Box!['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column looks back and forward via the lens of World of Warcraft's new Burning Crusade expansion. Why aren't you playing right now?]

Since its 2004 release, World of Warcraft (WoW) has been the MMOG. Everyone either wants to play it, is playing it, or has played it. At this point, for good or for ill, WoW is the Massive gaming standard against which all other titles are measured. Last year marked the game's second anniversary, and Blizzard has marked the occasion by finally releasing the much-anticipated Burning Crusade (BC) expansion.

It raises the level cap from 60 to 70, and introduces an entire new extra-Azerothian realm which players can now sink their content-starved teeth into. 'The Outlands' not only expands the surface area of the game (by some 15-20 percent), it introduces hundreds upon hundreds of new quests, monsters, dungeons ... and all of it was unleashed on the world this past Tuesday.

Today I'm going to take a brief look at what this launch means for the game, and for Blizzard. I'm going to look at some reactions to the launch, and I'm going to look ahead a bit to theorize on what the future might hold for the 8 Million strong Massively Multiplayer Monster. I know this is kind of light material, but hey ... I've got to ding 62.

It Took You Two Years To Set This Thing on Fire?

Even if the expansion wasn't any good, Burning Crusade would be an important moment for WoW and its players simply because it took so darn long to be released. Blizzard's incredibly high standards for quality have ensured that the road to expansion was a long one, but not a barren one. Despite not putting out an expansion proper, the game has been anything but a closed system since launch.

Refining classes, releasing content on an almost monthly basis, world events, PvP contests ... World of Warcraft has been in motion since the first week of retail. In comparison, Everquest had two expansions the year after it was released, with an average of one expansion every six months every year thereafter. In that game content is mostly released in those large dollops, making expansions almost a requirement. By providing more frequent content updates, Blizzard has eased the wait for high-end gamers wanting the next big thing.

Box!Thankfully, for both Blizzard and WoW gamers, Burning Crusade appears to be good. Very good. Not only does the obvious quality of the art and quest design mean that WoW will be a fresh experience for gamers again, but the direction this expansion is moving the game says volumes about Blizzard's intentions for current game concepts. Here are some current game elements that are expanded in BC:

  • The Integration of PvP with PvE - One of the things that was a pleasant surprise once I began exploring the new zones was the 'PvP bonus' I seemed to be getting everywhere. All of the Outlands zones, it seems, has its own micro-war going on. Hellfire Peninsula offers a trio of captureable landmarks, for example, while the Zangermarsh has more of a CTF motif. This tightening of the integration between questing/PvE and Player vs. Player combat is a great idea, with overtones similar to what is likely to be offered by Warhammer Online. I think the ideas are great over there too, and hopefully we'll continue to see more of this in future WoW offerings.
  • Smaller Raids - Thank the maker, right? Instead of you and 39 of your (not-so) closest friends, we'll only have to put up with 24 other yahoos in the quest for epic lootz. Level 70 raiders make for much heavier hitters, and the fact that Blizzard is tuning for that in their new offerings is tremendous. Raid instances will also now have 'heroic' options that will make raiding even tougher ... and net even phatter loot. This seems to be a common thread through everything in Outlands: faster, tighter, more fun experiences. 2 hour raids instead of 4, 5 and 10 mans the norm, with 25 needed for the biggest tasks.
  • Alliance And Horde Uniting - At the same time we're beating each other over the head in the zone-related PvP quests, we're interacting in new and (hopefully) peaceful ways as well. Both factions have a lot of quests in common in the Outlands, and as a result we're questing right on top of each other in a lot of areas. In the (awe-inspiring) city of Shattrath, the factions are disallowed from attacking each other. Alliance races may be buying or selling to Horde merchants in the refugee villages of the Undercity, while Horde players might align themselves with the Dranei members of the Aldar faction. It's the first time that Blizzard has even thematically began moving the two mighty factions together, and it speaks of a time in the future (possibly) when players will able to do more than just emote at each other.
  • Many Factions And Reachable Epics - Even moreso than back on Azeroth, who you befriend in the Outlands matters a great deal. Every mob and quest, it seems, earns you a higher reputation with one faction or decreases your import with another. From a world perspective this is invigorating; as a player it's fascinating to see the interplay between these new and sometimes arcane layers of society that are already in place. What's even more invigorating is the material benefits of allying with these factions. The BC expansion introduces a myriad of new outlets for purchasable epic gear. From what I've seen, some of the items obtainable by becoming friendly with High Hold or the Scryers is on par with what is being pulled from the dungeon instances. As with the revamped PvP offerings from the last patch, these raid-less epics are a godsend for those looking for emo-free high end gear.
  • Outdoing Art - With graphics-intensive titles like Vanguard and Age of Conan on the way, World of Warcraft might have begun to look a bit dated. In response, Blizzard has more than 'kicked things' by a notch. They've outdone themselves in almost every way possible. From the techno-beauty of the Dranei architecture, to the floating towers of the Blood Elf zone, to the alien mystery of the Outlands, every new element to the game outshines what we've previously seen from Blizz's tireless artists. It may not push your machine as hard as the new games will, but Burning Crusade has proven that WoW can still wow with modern titles.

It's also important to quickly point out the importance of the game's overall stability. Many people (including myself) were convinced that BC was going to result in horrendous wait-times and crashed servers. I can happily say I was wrong about that. I personally have had almost no problems whatsoever. Certainly, I've had the occasional queue, but it was much better than I expected. Your mileage will vary by which server you are on, of course, but the general buzz seems to be overwhelmingly positive. There hasn't been a backlash against an unprepared Blizzard, because this time they were actually ready for us. It's great to see, and definitely worth pointing out, the difference that two years can make for a product's stability.

You Can't Please Everybody


I'm not the only one playing, of course. I don't have a monopoly on opinion. Other folks have opinions different from my own ...

Brandon Reinhart -

Blizzard shows a clear understanding of how to reward the player's expectations with new content. Example 1: I'm a new Draenei and I won't get a mount until level 40. Blizzard hands me a quest at level 12 that lets me ride a mount for 15 minutes. A super freaking fast mount. That was very popular with the nubs, by the way. I was a _king_ for 15 minutes.

Kill Ten Rats' Oz -

We’re having some slight techincal issues … There’s quite a few, many of which will cause the much questioned lack of digital download question to be thrown around a lot in the next few months. From the issues of upgrade keys that don’t work, to their patcher having to repatch 3 patches back and then sticking at 72%.

Tobold -

In the waiting time I did one dungeon trip with some guild mates, to the Hellfire Furnace. Yeah, I know, that is actually the second of the Hellfire dungeons, and not the first. But we did allright, with no deaths. Perfect party mix, my priest, a druid, a warrior, a mage, and a warlock. The mage + warlock combo is perfect crowd control in a dungeon full of orc warlocks, because you can sheep the orc and banish the demon. First mob dropped a paladin libram, and of course on the first day of BC in a Horde group we didn't have a level 60 paladin yet.

Foton -

Me, I’m still level 60, not even sniffing 61 yet. I remember clearly now, why I hate leveling so much. I want to enjoy the journey, like so many around me, but I won’t until it’s over. I’ve always been more of a destination kind of player, and, I’m not sure if that’s just me or if that’s how past games trained me. One thing I do know for sure, if I can’t get that cello music out of my head, I may be level 60 forever. In a Warcraft guild full of ex-EverQuest players, that’s a bootable offense.

Gamers With Jobs -

One might imagine that negating two years of work for long-time World of Warcraft players in the span of an evening might alienate hardcore players, but instead most have reacted with a lust for vaulting the bar, which was so quickly raised so high. Instead of jealousy there is giddiness as the anticipation and enthusiasm for new content, new skills and new equipment vastly outweighs any sense of futility. With so much to look forward to in Draenor, Blizzard makes it very hard to feel any regret for the lands, creatures and equipment you leave behind.

Kill Ten Rats' Ethic -

We created Blood Elves, one male and one female. We spent some time laughing at the odd hair styles and default clothing. We logged in and while busy, it was not nearly as crowded as I thought it would be in the newbie area. The running, jumping and fighting animations all seemed weird to us. The way they stand looks unnatural to us. Perhaps it was just because it was new, but we really were turned off by the whole thing. Looking around, some of the scenery seemed less polished than we had grown to expect from Blizzard. I’m not saying it was crappy, but it certainly seemed below the standards Blizzard had set.

Timothy Burke @ Terra Nova -

A few of the extremely powerful bind-on-equip green items I've gotten can be equipped by level 57 characters. I would think that these would now command premium prices on the Auction House once things settle down in a bit as they will allow a level 57 character to dominate the pre-Outland quests and so on that they must complete. Any portal mage could probably open portals 24/7 to the capital cities back in Azeroth and make huge amounts of money.

I Call Dibs on the Stuffed Murloc Head

With all this 'newness' now inserted into what has become a somewhat venerable title, it's exciting to start thinking ahead again to what the future might hold for World of Warcraft. As always, Blizz is holding its cards pretty close to its chest when it comes to future plans, and there's not much that anyone knows for sure. Here are some educated guesses about what we might see in the distant future for WoW:

  • Housing - This one, at least, we know for sure is coming at some point in the future. Jeff Kaplan admitted as much: it's not a question of 'if' but 'when' Player Housing makes it into the game. (It's semi-been there since launch; go look for the gated-off instance portal in Stormwind some time.) The reason it's not out yet is, again, the extremely high level of quality Blizzard demands from its products. They want housing to be amazing and fun before they'll release it. Given the release of jewelcutting with the BC expansion, it's possible we could see a new crafting skill to deal entirely with housing items. At the very least, we're sure to see the ability to take trophies from momentous kills, and perhaps the chance to show off our impressive loot in our homes. What will be interesting to see is whether WoW can elevate housing from a simple pleasant distraction to something with impact on your game experience.
  • Guild Bennies - I haven't heard anything about this specific, but it seems incredible that Blizzard isn't considering offering more support for guilds. A tabard and a chat channel are nice and all, but compared with the red carpet guilds get in EverQuest 2 it's somewhat stingy. If housing goes in, we're sure to see guild housing, but to be honest I hope WoW cribs fairly liberally from EverQuest's playbook. "Levels" for Guilds, special guild-only items, discounts for gear for higher level guilds; I look forward to the day that big-headed guildies can put up by displaying their coat of arms on the walls of Stormwind ... or whatever.
  • Heroes - So-called 'hero' classes have been talked about in the background ever since WoW was in the development stage. The addition of new classes has fallen by the wayside as Blizzard moves to refine the already existing content and playstyles. This is a good thing, to be sure, but the day will almost certainly come when we see new classes introduced to the game. The original plan to provide high level alternative advancements may be re-implimented at level 70, if the developers are leery of raising the level cap again any time soon.
  • Zone Rehashing - Again, not something I've heard specifically mentioned, but something that I hope is at least in the background in San Diego. Now that WoW has begun to expand beyond its original borders, it will be interesting to see what Blizzard does to keep the original areas of the game 'fresh' for players. Whether that means including new content into old zones, reworking the art for a given area, or even closing off sections of the world, keeping Azeroth a 'living world' will ensure interested players. One change I'd love to see sometime down the line would be the introduction of proper home cities for the gnomes and trolls. Gnomeragon isn't one of the better dungeons in the game anyway.
  • Expansion - Blizzard has said they're now resolved to produce one expansion a year. Assuming that Burning Crusade is their expansion for 2007, hopefully around this time next year we'll be talking about whatever new content they're aiming to introduce in bulk. In all likelihood they'll be announcing the new expansion sometime soon, to give us all a year to wonder and speculate about what they're going to do. My hope is that the next expansion will be the one we've all been expecting since the Warcraft III days: Northrend. As much as I like the Outlands, I hope that expanding Azeroth proper is the company's next priority, and the undead-ruled frozen land to the north would be the logical place to go next.

The Burning Crusade has only just begun. Despite the very public arrival of a level 70 character, most characters are probably only 61 or 62 after a week of casual play. Developers interviewed about the leveling curve expected it would take most people around a month to two months to reach level 70. Between now and then we'll see a return to pick up groups for non-raiding content, plenty of fellow questers in the field, and a general sense of camaraderie as the grind commences. It's like the launch of WoW all over again, only this time people generally know what they're doing. In a month or so everyone will be back at the level cap, exploring the high-end dungeons and griping about loot.

This time around, they'll be doing it in a much more relaxed setting and with much cooler gear. After that, it's just a matter of making sure that the content keeps rolling for Azeroth and the Outlands. That, at least, is one area we don't have to worry about. Blizzard has proven that they know what needs doing, and the result is a constantly fresh World of Warcraft experience. This newest chapter in the incredibly popular game's life can only be the start to bigger and better things, and it's a rush to be able to participate. Here's hoping the next expansion can capture as much of the 'Blizzard magic'.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]