Sunday, February 04, 2007

'Warcraft': A world in transition

Warcraft': A world in transition It might seem odd that World of Warcraft's publisher decided to tinker with the game's core experience in releasing the new expansion World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade.

The massively multiplayer online role-playing game, after all, has reached more than 8 million players and is among the most popular online games of all time, especially in the United States. Why mess with that kind of success?

Yet tinker Blizzard Entertainment did, and the WoW community has responded with enthusiasm: the company sold more than 2.4 million copies of the $39.99 Burning Crusade expansion in the first 24 hours after its January 16 launch. Among other additions, the expansion includes a new continent, two new races and a new profession: jewel crafting.

But while players seem largely satisfied with BC, as it's known, some also worry that the millions of people still playing the original game, especially those at the highest levels, are left with a somewhat barren version of the adventure they're used to.

"Blizzard deliberately killed their (original) game," said Katrina Glerum, a veteran WoW player who, like thousands of others, stood in line for hours to be among the first to purchase the expansion. The original game "is dead," she said. "Most of the work Blizzard did for the past two years building interesting content to keep (players of the original game) amused is dead."

World of Warcraft launched in 2004. Players in the U.S. pay $15 a month to play, and that has brought hundreds of millions of dollars into Blizzard's coffers.

Glerum said she is, for the most part, enjoying her experiences with BC, but it's clear she and the millions of other players who have upgraded are in transition. That adjustment is fueled mainly by the fact that players of the original WoW topped out at level 60, while BC permits going up to level 70 (higher levels give players access to stronger weapons, tools and so on).

A higher maximum level means several things for players, Glerum said.

First, many guilds (groups of players) that previously spent much of their time on raids in search of loot or in battles with monsters or other enemies, have either disbanded altogether or been forced into a waiting period as players busily try to work their way up the level scale.
WoW Burning Crusade

"(Raiding) guilds' main activities were organizing and holding raids and high-level runs for loot," Glerum said. "They are all completely on hiatus until everyone gets their (characters) up to 70. In fact, many of the super high-end raiding guilds stopped playing and even broke up a couple months ago in preparation for BC."

For its part, Blizzard said it hasn't abandoned the original game, though it does acknowledge wanting to give it a swift kick in the pants.

"I don't feel we deliberately killed the (original) game," said Jeff Kaplan, lead designer of WoW. "What we were attempting to do was give people a new ceiling on the game. In a level-capped game (where people can't rise above a certain level), when the level is raised, what people came to know would grow. We would have ended up losing a lot of people for lack of anything new."

Kaplan added that by extending WoW, raising the level cap and adding new races and content, Blizzard was trying to ensure the continued existence of the WoW franchise.

"We have no intention of letting it stagnate," Kaplan said. "What I think we attempted to do with BC is extend the life of World of Warcraft a little longer and give people more of the WoW that they had come to love."

For the Rev. A.K.M. Adam, a real-life Evanston, Ill., priest who also plays the role of a priest in BC, the expansion has been an enjoyable experience, albeit one that leaves him a little wistful for the original version.

Adam said he likes the scene design in BC, as well as some of the content that's been added. But he noted that one change, which limits raiding parties to 25 players instead of the old limit of 40, has been disappointing, even if it is understandable.

"I miss the large 40-(person) raids," Adam said.

At the same time, he sees how smaller raiding parties mean individual players play a more important role than in the larger ones found in the original version.

"By making the smaller-group instances as valuable as the large raids, they allow players to enjoy the game to the fullest in ways that differ along with their preferred style," Adam said.

Kaplan agreed, saying Blizzard felt that the 40-player raiding groups left some feeling marginalized.

"Certain players started to feel a little bit alienated by the larger raid size," Kaplan said. "With the smaller raid size, your individual contribution counts a little bit more...We felt that 25 was enough to capture the epic feel of raiding."

For Kelly Wallace, an Atlanta attorney who had been playing with four level-60 characters in the original game, BC is an entirely new experience.

"In my opinion, it's really made WoW a very different game for those folks who had been playing at level 60," Wallace said. "It is as if a big reset button was pressed."

Wallace said she has had little trouble transitioning to BC, but notes, like Glerum, that the expansion has basically rendered the original game moot.

"This is now the game of Warcraft," she said. "There is absolutely zero reason for players to ever go back to (the original game) because the rewards available in (BC) are better and, for the most part, easier to obtain."

But she noted that central locations from the original game, like Ironforge, an important city, are now nearly empty.

"Previously, players on my server with slower or older computers had a hard time navigating in Ironforge because of all the other players in that zone," Wallace said. "These days, Ironforge is a ghost town. Just about everyone is in Outland (a main region in the expansion), and I can't imagine that any of the old capitals will ever experience the bustle that they had pre-BC."

Kaplan said Blizzard has made a point of ensuring that there are still things to do in the original cities like Ironforge and that there is still plenty of traffic there.

"There's not the same density as there used to be," Kaplan said, "but I don't think it's hit the level of ghost town yet either."

To Glerum, one consequence of the expansion is that there are relatively few opportunities for level-60 players to continue to participate in player vs. player battles without upgrading.

That, she said, is because there are few battlefields left on which to fight non-upgraded players, a condition that's exacerbated because the WoW universe is in transition as most players are off fighting non-player characters in their attempt to "level up" to 70.

Still, that is more an observation than a complaint. In fact, Glerum said she's very impressed with BC.

"The art is gorgeous," Glerum said. The writing of the two new races of characters introduced in BC and the new quests "is beautiful," she said. "The new music is generally good (and) sometimes inspired. I am finding it just fun to play."

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