nihilum.jpgDay after day, hundreds of thousands of people across the globe play Blizzard's ridiculously popular game. It's kind of awe-inspiring to think about, the sheer number of humans all inhabiting the same virtual space.

Most are content to enjoy the experience of leveling up a character, raiding with their friends, or engaging in Player vs. Player combat. Some, simply by their actions or position in life, stand out of the crowd. Their influence has changed the face of the game, and in some cases shaped the game itself.

The word player, of course, can have more than one meaning. In this case, we're talking about the movers and shakers that have made Azeroth what it is today. From literal individuals on the Blizzard development team, to player-run organizations, to other massively multiplayer games entirely many hands have shaped World of Warcraft's success.

The Designers

nihilum.jpgThe group of players that have had the most direct impact on the game are, of course, the people actually running it. Blizzard Entertainment's jump from RTS developer to MMOG powerhouse seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, thanks largely to the people behind the project. Rob Pardo, for example, was a Designer on the Warcraft II, StarCraft, and Diablo II games.

Today he's the lead designer for World of Warcraft, but during the time of EverQuest's genre dominance he was best known in the MMO community as leader of the Legacy of Steel guild. When he left the position of LoS guild leader he passed that torch to Jefferey "Tigole" Kaplan, the man who is now lead world designer for World of Warcraft.

Looking just beyond the game's design and success, it's easy to see that the developers of the game were working from a set of blueprints put together by Verant Interactive/Sony Online Entertainment. Kaplan, Pardo, and the other developers at Blizzard were not working in a vacuum; instead, they were taking the next logical steps along a lengthy path.

Tracing that route back further you can see people like John Smedley, Raph Koster and Richard Garriott, notable designers from the MMO launches of 1998 and 1999. And even beyond those folks stand people like Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw, developers of what is recognized as the first 'proper' MMO: MUD1.

Guilds and Gold Farmers

nihilum.jpgGiven the importance of end-game content, it should come as no surprise that raiding guilds have an enormous impact on World of Warcraft. To a greater or lesser extent much of the most impressive content at the end of the game is geared towards guild play.

The biggest guilds on each server have influence over the culture, traditions, and communication style within that community. Some guilds have an influence that extends even beyond their individual server. Groups like Nihilum, Death and Taxes, or Fires of Heaven have made names for themselves far beyond their individual servers by completing content very quickly after it's released.

These high-profile guilds often make it a point to test content on the Public Test Realms even before it reaches launch status, given them a leg up on the competition. Because of their influence within certain segments of the player community as a whole, Blizzard is inclined to track and consider their opinions on a variety of issues.

Another group Blizzard tracks as carefully as it can, but for different reasons, are gold farmers. World of Warcraft's popularity has made for a booming third-party in-game currency market. As a result, legions of individuals 'farm' gold in the game for resale via currency exchange sites. This is an enormously lucrative business, but wholly against the terms of service for the game.

Despite mass bannings, careful datamining, and adaptive spam filtering techniques applies to in-game mail, gold farming is a persistent nuisance that neither Blizzard nor any other MMO developer has been able to completely stamp out. The impact of gold farming and gold farmers on the game is incalculable to track.

Players regularly quit the game because of negative farming experiences. Others have their accounts hacked when they try to make use of 'power leveling' services. Still others have their accounts banned after purchasing farmed gold. Blizzard customer service spends an inordinate amount of time and money dealing with the aftermath of farmers and their crop, resulting in less time for customers with legitimate concerns.

Though they're seldom taken into account when considering World of Warcraft's player ecology, farmers may be one of the single most influential groups in the game.

Players and Their Pasts

nihilum.jpgThough Blizzard's employees may make the game and groups make shape the game, individual players are ultimately the ones that have to play the game. Singular players rarely have the chance to make an impact on the WoW player population as a whole, of course, but their are exceptions. Many of those notables made their impact through audio or video recordings.

Many gamers have heard of the legendary Leeroy Jenkins, for example, and his fame began with a simple YouTube video. Podcasters like the men and women behind TavernCast, World of Warcast, or WoWcast have all swayed the opinions of players far beyond their circle of guildmates and server-fellows.

Other players become well known for their unique exploits; Gutrot the naked Troll, for example, leveled a character to 70 without wearing a scrap of armor or carrying a weapon. Still others become known to the World of Warcraft player community for their real-life bravery. Ezra Chatterton's visit to Blizzard Entertainment resulted from his passion for the game and his long fight with metastasized cancer.

Less seriously, Hans Olsen's brave attempt to save his sister from a charging moose worked thanks to his experiences in-game.

Another element shaping player experiences, and perhaps the most nebulous of all influences on World of Warcraft, are the past histories of the guilds, gamers, and developers. Though Sony Online Entertainment has made a sequel to the original EverQuest, World of Warcraft is often considered a more 'faithful' successor to the original game.

Thanks largely to the gaming past of the Blizzard development collective, the lessons of the original EQ were close at hand during WoW's design. The first initial wave of players, as well, largely came from other MMOs - EQ, Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies, Asheron's Call.

These past games influenced player perceptions of WoW, and allowed the first wave of players to fully appreciate the game's advances. Though the many millions of players that followed that first wave may be completely unaware of any other titles in the genre, it's well worth noting that the many past MUDs and MMOs had enormous importance in World of Warcraft's rise to notoriety.

Though the WoW franchise is making Vivendi millions and Azeroth may have a population larger than some major metropolises, the influence of a few individuals will always reverberate out into the wider world. The next time you're considering the cool grey stone of Ironforge or looking down from your Wyvern at the waters of Zangarmarsh, it's worth taking time to note the influence of the players behind the scenes.