For World of Warcraft players who over the years have grown accustomed to seeing busy in-world auction houses, the last few weeks may have seemed odd.
Normally bustling with players eager to buy or sell weapons, clothing, armor, or other goods, business at the auction houses has recently slowed to a crawl. But it's not because of the global economic crisis.
Rather, say WoW aficionados, players have been hoarding their gold in anticipation of the release Thursday of the game's latest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, and holding off on buying items that would soon be obsolete.
This is just one example of players of the hugely popular massively multiplayer online game behaving differently as Lich King's release approaches.
The game will go on sale nationwide after midnight (12 a.m.) Thursday, and retail stores expect lines across the country.
And while not all 11 million WoW players plan to upgrade to the new $40 expansion, it seems that enough will do so that life in The Burning Crusade, the first expansion, which came out in January, 2007, will likely resemble the empty streets of an urban downtown in the middle of the night.
According to Colin Sebastian, a senior vice president of equity research at Lazard Captial Markets, Lich King is likely to sell 4 million copies in the first quarter after its release. That means, Sebastian said, that WoW's publisher, Blizzard Entertainment, is looking at potentially $120 million in revenue for the quarter.
And while it is too early to tell whether those predictions will prove accurate, it's almost certain that the release of Lich King will end up being one of the biggest days in video game history.
"We would assume that the majority of those who migrated to Burning Crusade will also move to Lich King," said Sebastian. "Wrath of the Lich King should at least match what Burning Crusade moved."
If so, Blizzard is looking at a great Thursday, as Burning Crusade sold 2.4 million units in its first 24 hours, according to a press release Blizzard released in early 2007.
In order to advance to Lich King, WoW players will have to have already upgraded to Burning Crusade. And while not every player has upgraded, many millions have.
One major reason for players to make the move is that Lich King will have a new top level of 80. Burning Crusade topped out at 70, while the original game had a cap of 60.
In addition, Lich King will offer the first WoW hero class, the necromantic death knight; will have an achievement system that offers more than 700 goals and subsequent rewards; and will be played on a new continent, called Northrend, "the icy domain of the Lich King."
Blizzard recently unveiled the achievement system, however, and that, in conjunction with the forthcoming release of Lich King, has led to one of the most visceral behavioral changes in advance of the expansion.
According to multiple WoW users, many players have been feverishly trying to complete as many of the achievements in advance of Lich King's release as possible.
"Everyone is running old content just to get the achievements for it," said Erik Johnson, a longtime WoW player who plans on buying the expansion at midnight Thursday. "We ran a raid through Blackwing Lair, which was once the toughest part of the (original level) 60 endgame, just for the sport--and to get everyone their achievements. Right now it's time for the obsessive types to do all their achievement runs, because everything else is on hold."
Johnson explained that Blizzard has created achievements for things like completing dungeons and killing the last bosses in each dungeon, for exploring all areas of the game's map, for completing quests, and even for doing things like cooking and fishing that players often did in their downtime.
"Level 70 (players) were chain-running low-level dungeons to get every one," said Johnson, referring to players who were completing easy dungeons in order to get the achievements.
Other players agreed, explaining that many people are trying to finish off as many lower-level instances, or challenges, as possible before the level 71 through 80 areas open up in Lich King.
"Achievements are a big deal," said Mike Schramm, an editor of the popular blog, WoW Insider. "So most people are just busy trying to catch up on those--doing the same old stuff, but getting achievement credit for it. Once the expansion drops, we'll all be up in Northrend, and no one will be going to the old (Burning Crusade) instances. So everyone is trying to run the BC instances as much as possible...to finish them up before the crowd moves on. When everyone's at level 80 and you need to run a level 70 instance, you'll be out of luck."
Schramm also explained why the auction houses in the existing game have come to resemble ghost towns.
"Most of the gear and crafted stuff in the game is about to become useless," he said, "so no one is really buying anything. Everyone's saving their (in-game) money for what's coming in the expansion...(That) means that if you have a lot of items that you're trying to sell, you won't really find too many buyers for them. Crafted items, especially--usually people are trying to gear up their characters with stuff from the auction houses. But (on Thursday) we'll all have access to brand-new gear, so none of that older stuff is selling."
For Schramm, the upcoming release of Lich King has been a boon, and not just because he's excited to play through all the new content.
Rather, as one of the editors of WoW Insider, which is part of AOL's Weblogs network, he's seen traffic skyrocket as the expansion's release has approached.
He explained that in the weeks following Blizzard's annual fan fest, BlizzCon, which took place in mid-October in Anaheim, Calif., WoW Insider has become the third most popular blog in the network, after Engadget and Autoblog and surpassing the network's main games blog, Joystiq.
And while much of that growth has been because of Lich King excitement, Schramm expects many of his new readers to stick around even after the expansion's release.
One concern he has about the release, however, is whether Blizzard will be able to keep its WoW servers up and running in the face of millions of players logging on simultaneously.
That was a problem the company had with the Burning Crusade release, and Schramm is hopeful Blizzard learned a lesson from last time.
But his real question about the release is just how long will it take someone to get all the way to level 80.
"If (Blizzard handles the server infrastructure) right, we'll see a level 80 player this weekend," Schramm said. "Actually we'll probably see a level 80 player this weekend anyway, but that's just because people are nuts."
He said average players will take a few weeks to a month to reach the new top level, and lots of players will take even longer than that.
"But the big raiding guilds will do it within a week or so," Schramm said, "and someone nuts will do it in about 30 hours. Last time around, it took a guy 28 hours."