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Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Blizzard makes WoW wish virtual reality
Make-A-Wish and a willing company help a grade schooler become the first outsider to create a new character in World of Warcraft.
By TAMARA CHUANG
The Orange County Register
UPDATE: Gamers show support for Ezra, Blizzard (May 23)
IRVINE – For World of Warcraft players hanging out in Shadowmoon Valley last Friday, bizarre events occurred that can only be explained by a small group of people inside the headquarters of Blizzard Entertainment.
At the helm of the strangeness sat 10-year-old Ezra Chatterton, who directed Warcraft’s lead game designer Jeff Kaplan to blast ferocious-looking monsters, or “bosses,” with a single death ray. Chatterton cleared the Black Temple for a European clan to fight the volcano-summoning Supremus.
All that power. Heh, heh.
“I’m impressed with Blizzard,” said Chatterton from his wheelchair. “Bravo!”
The Riverside fifth-grader has a brain tumor. The diagnosis isn’t good; metastatic cancer. Splitting headaches started in March, which led to an emergency room visit in April. Doctors had to sedate him for the pain and he didn’t wake up for a week. Groggy and weak in the hospital, Chatterton only wanted to play the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft.
When the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, an organization that grants wishes to children with life-threatening cases, came calling two weeks ago, Chatterton knew exactly what he wanted.
“I wished for a trip to Blizzard because I’d like to see if they could make a character and do some things for us.”
Chatterton didn’t think his wish would come true. He’s starting treatment today. And, at most, he thought it could just be a video conference call. But when he found out Blizzard was nearby, and willing, Chatterton became the envy of the 8.5 million World of Warcraft players worldwide. He not only got the chance to tour the company, but to create something new for the game.
Dubbed WoW, Blizzard’s game debuted in 2004 and has inspired hundreds of fan sites, a Warcraft Wiki, global game tournaments and even a “South Park” episode.
Chatterton had his father, Micah, sketch characters and write down questions so he wouldn’t forget.
Blizzard pulled the daylong funfest together in days. On Friday, father and son arrived at Blizzard’s Irvine headquarters in a black limo to tour one of the world’s most successful game companies.
Chatterton was whisked immediately to Kaplan’s office to create weapons and characters for the game. Later he would head to the recording studio to do a voice for the new character and meet with an artist to get the character’s look just right. Throughout the day, he got to design a new weapon, add his dog Kyle to the game, create a quest and record his voice for the new character, Ahab Wheathoof, the Old Rancher.
“We definitely want a crossbow,” Chatterton instructed Kaplan. He offered a detailed description of what he wanted: dangerous flames, curved frame and an ability to wreak havoc.
“I want it to shoot a fiery arrow at 300 damage over 10 seconds,” he said.
With a few clicks of his mouse, Kaplan constructed a prototype.
“Wow. Weird. Progress is going quicker than I expected,” Chatterton said.
“This crossbow will be the only one in the game and it’s very difficult to get,” Kaplan explained. “You’re going to get a lot of questions (from other players).”
Chatterton shied away at Kaplan’s suggestion to add “Finely crafted to Ezra’s specifications.” Father Micah explained, “He doesn’t want to appear boastful.” They settled on attributing it to ePhoenix, his character in the game.
Chatterton’s parents divorced about five years ago and he spends time with both. But only when he’s with his dad does he get to play WoW. Micah Chatterton, a writer, wanted to play from the game’s beginning, but couldn’t afford it. In the U.S., WoW costs about $20 plus another $15 a month in subscription fees. Also, to play online, it’s best to have a high-speed Internet connection, which is another $20 to $50 a month.
Then, last fall, Micah Chatterton’s house burned down, taking away all his son’s toys. He used some insurance money for a computer and Internet access. The father-and-son team entered the world of Warcraft. By Friday, they had made it to level 63. Blizzard bumped ePhoenix up to level 70, the highest level, and stocked the character with gold, weapons and new armor.
“There were a lot of things that are unconventional with our relationship, and the way we choose to bond and spend time together,” said Micah Chatterton. “For instance, WoW was something we had researched and talked about. We would talk about what kind of character do we want to create. This costume as opposed to that costume. We would make decisions together. Neither of us would feel comfortable about making a big decision without consulting the other.”
In the few days the two had to prepare for the trip to Blizzard, they did their homework.
“He asked me draw (a character) and we settled on this Phoenix motif because that’s his middle name. It’s certainly apt because we’d like to have some rebirth,” Micah Chatterton said.
“I asked him to think about why he likes to play WoW and one thing he said was he likes interacting with people he doesn’t know. No matter how crappy things are going on the outside, in the real world, he can be strong and successful and really turn heads in WoW.”
Ezra Chatterton’s enthusiasm kept him going all day, even getting out of his wheelchair to lob some bombs. By the end of the visit, he’d probably spent nearly seven hours with the Blizzard team.
“From my end, it was a lot about really maintaining the momentum of the day, just the happiness,” Micah Chatterton said. “By the end of the day, when we sat down with the artist, Ezra was exhausted and said, ‘I’m just happy with what I’ve got.’ ”
WoW players should keep an eye out for Chatterton’s creations: the rare, flame-shooting crossbow, a quest from a graying Tauren named Ahab Wheathoof and his frenzied dog, Kyle. Blizzard will add Ezra’s changes to the game in the next four weeks.
“If Blizzard is listening, I’d like to say thank you for everything you’ve done for my character to make him so good. I want to thank them for making the quest of the lost dog and the Old Rancher and all the stuff they gave us,” said a grateful but drained Ezra Chatterton, who by Sunday got in about five hours of game play.
The visit has given him more to think about than playing games. He’s starting to think about his future.
“I’d like to be paid to test and play the game and test weapons, but I don’t think I meet the age requirements,” he said. “I’m only 10.”
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