Minigames galore and the Expansion Looms – Blizzcon 2011 commentary

Wow. OK, I said in my last post that the opening ceremony had been a bit quiet. That’s because they were saving it all up for the expansion announcement.

The amount of Stuff that Blizzard announced in the last hour or so is incredible – more than they’ve ever managed to pack into an expansion before, to the best of my knowledge. It’s seeming pretty clear that we know where the development budget from Cataclysm went – toward beefing up Mists of Pandaria to compete with SW:TOR and Guild Wars 2 looming next year.

I mean, just look at the feature list: new race AND new class (previous expansion packs have had one or the other). New land, 5 new zones, minipet battle game, new Skirmish mode, new Dungeon Challenge mode, new PvP mode, more end-game content (allegedly), 9 dungeons and 3 raids, outdoor raid bosses, totally new talent system –

This one’s a monster. And no surprise. It’s got monsters to fight. Personally I’m wondering how good an idea it was to starve WoW through Cataclysm to put so many resources toward the next expansion, but nonetheless, the buzz on the blogosphere before Blizzcon was that Blizzard had to pull something out of the hat, and I think they may have just done that.

Minigames galore

The most controversial announcement of the con so far, at least if Twitter’s any judging point, is that of the new Pet Combat System. Yes, now your minipets can level up, train, and fight in an entirely new game – turn-based, and heavily Pokemon-inspired.

That’d be interesting on its own, but let’s look at the other announcements. New Challenge Mode with evened-out gear (so that you can’t overgear a dungeon) and time-based challenges. New Skirmish Mode with small 2-3man instances replacing group quests. It’s a minigameapalooza!

(Please, use that as a Twitter hashtag. I beg of you.)

What’s going on here? It’s pretty obvious that Blizzard’s team have been doing a lot of analysis of their community. Minipets are surprisingly popular – I know at least one regular raider who will be delighted to hear her pets are getting a upgrade. There’s always been a small but vocal community of people wanting smaller group content, too – a lot of couples who game together, or friends who like WoW but number less than 5, 10 or 25. And there’s yet another group of people who miss brutally hard Heroics, and haven’t stopped complaining about the lack therof since TBC.

My guess is that Blizzard’s team have gotten a lot better at datamining over the last year, and they’ve been finding out that a lot of people don’t play WOW as they are “meant” to. They’re tapping into some of the playstyles that until now they’ve ignored – and whilst I’m no stranger to being cynical about WoW’s chances of success, this new approach seems inspired. By catering to groups on the margins of the community (one could argue that Transmogging does the same, aiming at the cosmetic and RP communities), they’re suddenly offering new vistas of gameplay to a lot of people who are accustomed to receiving very little. I’m already seeing people on Twitter saying that the Pet Battle system has renewed their interest in WoW, for instance.

On a side note, I wonder if this is the same team responsible for Cata, or another team again? The style and tone seems to have changed – could we be seeing another change in WoW management?

The Expansion Looms

And in other news, it appears Blizzard have finally gotten something else right, too. The expansion, according to everyone on the show floor, is looking very, very complete. Entire zones are being shown off. The Pandaren area is already playable, as are Monks and Pandaren.

We already knew that Mists of Pandaria was aimed for a Q2 2012 release, from the leaked Blizzard product slate. But there was always a question mark over whether they could deliver. With Diablo III being put back, speculation became even more rife – and it was pretty obvious that Blizzard were headed for a disaster if they didn’t deliver.

It now appears that the “thin” feeling of Cataclysm may have been a direct consequence of Blizzard pushing to do something they’ve never managed before – release an expansion pack in less than two years. And, by the looks of it, they’ve succeeded even more than we hoped they would.

Could we be looking at a Q1 release, even? It’s looking possible, if unlikely…

Talents and Dungeons next. I’ll be on Twitter