Report from Trista Olson
Skewed and Reviewed
Blizzcon this year had obviously learned from their first convention and made huge strides to not only make the entire experience more enjoyable, but also raise the standard they had set two years previous. One of the first notable changes encountered was that Thursday was designated as Badge Pickup Day. Those who had arrived early and wanted to be ready to enter the convention doors the moment they opened were pleased with this option. Booths were set up alphabetically by last name and attendee’s simply had to find the right line and pick up their badge. At its height, the approximate wait time was only thirty minutes compared to the hours of two years ago while the convention proceeded inside. This way everyone could get right down to business at the start of day one and didn’t have to miss a moment. Another nice surprise was that when your badge was handed to you, the illustrious Blizzcon goody bag was right there with it. In Blizzcon ’05, the goody bag awaited you at the Blizzcon store inside the convention, adding another line to sit through. This simple addition shaved off another hour of wait time inside the convention to allow those in attendance to spend more time at the exhibits. Right off the bat, Blizzard was impressing with their ability to learn from their previous mistakes.
The goody bag itself was filled with more than just the usual advertisements and fliers. Among its contents were a shirt, a $5 coupon for another shirt at the J!nx booth, a Heroes of Azeroth starter deck for the WoW trading card game, epic armor cards for the Warcraft board game, WoW artwork drink coasters, and some surprises that would only become available inside the convention if people took the time and read what was printed on some of the cards within the bag. They also contained one collector coin, Horde or Alliance, which sparked a trading frenzy for those who needed the coin of their chosen side. That little token was a fun icebreaker and a great way to spark up conversation.
Day one of the Convention started with me following the directions printed upon a bookmark from the goody bag. Written upon it was some quest text telling us to report to the Brady Games booth. Under the “Rewards” part of the quest text it read Black and White. Black and White was the name of the follow up quest of the chain. This section of the quest involved tracking down two individuals “Brother White” and “Brother Black” on the convention floor and having them mark up your quest. As it was early in the convention I completed the quest rapidly, something I knew would be difficult once everyone arrived at Blizzcon and word got out if people had not taken the time to read everything in their bag. The reward? They held out a leather bag and told those who completed it to grab a pebble from inside. The prizes ranged from a bookmark if you pulled green, blue won a t-shirt, purple earned themselves a leather embossed bookmark and a single, elusive gold stone representing the grand prize… a portrait drawn of your character. I pulled a green and was treated to a new bookmark that stated, “I did the Brady Games quest at Blizzcon and all I got was this lousy green!” Very cute.
There was one booth that had many people crowded around: Nvidia. They had a neat promotion game set up. They were giving out buttons, and on each button was a five-digit number. Each button had one match and only one match. The objective of this contest was to search the convention and find the person who had the matching button and you, then both of you have to return to the Nvidia booth and spin their prize wheel for some fantastic prizes.
The official opening ceremonies were held at 11am. Blizzard president and co-founder, Michael Morheim, kicked off the event and covered such topics as the Warcraft movie and a little upcoming game called Starcraft 2. Dell is going to be teaming up with Blizzard to market the Ultimate game system and comic fans rejoiced when the World of Warcraft comic book series was introduced. The crowd was in high spirits, and with the words “Go have fun!” the population of the two-day city, Blizztown USA, was released to soak up everything there was to be seen, experienced, and heard.
Blizzcon also gave us the first peek at the new WoW expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. Additions such as siege weapons, destructible buildings, new dungeons, and raising the level cap to 80 (new abilities, talents, spells) were among the offerings promised to be available. A new profession, inscriptions, will be able to permanently raise the power of spells and abilities. Much like an enchanter can permanently enhance your armor, Inscribers will do the same for spells and skills. Arthas will raise his sword and take up the title role of the Lich King himself, and overcoming him will be no small matter. The fortified city of Dalaran shall magically float it’s northward to be the base city for the expansion. Players will not only be able to soar upon their flying mounts to reach Dalaran but there will be key access points upon the ground. News was spread of the new seven-zone continent to the north, named, “Northrend,” and the new hero class, Deathknight, which will be available for all players to unlock, not just paladins as falsely rumored. The developers compared the process of unlocking the deathknight to the warlock epic mount quest.
No raiding would be required. Upon completion of the quest, your account will be flagged as being able to create a deathknight, who will start at a “high” level. The exact level remains to be determined, but it sounded like they have at least 55+ in mind for starters. No level 1 deathknights will be running around the woods ripe for killing. There were mumbles amongst the crowd (and myself) of those who had played Star Wars Galaxies and remembered the addition of a special, unlockable, and overpowered Jedi class, which ultimately helped lead to the downfall of the game. I have faith that Blizzard knows what they are doing, but we’ll have to wait and see. It was also reinforced that this will not be the only hero class added to the game but that this was the only one they were ready to comment on. With everything being so early in development it is hard to say just what we will see in the expansion. Another exciting declaration that received a very warm welcome from the crowd was the announcement of enhanced character customization. Players in the expansion will be able to gain access to new hairstyles and new dances. Other options will be available but are still in the beginning phases. A playable demo was available and one zone was open for a sneak peek. While visually stunning, the zone quests felt very similar to those already available to Burning Crusade players. Lack of a zone map at this time made navigation difficult for the players. It was clear that Blizzard worked hard simply to get something up and available to try out at the convention, and that many details and features were unfinished. But being the first to play the expansion was a fantastic perk to attending Blizzcon, even in these stages.
As for the World of Warcraft game as it is now, some new flourishes will be coming soon to enhance the player environment. The much-anticipated addition of guild banks will soon be implemented giving much needed flexibility to guild management. Integrated voice chat may eliminate the need for third party programs for quick effortless communication. Fans of small raids were happy to hear that the ten man raid instance of Zula’mon located within the Ghostlands will soon be ready for adventurers of high skill and level.
Very soon after that was a class discussion. They went through the classes one by one and hit on 4 or 5 points for each. Of note they discussed revisiting the abilities and gear of retribution paladins and altering some lackluster talents of holy priests. Neither was a shocking announcement to those who play the game. Two classes in particular earned a large negative reaction from the crowd as they were announced: Warlocks, for their balance issues, and Paladins, a hybrid class taking raid roles away from other “pure” classes specifically designed for the task. The developers spoke regarding how they factor in the issues of balancing the different classes against each other. The major component they brought to light was the fact that when balancing they need to always consider the fun factor, that is, how fun it is to use the mechanics of each class - Being effective doesn’t necessarily make for interesting and fun game play.
Starcraft II was not only spoken about constantly during the convention but attendees were able to try their hand at a single player or multi-player mission. The graphics for this game are beautiful and the mission they had playable was flawless. I’m sure most have seen video of the game by now, but let me just reiterate just how stunning the game looks. As for the game play, it felt a great deal like Starcraft 1. The same units and strategy seemed to be carried over seamlessly from the first game. I did not see huge innovations in game play during the single player mission. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t there, or that they aren’t coming, but I did not see them in my experience. Don’t get me wrong, the game play was smooth and I felt in control the whole time. I just didn’t really feel like I was playing a new game, aside from the amazing graphics. It felt more like one of those re-released console RPGs. You know the ones I’m talking about. Take Final Fantasy 1, soup up the graphics and music, and re-release it on a new console. That’s what it felt like. But I want to stress that it’s still very early and I’m pretty sure the gameplay is going to feel like a fresh experience when all is said and done. As for my efforts leading the Terran army against the Protoss, I did all right, smashing up one of their 3 base camps and maintaining an okay defense before my allotted time expired.
Soon afterwards, a developer led Starcraft 2 demo and discussion was held. In response to an audience member question regarding the similar game play between Starcraft 1 and 2, it was stated that their goal was not to reinvent Starcraft, but to reimagine it. In other words they were saying that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. However, the most innovative part of Starcraft 2 may come outside the battles themselves. Players are going to be able to immerse themselves more in the storyline by making decisions that will determine what missions they will undertake, and also interact with character dialog. When they showed this to the audience, I immediately thought of Wing Commander. This whole aspect seemed plucked right out of the Wing Commander series and dropped into the Starcraft world. I loved this aspect of the Wing Commander games, and I think it’s going to be a tremendous new addition to a RTS game like Starcraft 2. RTS games have always been more or less linear, and an emphasis on choosing your own path in SC2 will greatly increase replay ability of the single player mode. How many times did you flip back and forth in those Choose Your Own Adventure books 15 years ago? Yep. Me too. On top of this new storyline addition, Starcraft fans will be happy to hear that Kerrigan will be making a return! The Starcraft II story will bring from depth and answers into the mystery of the Xel’naga and will be focused upon recovering lost artifacts. As to the importance of these artifacts, players will just have to wait and see.
It just wouldn’t be a videogame convention without some high quality competition, and Blizzcon had it in bucketloads. Thousands of dollars in prize money were being awarded to champions in Warcraft III, Starcraft, and 5v5 World of Warcraft arena matches. Spectators packed the area to take it all in, responding wildly to every fireball, sword swing, and laser blast. Commentary was added to describe and analyze the action. Although they had different two-man crews working the different games, one member of the WoW commentary team admitted to knowing very little about WoW. It showed and the commentary for that event was very poor in comparison to the Starcraft and Warcraft III. I’m not convinced that 5v5 Warcraft Arenas will be a viable event for spectators in the future. It’s just too chaotic. The Starcraft finals drew a lot of attention, and it featured well-known professional players Savior and Nal-Ra. The quality of play was top notch and the momentum swung back and forth several times over the course of each game, but in the end it was Savior’s Zerg army that won the day against Nal_Ra’s Protoss forces, thus becoming the new Blizzcon champion.
Highlighting the end of the first day were the fan contests. Comedian Jay Mohr was there to MC the show and offered a good blend of comedy, varying his jokes in order to entertain the entire audience. The sound-alike contest was first and about 60 participants took part with performances ranging from very very good to very very waste of time. Standouts included Illidan from World of Warcraft, a catalog of Terran army sounds from Starcraft, and the winner, a bloodelf male from Warcraft III. The dance contest followed and as expected, about twenty girls tried to do the blood elf female dance. The winner was a blood elf male dance, and he was easily the best of the competition. He had the whole package together, mood, persona, and good accurate dancing. Other dancers of note included a troll female dance, who was very good but wearing far too much clothing to win a prize, a couple of ogre dancers who shook their bellies like there was no tomorrow, and a couple troll males who won points for difficulty. Machinima was next and the winners from the categories of comedy, drama, and action/adventure were shown. An outstanding video from Illegal Danish won the comedy award. The drama winner starred a blood elf male and was very successful, putting a new spin on “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” The Action/Adventure category was won by a video featuring Snacky the gnome, no stranger to the Blizzard video scene. All in all, I was impressed with what I saw. Finally it was time for the costume contest and there were some super great costumes this year. The winners all got a huge response from the audience, but perhaps the largest cheer came for a full blown Moonkin suit from World of Warcraft. A phenomenal warlock in advanced gear and a Terran Ghost rounded out the prizewinners. It was a great way to end the first day of the convention.
Of great interest to the attendees was the discussion about the upcoming Warcraft film brought to us by Legendary Pictures. Here’s what we know: They’re looking for a style of film like Braveheart and 300. Epic War. Emphasis on War and expect either a PG-13 or R rating. Rather than shooting for a specific rating, they claim to be aiming for a particular intensity and will shoot for style rather than make “World of Pillowfightcraft.” They made a distinction between the type of style they are looking for, being an epic war saga, and films like Lord of the Rings, which centers around following one band of adventurers. The film will be told from the alliance point of view, as they view it easier for the masses to be exposed to the Warcraft universe from a familiar human perspective. They would like to include a mixture of CGI and live action battle scenes, as we have seen before in LoTR and 300. The story will be injected when appropriate with the cheeky Warcraft humor we’ve all grown to know and love over the life of the series. No specific plot points were mentioned, but they stressed the importance of illustrating the Alliance/Horde conflict and drawing upon recent games for the essence of the story. Fans of the games will recognize major moments (“probably” including the fall of Lordaeron) along with being treated to new material drawn from the gaps in game timelines. Based on this information, we can probably expect the movie to be based upon bridging the gap between the end of Warcraft III and the World of Warcraft storylines.
At the end of the convention, it was time for the much-anticipated closing concert. Inside the arena, Jay Mohr began the night by revving up the crowd with some more material specifically geared towards the gamers. Compared to the first Blizzcon, Jay Mohr was a much better choice to MC the event, as he knew his audience. Giving another well-received performance, he passed the mic off to Level 70 Elite Tauren Chieftan, a metal band composed of Blizzard game developers and high-ranking officials, including president Mike Moreheim. Obviously being horde biased, they opened the show with their well-known hit “Power of the Horde.” Other songs in their set included the new “Rogues Do It From Behind”, “Terran up the night,” a Starcraft themed song, and the ever popular “I am Murloc!” Sadly, the front of the crowd, which was reserved for VIP’s, seemed emotionally detached from the show and the fans behind seemed to absorb the same passivity. Usually at rock shows, especially metal, the front is where the energy radiates out to infect the rest of the crowd. But here the lack of energy permeated the auditorium in the same manner. I personally lamented this because last Blizzcon, L70ETC was a highpoint of the whole convention. Nobody yelled the taglines or sang along with the songs, whose lyrics were posted on the large screen behind the band especially for this purpose. L70ETC performed well but the experience fell short.
Capstoning the convention was Video Games Live, a musical experience combining a full live symphony, choir, narration, appearances by notable musicians, and cinematics. It was simply amazing, even for those who are not fans of symphonic music. Everyone was cheering and really getting involved in the performance as memorable music and scenes from Blizzard games came streaming to life. Just hearing the opening chord for the Diablo Tristram music upon the twelve-string guitar brought a collective intake of breath from the audience. Having never been performed live before, that moment was a unique treat and quite an honor for those in attendance. Emmy award winner, David Arkenstone, took the stage with his band. Dressed in genre appropriate garb, they played a selection of tavern music composed for the World of Warcraft series. Swept up in the energetic performance, the audience clapped along in time with the lively songs. Highly anticipated was the theme from Starcraft II. Enticed with cinematics and small portions of game play for two days, a visual and audio culmination of the weekends teasing seemed to somewhat sate, for the time being, the Starcraft fan.
Later on that evening, a rather intriguing situation developed, one which had the majority of the audience on the edge of their seats while leaving a small number of Alliance only World of Warcraft players confused as to what all the excitement was about. It was announced that Vangie Gunn was in attendance and set to perform one of the most distinctive quest rewards in World of Warcraft. Upon completion of the Horde quest, “The Lady’s Necklace,” players are not rewarded with gold or items, but instead treated to a song sung by the Queen of the Forsaken, Lady Sylvanas Windrunner. It was the best part of the night and a fantastic climax to the entire Blizzcon experience. Previously throughout the night, a rowdy atmosphere flowed throughout the crowd. However, during this piece the audience was silent in rapt attention as the haunting melody permeated the entire arena and enthralled the listeners. As the crowd exited the arena, it was clear that everyone felt they had gotten their money’s worth at this year’s Blizzcon. I know I did.