BlizzCon is just a couple days away at this point and my mind is starting to wander onto what might be on display for the big event.
Blizzard is at a pretty high point right now. The Activision-Blizzard report for the 3rd quarter of 2014 is just out and there were record profits, the boost in WoW subscribers, and portents of future success. The good times just keep going. Laissez le bon temps rouler!
Meanwhile, third party analysts at SuperData are claiming that Hearthstone, Blizzard’s “dumbed down” collectible card game, has already brought in more revenue this year than MMO competitors such as Lord of the Rings Online or EVE Online made in all of 2013. (For specific definitions of MMO.) It launched when? April?
But while that is all great for the folks down in Anaheim, it also steals at least a bit of potential thunder for BlizzCon. The subscription number for Q3 has been out for a while now , we know there is an expansion coming, and Titan has been out of the picture for a while now. What will the BlizzCon keynote be about? You can’t just have Mike Morhaime up on stage rolling around in a giant pile of money. As I have said before, BlizzCon doesn’t have to have any big announcements. It can just be a big party for the attendees. But if you’re selling virtual tickets to the live stream for $40, you do have to have something for the folks at home besides an in-game pet and some empty talk about how great things are going.
So I am going to, as I tend to do, take a stab at what they might talk about. Not because I feel I have any special or deep insight into Blizzard, but because it is a chance to collect my thoughts about what Blizzard looks like from the outside. Plus a few wild ass guesses to laugh about later are always fun. Naturally there are a few potential BlizzCon topics to cover.
World of Warcraft
This BlizzCon is happening on what might be literally the worst of all possible dates for WoW. Big subscription and financial news is out of the bag. The new expansion, Warlords of Draenor, will go live in less than a week after BlizzCon ends. The World of Warcraft 10 year anniversary is a just a couple weeks down the road.
What do you talk about on the Azeroth front that we aren’t already being inundated with? This is the big money maker, the foundation that funds every new thing that the company does. They dare not ignore it or give it short shrift.
The one thing they cannot talk about is the next expansion. As was pointed out on the Cat Context podcast a while back, it would be pretty dumb to try to direct excitement towards the next big thing when you’re still banking on more people buying the big thing you’re about to release. Scott Adams has re-used the joke about the company killing current revenue by telling customers that they have something even better in development. If you have a strong message, do not derail it by confusing the issue.
So my guess is that we will be treated to a lot of nostalgia. Blizzard, with WoW subscriptions well past their peak, is starting to cultivate nostalgia. Not to the degree that SOE does. Blizzard could steal some more ideas from SOE on that front. But they are starting to acknowledge that the installed base, people who have played WoW, are the easiest people to get to subscribe. There will likely also be something special for people who are subscribed and who log in during the 10 year anniversary, something they have not yet announced. The pet is fine, but I suspect there will be more, something to drive people to opt-in just to get it.
As for looking forward, which they will have to do at some point, I suspect that we will get a vague framework around WoW content going forward in an attempt to make us feel that the company won’t again leave players hanging for more than a year without any new content. Group content for Warlords of Draenor looks a bit light at launch, which is no doubt because they have held some back to dole out at later dates when the user base has again clumped up at the level cap. But it will be pretty loose in terms of commitment, Blizz no doubt still smarting from the comments at last BlizzCon where Tom Chilton said they were further along with WoD than they had been with Mists of Panderia when it was announced, leading a great many players hopeful of a launch before the summer. Some people were certainly saying, “No way!” when I broached the idea of a November release back in January, the expectations having been inadvertently set.
Another thing they will not talk about is any change to the subscription model. The game is still making money by the truckload, there is no incentive at all to messing with that. The game may no longer be at its peak when it comes to subscribers, but it is still the game that distorts perspective when it comes to counting paid subscribers.
The Diablo franchise, for all the problems it has had since the launch of Diablo III, is still a solid money maker. It is doing well on consoles. It would be the star of many studio lineups, but in the house of Blizzard it has to live in the shadow of WoW.
I expect that Blizzard will have realized not only the error of its ways when it came to the auction house, but also how they handled Diablo II. Blizzard let Diablo II whither on the vine after one expansion. They could have easily rolled a couple more expansion, a mod development kit, special play styles and any number of other things if they had focused on the game. So I think we will hear about medium and long term plans for Diablo III.
In the medium term, by mid-2015, there will be some content updates to keep the hardcore players active and sweet on the game, while for the long term there will be another expansion announced.
Hearthstone should be easy. It is the new kid. There is much still to be exploited. I imagine there will be a new expansion announced and plans for new play modes and details around new platforms to be supported and just a general celebration of how well it is doing. Hearthstone is still too young to be looking for something big.
If there isn’t a StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void ship date announced, I say StarCraft II players should just riot. Just burn the place down.
Seriously though, if Blizzard can’t get off the dime for a StarCraft II expansion, I don’t know what to say.
On the flip side, I guess I shouldn’t expect it to take less time than the last expansion, Heart of the Swarm, which hit the shelves nearly three years after StarCraft II. And, frankly, I do not know how well StarCraft II is doing in the grand scheme of things. The original was the be all, end all of esports back in its day, the national obsession of Korea. StarCraft II has to live in a world where League of Legends and DOTA 2 are things, where the old school RTS model feels a bit tired, under the shadow of its illustrious predecessor, and in a company that is largely financed by an MMORPG which is trying to jump on the MOBA train as well.
In that contexts, I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t hear anything at all about StarCraft II.
Heroes of the Storm
Heroes of the Storm is, to my mind, the other easy/predictable one. It will, I suspect, echo how they played Hearthstone last year at BlizzCon. Lots of talk. A vague timeline to launch. A harder date for a wider beta. Maybe something special to entice WoW players to give it a try.
That last one will probably wait for launch. Again, from the Hearthstone launch playbook, give WoW players something shiny for trying the game and making it through some basic level of play. I’d do that for another mount. It was the only reason I downloaded and played Hearthstone. And while the game did not stick with me, I am sure it was worth putting out a mount for those that did convert and spend money.
And, in the grand Blizzard scheme of things, they will announce this as if they were alone in the MOBA market.
This is where I go out on a limb. A limb attached to a tree of crazy.
We are at the 10 year anniversary of World of Warcraft, but we are also at the 20 year anniversary for the Warcraft franchise. What were you doing in 1994 when Warcraft: Orcs and Humans came out? I wasn’t big on the game, but I had a lot of friends that were, and by the time Warcraft II came out I had to buy a copy because that was what we were playing at the office on Friday nights. It was somewhat eclipsed by StarCraft as an RTS, but Warcraft is at the root of Blizzard’s success. And while WoW has carried the franchise torch for a decade now, there is still some calling for the past iterations, before it was an MMO. It has been a long time since Warcraft III.
So my radical prediction is an announcement that Warcraft IV is under development as a story driven RTS RPG that will attempt to evolve (steal) in a new direction. This will, of course, be in a symbiotic relationship with World of Warcraft, with lore details from one feeding into the other.
Will there be something new from Blizzard? Everything above, even my nutty Warcraft IV prediction, is playing to past strengths, working with the three franchises that essentially make up the three pillars of Blizzard. Could they have something new in the wings? With the demise of Titan, I suspect not. But that is also the complete outsiders view.
What do you think Blizzard will announce at BlizzCon?
And what do you want them to announce, even if it is unlikely?