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Forgotten Wonders of the Digital World: World of Warcraft


The giant, random crystals of Silithus (All images by Eric Grundhauser)

As more and more of our time and lives move into the digital world, the online landscape is becoming so vast, we have begun leaving some things behind.

Namely, much like the physical world, whole swaths of towns, islands, forests, palaces, and simple shacks have been constructed digitally and then abandoned. These are the forgotten wonders of the digital world—in this case, the World of Warcraft.

For the uninitiated, World of Warcraft (WoW) is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). Players download the game and pay a monthly fee to login, taking part in a shared world called Azeroth. The essential size of the world is fixed but at any given time, WoW has around 10 million active subscribers and to manage the unbelievable number of players, there are hundreds of realms that split up WoW subscribers. What this means, structurally, is that not of all of Warcraft’s millions of players exist in the same space at the same time.

And the world is vast. At the game’s launch in 2004, Azeroth consisted of just two continents, split into 41 zones that can best be thought of as countries. Each one defined by their own look and flavor. The Barrens is a bit of the African veldt, while the Burning Steppes are a blasted, molten wasteland. In real world terms, Azeroth has been compared both in size and thematic construction to Disney World. (For geography nerds, the real world-game world comparison ratio has been explored a few different ways including delving into the code to find the in-game distance measurements, as well as using the average stride length of a player’s sprite to extrapolate some numbers—people tend to agree that the original continents are around 8 miles long).

 
The world of Azeroth

As the game has grown, new continents have been introduced in add-on content expansions that players can purchase—and whenever players rush into the newer areas, the original spots get ignored. Among them, the Asian-inspired Pandaria, the icy northern lands of Northrend, and Outland, which literally exists on the remnants of another world. Today, there are 91 zones split across six land-masses, saying nothing of the dozens of dungeon spaces that exist as separate little places for specific adventures. With new continents providing players quicker ways to advance and novel locations to explore, many older zones have simply become bygone curiosities.

So what are the abandoned parts of WoW? Unfortunately, the game designers declined to comment, so it was left to me to do some on-the-digital-ground reporting.


What an attractive young man. 

I reactivated Baerf, my level 86 troll rogue. Turns out he was right where I had left him countless months before, in Pandaria, the fifth continent to be introduced. I had purchased the Mists of Pandaria expansion, which gave me access to a new continent, but I quickly canceled my account because I knew it would be too much of a delightful time drain. Adulthood is a bummer.

I hearthstone’d (an item given to every player at start, that can be used to return you to a populated place) back to Orgrimmar, the central Horde city, located on one of the original continents. When I had last played, this orc metropolis was bustling with so many other live players that it made my computer wheeze. Now it was almost empty.

Entering a command that listed all of the players in the zone, I found that there were just 19 people in the hub city. The computer controlled, non-player characters (NPCs) were there of course, but flesh-and-blood players were scarce. Nonetheless, I sent out a public chat to everyone in the city, asking after the least inhabited places.

In the nearly empty city, I got little response. A couple of players responded with their favorite corners of the world, inspired more by nostalgia than any confirmed numbers. But my question may not even have been understood. WoW is a game designed to be shared with other players. It is its raison d’être. Looking for places that no one goes is kind of antithetical to most players’ view of the game. Nonetheless, some of the most beautiful moments in the game occur in its loneliest locales.


The Scarab Wall in Silithus

Venturing out into the world in search of solitude, my first stop was Silithus, in the south of the continent of Kalimdor. This zone was part of the original release and was designed for players between the levels of 55-60. As the world grew, better options to grow characters emerged and Silithus, despite being an evocative wasteland, seems to have lost its appeal. The overriding theme is bugs. The area is full of titanic crystalline plinths floating against an orange sky, and ant mounds buzzing with rings of pests. Organic claws reach out of the ground everywhere you look, and if you run for more than a few seconds in any direction, you will end up in a pit filled with chittering Silithid enemies.


The Swarming Pillar in Silithus

Nearby is another zone from the original game, the Un’Goro Crater, which was inspired by the very real Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. A strangely disconnected area even in the beginning, this massive depression is a mist-shrouded primordial jungle full of gorillas, dinosaurs, and mysterious ancient ruins that look like they could have been created by Roman artisans. The jungle forms a ring on the crater floor with a roiling volcano at its center. The ground is littered with bones left behind by the prehistoric beasts roaming the grounds, juxtaposed by the colorful natural crystals that grow nowhere else on Azeroth. Meant for players around the 50-55 level range, the Un’Goro Crater suffered much the same fate as its insect-infested neighbor.


Fire Plume Ridge in the center of the Un’Goro Crater


The Shaper’s Terrace

As I flew through the zones there were just over 20 players in either of them.


The gates of Bogpaddle in the Swamp of Sorrows

Across the sea on the continent known as the Eastern Kingdoms, there are zones such as the Swamp of Sorrows. One of a handful of areas in the game designed as a dank swamp environment, the Swamp suffers for being a small sliver of an area sandwiched between two zones with more bombastic scenery. However its sunken temples and oppressive hanging moss create a haunting space to explore. When I visited, there were only 14 others trudging through the swamps.


The sunken Temple of Atal’Hakkar in the Swamp of Sorrows

One of the more recent areas that seems to have been almost immediately tossed aside is the underwater zone of Vashj’ir. Introduced in the Cataclysm expansion that saw a number of the original zones reshaped to try and bring people back to these forgotten lands. Vashj’ir was a newly introduced zone, and the first one in the game to be entirely underwater. The sub-oceanic playground is big enough to be split into three separate zones itself. All three are jam packed with wonders like fantastical forests of rising kelp, the titanic shells of dead crustaceans that can be explored like a cave system, and a swirling abyssal vortex that sucks players off to a dungeon instance. As of my visit, there were all of nine active players exploring the vortex.


The massive living caves of Nespirah


The Abyssal Breach

 
Kelp’thar Forest

However, maybe the most unloved areas of WoW may not even be on Azeroth. Outland, introduced in the first expansion, The Burning Crusade, was a whole new continent existing through a legendary portal, where players could join the battle against demons and evil(er) orcs. Unlike the more-often seamless continents of the original game, Outland’s landscapes seemed like a barely connected selection of dreams. You could walk from the spiked geological impossibilities of the Blade’s Edge Mountains right into the scattered scraps of untethered land known as the Netherstorm. It was bright, crazy, and now, almost entirely empty. I visited every zone on Outland for this piece and not one of them had more than 30 players.


Hellfire Citadel in Outland’s Hellfire Peninsula


The anti-dragon spikes of Blade’s Edge Mountains


Eco-Dome Midrealm in the Netherstorm

The most recent expansion to the World of Warcraft, Warlords of Draenor, was released in November of 2014, drawing players to the newly created areas. Nonetheless, all of these older corners of WoW still exist. The generated bugs of Silithus still hunt; Vashj’ir’s kelp forests continue to sway in the currents; and the demon hordes are still waiting in Outland. Like the real world, it can get lonely wandering solo through a kelp forest or spiky mountain range, but it can be beautiful, too. 

Baerf flies on.