BlizzCon 2014: Rumors and Speculations


Well, we are now only a day away from Blizzard Entertainment’s eighth BlizzCon convention, and as has become a sort of tradition here, I will aim to bring you as much coverage as I can while I watch the live stream. I’d like to get a bit of a head start this year by setting the rumor mill in motion.

The biggest question on everyone’s mind will inevitably be: what is Blizzard’s big opening surprise announcement? BlizzCon has traditionally been the company’s favorite venue to open the lid on secret projects and plans. The first BlizzCon introduced us to The Burning Crusade. In 2007 we learned of Wrath of the Lich King. 2008 gave us our first in-depth look at Starcraft II and Diablo III. 2009 brought Cataclysm, 2011 ushered in Mists of Pandaria, and 2013 introduced us to Warlords of Draenor. But 2010 was a bit of an anomaly. In 2010, we got nothing, and it’s probably no surprise that I remember that year the least of the four I followed.

Even numbers are off years for Blizzard. There was no BlizzCon 2012 for a reason; they had nothing substantial to announce. So where do we stand in 2014? It is too early to announce World of Warcraft 7. Diablo 3‘s Reaper of Souls expansion is less than a year old, and we’ve known about StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void forever now. There is Hearthstone. But as fun as it may be, it’s just a card game. So you might be thinking Heroes of the Storm, Warcraft: The Movie, or Project Titan.

Titan would be the best guess, as Blizzard’s biggest, most ambitious upcoming project. Except Blizzard canceled Titan in September. Yes, after seven years of development, Project Titan went the way of Starcraft: Ghost. This wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, either. Blizzard had been “reevaluating” the project for a year, aka deciding if they should can it, so it’s not as if this was going to be the big BlizzCon announcement and they had to change their plans at the last minute.

Hmm… A repeat of 2010 then? Maybe. Probably? If Blizzard have a truly new game in store for us this year, it’s going to catch everyone off guard. Blizzard trademarked the title Overwatch earlier this year, and that has gained a lot of attention for lack of anything more concrete to speculate over. Overwatch could just as easily be the next Hearthstone expansion though, following Curse of Naxxramas. I think we can safely assume Blizzard will pump one of those out a year as long as people are willing to keep buying them.

So what will the big opening showcase definitely not be? I remember hearing a rumor years ago that after WoW 5, which would be Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard were going to shrink their expansions from two years down to one. That’s stupid. I’ll believe it when I see it, and I’ll still think it’s stupid. There will be no World of Warcraft 7 announcement at this BlizzCon. It’s also not likely to be Warcraft: The Movie or Heroes of the Storm. How do I know? Because there are introduction and overview slots scheduled for both of these projects immediately following the opening mystery segment.

But wait, Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 are going to have “What’s Next?” segments on the panel stage after the opening. So that leaves ???. Maybe, just maybe, Blizzard have a really big announcement in store. But they have scheduled events in such a way that it appears to rule out all six of their currently known major projects. Blizzard take years upon years to develop new games. That is why we knew about Starcraft: Ghost for an eternity. That is why we knew about Project Titan for an eternity. That is why the Starcraft II announcements were really just icing on a cake we had long known was in the oven. Blizzard is a company with Duke Nukem Forever syndrome, not an organization that spits out new titles out of the blue in a year’s time. Whatever the gaping two hour gap between BlizzCon 2014’s Opening Ceremony and its first presentations and panels will be, I predict that it will be anticlimactic.

Still, why the secrets? If the space is just going to be filled by a general overview of everything Blizzard, surely they would tell us. They wouldn’t get our hopes up for nothing, would they?

Well, I have one idea. StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void. The one hour “What’s next?” panel certainly suggests that we won’t already know what’s next, but that could be misleading by intent. Wings of Liberty was released in July 2010. Heart of the Swarm came out in March 2013. At that pace, Legacy of the Void is due around November 2015, conveniently coincident with BlizzCon 2015 (where World of Warcraft 7 will be the obvious big deal). If Blizzard don’t want Legacy of the Void to go up in a puff of smoke, November 7, 2014, is the day to hype the shit out of it. They surely aren’t going to give it a measly one hour discussion on a side stage. Sure, it’s going to be more like Diablo III: Reaper of Souls than a big freakin’ deal, but Starcraft 2 needs more publicity. The Diablo series is now intimately tied with Warcraft. Every WoW subscriber owns the original D3, because you got a whopping year-long subscription free for buying it, and it only came out two and a half years ago. Starcraft 2 has been around for four and a half now, and let’s face it, the solo campaign for Heart of the Swarm was a boring letdown compared to Wings of Liberty. The game lacks casual players like me because it requires constant practice to maintain skill, so it competes with WoW for Blizzard fans’ time in a way that Diablo 3 doesn’t. It’s by far Blizzard’s best franchise, never mind that I’m a WoW junkie, and it’s been slowly isolating itself to Koreans and hardcore aficionados. My realid list is always capped at 100 players, and it’s totally normal for me to catch a WoW gamer playing Diablo or Hearthstone. Starcraft just never happens. It should, because it’s better than all those other games, but it doesn’t.

So what do you do at BlizzCon 2014? Hype the hell out of Legacy of the Void and announce a streamlined, highly publicized and consistently broadcasted esports league that brings the top tier of Korean competition to the front page of my Battle.net app every weekend. If I could watch Day[9] broadcast a Jaedong vs. Life zerg throwdown at the click of a button in my Battle.net interface, without having to dive into a foreign corner of the internet to find it, bye-bye raiding. And don’t worry Blizzard, I’ll still subscribe to do mindless fishing and archeology while I watch. The tail end of the SC2 WCS Global Finals is getting exclusive coverage with no overlap from other events on Saturday, so I’m pretty excited about that. And Day[9] is one of the tournament’s broadcasters. His commentary is always epic. I don’t know if that’s a sign of anything. Maybe it’s just a distant hope.

But are there any other options? Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s DotA-style free-to-play project, is getting one more hour of show time than any other project, and the official BlizzCon 2014 site background suggests it:

Kerrigan as a human, Arthas as a Death Knight, and a Diablo III Warlock all engaged in combat? That sounds like Heroes of the Storm to me. But then, if that’s the game they’re openly making a big deal about, it’s not going to be the secret surprise, is it? Well, I’ll break down the announced non-competition content and you be the judge:

World of Warcraft: 4 hours total
1 hour WoD changes overview
1 hour Content Q&A
1 hour Cinematics panel
1 hour Documentary

Warcraft: The Movie: 1 hour presentation

Diablo III: 2 hours total in two separate “What’s next?”-type panels.

Hearthstone: 2 hours total
1 hour “What’s next?” panel
1 hour Arena guide and strategy Q&A

Starcraft II: 4 hours total
2 hours total in two separate “What’s next?”-type panels.
2 hour “exhibition” on a side stage, no further information

Heroes of the Storm: 5 hours total
1 hour “Overview”
2 hour “exhibition” on a side stage, no further information
1 hour audio panel
1 hour character and team-building guide

*mysterious* Unannounced Content: 3 hours total
2 hours of empty space to follow the opening ceremony
1 hour of empty space on the main stage Saturday, 11:30 to 12:30.

The Reaper of Souls


Diablo_3_reaper_of_souls_box_art_0

There’s no need to be afraid. Spoilers do follow (to the extent that a Diablo game can be spoiled). You have been warned.

So, in the relatively recent (surprisingly still recent!) past… Blizzard Entertainment released a hilariously long-delayed sequel, which is sort of their hallmark, in Diablo 3. Probably everyone who had some interest in the Diablo franchise played it. And, in several ways, it was sort of the ultimate evolution of the Diablo formula and format. Is the storyline silly? Yes. In fact, it borders on preposterous. But it also holds together in a ‘good enough’ way to propel the action through a variety of beautifully rendered locales killing everything in sight. Reaper of Souls does not alter this formula. Presumably none of us tuned into Diablo for storytelling, right? It’s not an RPG. It’s a game where you click on monsters and kill them. Your reward is better loot, which makes it easier to click on monsters and kill them. It is weirdly absorbing in its way, but it is not high art. This is a game about a visceral experience; it is purely about fun.

And Diablo 3 was fun. It improved heavily upon Diablo 2. Each class can now be either sex! Each class now has a half dozen abilities in play at a given time, rather than just ‘left click’ and ‘right’ click… and the procedural generation, while still present, is a little more structured… or, at least, it feels a little more structured. Some areas seem to vary little between different playthroughs. To be perfectly honest, while it is a very competently produced game, a tight experience, with lovely graphics… I didn’t feel like I had $60 worth of game when I acquired Diablo 3. I think I eventually got enough play hours out of it to where I can shrug and move on… but I didn’t expect to find myself shelling out another $40 for Reaper of Souls. I did it anyway, though.

The good news is, for what fence-sitters may remain… Reaper of Souls is pretty good! Let’s discuss several reasons why:

– Act V. Act V is a massive act, easily twice the size of any of Diablo 3’s four acts. It comes complete with an entirely new selection of monsters, three major bosses with complex battle mechanics and a variety of environments, all of which are pretty cool. It’s hard not to respond to Act V as the best overall Act available in the game now. Act V, for those who haven’t been paying attention, follows the Nephalem’s quest to save the entire world of Sanctuary from a renegade angel, Malthael, whose exact plan remains unknown.

– Crusader. Crusader is the new class, a melee attacker like the Barbarian or Monk. The Crusader uses a weapon and shield style, though the weapon can be two-handed with the use of a passive skill slot. In play, they feel strong defensively, with a good area of effect capability. I have yet any of their legendary items with my own eyes, but the class does represent a new way to experience the game. I certainly can’t claim to have 60’d a Crusader, let alone 70’d… but I have played the Crusader, and it is good.

– Loot 2.0. I know this actually launched at the start of March, but it was part of the build-up to Reaper of Souls. I get how a company seeking profit would clamp onto the idea of the real cash auction house. I get how the economic power of the World of WarCraft Aution House could invite the creation of a similar body in Diablo 3… but even the most hardcore players I know would suggest that the existence of both cash and gold AHs was a mistake in Diablo 3. At best, they did nothing to improve the experience. In the real world, they significantly harmed it.

Now that the Auction House is gone… we get Loot 2.0. A universal improvement over loot 1.0, randomly generated loot now tends to generate according to your needs. Stats are much more likely to roll for your class, legendaries will (almost) always be for your class. Sets? I haven’t seen much of, despite a good number of hours invested… but I assume they adhere to similar principles.

– Bosses 2.0.

One area where Reaper of Souls really shrines is in boss design. Did you like the act bosses in Diablo 3? Because loot 2.0 comes with boss 2.0, and even without the expansion, the purple encounters throughout the game have been tweaked, revisited, improved… and it goes double for Reaper of Souls itself. Uzrael, the first of three significant act bosses, was more complex than the act bosses in Diablo 3… more complex than Baal had been in Diablo 2… Blizzard applying lessons learned from years of creating raid encounters for increasingly sophisticated MMO players. But there are balances to be struck, and they differ between products. A single character has to be able to confront Malthael at the finale of Reaper of Souls, and ultimately that’s as much a part of the game as 10/25 man raids are for World of WarCraft. This is a process that easily could have been screwed up, but instead it’s been implemented beautifully. Malthael’s encounter is an epic affair, featuring no easily discernible pattern, with Malthael possessing at least a dozen different types of attacks, some of which are not easy to dodge. He will test both your skill and your gear, and it was awfully satisfying to finally see him fall.

– Difficulty 2.0

Reaper of Souls heralds a new dynamic difficulty system for Diablo.. one that is based, more or less, on your gear… rather than your level. In Diablo 2, and again at Diablo 3’s launch, difficulty consisted of Normal, Nightmare, Hell, etc. difficulties, each higher difficulty “unlocked” by completing the previous one. In order to proceed, you have no choice but to play through the entire storyline, consecutively. It made it harder to just “jump in” to games with your friends unless they were in the same difficulty of the game, and the difficulty jumps generally were quite drastic.

Difficulty 2.0 attempts to smooth all of this with a much more dynamic difficulty system. Now, the player has access to a several ‘standard’ difficulty levels, and then Torment levels which are designed for high-level (60+ minimum) play. The higher the difficulty you play on, the bigger the bonus is to the player’s experience points earned, gold and item find. Since this sliding scale also stacks with the inherent bonuses from having multiple players in the game, high level runs on Torment difficulties with your friends can produce quick dividends in terms of loot. Of course, there’s always better loot just around the corner…

These are the most substantive changes. They were needed, they are positive, and if anything could re-invigorate the Diablo 3 experience for you… this patch and expansion will probably do it. The game features many other improvements, like customising items (both a single property of a given item can be swapped out, and its appearance ‘transmogrified’, using a new artisan in town), an expanded stash, re-worked items and class features, and so on.

There are two big negatives, however. They are intertwined, and they are compelling.

– $39.95 U.S.. And that’s not me getting overcharged for physical media at Wal-Mart. That’s from Blizzard’s digital store, through my Battle.net account. For an expansion? Ouch. Now, obviously, they did a lot of work on this one. Act V is big, Malthael is a bad ass, and all of the other updates and improvements were welcome… but it’s still a stiff price tag to pay for a game add-on. I’m suspicious of the idea that a new character class is really that big of an addition to this type of game. But there it is. They’ve already got my money.

– It’s still Diablo. That means that its replayability mileage for you [i]may vary[/i]. Just keep that in mind, before you shell out your hard-earned money. Still, if Diablo has always been something you’ve enjoyed, you will find this the most pleasing offering so far.

BlizzCon 2011: Opening Ceremony Overview


Better late than never, I just picked up my live feed of BlizzCon 2011. The event kicked off at 2pm my time, so I only have seven hours of catching up to do really, and they’ve improved their online feed tremendously this year: No lag whatsoever for the first time I can remember, and an easily accessible archive of past events. I’m hoping to make a number of posts today and tomorrow relaying some of the news. Just to give you an idea of what I’ll be focusing on, World of Warcraft is my primary interest, followed by Starcraft. Diablo I’ll be giving little if any attention to.

As usual, Blizzard threw out a few big surprises in the opening ceremony. Let me just start by detailing a few of the most important points in brief:

The first thing they announced, and really the thing I’m most excited about for the event proper, is a high-profile Starcraft 2 tournament. No more 30 second asides to show a few random segments of tournament between conference coverage–BlizzCon 2011 will feature a tournament broadcast in full. And while I am not as knowledgable in e-sports as I would like to be, it looks like they did a solid job of bringing in the pro commentators rather than using people inside the company. Day[9], whose Starcraft 2 strategies I talked about at length when the game first launched, will be involved in much of the commentary, along with a number of other names I recognized.

But that’s just what I’m looking forward to in the next two days. The long-term announcements are what you’re more likely to take interest in. Here’s a big one. I noted that Diablo 3 does not interest me much. As it turns out, I will be playing it anyway. Why? Because it is free.

Check this out. Blizzard CEO Michael Morhaime announced right off the bat that Diablo 3 will be free for World of Warcraft subscribers (and that the release date is still undetermined). A free trial? A demo version of the game? Not at all. The only catch is that you’ll have to pick up a one year subscription to WoW–not a heavy commitment if you’re interested in Warcraft to begin with. On top of a free digital download of the game in full, you’ll additionally get guaranteed access to the next World of Warcraft beta. Oh, and a flying horse mount that puts the celestial steed to shame: Tyrael’s Charger.

Not bad, eh? I’m still curious whether the one-year pass will be at the current discount rate you get for long-term subscriptions or if they will charge the single month rate for 12 months, but either way, count me in.

Following Michael Morhaime’s introductory announcement, the “slightly” more outspoken vice-president Chris Metzen took the stage in rock-star fasion, Dalaran theme blasting overhead. The upcoming game preview cuts came rolling in, starting with Diablo 3 and then preceding to “Blizzard Dota”, a game I have never heard of which looks awesome. Apparently they’re creating a cross-over fighting game which will pit Starcraft, Warcraft, and Diablo characters against each other and incorporate pvp elements of all three. The preview included Arthus fighting a siege engine and ended with “Coming Soon… Seriously.”

Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm got its trailer too, looking par for the course–that is, pretty awesome. The new units glimpsed in brief didn’t stand out to me much, though I’m sure they’ll be gone over in detail later in the convention. One that did catch my eye was a zerg unit that had… how should I describe it… a DK Death Grip.

But what I was really here for–what I really wanted to see–that came last. We all knew it was coming. It had to be coming. But until now I’d not heard a word about it: World of Warcraft 5.

The description Chris Metzen had to offer for the premise of WoW 5 excites me, as a major pvper, to no end. No super villians this time. No joint effort against a common foe. WoW 5 will focus on alliance against horde, straight up. The video certainly doesn’t reflect it though:

Remember the Pandaren pet Blizzard was selling a few months back? It is now a race, accompanied by some awesome Japanese-themed landscapes that will apparently comprise an entire continent: Pandaria. (Apparently Blizzard almost made Pandaren the alliance race in Burning Crusade in place of Draenei.) We can look forward to a new class I’d been expecting for a while now–monks–and the level 90 cap raise everyone expected. Is only the alliance getting a new race, will there be evil pandas too, or is there a new horde race yet to be revealed? That was my biggest question, and Metzen announced early in the post-ceremony interview that they would be more or less neutral–not only available to both factions, but as I understand it identical in racial abilities and appearance.

That’s it for the opening ceremonies. I’ll do my best to catch up and keep up from here on out.