As the so-called real world crumbles around us, things have been looking up in Azeroth. Jaina Proudmoor and the battered survivors of the Alliance against the Horde had barely established a tenuous foothold in south Kalimdor when their colony was threatened by Jaina's dad, the Mad Admiral, determined to wipe out her new allies, the Orcs. After much soul-searching, Jaina decided her honor counted for more than filial affection, so she helped the armies of Thrall whup the attacking fleet and earn free passage back home to Theramore.
This is old news, of course, if you spend much time in Azeroth yourself. At last count, some scores of millions of people worldwide do: 10 hours–plus a week on average. But if you are one of the dwindling number who've tried to ignore the growing clamor about "massively multiplayer online role-playing games," hoping the whole thing would just go away, I have bad news for you. MMORPGamers used to be a little shy about disclosing their addiction, but now it's getting so they won't shut up about it. If you read this newspaper, odds are better than even that someone you know, work with, or ride the bus with routinely spends hours alone in the dark, exploring an alien world, scheming, fighting, even sometimes killing others of your kind so that a self-invented avatar may survive. And they're paying a handsome monthly fee for the privilege.
If you're thinking of dipping a toe in the water yourself, or considering making a gift of virtual-world distraction for someone else, MMORPGs make for the lowest-pressure approach to the field available. Unlike the console-based games, the initial cost of signing on is modest ($50 vs. $250, say), and you're not committing yourself or your giftee to a proprietary system whose owners will decide what worlds you can access.
The bulletin opening this article comes from World of Warcraft, which, with 4.5 million subscribers, is currently the planet's hottest spot for a bit of virtual hack 'n' slash, threatening to lure players away from the most popular but fading "worlds" of Ultima Online and EverQuest. In the Warcraft world, a new player can create a serviceable avatar and start exploring in one session; the older leaders haven't quite kept up in user-friendliness, depending on sheer numbers of subscribers to keep players loyal.
The total number of players is crucial to the success of a game. It just isn't much fun poking around a landscape, however romantically rendered, if most of the "people" you meet are obvious automata, just there for atmosphere or to yield the occasional bit of information. Things get interesting when that gorgeous babe with the sapphire trident has a game plan of her own, even if "she" is actually a pimply software engineer in Pyongyang.
All three of the games mentioned so far evolved from the same psychic mulch: the swords-and-sorcery multiverse created by Edgar Rice Burroughs a century ago in his John Carter of Mars tales. Other popular "skins" stretched over the same basic good-vs.-evil worldview are Star Wars Galaxies, the umpteenth recycling of George Lucas' space-based pulp epic, and City of Heroes, in which comic-book superheroes and supervillains go interminably at it. P.S. You can be a villain yourself if your tastes lie that way.
Sui generic, though basically superheroes/ supervillians, is the ludicrously mistitled Final Fantasy, now in its 11th iteration and still battling on. MMORPGs have to expand to survive. No matter how well the game designers booby-trap their terrain with treasures and monsters, sooner or later a determined player will exhaust their charms and look for new worlds to conquer, and if you don't provide them, some other designer will. That's why World of Warcraft recently breathlessly announced that "three brand new realms . . . will be available to newcomers beginning their journey in Azeroth for the first time, and players who wish to start anew on a fresh new realm. Here is an opportunity for players to pioneer their way into untrodden territory, to shape the balance of power between the Horde and the Alliance, to make their mark on Azeroth!"
If you're not pioneer material, you still can visit such places as "the Burning Steppes, where Grom Hellscream fell in battle against the demon lord Mannoroth, and Ironforge, where the dwarves make their home below the mountain." If that still sounds a little too strenuous, you might consider Toontown, Disney's popular G-rated MMORPG for toddlers, subteens, and the faint of heart. A colleague's 11-year-old son speaks highly of Toontown. But you probably won't want to tell your seatmate on the bus about your adventures there.
What they do, what they require, what they cost. By Christina Twu.
World of Warcraft (www.worldofwarcraft.com) The current category killer, adding new realms to conquer, and new character types to fight (or be), and buffing ever brighter its dramatic and soulful artwork. Beginners will find the elaborate back story on the WoW Web site a big help in making sense of the environment and events.You can sample the game's "world" as a trial user before buying a subscription.
Platform: PC and Mac.
Cost: Up-front software costs $39.95; subscriptions run $14.95 a month.
Ultima Online (www.uo.com) celebrates its eighth anniversary with The Eighth Age, which includes an expansion of specialty codes that enable higher regeneration, new armor, ammo, music, spell book, and animals. Each acquired code item represents a year and a theme. Example: Helm (armor) represents their debut year from 1997 to 1998 with Helm of Spirit–themed accessories. The $70 package also includes a free 45-day trial and free advanced character, shard transfer, and sixth character slot codes. Limited time offer: comes with blue Soulstone, a manual with an additional upgrade code for advanced users.
Cost: GoGamer.com charges $18.90. A prepaid, 90-day subscription is $41.99.
EverQuest (eqvault.ign.com): Although many gamers proclaim the death of old-school EverQuest, the new EverQuest II might appeal to the beginner generation, keeping it simple to master with only four characters. The alternative for older gamers? The second edition of EverQuest Online Adventures: Frontiers is PlayStation2-compatible and features more dangerous locales and access to uncharted territories.
Platform: Windows for Trial of the Isle, PlayStation2 computer entertainment system, which starts at $149.99.
Cost: Free vault membership. Sony prices Online Adventures at $29.99. General retail for EverQuest II is $50, but you need hundreds of dollars worth of weapons and armor to even play this. Also a $14.99 monthly membership fee.
Star Wars Galaxies (allakhazam.com): Star Wars Galaxies: Trials of Obi-Wan, co-released by Sony Online and LucasArts, is featured on IGN Insiders as the third expansion to the Galaxies game. Designed for advanced players, it includes 50 high-level missions and explorations, including the ability to find a fiery red crystal, only available on a volcanic planet, which enables creation of a light saber. Many quests revolve around the HK-47 (from Knights of the Old Republic).
Cost: $29.99 via digital download at www.starwargalasxies.com. Buy an old gamer's account (already advanced status in the game), ranging from $200 to thousands based on a gamer's status.
Toontown (play.toontown.com): Free three-day trial with downloadable software. Appropriate for youngsters. After creating a "toon" character, you must defeat your only enemies, robots called Cogs. Starter kit includes CD-ROM, game card, and manual.
Cost: $9.94 on eBay
Dark Age of Camelot (www.darkageofcamelot.com): Dark Age of Camelot, Epic Edition includes original Dark Age of Camelot starter game, as well as all the expansions available to date.
Cost: $39.99 on their Web site.
City of Heroes (www.cityofheroes.com): Or conversely, City of Villians, the sequel to City of Heroes. The standard edition includes heists, abductions, and infiltrations. Players who choose to be villains can use base raids to create super groups to fight the heroes. There was high consumer demand to be the bad guy. Existing City of Heroes members can play the first edition as well as the new one under a single subscription.
Cost: $49.99, with $14.99 monthly subscription after the first month.
Legend of Mir (www.legendofmir.net): Easily downloadable from a game client page, the legend continues with Legend of Mir II: The Three Heroes, a game of wizardry and mystical powers and an opportunity to fine-tune warrior skills.
Cost: Free download; monthly subscription costs $8.70. Requires a 56K modem.
Final Fantasy (www.playonline.com/ff11us/index.shtml): In Final Fantasy XI: Chains of Promathia, create your face, body, gender, status, and job, then change your job at any time (monks have black magic, warriors have white).
Cost: $29.99. Expansion pack: $19.99 (limited time). After the free first month, subscription is $12.95 a month and an additional $1 for each new character.