Blockbuster movie, book, and record releases tend to get enormous amounts of mainstream publicity. Blockbuster video and computer games tend not to. How many articles or critical assessments have you read, for example, concerning WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos?
Probably none. But WarCraft III, while not the best-known computer game, is not exactly an obscure niche product. According to the company that makes it— Blizzard Entertainment, a division of Vivendi Universal—WarCraft III has sold more than 1 million copies, at $60 a pop, since it was released last month. (As one point of comparison, Moby's incredibly hyped 18 has not yet sold that many copies.) For the week ending July 13, it was the top-selling computer game in the United States—and indeed the top-selling computer software—according to NPD Techworld.
The fourth quarter is really the high season for computer games, when up to half of annual sales are recorded. But a few blockbusters roll out in the summer months, too, to avoid the crowd. (The other widely anticipated summer release this year is Neverwinter Nights, which is also selling briskly.) Blizzard says advance orders for WCIII from retail outlets totaled more than 4.4 million. So, what exactly is WarCraft III, and why is it so popular?
We've already mentioned one factor: Just as movie studios plan releases with a careful eye to what they'll be competing against, WarCraft has made its debut at a time when it's almost the only new game in town. A second movielike factor is suggested by the title—it's a sequel. The original WarCraft appeared in 1994, establishing what has since become a franchise.
Unlike movies, though, games rely on marketing campaigns that, while aggressive and expensive, don't involve buying wildly expensive air time during Friends. Instead, the promotions are more targeted. Advance sneak peeks are dribbled out to the gaming press to stoke interest, then there are ads on sites like GameSpot and in magazines like PC Gamer. This makes sense because the market for a title like WarCraft is overwhelmingly made up of young males who are steeped in a world of gaming and souped-up PCs. And after playing WarCraft III, they're hard-wired to multitask, it's safe to assume. The games that get the most media attention, especially post-Columbine, are "first-person shooters" like Doom and Quake, which are basically motor-skills tests revolving around the simple task of blowing away as many characters as possible. Then there are less frantic and more cerebral offerings like The Sims, now said to be the biggest-selling PC game of all time, supposedly because its more realistic plot line attracts a larger-than-normal percentage of female players. WarCraft is a hybrid—what's called a "real-time strategy" game.
For instance, in the "campaign" that I've been playing as part of my, uh, research, I control a Nordic-looking "hero" named Arthas, but I also control a handful of footmen and peasants. I have to organize the latter ("Select a peasant," the narrator prodded me) to mine gold and make various buildings, which in turn enables me to assemble a bigger gang. Meanwhile I'm confronted with various "quests," such as killing an Orc named Blademaster, whose minions keep raiding my camp. This means I have to search for the villain, supervise construction, and be director of whoop-ass, all at the same time. I guess this sort of thing is second nature to game veterans, but it gave me a headache. At one point I thought we'd found Blademaster's stronghold, but we kept getting overpowered. Finally I took a sort of Powell Doctrine approach and built up enormous troop strength, storming the enemy village in a mismatch that was almost embarrassing, killing everyone and belatedly realizing that the guy we were looking for was somewhere else. (I declared victory and went home.)
Anyway, all this only hints at the game's complexity—and at its overwhelming dorkiness. The challenge of keeping track of so many moving parts is a lot of fun. Reading the endless booklet and its chapters on "The Alliance of Lordaeron," memorizing the magic powers of Archmages, and sorting out the differences between the Undead Scourge, the Night Elves, and the Orcish Horde is less fun. (I did my time as an Orc aficionado—a dorc?—in the long-ago days of Dungeons & Dragons, to which WarCraft owes a thing or two.)
A final point about the growing popularity of games in general: the graphics. Presumably we all know that video games look better and better, but it's still surprising to see how far things have come. (Here are a series of screenshots and clips from the game). The WarCraft world is sprawling; you can smoothly move the game "camera" from overhead shots to a ground-level view, and some of the "cut scenes" (like little movie trailers between game segments) are high-quality digital animations. But maybe the most important way that technology has affected games—and this is not new, but it's still important—is the ease with which you can play against other gamers through a network over the Internet. People who are serious about this stuff (and who would laugh at my inept performance on even the easiest skill setting) quickly learn to beat the game and stay interested by battling live opponents and by using various tools to build whole new realms to play in.
All of which helps explain how it is that computer games generally, and breakout hits like WarCraft in particular, can rack up such major numbers, whether the wider culture is paying attention or not. The result is something that almost sounds weirder than the story of Lordaeron—a niche blockbuster.
Thanks to Steve Koenig, software analyst at NPD Techworld.