BlizzCon 2011 Aftermath: Before the Thrones of the Virtual Gods

If you could ask God one question what would it be? Would you ask a deep question such as what is the meaning of life or would you waste your question on something trivial like how to remove bubble gum from a sole of a running shoe?

If you happen to be a disciple of World of Warcraft and can make the pilgrimage to BlizzCon, you actually can ask the virtual gods of Azeroth a question. This was the case at BlizzCon 2011 held this past weekend in Anaheim where thousands of true believers assembled before the thrones of the gods of Azeroth. In fact one player actually praised Greg Street Lead WoW Designer and outright called him “a god”.

What did I think of BlizzCon 2011 and the Mists of Pandaria preview and what does this mean for WoW?

BlizzCon 2011 General  Impressions

This year was the first year I watched BlizzCon pay per view event without having an active subscription to World of Warcraft or any other Blizzard products. So I had no skin in the game as a player.

As a game designer and MMO commentator, BlizzCon is compelling on many different levels. As a designer I appreciate the behind the scenes “under the hood” look at the creative process of making MMOs. As a commentator I enjoy watching and evaluating the interactions between the fans and the developers. Finally, as regular person, I enjoyed the spectacle that is BlizzCon from a purely entertainment perspective: this includes the rousing introduction by Chris Metzen, the wacky costumes, the Blizzard panels, the dev interviews and other related activities.

Blizzard’s Proud Attitude

I was hoping for some indication that Blizzard has become humble after losing 2 million subscribers — I was disappointed to say the least. There was no hint of “we screwed up” on the faces of the lead devs like Tom Chilton was as cocky and smug as ever. Even J. Allen Brack brought his usual snarky, self-satisfied smirk with him. You’d think that after releasing an expansion that lost 2 million subscribers someone would have been fired but the same people were sitting on the stage this year with the exception of Alex “Furor” Afrasiabi who has joined Jeff “Tigole” Kaplan to work on World of Star…I mean Titan.

Blizzard is in trouble with WoW but you’d never know it even though Star Wars the Old Republic MMO looms in the horizon like a menacing Death Star. The only possible hint that Blizzard is acknowledging this threat is the fact that they are now bribing players with a free copy of Diablo 3, an amazing flying mount, and a WoW beta test invite if they will commit to 12 months of a WoW subscription. This is what desperation smells like.

By leveraging the assured popularity of Diablo 3, they can prop up their declining subscriber numbers to continue to fool investors that WoW is still a viable MMO.

The WoW Community Taking Sycophancy to a New Level

Probably the worst thing about the entire weekend other than Jay Mohr’s predictable slacker comedy routine was the banality of the WoW fans that ambled to the microphone to ask questions in the Open WoW Q&A Panel. The caliber of the questions was abysmally low.

Most of the questioners seemed to be selfishly concerned about the personal power of their own characters and classes. When they weren’t complaining about their own class they were heaping praise upon their virtual benefactors.

There were almost no tough or thoughtful questions posed to the Blizzard “B Team” devs who have presided over a MMO in decline with 2 million subscribers who have vanished like prime rib at an all you can eat buffet. Naturally when you consider the cost of a BlizzCon ticket, the airfare, the accommodations, the meals it’s easy to see why someone who was critical of Blizzard would not spend thousands of dollars for that privilege of confronting the virtual gods of Azeroth.

One thing I did notice was that the questions coming from the players attending the Open WoW Lore Panel were of a higher quality. Role-players and lore junkies make me proud!

Still, it’s regrettable that again BlizzCon attendees missed a great opportunity to knock the Blizzard panel from their ivory pedestals by failing to demand some form of accountability from them. It seems as long as the spice is flowing in the form of new content all is forgiven.

Missteps of Pandaria

After taking a hard look at the feature set of the new expansion Mists of Pandaria I see some good things, bad things and some ugly things that will affect the future of this MMO.

[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyeZ8khSEC0′]

The Good: Talent Revamp, Outdoor Bosses and PVE Scenarios

The talent revamp is brilliant and would make Steve Jobs proud. They have taken an overly complex talent system and reduced it to a masterpiece of elegance and simplicity with a choice of one key talent offered every 15 levels. Whomever is responsible — possibly Greg Street — should be commended for this. I used to get so tired of having to spend hours researching talent builds on forums after every patch just so I can play my class effectively.

Outdoor raids are back with random boss mobs roaming the outdoors! Finally Blizzard is realizing that there is indeed a “world” in the World of Warcraft that exists outside the artificial contrivance of instanced content. Outdoor bosses means there will be competition for mobs; competition for limited resources breeds conflict, drama and cooperation — these are elements that are sorely missing from today’s overly scripted amusement park ride MMOs.

Blizzard is introducing a new class called the monk. Thankfully it’s not a hero class! Thank you to Tesh and Longasc for reminding me on Twitter that I predicted this and even the race of the new class back in 2009 in an article entitled “Predicting the Next Hero Class“.  I think the monk will be a breath of fresh air for WoW and Blizzard has even decided to take a bold risk by eliminating auto attack to make the class feel more unique.

PVE scenarios which will involve smaller groups of players could end up being a great idea that helps to evolve quests from the “kill 10 rats” formula to more meaningful highly scripted content that is more relevant to the situation of the NPCs in the world around them.

The Bad: Pandaren, Pandaria, Pokemon and the Music

Allowing players to play panda humanoids “Pandaren” is a terrible mistake that will make Blizzard the laughing stock of the MMO world and will haunt them for years to come. The inclusion of these walking, dancing bears makes WoW look like a children’s MMO. It makes a complete mockery of the fundamental premise of WoW: a serious world that in a state of perpetual war.

What were they thinking? They were probably thinking “we are Blizzard, we can do anything and our fans will lap it all up…”. That is precisely the kind of hubris that can cause a company to crumble.

What is even more disturbing is that the art direction of Pandaren monk seems to be a outright copy of the character in the 2008 movie Kung Fu Panda starring Jack Black. There is even a MMO called KungFu Panda World by Dreamworks.

I believe that this expansion is going to huge turn off for many of the teenage males in search of mature content that saw this movie as boys. It’s hard to imagine what demographic that Blizzard was appealing to by offering the Pandaren as a playable race.

I also have to wonder what the Chinese government will think of a race of Panda humanoids that can be killed by NPCs and other players. This is a risky move for a company that seems to have a particular talent of pandering to Chinese sensibilities (apparently skeletons are taboo in their culture and Chinese versions of WoW have no skeletons as PCs or NPCs).

Pandaria

Even worse is the garish and highly derivative land of Pandaria itself. The art direction and design sensibilities of Pandaria are a combination of every oriental stereotype taken from martial arts and Hollywood films. The oriental alphabet is plainly visible on art assets and the architecture has been directly lifted from decorative Chinese temples. In the past Blizzard have been masters at synthesizing new architecture for their races but in this case they have utterly failed to infuse the Pandaren structures with enough originality and have taken the easy way out in their outright copying of oriental structures.

Even the landscapes seem to exude and embody a Disneyesque and Epcot Center contrived cheeriness. Take a look at pictures of the real China and for the most part you see a harsh, desolate and denatured land not the bucolic paradise that Blizzard seems to have created for the blissful, erect and peaceful Pandaren.

Even the Pandaren starting zone which is built on the back of a giant swimming turtle (that conveniently never submerges itself) challenges the limits of incredulity. Just when you thought Blizzard has jumped the shark they find a bigger shark to jump.

The Music

The faux oriental music is dreadful in its attempt to encapsulate almost every oriental musical cliche. It is grating and nauseating with the endless whine of a Chinese violin. Having to suffer entire leveling experience and expansion with this music may prove to be unbearable for some.

The Ugly: Pokemon Pets

It’s hard to believe that WoW has turned into Nintendo’s Pokemon because this is exactly what the vanity pet turn-based combat feature sounds like. Vanity pets will be collectible and tradable just like Pokemon pets. Players will also be able to level up pets as well. It’s hard to believe that the very same Blizzard lead devs that continually nix player housing and still haven’t found the time to improve character art/animations could have approved of something as outright childish and silly as this feature.

It’s another example of poor judgment and generational disconnect of the WoW “B Team” that has taken over the reins of this once respectable MMO.

Conclusion

After watching BlizzCon 2011, I still have a tremendous amount of respect for the people that work at Blizzard. They are incredibly talented and passionate. But something is terribly amiss that even the Red Shirt Guy could not save. The folks in charge at Alton Parkway have lost their mojo.

Mists of Pandaria is a fatal miscalculation on Blizzard’s part. We all knew the day would come when WoW would start its eventual decline. If it wasn’t clear after the release of Cataclysm then it’s certainly clear now with the news of the Mists of Pandaria — an April Fool’s joke come to life like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Look at the number of negative votes in the official YouTube video of Mists of Pandaria and you can see the shocking depths of player dissatisfaction out there. No other official YouTube Blizzard expansion video has every received this kind of negative rating.

While there are some good and interesting features coming in Mists of Pandaria the poorly designed and highly derivative features such as Pandaren, Pandaria and pet combat will negate them to a degree that is unimaginable for a Blizzard product. Blizzard has forgotten what the spirit of WoW was all about and has decided to insult the intelligence of its players with this infantile, farcical and self-indulgent expansion.

If I wanted to kill a serious MMO, I don’t think I could find a better way than introducing a playable race of goofy looking walking bears. Any credibility that Blizzard had in the MMO realm has vanished with this horrible decision. What we are witnessing is the unprecedented transformation of an adult MMO into a children’s MMO right before our very eyes.

In the weeks and months ahead, I predict there will be a major backlash and uprising on part of the WoW players to save their MMO.  Who knows there might even by a kind of #OccupyAzeroth movement started by concerned players to drive out the money-changers from the temples of Azeroth. There is only one solution: this expansion should be cancelled immediately and taken back to the drawing board.

If Blizzard fails to heed the growing player discontent with this expansion and does nothing, WoW will die an early death. Combine that with the upcoming release of SWTOR MMO, I predict a tipping point will be reached causing a mass exodus from WoW of biblical proportions. After that, all that will remain are virtual gods without virtual followers.

-Wolfshead

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