2:00 AM - Desolace - Southeast of the Kodo Graveyard
I'm soloing critters in a desperate attempt to hit level 32 before my eyelids succumb to the force of gravity. I'm only three bubbles away, which by my reckoning means about 15 more kills. I throw a hunter's mark on a nearby basilisk and send my pet in. He's about 1/3 dead when I see the red text out of the corner of my eye. I roll my pointer over him. He's a hunter, too, but he's one of the bad guys. It shows him as level ??, meaning he's out of my league. I pretend I don't notice him and maybe he'll let me be. No such luck. The first of his arrows hits me as hit pet attacks. You'd think a player with that much advantage would at least wait until I'm finished fighting before attacking. I'm dead within half a minute.
Anyone who follows MMORPGs or computer games in general knows about the phenomenon that is World of Warcraft. Even the most jaded observer has to be impressed by the success of the game, especially in a genre that many felt had peaked and was settling into a more steady growth pattern. As of this writing, Blizzard is claiming over one-and-a-half million subscribers to their persistent world based on the popular Warcraft series. Impressive numbers for any computer game, especially one that requires a $15 monthly fee to play.
Why in the world is this game so popular when other big budget, highly anticipated, well conceived games are only seeing a fraction of the subscribers World of Warcraft (a.k.a. WoW) is? What is driving people to Blizzard's offering in droves? The answer can be found in the game itself. While other developers have spent time introducing new features and retooling the formula that has worked in many other games, Blizzard has taken all the best features of the standard MMORPG and amplified them. There's nothing here that hasn't been offered before, but it's the way in which WoW implements all the familiar trappings and integrates them into an engaging persistent world that gives the game its duende. It's an addictive game which does just about everything right. In fact, the only thing that really looks to be a roadblock in WoW's progress is Blizzard itself. Those who achieve success aren't always the best equipped to handle it, and while Blizzard has done a great job handling success in the past, it appears that a refresher course is in order, given the developer's track record since the game's 2004 release.
6:00 AM - Ashenvale - North of Astranaar
An early morning Thistlefur hunt. I don't have much time to kill the requisite number and the last thing I need is to tangle with that paladin that just topped the hill. He's about my level, so I gear up for a fight, but he doesn't attack. Instead, he jumps a nearby Thistlefur. I continue hunting, keeping him in view. Suddenly he comes near and I get ready, but he stops. We stare at each other for a moment. He bows. I bow back. An unspoken truce is struck as we both continue our quests. I complete my kills and leave the paladin behind, having never crossed swords with him.
The land of Azeroth is where one finds himself as he begins his adventure in World of Warcraft. The age-old feud between humans and orcs has raised its foul head and war is at hand. Each side has formed an alliance, and the new player must choose his allegiance before creating a character. The humans have teamed with the gnomes, the dwarves, and the night elves, collectively known as the Alliance. The orcish Horde has enlisted the aid of the undead, the trolls, and the Tauren, a tribal race of bull-like creatures. Multiple characters may be created, but characters on the same server must all be on the same side. No problem playing both Alliance and Horde characters, just not on the same server.
Once a race has been chosen, the player may select his character's class. Not all classes are open to all races - some are even exclusive to Alliance or Horde characters - so choosing one's race (and even alliance) becomes a factor. If the goal is to be a paladin, Horde is out, as are gnomes. Beyond these choices, there's little else to do at character creation, save selecting a name and tailoring the character's look. Althouth relatively simple, creating a character gives a player enough latitude to make the avatar his own.
Azeroth is made up of two main continents. Depending upon the character's race, he will start either on the continent of Kalimdor or in the Eastern Kingdoms. Both factions have major cities on either continent, with the capitals split. Orgrimmar, the Horde capital, is in Kalimdor, while the Alliance capital of Ironforge is in the Eastern Kingdoms. The continents are split up into areas which are either controlled by a faction or contested. On balance, only a few areas are uncontested and they are fairly low level when it comes to adventuring, so players who wish to advance must venture into contested territory. On non-PvP servers, the difference is not nearly as important as on player vs. player servers.
A new character starts in a small settlement and is immediately thrust into the action. All around are NPCs offering quests that are level-appropriate for new players and that offer rewards a young character can use, such as low-level armor or weapons, as well as experience bonuses. Prominent exclamation points floating overhead designate quest givers, some of whom may offer general tasks to all players. Others are class specific and engage the player in a path toward a better understanding of his character's abilities.
Rather than have the player begin in a large city, which can be overwhelming to those just starting out, World of Warcraft starts players in a much smaller location where options are plentiful, but not overabundant. The quests in these areas eventually direct the player to a nearby larger town, then to a city, in a cleverly designed progression that provides a great sense of discovery. There's a feeling of wonder when the new player makes his first entrance into Orgrimmar or Ironforge or the Undercity and sees them in all their cartoonish glory.
The cities are fantastically represented and each boasts a unique style. The Undercity, home of the undead, is a crypt beneath an abandoned city which may be accessed by sewers coursing with green slime. Thunder Bluff, true to the tribal nature of the Tauren, is constructed of teepees and totem poles, high atop bluffs connected by swinging bridges. The dwarven city of Ironforge with its high stone arches is hewn into the side of a mountain. The other cities are equally impressive. Each is a zone unto itself, is heavily guarded by high-level NPCs, and is tucked away in uncontested territory. Raids are possible, but it will take a large, well-organized raid party just to journey to the opposing alliance's capital, let alone to successfully assault it.
Out in the other zones are smaller towns where adventurers may congregate, sell, repair, quest and travel. None of these communities feels unused or isolated. Blizzard has placed the settlements of Azeroth with specific intent. Each little town serves a purpose and many are favorite targets for players from the opposing faction. In contested territory, it is common for towns from both factions to be in close proximity. This is not a neatly compartmentalized set of zones that opponents must spend a good deal of travel time reaching. It's common ground, and the shared claim makes for some interesting turf battles.