The 6th annual BlizzCon was held this past weekend in Anaheim, California. This year, there were 26,000 people in attendance and at least another 60,000 people watching over the Internet or on DirecTV.

In the welcome address, Blizzard Entertainment President, CEO, and co-founder Mike Morhaime (@mikemorhaime) talked about Blizzard’s last 20 years ,and then Blizzard’s Senior Vice President Chris Metzen took over to make the higher-level announcements about the next World of Warcraft expansion: Mists of Pandaria as well as the impending launch of both Diablo III and StarCraft II: The Heart of the Swarm.

Another major announcement is the new WoW Annual Pass. For a limited time, World of Warcraft players can commit to 12 months of World of Warcraft using their preferred payment plan, which will grant them extra benefits. Initial benefits include a free copy of Diablo III when it is launched, guaranteed access to the World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria beta, and an exclusive World of Warcraft mount: Tyrael’s Charger.

Below I provide details about these announcements. If you’d like to start off with more of a visual tour of the event, check out the TechRepublic photo gallery BlizzCon 2011: Serious gamers unite.

Photo credit: D. Tortorella via Flickr

World of Warcraft

As most World of Warcraft players are aware, Patch 4.3 is coming soon. In this patch, raiders will be able to take on Deathwing the Destroyer himself, which is touted to be a very epic fight. Also, we will be seeing a new Raid Finder interface that functions similar to the Dungeon Finder that has been very popular. Players queuing in the Raid Finder will be restricted to 25-man raids only, which are lower in difficulty than the respective Normal mode. This is in order to enable raid groups who have never worked together to be able to complete the raid. Bosses will drop lesser gear than Normal mode and will not drop vanity items, such as mounts. Finally, there are new Legendary items in this patch: Fangs of the Father, which are daggers designed for Rogues.

Patch 4.3 is kind of old news now, though. The big news at this BlizzCon is Mists of Pandaria. Enjoy the trailer and the B-roll that flies through the new zones:

As you can see from those videos, this new expansion will contain a huge amount of new content and changes to existing systems. I’m going to go over them as briefly as possible for the casual readers, but there was a veritable fire hose of information about this patch, so it’s still going to be involved. If you’d like more information, Blizzard has several official posts (Mists of Pandaria, Raids & Dungeons, Class Talent System) and sites such as MMO-Champion have extensive coverage of the event.

The core of this new expansion is a brand new continent: Pandaria. Pandaria has a long, storied history that has been magically hidden since the Sundering 10,000 years ago but was uncovered by the Cataclysm. It is a new land to explore that was accidentally discovered during a Horde vs. Alliance naval battle, but we may start to feel like we were actually led here by some mystical force. It includes five new level-up zones, six (of a total of nine for the expansion) new dungeons, and three new raids. It is home to the new playable race The Pandaren, as well as several other non-playable races and creatures such as Jinyu, Hozu, Verming, Mantid, Mogu, and Sha. From an art perspective, Pandaria has an Asian influence both in the architecture and in the environment. Also, while the name of the new hub has not been announced, there will be a central city that will contain an Auction House and a Bank. There will be no flying in Pandaria until level 90, the new maximum level.

Building upon the new continent is the new playable race: the Pandaren. The Pandaren are a unique race in WoW because they are playable by both the Horde and Alliance. Pandaren start out as either a Hunter, Mage, Monk, Priest, Rogue, Shaman, or Warrior in a brand new starting zone, which is on the back of a giant sea turtle! For 10 levels, players are faction-less playing through their starting zone, which is story-driven like the Goblin and Worgen zones. Once they reach level 10 (or perhaps when they finish the zone, if it takes longer – I’m guessing), they will be given a choice as to which faction they want to join. This new zone was completely playable at BlizzCon, which makes me feel like the expansion may ship sometime mid-2012 but no official announcement was made. Pandaren have some interesting racial bonuses that are based on both their affinity for cooking and eating and as their rotund nature — not to mention their inherent mysticism.

The Pandaren race also brings along a brand new class: the Monk. Monks are a hybrid class capable of Tanking, Healing, and Melee DPS and are very martial arts-based. For example, while they carry and sometimes use weapons, many of their abilities are body based — a lot of hands and feet. Unlike the last-added class, Death Knight, Monk is not a hero class; they start at level 1 and are playable as every race except Goblin and Worgen. Monks have no auto-attack — each strike must be triggered by player action.

Because the Monk class makes 11 classes, and there are only 10 character slots per server, many players have asked “with the new class, will we get another character slot on each server?” The answer given was that they may switch to a per-account character limit instead of a per-server limit.

Expanding upon the new dungeons and raids mentioned above, we will see upgraded WoW Classic heroic dungeons again in this expansion pack. This expansion brings with it Scholomance and Scarlet Monastery — the latter re-divided into two wings that have an even number of bosses. Also, the dungeon skill level categories have been altered — normal mode is for leveling up, heroic is for max level, and they are introducing a new skill level: Challenge Mode. Challenge Mode dungeons force the players’ armor and weapons down to a standardized skill level, which makes skill much more important than gear – you can’t just overpower your way through the dungeon. With this new mode, they are introducing guild- and friend-level leaderboards, where you can compare your completion times and have some prestige. This mode will reward Valor Points and grant “sweet looking gear with no stats,” which can be used for Transmogrification.

Not only are we getting a new class, but every class will be going through major changes again. It turns out, the changes made for Cataclysm to the talent trees weren’t what Blizzard was hoping for – and neither were the fans. More “junk” talents are being removed; more talents will be made class abilities (so everyone in that class gets them), some talents will be made into spec abilities, and the rest will be moved into a new talent system where the player must choose one of three similar abilities for every 15 levels. The cool part of this is that talents that were deep in a different tree are now accessible to characters specced in the other trees. Also, we are all losing an item slot: the ranged/relic slot. This means that hunters’ bows and guns will become two-handed weapons (with the stats of a two-handed weapon); caster wands will become main hand weapons (again, with appropriate stats); warriors and rogues will just throw their equipped weapon; and relic users no longer have relics. The druid is finally being fully split into the four specs they’ve really had all along.

The last huge announcement is the new Pet Battle System — that is, Companion Pets. In this expansion, you will be able to level-up your companion pets by battling them against your friends (or enemies), name them, and acquire special abilities by defeating “masters.” With this feature comes an all-new user interface for managing them and finding new pets, including “wild” pets. You will even be able to trade or sell on the Auction House your leveled-up pets for gold. Battles are turn-based, which will allow low-level and new players to more effectively compete, and are conducted with teams of three pets.

Many of you may be wondering, “Who is the major boss in Mists of Pandaria?” There isn’t one. This patch will focus on the war between the Horde and the Alliance – a war that hasn’t been seen since Warcraft 2.

Other news includes Scenarios – staged, instanced content designed for a few players – that seem to be like the battle for Undercity was during the Wrathgate storyline. These scenarios will have a Dungeon Finder-like interface that will likely have very short queues due to there being no role requirements in scenarios. Scenarios will likely award extra Valor Points, which will help players to skill their character up easier.

Read about Diablo III.

Diablo III

The second largest portion of BlizzCon was devoted to the return of Diablo. Diablo III is currently in beta testing and is expected to be released in early 2012. The best way to see where Diablo is, what it’s about, and how cool it is, is to check out the Black Soulstone cinematic video.

Diablo III allows the player to level characters through 60 levels in four progressive difficulty levels. The beginning of Normal difficulty is designed to be the “tutorial”. In this difficulty, monsters have low awareness, attack rates, and limited abilities. Hardcore players from Diablo II will be able to progress through this difficulty fairly quickly and into the next difficulty levels. Nightmare and Hell follow Normal. In these difficulty levels, monsters all have more powers, more items drop, and those items have much higher attributes.

A new system in Diablo III is the Achievement System. Achievements can be earned by simply playing the game, by engaging in extreme behavior, and performing “absurd shenanigans” like playing through the game without armor or beating bosses without using weapons. Achievements unlock components for your player banner, which vary depending on how the achievements were earned. You can earn crests, ribbons, cloth variants, sigils, accents, and loot collected around the base of the banner. Banners can be used by your friends to teleport to you when playing in co-op mode and are a general “show-off” item.

Another new feature is the Auction House. In Diablo II, players were able to trade items, but the system was difficult and obtuse. The new Auction House is a completely official system that allows players to post items to be sold either in game gold or real money. The real money option is interesting because players don’t have to tie it to a credit card or a PayPal account; instead, you can use your built-in eBalance account, which functions like a debit account. In order to use this account fully, however, you must sell something first because it needs a positive balance from selling in order to purchase.

Some exciting lore was discussed at a panel on the second day that revealed that the mortals – the humans, the race which players play as – are actually devolved descendants of angels and demons that still retain genetic code of our supreme ancestors while not currently able to use those powers. It was hinted at that this scares the angels and demons because we could conceivably overpower them due to our additional cunning, guile, and skill.

Many enhancements and changes have been made since the initial announcement at BlizzCon 2010. The Artisans that assist you in crafting and changing your gear are account-based, so that your leveled-up artisans from your first character are available to use on new characters. Also, new gameplay features have been added to help facilitate getting back to town, selling trash items, and performing a disenchant-type action on unneeded items. It should not be surprising, also, to know that the classes have changed a little, with spells being added and changed in order to balance the game better. As a matter of fact, there are enough skills and build variations to allow for about 2.8 trillion build possibilities, all of which should be viable depending on a player’s play style.

In addition to the free download of the game mentioned in the WoW Annual Pass above, there will be a Collector’s Edition. The Collector’s Edition comes with in-game items for all three Blizzard games, an art book, a behind the scenes DVD, and a Black Soulstone-shaped USB drive that comes with a Diablo skull holder. If you purchase both the WoW Annual Pass and the Diablo III Collector’s Edition, you will be credited on your WoW account for the cost of the Diablo III Collector’s Edition. I’m excited to give Diablo III a try and can’t wait until it’s released.

Read about StarCraft II and more.

StarCraft II

Even though we’re expecting the new expansion pack called Heart of the Swarm in the coming months, StarCraft II seemed to be relegated to third place at this year’s BlizzCon. Nevertheless, a fair amount of information about the new expansion and some new features for the service were announced throughout several panels.

The Zerg swarm has the most focus, but the Terrans and Protoss will be getting some content, just as the Zerg and Protoss did in Wings of Liberty. In this expansion, we’ll follow Kerrigan, the former Queen of Blades, as she tries to retake control of the Zerg. In addition, she is attempting to hunt down and capture Mengsk, who she sees as her archenemy. Throughout this new campaign, we will meet several new Zerg characters, some of which are allied with Kerrigan and others that are fighting against her.

As players of StarCraft II are aware, the campaign is only a very small part of the StarCraft experience. In many ways, the multiplayer game is actually much larger, especially with the new features and enhancements shipping with Heart of the Swarm. First among those is the announcement of two new units for each race, as well as a massive enhancement for one unit each and smaller enhancements for many other units.

The other major enhancement to the multiplayer experience is the addition/completion (depending on how you look at it) of the game marketplace – now called the Blizzard Arcade. The intent of the Blizzard Arcade is to make it easier for players to play quality games and provide a foundation for game creators to offer their games – for free now, and for purchase later – to the world. Blizzard Arcade will work no matter what version of StarCraft II you own – Heart of the Swarm, Wings of Liberty, or even the Starter Edition (in a limited form).

Blizzard’s contribution to the Arcade is Blizzard DOTA. DOTA originally stood for “Defense of the Ancients,” however, the genre has grown to much more. For those who don’t know, DOTA is a huge strategy game genre that is built around fighting lanes, where battle takes place, and some sort of base that the opponent has to capture or destroy. Blizzard DOTA will call upon Heroes (and Villains) from their three game universes – StarCraft, Warcraft, and Diablo – to provide hero units for play. Each hero has a specific role – Tank, DPS, Support, or Siege – and one or more signature abilities. Gameplay should be easy to learn as well, with an intuitive battle system, simplified stats – health, damage, and mastery, and fewer items, as well as map bonuses that produce units to join your forces.

In order to enable game creators to develop games for the Arcade, Blizzard has enhanced its Mod Tools and Art Tools.  The Scenario Editor will allow creators to modify basically everything on the screen and has an associated Trigger Debugger, UI Editor, and Cutscene Editor that can help to make extremely powerful and unique games using intuitive tools. For Art assets, Blizzard now has an exporter for Autodesk 3ds Max that allows developers to create their own assets and then bring them into the game. These tools come with much more documentation and example files to get you up and running fast.

The final portion of BlizzCon announcements were centered around various types of publishing. For those fans of Blizzard games’ novels and comics, the good news is more are coming. Not only does Blizzard intend to finish the current Warcraft Universe online short stories series on the Leaders of Azeroth, there are several graphic novels in the pipeline as well as another free series that will lead us into Mists of Pandaria. For the Diablo Universe, a new illustrated lore book the Book of Cane is coming out and – if it does well and the fans want it – they will do the same type of book for the Warcraft and StarCraft Universes.  Finally, there is a StarCraft Expanded Universe blog coming soon that will contain free stories from the perspective of a Terran scientist – with focus on Zerg stories due to Heart of the Swarm coming soon.


I’m really excited by what is coming from Blizzard over the next year and can’t wait to enjoy the new content from each game universe. What part of the new information released excites you the most? Did you watch BlizzCon 2011 via a Virtual Ticket or attend in person? If so, what did you think about the event? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.