World of Warcraft has been in the gaming news rather a lot lately. Sometimes for positive reasons, such as the announcement of The Burning Crusade expansion and the fact that there are now more than five million WOW players around the globe.
And sometimes for not so positive reasons - such as the login problems that continue to deny many European players instant access, or in some cases any access at all, to Azeroth. Then there are the allegations that Chinese players are being discriminated against by others who suspect them to be gold farmers, and that Blizzard's refusal to allow LGB-friendly guilds represents an infringement on lesbian and gay rights.
Now Blizzard has agreed to sit down with Eurogamer and discuss those issues - well, er, one of them, anyway. We're told that the gentlemen we're about to interview, WOW producer Shane Dabiri and operations man John Lagrave, can't comment on the allegations of racism and anti-gay discrimination, since they are entirely responsible for the technical side of things.
Which is a shame - the issue of social responsibility in World of Warcraft, and of who should take that responsibility on, is an interesting one that we're keen to quiz Blizzard on. But for now we'll have to be content with addressing those login problems; so without further ado...
Eurogamer: Many World of Warcraft players have recently been complaining that they have to wait for long periods of time to get in the game once they've entered their username and password - and that sometimes it's not possible to log in at all. Are these problems still ongoing?
John Lagrave: A lot of the login issues are persisting. They're much less than what they were, but we have been having some incredible concurrency with the game itself, and as such that's put quite a bit of burden on the existing hardware that we have.
Eurogamer: Can you explain what you mean by concurrency?
John Lagrave: It's just that suddenly a lot of people showed up - sort of like when you're at a party and suddenly 15 people walk through the door and they all want a drink. It's like, "Well, I'll get that to you, but it's going to take a bit of time," and that's what we've found.
We've been very fortunate in that a large number of people came into the game just recently; we've had good growth throughout the past year, but we had exceptionally high numbers come in over the holidays. Which was wonderful, and we're glad they're all there, but it put some additional stress onto the system and we've had to respond to that.
Eurogamer: So how are you responding?
John Lagrave: Right now, we are working on a solution on multiple fronts. One of the things we're doing is working on hardware improvements, the system infrastructure that supports World of Warcraft itself. We're upgrading all the hardware continuously.
On the bandwidth side, we're also working with network providers in Europe to get the traffic routed better and to deal with issues on their end. Because of course we put a huge burden upon the demands for the Internet in Europe, and they've had to react. So we've been building up relationships with the various network providers here.
Eurogamer: One of Eurogamer's forum posters suggested you could offer guilds an incentive to switch servers. Is that something you'd consider?
John Lagrave: It's certainly something that we've considered and there are good reasons to do that, but there are arguments both for and against. Are we going to do that? I can't give you a definitive answer today. But it's certainly on the board, it's being looked at. We've done somewhat similar stuff - not quite the same, but somewhat similar - in Korea, so the notion is not foreign to us and we are definitely giving it due consideration.
Eurogamer: In the past, when issues have arisen that have prevented people from playing the game, you've offered compensation in the form of free hours of play. Is that something you plan to do in this instance?
John Lagrave: We're always looking, if we ever are failing in our service, to compensate people. So I'll say it's an ongoing thing that we always do.
Eurogamer: Let's talk about the new Burning Crusade expansion - how's it shaping up? What has the response from testers been like?
Shane Dabiri: It's shaping up really good; we're really happy with the progress so far. We're going to be making some announcements at E3, some exciting stuff - nothing I can tell you quite yet, but some things that I think the players will be happy with.
Our internal testing group are the only people testing it right now, and they're giving us some very good responses. There will be a beta test, but we haven't made any plans so far.
Eurogamer: Do you already have plans for further expansions in the pipeline?
Shane Dabiri: Right now we're just concentrating on The Burning Crusade and our live content updates, but the Warcraft universe being as big as it is gives us lots of opportunity to expand it even further. We're definitely looking to do that down the road.
Eurogamer: Is there a time when we could see World of Warcraft expanding outside the PC - on, say, Xbox 360?
Shane Dabiri: It's definitely something that we've discussed, but it's not something we're planning on doing at this point.
Eurogamer: With regard to hitting the five million subscriber mark - why do you think World of Warcraft is so popular?
Shane Dabiri: It's easy to learn and difficult to master. Most Blizzard games follow that mantra; everything from the user interface to getting into the game is very intuitive. I think before World of Warcraft the MMO market was very niche and there were lots of hardcore gamers - the players were of a much different variety. But now I think we've grown out of that and we're bringing in the Moms and Pops, and the families, and more of the female gamers, and it's much more compatible with a wider range of players.
Eurogamer: So the MMO market isn't so niche now, and it's expanding all the time. How do you plan to keep up with your rivals?
Shane Dabiri: We actually think that it's good to have a little competition out there. We're all gamers at Blizzard, and we like to play all different types of game. We imagine that our players also like to do so, so there's probably room for more than just World of Warcraft.
Eurogamer: Have you played Dungeons & Dragons Online? Some beta testers are saying it's looking very similar to WOW...
Shane Dabiri: Some of our developers have played in the beta. I think it's flattering to see developers looking at something that works and trying to evolve their products too. I don't think that it's anything that we definitely feel like we're threatened by necessarily; we welcome the competition.
Eurogamer: What about Guild Wars, which doesn't charge a monthly subscription fee? How can you justify making WOW players pay £8.99 a month when other companies are offering MMOs that are free to play?
Shane Dabiri: I think Guild Wars is a much different type of game to World of Warcraft. The type of service that we provide, the continuous content updates that we provide, we also provide 24-7 customer service... There's definitely a different level of content provided for our game.
I think the players that are really into World of Warcraft can see the value that that brings and are willing to pay for it. A game like Guild Wars definitely has its place as well; I think there's a place for both types of games.
Eurogamer: And finally, what would you say to European WOW players who are fed up with the login issues? Will things definitely get better?
Shane Dabiri: Please do let them know things are getting better. Our goal is not resting on our laurels; our goal is to constantly improve our service and better ourselves.