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World of Filmcraft: Why a MMORPG Could be the First Successful Video Game-Turned-Movie

headshot(4)Ever since Ain’t It Cool broke the story that geek God Sam Raimi will bring online-gaming juggernaut World of Warcraft to the big screen, the blogosphere has been abuzz with mixed reactions to the latest in a long line of questionable video-game-to-big-screen adaptations.

“I can see the reviews now – WOW, this movie sucks”, said AICN commenter “lockesbrokenleg.”

“Will this be the first good movie based upon a videogame? I hope so, but I don’t think so,” said commenter Hodja over at Mashable.

Even die-hard WoW fans are doubtful: “I’m very scared. This could either be really good, or really bad,” said Haerie, a level 80 Blood Elf warlock, on game manufacturer Blizzard’s confirmation of the Raimi pick.

But as a die-hard gamer myself (full disclaimer: Blizzard has owned my Warcraft-loving soul for the past two years), I have to say I don’t share their doubts. Unlike the static worlds of Mario, Street Fighter, Max Payne, and Resident Evil – which all proved to be lackluster box office adaptations – Warcraft is a dynamic, constantly-changing, and interactive social media world. There are many reasons why Blizzard can expect to break the video-game to film mold:

11.5 million fans can’t be wrong.

That’s how many Warcraft subscribers Blizzard boasts – and with the game a relatively cheap (15 dollars a month!) form of entertainment, numbers will undoubtedly rise a la Netflix’ recent recession-era success. Far from dying out like some other MMORPGs (“Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game”), Blizzard’s latest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, was an unquestionable success, shattering previous sales records. Warcraft is the world’s most successful MMORPG – and it’s not going anywhere.

As MTV News points out, if eight million of those fans turn out to see Warcraft on opening weekend, that’s 80 million dollars in Blizzard’s pocket – nothing to sneeze at, especially if the gaming company keeps Sam Raimi’s budget within a mid-range $100 million mark. (NB: This doesn’t include gaming nerds who will undoubtedly see it more than once.)

These ain’t no fair-weather fans.

Lest you doubt – the gamers will show up. I’d bet a year-long subscription on it. Unlike Mario, Street Fighter, Resident Evil, or even the wildly popular Final Fantasy (a decent film adaptation, natch), which you can play, conquer, and then put down and forget all about, World of Warcraft is an immersive, addictive world. Creating a decent level 80 character can easily take up to two hundred hours of dedicated gameplay.

The previous games-to-movies revolved around games with negligible replay value. In Warcraft, an online social media world as much as a game, players usually log in daily, if even to say a quick “Hello” to their guildmates and run “dailies” (repeatable quests that award gold and phat lewt.) I know people who have met their significant others while questing in Azeroth – who have had weddings in-game – and long-distance BFFs who keep in touch via dungeon runs. Guilds themselves usually require a commitment of ten-hours a week – and you’re not much of a player unless you’ve got a Ventrilo account in a top-ranked guild for your server.

In other words, Blizzard has successfully inculcated a heavy emotional investment in the majority of their players – an investment that I bet will easily translate into plunking down 10 bucks on opening night for two hours of movie magic.

As a dynamic, interactive world, the potential for storylines is endless.

Mario‘s plot can be explained in two seconds: plumbers chasing princesses. Street Fighter has less a “plot” than a concept: “people kicking the sh*t out of each other.” Resident Evil has some lore, but the story ends when the game does. The Lara Croft: Tomb Raider series did well at the box office, but I surmise that success is more about Angelina Jolie’s cleavage than a well-crafted plot.

Yet with a number of role-playing servers, endless potential for user-created machinima, a successful book series, three previous record-breaking games – and the famous Leeroy Jenkins (natch), Warcraft is less of a simple story than a continual conversation between gamer and game designer. Tongue-in-cheek Blizzard developers listen to the players at the yearly well-attended BlizzCon – and incorporate a pantheon of pop-culture references (Paris Hilton, anyone?) into the game. Wow.com, an unofficial site for Warcraft news, features five columns alone based on the game’s story and the more detailed distinctions of Horde versus Alliance. User-created content, great writers, and an always-evolving story translate into a treasure trove for director Raimi’s creative talent.

And content is constantly changing. Just when you think you’ve mastered the finer points of Naxxramas or exhausted the spec potential for a troll frost mage, the developers at Blizzard add another patch introducing a wrinkle into the storyline – or an expansion pack (their current batting average is one per year). Just like that, the game’s content seems new again. If Raimi can translate even an iota of that magic to the big screen, Blizzard will be golden.

But there’s one caveat…

This isn’t to say that all of this social media goodness won’t create a problem for Raimi: an embarrassment of riches. Unlike anything Internet-based, films are, by nature, passive and un-interactive affairs, to be absorbed rather than interacted with. To rise to the challenge of translating a dynamic world into a more passive medium – film – both Blizzard and Raimi can’t just sit back and wait for the fans to come. They’ll have to concoct a creative, humorous plot that still holds true to Warcraft lore. They’ll have to cater to the die-hard and the reluctant film-going girlfriend alike. And they’ll have hell to pay if they don’t meet fan expectations.

Raimi and Co. have their work cut out for them. But I think the uber-talented Raimi is up for the challenge. I’d be willing to bet my Sword of 1000 Truths on it. Or my blood elf hunter’s Boomstick.

Related: World of World of Warcraft [Onion News Network]

Jessica Gold Haralson is a writer and a gamer who writes about various topics, including entertainment, pop culture, and new media. She probably spends more time than is necessary playing World of Warcraft.

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