America has seen plenty of cities rapidly grow and fade. From the boom towns of the Gold Rush to Detroit’s rise and fall alongside the country’s auto industry, the narrative is the same: People are drawn where they think they can make their fortune. When the money and jobs dry up, some stay out of attachment—they want to see their home rise again. And many have nowhere else to go. But on the large scale, populations move to wherever the next city of opportunity happens to be.
This phenomenon has played out repeatedly in World Of Warcraft. When the massively multiplayer game launched in 2004, the two opposing factions, Alliance and Horde, were given three cities each. Those spaces were hubs of digital life. They were the places where players migrated to train, trade items, and drop off deposits in their digital bank accounts. Each faction’s capital has always been the most populous. They’re home to special quests and transportation options, both of which draw in hundreds of players and keep them coming back.
That overpopulation can have a tangible effect, slowing the game down as PCs and servers struggle to cope. Thankfully, WOW has quieter cities, and there are concrete benefits to escaping the hustle and bustle. For example, when you’re looking for one person in particular, you don’t have to pick that character out of a crowd. And the aforementioned lagging behavior is mostly absent. But there are also more abstract pleasures, like crafting weapons and finding yourself alone with your work—or in the presence of a few similarly dedicated smiths or alchemists.
There are plenty of other ways to feel alone in World Of Warcraft. One simple feature lets you type “/who” to view a list of everyone in the area. If you hang out in a zone where veteran players hunt for new gear, that “/who” command will reveal plenty of company. Wander through an out-of-the-way zone reserved for rookie characters, though, and there’s a good chance you’re the only one there. It’s even more likely if you’re playing at off-peak times.
When Blizzard released Burning Crusade, its first expansion for WOW, the developer introduced three new cities. Shattrath provided a place where Horde and Alliance players could walk the streets together without any threat of violence. (Player-on-player combat was forbidden within its boundaries.) More importantly, Shattrath offered portals to all of the game’s other cities. It was something of a digital Grand Central Station, effectively the center of the game’s civilization.
The other new cities were not such a success. The expansion introduced two races, the Blood Elves and Draenei, and they each got their own home turf. Both burgs are beautiful. The Draenei dwell in The Exodar, a crystalline spaceship, while the elves have the delicate towers and open courtyards of Silvermoon. These cities boomed while players were rushing to build new characters from the fresh races, but the crowds soon moved on, traveling far from their people’s homes. On the whole, they didn’t come back.
These are perfectly preserved digital spaces, so unlike Detroit, they show no physical symptoms of their abandonment. But they are spaces designed for hundreds where it’s possible to wander the streets without seeing a single other player. Computer-controlled characters will still cheerily train you in a new skill or peruse your wares, but the cities still feel desolate.
I go anyway. The emptiness feels appropriate in a place like Silvermoon. I imagine that the haughty Blood Elves discourage the other races from coming to their home. On the rare occasions when another player can be seen wandering the city’s streets, it’s almost always another elf. Maybe they’re drawn back by an appreciation for the space’s beauty. Without other players to distract you by dancing naked or generally bustling around the screen, a visitor can admire details like self-sweeping brooms and golems on patrol. These are the sights that make the place beautiful and magical—and slightly ominous. It’s sad that so few people seem to appreciate its features, but the upshot is a welcome solitude.
Isolation depends on context. Just as it makes sense to expect peace while hiking a remote forest trail, it feels normal to wander through the world of a single-player game without coming into contact with another player. But in WOW, you’re accustomed to other players’ characters flying over your head, racing by on their horses, or attacking the same monsters as you.
In WOW, the context is a quasi-urban one. Playing the game is like being in a city. The first people who moved to cities gave up the self-sufficiency of family farms for the advantages of an urban economy. Likewise, multiplayer games don’t expect you to do everything on your own. Players regularly call on each other for help with quests. They alert friends to the presence of rare monsters. They joke around in the chat. So when you’re alone in WOW, it feels like walking a city’s streets at night. It’s disorienting, isolating, and despite all logic, it can feel a bit unsafe. You’re truly on your own, with no one to give you backup if a fight turns sour.
When the second expansion to World Of Warcraft came out, Shattrath’s popularity faded. The new city, Dalaran, became the hub of activity. Shattrath now simply stands as a brief waypoint for people building their characters from level 60 to 70. The developers tried to break the cycle and bring people back to WOW’s most neglected digital real estate. The Catacylsm expansion revamped most of the zones from the original game with new quests, including some of the loneliest areas that had been largely neglected when players journeyed to new continents. Former wastelands came to life with new characters and missions that brought players running back. It was the digital equivalent of a redevelopment project.
Yet that effort didn’t extend to Silvermoon and The Exodar. In fact, they only became less attractive. Cataclysm gave players the ability to fly anywhere in the world, but the developers never bothered to apply the change to those poor abandoned cities. From then on, when they introduced new races, Blizzard didn’t create new cities for them. It’s a tacit admission of defeat.
With yet another expansion in the works, there’s no doubt that the boom and bust cycle of WOW’s cities and wilds will continue. Players will move on to new places for new quests and leave behind the spaces where millions have spent countless hours. Those empty expanses will remain intact, pristine despite their abandonment. That perfect preservation makes these ghost towns all the more eerie, but in the silence is a chance to see the quiet beauty that was there all along.
Previously in the Empty Spaces series: