World of Warcraft contains countless fantastical creatures with otherworldly powers. Legendary dragons, skyscraper-sized fire elementals, several different kinds of boar—the list goes on. One beast from the game’s distant past, however, put them all to shame. I speak of the Death Bear of the Arathi Highlands, though I fear that simply by uttering his name, I may have sealed my own fate.
We think we know bears. They growl, they stand up, they throw hands, they bite, they hibernate for several months—you know the drill. The Death Bear, Blizzard game designer Joe Magdalena said as part of a Twitter thread about memorable video game bugs, was different. Discovered by World of Warcraft developers while they were testing the long-running MMO’s first expansion, 2007's Burning Crusade, the bear could kill anyone by looking at them. This was an issue. Enemies in MMOs—and indeed, all video games—exist to be defeated. The Death Bear was an unstoppable dispenser of grisly fates. Players approached, and in the hanging slivers of time between heartbeats, they were dead.
In an email to Kotaku, Magdalena explained that it was a numbers issue that gave birth to THE GOD OF BEARS. Turns out, he was hitting players so fast that it only seemed like he was killing them with a glimpse.
“We checked the combat log and saw hundreds of: ‘Brown Bear hits you for 1, Brown Bear hits you for 1, Brown Bear hits you for 1, Brown Bear hits you for 2, Brown Bear hits you for 1.’ It wasn’t doing huge damage, but it was instantly doing a small amount many many times,” said Magdalena, who was a tester on WoW at the time.
The QA department then checked the bear’s stats. Its attack speed had been set to 0.002, rather than 2.0—meaning that it was attacking every two thousandths of a second. That is pretty fast for a bear, and also for all other creatures real or imagined.
“A lot of development is done in spreadsheets and databases, likely this was simply a typo,” said Magdalena. “A misplaced decimal creating an unspeakable terror!”
Sometimes, a funny video game bug is just a feature in disguise. But not the Death Bear. Definitely not the Death Bear.
“There’s always a moment where you consider leaving something weird like that in the game,” said Magdalena. “Really, though, this felt broken. You didn’t have a chance to respond, you would just die. Even the Death Bear legend we ascribed to it was more for our own enjoyment. We knew it couldn’t last.”
Now, though, WoW Classic has reminded many players how much they enjoyed the days when the game’s world felt more actively dangerous, filled with unexpected threats that could stomp you with little in the way of warning. The Death Bear is the ultimate expression of that ethos. Imagine, if you will, an Azeroth in which everyone huddles together in sheet-white terror, waiting for the Death Bear to lazily amble past. All players united against a single, unassailable foe. Everyone peeing their max-level greaves—together.
Magdalena isn’t sure that even WoW’s current player base could handle my bear-centric utopian restructuring of society, but he does think the Death Bear might be able to find a home in the game he’s now working on: Hearthstone.
“I definitely think the threat level in WoW Classic is a big part of the appeal, but I’m not sure it’s ready for the Death Bear,” he said. “Now [that] I’m a designer on Hearthstone, I think it could be a fun addition to maybe a Tavern Brawl or something, maybe a treasure card in a Dungeon Run. Could be a lot of fun, especially now that his legend has spread beyond an in-joke between a few old-school QA folks.”