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 AU$59.99 Burning Crusade expansion in the first 24 hours after its January 16 US launch. Among other additions, the expansion includes new levels (61 to 70), 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 worry that those who have strived to reach the highest levels of the original game may be left with a somewhat barren version of the adventure they're used to. And since many players of WoW find that the most compelling content was only available from levels 50 to 60, the launch of BC may mean that those high-level players without BC are left hanging.
"Blizzard deliberately killed their (level 60) 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 level 60 game "is dead," she said. "Most of the work Blizzard did for the past two years building interesting content to keep (level 60 players) amused is dead."
World of Warcraft launched in 2004. Players in the U.S. pay US$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 fuelled 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.
"(Raiding) guilds' main activities were organising 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 (level 60) 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."