After a year's hiatus, Blizzard Entertainment returned to the Anaheim Convention Center this week to host the 7th BlizzCon fan event.
"From everyone at Blizzard, thank you for being here. Welcome home," said Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime as he took the stage on Friday to kick off the BlizzCon keynote address.
"I love you!" screamed a man in the crowd.
BlizzCon is first and foremost a show for the fans, but there's always a decent smorgasbord of news about Blizzard's games sandwiched between the festivities. This year's keynote was no different, as Blizzard's finest took the stage to announce a new World of Warcraft expansion, new platforms and details about Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and more.
Blizzard apologizes for the Diablo III auction house
Blizzard didn't really talk much about its new Diablo III expansion, Reaper of Souls. No bombastic, inspirational video. No fireworks. No giant demon bursting through the wall of the Anaheim Convention Center, murdering the crowd and feasting on souls.
All we got was an apology. "Two months ago we announced we were getting rid of the auction house," said President of Blizzard Michael Morhaime. The entire crowd erupted. My eardrums are still bleeding.
The auction house was a much-lambasted Diablo III feature where people could sell their rare loot for real-world money. It ruined both the process and the thrill of finding loot, and was largely responsible for the game's controversial "always-online" status.
Blizzard had already said they were nixing the feature and improving loot drops in the upcoming expansion, but today we got a real apology. A chastened Michael Morhaime looked the crowd in its collective eyes and said, "We're going to make it right, and we're not going to stop there."
Heroes of the Storm tries to make "hero brawler" a thing
And then we were off! Real announcement time! Trailers galore! People flipping over chairs!
Blizzard DOTA/Blizzard All-Stars/Heroes of the Storm is Blizzard's long-in-production MOBA that's supposed to compete with games like Valve's DOTA 2 and Riot's League of Legends. Blizzard's claim to the genre is that the original DOTA started life as a Warcraft III user mod, so clearly Blizzard is the correct company to make a new version.
"When we had the chance to make one of these games our own, we just couldn't resist," said game director Dustin Browder. Of course, Blizzard foolishly let the rights to DOTA slip over to Valve in the first place. He also referred to it as the "hero brawler" genre. Sorry, Browder. Not going to happen.
They're fighting an uphill battle; DOTA 2 and League of Legends are fairly entrenched. However, Blizzard does have a few perks in its corner.
Since DOTA was originally a mod, Heroes of the Storm is the only game that can officially use the same models for each champion as the original Warcraft III version (though let's be honest: MOBAs are in large part thinly-skinned versions of Warcraft III).
Blizzard is banking on the inclusion of its lengthy lore. BlizzCon attendees couldn't stop cheering during the cinematic trailer, which showed off popular characters from Blizzard's past: Arthas from Warcraft III, Nova from StarCraft: Ghost and StarCraft II, and a host of others.
"This game wouldn't be here without BlizzCon," said Browder. "When we came to BlizzCon we were inspired by the art hanging on the walls, by the banners showing all these characters together."
In other words, Heroes of the Storm is the Super Smash Bros. of MOBA games.
The game is also going to feature more than one map, which is a change for the genre. Traditionally, MOBAs only play out on one specific map. Blizzard is taking the same basic map shape, but theming it differently in what they call "Battlegrounds."
For instance, there is a pirate-themed map that takes place on Blackheart Bay. "On Blackheart Bay you're going to collect cursed treasure and deliver it to a pirate lord," said Browder. If you succeed, the pirate lord will turn his cannons on your enemies.
It's an interesting twist, but we'll see whether it's enough to dethrone Valve and Riot in the MOBA space.
Hearthstone coming to iOS and Android
Next, Rob Pardo took the stage to talk up Blizzard's progress on developing Hearthstone, the company's free-to-play online card game that's been operating in a closed beta state for months. "Hearthstone is a first for Blizzard in a lot of ways," said Pardo, who serves as Blizzard's Chief Creative Officer. "It's our first free-to-play game, our first tablet game, and the first game we've announced and made playable in the same year."
Pardo didn't offer a hard launch date for the game, but he did announce that Hearthstone will enter open beta before the end of the year--unless it doesn't. Pardo calls this kind of loose release schedule "Blizzard time", but you should call it a reminder to pay attention to the Hearthstone website if you're interested in playtesting the game. Hearthstone is also being developed for iOS and Android devices, though we don't have any details on when those versions might see the light of day.
World of Warcraft now goes to 100
As you might expect, the biggest news out of the BlizzCon keynote was kept for last: World of Warcraft is getting a new expansion that raises the level cap to 100. It's called Warlords of Draenor, and while Metzen didn't bother to announce an actual release date he did take time to point out that this expansion introduces a new world to explore, new character models, and a new garrison system that lets players build their own strongholds on Draenor and recruit NPCs to hang out inside. You'll be able to accept missions based on your stronghold, and you customize what bonuses the stronghold affords you based on the buildings you construct.
If you're a former World of Warcraft player, don't worry; Blizzard wants you back, and they're willing to let you promote one character to level 90 right away via the "Call to Arms" feature so you have a reason to pick up the expansion.
Between nixing the Diablo III Auction House, making Hearthstone free-to-play and handing out one "get-out-of-grinding free" option with every purchase of Warlords of Draenor, it's clear that Blizzard remains focused on sucking lapsed players back into their games.