Blizzard Entertainment released Warcraft: Orcs and Humans for the PC in 1994; that was over 20 years ago. The first Warcraft game tasked players with gathering resources, building cities, and amassing an army of warriors comprised of either orcs or humans. If this sounds unfamiliar to the Warcraft you’ve heard about, that’s because the first three Warcraft games were all Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games. Think of them as similar entries to Blizzard’s massively successful Starcraft series.
It wasn’t until 2004 that Blizzard decided to move Warcraft away from the RTS genre and use the game’s world and lore as a basis for their Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft. With a peak subscriber base of 12 million players, World of Warcraft is still the most-subscribed-to online video game on the planet, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
So how does a game go from something like Warcraft to World of Warcraft? In just four games, Blizzard turned a fantasy role-playing series into a cultural institution. Warcraft is so big, there are illegal theme parks in China dedicated to the series; soon, the long-awaited film adaptation by Duncan Jones will release in North America. To find out how the franchise became what it is today, I decided to play the first Warcraft game.
Just by looking at the screenshots of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, it’s hard to imagine the game would go on to spawn this massive, global obsession. Consisting mostly of pixelated sprites, the first Warcraft is a far cry from the fully rendered world Azeroth players can explore in World of Warcraft. Back then, Warcraft was mostly a low-resolution affair that required players to look down at funky little sprites from an isometric perspective. Revisiting the first Warcraft would take a lot of patience. More than that, playing the game would involve overcoming some personal demons.
Growing up in Korea, games like Warcraft and especially Starcraft were unavoidable. Everybody and their grandmother played Starcraft there, and to be good at the game was pretty much expected of all schoolchildren. Being the little rebel I was, I resented this Orwellian society where rank was bestowed upon the nerdiest video game player. While all the other kids were playing Starcraft, I was busy playing my Nintendo 64. That is, when I wasn’t getting beaten up by the Starcraft kids.
Even if that last part about getting beaten up isn’t true, I still felt like an outsider for not playing Starcraft.
Booting up Warcraft, it really affirms how old this game is. The options are incredibly limited, especially compared to later RTS games. The main commands are essentially move, build, gather, and attack. Even the quests are often repetitive. Each mission is basically the same: the player has to build a settlement, raise some troops, and defeat the nearby enemy garrisons. Rinse and repeat.
Likewise, the world shown in the first Orcs and Humans is just a pale imitation of the World of Warcraft we would come to know over 12 years and several expansions. While the central setting of Azeroth is introduced, the game’s story boils down to a confrontation between defenseless humans and marauding orcs. It wouldn’t be for a couple more games until Warcraft’s different races and warrior classes would be introduced.
What’s most surprising, however, is the game’s aesthetics. While the later Warcraft strategy games would go on to adopt the detailed graphics of Starcraft, Orcs and Humans is reminiscent of the old Lucasfilm Adventure games like Secret of Monkey Island. The orcs look fairly cartoonish, while the human characters have an almost Disney-like quality. The visual style of the game really dates it to a specifically early, western age in computer gaming, and that’ honestly kind of charming. In hindsight, World of Warcraft is still kind of reminiscent of this Disney graphical style.
Warcraft: Orcs and Humans is virtually unrecognizable from World of Warcraft, the Warcraft film, even the later Warcraft strategy games. Orcs and Humans, it turns out, is kind of a relic these days, not really worth mentioning other than the fact that it would go on to become one of the biggest franchises on the planet. The game itself is largely forgettable. Replaced by Blizzard’s better strategy games like Starcraft and overshadowed by the massive WoW, Orcs and Humans will probably only be known as the first Warcraft game.