The World Of Warcraft class panel at Blizzcon 2009 hadn’t even started yet, and lead systems designer Greg Street was already looking surly. He explained to the thousands of fans gathered in Anaheim Convention Center’s main-stage room that they might know him better by his forum handle, Ghostcrawler, or maybe just as “That asshole who nerfed your class.”
That’s the kind of humor you have to develop when the Q&A session for your panel is just a line of people asking about how you’re going to fix their specific problems. While Street’s answers couldn’t make everyone happy, the general atmosphere at Blizzcon was close to giddy.
Blizzcon is a sort of Mecca for gamers, an annual event run by the company behind World Of Warcraft—the world’s dominant MMORPG, boasting more than 10 million subscribers—plus the genre-defining real-time strategy games Starcraft and Warcraft, and the iconic action RPG Diablo. Over this past weekend, the Anaheim Convention Center was packed with fans dressed up like their favorite characters and monsters, waiting in line to get temporary tattoos showing their love of Starcraft II and gawking at enormous posters and statues with images from the games, including the demonic Illidan Stormrage and an orc riding an armored wolf.
But the main draw for Blizzcon, which sold 20,000 tickets this year in less than one minute, is always the chance to get the latest information on Blizzard releases. Details were flowing nearly nonstop during panels at the two-day convention, where designers presented slides with new facts and art and played cinematics and gameplay videos to demonstrate what’s to come.
The biggest announcement was Cataclysm, which will be the third expansion for World Of Warcraft, and likely its most ambitious. Along with introducing two new playable races—goblins for Horde and the werewolf-like worgen for Alliance—and raising the level cap from 80 to 85, Cataclysm will update all the game’s old zones with new terrain and quests, bring back some fan-favorite bosses like the dragon Onyxia and the fire elemental Ragnaros, and change how guilds, gear, and talent points operate.
Cataclysm won’t introduce any new talents for characters, but the designers do plan on streamlining the existing ones. Talents that provide flat increases to a character’s ability to dish out damage, take hits, or heal will be removed, and players will get those abilities automatically depending on their specialization, leaving them free to pick more flavorful talents that the designers are working on. Gear will also be streamlined, removing many stats and rolling their functions into other abilities. The goal is to make it easier to understand what equipment does, and also increase the health of all characters to keep some classes from getting consistently one-shot killed in player vs. player combat. Watching the word go through the crowd was hilarious, as people gasped to hear that their attack power and defense stats were going away, only to be told “Don’t panic,” before the designers launched into an explanation.
Guilds are getting a huge overhaul, giving new incentives for players to group together and stay together. Guilds will receive experience points much like individual characters, though it hasn’t been decided how, and as they level up, they’ll be rewarded with their own sets of talent points. These can be used to buy talents like the ability to instantly resurrect everyone who died during a failed raid attempt, along with gear and items that can only be used by guild members, and will return to the guild if a player decides to leave. This received wild praise from the audience, as people grabbing gear and bailing on the groups that helped them is one of the most persistent causes of conflict in WOW.
The announcements surrounding Starcraft II were just as big. The new Battlenet system will create a universal friends list so players can chat with their buddies playing WOW while working on defending their bases. Fans who like mapmaking will have access to the system that the developers used to create the game, making for nearly unlimited customization possibilities. Designers showed off how Starcraft can be transformed into a side-scrolling shoot ’em up, and revealed a custom monster that could grab enemies with tentacles, permanently alter the terrain, and explode when killed. Tricia Helfer, who played the Cylon Six on Battlestar Galactica, showed up at the end of one panel to announce that she will voice Kerrigan, the Zerg Queen of Blades, and the series’ most notorious villain.
The cast of The Guild, an online television show starring Felicia Day as an obsessive player of a WOW-style game, signed autographs throughout the con and hosted a Q&A panel where they premièred their new music video, “Do You Wanna Date My Avatar.”
Relegated to the smaller of two stages by the Battlenet panel on the main stage, the area was overflowing with fans sitting in the aisles and standing in the back. Day got a little unwanted education when an audience member asked her “Does the carpet match the drapes?” When she asked what that meant, the show’s director, Sean Becker, leaned over and whispered in her ear. She looked entirely scandalized when she said “That’s inappropriate!” and moved on to the next question. But first, Jeff Lewis, who plays The Guild’s straight man, Vork, chimed in: “I think she actually has blinds.”
Blizzard set up 1,700 computers in the convention center to let players get a first crack at the new content. Starcraft II is the only one with a tentative release date: Blizzard typically avoids committing to a timeline until they feel confident they’ll make their prospective release date, although the game has already been pushed back from its original 2009 release due to issues getting the new Battlenet system online. The first of three $50 campaigns is expected to ship in the first quarter of 2010. Only the Terran single-player campaign was available for demos, though players could try out the insect-like Zerg and technologically advanced Protoss in a skirmish mode, along with the human space marines.
Of all the demos, Starcraft was easily the most polished. The user interface has gotten friendlier, letting players know whenever they have idle workers, and making it easy to assign tasks to units that are still under construction. The graphics are gorgeous, and the Zerg animations are particularly gross and vivid, including worm-like creatures swimming around in pools of goo as they mutate into your new structures.
Diablo III felt a little neglected. The game’s panels attracted only a fraction of the fans that showed up for anything related to WOW. The big highlight was the newly introduced monk class: The holy warriors fight with a combo-system based on fighting games, letting players pick and choose between three trees of attacks, so they might start by dashing into the fight, dishing out some damage to a bunch of bad guys, and making a monster spectacularly explode, destroying its nearby allies. The other classes were frustratingly fragile, or just bland by comparison.
In spite of all the huge news, the best part of the con might have been Friday night’s contests. Many fans crafted costumes based on specific WOW class gear sets, and these were recited the way announcers at a fashion show would call out designers, resulting in audience commentary like “That weapon isn’t even good for enhancement shamans.” Getups ranged from quirky to incredible, with the top prize going to a woman portraying the Mistress of Pain from Diablo. She spent a full year building an 80-pound arachnid body that she wheeled behind her while sporting serrated false teeth and an elaborate facemask. The sound-alike and dance contests were more hit-and-miss. But just when I didn’t think I could handle watching yet another guy voice an orc peon or attempt to disco dance, someone would bust into insane fast-stepping riverdance, or shriek a disturbing mix of ranting and avian screeching that perfectly mirrored a dungeon boss. By the end of the weekend, I was impressed with the ability of not just the designers, but Blizzard’s whole gaming community to do something epic.
Like, for instance, this truly creative piece of fan work, the music video which won first place in Blizzard’s video contest, and was screened at Blizzcon. The ballad tells the story of a player who decides to bring out his well-geared primary character to stop someone from repeatedly killing his lower-level character. The tune’s been stuck in my head for days.