Our Deep Thoughts On BlizzCon

Whew, that was interesting. We're back from two days at BlizzCon 2009, and are only a little geekily ashamed to admit that it was a good time. You wanna see pictures? Here's our slideshow, and here's our post with many, many overflow pictures.

This just in (two days ago) from Twitter:

@OCWeekly what's blizzcon?

Great question, @DiAnna42. Here, let's take a few hundred words to answer that question.

On the literal level, BlizzCon is, well, “Blizzard's Convention.” Blizzard is Blizzard Entertainment, a video game company based in Irvine; its convention is at the Anaheim Convention Center. World of Warcraft, Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo are the game franchises that have made Blizzard famous. This year, 20,000 people showed up to BlizzCon, with tickets at $125 a pop.

On the personal level, BlizzCon turned out to be a nostalgia trip for your reporter. I (your reporter) can remember the day when Warcraft 2 showed up under the Christmas tree in fourth grade. I was already a geek: showing up to kindergarten Halloween as a “wizard,” consuming Lord of the Ring knock-off fantasy novels at a reading level at least two (two!) grades ahead of mine, and spending a now-regrettable-number of hours playing adventure games on the computer like King's Quest and Conquest of Camelot. Warcraft looked like my kind of thing; there was a knight-looking dude right on the box. But I put it in, installed, started playing, and was totally fucking confused. There were a whole bunch of people on screen, but which one was my character? Turns out, they all were. It was a real-time strategy game in which you controlled armies, not single characters. Ended up teaching me a lot about life!

Anyways, since it's founding in 1991, Blizzard's games have become insanely popular. The last thing it released — Wrath of the Lich King, a World of Warcraft expansion set — was the quickest-selling PC game of all time. Nearly every title they've put out has been named “game of the year” by some publication or another. And so, all 20,000 tickets for this year's BlizzCon — the fourth ever — sold out within minutes of becoming available earlier this year.

To understand BlizzCon, you've gotta understand that Blizzard itself is no longer just a video game company. It's, I dunno, a lifestyle brand, though that's an awful term for a bunch of reasons. When did it become that? Probably in 2004, when Blizzard released World of Warcraft. It's a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, which you can abbreviate as “MMORPG” — or, if you actually need to talk about it out-loud, “MMO.” And it's that game your college roommate, spouse, little brother or mom may have poured the last five years of their lives into, leveling up characters, making friends and competing quests online.

WoW's swallowed up lives — there are approximately 11.5 million subscribers — but BlizzCon is the real-world manifestation of what those lives have been swallowed into. You see the costumes in our photo slideshow? About 95% of those came from the WoW universe (the other 5% from Starcraft and Diablo). The costumes are a byproduct of two things: the game's depth of “lore” — i.e. story and setting — and the game's penchant for personalization. In WoW, each player creates their own character from a host of races (elves, orcs, blue-skinned elf vixens) and classes (warriors, warlocks and the like). And so, when you saw a heavily-armored, funny-eared person walking around at BlizzCon, it wasn't so much of a costume as it was an outfit — after all, you don't express your individuality with a costume, do you? That's for your clothes to do.

Blizzard's smart; like a lot of great companies, it pays attention to its users and gives them what they want — and can get things out of them. Gamers want to dress up for a convention? Great: Blizzard hands them an elaborate costume contest emceeded by bland funnyman Jay Mohn. Gamers droolingly clamor for every tiny detail about an upcoming release? Great: Blizzard makes spectacles not only out of announcing new games — like the WoW: Cataclysm expansion set unveiled this weekend — but also about announcing chunks of info about the new game's mechanics, characters, etc. Users hack games to create their own custom variants? Really great, says Blizzard: This weekend, they announced that the upcoming Starcraft 2 would eventually come with a marketplace feature in which custom game mods would be sold — and Blizzard would get a cut of the profits.

Along those lines, BlizzCon provided lots for convention-goers to do. Like: Rows of computers to play demos of upcoming games. Panels throughout the day with developers conveying how painstakingly they craft every aspect of their games, from blood animation to voice acting. A human gyroscope! Starcraft, Warcraft 3 and WoW tournaments. Face-painting tents. A merch store that attracted a crazy-long line. An art gallery. A dance competetion, in which people tried to dance like characters in WoW (this was kind of freaky, but came with a few awesome moments, one of which involved real-deal MC Hammer pants). A “soundalike” competetion, in which people tried to recite lines from Blizzard games (this was freakier — really, the stuff of nightmares. YouTube it.). A closing concert with Ozzy Osbourne (he brought down the convention, as they say).

I got a chance to talk with Frank Pearce, Blizzard's executive vice president for product development — and the company's co-founder. His reaction to BlizzCon, an event that's essentially the manifestation of how life-affecting his games have been? “Surreal,” he said. “When we started in 1991, there were three of us in a 600-square-foot office at the corner of Jamboree and MacArthur. There's just no way we could have imagined this.”

I asked how the company goes about creating the kind of strong community you see at BlizzCon; he made it clear I was asking the wrong question. “We don't specifically say, 'Ok, we're going to build a community,” he said. “The great community, I think it's almost a side effect of the great gaming experience.”

Sound like PR speak? It might be. But I think he's got a point. Blizzard's games are, above all else, really fun. BlizzCon atendees got a chance to play the company's three upcoming games — Starcraft 2, Diablo 3 and WoW: Cataclysm. When I left, I found myself thinking less about the hilarious real-world stuff I saw at BlizzCon — a guy in a full-body owl suit getting frisked by security, some Irvine dad-type doing a Warcraft riverdance on stage, Ozzy Osbourne screaming “I hope you guys are having a FUCKING good TIME” between each song during his closing-ceremony concert — and more about, well, how much I wanted to play those games again. Of course, that might just be my personal nerdiness coming out, but then again, at least 20,000 people share that level of nerdiness. Like I said, Blizzard's smart: If they keep the quality coming, its blue-painted fans will keep coming back.

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