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World of Warcraft’s fierce bonds

Getting divorced was a lonely experience for Josh Schweitzer. Spending his days overseeing construction workers and his evenings caring for his 3-year-old son, he had no one to talk to. But there was one group of people who helped him pull through -- even though he’d never laid eyes on most of them.

They were his World of Warcraft friends -- “guild people,” he calls them. They live all over the world and spend 20, 30 or more hours a week together in the online world of Azeroth as druids, priests, warriors and rogues, slaying monsters and collecting treasure.

Schweitzer’s friends in the Dread Pirates guild are a tiny subset of the 11.5 million people who have made Warcraft the most successful online video game on the planet.

Like many other massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), Warcraft is set in a “Lord of the Rings"-like fantasy realm where players create characters and undertake missions, some team-based and some solo, to gather resources and earn rewards.

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Most players become part of a guild, a closely knit group that plays the game together while chatting. Active guilds spend hundreds and even thousands of hours a year together online, often developing strong bonds.

For Schweitzer, 27, a Bakersfield resident, the Dread Pirates replaced the co-workers, family and buddies who someone his age might typically draw on in a difficult time like a divorce. He confided in them over his headset.

“The only people I had to talk to about it were guild people,” he recalled recently. “All of my friends are in Dread Pirates. I don’t really have any others.”

Schweitzer, dressed in board shorts and flip-flops, was sitting with them on a Thursday night in August at the Lost Bar, a Peter Pan-themed drinking hole near the Disneyland hotels. The occasion was BlizzCon, an annual two-day event put on by World of Warcraft’s publisher, Blizzard Entertainment, in Anaheim. Twenty thousand tickets to the show sold out on the Internet in less than a minute on a Saturday in May.

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BlizzCon is held to promote upcoming products and sell merchandise. But it’s also a way for members of a vibrant if little known subculture to see one another in the flesh and reinforce connections formed via an ethernet cable.

Twenty-five of the 40 active members of Dread Pirates managed to land tickets. That night at the Lost Bar, 17 of them sat in a big circle, retelling stories, laughing at in-jokes, and posing for pictures like old friends at a college reunion. It was the third such gathering for the Dread Pirates since BlizzCon started five years ago. In 2007, four members came; in 2008, 13.

Schweitzer took his only vacation of the year to attend BlizzCon, leaving his son with his parents. Others traveled from as far away as Toronto and Australia.

“We spend so much time together and share so much information that we become like a family,” says Joe Benga, a 26-year-old computer help desk supervisor who flew in from Gilbert, Ariz.

“Except,” adds Casey Aron, 26, who tends bar in Portland, Ore., “most families don’t spend time together three or four nights a week.”

Warcraft plays an important role in all their lives. Dennis Mizer of Tucson and his wife Mary play together instead of watching TV. Austin Armstrong, a 21-year-old Sacramento engineering student, hones his skills by modifying the game’s interface on computers he manually rebuilds. Joe Hrenchir, an American living in Perth, Australia, uses it to stay close to friends in the U.S.

To a casual observer, they look like any loud group of twenty- and thirtysomethings at a bar. For anybody who isn’t a Warcraft player, however, their conversation might as well be in Russian:

“We’re talking about the viability of shadow priests.” (A reference to one of the characters in the game.)

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“You take him for 5% crit and you take him for 3% hit.” (Measurements of the damage players inflict on enemies)

“A toast: To Arthas and his dead-ass corpse in front of me!” (Arthas is a major villain in the game.)

Dread Pirates use in-game monikers when together. Schweitzer is Tallyn. Dennis Mizer is Valeas, or Val. Armstrong is Extenze. Hrenchir is Hardrox. Mary Mizer is Aeryanna, but, in one of many signs that the World of Warcraft isn’t a hotbed of feminism, most people call her “Val’s Wife.”

There are thousands of guilds in Warcraft, but Dread Pirates is one of just a few that has been around since the game was launched nearly five years ago. Joel Gorman, a.k.a. “Zarekk” and “the captain,” is co-founder and undisputed master of the Dread Pirates.

An imposing figure with a shaved head, the Sacramento resident is a benevolent but firm dictator, a role that dovetails nicely with his day job as a corrections officer. He’s the final authority on who’s in, who’s out, who goes on the important missions called raids, and who gets the best in-game rewards.

“We are a small tribe and he is the alpha,” says Aron.

Schweitzer has a request for the captain tonight. The guild typically starts playing at 7:30 p.m. and raids last until midnight. That’s too late for Schweitzer, who starts the day with his son at 5 a.m. He’s hopeful that a group could occasionally split off and start playing earlier.

“No,” replies Gorman abruptly. “That’s too many people. Imagine the logistics.”

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Schweitzer defers to his leader with a shrug. “It’s just too bad because I can’t raid with my friends.”

Though they’re expensive to produce, MMOs can be hugely profitable when successful because players pay a monthly subscription fee, typically $15, after purchasing the software for an average price of $50.

When World of Warcraft debuted in November 2004, the MMO genre was dominated by a game called Everquest. But Everquest peaked at 450,000 players, while World of Warcraft passed that number within months and has grown more than 25 times larger than its rival. Some of the newest players come from developing markets such as China and Russia.

“Warcraft is an incredibly addictive game,” says Morgan Webb, a longtime player and a host of the video game news show “X-Play” on the cable network G4. “Just when you think you’re done, it gives you one little carrot to keep on playing.”

For Irvine-based Blizzard, which has more than 3,500 employees around the world, maintaining and updating the game has become a massive enterprise. “It’s like managing a society,” says Chief Operating Officer Paul Sams.

Despite its success, World of Warcraft isn’t as well-known outside the gaming world as the many movies and television series seen by fewer people. Blizzard has an explicit goal of turning that around, starting with a movie in development that Sam Raimi of “Spider-Man” fame is set to direct.

“We’re in the process of trying to expose this world to a much wider audience and we believe [the movie] is going to help us do that,” Sams said.

On a Friday morning at BlizzCon, that wider audience is nowhere in sight. This convention is for 26,000 passionate Warcraft fans who paid $125 per ticket, along with tens of thousands more who paid $39.95 to watch via pay-per-view.

The assembled crowd at the Anaheim Convention Center is overwhelmingly white and Asian, a little chubbier than average and a bit more likely to have hair that flows down their backs, regardless of gender. It appears that only about 15% are women.

The assembled members of Dread Pirates look weary as they sit down for the opening ceremony after a late night of drinking. Armstrong is nursing a hangover, and he’s not the only one.

Like all of his guild mates, however, his eyes are locked on a far-off stage and 11 giant video screens as Blizzard executives announce upcoming products, including an expansion of World of Warcraft titled Cataclysm that will feature new worlds, new raids and new character types.

“Everybody request your days off now,” says Schweitzer, as Gorman explains that when the last expansion pack, Wrath of the Lich King, was released in November 2008, many members took a week off work to explore it together.

Once the opening ceremony concludes, the Dread Pirates fan out through the convention center. There are competitions for professional players, panels with titles like “game systems” and “classes, items and professions,” booths selling T-shirts, comic books and other paraphernalia, and a signing by the cast of “The Guild,” a popular Web series that pokes fun at Warcraft culture.

The main attraction is a sea of 544 computers with playable versions of Cataclysm. Hundreds of people await their chance in a twisting line that resembles the one for Space Mountain at nearby Disneyland.

“It’s going to suck going back to the old game,” says Benga after getting 20 minutes of sample time next to Mizer and Gorman.

Later in the evening, the Dread Pirates sit together among nearly 10,000 others to watch costume, dance-alike, and sound-alike contests in which participants dress, move and make noises like characters in the game.

It’s an opportunity to laugh at others and at themselves, but also to marvel at real talent, particularly when Dread Pirates member James Griffin appears onstage. Most nights he serves as the guild’s “alt,” or alternate player, filling in with there’s an empty spot.

Tonight, the alt is a star, wowing the crowd with a rendition of the “dwarf female dance” from Warcraft, a “Riverdance"-like Irish jig. He wins first prize out of 44 entrants.

As the guild leaves the convention center for a late-night dinner at IHOP, they crowd around Griffin to celebrate his win and discuss their plans for the rest of the weekend. There’s a sense of sadness, however. BlizzCon is half over, and the Dread Pirates will soon split up for another year.

For Schweitzer, it’s not just the end of a fun gathering, but his only time away from work and his son all year. He used his one week of vacation time to prepare for and attend BlizzCon.

Next year, he may have to allot his days off more carefully.

“A bunch of us are going to get together in Las Vegas before the next BlizzCon,” he says excitedly after returning home.

The guild members have even come up with a name for their planned group vacation: “DreadCon.”

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ben.fritz@latimes.com


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