This week's edition of the Archivist will be a little different than what you may be used to seeing. Rather than exploring a specific event in World of Warcraft's history, we're going to look at a bit of antiquated game design. Specifically, we will be looking at one of Blizzard's old development practices: trying to hide content development in progress on live realms.
Before I begin, I want to note that to my knowledge, none of the hidden locations outlined in this article are accessible anymore. If there are still ways of accessing them on live realms, I want to request that none of you discuss the methods of entering these places on our site. Blizzard hid these places for a reason, even if it didn't do it very well.
Follow along for a look at the Emerald Dream, an early Outland testing ground, and other Z-axis shortcuts and secrets.
Remember, I will only talk about these pieces of unreleased content as long as you all behave responsibly with it. With that out of the way, on with the show!
One of Blizzard's favorite ways of hiding content was to simply lock them away beneath the world, much like the Titans and the Old Gods. In theory, there should have been no way of getting to these places stashed in the blue, empty morass beneath the game world.
To get down there, not only would you need to find a way to clip beneath the ground (which was already unlikely if the QA team had been doing its job properly), but you would also need to find a way to perfectly aim your blind leap of faith beneath the world to land on a relatively small spot of terrain hidden far, far away. Such a thing happening was so unlikely that ... well, why not leave unfinished content on live realms? Why not test new doodads or new terrain in live client builds?
Do not underestimate bored gamers. Not now, not ever. You can hide nothing from them.
Outland testing grounds
Throughout the entirety of World of Warcraft's development, Blizzard has looked forward to the next big thing before ever finishing the first. When World of Warcraft launched in 2004, the developers were already working on The Burning Crusade. If you want to see real evidence of that, just watch the video below. It was one of the most notorious player discoveries of the time.
Warning: The music on the video below is absolutely horrible. I recommend hitting the mute button as hard as you possibly can.
A mage using Blink to get past the Deadmines instance portal combined with a well-aimed leap with Slow Fall could manage to land on the very edge of a developer playground. Could the developers have expected that? No, but you can bet they started to expect it afterwards.
This spot, hidden beneath the earth, was built up with early version of Hellfire Peninsula textures as well as floating, otherworldly doodads. What you see in that little playground doesn't precisely resemble any real locations in Outland, but that's the nature of these things. They're not finished; they're not meant to be seen. It's just a cobbled-together testing ground of various moveable parts.
The Emerald Dream
From time to time, from 2004 all the way up through earlier this year, you hear about Blizzard's making small changes to the map of the Emerald Dream. At one point in time, the Emerald Dream was accessible on live realms via "creative use of game mechanics." Blizzard has never, not ever, supported glitching into places you weren't supposed to go. However, finding your way into the Emerald Dream was perhaps the most guarded of all; entering the Emerald Dream would get you banned. There was no question about it. If you glitched into early Hyjal, maybe you would get a ban, but more likely you would be ported away and given a warning if you weren't a repeat offender. The Emerald Dream? Enjoy your ban. No question.
The Emerald Dream, more than any other hidden location in WoW, was a work in progress -- and it still is. When the game launched, the Emerald Dream was a bare, green plane. Every content patch, it changed a little. New textures appeared, the terrain was raised or lowered, new doodads were placed, new designs appeared on the ground. If you were clever and careful (and broke the rules like a bad, bad person), you could actually watch development in progress -- development at a snail's pace, sure, but development.
In 2003, then-community manager Tigole suggested that the Emerald Dream was absolutely coming, intended to be endgame content for classic World of Warcraft. In early 2005, Tom Chilton stated in an interview (long lost to the sands of time) that the release of the zone was imminent and endgame raiders would love it and be challenged appropriately. Later, in May 2007, Tigole spoke out again about the zone: Blizzard had "actually done a lot of work on the Emerald Dream but we scrapped what we had for bigger, grander plans." That single statement sparked years of Emerald Dream expansion speculation, which has already started again thanks to the Stormrage novel and the Mists of Pandaria discovery.
So what did we learn from the Emerald Dream appearing on live realms (and in accessible game files?) The reason Blizzard doesn't want you to see unfinished content is split into two parts.
The first part is that players get a glimpse behind the curtain in that way makes the developers look sloppy. You shouldn't be seeing unfinished projects, and you shouldn't be able to access them, either.
The second part is that when players see unfinished projects, it creates expectations. Knowing that Blizzard was working on the Emerald Dream at one point in time and was close to releasing it to the masses has set up player expectations that have lasted for years. Every content patch and every expansion leads to players hoping and praying for the Emerald Dream with the full knowledge that it was in progress because they've seen it. It isn't just baseless speculation. The Emerald Dream was, and is, something solid and tangible that can be clung to.