The pandaren race has been part of the Warcraft franchise long before appearing as a playable race in World of Warcraft. This article documents the history of the concept, from their beginnings as a recurring in-joke and easter egg before the release of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002) until their official introduction in World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria (2011).
Blizzard's longtime art director Samwise Didier originally created the pandaren race in his own art. The origin can be traced back to Didier's brother and his "fantastic skill at mangling up words and phrases". During a desert camping trip, Didier's brother commented that Samwise was "like one of those panda bears -- you're never cold". Even though he meant to say "polar bear", the saying stuck and Didier was thereafter known among friends by the nickname "Panda".
After the birth of Didier's daughter a few years later, he drew a Christmas picture for his family depicting a humanoid panda with a cub on his shoulder. With Didier's permission, one of Blizzard's webmasters later turned the picture into an official Blizzard wallpaper. This got a huge response from Warcraft fans, to Didier's surprise: "[...] we put that up in there and everyone was like “Oh my God! A PANDA RACE? That’s kind of cool!” And I’m like “Are you kidding me, really? You want to see pandas in Warcraft III or whatever?”" Since that first piece of concept art, the pandaren have always been a fan favorite race (combining a heady mix of panda humanoids, eastern-style religions and mythology, and beer-brewing monks).
Debuts in Warcraft III
After the original pandaren image, Didier began representing himself as a panda in other pieces of personal art. Before the release of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, he included a small pandaren face as an easter egg in one of the game's promotional wallpapers. This was quickly noticed by attentive fansites and spawned a number of panda-related rumors, which Didier in turn encouraged by including similar easter eggs in other places. When Blizzard were considering what to do for 2002's April Fools' Day, they decided to tie into the rumors by officially "announcing" that the pandaren would be the fifth playable race of Warcraft III, using fake screenshots and some of Didier's personal artwork. The joke got a massive response from fans, including some who initially thought it was serious and were disappointed when it turned out to be a joke.
Although they were originally announced as an April Fools joke, the pandaren would actually find their way into the game as a neutral hostile creep. Unlike the furbolgs—whose model the pandaren shares (with a different skin and icon)—there was only a single type of pandaren creep in Reign of Chaos. The pandaren are native only to the Northrend tileset. The human campaign mission Dissension includes a lone pandaren hiding behind some trees near the center of the map. The undead campaign mission, Digging up the Dead features a hidden pandaren relaxation area which causes a copy of Samwise's original pandaren artwork to be flashed briefly upon entering it, though no pandaren are actually present. A pandaren also appears in the ending cinematic of the night elf campaign mission, Enemies at the Gate. Finally, the night elf campaign mission, Brothers in Blood features a hidden area hiding The Largest Panda Ever. As an additional touch by Samwise, Illidan Stormrage's iconic warglaives have panda faces on them.
With the release of Warcraft III's expansion, The Frozen Throne, the pandaren brewmaster was added as a neutral hero, available and playable on nearly every melee map. One brewmaster, Chen Stormstout was included as an optional playable hero in the expansion's bonus campaign. A hidden brewmaster area can be found in the night elf mission Wrath of the Betrayer, and a squad of pandaren led by a brewmaster appears in the Alliance Campaign secret mission. Lastly, the official online Blizzard strategy guide had its name (and fictional author) changed from "Marn Thunderhorn's Warcraft III Strategy Guide" to "Mojo Stormstout's Warcraft III Strategy Guide." Thus, by the release of The Frozen Throne, pandaren were no longer considered a "secret."
In the beta, pandaren wore samurai armor but as the panda as an animal is linked to China rather than Japan, some Chinese players complained and this was soon fixed.
A pandaren brewmaster in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne
Hints in World of Warcraft
Due to the pandaren's popularity, their possible appearance in WoW has been hinted at multiple times by Blizzard.
- Donna "Katricia" Anthony, a Community Manager on the World of Warcraft beta forums, supposedly responded to posts about pandaren on at least two occasions, stating: "Maybe they will be found in the beta or retail version of the game and maybe they will be granted a special place in an expansion. Just imagine how exciting it will be to find one!" and "pandaren will not be a playable race ... at this time. Will they make cameo appearances in the game as NPCs? Some things are best left unanswered I think :)" However, the original posts are not accessible through the Wayback Machine and therefore can't be verified.
- The questline in the Barrens refers to the secret pandaren brewmaster Chen Stormstout who aided Rexxar in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne.
- Justin—a child who walks around Stormwind City and fishes with two other children—tells unbelievable stories, one of which is: I swear, people have actually seen them. Pandaren really do exist!
- One of Blizzard's 2005 April Fools jokes was the announcement of Pandaren Xpress, a pandaren-themed service in which players could order Chinese food from within World of Warcraft.
Scrapped race in The Burning Crusade
The pandaren were initially planned to be the new playable race for the Alliance in World of Warcraft's first expansion, The Burning Crusade, but about halfway through development they were replaced with the draenei. In a Q&A thread on Reddit in April 2020, former Blizzard artist Trent Kaniuga stated that this was because the Chinese government told Blizzard that they couldn't use pandas in the game. By that point, the artists had already created concept art for pandaren cities and buildings, but the change happened early enough in development that not much content was cut. The developers would not get permission to implement pandas until 5 years later. According to Kaniuga, "In reality it was probably just that they needed more time to negotiate it. Panda's[sic] are a national treasure in China, so it takes a lot of negotiating to work a deal to distribute characters that look like that in China."
Because of this, the pandaren's replacement—the draenei—were not ready to be showcased in time for the public announcement of The Burning Crusade at BlizzCon 2005; only the new Horde race—the blood elves—was revealed, with no mention of what the Alliance race would be. This quickly led to a large amount of rumors and speculation among fans, with the pandaren being one of the more popular races brought up as a possibility. A "leaked" pandaren screenshot began circulating around various forums the day before BlizzCon, but on April 1 the following year it was revealed to have been a prank created by Ian McConville of the Mac Hall webcomic. A BlizzCon 2005 article by Eurogamer stated that "mentioning the ex-April-Fools-joke Pandaren Empire to Blizzard staff got a surprisingly cagey response..." On October 31, a few days after BlizzCon, Stephen Glicker of the website Gaming Steve—who claimed to have unofficial contacts at Blizzard—stated that when editors from various gaming magazines were brought to Blizzard's offices to view The Burning Crusade for the first time, they saw dozens of posters and artwork depicting pandaren as the new Alliance race. Glicker further stated that, at the time, Blizzard had been "80% certain" that the pandaren would be the new Alliance race, but due to the political reasons surrounding the issue there was now a "zero percent chance" of the race making it into the game.
The draenei were officially unveiled as the new Alliance race at E3 2006, roughly 6 months after the announcement of The Burning Crusade, but rumors persisted that the developers had originally planned to use pandaren instead. Blizzard would not confirm or deny these rumors directly until BlizzCon 2011, when Chris Metzen revealed during an interview with Direct TV that this was indeed the case.
Wrath of the Lich King
- The (reward from Marcia Chase's fishing dailies) has a chance of dropping an item called . The item's icon is a picture of a pandaren's face, the art of which was created for the 2005 Pandaren Xpress joke. The same icon is used for the achievement from the Brewfest world event.
- During the World of Warcraft Q&A panel at BlizzCon 2008, J. Allen Brack stated that Blizzard had not added pandaren to the game because of their relationship with China and because they felt that it could cause offense to their Chinese players (who make up a major part of the international fanbase). However, Chris Metzen added that the developers were still fond of pandaren and were very interested in fleshing out their lore in the future.
- A miniature pandaren companion called was added to the Blizzard Store on November 4, 2009.
- In episode 12 of BlizzCast, released on December 8, 2009, Samwise Didier and Chris Metzen mentioned the pandaren as one of the things from Warcraft III which they had not yet developed in World of Warcraft, and Didier joked that pandaren would be added in "patch 201732-and-a-half".
Appearances in other media
- A large amount of pandaren lore is contained in the sourcebooks for the now non-canonical Warcraft RPG, particularly the Manual of Monsters (2003), Alliance & Horde Compendium (2003), More Magic and Mayhem (2005), and Dark Factions (2008). This lore greatly expanded on the fake backstory created for the 2002 April Fools joke and served as the bulk of all "serious" pandaren lore before the decanonization of the RPG books in June 2011.
- Pandaren appear on several cards in the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, such as Chen Stormstout in Fires of Outland (2007) and in Drums of War (2008).
- In the 11th issue of World of Warcraft: The Comic, released in September 2008, a lone pandaren can be seen in a crowd of people outside Ironforge.
- In 2009, Blizzard released an exclusive Chen Stormstout action figure along with an interview with Samwise Didier discussing the beginnings of the pandaren concept. At the end of the interview, when asked if the Pandaren Monk pet, several TCG cards, and now the exclusive action figure was hinting at something bigger for the race, Didier jokingly replied "You mean like car seat covers?"
Mists of Pandaria
- Main article: World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria
On July 28, 2011, Blizzard issued a trademark for the name "Mists of Pandaria." Blizzard told GameSpot, "We appreciate your interest in our trademark filings, but we’re not ready to reveal any details at this time." Game Director Tom Chilton later said in an interview with IGN that the speculation was "wildly overhyped." He added, "if you look at traditionally how we've handled that race it's been in those secondary products because we haven't realized it in the world. Most of the time when we do anything panda-related it's going to be a comic book or a figurine or something like that."
On October 21, 2011 at BlizzCon 2011, Blizzard officially announced World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria as the fourth expansion, and the pandaren became the first playable race available to both the Horde and the Alliance.
After Chris Metzen introduced Mists of Pandaria during the opening ceremony of BlizzCon 2011, controversy ensued, with the WoW community becoming somewhat divided over the expansion. Some players were very positive on the newly added pandaren race, which are basically beer-brewing kung fu-fighting panda bears. Others, on the other hand, seemed to have some pretty negative opinions about the pandaren and the expansion in general also featuring a Pokémon-like pet system and no initial main antagonist; they seemed to worry about the potentially cute-and-cuddly implications of giant pandas, especially given that the pandaren previously showed up as an April Fools joke. Other players, who had never heard of the pandaren until recently, believed that Blizzard had in fact based this race on the Kung Fu Panda franchise, due to the films' popularity and how well the pandaren in the trailer matches Po's appearance and fighting style in the films.
During the World of Warcraft Story and Lore panel, Metzen was unequivocal about the pandaren and this expansion's place in the greater WoW lore. "This is no joke," Metzen said in response to a question about whether Mists of Pandaria would see more serious story content. "This is not a throw-away silly-silly ha ha funny expansion set; it is absolutely the next vital chapter and as things ratchet up, they’re gonna get really gnarly. There's no way we’re gonna build an expansion set based on an April Fools Joke." During an interview with Game Front, Lead Quest Designer Dave Kosak, who also was on the panel with Metzen, echoed the sentiments that Mists of Pandaria may seem more light-hearted, but it's just as important to the overall WoW experience as the previous expansion sets. Kosak also said that a playable pandaren race is “by far” the most asked-for World of Warcraft feature among fans.
In a retrospective interview with WIRED in June 2018, Game Director Ion Hazzikostas said of Mists of Pandaria that "There were a number of people who were turned off by the theme, by the motif of the expansion. They saw Mists of Pandaria, they saw these pandas [...] and said “This isn't the Warcraft I know. The Warcraft I know is about orcs and humans and dragons, and this feels like a different game, this feels almost childish.” In retrospect, many of those players would say [that] those who passed on the expansion for that reason made a mistake. Players who gave it a chance, who got into the story, quickly discovered that it actually was one of the most complex narratives and beautiful environments that World of Warcraft has ever presented to this day. As players today discuss “What was your favorite expansion?”, “What was the best expansion?”, Mists of Pandaria tends to figure prominently in those discussions."
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