You can see part 1 of this article here.
StarCraft 2: Free to Play
StarCraft 2 was the foundation of E-Sports, and while the game’s high learning curve has kept casual players from getting their feet wet, the challenge of getting into StarCraft becomes much more enticing with the game officially becoming free to play. StarCraft has three expansions, and the first game, Wings of Liberty, is now completely free to play both single player and online. If players already have Wings of Liberty, they will be given the game’s second expansion, Heart of the Swarm, for free instead. Players roared at this news, as many StarCraft players have tried to get friends to play only to have them deterred by a high learning curve and paywall. Now that the wall has crumbled anyone willing to dive into the world of StarCraft can do so. Just make sure you construct enough pylons.
Hearthstone: Kobolds and Catacombs
Hearthstone has quickly risen to the top of the android and apple marketplaces as one of the most downloaded and highest rated mobile games of all time. The game is online only and multiplayer focused, but this year might be when that changes.
Hearthstone data-miners speculated that the latest expansion would be pirate themed, due to the legendary minion, Marin the Fox, standing on a treasure chest deep in the game’s code. This turned out to be a feint by Blizzard to throw impatient coders off the scent. The actual expansion is called Kobolds and Catacombs, and it looks like its going to change the face of Hearthstone forever. While Kobolds and Catacombs will add a plethora of new cards to the game that players expect, it also adds a new, surprisingly deep and re-playable single player experience. The mode is completely free to play, but if players lose they have to start all over, similar to arena mode, but requiring only one loss instead of three.
Playing the mode feels like exploring a deep dungeon, with players starting with a relatively small weak deck, and opening “loot chests” after defeating bosses that fill their deck with powerful new cards and also passive effects. Some of these effects are beneficial to the player, while others hinder enemies. Players need as much help as they can get, because bosses become progressively more powerful the deeper players venture into the dungeon. Blizzcon attendees got to face three randomly chosen bosses, and it was a total blast. Because every dungeon run is completely different the replay value of the new mode is seemingly infinite.
Ben Brode, the game director of Hearthstone, made his first appearance in opening ceremonies this year, and it was arguably the most engaging ceremony Blizzcon has ever had. After introducing Kobolds and Catacombs, Brode had players travel into a simulated dungeon, asking the audience whether we should travel towards certain death or towards the treasure hoard. (Suicidal heroics ensued.) Even in other halls of the convention, players screamed for the pathway they wanted, and the experience itself was like a dungeon and dragons game with 30,000 players. While this was Brode’s first time participating in opening ceremonies, his energy felt like a reincarnation of retired Chris Metzen, the voice of Thrall whose retirement left a tangible hole at the heart of Blizzcon last year.
Blizzard Social: Staying Connected
The Blizzard client will be seeing a lot of much desired change as well. Players can now appear offline, to save them from messages and invites for when they just want some solo time to themselves. (An excellent addition with the release of single player experiences like Kobolds and Catacombs.) Players can also now create social chat groups, similar to Facebook messenger’s group chat. This will make WoW guilds, and aspiring Overwatch league players tasks much easier, as it removes the requirement for in game chat, and enables cross game voice chat. With non Blizzard games like Destiny appearing on the Blizzard launcher, cross-game voice chat is more important than ever, as players cannot connect via in game servers due to differences in each game. Now that Blizzard is supporting communities in different games, collective growth across all titles is likely to occur.
Heroes of the Storm: Redefining MOBAs
Heroes of the storm is colloquially called “Blizzcon the game” and the fun, self referential tone of the game feels similar to character driven juggernaut super smash bros. Heroes has grown exponentially since its release, with twice as many heroes and maps than it had at launch. The player base for heroes is larger than it has ever been, and still growing. Blizzard introduced two new characters this year, Overwatch archer Hanzo faces off against World of Warcraft’s dragon aspect of life, Alexstrasza. The double dragon cinematic announcing the characters was beautifully rendered and full of action, with Alexstrasza transforming and chasing Hanzo around in flurries of arrows and fireballs.
Hanzo mains incoming
Hanzo is a ranged assassin that feels similar to the games current resident sniper, Nova. Hanzo has arrow launching abilities on short cooldowns, and like his brother Genji he can dart around the battlefield, using impassable terrain as avenues for escape or attack.
Alexstrasza: Breathing life into the meta
Alexstrasza by contrast is a powerful support that is sure to rock the current heroes meta to its core. She can sacrifice her own health to heal her allies, create zones of perpetual percentage based healing, and transform into her true form, a full-size dragon with strong area control and drastically increased stats and abilities.
Heroes of the Storm Patches seem to come more frequently than other Blizzard games, with Heroes, talents, and balance changes happening regularly. The game will now have infinite ammunition in towers, the stealth mechanics have been reworked, and mercenary camp AI and UI have been refined for more clarity to players. Despite relative success, the Heroes team is refusing to rest on its laurels, and is gunning for the top MOBA spot. Seeing as how the entire genre of MOBAs was started by a mod to a Blizzard game, its less a new challenger and more a return of the king.
Performance Based Matchmaking
One of the greatest challenges for the MOBA genre is toxicity. But many players have accepted that it is an unavoidable part of any game that force players to rely on randomly chosen teammates. This year Blizzard announced game changing improvements to the often-criticized matchmaking. In the current system, players rankings were determined solely on whether their team achieved victory or defeat. This created a lot of frustration for players who had performed well, but due to factors outside of their control, lost the game anyway. The biggest change to Heroes matchmaking was the announcement of performance based matchmaking. Essentially the system will look at the players statistics and performance in the game in addition to the outcome of the match. This will alleviate the concerns of many players who felt their performance in game was inconsequential due to poor drafting or trolling teammates. These performance based changes will also combat the persistent issue of players intentionally working against their team because of negative attitudes. This type of system could change the face of heroes, and even MOBA matchmaking in general, effectively removing the problem of “elo hell” (the trapping of players in low level competitive games due to uncooperative teams).
Games were not the only major changes Blizzard introduced this year. The convention itself underwent it’s own rework. The attendance of Blizzcon this year was larger than ever, with over 30,000 in attendance. To accommodate such a huge number of people Blizzard introduced multi stage broadcasting. Rather than have all the announcements occur on the main stage, with panels and deep dives being relegated to other stages, Blizzard created named stages for each game, and made announcements for each game from the game’s director on their respective stage, while televising those announcements on all the other stages.
This complicated process was a very successful experiment, and showed how Blizzcon has matured from a community convention to a major cultural event. The Blizzcon app also was integral in making the con accessible to attendees. With such an enormous show floor, and concurrent panels happening at the same time as pro E-Sports matches, it would be impossible for any attendee to experience the entire convention. This year, the entire convention not only had wifi for attendees, it also had live streaming on the Blizzard app for every stage and E-Sports match available for fans right on their smartphones.
Blizzard fans unable to attend the con could access everything through the virtual ticket, they got the same goody bag as Blizzcon attendees, and full online access to every announcement and panel. Even thought the convention was filled to the brim, there was more for the huge number in attendance to explore. A new arena at the Anaheim convention center was filled by Blizzard’s Darkmoon faire and their Hearthstone innvitational. The Hearthstone tavern was filled with brew, live musicians, chargers, sofas, and even tablets for players to play the new content and Blizzcon exclusive in game brawls. Blizzard even had Harth Stonebrew, the game’s flagship innkeeper, in full costume in character. (His voice was spot on.)
While Destiny appears on the Blizzard launcher, it was noticeably absent from Blizzcon, save a few humorous cosplayers and merch worn by fans. Blizzard/Activision are part of the same company, but the development teams have maintained autonomy, and that individualist approach was a condition of the merger. One anonymous Blizzard purist said Activision’s presence at Blizzcon would happen “over my dead body”. While cooperation on the network side of development seems to be mutually beneficial, it’s unlikely that there will be joint projects in actual game development.
The third and final part of our coverage will be coming soon! We’ve saved the best for last, with hilarious cosplayer interviews and exclusive footage from Blizzcon!