Friday, January 19, 2007

O Brave New World That Has Such Gamers in It

This week it’s likely that thousands of people cut school, called in sick and otherwise turned away from the real world so they could be among the first adventurers to traverse the Dark Portal and battle the demons of the Burning Legion in the broken world of Outland.

Call it the World of Warcraft effect. This is what happens when Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of World of Warcraft, the top online computer game with more than eight million paying subscribers, releases the game’s first retail expansion set.

The Burning Crusade, as the set is titled, went on sale at midnight Tuesday. For people who don’t play online games, it can be a little difficult to describe the freakout many gamers experience as they try to explore and conquer the new content. Imagine the convergence of rabid fans if, say, Luciano Pavarotti were to star in a long-hyped live remake of “Star Trek” at Carnegie Hall, with special appearances by Tom Cruise and Kiefer Sutherland.

It’s a bit like that, except for people who mostly don’t read People, care about Jack Bauer or subscribe to the Met.

I’m one of them, which is why I spent 24 almost consecutive hours at my computer playing and why I will be playing the game for most of the next couple of weeks as I write an online serial review and travelogue through the most successful virtual world in, well, the world.

The reason World of Warcraft has become such a cash factory (the game has attracted more than eight million subscribers, most of whom pay about $15 a month to play) is that it delivers an overall entertainment experience that goes far beyond what one might expect from a mere game.

For example, in the new addition, as soon as you cross through the mystical Dark Portal and into the new continent Outland, you are immediately confronted with an epic battle taking place on the gate’s steps between the grotesque Burning Legion and the heroic defenders of peace and justice.

It is an effect meant to impress that the player is merely part of a much larger, more important story. It is the same device used in the opening scenes of war films like “Saving Private Ryan” to viscerally establish the broader context before narrowing to focus on a much smaller-scale human drama.

Of course in an online role-playing game like World of Warcraft the biggest and most central draw for most players is in exploring that virtual world and making one’s character more powerful.

The two concepts — exploration and growth — go together. In W.O.W., as in most such games, characters begin life as a weakling at what is called Level 1. And since W.O.W.’s debut in late 2004, characters have been capped at Level 60.

After two years of players champing at the bit to advance, Burning Crusade has raised the cap to Level 70 and opened seven new high-level zones for players to explore, complete quests and defeat monsters.

The fun part is that on each server, or copy of the game world, thousands of other players — humans and orcs, wizards and rogues, druids and warlocks — are trying to do the same thing. What naturally emerges, at least among some players, is a race, or land-rush, mentality. There is a whole new continent to explore, all this new power to attain; who will see and experience it first?

And so at midnight Tuesday the starter’s gun went off. Around 5:45 a.m., after completing most of the available quests in the first zone, called Hellfire Peninsula, I became the second player on my server to reach Level 61, around 20 minutes after another gamer in my guild. I moved west to the moody, slightly creepy bogland zone called Zangarmarsh and became my server’s first Level 62er just before noon.

By then I was receiving dozens of private messages in the game every hour from players I had never met who could see that my guildmate and I were out front: “OMG how did you level so fast?,” “Hey you must have a lot of gold, can I have some?” and of course “You guys are huge nerds.” (Yes, and proud ones, I might add.) The chatter only increased after I became the first on my server to reach Level 65 early yesterday morning.

In addition to bragging rights there is a very practical reason for wanting to stay in front of the pack in a situation like this. Only by maintaining a lead does one gets to experience the world in an almost pristine state. As I moved into lush Terokkar Forest Wednesday, there was almost no one else there, creating a blissful sense of exploration akin to hiking into Yosemite well before the tourists arrive. In a week Terokkar will be packed full of the equivalent of tour buses and noisy R.V.’s.

As I continue to explore I will share my impressions and progress. After I reach Level 70 I hope to loop back and explore some of Burning Crusade’s other new features, like the new alternate starting areas for low-level characters.


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