Since its launch in the fall of 2004, Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft has shattered expectations at every turn.
Prior to its release, no American massively multiplayer online game (MMO) had ever reached what was then seen as the magical million subscribers level--even major hits like EverQuest and Ultima Online. Yet almost before anyone could blink, WoW, as it's known, had surpassed 4 million paying users and now has more than 10 million worldwide, and at $15 a month for most users, it may well be bringing in more than $1 billion a year.
Then, prior to the January 2007 release of World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, no one had ever heard of the kind of nationwide midnight madness lines associated with iPhone and Xbox launches for a game expansion. Sure enough, however, people lined up at game stores everywhere for hours for the right to be among the very first to buy Burning Crusade, and the update went on to sell millions of copies.
And now, with the second major WoW expansion, The Wrath of the Lich King, in beta testing, Blizzard is getting ready to prove yet again that when it comes to American MMOs, it is the undisputed gold standard.
"It's just beautiful," said longtime WoW player and Lich King beta player Katrina Glerum. "The game really feels epic in a way that The Burning Crusade didn't....Burning Crusade felt like an extension of the (original) game. This really feels epic, and that you're part of something grand."
All Lich King players will have to upgrade from Burning Crusade, in particular because the new expansion extends the top level players can reach to 80 from 70 in Burning Crusade, and 60 in the original game.
Right now, the Lich King beta has only recently opened up to those lucky enough to get invitations--or those they have passed their access codes onto. Indeed, the codes are selling on eBay for $150 or more, a testament to the passion or many hardcore WoW players, especially given that the game is still months away from its public launch and riddled with the kinds of bugs common to early beta releases.
There's no way to be sure, of course, that the new expansion--for which an official launch date has not been announced--will be a success, but there does seem to be a lot of enthusiasm being expressed for it, both among players like Glerum and on various WoW blogs and forums.
"I think it'll be just as big, if not bigger" than the Burning Crusade expansion," said Mike Schramm, the editor of WoW Insider. "BC was the biggest-selling PC game sequel ever, I think. Wrath might be a little lower than that, but there'll certainly be lines for it."
Much of the early adoption of the expansion will almost certainly come from the most accomplished Burning Crusade players who want to continue to take the game as far as is possible.
One of the most important new feature of Lich King, according to J. Allen Brack, the production director for WoW, is that it introduces death knights, which are a hero class of character and the first new class to be brought into the game since the original version.
"There will be a lot of pressure to buy it, and anyone who has a character at the highest level will pretty much consider it a necessity," said Schramm. "You'll be walking through the Barrens (an area in WoW), and you'll see a steam tank drive past you with five people sitting in it, or you'll see a death knight clad in frozen armor with five ghouls walking behind him. This stuff is Wrath only. After seeing that, who wouldn't want the expansion?"
To Glerum, there are several areas of the game that Blizzard has made major strides with. Some are practical, while others are directly related to the visceral feeling of being in the WoW universe.
"They took it up a notch, with the complexity of the scenes and the intricacy," said Glerum. "They have some areas which are now misty, which is a really interesting effect, walking through a mist. Previously, they had sort of grayed out the scene and called it mist, but now it's hard to peer through."
Another area that Glerum sees as an improvement is in the way that the very highest levels of the game are now accessible to more people.
The reason why has to do with a tweaking of the rules about how many players it takes to put together a high-end raid, the kind of action where the best loot in the game is found.
In the original WoW, it took 40 players to comprise such a raid, and that, explained Glerum, was difficult for many guilds--organized groups in the game--to accomplish, given the complexities of getting so many people together.
The effect of this was that a very small percentage of WoW players could get their hands on the best loot, since the only way to get it was to be part of such raiding groups.
In Burning Crusade, the number was dropped to 25, meaning that many more guilds could manage to put together high-end raiding parties. Still, she said, getting 25 people together was often a challenge for many guilds.
In Wrath of the Lich King, the threshold for high-end raids has dropped to 10 players, and that should open up at least some of the very best loot to a vastly larger number of people.
In fact, in Wrath, 10-member parties will be able to take part in high-end raids, though 25-member parties will still be rewarded with access to more complex environments and slightly better loot. But at least those who can pull together high-level players will be able to take part in the action.
"They've again taken the end game and made it more accessible to more people," Glerum said, "without costing the high-end players, without giving up the challenge that keeps the high-end players motivated."
Schramm, too, applauded the decision to reduce the high-end raiding threshold to ten players.
"I think Blizzard has learned a lot from the last expansion release," Schramm said. "Even a group of ten people will be able to conquer the very highest end-game content, while 25-man versions will let people who want to be more hardcore do that as well."
Brack said a good analogy for the two different raiding party limits is that there are dungeons and heroic versions of those dungeons.
"If you're familiar with the mechanics of the 10-person version," Brack said, "then you should be familiar with the 25-person version, at least in the philosophical sense."
Schramm said another element of Wrath he's excited about is the new achievements system Blizzard is implementing in the expansion.
Reminiscent of the achievements system in Microsoft's Xbox Live service, specific tasks with visceral rewards that can be showed off which provide ample additional incentive to players to continue playing even after they've completed a game.
"Achievements really extend game play," Schramm said, "and reward people for doing things they won't normally bother doing."
And Brack added that the achievements system will also be made available to players of both the original version of WoW and Burning Crusade. Buying the new expansion won't be necessary.
Being that Wrath of the Lich King is still in beta, there's plenty of bugs for players to discover and Blizzard to fix.
But Glerum said that she's impressed with the new system the game's developers have created for dealing with the bugs.
"The beta bug tracking system is phenomenal," said Glerum, who explained that Blizzard has built a system that allows players to simply click on just about any item or non-player character that has a bug associated with it in order to enter a bug report about it.
In the previous beta, she said, it was necessary to manually spell out what the situation was where a bug was found. Now, the bug tracking window automatically is attached to the problem.
"It's just a huge improvement," said Glerum. "I know that on their side, they're going to have tons of results coming back that will be useful, and which will undoubtedly speed up their development process."
For now, participation in the beta is only available to players with active Burning Crusade accounts, and even then, as mentioned above, getting access is difficult. That is certain to change over time, and within a few months--it's not certain yet when--the expansion will launch and be available to the general public.
But devoted WoW players and Blizzard executives should be pleased that the earliest reports from those who have played the beta version are largely positive, with almost no major concerns.
And given that Blizzard seems to have the magic touch with the WoW franchise, this should surprise no one.
"Hopefully we're better and smarter," Brack said, "and came up with cooler mechanics this time around."