The WoW Movie

I have finally gotten around to the inevitable World of Warcraft movie blog post. I know it comes a couple weeks too late (the film was released on 30 May in the UK after all), but a late review seems fitting given the film itself is 10 years too late. Had the film come out in 2006, perhaps coinciding with The Burning Crusade expansion release, it would likely have had a much bigger and more positive response and I probably would have blogged about it sooner. Blogs existed back then, right? šŸ˜‰

As it is, the film has been tanking the aggro of plenty of negative reviews (27% on RottenTomatoes, FYI). In addition to proclaiming it ‘unwatchable’, Variety magazine wrote, “It shouldnā€™t take a mage to foresee that this pricey and preposterous adaptation of an online gaming phenomenon was preordained for artistic mediocrity.” Not to be pedantic, but mages can’t predict the future in Warcraft lore- that’s more of a shammy thing. Accuracy of gameĀ references aside, the primary critiques seem to be that 1) the film takes itself too seriously, and 2) it is inaccessible to non-players.Ā In my opinion, and I am not a scholar of film by any means, I completely agree with the first critique and completely disagree with the second.

Let’s start with the first. The film was far too serious to be associated with the Warcraft brand. Sure the game’s lore often deals with serious themes and the Warcraft novels, which provide much more background than the game series by the way, question grave themes like racism, genocide, faith, and tradition, the games themselves do not feel somber. Blizzard’s brand has always been the lighter side of fantasy, both figuratively and literally.

When World of Warcraft launched in 2004, its aesthetics were a departure from the faux-realistic art style of Dark Age of Camelot and the high fantasy trappings of Everquest 2.Ā Visually, it was a departure from the drab greens and browns of even its own Warcraft RTS series (although Reign of Chaos comes close to sharing WoW’s bright blues and reds). WoW allowed you to play gnomes with tufts of cotton-candy coloured hair, dance on mailboxes, and annoy fellow players with in-game items like the toy train that made everyone in the vicinity /train. Scattered among life-or-death battles in Azeroth are exclamations of “Me not that kind of orc!” or “You no take candle!” The fact characters could /silly is a testament to the cheerfulĀ feeling and form of WoW that made it so distinctive from other fantasy RPGs.

It therefore comes as a total shock that, aside from a few well-placed Easter eggs, the film feels humourless. This is reflected in all the reviews calling it boring. I won’t bother to cite them all here, just look on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is drab and lacks the bright visual stimulation of its MMO counterpart. It tries for gritty and grown up without realising that viewers have Game of Thrones for that. A huge opportunity was missed to bring the cheeky and cheerful charm of the game to the silver screen.

Now that I’ve been somewhat agreeable, let me disagree with the second critique that the film left non-players in the dust. To me, albeit I’ve been a WoW player since 2004 and a roleplayer at that, the film was no more ‘inaccessible’ to non-players than the Game of Thrones TV show is to non-book readers. Yes, you have to pay attention. Yes, the names are tricky to say. Yes, you might get a sense that not all threads are being tied up for you like the typical Hollywood blockbuster. Its a fantasy film based on a fantasy world which has over 35 novels written about it, its going to have a lot going on and a lot of characters moving relatively quickly.

I actually think the film was too watered down for non-player audiences.Ā The few memorable highlights for me were when we caught a glimpse of a murloc, when a sheep spell was used, and when a cork with iconic blue and red feathers was seen bobbing in a river. The film could’ve gone further with the in-jokes and game references. I would have liked to see a mage get scared and spam arcane blast until they OOM’d, or I would have died laughing if Lothar had asked Medivh to conjure refreshments after he climbed the stairs of Karazhan. Now I’m not saying that a Warcraft film should go full Barrens chat, but a few nods to the game’s humour would go a long way.

The ultimate verdict? Although the film misses good opportunities for fan service and humour, it is entertaining enough to merit the ticket price.

Some (brief) thoughts on nostalgia, WoW, and marketing

Hellooooooooooooooooo bloggy universe! It has been a while since I last posted something. Rather than give you a break down of how my autumn has been, I’d rather just jump straight into what’s on my mind.

This week I am lecturing on game economies and spending a little bit of time talking about the prevalent business models found within the gaming industry. As I was preparing my lecture slides, I got the following email:

wowThis email gave me pause, and not just because I am a recovering WoW addict.

It has been fairly well established (see Castronova 2005) that subscription-based games rely on a community base to keep their games profitable. These games often have open ‘beta tests’ aka free-trial periods designed to establish an active player base before the game launches. Once the game launches, this player base will convince lukewarm folks to play the game not only because the virtual world is already bustling with activity, but also because of peer pressure, friendship groups, etc.

The creation aspect of the subscription model seems to be well understood and well mapped out. What is less understood, at least from my perspective, is how a 10 year old game like World of Warcraft is still profitable. This email gave me my answer: kick-ass marketing.

The language of the email mentions both past and future in a coherent narrative. “The time has come to forge your future from the iron of the past”. It calls to mind the echoing clang of metal-on-metal in past dungeon runs, raid parties, and PvP skirmishes; it invites reflection on all those happy memories you made all those years ago.

Don’t you remember how much fun you had bullshiting in guildchat as you farmed Twilight Jasmine and Stormvine?

Remember that time you and your friends spent hours killing and re-killing Lord Aurius Rivendare in the hopes he’d drop Deathcharger’s Reins?

Remember Kara? (Yeah, everyone loved Karazhan.)

Well, the advert seems to say, you can relive those past memories and you can even make some new ones! All you gotta do is re-subscribe!

And I did… I was 2 years sober. šŸ˜¦ šŸ˜¦

I signed in with trepidation- I was afraid too much had changed in Azeroth since I left. I mean, what if the pandas ruined the place?

But they hadn’t. When I logged in, I saw the trusty ol’ dark portal was back from vanilla and The Burning Crusade to greet me. Ogrimmar looked the same, and.. hey! Piligrim’s Bounty holiday event is happening! I wonder what new pets and mounts have been added? I wonder how much grinding and errand-running I will need to do to get all the achievements? Oh, none. It is the same world event with the same achievements and awards since before I left. I guess I don’t need to play catchup like I thought I did. Even the holiday outfits are the same. This feels… comforting.

My tauren way back in 2011.
My tauren now in 2014.

Part of me wanted to think I was above advertising and marketing (third person effect, anyone?), but I’m not. I bought into Warlords of Draenor hook, line and sinker. (And yes, I am enjoying fishing in the game, too).

I guess I have to give credit where credit is due… Blizzard’s marketing team has done well for themselves, and not just because they got me to play again, but because they have managed to induce feelings of nostalgia for a brand in less than 10 years. For some companies, that takes a lifetime. For some, it never happens at all. For me, it happened all too easily.

Until next time,