It shouldn’t be a secret around here that I’m a fan of Blizzard and their games… I’ve been enjoying their output dating back to Warcraft II, one of the first games I ever bought for my first PC after I got a CD-ROM drive (remember the days of the “quad speed” CD-ROMs… good times). I’m currently a WoW player and I own pretty much every game they’ve ever released. In fact, I own the Collector’s Edition of every game that came out, save one (Star Craft II: Wings of Liberty, it’s like my Cloud City of video games).
All that is basically to say that it hurts me to write some of the stuff I’m about to write. I want to love Blizzard and the products they make…
This past weekend was BlizzCon, the yearly, impossible-to-get-tickets, con, that’s ostensibly there to cater to the biggest fans of Blizzard products. These are people who spent thousands (between tickets, travel, and hotels) to be there. Everything about a con like this should be focused on the fans and what they are there for. This year, somehow, Blizzard failed on this one basic goal, and managed to piss off just about everyone interested in the con.
The signs that this was going to go, let’s say, poorly, were there before the actual event. I’ve never actually gone to the Con in person… I’ve never even tried to get tickets to it. But for the last few years, they’ve offered the “virtual ticket” that lets you live stream the panels and presentations, and get some of the digital goodies for all of the games. It’s a very niche product, but a good way to enjoy the Con without having to deal with crowds and hotels and travel. What can I say, I don’t like crowds.
The other years that they’ve offered it, what you got was pretty consistent: A pet or a mount of WoW, a Skin for Overwatch, a Legendary card for Hearthstone, and goodies for Starcraft II, Diablo III, and Heroes of the Storm. If you were only wanting those, the price may have seemed steep at $40, but when you put the streaming on top of it, it wasn’t a terrible deal (at least in my mind).
This year, however, they increased the price by $10, but never explained why. Worse the digital goodies (which, it should be noted, are also part of the physical tickets), got much worse this year. For WoW… you get a cloak transmog and a flag “toy”… basically a skin for your cloak based on faction, and a toy is a collectable that does something small or fun for your character only. Now, by themselves, not bad… but for any player, they have less value than a pet or a mount. For a lot of us, by a rather significant amount…
Other games got some worse cuts… Hearthstone offered a card back some packs, 2 from each expansion, but that has little value to dedicated players of the game. Overwatch got a fun skin for Sombra, Starcraft II got some appearance items, and Diablo III gets a minipet. These are all the same, or less, than before… but the bad thing is that most won’t be delivered until next year sometime.
The real middle-finger with this is that the reason for the cuts is so they could include a time-limited, feature limited, and what I’m going to call exceptionally terrible, demo for the upcoming Classic WoW Servers. Full disclosure, I couldn’t care less for Classic WoW. I had a ton of fun back in that time, but I am not the player or person I was back then. I’m glad for people who want it, and enjoy looking forward to seeing the people who had been playing on the emulator servers tie themselves into knots about why they won’t pay for the service this time, but it ain’t for me. Here though, you’re basically paying for a stress test that has a few levels of the worst part of old Vanilla WoW for the alliance, pre-mount lowbie zones, no instances to run. Have fun paying all that money to go kill hundreds of buzzards and wolves. So, enjoy the unpaid QA stress testing, I guess.
During BlizzCon, the actual news for WoW was mostly just disappointment. They spent most of the presentation giving details that were not only already known, but have been posted on their website for some time (the allied races coming up in the next patch). They detailed a new dungeon, which might have been fun, but then promptly threw a mess of cold water on it by making it a “Mythic only mega-dungeon,” which means the vast majority of players won’t even try it. You think they would have learned… they did something similar with the remake of Karazhan in Legion last expansion. After that, they basically told us what we already knew for the patch after that, since they’ve been teasing the “big bad” of this expansion since before it launched.
If you watch the live streams of the event, the word that might best be used is “tepid” when you describe the response. There wasn’t anything big or huge, nothing that elicited a bunch of screams like last years madness. If you don’t follow it, last year, they announced three huge things for WoW at BlizzCon: that unique mounts were being introduced for every class, that we were finally going to Argus (something that has been teased in Blizz lore dating back to Warcraft 3), and that there was a whole new expansion coming after that. It was a crazy, bold, and ambitious plan, and they actually pulled it off. This year, they basically said “okay, we’re going to take it easy and kind of ride it out).
The only really interesting thing to come with the WoW news wasn’t about WoW directly… it’s that Warcraft III is going to get the same HD treatment that Starcraft did. WC3 is a fairly underrated game… most WoW players haven’t tried it, and I know a lot of people that played Warcraft 2 that skipped the 3rd one entirely. But, when it comes to story, it’s the foundation of basically everything that WoW was built upon… and it’s worth playing for the first act, and the fall of Arthas, alone. Of course, even this can’t go without some nonsense, given that you can currently pre-order the game that doesn’t have a release date yet and get a custom mount in WoW. Look… Activision gotta Activision.
So… WoW fans felt underwhelmed (at least we can just go watch the Warbringers videos, I guess), and a lot of us skipped the virtual ticket entirely to just watch clips released after the fact or read new articles. Overwatch fans got a similar meh, with a new hero being announced and not much else of substance. Hearthstone got an expansion announcement, which would be special if they weren’t releasing two or three of them a year. Blizzard continued to forget that Heroes of the Storm and Starcraft II are also games they technically support.
Diablo fans, on the other hand, were probably a lot more stoked going into this. Blizzard had been teasing Diablo news, and “multiple” announcements related to the game. The game itself had been generating a lot of buzz lately, with the Switch release, and fans have been waiting, let’s say, impatiently, for the announcement of a new game.
Now, before I get into exactly how far Blizzard shoved its head up its own butt while simultaneously swallowing both feet, I want to talk about entitlement and toxicity in gaming. The reality is… gamers, especially “hardcore” gamers and fans, are often entitled little *bleeps*. They are abusive to people who work on projects, get worked into mobs, and often just come off like whiny kids throwing tantrums when they don’t like something. You only need to accidentally glance into the comments section of any video, news post, or comment thread of a game article to see it in play. Much like Star Wars fandom, where people think they have a right to this creation just because they like it, video games is home to some of the worst behavior and impulses of some of the worst people.
I mean, don’t get me wrong… it’s fine to be disappointed in something. While I love The Last Jedi, I know a lot of people who didn’t. I hated Solo, and know a lot of people who liked it. We can sit there and discuss it, talk about it, and disagree. Where you jump into the “yeah, you are what’s wrong here” territory is when it turns into stuff like demanding remakes of a movie, wanting execs to be fired, chasing actors off social media with abuse and harassment, and general crappy racist and sexist behavior. Those are all things that have happened in the Star Wars and Video Game communities in the last year, numerous times. You know, horrible behavior instead of the common-sense response of “okay, I just won’t watch it, glad you liked it” response of actual human beings.
Now what does that have to do with BlizzCon? Glad you didn’t ask! As I explained above, the Con is about the people that are dedicated fans of the games. They came here specifically to hear about their favorite game, the thing they loved, and spent a ton of money on it. That stuff I said about entitlement above… all true, but at the same time, there is a bit of deserved entitlement for the people that have come out there to celebrate their favorite titles and series. That’s the whole point of the event!
Now, back to Diablo fans, after being teased with multiple announcements… that was a lie, there was one announcement. An announcement that be the single most tone-deaf, failure to read a room, and a huge mistake at understanding your audience in recent history… the announcement of Diablo Immortal, a reskinned “mobile online multiplayer” game for phones and tablets.
Now, to be clear… there’s nothing wrong, inherently, with mobile games. There are some really good mobile games out there. To also be clear… the vast majority of them are microtransaction laden garbage that are bereft of gameplay in favor of gambling mechanics and time syncs meant to exploit you and your wallet. Not to throw stones, but I’ve played a few of them myself, and purchased stuff, but that is the truth of the mobile market.
Blizzard came out on stage, to a room full of dedicated Diablo fans, playing it on existing platforms like PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and of course, PC… and proceeded to announce a product that was aimed at everyone not in the room at that moment. The reaction to it should tell you everything.
That silence? Maybe two or three cheering? As it went on, people laughing at the nonsense being said? Never a good sign. The saddest thing, this was the announcement, it it was probably the high point of the weekend for Blizzard in dealing with fans. But hey, we got some really good gems like this.
To be clear, the fan there was being as polite as he could be, and my hat is off to him. It was very clear that he was trying to be civil, but was concerned. Here’s a guy who has played Diablo for years, and sees a new game that’s not on his platform of choice. The guy answering the question decided to see exactly how far he could dive into douchebag creek, and answered with “Don’t you guys have mobile phones?”
At that point, he should have just walked off the stage. He wasn’t going to get the crowd back, and he’s now going to be a hated figure to the fandom. Maybe he’s a cool dude, I don’t know, and none of the people working on a project, from the guy making the announcement to writers, designers, and developers working on making it reality, deserve any sort of harassment. But he’s not going to have friends in the community any time soon.
Shockingly, that wasn’t really the bottom, though, because we got a guy who didn’t do as good of a job hiding his disdain when he asked this question. It’s a sharp question that’s not really a question, but also, it’s not disrespectful or even mean. He’s mostly just stating what everyone was likely thinking…
That was probably the loudest cheer of the entire conference right there. For Blizzard, they got something they probably never wanted, and certainly probably never heard at BlizzCon before… and that was boos. Seriously, they got booed on their home stage. More than that, I’m going to say they absolutely deserved it.
Now to be clear, I’m not saying that Diablo Immortal is a bad idea. As an idea, it makes sense, and it’s a way for Blizzard to increase exposure to their games. The petition calling for its cancellation is both asinine and idiotic (seriously, online petitions are pointless and nothing more than whining). The issue here is more of a matter of when they did it. Had Blizzard trotted this out at E3 or PAX… there would have been grumbling and annoyance from the Diablo fans, sure, but probably not this level of outrage. Since then, they’ve doubled and tripled down on it, going for the full Streisand Effect, by posting “clarifications” and deleting comments on videos (not all of them the normal awful of YouTube).
They’ve tried to walk back their comments a bit by saying “there is more stuff but we’re not ready to share it” yet… and I just reject that. The fact that Diablo 4 is being worked on is a terribly kept secret. Of course it’s being worked on, they just don’t want to share it. But how hard would it be for them to throw up a very quick tech demo or trailer, with some nice graphics, to give us something?
Bethesda has done this very nicely a couple of times in their E3 presentations… even including mobile games launch announcements. When they announced Fallout 4, they started off by talking about Fallout Shelter for phones and tablets. This past E3, they spent a lot of their presentation talking about an Elder Scrolls mobile game (did that ever come out or did it just vanish from existence…), and then capped off the presentation by announcing the Elder Scrolls VI.
Now let’s be clear… it’s 36 seconds long and tells us precisely nothing. That probably isn’t in-game rendering, it looks more like an animated Vue to build a biosphere. We don’t know when, where, what, or why of the game… and yes, we absolutely would want to know all of those things. Yet this little bit let us know “we are doing it” and that’s enough of a taste to get goodwill with the crowd.
This is all that Blizzard needed to do in order to win over the crowd, and they didn’t. Word has come since it came out that Diablo 4 was slated for announcement and they pulled it. Blizzard denies it, but after the mess of the event I honestly don’t think I believe it. While none of this feels like malice, it does feel like corporate incompetence. Big companies are inherently conservative, some painfully so, and everything here has been sanitized and marketed and prepped to the point of being worthless.
I think there’s a longer article coming on this, and some related things… but my real fear in watching all of this unfold is that Blizzard may just be out of ideas. It’s not a controversial statement to say that World of Warcraft is suffering from a lot of… let’s say, poor decisions. While I don’t think that the writing is entirely bad in the new expansion, the overarching story itself is not good. The war story feels so tacked-on and forced, and it’s the whole “big thing” in the expansion.
How I described it in a gaming channel on Slack was that WoW is a collection of good short writing wrapped in a bigger terrible story. The stuff with Jaina and her mother is interesting, and on the Alliance side, there are some really great stories and instances to enjoy. Leveling in this expansion is very fun, and each zone has a compelling and interesting story to tell. It’s just… after you’re done, you’re done. It’s not interesting at all and the bigger story past that doesn’t mesh with anything.
There is time in recent memory where Blizzard cranked out a lot of “new” ideas… at least for Blizzard as a company. It’s been a long time since they were the genesis of an idea, probably dating back to the original Diablo, but what they have built their empire on is taking an idea, creating something special from it and polishing the heck out of it. From 2014-2016, they released three original games: Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch. I haven’t really played HotS (I don’t like MOBAs), but Hearthstone and Overwatch are both fantastic, and the leader’s in their space (and both feature somewhat annoying business models).
Otherwise, they’ve mostly moved on leveraging their existing properties and keeping them fresh. As a company, they have very long development cycles that carry a lot of support. They’ve done updates to older titles that most companies would have forgotten about by now. The problem, though, is that since Overwatch came out, all they’ve done are expansions and re-releases of old games. First Starcraft, now Warcraft III… and I’d bet something like a Diablo or Diablo II announced next year.
It’s really starting to look that Blizzard might be out of ideas, or maybe Activision has gotten to the point where they’re so conservative they’re not going to ever greenlight a new idea again. Outside of the Blizzard games I listed above, Activision has published three original games in the past fifteen years (original in that they’re not sequels or licensed).
2014’s Destiny, which is is only getting something in because they couldn’t call it Halo (and Destiny 2 was said to have ‘underperformed expectations’ by Activision), an Indie-ish title called White Knight in 2015… and then you have to go back to 2005’s GUN for another title. Add in the three Blizzard titles and you have six original games in the past 13 years. You know, maybe they never had ideas to begin with. Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm both heavily rely on existing IP to work, and apparently Activision has been out of ideas since the last millennium or so.
This is a company that exists by churning on the same titles, again and again, and keeping players invested and wanting to come back. And at Blizzcon last weekend, they failed that. Big time.