After Hours

BlizzCon 2010: News about Diablo III, StarCraft II, WoW Cataclysm

BlizzCon 2010 was attended by more then 20,000 fans of World of Warcraft, Diablo, and StarCraft. Wally Bahny shares highlights from the gaming convention, including tips on how to become a better player.

Blizzard Entertainment held its annual convention, BlizzCon, on October 22 and October 23 in Anaheim, CA. Along with well-known employees Chris Metzen, Blizzard's VP of Creative Development, and Mike Morhaime, Blizzard's co-founder and CEO, there were 20,000 fans in attendance. I attended the BlizzCon 2010 virtual event, which cost $39.95 for one ticket.

Blizzard announced that there was more than 50 hours of content available spread out over four stages at BlizzCon 2010. Even if you subtract the content on the two tournament stages, that still leaves more than 24 hours of content on the two panel stages. I watched BlizzCon 2010 for many, many hours (though I still haven't watched all 50), and here are the highlights that I think would interest TechRepublic readers. Also check out TechRepublic's BlizzCon 2010 gallery to see gamers in costume.

BlizzCon 2010/Photo credit: Yahoo! Games

Warcraft movie and The Shattering

During the opening ceremonies, Morhaime announced that Blizzard would be auctioning off old World of Warcraft server hardware, and Metzen outlined "what a geek is" -- from movies to science fiction to gaming (including table-top gaming) to comics and anime, and he even paid homage to EverQuest, the grandfather of all MMOs. They also showed a video preview of the Diablo III Demon Hunter Class and the PVP Battle Arenas, as well as a visually and theatrically enhanced World of Warcraft Cataclysm trailer (here's a link to one of the original Cataclysm trailers).

Also mentioned were the Warcraft movie and the new book World of Warcraft: The Shattering: Prelude to Cataclysm. The Warcraft movie's story is pretty much nailed down, and director Sam Raimi is just waiting on a green light. The Shattering is the new Warcraft book that starts Thrall's storyline as it heads into Cataclysm, and it provides the setup for that expansion as a whole as well.

Unfortunately, Blizzard did not announce what its new MMO will be, and the company is not likely to make that announcement until at least 2012 or 2013.

Diablo III

Blizzard has announced one new playable class at every BlizzCon; we've seen the Barbarian, the Witch Doctor, the Wizard, and the Monk. This year, the new class is the Demon Hunter.

Demon Hunter

The Demon Hunter was designed to fit the Ranged Archetype and, so, be a conventional ranged class using bows and crossbows, daggers and shortswords, and gadgets and traps, as well as dabbling a bit in shadow magic.

The Demon Hunter class started out looking like a traditional woodland ranger, but Blizzard wanted it to look more powerful and swift. They also played around with the idea of the class being demonic or part demon, but those didn't seem right inside the Diablo universe. In the end, Blizzard settled on a medieval, sexy, dark vibe with visually distinct gear such as scarves, leggings, and armguards.

The model had to be recognizable either as a silhouette or by its attitude, and it had to be very "readable." The class is supposed to be part Ranger, part Bounty Hunter, have a thirst for revenge, and is made not born.

Skills

These are some of the skills the Demon Hunter class will have:

  • Bola Shot: A traditional bola with a new twist -- it explodes after wrapping around the target.
  • Vault: Ability to acrobat through the shadows and attack from a different angle.
  • Spike Trap: Dropped on the ground as monsters approach to increase damage.
  • Grenades: Able to be thrown through doorways, around corners, and bounce off of objects.
  • Multishot: Hit several targets while firing only once.

Blizzard also announced new skills for each of the other classes:

  • Barbarian: Ancient Spear - a ranged attack but, since it's a spear throw, it still feels melee.
  • Wizard: Meteor - a huge fireball that falls from the sky doing area of effect (AoE) damage.
  • Witch Doctor: Spirit Walk - renders the body incorporeal to pass by enemies undetected.
  • Monk: Wave of Light - a mystical bell that is summoned and then shot off in a direction killing enemies in a line.

The panelists also covered several game mechanics and screens and discussed the changes they went through during the development process. The first of these is the Skill UI, which began as a window similar to the new World of Warcraft Talent Tree pane and evolved through several iterations to finalize on a list that highlights all sub-skills.

Traits

Traits are points-based systems that allow you to alter core attributes and class mechanics. There are 30 traits available per class with each being one to five points deep; this totals about 90 point slots per class but only about 30 trait points earnable. Some examples of trait modifications were also given for Barbarians and Wizards. Barbarians can enhance Inner Rage, which increases Fury and basically can choose Strength or Berserker type enhancements to either make the Barbarian hit harder or more quickly. Wizards can add a Prismatic Cloak, which makes armor spells more powerful.

Talismans

The next improvement discussed was Talisman, which is a dedicated inventory area for Charms. In Diablo II, Charms were stored in the bags; this reduced how many other items could be carried.

This new UI has grows over time, but it still has less space than the number of charms available, so players will still be required to choose which charms they will carry.

Runes

Another improvement is the Rune system. Runes are used to customize Skills and result in a massive number of skill builds (the math guys at Blizzard say 96,886,969,344 builds per class).

Runes are grouped into Types that are loosely themed: Crimson (fire damage), Indigo (rapid fire), Obsidian (slows enemies), Golden (mana recovery), and Alabaster (crazy stuff). Also, there are seven ranks of Runes categorized into three groups: Stone=1-3, Silver=4-5, and Gold=6-7. The higher the rank, the crazier the spell becomes. Some examples given were:

  • Wizard Magic Missile: This is normally one missile per cast; with one Indigo Rune, this changes to two missiles per cast as a single target. After applying seven Runes, this shoots several missiles in an AoE effect.
  • Wizard Hydra: This is normally a fire spell. Depending on the type of Rune, the magic changes to ice, acid, arcane, lightning, or crazy fire walls, which can be improved further with more Runes.
  • Witch Doctor Plague of Toads: A Crimson Rune transforms them into Fire Toads; a Golden Rune reduces cost; an Alabaster Rune causes them to emit a blinding gas; an Indigo Rune causes a rain of toads; and an Obsidian Rune makes it become a giant toad that will eat and digest monsters.
Other features

Battle Arenas are new to Diablo III and will be available on Battle.Net. These are PVP areas that players can enter to compete against their friends and join progression ladders like StarCraft II. Various-sized groups will be available, and matches will be conducted in best-of sets (either two of three or three of five - no decision has been made).

In Diablo II, dialog discussions with non-playable characters (NPCs) were very long-winded and required the player to stand still and listen to/read it for sometimes up to a minute. The NPCs in Diablo III will fall in behind the player and tell their story as the player is continuing through the game.

Armor customization was also fairly well covered. In addition to cool features such as a Witch Doctor getting an armor set that has moving tentacles, armor can be dyed with colors that drop off of monsters for personalization, and weapons look cooler the higher quality they are. In addition, armor can be crafted and enhanced by Artisans (the updated version of Vendors), who will follow you around and set up shop whenever you need your Blacksmith to craft something metal or repair your gear, your Mystic to enchant your gear, or your Jeweler to bejewel your gear with one of six colors and 14 ranks of gems. Also, as your Artisans level goes up, their carts get cooler looking.

StarCraft II

Blizzard was very cryptic about the future expansions of StarCraft II, but they did share quite a bit of behind the scenes information about the current version.

StarCraft II is broken up into three expansions, one for each of the major races. The first and current expansion, Wings of Liberty, focuses primarily on the Terran race; the second expansion, Heart of the Swarm, will focus on the Zerg race; and the third expansion, Legacy of the Void, will focus on the Protoss race.

Future expansions Here is what the developers shared about the second and third expansions:
  • Heart of the Swarm will take place after Wings of Liberty - "more than an hour, but less than 100 years."
  • Characters such as Valerian Mengsk and the Xel'Naga will still be featured heavily in the coming expansions.
  • Tychus's fate has not been sealed in stone - he could still be totally alive, he could have been infested by the Zerg, or he could be dead.
  • Nothing has been established other than the vague story and arc for Legacy of the Void (not that they would have told us anything since they're being so cryptic about Heart of the Swarm).
In-game cinematics StarCraft II was the first game to make heavy use of in-game cinematics, which are cut scenes created within the game engine, rendered at the client, and rendered at 30 frames per second. In-game cinematics differ from pre-rendered cinematics and machinima. Pre-rendered cinematics are created using more traditional CGI animation techniques and may take one to 10 hours to render a one-minute clip; machinima uses only the animations and objects available elsewhere in the game, whereas in-game cinematics can create new animations for rendering. In-game cinematics are used for less epic cut-scenes than their pre-rendered counterparts.

In-game cinematics are created using fewer polygons and at a lower resolution than pre-rendered cinematics. Additionally, in-game cinematics have to be created in such a way as to fool the game engine into not following its programming (i.e., allowing the AI to take over or giving control to the human player).

Leagues, Ladders, and improving your skills In a segment titled Secrets of the Masters, a panel of Blizzard designers discussed the inner workings of their Leagues and Ladders multiplayer system on Battle.Net and then delved into how to improve your skills and become a better player.

The Leagues and Ladders system is a highly adaptable AI that learns as you play. There are five leagues that each contain 20% of all players in each region. A hidden group of scores referred to as matchmaking rating (MMR) is a system that rates each player based on their wins and losses and their skill compared to their opponent(s). This score helps to determine your rank in your league; it also eventually helps to move you from league to league. The score remains across competition seasons so you don't have to start at zero at the beginning of the season, but it is unique for each team. Also, MMR is not race based, so many players will stick to a race within each team size in order to hone their skills and not damage their rating by playing a race with which they are not comfortable.

Some changes coming down the pipe for this system include:

  • Better art for the higher ranked players in each league.
  • A new Master League, which contains the top 1-2% of players in each region.
  • A new Grand Master League, which contains the top 200 players in each region. All players will be able to view the roster and rankings, making this a very elite league.
  • Replays will soon (sometime in 2011) be able to be stored in the cloud, rendering them watchable by any other players.
  • Custom chat channels will be available in the next one to two months, and custom key bindings shouldn't be too far behind.

The segment ended with a number of tips on how to become a better player, which include:

  • Play a lot - the professional gamers play 8-12 hours a day.
  • Use custom games and ladders.
  • Focus on one race.
  • Watch your replays.
  • Build plenty of worker units - 30 or more.
  • Spend resources as you get them - don't save them because you won't be able to build fast enough to use them to defend.
  • Build plenty of production buildings.
  • Know the maps you will be placed on and common strategies for each, including choke points, walls, and flanking areas.
  • Micromanage, but be careful not to micromanage too much.
Multiplayer balancing

The StarCraft II developers use myriad tools to help them determine where balancing is needed between races in multiplayer games. Some of these tools are very simple, such as player and professional feedback simply by posting in the forums. More advanced tools include spreadsheets calculating damage per second and damage per shot of each unit and comparing them against opposing units. Some of the most advanced tools include an in-game debugging tool that allows the developers to pit any number of units against another army in the game client to see "real-world" reactions and scenarios, as well as massive mathematical formulas created by the on-staff doctor of mathematics.

Book series

StarCraft II has started to spawn a book series. The first book, Heaven's Devils, will soon be followed by its sequel, Devil's Due.

World of Warcraft

The developers were fairly open about what will ship with Cataclysm, as well as what we are likely to see in upcoming patches throughout the Cataclysm stretch (read my notes about Cataclysm patch 4.0.1).

Cataclysm patch 4.0.3

Cataclysm will contain more raid zones in its newly shipped state than in the previous expansions. Since Blizzard has reduced the number of levels that players have to travel through to get there from the current maximum level of 80, they replaced that leveling content with raiding content. These new raids will have cooler encounters, featuring the need to move around on separate platforms to the need to wrangle worms to sneaking by a blind, sleeping dragon. The raids will be in small enough chunks that they can be completed in one raid night, which will help with raid scheduling in smaller, or less hardcore, guilds. The new raid lockout system for normal difficulty raids will also help groups to customize their raiding by allowing for interchangeable 10- and 25-man raids on a per-boss basis. This "raid state" is linkable in chat, allowing raid leaders to easily find a pick-up player that is able to join at the current raid position.

Blizzard has also revisited many of the World of Warcraft classic dungeons and improved their play. Instances such as Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep have been largely rewritten to improve their story and to offer a heroic version for max-level players. The normal versions' bosses will be present in the quest lines for Westfall and Silverpine, respectively, which will make these instances feel more like endings to the zones. Also, the heroic versions will actually have different bosses than the normal versions. Other dungeons have been severely affected by either the creation of wings, trimming excess areas, the addition of teleporters like those in Ulduar, and the re-placement of graveyards (sometimes right next to the instance portal). Some dungeons, including Uldaman, Sunken Temple, Wailing Caverns, and Blackrock Depths, have been affected in patch 4.0.3; several other dungeons will be cleaned up in time for patch 4.1.

More new dungeon features in Cataclysm are the release of 2D maps for each dungeon and raid in the game, and the movement of all dungeon quests to the start of the dungeon. The addition of the maps is largely because of the popularity of these maps in the Northrend content. These maps will contain detailed boss information, including lore, loot, abilities, and a 3D boss portrait. Also, there will be more restrictions on the ability to need roll on an item based on class and spec.

Cataclysm patch 4.1

While many of us have seen the list of dungeons and raids available in the ship version of Cataclysm, we have yet to see any real information about what will be coming in patch 4.1.

This has not been decided completely, but there will be at least one dungeon and one raid. The new dungeon, Abyssal Maw, is in the elemental plane of water. It will be a part of the city of Vashj'ir, it will contain four bosses, and it will be completely underwater like Throne of the Tides.

The new raid, Firelands, is in the elemental plane of fire. It is part of the new zone, Hyjal, and is the home of Ragaros, who we first met in Molten Core way back when. In this raid, Ragnaros is trying to burn down the world tree. It will contain seven bosses, lots of lava, and be mostly outdoor with a small indoor area when the raid group faces Ragnaros.

Cataclysm story and lore During a question and answer panel about Cataclysm, several tidbits about the entire expansion were revealed. Metzen said, "Thrall is the most important person on Azeroth." We also learned that the new Earthen Ring faction will be Shaman-based and will compare to the Argent factions for Paladins, the Ebon Hold for Death Knights, the Cenarion factions for Druids, and the Ravenholdt faction for Rogues.

While Blizzard has not yet decided whether Cataclysm will end at patch 4.2 or patch 4.3, they were willing to reveal that Deathwing will be the final battle and that the other aspects, including Kalegos as the new aspect of magic (Blue), will be heavily involved in that fight. Metzen even revealed that Thrall may have some involvement in reuniting the family since they have not been together in 10,000 years (when Neltharion the Earth Warder became Deathwing the Destroyer).

Many of us have been asking (mostly ourselves) how Blizzard will explain the weirdness that will now result in players playing levels 1-58 in the Cataclysm timeframe, jumping to Outlands (which was set a few years before), to Northrend (which was set a couple of years after Outlands), and then back to the Cataclysm timeframe again around 78 or 80. My opinion has been time travel, but Blizzard officially stated that they will eventually go back and adjust the zones in Outlands and Northrend to fit the Cataclysm time period. They simply didn't have enough time to create brand new quests and storylines for those areas.

A common question that has been asked frequently in the past couple of months is "where did all of these Troll Druids come from and what is their back story?" The good news is that Troll Druid lore will be coming to all players all throughout Cataclysm.

The new old god that we will be dealing with in Cataclysm is N'Zath. According to Metzen, this may be the god that is "signing Deathwing's checks." According to WoWWiki, N'Zath is also responsible for the Emerald Nightmare.

Class changes and other topics

During some of the panels, attendees asked questions about various classes, and most of the questions were answered. Here's a quick outline of changes that will be coming, mostly by patch 4.0.3:

  • Rogue Combat spec will get a boost to bring it in line with Assassination.
  • Hunters' scopes will get a serious boost, making them more comparable with other weapon enchants. This will happen at some point in the Cataclysm run.
  • Protection Paladins will see Divine Plea granting an instant three Holy Power, so that Paladins can start a fight much like the other tanks do.
  • Restoration Druids will have a new minor glyph that will make them look like the "old, wrinkled grandmother tree" full-time as they did before patch 4.0.1.
  • Death Knights' Rune Strike will always be available in Blood Presence, and their Mortal Strike has been dropped to a 10% healing debuff, while Blood Presence will increase Rune regeneration.

Other non-class questions asked and answered were:

  • Many items created with the new minor profession Archaeology will be account bound.
  • The Explorer's League is the Alliance faction associated with Archaeology, while The Reliquary is the Horde faction, primarily staffed by Blood Elves.
  • Some future expansion will feature the emerald dream and nightmare (as recently featured in the book Stormrage)
  • We will likely see a closet-like feature during the Cataclysm run. The feature will enable us to store items, such as holiday gear and loot, without taking up our bank slots.
  • While the Dance Studio was originally planned for Cataclysm ship, it has been delayed due to the large amount of development time required. It will be released sometime during the Cataclysm run.

Another noteworthy World of Warcraft item is the new cinematic for the Worgen level five cut scene. Beta players have seen the Goblin cut scene, but the Worgen one had not yet been placed in the game. While the cinematic was fascinating, it vaguely reminded me of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. From the Worgen howling on the rooftops to the city official taunting it after it had been caught and caged, it very much reminded me of the Beast and his interactions with "normal" humans such as Gaston.

Summary

Blizzard fans are a truly lucky group of gamers. BlizzCon is such a massive and (I'm sure) costly endeavor (not that 12 million players times $15 per month is small change) that many game developers would never consider it. Most of the fans stepping up to ask questions seemed to truly enjoy the game they were asking about and were very respectful of the panelists, and the panelists were very respectful to them.

This was my first BlizzCon (via the virtual ticket), and I especially enjoyed getting to see the faces behind the games, so to speak, and gain in-depth knowledge about the games I play. I encourage any fan of the Diablo, StarCraft, or World of Warcraft universes to consider attending BlizzCon, either in person or via the virtual ticket so that they can get a better understanding of the effort that goes into these games and the love that the developers have for them.

1 comments
Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

At this point, all medival fantasy is derivative; which means that it's virtually impossible to have a truely unique perspective and presentation in this genre.

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