Back in 2004, Blizzard Entertainment released World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) set in the fantasy universe popularised by its 1994 real-time strategy game Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.
That was 12 years ago. Unlike other key games released in 2004, such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Halo 2, Burnout 3 and Half-Life 2, over five million people are still playing WoW. The game has evolved through five subsequent expansions, with a sixth (Legion) due for release in August 2016. It’s even spawned a blockbuster movie — Warcraft: The Beginning.
So what’s the appeal of questing with orcs, elves and gnomes? According to Allie Mae Taylor, a graphic designer and marketer, World of Warcraft is pure escapism.
“I remember being utterly captivated by the opulence and richness of the experience,” she told IQ. “The concept, range of playable characters, combat interface, story and plot arcs, quest-based progression, and most importantly for me, the ability to freely move within the beautiful, immersive environments, was simply jaw-dropping. It still is.”
“Having built a little community of over 40 characters, Alliance and Horde, spread over four servers, each character with their own unique attributes, skills, armour sets, achievements, and levels, no two minutes spent playing WoW ever feels the same,” Taylor adds.
In 2010, at the height of its powers, WoW had amassed over 12 million subscribers. The numbers might have slipped since then, but the world of Azeroth remains a favourite haunt for many gamers. It’s especially popular in China, where the game is called “World of Magic Beasts” and has inspired a vast, unlicensed Warcraft theme park called Joyland.
Blizzard will be hoping that the release of the Warcraft movie and the game’s next expansion will tempt more players to return. After all, the game’s popularity is cyclical. Many lapsed subscribers who are keen to drop back in whenever new content is added.
“It’s like the next book in a series,” says Richard Cobbett, a freelance writer and game designer. “I check back in with each expansion for some more adventures with my mage, and even after so many years, Blizzard just gets better and better at designing them. It’s always a nostalgic pleasure to head back to their world and see what’s new.”
What’s new in the World of Warcraft: Legion expansion, which releases on August 30th, is a fresh play area (The Broken Isles), a seemingly insurmountable threat (the demons of the Burning Legion), powerful Artifact Weapons (like the Death Knight two-handed axe) and a new character class (the double-jumping, hellspawn-morphing Demon Hunter).
The spectacular cinematic trailer for Legion does a great job at building excitement.
Throughout its existence, World of Warcraft’s game mechanics have remained much the same, something that Zak Storey, Staff Writer at Maximum PC & PC Gamer, believes is also part of the game’s enduring appeal.
“Ever since it’s conception, the game has had such a fluid movement system,” he tells IQ.
“The combat flows, it mimics life, there’s a rhythm to it. And the longer you stay inside that rhythm the smoother it becomes, the better you play… I reckon that’s exactly why 90% of the remaining community still play the game, even though they probably don’t realise it. Because no other game out there can replicate anything close to how WoW feels to play.”
It’s difficult to describe. Played on a good PC, with a fast processor and a powerful GPU, the world of Azeroth is as compelling a place as George R.R. Martin’s Westeros or Tolkien’s Middle Earth. With hundreds of new games vying for our attention these days, it’s a testament to Blizzard’s game design that so many gamers still love to play in it.
Curiosity also plays its part. “When I played WoW for the first time, I really wanted to know what was down the next path, or over the next hill, or through the next door,” says Allie Mae Taylor. “For me, that has never changed. I am Alice, desperate to delve deeper into the rabbit hole.” A rabbit hole seemingly without end.
World of Warcraft: Legion is available from 30 August 2016. The film, Warcraft: The Beginning, opens in the UK on June 3.
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