This year's Blizzcon saw 15,000 gamers descend from 27 different countries to take part in two days of discussions, tournaments, and sneak peaks at upcoming releases. Several big announcements were scattered among a raft of new details about Diablo 3, Starcraft 2 and Wrath of the Lich King. The new information went a long way toward drumming up interest for what already appear to be worthy successors to old favorites. Read on for more.
As the convention prepared to get underway Friday morning, people showed up early to get a decent spot in line. When we arrived at about 9:30, we walked for a good 15 minutes to track down the actual end of the line. When we reached the spot where we thought it would be, we instead found a large parking lot filled with a sea of people. The line snaked back and forth across the lot, and it grew ever larger as we watched. Periodic cries of "For the Horde!" were heard, with a resulting roar from the crowd. Inflatable World of Warcraft themed beach balls from the Blizzcon Goody Bag were sent flying around to relieve boredom (at which point we found that WoW players aren't so good at keeping beach balls in the air). Some convention-goers walked around in elaborate costumes, pausing frequently to pose for pictures. Once everyone got inside and seated for the opening ceremony, Blizzard President Mike Morhaime came to the stage and welcomed us to the convention. It wasn't long before he got to the day's first big news — the unveiling of Diablo 3's third class, the Wizard. We were shown a cinematic for the new class, as well as one for the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. They were particularly impressive on huge screens with the volume high enough to shake the walls. Shortly thereafter, we were turned loose to partake of all the presentations and entertainment Blizzcon had to offer.
In designing the Wizard, the Diablo 3 developers made a conscious decision to focus on what they call "high magic." They said the Wizard was designed with a brash and ambitious personality in mind; she would not choose the safe, easy, or common way to do things. So, when they were looking at possibilities for the first spell a player would use, the designers chose to avoid something like a fireball or frostbolt. Rather than having an elemental attack, they wanted a more "pure" magic attack. As a result, they chose Magic Missile. They explained that Magic Missile was easy to customize and modify; it would make more sense for things like homing missiles, or launching more than one at a time. Another important spell in that regard was Arcane Orb. Functionally, it appeared somewhat similar to Diablo 2's Frozen Orb, but despite being further down the "Arcane" talent tree than Magic Missile, it defined the look and the type of damage for that tree. The Arcane tree has several interesting spells, including Slow Time, which drops a giant permeable orb on the ground which, as the name suggests, slows time within it. Projectiles and enemies inside the orb become very easy to dodge and avoid. The developers said it was originally Stop Time, but that created difficulties for multiplayer balance. Disintegrate is another great new spell within the tree, dubbed a "face melter" by the designers. It launches a continuous beam of energy that you can sweep around the room at your leisure. The longer it hits an enemy, the more damage it does per second, and it has quite a range. Some familiar spells will be returning from Diablo 2, such as Charged Bolt and Teleport. The Blizzard spell will be back as well, which the developers say they paid particular attention to, given that it shares a name with their company. It will be part of the "Storm" skill tree, along with Frost Nova and Electrocute (the new Chain Lightning). The theme for that tree is control of the weather, which was chosen because it "feels epic." The last tree is "Conjure," and its focus is the creation of tools. Hydra is returning as a Conjure skill, and you can make weapons with which to smite your enemies. Shacknews has a look at each of the actual trees and the skills within.
The skill system for Diablo 3 went through a lengthy design process, and the developers admit that it's not quite finished. Most importantly, they will be implementing the ability to respec, the lack of which was one of Diablo 2's biggest weaknesses. They wanted players to not worry about misplacing points. In Diablo 2, it was common to hold onto skill points as a character leveled up, thus decreasing the actual reward for leveling. They wanted to encourage players to get the rewards and immediately enjoy them. Blizzard went on to show us about a half-dozen experimental implementations of the skill system, and how they weighed the pros and cons of the methods used in the previous Diablo games and World of Warcraft. They tried out a radial skill tree, skill "wheels," skill cards (dropped by monsters, which you could combine in different ways to acquire particular abilities), and even a humorous "horadric cube" three-dimensional skill tree. As they tested all of those, they found their design philosophy of "different but worse isn't better; better is better" coming into play, and went back to what worked. The system they currently use is an evolution of Diablo 2's skill trees. There are a few major differences. First, in order to move down to a more powerful tier, you need to spend a certain number of points in the previous tiers. To get Hydra, a 4th-tier Conjure talent, you need to spend at least 15 points in the Conjure tree. Second, the developers decided that not all skills needed huge point investments. They didn't want players dumping 20 points in one skill, moving to another, and doing the same. As as result, activated abilities now tend to take just one point to acquire. Passive skills, such as a percentage-based damage increase, have room for many points, and will be the primary method of advancing to further tiers. The goal was for players to have six activated abilities in common use; they felt that Diablo 2 forced players to focus on just two or three, to the detriment of the gameplay experience.
The Rune system also received a complete redesign. Instead of socketing runes into gear, you'll use them to modify your skills. Each skill can be affected by one rune at a time (which seems to preclude the possibility of runewords), and each rune affects a skill differently. The goal for this was to diversify gameplay even further. Two players with the same class and spec can still use abilities that look and behave quite differently depending on their rune selection. The runes are replaceable, and they will have tiers of power, and corresponding drop rates. The developers say it will change your gameplay as you level, and encourage you to experiment with different runes. They also showed us several examples of how the runes work. First was Teleport. It's primarily a defensive spell; you use it to get away from enemies quickly. However, if you put a Striking rune on Teleport, it will deal damage where you land, effectively making it an offensive spell. Another rune caused what they likened to a "transporter malfunction," spraying destructive energy around the Wizard. Another example was Skull of Flame, a Witchdoctor ability. Normally, the spell is sort of like tossing a grenade; it hits an enemy and explodes, and that's the (very entertaining) end of it. With the Multistrike rune, it will hit enemies, explode, and bounce to the next enemy. With a Power rune, it will leave a small pool of fire where it explodes. The last example was Electrocute. A Multistrike rune will increase the number of jumps, and a Lethality rune will cause targets to explode when they are hit. All in all, it looks extremely fun, and quite cool.
Another thing the developers wanted to do in Diablo 3 was to make everything more "visceral," to give it an exciting visual impact that would keep the player interested in watching everything that goes on. The Wizard was designed as a "light show," with lightning, huge glowing tornadoes, and destructive beams of energy. Witchdoctors use more indirect magic. Instead of spraying fire, they'll summon a horde of bats, set them on fire, and funnel them at an enemy. Similarly, instead of creating a Wall of Fire, the developers took it another step toward crazy and gave Witchdoctors Zombie Wall, which is exactly what it sounds like. In order to keep Barbarians interesting, they'll be able to call on the power of The Ancients for certain special attacks. Another area of particular focus was death animations. Since players will be wading through a sea of monsters, Blizzard wanted to keep the monster deaths from becoming stale or part of the background. So, Diablo 3 will feature a variety of death scenes for each monster. Some deaths will be dependent on damage; the more you do, the messier things get. You'll also see what are called "critical deaths" that tend to feature explosions. Certain skills will have their own death animations; acid will melt an enemy, and Disintegrate will do just that. Rare and special monsters will have interesting animations with extra detail. There is also the possibility for unique player deaths from bosses.
A variety of other features were discussed, such as the inventory system. Gone is the grid system of Diablo 2. Weapons and armor now seem to take up a uniform amount of space, and the amount of total space was increased. What's more, there are now bag slots, and bags which drop off monsters. Playing through the demo level, I quickly acquired three bags which gave me an extra slot apiece. Larger bags will drop in later levels. Also, items have a color-coded background, so it's easy to see which are junk, which are rare, set pieces, etc. A question mark is visible over items that have yet to be identified. The belt system has been replaced by an action bar similar but much smaller than the one in World of Warcraft. It has room for several skills and potions. Potions themselves are much less common; instead, many monsters drop health orbs that will refill your red orb between fights. The developers wanted potions to be used in emergencies, not for nigh-invincibility throughout the game. They say the change opens up more avenues for challenging the player without simply dumping a ton of damage on him. They felt that escape was too easy in Diablo 2. You needn't worry that this change will result in annoyingly long corpse runs, however. The new checkpoint system goes a long way toward making recovery easier. As you go through dungeons and the outside world, you'll frequently come across checkpoints that mark your progress. When you die, you'll respawn at the nearest checkpoint. This keeps the corpse run short and solves the problem of having a hundred monsters waiting for you after you fled up a flight of stairs. Another player-friendly change will be the "toning down" of elemental resistances and immunities. They won't be gone, but they won't be the same brick wall they often were for some classes in Diablo 2.
The difficulty system and the Act system will be very similar to those of Diablo 2. Maps will still be randomly generated with non-random elements. Blizzard was keen to point out the inclusion of scripted events in Diablo 3. The events will range from mini-cutscenes to actual events in which the player can participate, and they're included in levels randomly, so different play-throughs can give you different experiences. In the demo, one event was simply witnessing two NPCs come together and discuss some of the back story of the first quest. Others may involve escort quests and town invasions. And, if players want to ignore these events, they're welcome to. The goal was for the events to help bring the Diablo 3 world to life. Another way they're trying to do so is including more destructible elements of the environment. There are spots where you can knock down walls, chandeliers, and other objects. The best part is that knocking down a wall onto an enemy will deal significant damage. It's a fun progression from smashing barrels. Another addition is the inclusion of kill streaks and experience bonuses. Every so often while smashing through a group of monsters, you'll see text in the bottom right corner of your screen saying "23 Kills! New Record! 300 Bonus Exp!" It'll be interesting to see what else they do with it.
After looking at the game, playing it, and discussing it for two days, we're looking forward to it more than ever. It appears to be as much of an improvement over Diablo2 as Diablo 2 was over Diablo. They're also going out of their way to make multiplayer more appealing. While Diablo 3 won't support offline LAN parties (which, they say, was decision based on keeping the game secure), it will encourage more cooperative play over Battle.net. As we discussed earlier, players in the same game will see different drops, leading to less loot drama and more sharing. They've mentioned the possibility of doing something to monetize Battle.net, but made very clear that they aren't ready to discuss pricing internally, much less publicly. And, they've said that they don't want Diablo 3 to be subscription based. As Rob Pardo stated, it would most likely involve extra services, as has been done for World of Warcraft. The concerns about the art direction were effectively laid to rest in my mind. The game looks great, and it stays true to previous themes.
By now you've probably heard the biggest news about Starcraft 2 at Blizzcon: The game will be divided into a trilogy. When plotting out their ideas for the game, the developers found they had three stories to tell. As they fleshed the stories out, they realized that there was more content than they could reasonably fit in one game. They faced three options; delay the game significantly, cut vast portions of the story, or expand one game into three. Given their commitment to quality over all else, they chose the third option. The games will be divided by campaign: Terran: Wings of Liberty, Zerg: Heart of the Swarm, and Protoss: Legacy of the Void.
Part of the reason for the trilogy was that they wanted to build branching campaigns with multiple paths to an ending. Completing a mission at one planet may open up missions at several other planets. You'll be able to play the same campaign in different ways, but the designers were clear that you'd end in the same place. Each part of the trilogy will have definite ending; there won't be cliffhangers. They also wanted to develop deep story arcs with lots of dialogue and cinematics. Each game will have specially designed environments, maps, and mission hubs. With the increased number of missions, they put a great deal of effort into making them unique and interesting. Most of the missions will have their own "gimmick," and you'll see special units in the campaigns that you won't see in multiplayer. Speaking of which, the multiplayer will be fully developed and balanced for all three races from the start. Blizzard will be doing everything they can to foster competitive and cooperative gaming in Starcraft 2, assisted by the revamped Battle.net.
The Terran campaign will focus on Jim Raynor, a freedom fighter who has seen better times. Starcraft 2 takes places four years after the events of the original game, and it starts on Mar Sara, the same planet that kicked off Starcraft. We were shown a cinematic in which Raynor is approached by Tychus Findlay, the guy who suits up in the cinematic released last year when Starcraft 2 was announced. Findlay and Raynor have a history of fighting together, and Findlay has a business proposition for Raynor. The two characters interact inside a bar, which Blizzard has designed as an interactive environment for between missions. You're able to click on the characters for small cinematics which explain their back story. A jukebox in the corner will play different songs you choose. A television plays news reports, providing further information about missions. A bulletin board has Wanted posters and can contain optional missions players can take. Other environments like these also exist, and they're filled with nice little touches. When the characters end up on a ship later in the game, you can see they've taken the jukebox and nailed it to the ceiling, indispensable piece of hardware that it is. You're also able to look out the main viewscreen at whatever may be there.
The other big Starcraft 2 news was that Kerrigan would be returning as the focus on the Zerg campaign. A cinematic in which she is dimly seen through the fire and smoke of a Zerg invasion of Mar Sara drew a huge round of applause from the crowd. The first Terran mission has Raynor and Findlay holding out against the invasion long enough for Raynor's ship to come rescue him. As it turns out, he's doing better than it seemed. The Protoss campaign will involve Zeratul; another cinematic showed him fighting off hydralisks and briefly encountering Kerrigan. The developers said their intentions were to make the story deep and immersive, much more so than even Warcraft 3.
Running missions will earn you credits, which you can then use to upgrade your technology. You'll be able to customize your fighting force to suit whichever playstyle you like. For example, you can upgrade your bunkers to hold more marines if you like playing defensively. There will be a star map for mission selection; planets will glow when a missions is available there. Some will be from distress calls, and you can choose whether or not to answer them. There will even be some Easter egg missions. My time with the Starcraft 2 demo was brief, but the multiplayer map felt very complete, and very much like a new and improved version of Starcraft.
World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
There was a great deal of discussion about Wrath of the Lich King at Blizzcon, though little of it was new, thanks to the extensive coverage of the beta. A few interesting tidbits were announced, though, such as the fact that the expansion is largely done, and is already being sent to DVD production. At one of the Q&A sessions, Jeffrey Kaplan revealed that mounts would be able to swim after the first content patch. Also included in that patch will be a raid dungeon that hasn't been revealed yet. They also confirmed that the 3.02 patch to prepare for the expansion would be going live today. Patch notes are available at the World of Warcraft site. The last big bit of news was that a dual-spec system was coming at some point after the expansion goes live. Players will be able to swap between two specs in order to facilitate their participation in both PvE and PvP. Glyphs and action bars will most likely be tied to this swap system, so players don't need to spend time and money flipping between specs. A built-in gear swapping interface may also come about. Beyond that, they gave some in-depth previews of various dungeons and arenas, and explained their goals and reasoning for class and gameplay changes.
The PvP panel broke news that the new battleground, Strand of the Ancients, would increase the number of players per side to 15 (from 10), and feature more vehicles than previous iterations. It's a unique battleground in that each side is assigned either defense or offense at the beginning, and plays that side until the game ends. Attackers try to knock down the destructible walls of the fort to get inside. The developers also demonstrated the two new arenas. The Ring of Valor brings new gameplay elements to the arena; moving platforms that periodically interrupt line-of-sight, and fire that will deal damage to anyone who touches it. Teams also start off very close to each other, which facilitates faster battles and quick thinking. The Dalaran Sewer arena contains water spouts that will knock back anyone who touches them. They also spent time talking about Wintergrasp, the open PvP zone that has battles between Alliance and Horde every 2.5 hours, with the battles lasting 30-40 minutes. To prevent the most populous side from having an unfair advantage, a buff will be given to the faction with fewer players. Blizzard wants to diversify the options for PvP and take the focus off arenas. They also want to develop more and more PvP content and create some sort of mechanism for players to gain experience in battlegrounds.
The UI Panel had some interesting information as well. The very simple threat monitoring system is final as it stands in the beta. The developers don't want it to become too complicated for the average player, and mods already exist to monitor threat in greater detail. They've also made changes to threat generation by tanks in order to shift the focus from whether or not players should attack to how they should attack. Backpack size won't be changing, but mounts and certain currencies have been moved from the inventory to their own UI element. A focus frame will be added to the default UI.
The Raids and Dungeons panel took us through several Wrath of the Lich King instances. First was Halls of Lightning, a 5-man dungeon themed on the Titans. It exists within a vast space, though only a fraction of that space is explorable by players. Blizzard wanted to give the dungeons an epic feel. Similarly, they provide views of the outside in order to make the instance seem integrated with the rest of the game world. The instance contains unique art, including statues made of constellations and boss models that the developers had to restrain themselves from re-using elsewhere. The last boss has cinematics before and after the fight. They moved on to Ahn'Kahet, an underground city that's influenced by the Old Gods. They said the city was intended to be what Naxxramas was based on in the game's lore, and the artistic style reflects that. It's another huge, epic space, and the end boss is a Faceless One. He makes use of newly developed phasing technology that allows players to fight clones of their own groupmates. When those are defeated, the player is shunted into another player's phase to help with that player's clones.
The developers emphasized how pleased they were with the decision to include 10-man and 25-man versions of each raid instance. They showed us an introductory-level raid called Chamber of the Aspects, which they said was much better tuned than The Burning Crusade's introductory raids, Gruul's Lair and Magtheridon's Lair. Chamber of the Aspects contains a main boss, Sartharion, and three drake sub-bosses. The sub-bosses are easy fights on their own, and don't drop much in terms of loot. As an alternative to killing them, however, you can leave them alive when you fight Sartharion, and they will join in to fight against you. You can effectively choose your own difficulty by leaving zero, one, two, or all three drakes alive. The more drakes you leave alive when you kill Sartharion, the better loot drops you receive. The other raid they showed us was the Eye of Eternity, in which you fight Malygos, an aspect of magic. Since it's an iconic battle in Warcraft lore, they went all-out in designing the models, special effects, and phases of the fight. The raid will make use of vehicles, see the destructible building technology at work, and get some timely help from the Red Dragonflight. The Eye of Eternity is also the only raid that will require any sort of key or attunement. A drop from Sapphiron, the second to last boss in Naxxramas, will be required to start the Malygos fight, but only one person in the raid needs the item.
They went on to talk about itemization, and said the progression from dungeon to heroic to raid would be much smoother in Wrath of the Lich King than in previous versions of the game. Heroic dungeons will have their own unique itemization, and it will be a clear step up from regular dungeons. There will be two new versions of The Burning Crusade's Badge of Justice. Emblems of Heroism will drop from heroic dungeons and the 10-man version of Naxxramas. Emblems of Valor will drop from every other raid. The developers also told us that certain raid dungeon set pieces will be purchasable through Emblems. Gears sets will differ between the 10-man and 25-man versions of the dungeons, but they will count toward each other's set bonuses, similar to the way PvP sets work. They also mentioned that it's about time for another caster/healer legendary item, and that it would almost certainly come through a quest, rather than a random drop.
A few other interesting tidbits came out of the Raid panel; Deathwing is something they're "working on," and we will see him at some point. Raids won't be designed with the dual-spec system in mind. You may switch specs between fights, but you certainly won't be required to. There will definitely be a difficulty progression for raids, but we probably won't see anything as difficult as Sunwell. They want to keep thing challenging and fun. Bosses will drop more loot over all, and the Ashbringer story will continue.
The Class panel focused on the directions the developers wanted to go with each of the classes, the Death Knight in particular. They said they wanted to help the shortage of tanks by creating another class that could fill the role. Warriors, Paladins, and Druids also received some modifications to their tanking specs to make it more fun and less of a hassle. Another major goal was to get each talent tree for each class a specific playstyle, even if it was just another method of dealing damage. As a part of that, they revamped the buff and debuff system so give guilds more of an opportunity to bring the people they wanted rather than the people they needed to maximize their chance for success. Blizzard considered revamping the dispel system too — they aren't satisfied with the current implementation — but said they didn't want to introduce another huge set of changes at this time. In addition, they talked about their decision to unify several itemization stats in order to make it easier on some classes to switch roles, and to reduce the number of items required to support all possible specs.
Blizzard had plenty to talk about this year, and they made the most of their time in the spotlight. The demos for Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 looked excellent, and had the expected "Blizzard polish" even at this early stage of development. Blizzcon attendees were told that they would receive invites to the Starcraft 2 beta, although it hasn't reached that stage yet, and Diablo 3 is even further away. Wrath of the Lich King will be hitting store shelves in a month, though, and will undoubtedly further World of Warcraft's dominance of the MMO market. As you may recall, we asked you for interview questions for various Blizzard employees; stay tuned, their answers will be up soon.