DALLAS – Each day, millions of people around the world gaze at their computer screens to explore a dangerous fantasy world of treasure-filled dungeons and flame-breathing dragons, a land where mortal enemies lurk around every corner.
It's the "World of Warcraft," the most successful online game ever, and it's a world about to get a whole lot bigger with Tuesday's release of a $39.99 enhancement called "The Burning Crusade."
From China to the United States, from Australia to Europe, more than 8 million registered users now pay up to $15 a month to gather with hundreds of other real people who masquerade as digital avatars in the never-ending fantasy world of Azeroth.
"The Burning Crusade" adds new locales such as Karazhan, Hellfire Citadel and Tempest Keep to Azeroth, and presents a spiraling war against demonic forces where the game's two opposing factions — the Alliance and the Horde — will face powerful new enemies.
Players will have access to the new realm of Outland that's nearly as large as the existing game world, and the highest level characters can achieve has been raised from 60 to 70.
But in a market already overpopulated with dwarves, paladins and trolls, is there room for even more of the same?
If fans are any indication, the answer is a definite yes.
Trey Hancock, 26, has been shooting fireballs and frost novas to crush his mortal enemies in the video game "World of Warcraft" since it first launched in 2004.
In his years of playing, the Houston resident led a guild of more than 200 people and raised four characters to the current top level of 60 — including his main character, a mage named Oraj.
Like many others, Hancock said he took a break in anticipation of the expansion, where his first goal will be to take Oraj to level 70.
"I haven't played for the last week because I know once it comes out I'm going to be playing it nonstop," he said.
It's just the sort of enthusiasm the company behind the game, Blizzard Entertainment Inc., is banking on.
"We were going to be happy if we got a million worldwide subscribers, we didn't feel like that was shooting the moon," said Rob Pardo, Blizzard's vice president of game design and the lead designer for "World of Warcraft." "The way it blew up is far beyond our wildest expectations. But now that we are at the mark we are, we feel there's still an ability to grow that customer base even further."
Released in November 2004, "World of Warcraft" brought several new elements to the genre of massive multiplayer online roleplaying games, or MMORPGs.
Most significantly, it was simple to play and a had high level of polish, according to Jon Wood, managing editor of the gaming Web site MMORPG.com.
"I think Blizzard looked at what was out there and found out what worked and what didn't work," he said. "The truth of the matter is, the game is very polished. The fact that it's very smooth and easy to learn has put them out front."
Pardo said polish has always been the mantra for the game's creators.
"It's extremely complicated, all the things we have to get right," he said. "We were on track for a Christmas release but we really felt like we should make sure the product's right for our customers."
"Warcraft's" popularity has transcended video game culture and spawned a series of action figures, comic books, novels and trading cards.
The game was even the focus of a recent "South Park" episode where Eric Cartman and friends balloon into overweight, pimply video addicts bent on defeating a rampaging player who threatens the very existence of the game.
The pop culture references extend into the game world, too. If you type "/dance" as a male Blood Elf, for example, your character will strut around with moves similar to the uberdorky hero of the movie "Napoleon Dynamite."
"We're all entertainment geeks ourselves," Pardo said. "Part of our design process is having fun and putting in those references. It's kind of our way of giving homage to the things that inspire us."
David Daryani, owner of Tru-Gamerz video gaming center in Dallas, said his customers regularly queue up to play the game, especially on the weekends.
As a longtime "WoW" player himself, Daryani, 38, said he hasn't played much lately but was looking forward to seeing the new content and returning to his favorite activity: player versus player combat.
"If you have a bad day, you get on and say 'I'm just going to kick some Alliance butt,'" he said. "It just relieves some stress."