I spent my Sunday afternoon this past weekend doing two things simultaneously: waiting in a virtual line with 5,000 other people to play World of Warcraft, and spending time with my fiancé and our 15-month-old child. At the intersection between these two activities, something strange occurred to me: I've been playing World of Warcraft on and off longer than I've known the mother of my son.
As a lifelong gamer, it's no surprise and not a big deal that certain games really matter to me. There are games that have completely changed the course of my life, like Final Fantasy 6, and others that I love enough to return to again and again, like Half-Life 2. But I've never experienced another game being such a permanent fixture in my life as World of Warcraft has become.
Ten years ago, I had just started college. I had never been paid for writing about games and honestly didn't know if I ever would be. I suffered from a yet-undiagnosed anxiety disorder. I was entering adulthood, but I was, for all intents and purposes, still a dumb kid, largely unaware of who I was, where I was going and how to get there.
So in some very real, bizarre ways, I have grown into adulthood with World of Warcraft, and it has grown along with me.
As part of the latest World of Warcraft expansion pack, Warlords of Draenor, Blizzard raised the level cap for the game to 100. As I race toward that milestone and the game's 10-year-anniversary, it feels like something more than just another level cap increase.
I know this sounds silly, but it feels like a meaningful event in my life.
He wasn't called Quinlan at first. To be honest, I've forgotten his original name — it got changed at some point during one of the several server transfers I've done over the last 10 years. But whatever the name was, he's the same character I'm using now.
Quinlan is a mage, part of a rebellious faction of the Undead called the Forsaken. He began his life — er, unlife — in the crypts of Tirisfal Glades. Since then, he's raided the scorching caves of Molten Core, journeyed through the Dark Portal into Outland, defeated the evil Lich King and vacationed in the long-forgotten lands of Pandaria. As of the time of this writing, he's chilling out in his garrison in Draenor. He's become such a well-known hero of the Horde, that he's been trusted to command his own small army as we fight back against an invasion from this strange, alternate history of a destroyed world.
Quinlan popped into virtual existence on November 23, 2004, the day that World of Warcraft launched. He will finally reach level 100 sometime in the next few days, almost exactly 10 years later.
Let's be real here: Quinlan, as with all World of Warcraft characters, is a cipher. He does not talk. He does not have a personality. He exists merely for me to control, and despite Blizzard's strong work creating non-player characters that react to him as though he's a well-regarded hero and celebrity, his interactions with other characters in this world are essentially limited to running errands for them.
He is a character only in the thinnest sense of the word.
Total time played: 69 days, 20 hours, 43 minutes and 26 seconds
And yet I feel a connection to Quinlan on par with the deepest and most well-developed characters in the history of gaming. It's the sheer force of the amount of time I've spent with him, of the fact that I keep returning to him no matter how long I'm away. The in-game timer tells me I've been logged in as Quinlan for approximately 69 days, 20 hours, 43 minutes and 26 seconds in total.
Spread across 10 years, it almost doesn't even feel like that much. But there's really no other character that even comes close to that number of hours spent in their virtual company. Quinlan may not speak much, but he's a companion, a partner, someone who I've shared countless adventures with.
As indie developer Will O'Neill said to me on Twitter last week, speaking of his own World of Warcraft launch character, "It would be criminal to not bring him home to level 100."
Stretching on to eternity
My progress through World of Warcraft across these 10 years hasn't just been marked by level-ups and better gear. Quinlan himself has changed, but so has the game. Blizzard's been incredibly pro-active both about constantly adding more content and tweaking the game in smart ways to make sticking with it (or returning to it after short breaks) very easy.
But whatever its skill in the design of systems, the true genius at the heart of World of Warcraft is that undeniable connection it forges between the player and the character without a need to tie it to narrative. It's something that's really only possible in an MMO, and even within that sphere very few have managed to pull it off.
Though Blizzard has been quite explicit that many more World of Warcraft expansion packs are in the works, Warlords of Draenor feels more like a destination than any previous expansion. It feels like the end of a journey that Quinlan and I have been on for 10 years now.
That isn't to say I expect to stop playing World of Warcraft. Hell, it's entirely likely that 10 years from now I'll be having similarly strong feelings as I head toward level 240 or whatever the latest level cap is.
However, Quinlan will only enter the triple digits of the number that hangs over his life one time. He isn't as important as my future wife or my child — or any real person in my life, for that matter — and I may have less time to spend with him than I did in college. But after we've been through so much together, I wouldn't miss this milestone for the world.