<i>GI.biz</i> heads to HMV for the launch of the new WOW expansion pack.
Looking at the queues outside HMV's Oxford Street store last night you could have been forgiven for thinking that another console launch was underway - were it not for the occasional flash of chain mail, purple horns and pointy ears sticking out from the crowd.
According to HMV games boss Tim Ellis, an estimated 1500 people turned up for the launch of World of Warcraft expansion pack The Burning Crusade - four times the number expected.
And the long queues didn't just come as a surprise to HMV. Speaking on stage in the moments before TBC officially went on sale, Blizzard exec Itzik Ben Bassat told the crowd, "To be honest, I was a little bit concerned. I didn't know what the reaction was going to be... This is a great surprise, to see all these people coming here to celebrate the launch.
"There isn't a greater moment than to see all these people and to know that we're touching so many people," he continued. To which one WOW fan shouted the reply, "You can touch me any time."Waiting game
First in line to pick up his signed copy of TBC was 22 year-old Raleigh, a physics student from Tunbridge Wells. He'd turned up at the store at 5.30am that morning, and by 8am he'd been joined by a few more eager WOW players. They were all given wristbands by HMV staff and told to return later that evening.
For his efforts, Raleigh was awarded not only with a free copy of the expansion pack but also the original WOW collector's edition, the trading card game, several t-shirts and other freebies. He said it was worth the wait - "It's just great to experience the atmosphere, meet new people and make new friends."
Raleigh is clearly a hardcore WOW fan, with two level 60 characters to his name. "It took me about 12 days played to get my Paladin to 60 and about eight days for my hunter," he said, "And I've played my Paladin for about 107 days now." That's 24-hour days - so 2568 hours in total.
"I haven't experienced a game like it," Raleigh continued. "There are 8 million people playing World of Warcraft worldwide - there's a reason why people love it."The next level
So what is that reason? According to 26 year-old Dave from Rochester, "It's the fact that there's always another goal to progress towards - just the experience of defeating new encounters, new bosses, new dungeons. I'm looking forward to The Burning Crusade because there are more instances to do, there are more things to kill, and we need more new things to do."
Dave was one of the many attendees who turned up in costume - which in his case meant a witch's hat and green face paint. Standing next to him was Lenny, 19, sporting purple horns and co-ordinating outfit. She explained why she decided to make the effort and queue up: "We were told there would be freebies, which helped, and it's a good excuse to wear a corset."
For 29 year-old John from Slough - who, it seemed, had decided the launch was a good excuse to wear chain mail - it's the social aspect of WOW that makes the game so enjoyable.
"I just like the environment, making new friends, meeting people really. I played Warcraft games from the beginning, and it's just gone from there. My best friends and friends from work, they all play it, I've got them into it."
John also said he finds the game relieves stress at the end of a hard day - "I like it because you can completely forget about work."Career choices
That was a view shared by David, a 52 year-old consultant from Biggleswade. "Most gamers are middle aged. Most of them are professional people - they do it to relieve stress and get a bit of relaxation, basically," he said.
David hadn't intended to queue up on launch night, but his plans changed earlier that day. "I came here to get my hands on the collector's edition. I did pre-order from HMV but I had an email this morning to say that I wasn't going to get a copy, so this was a last ditch attempt to get my hands on one. They said they haven't got enough stock, but obviously they've got enough stock for tonight."
But having to join the queue hadn't dampened David's enthusiasm for WOW. "Both my boys play it, so it's a thing you do together as a family. The main thing I like about it is you've got millions of people online from all over the world, all races, all religions, all sexes, and everybody's on an even playing field. There are no barriers at all."
Also in the queue was Laura, a 39 year-old data manager who's been playing WOW for 19 months and joined the queue at 7am - despite a few concerns about The Burning Crusade.
"I think it is quite expensive for an expansion pack. There were some things that I would have liked added in that weren't. But then again, it's World of Warcraft - so people are going to pay for it."Gold farming
Indeed, as as recently announced by Blizzard, there are now 8 million people who are willing to pay to play WOW, including 1.5 million European gamers. According to Ben Bassat, industry insiders once warned Blizzard that securing a high number of subscribers in the territory would be impossible - but clearly, they were wrong.
"We discovered that there is a huge online gaming market in Europe, and it was an opportunity waiting for us." Hence the establishment of Blizzard Europe, which now employs around 700 members of staff, and the midnight launch event for TBC. It's the first time Blizzard has held such an event in Europe, but it won't be the last.
"Don't forget that we have two more franchises that we love - Diablo and Starcraft," Ben Bassat told the crowd.
"We haven't forgotten that we have these two franchises, and what I can tell you is that I look forward to stand here in a few years, or whenever it's going to be, and celebrate with you the launch of the next Starcraft or the next Diablo."Arts and craft
That might be sooner rather than later. "As a Starcraft player I can tell you that I hope it wouldn't go a decade - we launched Starcraft in '98 - I hope it wouldn't go a decade before we stand here and celebrate the next Starcraft together," Ben Bassat said, to cheers from the audience.
But last night was really about World of Warcraft, and about Europe's 1.5 million players, hundreds of whom were prepared to stand outside in the cold and queue - some of them wearing nothing more than lycra and tin foil.
"At Blizzard, we're really dedicated to what we do," Ben Bassat said. "We do it out of passion, we do it out of love; we love games, and we love our games."
"And we love you," someone shouted.
Visit GamesIndustry.biz next week to read a full interview with Itzik Ben Bassat, VP of business development and international at Blizzard entertainment.