World of Warcraft’s Diminishing Presence at BlizzCon 2016

As the month of November approached, I got to reminiscing about BlizzCon. For those of us that loved World of Warcraft and used to play it, the yearly BlizzCon event held by Blizzard was an obligatory annual MMORPG pilgrimage. Even long after I stopped playing, I would pay the $40 for the BlizzCon Virtual Ticket just to see the Blizzard artists and designers talk about their craft and a genre I love.

This year I was seriously contemplating purchasing the BlizzCon 2016 PPV event dubbed by Blizzard as a cerebration of epic games and an epic community. But after reading reports that many of the World of Warcraft panels would not be live-streamed, I declined. After watching the opening ceremony and some of the panels on YouTube I am glad I didn’t waste my money. The BlizzCon that I was hoping would rekindle my passion for WoW wasn’t the BlizzCon I remembered.

In the early days of BlizzCon, the fare was mostly about WoW. But the BlizzCon of today is all about e-sports and the MMO component of the BlizzCon schedule was just too sparse for me to pay the price of admission.

Blizzard: the ESPN of Video Games

For years, Blizzard’s master plan for world domination was to for them to be the ESPN of e-sports with BlizzCon as the showcase. In a way BlizzCon, is an annual Olympiad of e-sports for Blizzard games with millions of dollars in prizes awarded. One wonders if this gambit will pay off as it was recently noted that millennials are watching less televised sports events.

The ESPN vibe was felt throughout as Mike Morhaime’s opening ceremony speech was peppered with video clips of players competing with each other serenaded by the high decibel histrionics of sportscaster-like barking play by play commentary. Even the BlizzCon 2016 logo has a Super Bowl vibe.

As a MMO gamer, writer and video game designer, e-sports is not something I care about and it all very felt foreign to me.

Unfortunate Virtue Signalling

Morhaime closed his speech with corporate virtue signalling about gamers and community. He used the phrase “be good to each other”. The irony of this statement for a company that creates videos games that encourage players to express themselves in-game by committing acts of extreme violence on each other is precious indeed. This phrase is a reference to the latest moral panic called online bullying.

In recent years, a false narrative that gamers are bullying other gamers has been concocted by social justice warriors and propped up by various spineless video game companies who care more about political correctness than they do the actual gamers who buy their games. Frank Pearce who gave a speech about Diablo also used the term.

By continuing to beat the anti-bullying drum, Blizzard is perpetuating an innacurate stereotype about gamers. For a video game company that has done all they can to eliminate social interaction and cooperation between players in WoW to earn more profits, this is the height of hypocrisy.

Instead of uttering shallow platitudes that are simply attempts to immunize themselves from the ire of progressives, Blizzard should be creating game worlds with mechanics that reward cooperation and penalize anti-social behavior. But in the end profits and their e-sports fetish are more important than good design philosophy. Actions speak louder than words Blizzard.

Can Ion Hazzikostas Make Azeroth Great Again?

As I experienced BlizzCon 2016 via YouTube videos, one shining light at BlizzCon was Ion Hazzikostas who took the stage at the first WoW event of day. This was his first BlizzCon at the helm of WoW and he impressed me. For a D.C. lawyer that was the leader of the Elitist Jerks guild in WoW — they hosted a popular theory crafting website — he’s come a long way from being hired as a game designer. In his “World of Warcraft Legion: What’s Next?” speech he talked about MMOs in a way that nobody at Blizzard has ever talked about them before.

Here’s an excerpt from his speech courtesy of BlizzPlanet:

Next, we really want to double down on one of the magical things about the MMORPG genre. The fact that it’s a persistent online world where things are happening when you’re not necessarily around. It’s a world that’s growing. It’s a world that’s evolving and we want to really create this sense and instill this sense of a living world where you don’t necessarily know exactly what’s going to happen when you log in every day.

Obviously, you don’t know exactly what world quests or emissaries are going to be up, but there could also be random holidays, different events, things that are changing not just through patches but through just a scheduled unfurled content that make this a dynamic of all the living world…

Finally, there is someone at Blizzard who understands and values the design concept of persistence. Finally, there is someone at Blizzard who cares about making Azeroth into a dynamic living word where players can expect the unexpected. These are the design ideals that have been missing from WoW for far too long under the helm of Tom Chilton and others. Who would ever have thought that a person who made their bones on theory crafting would have the thoughtfulness and vision to care about bringing these values into the WoW bloodstream?

Hazzikostas showed great depth and understanding of what fantasy virtual world are about and what they should aspire to be about. I will also be watching to see if he implements this philosophy and the lessons learned from the Nostalrious legacy servers. What I saw gave me great hope that under Ion’s leadership Azeroth can be great again.

The WoW Question and Answer Panel Dog and Pony Show

The WoW Question and Answer panel held on Saturday was cringe worthy and disappointing. Blizzard (most likely J. Allan Brack) decided that WoW Trade Chat personality Panser — a bubbly and quirky YouTube e-celeb — would be the host. This was the first year that they’ve had someone host the panel. It soon became clear to why they chose this route: Blizzard loves to control the narrative.

Her purpose was to preside over a dog and pony show as all the questions were pre-screened in advance. It was quite evident that she had the names of the questioners and their questions all printed out in her hands so Blizzard knew exactly what the questions were beforehand. The deception was so obvious that at one point in the panel, a questioner failed to show up and Panser went ahead and read the question anyways.

In previous years, every Q & A session was unscripted but not this time. This was done for two reasons: 1) to avoid any Nostalrius supporters asking Blizzard about legacy servers  2) to prevent social justice warriors from asking questions about the inclusion of gay or transgender characters in WoW.

Executive WoW Produced J. Allen Brack — the Blizzard villain in the Nostalrius saga — was on the stage as a panelist and given the fact that all the questions were pre-screened to ensure that no embarrasing questions would be asked, it’s pretty obvious as to why he look so confident and comfortable: he knew that no embarrassing questions would be forthcoming.

Most of the Blizzard pre-selected questions were silly and inane. Like a uber boss showing up after the trash mobs are cleared, the famous Red Shirt Guy made his annual appearance with a question designed to stump the lore guy Alex Afrasiabi. This time Alex was ready for him and the uber boss went down to defeat with no ensuing YouTube moment to go viral.

The 2016 version of the WoW Q & A was a low point for BlizzCon that left a bad taste in my mouth. It made WoW fans look petty, shallow and ridiculous when many of them are highly intelligent, thoughtful and care about the genre. Of course, those fans weren’t allowed to ask questions. Even the Red Shirt Guy couldn’t save the panel this year.

The Shadow of Nostalrius

There can be no doubt that the shadow of Nostalrious loomed large over BlizzCon 2016. A week before, Blizzard let it be known that there would be no announcement regarding the establishment of official legacy WoW servers. This was a mistake and a cop out. Even if there weren’t quite ready to announce the availability of legacy servers, they could have at least publicly acknowledged the passion of the near million Nostalrious players and numerous supporters in the world.

Nostalrious

Many anxious Nostalrious fans were leaving tweets on Twitter asking about legacy servers and they were ignored. So much for community, so much for the fans that Blizzard claims they care about. It seems they are only important when they fit the Blizzard narrative.

Since the shutdown of the Nostalrious server, world-wide outrage and protest prompted Blizzard to invite the members of the Nostalrious team to Blizzard headquarters in Irvine for a conversation. The Nostalrious team worked hard at creating post-mortem documentation that detailed every aspect of the operation. It was impressive. Yet 4 months after the meeting Blizzard had failed to reach out to them and take them seriously. Despite that snub, the Nostalrius team went above and beyond the call of duty and offered to help Blizzard implement solutions that would integrate legacy servers with Battlenet and then some.

After BlizzCon 2016 ended without any gesture of acknowledgement from Blizzard, the admins of Nostalrious finally had enough and made an announcement and explained their situation and future plans in a post:

After the meeting with Blizzard, we continued to reach out regarding the issues they raised in order to help them as much as possible and to speed up the process of an official release. Trust us, we were ready to work like hell on that, even more than before in order to help WoW team. But we never received any response to these questions, even after 4 months. Then, we tried to show our motivation to solve the issues from a different angle by working on mature proposals (studies, cost analysis, schedules, milestones, etc.), including a complete transfer of technology of our existing work, fixing the few remaining issues we had, official Battle.Net integration on Legacy to enhance community driven strategy and other more complex IT topics, all of this on a volunteer basis. Why? Our only goal was to nullify as much as possible the impact of Legacy on the WoW team so that everyone could be pleased with the result. We knew that having even a single person from the current WoW Team working on Legacy might not be seen in a positive light by the Legion community, something we understand. Sadly, we never received any answers to these proposals either….

…So, it’s time for us to release our source code and additional tools to the community in the hope that it will maintain the Legacy community as much as possible until Blizzard announces an official Legacy plan – should they decide to do that.

I support the Nostalrious team 100% with their decision to release the source code to the public.

After years of design malpractice and endless tinkering, the WoW MMO experience has been greatly diminished. Blizzard has only themselves to blame for what has happened here. Their failure to implement legacy servers is a knee to the groin to the millions of WoW fans who loved and cherished the gameplay found in the vanilla WoW. The Nostalrious team and their community have my utmost respect because are the ones that are carrying the torch for the franchise not Blizzard who seem to exude arrogance and contempt.

Conclusion

This year was the first BlizzCon without Chris Metzen who recently departed the hallowed halls at Blizzard. In many ways, the mercurial Metzen was the creative and spiritual force behind so much of Blizzard. Like Steve Jobs was the face of Apple, over time Metzen came to be the face of Blizzard. Without Chris’s presence, BlizzCon 2016 seemed like a shadow of its former self. It’s like Van Halen without David Lee Roth — Van Halen in name only.

As Blizzard seeks to dominate the video game world, BlizzCon 2016 left me with the feeling that they don’t see MMOs as the future anymore. As e-sports gets all their attention, MMOs seem like an afterthought. Their spectacular failure to create a new MMO (project Titan) has permanently scarred them and they are only too happy to distance themselves from the genre and focus on trendier genres that cost less to produce.

With WoW occupying a smaller percentage of BlizzCon content, there seems to be fewer reasons for WoW fans to attend in person and subscribe to the pricey BlizzCon virtual ticket that skews heavily in favor of e-sports content. As a MMO fan, I’m not really interested in their e-sports fare or any other games that Blizzard produces other than WoW. If the current trend persists the lack of coverage for WoW at BlizzCon will only get worse in the future. The e-sports bias is so overwhelming is that all the e-sports segments broadcast at BlizzCon 2016 are free to watch but most panels and interviews are only available if you pay the fee for the virtual ticket. This is just more evidence that Blizzard is pushing their e-sports agenda hard. E-sports or nothing.

For years, both WoW and BlizzCon were symbiotic and synonymous with each other. Those days are gone. Over the years, both have deteriorated to the point that they are unrecognizable to those that played and attended their earlier incarnations. BlizzCon has changed because Blizzard has changed.

The changes started with Activision’s acquisition of Blizzard. The changes continued with the ill-conceived Cataclysm expansion created by the inexperienced Blizzard “B” team while the veteran “A” team was off trying to make Project Titan. These two tragic choices brought us to the Blizzard of today.

To put it all in perspective, we need to acknowledge that the e-sports focused Blizzard of today would never have been possible without WoW and the support of the thousands of dutiful WoW fans that come to Anaheim to pay to celebrate their beloved MMO. Similarly, the unparalleled success of WoW subsidized and financed the Blizzard 2.0 we see today.

I see no reason why World of Warcraft does not deserve its own yearly event hosted by Blizzard; it certainly has enough fans and a large enough community and subscriber base to support it. But this will never happen because on the road to world domination, Blizzard has lost its way. They started caring more about making money then making great games. That is the moral of the Nostalrious story that Blizzard would do well to contemplate.

-Wolfshead

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