This past weekend I braved the tangled web of deceit and lies that is commercial air travel to haul myself out to Anaheim, CA for Blizzard Entertainment's first attempt at a convention, "Blizzcon". Like any con there were good times and bad times but considering they had turnout on par with other major conventions and the fact that this was their first pass at a solo con, the result was nothing less than the level of excellence that we have come to expect from Blizzard.
It is very obvious that the developers have been working overtime to bring a TON of new features to World of Warcraft and Starcraft Ghost. I was impressed by the amount of care and attention to detail with so many of the new features. It is quite obvious that the developers have been listening to the general population and life is good.
Starcraft Ghost players were in the definite minority when it came to pure obsession but it should be no less exciting to fans of Blizzard games and console games in particular. Amidst the sea of Xbox consoles that they had set up for players to use I managed to find a seat (briefly, after all, without WoW every couple of hours I get the shakes) and kill a few space marines. The main thing to be noted about Ghost is the aiming interface (or lack thereof). This seemed to be the most talked about aspect of the game after the excitement of playable zerg wore off. Yes, don't let that be too much of a side note, there are playable zerg in all of their infinite sexiness. My corrupted space marine killed more than a few of his previous brethren. The aiming interface, however, made me feel like I was playing with oven mitts on, a fact that the developers also commented on. The promise is that this particular piece of functionality is nowhere near where it will be before they release and seems to be one of the main things that they are working on. The only other complaint that I heard among a sea of praise was that the Terran faction seemed to be horribly "under balanced". At first I couldn't help but agree with this assessment. My FPS skills, especially on the console, are about as bad as Jonathan Wendell's are good. Even with my lack of skill I seemed to be able to dominate over the Terrans most of the first day of the con. However, coming back the second day this was certainly not the case. The Terran faction is a much more "cerebral" gaming experience, you have to learn how to aim, drive vehicles, protect your assets, and work together. Once you are able to master these facets however the Terrans become a horribly lethal race. Definitely keep an eye out for this title as I'm sure it will provide countless hours of entertainment through both a solid single player campaign and a running tally of turning your friends into pixelated giblets.
The World of Warcraft expansion "The Burning Crusade" made its debut this weekend and promises a new race for each faction which was actually a point of quite a bit of resentment from alliance players. The horde's new race, Bloodelves were an incredibly polished race with a promising future in the overall WoW universe while the alliance were left with empty speculation as to what their race would be. The press room seemed to be an endless stream of people trying to squeeze even the smallest piece of information out of the developers about the alliance race to no avail. Do not despair alliance, you may have met disappointment in your new race but patch 1.9 will be your salvation. The rest of the expansion also promised raising the level cap to 70, the opening of the Dark Portal revealing the continent of "Outland", flying mounts, several new instances, Jewelcrafting (the newest profession on the block), socketed items, and quite a bit more. I feel like I am back in the days before beta, waiting on the edge of my seat for any news and counting the days until release.
The upcoming patch also offered quite a bit of excitement for the future of Warcraft. Paladins, who many have considered the longest running joke in World of Warcraft appear to be getting a breath of fresh air. (CT: /dance) The announcement was made and it was as if a million angry shaman cried out in terror and then went silent. The class discussion panel actually spent about 2/3 of the alloted time talking about and answering questions regarding the paladin. The highlight of the new paladin abilities seem to be a greater separation and enhancement of the three talent trees allowing paladins to further specialize into their role as a healer, a tanker (aggro management abilities ala taunt were promised!), or a damage dealing machine. The one announcement that drew more cheers and applause than any other during the weekend was the news that Paladin's would be receiving new blessings that would last 15 minutes in duration. This news alone was enough to draw the complete adoration of every alliance player in the room but when the noise quieted down the developer on the stage was able to further clarify that these 15 minute blessings would be castable by class over the entire raid! This means that if a paladin casts this "group blessing" of might on a rogue, every rogue in the group would get that same buff for 15 minutes. After this the crowd seemed to disintegrate into a gibbering mass of disbelief and excitement seeing nothing but stars for the next few seconds or days, it was hard to tell. The only other thing that could rival this news in terms of excitement was the promise of linked auction houses in every major city. It is very clear to me that a lot of overtime and TLC has been worked into the upcoming additions to the World of Warcraft universe and I cannot wait to see what else they have in store.
Each panel seemed to be custom tailored to fit one or several of the developers consuming obsessions so the level of "exciting news" in each panel really helped to drive the convention at the same frenzied pitch the whole weekend. The "Items and Professions" panel was certainly no different. Some of the more exciting news was that both Tailoring and Alchemy will be getting specialization trees akin to the Blacksmith/Weaponsmith/Armorsmith setup. Word on the street is that Alchemy will get three choices (Elixers, Potions, and Transmutations) but still no word on what tailors will get. There was a shouted suggestion from the back of the room for "Shadoweave Tailoring" followed by a great pause from the presenter and a mumbled "duly noted" which elicited quite a laugh from the crowd. More news on the items and professions front was that epic items will now disenchant into "nexium crystals" for the new high level enchants, new caster items will have a "proc on cast" ability, spell penetration vs spell resistance will be much more pronounced, new tier two graphics (no more placeholders!), enchanters will be getting a new UI for sorting their recipes (thank god), and the new dungeons will offer upgrades to existing spells based on your items. The only other major news to come out of this panel was the unveiling of their new profession "Jewelcrafting" which will have the ability to make necklaces, rings, crowns, and mystic gems that you can place into the new socketed items. The amount of customization and variation that the new items being worked into the game offer is quite exciting and seem to promise that World of Warcraft will remain (at least in the near future) a very dynamic experience for everyone from the casual player to the seasoned power gamer.
The general con floor offered many other distractions once I was able to tear myself away from the individual shiny bits that could have held me enthralled for several days. The vendor area was relatively small compared to most cons (especially for the amount of potential consumers) but Microsoft was in attendance and bought popularity through a live DJ, comfortable couches, and a fully stocked snack bar complete with what can only be called a butler-esque attendant. Intel, Creative, and NewEgg all had booths with computers allowing you to playtest their hardware with the new expansion which was one of the best kept secrets of the con by the players who didn't want to wait in the 3 hour expansion line. NVidia had a green screen where you could get your picture taken with your friends in one of six locations around Azeroth. Western Digital had a few shiny boxes to catch your eye, a coupon to tempt your wallet, and a flashing bouncy ball that you could annoy your hotel roommates with until the wee hours of the morning. The Penny Arcade crew was there in force with enough t-shirts for an army and indeed many of the con denizens were sporting "Rogues do it from behind" or "/spit" shirts after the first few hours of the con. Unfortunately (or fortunately I suppose) for the Penny Arcade guys, Blizzcon came equipped with TWO armies and they were pretty much sold out long before the con ended.
My last panel of the weekend was the combined Penny Arcade, PVP, and GU Comics event. The guys jumped right into questions, handling the crowd with an ease born of time in the webculture limelight. The quick wit and topical humor held the audience enthralled and laughing right up until Caydiem (one of the Blizzard moderators) called for the last question. The questions that they fielded covered a wide range of aspects but most people seemed to want to know where each of the artists drew their inspiration from. After the third or fourth rephrasing of this question Mike "Gabe" Krahulik chimed in that when looking for inspiration on a comic about a dinosaur raping someone he generally looked to Charles Shultz. Krahulik's usual deadpan delivery drew a hearty laugh from the audience and pretty much laid that particular line of questioning to rest. These panelists proved once again that they continue to keep their thumb on the pulse of the gaming community and are rewarded with the respect and adoration of many.
Regardless of how you felt about the convention itself the wrap-up concert on Saturday really helped the con go out with a bang. The act started out a little slow with an in-house act called "Level 60 Elite Tauren Chieftain" (say that 10 times fast) who seemed to be an old axel rose impersonator turned death-metal band. I admit it wasn't exactly up my alley but they made a good showing as a garage band in their first ever live performance. What a way to start, too, playing as an opening act for The Offspring and getting to use some of their cool toys. The second act was comedian Christian Finnegan who seemed content to perch himself firmly on the fence between insulting the crowd and identifying with growing up as a geek. He drew quite a few laughs but proved to be a poor segue between two pretty intense acts. This was something he commented on when he mentioned that Blizzard had put a heavy metal band on the stage to whip the crowd into a frenzy and then tossed the "worlds biggest pussy" in front of them. I am glad that he put the crowd in a generally good mood because we were forced to wait almost an hour with no explanation before The Offspring were able to take the stage. Once they took the stage, however, it was pure showmanship and excitement until the end. Approaching this concert from a geek perspective there was one thing that I couldn't help but notice, the lighting was fantastic. Now, many people may laugh at this observation but in addition to a great performance by The Offspring their lighting tech looked more like an artist painting his masterpiece than some random roadie who was just along to make the band look good. He freehanded almost as much as did with cues and it was tough to decide what to watch, the main stage or the tech stage as they were equally impressive.
Blizzcon was a great experience and a hell of a "first try" for a convention. One of the real strengths of this con was the ability for the core of Blizzard (the developers and upper management) to really make themselves available to the common man. I even noticed the president and lead developers wandering the showroom floor and stopping to talk to J. Random Citizen. This meeting of the "old guard" of Blizzard also made something that has been rather intangible in the past very clear. While the core of Blizzard that has weathered so many storms together is still just as strong as ever their "public face" is really struggling to keep up. I remember the days of beta and even early launch when the in game GM's were helpful, courteous, and knowledgeable. I even sent several glowing letters of review to their superiors because it was such a welcome change from the Sony mafioso in Star Wars Galaxies that I had just come from. A prime example of how the public relations folk are really struggling was the press/vip line during con check-in. A regular con badge could be accessed and retrieved in a matter of seconds due to a neat little database check-in program written by one of their technophiles. A press/vip pass however could only be found by thumbing through each and every pass, they didn't even have a list of who was authorized. This led to the "loss" of my badge and if it hadn't been for the use of my wife's badge (general admission) I would have missed the unveiling of the expansion, waiting until noon before they could figure things out.
We all need to remember that Blizzard is still the new kid on the MMO block and in many ways is still trying to "find themselves." The public relations department is working overtime to try and catch up to the overwhelming demand that WoW has generated and they are not doing a bad job. However, the problem comes in the fact that due to their inexperience they are trying to emulate other companies that have had some measure of success on the MMO scene, this is the worst thing that they could do. Blizzard gained a large degree of success from not doing things the same old tired way that other companies had already tried. It is my hope that Blizzard came away from this con with just as much learned as their fans did. If, in true Blizzard fashion, they were able to come up with a public relations solution that is all their own and no one else's their fans would love them for it.
I imagine that next year their organization will certainly be much more adept and they will be able to shorten their lines and wait time for many of the different attractions. Given the overwhelming attendance and success of this con I foresee many different vendors trying to get on board possibly leading to a separate vendor hall entirely which I think would help to alleviate some of the lines along with bringing more money into the con. Blizzard may be playing to a very limited audience in terms of scope, but sheer numbers and overwhelming loyalty seem to be more than enough to ensure that Blizzcon will continue to be a successful con for years to come.