Blizzcon 2013 Wrap-Up Part 1

New WoW Expansion, No More Titan, Starcraft Brings Incremental Change, Hearthstone Progress Solid

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First thing’s first: Blizzard had a chip on its shoulder this year, and for good reason. 2012 didn’t quite go the way they expected, with mixed reactions to Diablo 3, Mists of Pandaria causing a sizeable rift in the WoW playerbase, the large impact League of Legends had on Starcraft, and the on-and-off rumors and speculation of Titan, Blizzard’s often talked about, but never revealed, secret weapon. There was mismatched communications with the fanbase, the fanbase never quite liked the answers given by Blizzard, and even the most diehard Blizzard fans like myself could feel Blizzard taking a new direction, not knowing where it would lead.

I’m happy to say that this year’s Blizzcon has made sense of it all, and Blizzard’s back in fighting form. It's almost as if they've known what to do all along!

Before I start talking about the biggest news (Heroes of the Storm, the changes for Diablo 3’s Reaper of Souls, and the new World of Warcraft expansion), let me cover the smaller news, Starcraft, Titan, and Hearthstone.

Titan, Blizzard’s ‘future MMO’ that has been rumored since 2007, seems to be on indefinite hold. Mike Morhaime, President and co-founder of Blizzard, briefly touched upon the progress (or lack thereof) on the project, even citing that a majority of the development team has been dispersed onto the other Blizzard franchises, bringing development of Titan to a much slower pace. A key quote from the pre-show on DirectTV states:

"We recognized the path we were on was not yielding the ‘Blizzard Quality’ result at a reasonable time frame. So we took a step back, we asked a lot of really hard questions about what we were doing, and what should we be doing, and I think we’ve come up with something really great. That’s all I can tell you!” - Mike Morhaime

Blizzard’s no stranger to going back to the drawing board, or outright scrapping ideas that aren’t seeming to work correctly (Warcraft Adventures, Starcraft: Ghost), so we’ll know the fate of Project Titan in due time.

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On the Starcraft front, there are numerous changes being made to the balance of the multiplayer units, but also added customization features for groups and clans like event calenders, custom decals, and more. The level cap will raise from 30 to 35, some new mod content is added for modmakers (such as revamped hero models from Warcraft 3, and the original Starcraft soundtracks remastered), and the World Championship Series and focus on eSports is becoming more concrete, confident, and crucial for the future of Starcraft.

All around, nothing mindblowing and no crazy announcements, but their mind is in the right place, and it seems to be smooth sailing from a balance perspective. Heart of the Swarm is already in a much better place than Wings of Liberty in regards to balance and fun factor, so not changing a lot is actually a great thing.

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With Hearthstone, since the game is still in beta, there’s not too much to reveal. Beta testing is going smoothly, they’re making sure card balance is in a healthy place, and they announced expansion decks for both player-versus-player AND single player adventure play. The coolest announcement though, is a promise to bring Hearthstone to iOS, Android, and Windows mobile devices in the future.

Be sure to read Jeremie’s look at Hearthstone here on Nitrobeard  for an insider-glance at the game. I’m proudly in the beta as well, and while I’m not very good at it, I can definitely see that this will be a moneymaking juggernaut for Blizzard, and its fun and accessible gameplay structure is hard to pass up.

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In the Blizzcon opening ceremony, Blizzard introduced WoW’s fifth expansion, Warlords of DraenorThe expansion will take you to the world of Draenor, the original home of the orcs, safe haven for the Draenei, and monumental area of Warcraft lore. Some of you may be familiar with Draenor, as in the current timeline, it exploded after conflict, ambushes, and Dark Portals, becoming Outland, the world we explored in WoW’s first expansion, The Burning Crusade.

Warlords of Draenor is as much about time travel as it is rewriting history, as we’ll get to see the drama unfold in a different way, with all of our favorite orc characters from the past. Will Kargath become a Warchief for the Fel Horde? Will Ner’zhul open the portals, ripping Draenor to shreds and causing the creation of Outland? Or will you arrive and change the tides of history, creating a new timeline, and a new savage race of the Iron Horde? I’m not gonna lie, the Warcraft lore nerd in me got a little excited typing these past few sentences.

Lore’s one thing, but gameplay implications and changes are another, and Blizzard delivered. You’ll be happy to know that the level cap has raised from 90 to 100, the land of Draenor will have 7 new zones for questing, and 1 new PvP zone. There will be new Battlegrounds, new talents for every class, new permanent abilities, a more fluid quest progression system, new features to the Ranked Battlegrounds and Ranked Arena (now called Trials of the Gladiator) for the PvP players, and three HUGE changes: The ability to level up a character to 90 instantly free of charge, brand new character models/animations, and a new player housing feature called Garrisons.

Garrisons  will be player-created bases that is the home of NPCs you can recruit during your time in Draenor. These followers can be merchants, skill masters, or even mercenaries that can be tasked with adventuring while you’re on or offline. You have herbalism and skinning, but need someone with some mining experience? Build a mine, hire a new recruit to learn the skill of mining, and have at it. Then, bring in a follower that is able to Blacksmith, and you’ve just expanded your moneymaking and crafting horizons by tenfold. Have a solid base of operations, but a buddy is lacking in some of that potential? He can come and visit your garrison, and get what he needs from your town. Yes, that’s right, World of Warcraft has just become the best part of Animal Crossing. You can build your Garrison at any of the 7 zones in Draenor, and it’s a phased part of the world: It’s not a seperately loaded specific area in the back of some town. It’s part of the world, and you can see it as you fly overhead, go on quests, and the like. You can invite friends into your garrison for some item trading, or just to meet the cool residents of your town.

This is Blizzard’s answer to player housing, and also brings in some fantastic features like further player progression, customization, and even offline leveling (much like this year’s Neverwinter). Send a group of five of your best soldiers on a raid, and a week later, they can bring you epic loot from their adventure….if they survive, of course. The Garrisons can level up, giving you more plots of land to expand your reach, and the abilities of your followers. Lay out your village, name your NPCs, and take care of your plot, it’s all in a day’s work on Draenor. Now, to see these Garrisons in action, you'll have to be at endgame, which makes the next bit of news so enticing.

Leveling up a character to 90 automatically is a HUGE announcement, and is smart on Blizzard’s part: How many of us have random level 30-60 alts laying around, never seeing the light of day? Now you can choose one to level up to 90 to see all of the endgame content. Have a Horde main, but want to make an Alliance character to do raids and Battlegrounds with your friends? Bingo. Getting a friend into WoW for the first time, and don’t want them to slog through 90 levels of content before getting to play together? Here you go, your buddy can make his first character an automatic level 90. It’s all about accessibility, ease-of-use, and playing with friends.

One of the more exciting things, and it may seem minor to some, is the improvement and iteration of every player character model in the game. When Mists of Pandaria was released, the attention to detail in the Pandaren character models was staggering, and really felt like it brought the race to life, as well as the land they inhabited. Of course, upon seeing the stark differences between the older 2004-era player models, and the new 2012-era models, everyone wanted to know: When’s the upgrade coming to the rest of the game? Well, we finally have an answer, and it’s with Warlords of Draenor. Characters seem to have upwards of ten times the amount of detail (polygon count, skeletal bones, texture maps, and dynamic physics) per character based on the art and animation panel at Blizzcon this year, and the difference is truly remarkable. It’s bringing WoW into the current generation, and makes the game even more timeless, fully embracing its Pixar and animation homage. Faces have full skeletal features, emotes have a new life of their own, and the dynamic physics of holding and carrying heavy weaponry affect the character holding them in proper form.

There’s tons of smaller additions and changes to the game that have my mouth watering (Item squishing, 6 new dungeons and 2 new raids, a new set of PvE difficulty tiers, improved UI features, and a refined quest system), but the mainstays are: Exciting lore, player housing, automatic level 90s, and refined mechanics. Blizzard's making all of the right moves to keep World of Warcraft not only relevant in this ever-changing MMO landscape, but in many ways, ahead of the curve. What’s not to love?

In the next installment of this two-part series, we’re going to look at Diablo 3’s expansion: Reaper of Souls, and the newest (old) kid on the block, Heroes of the Storm! The changes are so big, they required an entirely seperate post, so stay tuned!