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Blizzard's Fan Furore

Enthusiastic fans brave the cold to make midnight Wrath of the Lich King launch a success

Few who attended Blizzard's midnight launch of its latest expansion to World of Warcraft, Wrath of the Lich King, at HMV's flagship store in London, would argue the game won't be a huge success. Fans numbering in the thousands risked numbing cold and curious stares from passer-bys, just for the chance to be among the first to access the new content and get their copies of the game signed by Paul Sams, the company's COO, and Lee Sparks, associate producer.

Last year onlookers were stunned at the furore inspired in the fans which drove attendance to levels many times higher than expected. This year was no different and with a subscriber base having grown to 11 million, over 3 million more than was in place for the launch of the Burning Crusade, the event was similarly scaled up. Attendance hit the lofty heights of 2000 or more, according to HMV executive Jonathan Hayes, while some reports put the figure at the even higher 2500 mark - considerably up from the 1600 attending the previous expansion's launch event.

They came out in droves wearing wings, carrying swords and sporting shoulder pads large enough to shame any 80s pop-group, the fans - which Blizzard so highly covets - stole the show with their determination to brave November weather, and casual central London street crime, while maintaining enough energy to cheer like mad whenever the need arose or if a free t-shirt was on offer.

This level of dedication to the Blizzard brand was recognised in Paul Sams' opening speech in which he thanked them for their seemingly endless support.

"We want to say thank you so much for coming out tonight," Sams said. "This is a big culmination of work for our development team and obviously we owe it all to you guys. Thank you so much for supporting us all these years and we hope we'll deliver on what you're looking for tonight."

What followed was an amazing display of fan cheering at the mention of either two of the game's factions the Alliance or the Horde, with one enthused gamer yelling "Who's your War Chief?"

As Sparks egged on the increasingly rowdy Alliance members in the crowd, Sams triggered a protest jeer from the Horde players by commenting: "I actually wanted to hear a little more Horde."

Ben West, a 23 year-old employee in the banking industry by day, but a level 70 rat-puncher named Paramount by night, was the first to buy a copy of the game - having started queuing at 6am the previous day.

"I was queuing for a grand total of about 36 hours," West explained. "I came here the last time and it was awesome so I decided to come again but get here a bit earlier, try my luck and it was an amazing experience."

When asked if he thought it was it worth the time spent, he replied: "Absolutely! I'd do it again in a heart beat!"

West's attitude and dedication to World of Warcraft are broadly representative of a fan base which thrives off the community aspect and keeps gamers returning day after day.

"I only have two level 70s but my main has over 353 days played... but that's my main, I play that all the time," he said, adding that he was most looking forward to playing the new content with his guild. "I'm looking forward to the raiding, I'm in the raiding guild: Twilight Hammer."

"I've tried Age of Conan, I've tried Warhammer, tried a bit of Lineage II, but I think the diversity and social part of WoW is what makes it what it is," he said when asked if other MMOs appealed to him.

With this many people turning up for a midnight launch, and sales set to outstrip those of the previous expansion, many wondered if HMV carried enough stock to last through the night.

"We've forecasted to have enough stock," explained Hayes, HMV's games commercial manager. "We stocked up with as much as we could with what Activision could give us. We've seen really strong sales and bigger sales than last time."

When asked how Wrath of the Lich King compared to other big title launches such as LittleBigPlanet and Gears of War 2, Hayes responded: "As an event this is the biggest we've had and as for sales it will do some really big numbers for us... It's a great buzz, it's a great turnout."

That was a view shared by Richard Smith, an 18 year-old university student studying Philosophy at Goldsmiths, saying: "I was at a gig in the vicinity and it's a f*cking awesome game so I decided to pop down... I'm very much looking forward to the game."

"I didn't get to go on the beta but I've been reading all the news," he added. "I think because of all the things they've learnt from the launch of the Burning Crusade I think this one is going to go a lot smoother. The transition between the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King is going to be a lot better."

Ever the dedicated fan with four level 70 characters, Smith was already practicing his excuse for playing the game instead of doing university work.

"I think it's good to study the philosophy of a virtual world," he joked. "It's interesting to see the dynamics and... something else."

With 11 million subscribers in counting already signed up to World of Warcraft, it's hard to imagine the new expansion pack doing much more for the company, but Smith disagrees.

"It's going to be a brilliant game and all the things like recruit a friend - I've recruited four friends myself and I know a lot of people like me - that's why its going to grow and grow and grow and I don't think there's any stopping it."