Last year's Blizzcon was tremendously popular. So much so that their servers were unable to handle the strain of fans competing for 15,000 available tickets. This year, Blizzard was more prepared; they made an additional 5,000 tickets available and set up a queue so that the transaction servers weren't overwhelmed. CEO Mike Morhaime said during the keynote address that if you weren't able to get into the queue within 30 seconds of its opening, the tickets were sold out before your turn came. Tens of thousands more chose to order the pay-per-view coverage, demonstrating the extraordinary enthusiasm felt for Blizzard's games. Their presentations didn't disappoint. Read on for details on the status of StarCraft II, Diablo III, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, and the new Battle.net. It's divided into sections by game in case you're only interested in one or two of them.
The big StarCraft II news this year wasn't so much about the first installment, Wings of Liberty, as it was about two of the major features shipping with the game: the editor and Battle.net. Both look to be extremely powerful, and they're being given the same level of care and polish you'd expect from the game proper. Still, the devs spoke a little bit about their philosophy and vision for the game. One of the major themes is making sure the player has options. When selecting missions in the single-player campaign, players can choose from several different paths to advance the main plot. There are also optional missions; you can choose to skip them if you want, or you can finish them to open up new units that you wouldn't have access to otherwise.
Even within missions themselves, Blizzard wants to give you different ways to get the job done. One example they gave was an escort mission where you're shown the path some escaping civilians will be taken, so you can plan out how you want to prepare for attacks and decide how many resources to commit at a particular time. Another mission features high terrain surrounded by low terrain. Zerg attack frequently, and every so often, lava rises out of nearby crevasses and floods the low terrain. The goal of the mission is to build up a certain amount of money, which puts a new spin on resource planning. Spending a lot of money to fight off the Zerg goes contrary to the mission objective, but spending too little has its own risks. You can also decide to be as aggressive or as cautious as you want when playing chicken with the lava. Harvesting those extra few minerals can make a huge difference if you time it well enough.
This leads into another major theme: keeping all the missions unique and interesting. Even with the brief look at the single-player campaign that we've already seen, there are several cool new mechanics that make the game more than "build up an army and smash the other army" thirty times in a row. It'll do great things for replayability, and I think it will make the single-player portion of the game stand on its own more than in the original StarCraft. Solo-play in RTS games is often referred to as "training" for multi-player, but Blizzard doesn't look at it this way; the missions are far too unlike PvP to be useful in that regard. Instead, they've added what they call "Challenges," which do train you for common PvP scenarios. There will be mini-missions for things like maximizing your economy, learning how to counter particular units, or using micro-management skills to take out a superior force. You'll be able to keep trying, improve your scores, and track your performance — thanks to the new Battle.net.
Battle.net is shaping up to be a really impressive addition. Match-making is at the heart of it, but calling it simply a match-making system doesn't really do it justice. Communication, stat-tracking, and mod-sharing are also central to the new platform. Players will be able to create friends lists that span the different games, allowing somebody in World of Warcraft to talk with somebody playing Wings of Liberty. They're rolling out what is essentially an integrated IM client with all the features you'd expect for keeping track of people and conversations — multiple frames, online/offline notices, setting an alias for somebody, etc. I think it'll be an incredible boon for multi-player when people are able to look for groups in one game while playing another. Blizzard also made sure to mention that they were aware of the privacy concerns involved in such a system, and they'll be implementing controls to let you limit the amount of information you share.
The new system also supports looking at your performance in myriad ways. When reviewing a game, you'll be able to see how the players' economies developed, what their build orders were, unit production, battle details, and more. What's more, you'll get a much more useful replay system, allowing you to fast-forward, rewind, jump to particular points in the game, view from different places, and look at stats as they're being accumulated. In addition to this is a full achievement system with a ton of things to unlock and show off. One of the coolest parts is the ability to unlock and choose artistic decals which will then be rendered on your units in-game.
But, of course, the matchmaking system itself can't be overshadowed. Their goal when designing it was to give a competitive experience to as many people as possible, and it looks like they've found a way. As you play against other people and start to accumulate wins and losses, you are put in a League with players of a similar skill level. There are seven Leagues: Pro, Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Copper, Practice. The Leagues are broken down further into Divisions, which include opponents even closer to your skill level. Divisions are limited to 100 people. Players will be ranked against others in their Division, and there will be seasons of play. Tournaments held at the end of the season will determine Division winners, who can complete for the League championship. The idea is that everyone should be paired against people of their own skill level as much as possible, and everyone should have a reasonable chance of winning their division — even the most hopeless of casuals. Speaking of which — for the truly new (or truly terrible), there will be a few maps designed specifically to be "anti-rush" so that they can learn the basics without fear of being immediately crushed.
Another significant fact to keep in mind is that these ratings will be tied to Battle.net accounts, which will require the purchase of a Blizzard game to use. This allows for two great new controls: first, people will be much less likely to try cheating, since they can't just register a new account for free. Second, your game rating is tied to your account, so the problem of "smurfing" — when highly-skilled players make a new account for the sole purpose of being matched against (and then demolishing) newer players — is neatly eliminated. Providing meaningful, interesting matches to every player will go a long way toward a thriving, sustainable PvP community. Also, the rating system will apply to co-op match-making as well. Each team of players has its own rating, so you don't have to worry about dropping in the standings if you want to goof off with your friends in 3v3. Speaking of co-op, the match-making and game creation system has been streamlined in that regard as well. It's simple to, for example, join up with one friend and then drop into a 3v3 or 4v4 game as a group of two. You also don't have to jump through hoops to get your friends in a game and select settings before letting random people in to fill the extra slots.
The last major feature of the new Battle.net is the support for custom maps and mods. They're making it very easy to browse custom games and download maps without having to repeatedly get booted from a server or visit a third-party site. The Blizzard developers were extremely enthusiastic about what they called the StarCraft II Marketplace — essentially an App-Store-like interface for browsing and getting maps and mods. You could feel the wariness from the Blizzcon audience when this was announced; people were wondering if they would be required to pay for custom maps. But, for the most part, this won't be the case. The capacity for premium mods does exist, but the devs said that even a massively-popular mod like DotA would probably be too simple to expect people to pay for. The ability to charge was put into place so development teams that were interested could plan for a budget, in order to build extremely detailed or complex maps and mods. You can expect free access to all the great fan-made maps and mods that are typical of Blizzard games.
This naturally leads to questions about the editor that will be coming with StarCraft II. From what we've seen so far, the Blizzard devs are going out of their way to include a ridiculous amount of flexibility in the tools they are providing. They seem to have a tremendous respect for what fans have done with their previous games; fully one-third of their design staff has come out of the mod community, and they have every intention of contacting people who make incredible creations for StarCraft II. Put simply, everything in the single-player campaign can be done with their editor. Many things not in the single-player campaign can be done with the editor. They gave a few simple examples: nothing in StarCraft II makes use of an inventory, but the code is there to support it. One of the powerful Zerg units, an Ultralisk, was modified with spiny grafts on its back that rapidly shot back and forth to destroy smaller units. When the Ultralisk was surrounded, it gave off a huge circular flame wave, destroying what was, literally, a screen full of enemies.
Most impressive, though, were the two complicated examples. Using just the editor, they were able to transform the game into a third-person shooter. You took control of a unit (a Ghost, of course), and ran around the map (even underground) shooting Zerg, complete with a shooter UI, keyboard movement controls and mouse-look. They were also able to turn the game into a top-down scrolling space shooter. Take a look. And they're still adding features. They're looking for ways to create libraries that can be passed around — they want to give mod-makers the ability to work on different tasks at the same time. They're also very aware of the possibility that people might grab somebody else's custom map, make one minor change, and re-submit it as their own — Blizzard is making it very difficult to do this, and they're already working on a report and review system for objectionable content. The editor will be available during the beta, but probably not right away.
With all of this in development, it's easy to see why Blizzard is so focused on getting people to use Battle.net. The oft-repeated suggestion that it's just DRM to fight piracy isn't the case. Hearing them talk about it and finally seeing what Battle.net has to offer makes it plain that they really do think the gaming experience will be better for it. That said, the door to LAN play doesn't seem to be closed. Rob Pardo acknowledged that there are a number of fringe cases where access to the internet isn't available or networking concerns prevent decent gameplay, and they're still looking into ways to give people what they want. They're also continuing to look into ways to optimize for situations where people are playing with each other from the same location.
The big reveal for Diablo III this year was the new Monk class. It's the game's second melee character, after the Barbarian, but manages to have a completely distinct style and feel. The inspiration for the Monk came from rather disparate sources; pen-and-paper RPGs and arcade-style fighting games (think Street Fighter). Since a Monk is holy by nature, Blizzard felt he should have access to a bit of holy magic to enhance his martial-arts style of fighting. Interestingly, they drew on a more Eastern European background, rather than the archetypical Southeast Asian variety, and the departure works well; the character seems to have the discipline and focus expected of a devoted adherent while concealing a craziness that would make him try to kill a bear with his teeth. And win.
When designing the Monk, they wanted a fragile fighting class with more depth than just running up and smashing something. They looked at World of Warcraft's Rogue and Diablo II's Assassin, but decided each was ultimately unsatisfying for a game like Diablo III. They wanted something with a limited amount of skills but many ways to have those skills work together. Thus was born the combo system. Many of the Monk's major attacks have three different stages. Clicking on an enemy once gives you the first stage, clicking again (within a short period of time) gives you the second stage, and another click for the third stage. For example: Exploding Palm. The first stage hits for 35% of your weapon damage. Second stage hits for 50%. Third stage puts a damage-over-time bleed effect on the enemy, exacerbated by movement. If the enemy dies from the bleed effect, it explodes, causing a huge amount of damage to nearby enemies. This happens quite often, and it's a very powerful area-of-effect attack. Another example: Way of the Hundred Fists. The first attack is a quick dash, striking one enemy. The second stage is a rapid series of low-damage attacks. The third stage is a powerful area-of-effect damage and knock-back effect around the player.
Now, the most interesting part about these combos is that you can mix and match. You can take the first stage from one ability, second stage from another, and the third stage from still another. This lets you tailor the way you attack to fit whatever situation you're in. These combine with more typical single-stage abilities, although some of the abilities themselves are anything but typical. An attack called Seven Sided Strike makes the Monk zip around part of the screen, teleporting between enemies to attack them. It's great fun to use, and very reminiscent of combo attacks in arcade fighting games. It's not something you'd expect in a Diablo game, but it fits perfectly. Everything feels like an impact.
There were hands-on gaming areas set up throughout the convention, so we got to sit down and play through a level using the brand-new Monks, and it was probably the most entertaining time I spent there. Figuring out interesting ways to weave the abilities together is fun. Plus, one of the coolest things I noticed was how well two players could complement each other, even playing the same class. As I got comfortable with the Monk's skills and began to watch what my partner (also a Monk) was doing, I found that if I planned my attacks to play into his, we could tackle much stronger groups of monsters than we could otherwise. I could use my knock-back to bump a few monsters in to his area-attack or to give him a little space when he was vulnerable. We could layer our disorient spell so that monsters had less time to hit us. It gave me great hope for group synergy.
Blizzard had some neat tidbits on display within the level itself, too. Several boss monsters, and even some regular ones, required strategic movement and ability use — not just blindly running in the opposite direction waiting for our heath bars to fill up, as was often the case in Diablo II. By playing smart, we could avoid a lot of the damage, which is how it should be. There was also an interesting side-dungeon; upon zoning in, we were warned that the place was collapsing, and a timer began ticking down. As we moved further inside, the ceiling would periodically drop rocks on us, forcing us to dodge quickly or take damage. But here's the rub: the further you go into the dungeon the more and better loot you get from chests. So it becomes a race — a challenge. How far can you go before you can't get back? When the timer expires, everything collapses, and you die.
Several quests were available in the demo level as well. They all operate in a very smooth and story-driven manner. Several lessons have obviously been taken from World of Warcraft in that regard, but not in a way that undermines the Diablo style. They succeeded in showing a very dark thematic tone in a visually bright level. The developers spent some time talking about their design process and philosophy, and showed some examples of what they had in the works. They're trying to do interesting things with the monsters without making an individual monster too complex. Difficulty and complexity is achieved through combining different types of monsters. They have a variety of archetypes, such as swarmers, ranged attackers, enemies that weaken you in some way, monsters that alter or constrict your movement through area-effect spells, and many others. Knowing how to prioritize your targets will be a valuable skill.
Diablo III is a game that's already impressive, but very much still in development. Blizzard isn't ready to talk about many things; major decisions for the PvP system haven't been made yet, Battle.net integration is something for the future (though they will have cross-game communication, like the others), and the much-anticipated rune system for customizing skills is on hold until they finalize the skills themselves. Even things like the Barbarian's resource system and graphical effects are still going through new iterations, and they're trying to smooth out the bumps in monster design. They mentioned a sand-shark which would become much more powerful in the open desert (think Tremors), making the sand feel less safe to stand on than nearby rocks. Unfortunately, in playtesting, they found that it was hard to balance and confusing for the players, so they're tinkering with the design. I wouldn't expect this game before 2011.
A few more random snippets: the stash will be "gigantic," and there will still be endgame loot runs, but they will most likely be "diversified" such that you'd actively want to kill multiple bosses rather than the same one over and over. There will be some method for transferring items between your characters, and they're working on ways to prevent item duping/hacking. They want Diablo III to have a more meaningful economy than Diablo II. They don't feel like modding or map-making provides any substantial benefit for the game, and they don't plan to support it. They like the idea of using the Horadric Cube to craft items, but wouldn't be satisfied duplicating the way it was implemented.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
The unveiling of World of Warcraft's third expansion was perhaps the biggest hit of the conference. It was clear since the launch of The Burning Crusade that Blizzard has gotten much better at quest and zone design since the original two continents were created. Wrath of the Lich King only emphasized that point; comparing the landscape of Howling Fjord to that of Desolace made you wonder that they were part of the same game. Players had been asking for a better leveling experience for years, and their demands did not go unnoticed. Cataclysm is easily the biggest expansion, and is sure to further solidify the game's place at the top of the MMO food chain.
So, what do we know about Cataclysm? Well, it'll affect every zone on Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms, some to greater extent than others. Northrend will be affected too, though not as much. The Outland, being separate from the world of Azeroth, won't undergo significant physical change, but quests and dialogues will be updated to reflect such a major event. In addition to the remodeling of the two major continents, several entirely new areas will be available to players as well, including an underwater zone. The phasing technology introduced in Wrath is being upgraded to affect terrain, and players will be able to use their flying mounts in Azeroth.
That's a lot to digest, but the WoW developers just kept piling on more information throughout the convention. There are five new high-level zones for taking players from level 80 to 85. Two of them, Mount Hyjal and the Sunken City of Vashj'ir, are starter zones. Vashj'ir is the underwater zone. The devs promised to "make sure it won't be annoying." From what they described, most of the combat will be done on the bottom of the ocean, with characters able to move around and fight much like normal. They'll also be able to detach themselves from the bottom and swim through the water above them. Underwater mounts will be introduced that move as quickly as flying mounts, and there may even be some areas at the bottom of the sea that will be enclosed, containing air. They showed some concept art that was very bright and colorful, what you might expect from a documentary on a lively reef on the Discovery channel. Hyjal will be under siege by an old enemy — Ragnaros. He's not too happy about what happened to him the last time around, and he's trying to take out his anger on the World Tree.
Deepholm was termed the "hub" of the new 80-85 areas; it will facilitate quick transport to any of them. A temple in the center of the zone is where the expansion's villain, Deathwing, broke through and caused the cataclysm. It's designed to feel like an enclosed space, and the art we've seen makes it look like a giant cavern, which will definitely give it a different feel from any zone we've seen before. Uldum is a long-awaited addition to Azeroth. As it turns out, it was always "there," but Titan-created machines prevented anyone from seeing it. The cataclysm broke those machines, so it's open season on this Egypt-inspired zone. Twilight Highlands is home to the Twilight's Hammer cult, the ones who helped to free Deathwing. It'll have Grim Batol, one of the new raids, as well as new port towns for both the Horde and the Alliance.
The cataclysm will have political ramifications as well, resulting in two new playable races. The Goblins will be forced from their neutrality into partnership with the Horde, and a break in the Greymane Wall puts the Worgen squarely on the side of the Alliance. They each get their own starting zone (levels 1-15), and both will have fairly powerful racial abilities; Worgen get a sprint ability, slightly increased damage, and a bonus to skinning — which they don't require a knife to do. Goblins get price discounts regardless of reputation, engineering abilities (one launches them at their target, another fires rockets, but they share a cooldown), and a bonus to their alchemy skill, which includes increased effects from potions. You don't need to worry that these are more powerful than the old races — all of them will be updated to a similar level of usefulness when Cataclysm launches. Oh, and race changes will become available at some point as well.
More big news: rated battlegrounds will be arriving with Cataclysm. They will function differently from arenas in that you won't have particular teams, and your rating will never go down — only up. Every week a particular battleground can be used for rated matches. If you win, you gain rating determined by your current rating and the quality of your opponents. If you lose, your rating stays the same. Winning also awards you a number of arena points per game. Arenas will be shifting to this system as well. Your rating will determine the maximum number of points you can earn in a week. You won't have rated teams for battlegrounds, but you will need to queue as a group. A variety of new bonuses and awards are being introduced, including epic ground mounts and the return of honor titles, like Grand Marshal.
Also on the PvP front, a new world-PvP zone will be opening: an island called Tol Barad. The intent is to combine the battles in Wintergrasp with the daily quest hub of the Isle of Quel'Danas. When the battle isn't active, players from both factions can do daily quests and choose whether or not they want to rumble on their own terms. When the fight is underway, daily quests shut down until there is a victor. The winner gets access to an instance and a few more daily quests. The action will be spread out over a larger area in order to avoid some of the crippling lag that plagued Wintergrasp on some servers, and different areas will have different types of combat. There will be a new battleground too, the Battle of Gilneas, which will have players trying to capture districts of a city. There will probably be new arena maps as well.
Perhaps as significant as the physical changes to World of Warcraft are the changes to itemization that are in the works. Mana per 5 is being rolled into Spirit. Attack Power will be abandoned for Strength and Agility. Spell Power will be rolled into Intellect. Defense and Armor Penetration are going away (almost) entirely. Block value is gone too; blocks now absorb a flat percentage of the damage, making it a useful stat against bosses. The intent is to streamline gear so that players don't need giant spreadsheets to figure out whether something is an upgrade. Most of these stats will be replaced by a new stat called "Mastery," which "makes you better at what you do best." The talent trees are being revised to remove talents that give a passive bonus to your character, since that's kind of boring. Instead, simply spending points in a particular talent tree will give you appropriate passive bonuses. The further you go, the better the bonuses are. It will allow for more meaningful choices in how the characters is played. The system will be smart enough to know what weapon specialization you use, and if you go all the way down to the bottom of a tree, you'll see some really interesting bonuses. One they showed for Paladins granted a percentage reduction in cooldown duration.
Some big class changes are underway too; Hunters will no longer use mana, but instead adopt the Focus system used by their pets. This lets them ignore Intellect gear and reduces the need for cooldowns on their abilities, since that can be handled by their resource system. Warlocks are seeing a substantial change in the way Soul Shards work. No longer will they have to carry around a few dozen in their bags; instead, they'll acquire a max of three, held in a UI system similar to Death Knight Runes. They won't be easily recharged during combat, but grant substantial boosts to spell effects. For example, one might be used to make a long summoning spell or their biggest, slowest damage spell instant-cast instead.
It wouldn't be an expansion without a new profession, and once again Blizzard is doing it in a way they haven't done before; Archaeology is a new secondary profession, so everyone can get it without taking up one of their primary profession slots. It's also the key to a new max-level character progression system called "Paths of the Titans." This will be a way to gradually improve your character once you've hit the level cap. Progress will be limited; they don't want people to feel obligated to grind it out, so it'll become available slowly. There are 10 ranks to each Path, and you get bonuses to your character at every rank. The bonuses are not class specific, so it's feasible for a warrior and a priest to pick the same one; it just depends on what abilities you'd like. The examples they gave included a passive damage reduction to your character and an activated ability that reduced damage to nearby allies. It uses the glyph system, but the glyphs come from Archaeology rather than Inscription. Another way to customize will be an ability called Reforging. It will let you exchange part of one stat on an item for another. For example, a ring with 10 Intellect could be changed to a ring with 5 Intellect and 5 Spirit.
That's not all with regard to customization, however. Cataclysm will be introducing a Guild leveling system. Almost everything you do — boss kills, level-ups, skill-ups, PvP, etc. — contributes toward your guild gaining levels, to a maximum of 20. Guilds will have their own talent trees, which only apply to its members. Blizzard showed a few of the possible talents; one reduced repair costs, and another granted a mass resurrection spell. They also talked about talents for removing reagent costs and having extra gold drop from monsters. There will also be Guild Achievements and Guild Heirlooms. Heirloom recipes can be purchased, allowing anyone of that profession within the guild to craft the item. If a person with one of those items leaves the guild, the item is put back in the guild bank.
It was an eventful two days for the WoW team. They mentioned a variety of other news, too. They're doing away with spell ranks; they all just scale with level now. Incidentally, this opens the door to a mentoring system, which they may decide to implement at some point. They're making "big changes" to fishing so it will be "more fun." Players with two gathering professions will be able to track both simultaneously. The terrain phasing system will let you see entire coastlines change as the cataclysm progresses. There will be a guild news feed, not to mention cross-faction, cross-realm, and cross-game communication through Battle.net. Cross-server instance groups (aimed at PUGs) are planned for the next major patch. The revamped leveling zones will lead to each other in a more contiguous manner, so expect some high level zones to become low-level zones, and vice versa.
All in all, it looks like the WoW devs have been busy cramming every cool feature they could manage into this expansion, while simultaneously addressing some of the game's biggest weaknesses. It's getting hard to see how new MMOs will ever be able to compete against something like this. Blizzard wants new players to have this experience, so it's likely they'll integrate Cataclysm into the base game. It'll be interesting to see whether the development cycle takes longer than the previous expansions, since it seems like Cataclysm will require a lot more work. I'm sure we'll have a better idea after the next Blizzcon!