Community heroes is our ongoing series of interviews with some of PC gaming's greatest heroes – the pillars of the community who have devoted huge chunks of time and love to make the PC a better place to game. Tom and I interviewed Shaun Yelle, Wowhead's current director, and former director and co-founder Guillaume Cournoyer, to ask them a little bit about what it's like building and running the slickest and most popular World of Warcraft resource on the internet.
PC Gamer: Wowhead started off as quite a nifty talent calculator. Did you always plan to host a huge database of quests, items, and abilities? Did you feel like there was a gap in the market you wanted to fill?
Guillaume: The talent calculator was purely a fun project I was doing during classes with a friend. Being an avid Diablo II player, I had been thinking about doing a calculator tool for that game in the past, but never got the chance. In December 2005, about a year after World of Warcraft had been released, we started playing around with coding a talent calculator for World of Warcraft. The challenge was to make one that was faster than what was available at the time.
The World of Warcraft database idea came in the month that followed the calculator's launch, as we noticed how popular the tool was getting. While I've always admired the original database sites for their core concept, I wasn't entirely satisfied with their implementations. So we simply applied the same recipe we did for the talent calculator and tried to create something we thought was better.
PC Gamer: There was a time when it seemed like everyone was using Thottbot for this sort of stuff, but now it seems you guys are far more popular. How do you think that happened?
Guillaume: I originally thought that Wowhead's success was only based on the fact that we had something better to offer, and how we were relentlessly improving the site, adding new features and polishing the content. It certainly didn't hurt, but that alone wasn't enough. At the time there were new database websites sprouting almost every day. The major game changer for us was the fact that World of Warcraft players were starting to look for an alternative to the database sites that existed at the time – and luckily, we were also working really hard to have the best offering. Our most significant traffic increase happened during the release of the game's first expansion, The Burning Crusade. With all the new content in the expansion, many players were looking for a reliable database to assist them. It was really about being at the right place at the right time.
Shaun: I remember searching for thorium veins on Thottbot back in Classic WoW because I was trying to farm Arcane Crystals. I got really frustrated when I viewed the maps. They had tons of squares all over the place appeared to be a haphazard manner that was correct only part of the time. They told me general areas where I could find the veins, but not specific places. These maps didn't help me come up with any kind of farming route at all. For my purpose, they were useless.
In my frustration, I typed 'thorium vein' into Google and saw a link to "Wowhead". After pondering the weirdly-named site, I clicked the link. A page loaded with a map of the Burning Steppes (now it shows you Un'Goro Crater instead) and little yellow dots at precisely the points where the veins spawned. I'm pretty sure my jaw dropped. I immediately signed up for an account, downloaded the client, and started uploading data.
I think if you asked our users, their experiences would probably be similar. In its day, Thottbot was quite popular. If the overall design and data of the site had been better, I don't think Wowhead would have become popular. People are a lot less inclined to try a new site when they one they use serves their needs completely. If fact, there are a group of people for whom Thottbot still serves their needs, so they continue to use that site. However, it would seem the majority of people were looking for something else, so when Wowhead appeared on the scene it was readily-accepted.
PC Gamer: Today you're collating user-collected data in a massive way. I certainly started using the Wowhead upload client after using the site myself, but how did you convince users to start the first wave of user-uploading?
Guillaume: We didn't have much to offer users that would convince them to contribute to the site. All we did was promote the Wowhead Client application through a small promotional piece of text on the site's homepage. Many players responded to the call, and started helping us simply to try and make the site even more complete. I'm very thankful for the impressive amount of contributions we received. It still surprises me.
Shaun: Our initial users needed little-to-no convincing at all, actually. When I found the site, I did it voluntarily simply because I wanted to help the fledgling site become more popular. In my eyes, the site was really focused on the user experience and it made me feel like the WoW data was really second to ensuring the user found what they came to the site to get. That endeared me to the site pretty quickly, and our early users felt pretty similar.
PC Gamer: Guillaume, you mentioned on Twitter that you were still checking the site a hundred times a day after you left. Have you let go yet?
Guillaume: Yes, thankfully. I was very worried about having withdrawal symptoms and not being able to stop being overly passionate about my "baby," but it turned out just fine. The Blizzard folks have been keeping me very occupied since I've joined their ranks, which helped considerably. I still visit the site once a day or so to keep up with the latest updates.
PC Gamer: Shaun, how much of your data is collected by users these days? If the entire database was wiped, how long would it take to build it back up to something respectable again?
Shaun: If the entire site was wiped, we'd be back pretty quickly simply because we back up all that data. However, you were asking something a bit different.
We certainly try to get as much of the data as possible through our own game play on live and test servers, but the users are still a very important part of filling new data into the database. We're also very lucky to have a large community of users who upload on a consistent basis, so I don't think it would take much time at all to build our database back up.
Of course, that only makes up a small part of our site. By far, I think the most important part of each database page is the feedback left by users. If we were to somehow lose all of those awesome comments and screenshots and not be able to restore them, I think that would be a worse hit to the usability of our site than anything else.
Next page: What can Blizzard learn from Wowhead?