BlizzCon is coming up. In fact, it kicks off this Friday.
We did not have a BlizzCon last year. Blizzard claimed it was too busy to do the event. And it did have a lot of stuff going on last year.
The last BlizzCon was 2011, which happened to be the third BlizzCon in a row that I watched via DirecTV. While it had the big Mists of Pandaria announcement (and the subsequent groaning from just about everybody) I was kind of growing tired of the spectacle of BlizzCon. I called it the BlizzCon Blues, because a lot of the aspects of BlizzCon… the tournaments, the costume contest, the dance contest, the talent show, Jay Mohr’s jokes… don’t really change from one year to the next.
And while I don’t want to be one of those people who says that Blizzard shouldn’t hold BlizzCon unless they have a big announcement… I am sure the people who attend will have a great time no matter what is said at the keynote or in various panels… those of us on the outside looking in are mostly interested in the news and insights aspect of the convention.
Fortunately, Blizzard appears to have a big announcement teed up for us. Rumors began to fly when it was reported that Blizzard applied for a trademark on the title Warlords of Draenor. The consensus is that this will be the title for the next World of Warcraft expansion. Since this is coming from the same sources that have been correct on previous occasions, it seems likely to be the case.
People are already speculating about how this will fit into the jigsaw puzzle of lore that makes up World of Warcraft at this time, with blue space goats, pandas, and the Caverns of Time wildcard option. Telwyn and Rohan both have some ideas about where this might fit. (And likely a good call by Green Armadillo for pointing at the Burning Legion.)
For me though, the lore is a second tier issue. I will be interested in it, but this isn’t the same as Lord of the Rings Online where blue space goats would be an abomination. Blizzard owns the lore and it is what they say it is. If people can get past blue space goats and pandas, then I think we can get past whatever they have coming.
No, the primary concern for me is the mechanics of the expansion. What will it actually add to the game?
History suggests that it will be five more levels, a new overland adventure area that is about 1 level per zone, so five zones. This will be accompanied by some instances with various levels of difficulty available, raids, a battleground, and uplifts in all the various professions. There might be a new class or a new race along with an expansion of what races can be what classes. And all of this will be delivered next year around this time.
Actually, the progression of level cap changes suggests that this ought to be a 2.5 level increase, since the pattern so far has been to cut it in half every two expansions, though I doubt we’ll see that.
But 5 levels and all the rest, that is the safe bet. It is almost mathematical.
And if that is what you want, you can probably rest easy. Blizzard will probably try to add in some new game mechanic as a hook. Maybe a new trade skill or some such. We will probably find out Friday.
The question in my mind though is what should Blizzard add to World of Warcraft?
The game is about to hit its 9th anniversary and will be close to 10 by the time this expansion goes live. It has been immensely successful, the industry leader for such games, and has set the standard in many areas, like system requirements, polish, and UI responsiveness. It has been at the top of the heap for a long time, pretty much since it decisively dethroned EverQuest subscription levels in 2005.
However, being the biggest player, the company with the most market share, the 800 pound gorilla comes at a price. Being on top often means becoming obsessed with staying on top, which generally means being very conservative so as not to screw up and alienate your customers or otherwise give a competitor an easy inroad on your position. But that way tends to lead to stagnation and strange obsessions, which can be just as harmful. For example, do you think anybody asked Microsoft to please make their desktop computer interface resemble that of a tablet? No, that was all a product of Microsoft’s internal obsession about making ALL devices run on Windows, and since tablets are the latest big thing, Windows must look like a tablet! So screw you if you don’t have a touch screen or see utility in the Start menu of old.
Unfortunately for us, Microsoft still has a stranglehold on the desktop, so you have may have to go with their awful ideas since your company probably makes you run Office and Outlook and whatnot. Or your favorite game only runs on Windows.
Blizzard, however, does not have a similarly unassailable position. There are a lot of competitors in the MMO space and in the gaming space in general. Blizzard has seen its numbers slide from “over 12 million” to 7.7 million at last count, and I suspect that we will see quarterly drops until the next expansion. And even then, I would be surprised if the game popped up to beyond 9 million again unless there was something huge to bring people back.
So what could Blizzard add to the game that might be a draw?
Well, not to cut too much on Blizzard, but they are really good at taking other people’s ideas and refining them into something better. Note their homage to EverQuest at a past BlizzCon. Without EverQuest there would be no World of Warcraft. I would thus exclude anything really new and different. So any new feature would likely have to be something a competitor already has.
What would that give us as possibilities?
This one has gone back and forth. At one point Blizz said they were looking into it. Later, they said that they did not want to pull people out of the common areas and into their own little zones. Every company has their own cultural obsessions, and Blizz is obsessed with its servers looking populated and busy. They like bustling home towns and crowded zones.
So housing seems like a long shot, which is sort of a shame. I think Blizzard could do a really good job with housing, it could open up a whole new harvesting and crafting path akin to carpentry in EverQuest II. There is the option of additional storage, trophy displays, prestige housing that would take gold out of the economy, guild housing, and so on. Other games have really gone deep on this, and it is one of those things that will keep people tinkering after they have hit level cap.
Being able to go down in levels to experience content you have blown past or to be able to play with lower level friends without being the overkill king has its appeal. Right now levels are a separator in WoW. If your friends are at level cap and you are still on the 1-60 run, you won’t be playing with them any time soon.
Other games have attempted to solve this. EverQuest II has had mentoring for ages. Rift has it as well. Guild Wars 2 forces you down levels when you go into lower level zones. And the various implementations seem to mostly work. Down leveled players always seem to be somewhat overpowered.
The question is, how would you want this to work in Azeroth. In my heart of hearts, I would like to see the Guild Wars 2 method, though I think it would cause such an outcry from level cap players that it would end up hurting the game.
This worked for EverQuest and EverQuest II, as well as showing up in other games like Neverwinter. This lets you fill out your party or be able to go do multiplayer content alone.
I am not sure this would be a fit for WoW. There just isn’t any overland multiplayer content any more, is there? In EverQuest all of the overland content is pretty much multiplayer, so it was almost a required enabler to let people play when groups were becoming scarce. But I don’t think this actually solves a problem for WoW, unless you think a tanking or healing mercenary will make Dungeon Finder queue times go away for DPS players. And I do not think that it would fit in with Blizzard’s philosophy of the game. They have Dungeon Finder and Looking For Raid to help players play with other players.
Free to Play
As much as Blizz loves crowded servers, I think they like buckets of money slightly more. This change would give them more players, but every conversion is different and when you are already making buckets of money, even a strong likelihood that you could make more might not be enough. A bird in the hand and all that. Plus it would be incredibly disruptive. We have seen with other such conversions that content updates pretty much go on hiatus while your team works on free to play. And then there is simple pride. Games go free to play when they cannot cut it on the subscription model. No matter what you say, it is perceived in many quarters as a desperation move.
I could see them going on a path towards a monthly subscription getting you more. Maybe there will be a tie-in or benefits with Hearthstone or Titan or other games. But going the free route does not seem likely to me.
Player Designed Content
Cryptic has the Foundry. SOE has its Dungeon Maker in EverQuest II and is pushing ahead with Landmark, its player focused building tool for EverQuest Next. And player designed levels have a history with Blizzard in games like StarCraft and Warcraft III. That is where DotA came from. So there is precedent for this.
On the flip side, player created content is very uneven. How many Dungeon Maker modules are “level you up fast” as opposed to actual adventures? And the Foundry, while it has lead to some truly wonderful instances, does give players ample opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot of create otherwise crap content. I think Blizzard could only do this if they committed themselves to vetting every single piece of content, a job which I think is beyond their abilities.
What else is out there that Blizzard might have latched on to in the last year? I would love them to steal the music system from Lord of the Rings Online, but it won’t happen. Public quests or open zone events? Level cap heroic versions of all instances? An alternate advancement path? Twitter and Twitch.tv and other social media integration?
What will World of Warcraft need when it hits its 10 year anniversary?
And what else do you think will come out of BlizzCon this coming weekend?