Beyond that, the map of World of Warcraft was huge. I think the reason why I played World of Warcraft for such a long time was that Blizzard was not only great at designing good content, they were extremely good at building a horizon and tempting you towards that content. Beyond EverQuest or Final Fantasy, World Of Warcraft was designed to be big and seamless – you could pass from area to area without any loading screens, you could climb almost all of the terrain inside a zone, and distant areas could dynamically load as you got closer, preventing pop-in or hitches. At the time of its release, this level of freedom was unprecedented in such a large game.
Of course, this presented some problems for the developers -- namely, it was very hard to seal up such a big world neatly and keep everyone in the box that they were meant to stay in. Players were always rooting around in areas they weren't meant to be in. They were always nibbling at the edges, trying to break through to the game's secrets. And just once, I managed break through myself, escaping from World of Warcraft to a place both within the game, and outside it.
|At release, World of Warcraft was littered with inaccessible, half-finished "closed zones" (shown in red).|
I knew at once that I wasn't supposed to be here. I was deviating from the prescribed Player Experience(TM); this area was obviously an in between, an unfinished space where the world's stitches were rough and shoddy. However, there was no hardcoded prohibition on this area – something that might normally punish such trespassers, as was in place on some other more story critical areas such as Mount Hyjal – so I was free to sight-see, as long as the Game Masters weren't looking too hard. I started walking.
I passed through jagged, mixed biomes of soot and snow, ash and grass. I was traveling west, along the ridge in between what would now be the Searing Gorge and area of the Dwarves starting city, Iron Forge. Between these areas, there was a blank space. A place where it looked like the continent continued, but the area had no name, little color, and sparse detail. I walked towards this void, curious as to what I would see.
The mountains became more numerous. The biome solidified more into a snow zone, pulling from the Dwarven homeland to the north. I spotted the backside of a little tower, and walked toward it... finding then that, cresting a hill, I was looking down on the Dwarves' starting zone. From the edge of a high cliff, I could look down and watch low-level Dwarves and Gnomes going about their quests and monster killing, no idea that they were being watched. I thought about leaping down into the fray, attempting to take out as many newbies as I could before the guards hunted me down – the stories they would tell, of warriors that fell from the sky – but, of course, the starting areas are 100% protected even on PVP servers. No harm would be done to anyone but the monsters and quest NPCs. So I turned from the manicured snow-valley and walked again towards the ragged unknown.
The mountains began to slope downward. I walked down an extremely steep incline of snowy slope, treading carefully in some places to avoid a long fall into a lonely death. Finally, the slopes gave way to a perfectly flattened expanse of white. I turned around here, and I saw the massive mountain I had just walked down, a landmark not on any map. It was a piece of terrain on a scale that you don't see anywhere else in the game – too large to be practical as a designed area, rough, unfinished, but somehow even more convincing for it. It was neither a piddly little mound meant to be climbed up in a few seconds to grab some quest item at the top, nor an ultra-steep needle peak designed to look like the cover of a fantasy novel. Despite the occasional grid-like texturing oddities, looked like a snowy mountain in the middle of a remote wilderness, something not designed for anyone's eyes at all.
I turned away from the mountain and walked out onto the white plain. I could see something in the distance, an edge. As I approached, I saw a massive cliff that curved away in both directions in a shallow arc. It was a pit, a gigantic perfectly cylindrical crater, and although I could see the bottom, the side walls stretched into the distance beyond the fog barrier. At the bottom of the pit, the white gave way to featureless brown dirt texture, what I assumed was the bedrock or sea level of the game. The default state of the world. It was perhaps the rough foundation of an entire zone meant to be created later, as a builder might create a house by first digging out the basement.
The mountain stretching into the sky, the huge pit stretching into the earth – the scale was truly massive, dwarfing anything I had seen in the game before. For a moment I imagined the map designer creating this with just a few swipes of her brush, creating an entire world for the ant-sized players to crawl around and explore. The unfinished edges and mistakes, like this mountain and this valley, like crumbs for the ants -- something left behind unintentionally to seek out and gobble up.
At this point I submit for your viewing two relics of the past... recordings of my trip to the Closed Zone I made in 2004, twice-transferred and sitting on an old hard-drive in a dead computer, removed and extracted via an adapter I got off Amazon.
I have no idea if these areas still exists in the game, as the world has undergone a total overhaul since then in the Cataclysm expansion, rewriting much of the terrain. I'm at least sure that the gap in the world at Kargath has long since been plugged, but there are of course many other ways to reach such places, and always new strange spaces popping up as they add new content. The reach of behind-the-scenes explorers has extended into far stranger places than the one I visited, as chronicled in the early years of the game by the videos of DopeFish and others.
To their credit, Blizzard created a world convincing and credible enough that its underbelly had a special appeal of its own. It was as if, in visiting these places, you could walk under the surface of the earth and see every tunnel, substrate, and substructure -- as if you could see the components of the world all cobbled together and sticking out at weird angles. As if you could understand in some small way how it was all put together.
Despite developers' best efforts to close the holes and squash the ants crawling between the walls, I suspect there will always be a way out in games this big, tunnels to the in-betweens where the stitching shows. And there's something special about seeing these places in person. I encourage you to seek them out!