Today, Blizzard officially announced more details about something they had previously hinted at – in cancelling Blizzcon 2020 in person, we instead get Blizzconline (HATE this wordplay) 2021,on February 19th and 20th 2021.
Now, I’m of two minds on this announcement. Having a place to make announcements is good, and 2020 would have likely been a dull year for announcements had the con gone ahead in October as it originally seemed to be headed for. Overwatch 2 remains in development, the most likely weekend the event would have happened would have been launch week for Shadowlands, Diablo IV was very early last year, Heroes of the Storm and Starcraft II are functionally on maintenance mode, and that would have left news from…Diablo Immortal and Hearthstone? The biggest announcement I would have expected, given the datamining finding color variants of the Netherwhelp pet from Burning Crusade CE, would be WoW Classic: The Burning Crusade. So, given that, waiting a little bit should mean solid timing for a 9.1 reveal/release date for WoW, the TBC Classic reveal I somewhat expect, Diablo Immortal and Hearthstone things, and a series of small functional updates for the other games.
On the other hand, Blizzcon is, for me, about going in person and meeting people, seeing things live, and enjoying time spent in company – things that simply aren’t possible in the current environment and won’t be until the US gets an actual plan for containing things in place. An online show isn’t going to fill that void, and while online convention experiences in gaming have done very well (being able to download and play demos at home is a HUGE plus), there is a core experiential flaw in the proceedings – it just never can feel the same. It has less of the gravitas, instead feeling like distance learning or a conference call, and it generally is less exciting. If it were a WoW expansion year, I cannot imagine seeing the WoW team present on camera with no cuts or focus breaks – it would be pretty bad!
However, ultimately, I think that Blizzard trying to maintain something to fill that void is a net positive. The announcement makes it clear that the community talent contest will remain in some form and seems to be getting the most planning focus, which makes logical sense – it is the event you can most easily replicate in a remote setting for the audience and puts the content burden onto the community. However, other details remain incredibly sparse, and so I have some fears over what may come and some hopes for what we’ll see!
Please Don’t Charge, Blizzard (They’re Probably Going To Charge): When they first announced this today, I immediately went looking for pricing data. There isn’t any…yet. My suspicion is that they will, 100%, charge an access fee to watch this online. Now, in a year with an actual Blizzcon, this makes sense – rent on the physical venue, setting up the broadcast, stage managers, equipment, extra hosts and talent, a concert (or 3) – all of these things carry an associated cost. Now, I am obviously not privy to Blizzard financial data, so I can’t say for sure, but my hunch is that Blizzcon is a profitable show in its own right even without the absolute avalanche of merch sales that happen every year, and I would assume that even in a virtual setting, we’ll still get planned “con” merch and reveal merchandise, along with existing goods being gathered into a convention store online we can buy. What Blizzard won’t have, in all likelihood, is most of the costs of running the show. They have livestreaming facilities on-site in their office, meaning no site rental fees, no equipment rentals, stage setup, load in, tear down, or load out, no need for expensive broadcast equipment and satellite trucks, and while I expect the normal Blizzard-affiliated hosts will be present to throw between virtual panels, the time commitment would be far less as they do not need to be physically present for a full broadcast day or available to manage the logistics of the stream while panels run over or start late, and other things of that nature. In fact, you can pre-record most of, if not all of, the content presented.
Given all of this, and the precedent set by the current PAX Online x EGX event, I feel like charging would represent a sort of dick move on Blizzard’s part. However, I also predict that they’ve already made in-game items (the development cycle for such things would have started prior to the event’s cancellation, probably) and so I imagine they’ll offer the same virtual ticket option they have for a decade now and present it as offering you the in-game goodies. To that, I can’t necessarily object, but at the same time…it would be a nice offering to give the goodies to anyone who tunes in, and offer that option free of charge through the Blizzard launcher as the means to validate that someone has tuned in.
Playable Demos? Sure, Let’s Get Those: The one bright spot for many of Blizzcon 2018 was the WoW Classic demo being playable as part of the virtual ticket. It required some work on Blizzard’s part to make it happen, but it was wildly popular and I saw tons of people offer feedback that it was very well-received. Even I played it, and I am not a huge Classic fanboy! Blizzard has shown the technological chops to make playable convention demos at home happen, and the other virtual cons that have happened this year have had very similar things (I’ve downloaded a PAX demo via Steam in the last week!). For a lot of folks, demos are a core part of the experience, and since Blizzard has a large, scalable cloud infrastructure as a part of their platform, it only makes sense to me to offer players that chance. Maybe not for all games (I suspect Shadowlands won’t have a playable 9.1, or at least not one that wouldn’t be on the PTR already or quickly thereafter), but for games with new content that would have been show-floor playable, make it a demo we can try at home!
A Virtual Environment: I’m not a huge fan of Second Life or anything, but one thing virtual cons sort of miss is that feeling of being part of something with other people. In my head, it would be awesome if they built a WoW event server with virtual stages that would host panels, or an Overwatch server doing the same – a place you could go in-game, with your character from WoW or favorite character/skin combo from Overwatch, and hang out with other people watching the event. I don’t fully know if the games involved would support this (video textures for a screen I know can be done in a game, but I don’t know if Blizzard’s games specifically support that), but it could be done in other ways. Ion has a WoW character (some of you will feign shock at that!) and so you could even just do a Darkmoon Faire style stage with player characters for the developers presenting on them, streaming the audio of their panel in-game through some means. Virtual cons as a concept are interesting, but in practice, to a one, each has been just a glorified YouTube video collection with some downloadable demos. Having an actual in-game space, where you can see other players watching and participating, that would be cool.
Overall, I think the idea is a good one, and I am glad to see Blizzard adapting to the new reality we all are stuck in until things get better. I am hopeful that we’ll see the best of Blizzard on display and that they’ll use all means available to deliver a suitably fun and enjoyable virtual event for all.