Players test limits of 'World of Warcraft'

The online fantasy has become one of the fastest-selling games ever. Now its developers face around-the-clock technical challenges. Photos: Game on--and on, and on The sprawling, colorful "World of Warcraft"

9 min read
IRVINE, Calif.--It was 4:33 p.m. Thursday, and 263,863 people were reaching through cyberspace to explore the sprawling "World of Warcraft."

On the windswept plains of the Arathi Highlands, priests and paladins battled creatures of elemental fire and water as they strove to free the spirit of an entrapped princess. To the south, leather workers and alchemists crowded around auctioneers in the bustling underground city Ironforge to hawk their wares while speculators sifted for bargains.

Meanwhile, high in towering Blackrock Spire, dozens of gnomes and humans, dwarves and night elves banded together to assault the legions of the fearsome General Drakkisath.

And in an unmarked building in a nondescript office park here, the builders at Blizzard Entertainment were assembling yet another challenge for the player-heroes of "World of Warcraft," the colorful three-dimensional online fantasy that since its release 10 weeks ago has become one of the world's fastest-selling computer games.

From around a dark, windowless room, nine young men peered into the unfinished virtual interior of Karazhan, a haunted tower set in a forlorn mountain pass that will open later this year. "As you can see, the architecture is a little ornate, a little Gothicky," said Aaron Keller, a 29-year-old designer, gesturing to the 3D model on the computer screen before him. "We're thinking about turning these arches into horse heads."

Twenty minutes of discussion ensued about animal heads carved into just a few spots of one segment of a tower that many users will never even see. It might seem self-indulgent, but it is just one example of the fanatical attention to detail that over the last decade has made Blizzard a premier developer of PC games and turned its Warcraft, Diablo and StarCraft universes into landmark game franchises. (The studio has a minimal presence in the console market.)

Not only have Blizzard's games sold more than 40 million copies over the last 11 years, but they have also inspired a level of enthusiasm that may most closely resemble an opera audience's rapturous devotion to a renowned diva.

Computer Gaming World, the game magazine, called "World of Warcraft" a "game world so insidiously addictive, so rich in imagination, so fun and beautiful and funny and charming that we have no desire to ever log out and resume our real lives."

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Since massively-multiplayer games emerged into prominence with "Ultima Online" and "EverQuest" in the late 1990s, the genre has been considered the preserve of only the most serious players: Young men with dozens of hours a week to spare grinding through repetitive virtual chores.

"World of Warcraft" has overshadowed "EverQuest II," also released last fall, largely because it remains accessible for more casual players (say, by allowing them to accomplish meaningful quests in less than an hour) while also challenging the hard core (say, by including foes that require dozens of players to defeat.)

And unlike console games, which are basically finished once they are shipped, PC games played online, like "World of Warcraft," can be enhanced and enlarged. In fact, users demand it.

Still, as stellar as Blizzard's track record has been, the company was set on its heels by the game's success. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of players, the game's servers conked out repeatedly in the early going, though performance has improved in recent weeks.

Like most massively-multiplayer online games, "World of Warcraft" requires a monthly subscription fee ($14.99 a month) in addition to the

software ($49.99 in the United States for Windows and Macintosh systems; for ages 13 and older). Customer service has been one of Blizzard's hallmarks, but initially the company did not appreciate just how much more demanding customers become when they are paying a regular subscription fee, as opposed to simply buying a box with some disks in it.

While they almost universally loved the game itself, critics have slammed the company on the Internet over customer care and technical support issues.

Now, Blizzard is trying to remake itself swiftly into a full-throated customer service organization. The denizens of massively-multiplayer worlds are the most passionate and demanding gamers in the world. At the same time, successfully running such a game is one of the most technically complex and difficult tasks in cyberspace.

It all requires a tremendous amount of work behind the screens. Meanwhile, the company's executives are grappling with the wages of success: trying to accommodate growth without losing the informal-yet-disciplined flavor that made Blizzard such a hit factory in the first place.

"I think it's fair to say that we needed to restructure ourselves a bit in order to adequately support World of Warcraft's success," said Mike Morhaime, 36, Blizzard's president. "Normally when we ship a game it is basically done. We have worked really hard and we might want to fix a few bugs that have cropped up, but the work is basically over. In the case of World of Warcraft, we worked really hard and we shipped the product, but in some ways the work was just beginning."

An unforeseen scale
Most of the senior people at Blizzard seem to agree on the moment they realized that "World of Warcraft" had taken on a life of its own.

It was in the evening, right before the game was formally released on Nov. 23. Blizzard had arranged for producers and designers to sign copies of the game at midnight at a hangar-size Fry's Electronics outlet in Fountain Valley, not far from Blizzard's base in Irvine, 40 miles south of Los Angeles. The company had set up a similar signing for an earlier strategy game, "Warcraft III," and about 700 people showed up. Planning optimistically, the company had about 2,500 copies of "World of Warcraft" on hand.

"So I planned to roll over there around 11 p.m., and as I tried to get off the freeway I look over and I see this gigantic, dark, surging mass around Fry's, and I'm like, 'What in the world is that?'" said Paul Sams, 34, Blizzard's senior vice president for business operations. It turned out that the pulsing was more than 5,000 people.

"The cars were backed up on the off-ramp," he said. "I parked like a mile away, and when I get there the line is looped around the building, and then looped around the parking lot. It was like a football tailgate, with the RVs and barbecues in the lot and everything."

By the end of that first day, about 240,000 copies of the game had sold across North America, Australia and New Zealand, the product's initial markets. The game has now sold almost 700,000 copies in those markets, and at peak hours about 250,000 people from those areas are playing the game simultaneously.

"World of Warcraft" was introduced in South Korea, a huge market for PC gaming, on Jan. 18. At peak hours more than 100,000 Koreans are playing at the same time. This week Blizzard plans to begin selling the game in Europe, in English, French and German. It appears that "World of Warcraft" is on a pace to generate at least $200 million in subscription revenue this year, in addition to more than $50 million in retail sales.

"The happiness became terror on the first day," said Sams, adding that the company surpassed its one-year subscriber targets in less than a week. "We have a lot of high-class problems right now."

He sighed and leaned his elbows on his office's conference table, which was covered with building plans. The company started developing "World of Warcraft" in 1999, and two years later Blizzard still employed fewer than 200 people. Now that figure is pushing 750

worldwide. The company is bulging out of its 63,000-square-foot headquarters and is about to take over an additional 22,000 square feet in a building nearby to house its expanding customer-service department.

"I used to think that I knew everything that was happening in this company, and now there are so many pieces and so many elements that I go to meetings and I'm frustrated that I don't know all the answers," Sams said. "I keep asking: 'When is this going to slow down? When can I reduce the number of e-mails in my in-box below 2,800?'"

From players, an earful
Sams has it easy. At least he doesn't have people calling him an incompetent, lying, moronic hack every day. In public.

Just down the hall, Paul Della Bitta and Daniel Chin, both 28, have learned to cope with that. Every day, "World of Warcraft" players post more than 150,000 messages to the game's English-language Web site. As associate community managers, Della Bitta and Chin swim with the sharks and post to those forums as two of Blizzard's five official representatives to the "World of Warcraft" community.

"Let's just say that you develop a thick skin and a sense of humor," Chin said.

Della Bitta chimed in. "Our players are certainly very passionate about the game," he said, seeming to pick his words carefully.

Chin laughed and said, "Uh, that's an understatement."

"World of Warcraft"
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Greg Kasavin's take.

"World of Warcraft" encompasses two huge continents, eight playable races, hundreds of monsters and thousands of quests. And the game's hundreds of thousands of players have questions, concerns, gripes and outright complaints about just about all of them. The players want answers now, and when they don't like the answers, the community managers are the ones who hear about it, loudly.

Whether it's a rant that the rogue class should be nerfed, or made less effective, or the latest discussion on the appropriate manner to tackle the Molten Core, the game's toughest dungeon, a single popular discussion topic will often be read more than 100,000 times in just a day or two.

And in sifting through all of the messages (or as many as they can get to), the community managers have developed a rich understanding of how people's real and game identities can intersect.

"You literally can see a 68-year-old doctor arguing with a 13-year-old about some obscure game-play issue, like how paladins should be nerfed," Della Bitta said.

"The only real way to determine status on the message boards is the level of your character. If you're Level 60, what you say immediately has weight. But if you're only like Level 5, you could make a perfectly valid point on something and everyone will be like, 'Shut up, what do you know?' And if you're a doctor or lawyer or something in real life, you're probably not used to that, so we see the frustrations."

A world that keeps evolving
Ultimately, all of these passions, all of the money and all of the construction and new hiring have to be based on a game that lots of people just think is plain fun to play.

Back in the Karazhan design meeting, artists and developers were debating whether the horse heads' eyes should move to follow players exploring the area when Chris Metzen, Blizzard's vice president for creative development, poked his head in.

For 10 years, Metzen, 31, has been creating the rich stories and plotlines that have girded Blizzard's success. In his silver-rimmed sunglasses, shorts and hiking boots, he strode to the monitor as the others explained the concept of the horse heads.

"Well, I'm not so sure it makes sense just because it's a carriage house," Metzen said. "But check it out: In 'Warcraft 1' it said that Lothar was part of the Brotherhood of the Horse, and I thought that was kind of lame then, but maybe a horse head will work because of that. Yeah, that's hot."

Within a few minutes, Metzen determined that the history and culture of the tower's long-dead inhabitants decreed that the architectural animal motifs progress from horse heads at the tower's base to eagle heads a bit higher, culminating in lion heads at the grand opera house.

"But don't put these heads all over the place," Metzen told an artist. "Just sprinkling them in here and there will really sell the history to the players who are paying attention."

And if Blizzard has learned anything from its "World of Warcraft" experience, it is that the players are certainly paying attention.

"It's the difference between an immersive experience and a mechanical diversion," Metzen said. "You might spend hundreds of hours playing a game like this, and why would you keep coming back? Is it just for the next magic helmet? Is it just to kill the next dragon?

"It has to be the story. We want you to care about these places and things so that, in addition to the adrenaline and the rewards of addictive game-play, you have an emotional investment in the world. And that's what makes a great game."

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