Blizzard’s SnoozCon 2010: Same Old Song and Dance

As BlizzCon wound down this past Saturday, it suddenly dawned on me that the 2 day show has become a cliché. From the perspective of someone that watched the event taking place in Anaheim California on pay per view, everything about this year’s BlizzCon annual gamer love-in was utterly predictable just like the gameplay in their golden goose MMO WoW.

Most of the speeches and presentations were boilerplate fare including phony gamer and slacker Jay Mohr’s annoying drunken MC routine. The entire event seemed to be like one long obligatory fan ritual complete with cheerleaders posing as DirecTV hosts, the predictable class questions, the same old female night elf costumes and of course the endless tournaments.

Previous BlizzCon’s seemed more justifiable as an event as they were based on significant news-making announcements but this year’s meet-up had none except for the details about the new Demon Hunter class for the upcoming Diablo 3.

In the absence of new information I’m starting to wonder if Blizzard should keep hosting a yearly BlizzCon. Could anyone imagine Steve Jobs wasting his time giving a keynote speech at an Apple event with no new products being announced?

A Blizzard Amusement Park to the Rescue

I’d like to briefly interrupt this article with an idea I have. I’d like to preface it by saying that part of me sympathizes with gamers that like to take a break from actual gaming to congregate and openly celebrate their geek pride with like-minded folk. Perhaps what Blizzard fans really need is some kind of permanent shrine to all things Blizzard in the form of an amusement park like Disney World. They could build one in park California and another in South Korea.

At least Blizzard fans could attend instead of having to be turned away by scarce BlizzCon ticket availability.

It could be broken up into three areas: one for World of Warcraft, another for StarCraft and one for Diablo. Regarding the World of Warcraft area, it would be complete with theme park rides that represent all of the various expansions. Let’s not forget the Molten Core Grill that serves steak and barbecue, a wedding chapel called the Scarlet Monastery where players can get married and lots of souvenir shops and boutiques with other clever names.

But let’s get back to BlizzCon 2010…

Opening Ceremony Notes

Mike Morhaime’s feel-good opening ceremony speech releasing new subscription numbers and praising the virtues of passionate gamers was more of the same. At least he exudes an aura of genuine “aw shucks” humility about mega success of Blizzard Entertainment in the video game industry. However, the theme of trying to socially validate everyone by claiming that millions upon millions are playing is a constant drumbeat at Blizzard and left me somewhat uninspired.

Admittedly what I was really expecting was the endorphin rush of some big announcement.

But it was the cerebral yet affable Chris Metzen and his evangelical “Geek Is” presentation that rallied the faithful and was the highlight of the 2 day event. Under the protective banner of Blizzard, geeks, nerds, slackers and gamers can now be proud and take their rightful place in western culture.

Metzen is a man who understands and respects those giants that walked the earth before him as he paid respectful tribute to the likes of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and Lucas’ Star Wars among others.


Of all the people at Blizzard, Metzen is the one I respect the most. He’s the real genius and true soul behind Blizzard. If only he had a deeper appreciation and passion for role-playing within WoW. Unfortunately he is beholden to the notion that game designers should be storytellers. This is a common aspiration that is all the rage in the video game industry today. It’s like a child exclaiming to his parents: Look at me, look what I can do! Here’s the adult version: Look everyone! We are video game developers and we too can tell stories!

Praise for Most Blizzard Panels

Professionally speaking, I enjoy watching BlizzCon mainly for the panels where the exposition of the inner workings of game development is on display. I truly appreciated the brilliant and passionate presentations of most of the panels. I have a huge amount of respect for the integrity and passion of art team, the sound team and the cinematic team.

Open WoW Q & A Panel

So it comes as no surprise that the worst part of the 2 day event for me was the WoW Open Q & A panel. The way panels are structured is one-sided and ultimately favors Blizzard since they are hosting the event. There is no debate here. Since the panel members are under no obligation to answer or give honest answers to player’s questions the worth of this exercise is dubious despite its public relations value. It falls on the questioner to pose an artfully constructed question that’s forces the panel members into providing an answer.

Even if forthright answers are given, Blizzard is not obligated to follow through with the promises they make. See gold spammers, Frostmourne, Cataclysm racial talents and Path of the Titans from previous BlizzCons as prime examples of promises that were never fulfilled.

For the first time in WoW’s 6 year history, I sensed that the guys on the panel really couldn’t care less about what the faithful WoW fans were asking for. Buoyed by the success and dominance of WoW, this all-male group radiated a sense of over-confidence and smugness that you might see from a bunch of smarmy CEOs summoned to a congressional hearing. They seemed annoyed at the players that had come before them and that they had to actually field some questions.

A Night of Blizzard Comedy

A significant number of questions were given short-shrift, flat out ignored or rebutted with sophomoric attempts at humor — coincidentally something that often characterizes World of Warcraft quest dialog. WoW’s Production Director J. Allen Brack was probably the worst offender of the lot as he routinely poked fun at questioners.

The worst incident was when he mocked a lady who rightfully asked for an in-game closet to store her quest and festival items. Despite the fact that her question was met with thunderous applause and even a respectful answer from Tom Chilton, the wannabe funnyman Brack could not help himself and quipped:

J. Allen Brack: What I’m interested in is, how excited are you guys to play World of Dresscraft?

Here’s a woman just sharing a common frustration that most WoW players have by asking for more storage space.  But Brack feels the need to reply with a silly straw man argument that somehow World of Warcraft will turn into a MMO about collecting dresses all because a player would like to have a closet to store her wardrobe in. Are you serious?

More flippancy was on display when another female attendee challenged the panel to create some alternatives to the scantily clad armor that is being offered for female avatars.

Female: I love what you guys have done with World of Warcraft. I love that you have a lot of very strong female characters. However, I was wondering if you could have some that don’t look they stepped out of the Victoria’s Secret catalog?

Tom Chilton: Which catalog would you like them to step out of?

Real funny stuff guys. I’m sure when WoW eventually dies they’ll be jobs waiting for you at Comedy Central.

Not a Role-Player Among Them

This BlizzCon got me thinking more about Blizzard’s obsession with telling stories. As the exposition of story has become the prime directive of all Blizzard products including WoW, it has surreptitiously replaced what used to be considered MMO role-playing. Instead of the players being the focal point, the player becomes an actor playing the part in the game designer’s story. The story — not the player — is supreme.

Role-playing is no longer needed because it is pointless when you know how every quest will end. No skill or effort is required of the mass public in this amusement park ride. Just keep clicking on the yellow exclamation marks. Once you grasp this, suddenly it all becomes clear why Blizzard cares little for “RP”.

There’s another reason why RP is given such disrespect: it’s just not important to the the males that create and rule the WoW universe. After all, real men don’t role-play. So it’s easy to see why Alex Afrasiabi was taken aback when a male WoW player asked him for a simple in-game RP information panel for his character.

Given this inclination, the inclusion of RP mechanics and features such as player housing will probably never be implemented due to their failure to consider anything beyond their personal preferences and biases. But somehow the “dance studio” mechanic is a vitally important to the badass gangstas at Blizzard and sure enough they are planning on releasing it in the future. Bravo guys!

I also noticed the absence of an items and professions panel this year. If they don’t think professions are important enough to merit a panel then it’s doubtless that they’ll ever consider a role-playing panel at a future BlizzCon.

Blizzard’s New MMO

Lastly, the lack of any new information regarding the upcoming new MMO was the biggest disappointment of BlizzCon 2010. Rob Pardo in an interview with DirecTV’s Geoff Keighley stated that there will be no announcement regarding the new Blizzard MMO at least until 2012 and probably even later. He also revealed that they currently have 50 people working on the project.

This suggest to me that Blizzard is running into problems with their new MMO. Perhaps they are realizing that it’s not so easy creating a new MMO genre from scratch. This time they don’t have the luxury of having an equivalent to Diki-MUD and EverQuest around as free product research from which they can borrow from and innovate on. Maybe, just maybe, the Blizzard design A-team isn’t as talented as they think they are.

Here’s an exclusive interview of Mike Morhaime at from Gametrailers.com where he talks about Blizzard, Cataclysm and the new MMO:

I suppose given enough years, millions of dollars and a sprinkle of pixie dust they’ll probably stumble on to something that works and then they’ll put the famous Blizzard polish on it. By the time that MMO is released — which could be well into the middle of this decade — other original MMOs and virtual worlds will have hopefully transcended Blizzard’s unambitious and derivative design philosophy.

Conclusion

BlizzCon 2010 left me disappointed. The inflated egos on display from some at Blizzard were reprehensible. Even the incurious nature of the questions from the players was a letdown. The novelty of the whole spectacle has worn off and the lack of any serious announcements made me realize it’s really a news driven event. I found myself more excited about Diablo 3 than I was the future of WoW.

If BlizzCon is a state of the union for the leader of the MMO industry then the message seems to be stay the course. Regardless of Chris Metzen’s rousing speech, WoW seems to be on cruise control with no inspiring developments or innovations forthcoming. Brilliant art, animations and sound aside, this is as good as it gets people.

With respect to MMO design and philosophy, a critical turning point has been reached. Blizzard is no longer the leader and instead has become a reactionary force as the guardians of the status quo. A shame really, that a mindset of complacency and risk aversion has stagnated the minds of the senior development team as they revel in their comfortable position as the industry leader.

-Wolfshead

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