Four Developers: How The WoW Diary Happened

In the ten years I served on World of Warcraft, one of the teammates whom I grew closest to was Eric Dodds. Most people know him as WoW’s trade skill designer or as Hearthstone design lead, but to me, he was a close friend and fellow tabletop gamer. Eric was one first people at Blizzard whom I talked to about my book, The WoW Diary. Roughly eighteen months ago, I drove to his house, a place I’d been to a hundred times (for parties, holidays, dinners, and gaming events), and presented him with an advance reader copy. He looked stunned. While I babbled excitedly about it, his mouth and eyes were wide in disbelief. He just couldn’t believe I’d written a fully-illustrated book (a hefty one at that) about our years making Vanilla WoW. Although he was excited and happy for me, he couldn’t imagine what Blizzard’s reaction would be. It was brimming with behind-the-scenes secrets and pictures and unlike anything Blizzard’s ever published. Eric consternation was predictable. He’d recently wrapped up a debriefing with Blizzard’s PR department over a talk he given at the Game Developer’s Conference. PR coordination was key to avoiding conflicting corporate visions, comments, and messages—and Blizzard’s PR department was vigilant, with even their more famous employees. Always a team player, Eric respected this sensibility. Even after the success from WoW and Hearthstone, he was quick to drop his ego and defer to the PR department’s advice and decisions. While he liked my pitch, he warned me that an “outsider’s book” would probably conflict with the company’s guarded public image. Eric had always been faithful to Blizzard’s business decisions, so it was unsurprising he’d be so concerned. It was somehow comforting that some people never change.

As I knew Eric, he knew me…which is another reason why he was worried. While he respected HQ’s direction, I was somewhere near the opposite side of the spectrum. I was, as I am: and impulsive cowboy, someone who conceives and executes things, all on my own. On the Vanilla WoW, I’d worked longer hours than anyone, so coworkers accommodated my gumption. I became the team’s biggest ninja, and regularly questioned decisions. In pursuit of getting stuff done, I often disregarded propriety, seniority, and approval. I created my own dungeons and buildings, reworked coworker’s assets, and regularly meted out unsolicited opinions. I stuck my neck out and stepped on toes…anything to improve the product. I was a mix of good and bad. And here I was, fifteen years later, showing Eric that I’d spent the past two years writing a book about my old company. And I’d done all of this before getting permission to use their images! Like Eric, I hadn’t changed one whit.

I also pitched my book to Shane Dabiri, who had worked his way up from QA to Blizzard’s Chief of Staff. Shane and I were once housemates during our WoW years, when he was the team’s producer for art assets; sharing project leadership with Mark Kern, our producer for programming. Producers, in case you didn’t know, are people who enable others to achieve their goals. They grease the gears between departments and clear roadblocks. They enable other developers to get things done. Shane was WoW’s project lead until the pressure gave him ulcers, leaving Mark to carry the banner throughout the remainder of the dev cycle. Shane knew, as did everyone on team 2, that I’d kept a development diary about how we were making World of Warcaft. I interviewed everyone on the team, took screenshots, and chronicled our milestones and setbacks. Everyone was vaguely aware I might write a blog or book about it one day, and Shane was one of the guys who was most curious about my journal. I guessed that he would be sympathetic to my pitch about an independent publication, a voice from outside the communal direction of Blizzard’s PR department.

I surprised him with the book over lunch, the first time we’d seen each other in many years. As Shane paged through the protype, I explained myself. He was grinning at the memories. After a long pause, he closed it and said carefully, “OK…I get it.” He held it aloft and continued, “Other people in the company will need to read this, and you know I can’t promise anything…but we’ll see what happens.” It was the best response that I could have hoped for.

The WoW Diary (in its current form) could have died right there if Shane had reacted otherwise. He could have been too busy or forgotten about it; he could have avoided many conversations about it and set it aside or referred me to someone else—who wouldn’t be as sympathetic toward my goal; or a dozen different things could have derailed it. Somehow, someone (I’m assuming it was Shane) had pushed it through the many departments in charge of scrutinizing such content. I’d gotten a license to use Blizzard’s images and, best of all, no substantial changes were made: Aside from a few corrections, the narrative was completely intact.

The cynic in me was surprised I got their blessing. They’ve never done anything like this before (and no company, that I can think of, has), and frankly, Blizzard didn’t need to give permission. The company certainly doesn’t need this book. They have everything going for them, especially their legendary reputation. Many businesses in this position would have been conservative, and simply said, “No, thank you.” Welcoming an independent postmortem that celebrates the unglamorous aspects of the industry, using fly-on-the-wall anecdotes showing their inner workings, warts and all, was an admirably brave decision.

A week after I got a signed licensing agreement to use Blizzard’s 130 or so behind-the-scenes images, I launched my Kickstarter campaign…and it immediately face-planted. Not only had I set all the campaign parameters wrong, but I way too shy in promoting it. I realized within a few hours that it was a failure (which, I’ve been told, is common for first Kickstarter campaigns). I cancelled it after 8 days (it had only 298 backers) and walked away with a strong impression that The WoW Diary was a book no one wanted, was too expensive to produce, or at least, a niche history of a bygone fad.

A few days later I received an email from Mark Kern. He’d heard about my Kickstarter and wanted to help out. We subsequently talked on the phone for hours. The next day, we talked again for hours. Mark had launched a number of crowd-funded projects and gave me crucial advice on how to promote my book and fix my campaign. Mark emphasized the importance of reaching streaming shows, explained how social media networks operated (he’s highly involved with his own Twitter account @Grummz), and he helped me restructure my Kickstarter campaign itself. Mark’s advice helped point me in the right direction. Without Mark’s influence, I wouldn’t have tried again. Even after this campaign’s successful relaunch, he’s been actively reminding me to leave no stone unturned, and my nascent company is positioned better for post-campaign progress. He even appeared with me on a YouTube show, called ClassiCast, to reminisce about making the game. The response to the show pushed the campaign to the top of its Kickstarter category, nonfiction publishing. While many others have helped me, the success of my Kickstarter is largely to his credit.

The WoW Diary is Kickstarter’s most successful nonfiction book. However, the road to self-publishing was rocky as big-time computer game development, and I’ve learned that this cowboy couldn’t do it by himself. To make The WoW Diary happen, it took a mix of Eric’s trust of Blizzard’s management to give their approval for things that are cool. It took my own brazen presumptuousness and workhorse attitude to produce it. And It’s probably no coincidence that WoW’s original co-leads were the same two people who cleared my biggest roadblocks. As they did with World of Warcraft fifteen years ago, Shane got The WoW Diary going, and Mark helped me take it across the finishing line. I’m eternally grateful that some people never change.

John Staats