Well, BlizzCon has come and gone and some of it was pretty tepid.
My rough draft title was just “BlizzYawn 2018,” but it wasn’t all that bad.
As I have said in the past, the problem with BlizzCon is in part because it was effectively WoWCon for a number of years, so if you were a WoW fan you had a lot of people catering to your needs and whims during that time.
Now with six franchises sharing the spotlight, if you are only interested in one of the titles, and they split the coverage evenly, 83% of the show is not of interest to you. Nobody is getting all the attention, or even most of the attention anymore. And if your title doesn’t even get equal time… like Diablo last year and StarCraft almost every year… or if what Blizz shows isn’t anything you’re interested in… like Diablo for a lot of fans this year… then you’re not off base to feel left out.
Anyway, I spent a bunch of time watching with the Virtual Ticket and I still found a lot interesting, even if a lot more wasn’t for me.
Mike Morhaime came out to open the show and greet everybody as he does every year. However, this time it was a farewell tour. He introduced J. Allen Brack, new CEO of Blizzard, got a handshake, and was sent off stage left for likely the final time on stage at BlizzCon.
I am still not sure how I feel about the change of leadership. The leader gets blamed for all bad things and praised for all good ones, but in many companies is more likely riding the wave of events rather than shaping them. So maybe the change won’t matter. Blizz is old enough to have a culture set in concrete, and there is nothing so difficult as trying to change corporate culture.
And, of course, J. Allen Brack is this guy.
World of Warcraft
With J. Allen Brack now at the top of the pyramid they had to have the new chief of WoW come out and speak. While not an impressive figure, John Hight isn’t nearly as tall as his predecessor for instance, he did show more charisma on stage than the unemotive J. Allen Brack. I mean, he was no Chirs Metzen, but who is? (Except for that guy in line at the WoW Q&A.) Still, he seemed excited and invested and glad to be there.
When we got to the actual “What’s Next” presentation for WoW Ion Hazzikostas took the stage to actually get into the details as to what is coming with the Tides of Vengeance update, which is coming on December 11. Basically, they are trying to follow the successful path they went down in Legion while improving on some of the things, like azerite armor and such.
He was followed up by Ryan Shwayder, formerly of SOE, the 38 Studios fiasco, and the Nerfbat blog, who spoke of new allied races coming with the 8.1.5 update, changes to Darkmoon Faire, holiday updates, Warsong Gulch and Arathi Basin remaster, and portal rooms in Stormwind and Orgrimmar.
Basically, lots of things are coming and, while I am not totally invested in WoW at the moment, there were things on the list for me. Blizzard is still trying to tend to its biggest money maker, not that I doubted they would. They haven’t addressed every little concern, but clearly there is still a lot going on.
This was the interesting bit of BlizzCon for me.
First, the big news. We got a ship date… well, a ship season anyway… for WoW Classic. It is slated to launch in Summer of 2019, so at some point before September 23. Going back and looking at what I have said in the past, I was clearly betting on 2020. But the timing of Summer 2019 seems about perfect as that would put it a year after the Battle for Azeroth launch, about the point when many expansions start shedding players in large numbers. It will also be pretty close when all those “six months for a mount” subscriptions start to come due. It is like they planned that.
The other item is that WoW Classic access will be part of your WoW subscription, something I fully expected. No conspiracy there to my mind. You want to make it easy for customers to give you money.
And then there was the “Restoring History: Creating WoW Classic” presentation. I wish they would put this up on YouTube, because it was great to watch. They spoke about how they managed to unearth all of the WoW 1.12 data from a backup of a backup and how, to solve the problem of making it run, merged it into the current WoW cand Battle.net framework. With just some adjustment to data formatting they were able to get a prototype running. This solved a lot of infrastructure problems for them and gave them a solid platform that works with their current systems.
Now there is a matter of paring back some of the things that come with that framework which led to a segment about their design philosophy.
Overall design philosophy
The last bit means if something is working the way it was back in 1.12, that is the way it should work. There were some easy choices to make.
The easy stuff to eliminate
Other things were less obvious items, such as the debuff limit. In 1.12 you could only have 16 debuffs on a boss. That was a technical restriction, not a design choice, that they managed to get past later, so the number is now 255. But since it was 16 back then it will be 16 in WoW Classic because to change it might change the raid and dungeon meta. Other things they might let in, but only after close scrutiny. You will likely be able to shift-click on in-game mail to collect attachments, but in-game mail will take an hour to be delivered.
Also, because WoW didn’t spring on us fully formed certain things will be introduced over time in waves. The time frames are not set yet, but this is what they are considering, including the appropriate in-game events to go with them.
This opens the question as to whether or not they will be starting new servers over time as well, because maybe you want to run the Onyxia era raiding, but the server has already progressed to AQ. We shall see.
And then there was the WoW Classic demo, which let you run around either Westfall or The Barrens in a character boosted and geared to the right level. On the first day there were so many people that Westfall was effectively scourged of NPCs, even on a low population server (there were 20 servers up), but I was able to run around a bit.
Later in the evening, when the BlizzCon people stopped playing, things got more manageable and I was able to hunt the Defias and such. While I didn’t go in with a strong mind as to how things ought to be, every time I touched the UI I was reminded of how things had changed and remember what it was like back in the day. For example, remember how “B” used to just open up your first bag by default? There were lots of those revelations.
Blizz has done a really good job so far, though there is clearly some work left to do. Some random screenshots:
Landing in Westfall
Quests and the time limit
Skill levels and talent tree
Fighting the Defias
Command line /LFR still brings this up, gotta fix that
Azeroth as we remember it
I am actually really impressed with how serious the WoW development team seems about WoW Classic. This feels like Blizzard getting serious about a project and being determined to do it right, a welcome change and pretty much a complete about face from the “it can’t be done” and “you think you want this” messages of the past.
Candy Crush Diablo
This was the surprise disappointment part of BlizzCon for me.
Here is where Blizzard learned that if your user base is mostly PC gamers, with a smattering of console fans in the mix, announcing a new mobile title might not be the best BlizzCon plan.
Diablo Immortal, the NetEase created game set to bring the Diablo franchise to mobile platforms, was the only thing Blizzard had for the franchise, and did not sit well with fans in the Diablo hall at BlizzCon. Blizz had their most dedicated fans in the audience that day and managed to disappoint them en masse.
This seemed to be one of those polarizing moments. It you were an outsider or a member of the gaming press, you were likely fast to criticize the reaction of the fans. More entitled toxic gamer hate. This is why we can’t have nice things. Do you guys not have phones?
On the other hand, imagine if you were a fan and saw the primacy of place given to the “What’s Next for Diablo” presentation on the schedule, something that sets expectations even when Blizz tries to cool down the anticipation. The IP with the biggest announcement is always up first after the keynote. You have spent money on the Virtual Ticket or, worse, spent a lot of money getting to Anaheim for BlizzCon, and the announcement Blizzard has about the Diablo Franchise is essentially not for you. You might rightfully feel more than a bit betrayed if the only news you got was for somebody else, somebody not even at BlizzCon.
Blizzard had their core audience right there and was talking past them to some potential future fans who weren’t even watching. I mean, they literally said that Diablo Immortal was for a market segment that doesn’t play Diablo. So the complete lack of cheering or any enthusiasm in the crowd was a big red flag at an event where cheering is the norm. You have to have made a pretty serious con mistake to get there.
Guess what? Platform matters. Blizzard makes games for the PC platform with some titles available on console, and I am honestly surprised the PC and console players get along as well as they do. Yes, Hearthstone is available on mobile, but given that it only ever cracks into the top ten on the PC charts, my guess is that the PC demographic dominates. And Hearthstone fans were not sitting in the Diablo room.
Nor were Hearthstone fans or other mobile players at BlizzCon interested in the demo it seems. Pictures from the demo area for Diablo Immortal showed sparse interest in the title from all BlizzCon participants who lined up to play all the other demos.
And the response from fans was entirely predictable. We have seen it before. We watch Disney kill Club Penguin with its mobile plan, ignoring the loud complaints of its installed base. We saw a quite a tepid response to EVE Echoes, the mobile EVE Online game also being made by NetEase, just two weeks ago. The saving grace at EVE Vegas was that we knew a mobile game was in the works and CCP had the good sense not to make the EVE Online keynote all about an outsourced mobile game. Blizzard totally missed the expectations of their fans and is paying the price. The Diablo Immortal videos on YouTube are getting a huge amount of down votes, so much so that they have removed and re-posted them in hopes of clearing the down vote tally.
You know what could have alleviated the pain of Diablo fans? Literally any news about something new for the franchise on PC.
A teaser for Diablo IV would have been oil on turbulent waters. A mention that they were working on a remastered version of Diablo II, something we’ve suspected for three years now, would have dissipated most of the outrage. But the only other news to announces was that Diablo III for the Switch was now available, but Nintendo had been bombarding us with that for weeks already. Good for Switch owners, not all that interesting to the core Diablo fanbase.
I might hope we have a lesson learned here, but probably not. Blizzard is certainly trying to walk this back without blaming the fans. They love to stoke up that fan passion when it is going their way, so they have to eat it when it gets out of their control. It is at least good that they get that.
As for own feelings about Diablo Immortal, I am sure it will do well with some demographic, but that isn’t me. I like slower games on my iPad and on my iPhone I only ever play Pokemon Go, mostly because I have a small iPhone, which I prefer, so I need to put on glasses to see tiny text on the screen. And given that the gaming press, which was so quick to jump on Diablo fans, could barely string together three nice things to say about Diablo Immortal in their own write ups, it seems unlikely that I will bother to give it a look. Oh, and it is always online, just like Diablo III. No single player for you! The hits just keep on coming.
Of course, while this grabbed so many headlines and hot takes, it was only a small part of BlizzCon overall.
Addendum: And now word is going around that Blizz considered mentioning Diablo IV, then decided against it, leaving them with anger at BlizzCon and removing some of the surprise from any future announcement because now we know it is a thing. Now they’re just using it as damage control.
Addendum 2: Now Blizz admits there was a Diablo IV video made, but denies there was ever plans to show it at BlizzCon.
Unlike Diablo fans, those there to see Overwatch seemed pretty happy. They got a new character to play, Ashe, and a couple of cinematics. I don’t play Overwatch, so it is difficult for me to gauge how much this meant.
They are also getting a kids cereal with loot box prizes inside.
This is really a thing coming in December. A free loot boost is now part of this complete breakfast.
No surprise here, a new expansion was announced, Rastakhan’s Rumble, a troll and Stranglethorn Vale themed package. Seemed to get all the cheers Blizz could ask for.
Heroes of the Storm
A new character to play, Orphea, who is free to all BlizzCon participants. There was also some gameplay updates slated for 2019. I’m really at sea when it comes to HotS, but fans seemed happy. But since I hear so little about HotS outside of BlizzCon, my suspicion is that they are happy to be getting as much attention as they do.
StarCraft II got Zeratul a new co-op commander. Also coming are building skins and the ability to earn skins and such by watching SC2 esports events. I keep thinking I will go run the single player campaign for this, since the base game is free now… but somehow I never do.
Warcraft III Reforged
The good BlizzCon surprise, even though I mentioned it as a possibility last Thursday, was Warcraft III Reforged.
The return of RTS again
This one interests me. I’ve been back to play Warcraft III and blogged about it. It was the last Warcraft RTS, was very popular, and a player mod for the game, Defense of the Ancients, essentially kicked off the MOBA idea and is largely responsible for what became League of Legends and DOTA 2. But it also came along in 2002 and once World of Warcraft hit in 2004, Warcraft III fell into the background, like everything else at Blizzard, as the company tried to get hold of the overwhelming success of WoW.
It’s legacy is huge, but timing put it in the shadow of its younger sibling, so I wonder how the remaster will play out. It is available for pre-order at $29.99, which includes the expansion The Frozen Throne. Or, for ten dollars more you can get the Spoils of War Edition, which gives you items in other Blizzard games including a mount in WoW. Given that $25 is the usual toll for a WoW mount, that might be a deal.
Also, now that we have this and StarCraft remastered, Blizz might finally get to Diablo II remastered.
Activision continues to try to horn-in on the Blizzard launcher. They already have Destiny 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 in their own little roped off section. It was announced at the start of BlizzCon that the Destiny 2 base game was available free to download from the Battle.net launcher, and would remain so until November 18th. So if you want to try it out and have about 80GB of drive space to spare, there it is. Of course, they hope to get you hooked so you’ll buy the expansions.
Panels and Other Events
If the gaming press had really wanted to roast gamers, they might have spoken up about how sparse the crowd was for the “Play Nice; Play Fair” panel. That was an empty hall. But I am going to guess the gaming press didn’t bother going either given that Google didn’t show me a single result when I went looking for which gaming news site covered it. The press isn’t as different from the fans as they would like to think I guess.
I have long since gone off the cos-play and dance competitions. I’m just not into it enough to care after watching it for a few years. There are too few fresh stand-outs for me.
There were also five channels at BlizzCon devoted to “esports,” which I am putting in quotes just to annoy people, and I didn’t watch a single minute.
Still, I watched and enjoyed quite a few of the panels. There are still some I want to watch before the time runs out on the Virtual Ticket and they disappear forever. I think I might have enjoyed “Build A Panel: World Creation in WoW” the most, as it combined my enjoyment of looking behind the scenes on how things are made with just enough silliness.
Overall I suspect that for the rare Blizzard fan who loves all of their games equally, this was a reasonably satisfying event. Everybody got a little something… well, except for the core Diablo audience. But it you love Blizzard uncritically, as some seem to be demanding we should, then Diablo Immortal was good for you too.
Of course, people have been complaining about BlizzCon since the second one, during that dream era when it was just WoWCon. The long time complaint was always that Blizz shouldn’t bother unless they have a huge announcement. The few times there has been a huge announcement do tend to set a high bar.
However, I am fine with a tepid BlizzCon when it comes down to it. In the end there is always more going on than I am able to watch and sometimes the fine details are more interesting than the big announcements. And I got to play WoW Classic, which got me back to playing some WoW, so op success for Blizz on this front I guess. I might even hit level 120.
Others in the neighborhood talking about BlizzCon 2018: