BlizzCon 2019: When Blizzard prayed for rain and got a drizzle

    
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Twists.

So we all knew that this year’s BlizzCon needed to be bigger than last year’s BlizzCon. That was, on one level, not a high bar to clear; accomplishing that in absolute terms just meant having more than one new game announcement that wasn’t designed to infuriate the audience and/or ask if the people in the audience had phones. But it also needed to be better. Blizzard has not had a good year in the eyes of many its fans at all, and unfortunately it’s the sort of year that all tied into both the quality and pace of game updates and the way that the company managed itself as a company.

With the whole Hong Kong crisis sweeping through the community, I described what pretty much seemed to be the corporate strategy in October after the apology: Hunker down, try to avoid any more self-inflicted wounds, and pray for rain. If BlizzCon got over enough and was beloved enough, and if the announcements were just good enough, then people would lose their resolve and everyone would love Blizzard again, right?

And so here we are post-BlizzCon. And after watching the crowd for two days, I think that even if that plan was the right plan to have, it sure as heck didn’t wind up working quite the way the company wanted it to.

The bright side, of course, is that this BlizzCon was definitely not a disaster. It didn’t leave players enraged, none of the announcements killed its own buzz halfway through, and at no point did anything land like an absolute lead balloon. This was not Diablo Immortal all over again, so thank any deity you care to name for that. Indeed, with Overwatch 2Diablo IV, and World of Warcraft: Shadowlands on deck, it seemed as if Blizzard was doing everything in its power to throw out every possible fan wish it possibly could.

a dorf

It’s so clear that you almost forget that absolutely nothing on stage got any kind of release date or release window. Diablo IV’s panels kept emphasizing how early the game was in development, Overwatch 2 seemed to be ambiguously far off (they said they’ll still be talking it up at BlizzCon 2020), and Shadowlands… well, we all know that’s releasing next year because of course it is and that’s how the game works, but it sure feels as if there was a bigger gap between the expansion’s current state and release. I kind of feel like this one’s not going to make August 2020.

But hey, that’s all right. Leaving aside that Shadowlands really “wants” to be out as soon as possible because Battle for Azeroth is a trash fire (and the story has been confirmed to be absolutely inconsequential now, but more on that later), I think it’s clear this particular BlizzCon was more about building hype and getting people excited. Just look at the way that Overwatch 2‘s reveal blew the roof off the hall! Listen to all those cheers! Listen to that… uh… all of that…

Wait, where was all of the cheering?

Crowd volume is not something that you can measure objectively in my particular profession. (Or at least not something that I’m interested in trying to do; please do not link decibel gauges in the comments.) But you can get a sense of the energy when you’re watching, and this year’s energy… wasn’t there. There was enthusiasm for some specific announcements, some moments of cheering and volume (remember the crowd roaring when Blizzard tossed out the idea of skipping to a WoW Classic Wrath server?), but the crowd in general seemed subdued and oddly pensive and anxious. Even applause seemed quieter than any year in memory, on par with last year at best.

Part of this, no doubt, is down to leaks. There was a paucity of huge surprises in the various announcements; most of this stuff had been leaked, and there’s naturally going to be less enthusiasm when you’re mentally checking off which leaks were accurate compared to when you’re learning about these things for the first time. In that regard, there wasn’t a whole lot Blizzard could have done to fix things.

Don’t get me wrong; seeing Overwatch 2’s hero missions was definitely neat. But it felt less like “oh wow, what even is this” and more like “ah, good, that leak was accurate; it was the thing I wanted to see be accurate, and so I am happy.”

A lot of the mellowness comes down to something much more predictable. You know what moment felt like it had the most genuine outpouring of energy? Brack getting on stage to apologize before the opening ceremonies. That was the one time people seemed genuinely enthusiastic instead of clapping when they knew they were supposed to.

Hold your breath and count to ten, fall apart, start again.

Readers with non-mayfly memories will remember that I penned a whole piece about how BlizzCon is, in its own way, a magician’s act. It’s a matter of convincing a convention hall full of people that this enormous corporate entity is actually just a bunch of scrappy game-loving nerds just like you are. And I think a lot of the blunted enthusiasm comes not from a lack of substance to the announcements but because the audience just can’t put that enthusiasm back even if they want to.

When Brack got up and seemed to be on the verge of tears for a portion of his apology, that felt like putting the old illusion back into place. But not much else did. Not much else could. It’s hard not to watch the Shadowlands trailer without thinking, “OK, well… I no longer connect to any of these characters, I have no personal stock left in Bolvar, Sylvanas has been horribly written, none of this will be out for another year or so, and until then we’re stuck with the same terrible expansion we have now…”

And it mostly made me sad. The fact that I have a different perspective on this compared to the average fan explains my own analysis, but I generally would prefer that the people who paid money to get out to California and couldn’t wait to see what’s on the show floor got something delightful and exciting. I want people to be enthusiastic for these things because enthusiasm is good. Energy is good.

All things go, all things go.

Heck, speaking purely on a personal level, I’d say there was exactly one thing that landed poorly for me, and even that had more to do with the dejected state of World of Warcraft right now than with something new. Diablo IV? Sure, I’m not charged up about it, but I wasn’t charged up about the franchise before (I really dislike the controls and that shoots my enjoyment in the foot); nothing about it struck me as a giant red flag of bad. Overwatch 2? Sure, that’s basically “we finished the dang game,” but it looks like fun, and the general philosophy about carrying items forward and back is enough that I can’t be too fussy there. Warcraft III: Reforged? Well, I wish we had a release date, but nothing else has struck me as anything but positive.

And World of Warcraft: Shadowlands? The handful of “hmm, wait a minute” bits were more about implementation than ideas. I have some suspicions and concerns for the future. But the actual meat of the announcement looked good, and the mechanical systems on display with Covenants, Soulbinding, and the tower all sound like a lot of fun. More customization? That’s my dang jam, you know that. The revised leveling? I have questions for the future, but this is great stuff! Alt focus? Finally!

… I should make that a column, shouldn’t I? I’m just going to make that a column.

This year was not a misfire on the level of “what the hell happened” like last year, and that’s good. Blizzard managed to mostly (mostly) avoid doing anything else to shoot itself in the foot. But it couldn’t undo a year’s worth of bad PR and bad mojo, or even a month’s worth of the same. I felt like the audience was full of people wanting to fall in love again, and the convention didn’t deliver that because it simply couldn’t. You can’t un-break someone’s heart; that’s the entire point.

Blizzard bet big on this BlizzCon and prayed for rain. But unfortunately, it wound up with a drizzle. And I don’t think it necessarily could have been better, but it still means that it… well, isn’t rain.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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