Every year, I cover BlizzCon for Massively Overpowered. This is not new information; you’ve all seen my liveblogs running every year for quite some time. And the reception of any given year as well as my own feelings vary a lot from year to year; 2017 was high-energy with a touch of apprehension, 2016 was excitement about the new expansion with a few niggling issues, 2015 was hype for Legion but annoyance at the content drought. And even going further back than that, you can see lots of different attitudes running through; that’s just as far back as we go on the independent version of our site.
This year, on the other hand, the reaction has been split between anger and flabbergasted silence. I made a joke on the bingo card about pauses for cheers where no actual cheering happened, but that literally happened on the World of Warcraft panel.
So what the hell happened this year? Why is it that this year’s reveals have been met with muted excitement at best and outright hostility at worst? Why would you think that Diablo Immortal was a game developed by personally killing the audience’s beloved pets? Where did things go so far off the rails this year? It’s complex, but at the end of the day a lot of this traces back to running a fan convention like a trade show.
If you’ve ever been on the show floor at PAX East, you have probably been barraged on all sides by neon lights, loud noises, and advertisements crying out to you that you should play this game right now. It’s stuff you’ve never seen before and it wants your attention. And that’s intentional because this is a trade show. It’s trying to get you to buy all of these games, look forward to them, and really build hype before release. People go to those shows to be advertised at.
That isn’t meant to be wholly snarky; it’s actually a good thing many years. I’ve found things at PAX I never would have checked out otherwise. It does, however, mean that for actual fans, there’s not usually quite as much on display. Yes, the localization panel for Final Fantasy XIV is of interest to me, but most of the information contained there is stuff I already know about as a fan; it’s a supplement.
By contrast, in a couple weeks I’ll be flying out to Las Vegas for the next Final Fantasy XIV fan festival, and that’s a very different experience. The main convention hall is not a collection of lights and noise but a number of attractions designed to be fun. The emphasis is very much on the stuff you already like and care about. Every time one of these is held, we know that there’s an expansion being released, and hopefully you can meet up with friends and gush about this together.
In other words, this is a fan convention. You’re not going there to be sold FFXIV; you wouldn’t be flying out to Vegas and buying a limited ticket if you weren’t fairly well converted already. You’re going there to celebrate your love of this thing.
BlizzCon, in theory, is also a fan convention. The pre-show hosts play this up, that everyone there is present to celebrate a love of Blizzard games. There’s a lot of talk about the Blizzard community and points related. But the show is also run like a trade show, with every single franchise needing something new to sell you, a need for more spectacle, new improvements, new buzz, and so forth.
That’s why Diablo Immortal was announced here. Which was honestly probably the dumbest possible thing Blizzard could do with this particular announcement.
Keep in mind that I have no skin in the game here; I don’t care about Diablo III beyond its place in my professional sphere and it’s not really of interest to me, nor do I have a deep personal objection to Diablo Immortal. What I can understand is why existing fans of the game and the franchise wouldn’t be excited about Immortal, and why the announcement of same would be met with outright anger: because it’s not for this audience; it’s for a very different segment of the market.
Remember when Hearthstone was first announced? It wasn’t revealed at BlizzCon, it was revealed at… PAX. At the time it seemed odd, but it was actually the right audience. No one was going there to learn about a new Blizzard thing, they were going there for advertisements, and incidentally Blizzard has a new thing on display. Had BlizzCon trafficked hard on this as a big reveal, it would have fallen pretty flat, simply because the game does have a pretty significant difference in its target market.
This is exacerbated by the fact that BlizzCon runs every year on the same basic cadence, and that’s really harmful to the structure as a whole. It’s especially obvious for games like World of Warcraft this year; there’s nothing major to reveal for the game, but they have to show off the game to everyone, but they don’t have anything to unveil. You wind up shining a harsh light on even the smaller parts of the game, and in doing so expose how badly parts of the design are being received by players.
You’ll notice that there were reveals that landed well this year. Everyone was happy about the Overwatch reveal, which was by-the-numbers but also worked perfectly well. Hearthstone perpetuated its existing cadence just fine, and that worked out for it. And of course, Warcraft III: Reforged came out of the gate swinging, despite being sandwiched in there as if no one was going to be all that excited about it. (And a lot of us were!)
But that assumption alone is telling. Blizzard doesn’t seem to know what its audience actually is. It’s staggering to me that Blizzard built up hype for Mechagon, and then mid-presentation killed it off. People were excited until the moment that the culminating dungeon was announced as an eight-boss Mythic-only “megadungeon.” My first thought at the name was that we would be looking at something on par with old Scarlet Monastery, or Blackrock Depths, or one of the other big sprawling dungeons of old… instead, it seems like it sucked the air and enthusiasm right out of the room.
And that’s the real answer to what happened. Blizzard promised to show fans a lot of new stuff just for them, and showed fans a lot of stuff that was not for them. Some of it doesn’t appear to have been for anyone.
To cast back again to what was meant as a joke on the bingo card, I talked about the presenters acting as if reception to Battle for Azeroth had been good. The humor of that was that, well, of course that’s going to happen to a certain extent. It has to. You can’t get up on stage in front of people and say “we really screwed up.” But you can do certain things to win back the crowd. Things like, well, the Diablo III Necromancer reveal. That prompted some consternation and disagreement, but it was an actual bone thrown to the existing fanbase.
Diablo Immortal isn’t. Nothing in the World of Warcraft What’s Next panel did anything to win back the crowd or even seem to address the glaring enormous issues the game currently has; instead, it sent a message to a lot of existing players that you are still really unwanted. Several of whom were, presumably, sitting in the audience, having spent quite a bit of money to be there.
If I were going to speculate, it feels like someone in Blizzard has spent the past several years focused on market research and not player feedback, and we spent this event seeing that their market research is putting them at odds with a lot of their actual customers. This is why the show feels like almost everything is landing with terrible management and impacts. It’s a series of announcements that may make sense in a vacuum or for a trade show like E3, but not for this convention with fans.
It’s a fan convention telling fans that they aren’t welcome. And yes, that is going to get ugly pretty damn fast.
Two quick postscripts belong here because while I prefer that as the closing line, I feel they’re still important. First, I’d like to make it clear that while I can understand fan anger, that is not the same as endorsing it. There’s always a lot of fuzzy judgment involved there, but heaping verbal and personal abuse on people working the convention is not a good color on anyone, and a petition to cancel a game already deep in development is about as useful as a fart in a strong tailwind. Or, in other words, being angry (whether justified or not) does not actually relieve you of the responsibility to not be a jerk. This should be self-evident.
Second of all, the one reveal that the convention did with absolute 100% correct delivery actually looks super cool. I am here for Warcraft III: Reforged. In a smarter world that would have been the big reveal of the convention. Oh, well.