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Warcraft: the movie, games, and world behind them, explained

It's rare that a video game franchise becomes so well-known that Hollywood adapts it into a blockbuster movie, but if any game franchise has ever deserved as much, it's Warcraft.

The Warcraft series, mostly known for the enormous World of Warcraft, is one of the most-played video game series today. It is regularly mentioned or seen in all sorts of other media — perhaps the most popular example is the South Park episode wholly dedicated to the game, but it has frequently come up on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and in movies ranging from Night at the Museum to Zombieland.

And on Friday, Warcraft will get a movie of its own: the simply titled Warcraft, directed by Duncan Jones (who is known for his 2009 indie hit Moon). Many gamers are hoping it will finally be the first good video game–based movie, after so many others, from Super Mario Bros. to Tomb Raider, have flopped.

But how Warcraft became a cultural phenomenon — to the point that it's now coming to the big screen — is a bit complicated. In short, the Warcraft series, which had its first game come out in 1994 but exploded in popularity after World of Warcraft debuted in 2004, rose to global dominance thanks to several different factors, including good timing, the growth of the internet, and a slickly designed, frequently updated game. These elements came together to make Warcraft more than a game for a lot of fans — and now it's a multimedia franchise.

Before we get to all that, let's start with what Warcraft, the movie, is about.

Warcraft, the movie, is based on the universe in World of Warcraft

Orcs stand firm in Warcraft, the movie. Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures

To put it as simply as possible, Warcraft is about the war between humans and orcs. In the world of Azeroth, humans are fighting off an invasion of orcs, who arrived via a magical portal that linked Azeroth to the orcs' dying home world of Draenor. This conflict is what fuels the struggles between the movie's many characters, which have names as boring as Sir Anduin Lothar and as badass as Orgrim Doomhammer.

The catch is that the orcs actually aren't inherently evil. Unlike other universes in which orcs are run-of-the-mill, ill-intentioned brutes, the orcs in Warcraft are another race of intelligent creatures trying to survive through the death of their world, even if that means taking over someone else's.

There is still some evilness in play — the entire invasion was set up by the evil warlock Gul'dan, for one. But broadly speaking, the lack of a clear line between good and evil is perhaps what sets Warcraft apart from, say, The Lord of the Rings, in which Sauron and the orcs are clearly up to no good.

A mage flashes magic as another human watches. Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures

In the timeline of the Warcraft franchise, the film is largely based on the original game — one that came in 1994, before World of Warcraft, called Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. So it's essentially giving viewers the origin story of the conflict (and probably setting up several sequels, since the movie itself ends on a bit of a cliffhanger).

If the movie is successful and does get sequels, it will be diving into a universe that's gotten far more complicated with every new game and expansion pack. In fact, for much of World of Warcraft, humans and orcs aren't even at war (although there are still skirmishes and conflicts, hence some of the game's player-versus-player combat). Instead, they've mostly focused on fighting all sorts of different threats — from the demonic Burning Legion to the undead armies of the Lich King to the old gods that once dominated the world of Azeroth.

Because Warcraft is an introduction to this universe, it focuses on the core conflict that originally brought the orcs and humans together, also known as the First War.

World of Warcraft and the Warcraft series are some of the biggest in gaming

As noted above, World of Warcraft is the most well-known game in the franchise. But it wasn't the first in the series. Before it came out, Blizzard Entertainment, the company that makes World of Warcraft, released three big strategy games in the same universe: Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994), Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995), and Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002).

Unlike World of Warcraft, in which players choose a single character as their avatar while they navigate through a huge world, the original Warcraft games had a strategy focus, in which players built and led big armies to outwit and crush their foes' big armies.

But World of Warcraft is what's known as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), in which players operate an avatar. This avatar can take several forms, which players select when they first start up the game. They can pick a race — such as a human, orc, troll, elf, or pandaren (panda people) — and a class — such as a warrior, hunter, mage, or monk.

The player is then thrown into a huge world populated by other players, whom they can fight in player-versus-player modes or team up with to take down big bosses in dungeons and raids. However, there's always the option to just ignore other players and play by yourself by exploring and doing quests.

The game wasn't the first MMORPG. Some of the bigger hits before World of Warcraft were Ultima Online, Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, and Final Fantasy XI. But none of these games ever became anywhere nearly as big as World of Warcraft.

So what made World of Warcraft so big? The main difference between World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs was its accessibility. Before World of Warcraft, the genre was very well-known for requiring enormous time commitments and requiring other players to accomplish anything of value, forcing players to sit around and look for groups for up to hours at a time instead of just running out and adventuring solo.

With its release in 2004 and subsequent updates, World of Warcraft changed this: Its unique quests acted as a bit of a tutorial through the game, were easy to do alone, and didn't take more than a few minutes each — making the overall game more accessible. Players could easily hop on, complete a few quests without looking for a group of other players, and feel like they accomplished something.

The game was also delightful to play. Previously, many MMORPGs had felt kind of clunky, especially in comparison to single-player, offline games. But Blizzard put a lot of polish on the combat and gameplay, making World of Warcraft feel much closer to what one would expect from a single-player, offline game. And the game has been frequently updated to keep people playing, boasting dozens of patches with loads of content and five expansion packs since its launch, with another expansion set to release in August.

This was enough to create a cultural phenomenon. Since they first emerged in the 1990s, MMORPGs have always been a very promising genre — they are essentially the ultimate escape, creating a virtual world in which you can interact with thousands of players all over the world while sharing engaging, fun activities. But for a long time, the genre was held back by factors like shoddy game design and accessibility, including lack of access to high-speed internet or internet at all.

So when World of Warcraft came out in 2004, in a world where more people finally had internet that wasn't knocked off by your brother picking up the phone, it quickly found success. At its peak in 2010, the game hit 12 million subscriptions — meaning there were 12 million different paying accounts. That number has shrunk now — to fewer than 6 million — but it's still thought to be the biggest subscription-based MMORPG on the market.

With literally millions of people playing, it was really only a matter of time until World of Warcraft broke into the mainstream.

Why so many people are excited for the movie (and why they're likely to be disappointed)

The poster for the Super Mario Bros. movie.
The poster for the Super Mario Bros. movie.
Super Mario Bros.

Video game movies have been awful for decades. The most notorious example of just how bad these films can be is 1993's Super Mario Bros., based on the Nintendo game. It is truly difficult to put into words just how disastrously terrible this pile of garbage was. It barely had anything to do with its source material besides some of the characters sharing the names of those in the game. And the color palette for the movie matched something much closer to Blade Runner than the extremely colorful Mushroom Kingdom — a jarring contrast for a series associated with bringing joy, not dread.

The world hated Super Mario Bros.: It currently holds a 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which I would argue is still too high.

Since that catastrophe traumatized kids all across the globe, there have been many more failed attempts to make a good video game movie, including Street Fighter (1994), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Resident Evil (2002), and, most recently, Ratchet and Clank (2016). Some fans may be in denial, but none of these movies were any good.

One reason is making a video game into a movie is just hard: Translating an interactive medium to one that's not at all is always going to be a difficult task for filmmakers.

Still, all of these bad movies have left avid gamers waiting for a movie to finally come out that manages to successfully push video games to the big screen. They want, in other words, someone to do for video game movies what The Dark Knight and Marvel's Cinematic Universe did for modern comic book movies.

Is Warcraft that movie? Well, critics' reviews are coming in, and the answer is almost surely no: It currently holds a 24 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. As Geoff Berkshire wrote for Variety, "Boasting more than 2,000 visual effects shots, it's dispiriting to think about the time, energy, planning and precision that went into 'Warcraft' when the final product brings to mind those animated advertisements for iPhone app games."

Sadly, the reception isn't too surprising, considering the trailers weren't promising, to say the least. (Still, Vox Culture Editor Todd VanDerWerff wrote that the movie wasn't that bad.)

But they suggest that Warcraft doesn't do the tremendously successful video game franchise justice, so gamers will just have to wait a bit longer for a good video game–based movie.