural Legacy of Warcraft

A still from the upcoming Warcraft film.

Warcraft, the film adaptation of the popular video game series, is scheduled for release June 10th. The film is directed by Duncan Jones, the son of David Bowie and the maker of 2009’s Moon and 2011’s Source Code, two original and imaginative sci-fi films, especially for a decade-plus filled with questionable remakes (Blade Runner, anyone?) and super hero excess. Jones seems an odd choice for this film, which is based on not just a video game, but one whose original world and aesthetic was largely boosted for the underground game Warhammer. This has really got me thinking about what Blizzard, the maker of Warcraft games, wants to get out of the film, specifically, salvaging or augmenting the legacy of the Warcraft universe and the video games.

A screenshot of the original Warcraft game.

For those of you who don’t know (those of you who do, you can skip to the next section), the first three Warcraft games were made between 1995 and 2003, and were real-time strategy games for the PC and Mac. Blizzard also had a couple of other serious, Diablo and Star Craft that were similarly popular. They were the kind of games that were popular with PC games but not really well-known by anyone else.

This started to change in the early-mid aughts. First, a hugely popular mod for Warcraft III was released, Defense of the Ancients (aka, Dota) was released in 2003, and has only grown in popularity (Dota 2 is now the most popular of the eSports game genre, but it’s not actually related to Warcraft or Blizzard). Second, and more importantly, World of Warcraft (aka, WoW) was released in 2004, and has spent the last 13 years as the most popular online RPG (MMORPG), as well as the most profitable video game over that period.

World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft

As the genre-defining MMORPG, World of Warcraft grew at a huge pass. The MMORPG market is kind of a winner-take-all beast. With WoW by far the most popular game, it was the highest-grossing, which meant Blizzard could invest more in expansions, servers, and items, characters, and the rest of the stuff that hard-core gamers were interested in. In the twelve years since WoW was released, it has already had six expansions, and is easily the top grossing video game of all time. With millions of subscribers for twelve years paying $10~$20 dollars each month, WoW as grossed well over $20 billion. Even adjusting for inflation, this still significantly more money than all Star Wars movies have grossed in the box office and on video. That’s a lot of money.

Wow subscribers over the years. Image courtesy Gawker.
Wow subscribers over the years. Image courtesy Gawker.

But WoW has been losing subscribers for years, and is down more than 50% from its peak in 2010~2011. Blizzard has worked hard to recapture these subscribers, but it’s been a slog, and tey have acknowledged the next expansion, to be released in September 2016, will likely be WoW’s last. So Blizzard is trying to branch out, particularly with the release of its online-card game Hearthstone, based on the Warcraft universe, and next with its arena game Heroes of the Storm, which includes characters from Warcraft in addition to its other properties, such as Star Craft and Diablo.

This must have left Blizzard wondering: how has something that has made so much money left so little lasting cultural impact?

This isn’t actually a difficult question to answer. Even though Blizzard made tens of billions from Warcraft, most of that money came from the same few million people, those who either subscribed the entire time, or who subscribed off-and-on throughout the years. Blizzard says 100 million total WoW accounts have been created, but that figure includes a large number of people who were once banned and rejoined, or people who opened multiple accounts, either to play a party by themselves, or to “farm gold”. This means the real number of humans who have played WoW is likely much lower.

And WoW, as a part of gaming culture, also exhibits a lot of its darker aspects. The most famous moment of WoW culture is “Leeroy Jenkins” (see above), which has always smacked of racism. Further, in a male-dominated activity like hard-core gaming, there’s always going to be a non-too-subtle misogyny and gender-inequality in the game. Gaming culture has never been an inclusive one, and even large, otherwise responsible companies like Microsoft can’t keep massive sexism from infiltrating its gamer events.

So this is why the Warcraft movie is a thing. Blizzard has made a ton of money off of World of Warcraft, and a lot of its high-level execs probably feel a huge amount of nostalgia about the game, their success and are now worrying about the games’ and their legacies. So they called on Duncan Jones, known for thoughtful movies and critical success to polish those legacies.

And this might be the first movie made off an intellectual property by a filmmaker who has explicitly said he is going to upset the fans of that property. Jones has said he is going to flip the misogyny on its head for the film:

When we were writing the film, it was also really important to me that we maintain the balance that they got so right in that game. Multiple key characters in our film are women and are not love interests. They stand up and work in the film in their own right.

Exactly. [Referring to Tolkien] It wasn’t written by an old, white man in the trenches in World War I. It’s going to have a different vibe.

For Blizzard, there’s a lot to gain, but not much to lose with the Warcraft film. If the movie is successful and well-likely, they will have a culture touch point that will4 augment their greatest work’s legacy and bring attention to something that society at large either didn’t know much about, or thought was only for nerds. And if they fail and no one goes to see the film, well, it was only for nerds anyway.

Andrew Smith
About Andrew Smith 42 Articles
Editor-in-Chief Andrew Smith is a Seattle Native and University of Washington grad.

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