The Flame Game

That Burning Crusade launch in full.

Last night, HMV Oxford Street found itself surrounded by warlocks and orcs, warriors and night elves, paladins and mages and priests.

Well, in actual fact, it was surrounded by lots of 18 - 24 year old men in casual sportswear and a few dozen people who'd bought some face paints and tried experimenting with tin foil and old curtains. There were also some women and old people, so beloved these days of cash hungry games companies and tabloid journalists who have run out of ideas for stories about Manhunt.

The point is, there were an awful lot of people. Around 1500, according to HMV games boss Tim Ellis, which is four times the number of attendees they were expecting for the launch of World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade.

And HMV weren't the only ones to get a bit of a shock. Speaking on stage in the moments before TBC officially went on sale, Blizzard bigwig Itzik Ben Bassat picked a peck of pickled pepper - sorry, 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 extra-excitable WOW fan shouted the reply, "You can touch me any time."

Waiting game

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First in line to pick up his signed copy of TBC was 22 year-old Raleigh, a physics student from Tunbridge Wells in casual sportswear. He'd turned up at 5.30am that morning, and by 8am he'd been joined by a few more eager WOW players. But they left after being handed wristbands by HMV staff with a gentle "Move along, there's nothing to see here, come back in 12 hours or so and sorry you've had to carry those camping chairs on the tube for no reason."

Naturally, Raleigh returned that evening and took his rightful place at the head of the queue. For his efforts, he was awarded not only with a free copy of the expansion pack but also the original WOW collector's edition, the trading card game and no less than three t-shirts. He also got a mouse mat and a collectable action figure, which to be honest he looked less than impressed with.

But it was well worth the wait, according to Raleigh: "It's just great to experience the atmosphere, meet new people and make new friends."

Unkind people might say that Raleigh could do with making a few more new friends, on account of him having two level 60 WOW 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."

Those are 24-hour days - so, assuming Raleigh stopped playing with the hunter after eight days, that's 2760 hours in total. Which is equivalent to more than an entire year's worth working weeks. With no holidays or fag breaks.

But those unkind people would be missing the point - that WOW is a very social game. Not just because you get to befriend people from all over Europe (not all of whom are 14 year-old Norwegians who want to know if you're really a girl and if so whether you like sex), but because you can play with friends from the real world.

Chain reaction

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That's certainly the case for John, a 29 year-old mechanic from Slough, who turned up for the TBC launch in full chain mail. "I just like the environment, making new friends, meeting people really," he said.

"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." So when he's not beating panels, he likes to relax by punching rats? "Yeah."

But for other WOW players, such as 26 year-old Dave from Rochester, the social aspect is not the main attraction.

"It's the fact that there's always another goal to progress towards - just the experience of defeating new encounters, new bosses, new dungeons," he said.

"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." Like kill new things, presumably.

Dave was another attendee 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."

Age concern

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But not everyone got out the fancy dress - unless there's a WOW class we haven't heard of that's modelled on 52 year-old consultants 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," revealed David, a 52 year-old consultant from Biggleswade.

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." One love, etc.

Also in the queue was Laura, a 39 year-old data manager for a games company (she wouldn't tell us which one, probably because we'd only go and put it on the Internet). She'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."

Cash converters

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Indeed, as as recently announced by Blizzard, there are now 8 million people who are willing to pay for it - and that includes 1.5 million European gamers. According to Ben Bassat, top industry insiders once warned Blizzard that WOW would never work in Europe, because none of us like online gaming and none of us would be prepared to cough up 8.99 a month for the privilege. Hahahaha.

"We discovered that there is a huge online gaming market in Europe, and it was an opportunity waiting for us," Ben Bassat confirmed. Hence the establishment of Blizzard Europe, which now employs around 700 people, 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 standing 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."

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, and dozens of whom were prepared to risk getting the paint happy-slapped off their faces on the night bus home.

"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. To the tune of 8.99 times 1.5 million per month, it seems.

You can read our first impressions of The Burning Crusade here. Coming soon - an exclusive Eurogamer TV interview and footage of the launch event. We'll also be interviewing Ben Bassat on top business website GamesIndustry.biz, which by the way is chock full of top business information for top business people about the top business of games.

In the meantime, if you've been playing The Burning Crusade since 12.01am and have already named your baby pet murloc and reached level 70 and obtained nine flying mounts - don't write in.

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