World of Warcraft: Up Close With the Lich King

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The World of Warcraft is getting bigger. The juggernaut of massively multiplayer online games launched its second full expansion, The Wrath of the Lich King, on Thursday. Fans of the iconic World of Warcraft can look forward to their expansive community getting even larger with more quests, more areas to explore, new achievements, and the ability to advance to level 80, among other changes. I sat down with Alex Afrasiabi, the lead world designer for Wrath of the Lich King, to discuss Death Knights, Northrend, and the future of the WoW universe.

In the latest expansion, players can look forward to exploring the frozen wastes of Northrend in 10 new zones, some cold as the Lich King's throne and others thawed but just as full of danger. One particular area of interest is Wintergrasp, a non-instanced completely player-versus-player area for high-level players. Players will also have the ability to learn a new profession (Inscription) and reach level 80 in the game--a first in the WoW universe.

Many dedicated fans of the series have expressed an earnest hope that they'd be finally able to battle Arthas, the Lich King. Afrasiabi confirmed that players will have the opportunity to interact with the Lich King throughout their adventures in the Northrend area and future updates will likely satisfy players' thirst for battle with the iconic villain.

One of the most anticipated new features of the Wrath of the Lich King is the introduction of the Hero class, and its first incarnation, the Death Knight. Players who have a level 55 character or higher can create a new level 55 Death Knight of any race. The playing experience is very different, starting with its initial alliance with the Lich King. The Death Knight then gains talent points through quests and essentially grows and develops in its own zone. After honing its skills, the Death Knight will then join the ranks of the Alliance or the Horde and fill either the DPS or tank role in groups.

I was curious how the developers could justify including Death Knights, seemingly Horde-exclusive entities, as playable for Alliance members as well. Afrasiabi explained that in the course of the Death Knight's development, some Death Knights will break from the control of the Lich King and choose to fight their former masters. Think Darth Vader killing the Emperor.

The Lich King is just one of hundreds of characters in the WoW universe that the developers have to keep track of. While juggling all of these stories and characters, Afrasiabi explains that, "You have to keep context... You can't create an instant hero; you have to build them up over time." The cast keeps changing, with old characters being killed off and new ones being built up constantly.

"We're building up heroes as fast as we're taking them down," Afrasiabi explained.

Put A Tiger in Your Tank: An Alliance player in epic gear squares off against a forest creature in the Grizzly Hills of Northrend.

With 11 million users and an international following, the developers aren't content with resting on their laurels. "We're always looking forward," said Afrasiabi, who doesn't think Lich King will be the last expansion. He also believes that this is the best time to join the WoW universe.

The previous editions "hadn't quite found the formula," he said. The first full World of Warcraft expansion, The Burning Crusade, "was a nice upgrade. It incorporated more of the storyline elements that were the driving force of the series." But there is even more this time around. WoW is more accessible to new players than it was when initially launched, and many game elements have evolved to make the experience more cohesive. In addition to new content, the developers have responded to player feedback and revamped old worlds as well.

To Alex Afrasiabi, working on The Wrath of the Lich King has been a true work of passion. Like the fans of the series, he shares in the enthusiasm for the enterprise and looks forward to seeing it progress. He hopes that when people play the new game, in addition to enjoying all the new content, they can step back and appreciate how beautiful the game truly is, not just from a gamer's standpoint, but from an artistic standpoint as well.

World of Warcraft: The Wrath of the Lich King costs $40 for the regular version and $70 for a Collector's Edition.

This story, "World of Warcraft: Up Close With the Lich King" was originally published by Macworld.

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