It was hard to be cynical during Chris Metzen’s remarks at Blizzcon’s opening ceremony. His voice alone conjured memories of the days when I heard some of his characters through a tinny-sounding set of computer speakers hooked up to a SoundBlaster. He took me back to the start, not just of Blizzard’s rise as a premier PC game developer, but to my own life as a PC gamer. Orcs and Humans. Tides of Darkness. Reign of Chaos. To a long winter almost ten years ago, when my friends held a month-long LAN party so we could all play World of Warcraft together. I had forgotten, until he launched on his over-the-top trip down memory lane, how much I used to like this company.
For all their success, the Blizzard games of the 90s and early 2000s felt cozy and welcoming. Somewhere along the line, at least for me, they stopped feeling that way. Part of it was just the size of the company, the hype accompanying every release. World of Warcraft swelled to eight, then ten million subscribers and became increasingly disconnected from the Warcraft universe I’d grown up with.
Then there were the strategic calculations their games wore on their sleeve. Diablo III was all-but-swallowed by its online requirement and focus on real-money transactions. StarCraft became a wildly extravagant space opera combined with a harsh and uncompromising competitive RTS. Blizzard once made playgrounds, but in the last several years it started to feel like visiting a bossy friend with very strict rules about how we should play together. I was tired of it.
But the face Blizzard showed at Blizzcon this year seemed very different, more in touch with those earlier eras. Maybe it was just the overall vibe of a fan convention, the charm of being surrounded by so many people whose lives have been enriched by their times in Azeroth and the nether regions of Hell. But from the opening ceremony through to the very end, I felt like Blizzard were thinking smaller. The emphasis was on fun, not just franchises.
It was a sharp departure from last year’s underwhelming Battle.net World Championships in Shanghai. If Mists of Pandaria could be skeptically read as an attempt to broaden the game’s appeal in a major market, Warlords of Draenor is basically, “Fuck it, Warcraft was awesome when it was about badass Orcs. Let’s do that.” True, the plot justifications are wafer thin and perhaps it smacks a bit of retreading old ground, but I’m just not sure I care. Blackhand brought me to Azeroth in the first place, and maybe he can bring me back.
Heroes of the Storm just looks like a delight. Not only does it channel not just the look of Blizzard’s original games, but it seems to have some genuinely fresh new ideas for the a genre that has tended toward the conservatism of competitive play. Particularly exciting is that Heroes doesn’t seem to be overly-influenced by DOTA. It’s doing completely different things with champions and map design from the rest of the MOBA space, and seems like the kind of game that will welcome more casual players. Those are two missions I can get behind.
Less grind, less study, and more play: that seemed to be the overall direction Blizzard were pointing with their convention. The StarCraft 2 panel this year was focused on free players and making it easier to enjoy the Arcade’s offerings, whereas all of last year was about the coming faction balance changes with Heart of the Swarm. It’s not that Blizzard are ignoring StarCraft’s multiplayer (they are still slowly evolving the balance), but that they want people to be able to enjoy StarCraft outside the competitive ladder.
That’s all music to my ears. Throughout Blizzcon, I kept flashing back to the old days: playing Diablo II on nightmare over a LAN with friends, spawning multiplayer copies of StarCraft and Warcraft 2 for huge melee matches or custom games, delighting in the feel of their colorful and charming worlds. Blizzcon seemed to promise a return of those days, when you could take their games as seriously or as lightly as you liked.
Hearthstone is perhaps the perfect example. No less a strategic mastermind than StarCraft caster Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski won the first Blizzcon Hearthstone invitational, in a tense and dramatic finals series that featured some brilliant play. And yet Hearthstone has become the online collective card game “for everyone”, demystifying what has traditionally been a very demanding and punishing format. Hearthstone can be a perfect lunchbreak game, or it can be the object of some serious study and theorycrafting. It’s also not a game I can imagine the Blizzard of four or five years ago releasing.
Diablo III also seems poised for a renaissance, thanks to the closure of the poor, benighted Auction House and the upcoming Reaper of Souls expansion. The proof is in the pudding, but Blizzard honestly seem to have taken the major criticisms of Diablo III to heart and taken aim at fixing them. I’m particularly excited by the interplay between enemy types Josh described in his preview, which could offer some more interesting scenarios than the constant crowd-control and kiting that could make the original game feel like such a slog at times.
You could argue that Blizzard seemed to have lowered its sights somewhat at this Blizzcon. They don’t seem to be fighting to reverse World of Warcraft’s declining subscription numbers, nor trying to make huge, genre-defining games like StarCraft and Diablo III. There was little bombast, and more attempts at dialogue and refinement. Every developer claims to listen to their fans, but at Blizzcon you got the sense that Blizzard genuinely are. They are, for the moment, done trying to make sprawling genre games that appeal to everyone. They are trying to reach the players who’ve been with them since the earliest days of Warcraft and Diablo, who were in danger of forgetting why they loved those games in the first place. Blizzcon 2013 was a welcome reminder of how things used to be, and a promising look at how they could be in the future.