Tuesday, July 1, 2008

WWI 2008: notes from a brand fest

The Blizzard Worldwide Invitational I visited last weekend certainly was a unique experience. For those of you unaware of what the WWI is, it’s basically a yearly celebration of all things Blizzard, ie. the Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo videogame series, for non-US players (as those have their own Blizzcon). Thousands of eager fans swarmed Paris in search of Blizzard developers, playable unreleased games, scoops and, of course, goodie bags. I gleefully joined them.

The whole thing started with a giant opening ceremony. The most fascinating part about this ceremony wasn’t that the hosts whipped the crowd into a cheering frenzy for the presence of Blizzard’s ‘superstars’. That was to be expected. No, it was because these ‘superstars’ included not only the designers and founders of the company but also the heads of PR, marketing and, yes, even global finance. So here was a crowd of thousands, cheering for those who did not make the games and virtual worlds they adore, but for those whose job it is to make a lot of money out of this love. In all fairness, most of the crowd didn’t even know these ‘suits’ (or didn’t hear their names being called out due to the deafening music) but cheer they did. Hurray for the money!

A fellow researcher also present at the event sighed at one point that, in retrospect, the Sony organised Everquest events of yesteryear where far better organised - as a meeting point for community members that is. At these events, she told me, players all wore tags with their server and guild names on it, and the event nourished these sub-communities to meet and greet. No such things were organised at WWI. In Blizzard’s defense, this event was not just for World of Warcraft players (in contrast to the Everquest events). But it does fit WoW's image of being allabout playing alone together quit well.

The MMORPG genre has ‘grown up’ commercially. But it seems to have lost a lot of its tight community feeling.

Sub-communities a plenty though, and all were looking for acknowledgment with the Blizzard dev’s. Raiders where present to cheer for everything re-establishing their hardcore-ness (for example when, during a Q&A session, someone asked when Blizzard would solve the problem of the large influx of ‘newbs’). PvP’ers sat on the edge of their seats when class balance was discussed (how dare they/they should give [insert random class] a more powerful [insert random spell]). RP’ers showed up in full costume, proudly defying ridicule (murloc’s ftw!). There was even a brave furrie – he must have been one! - who asked if druids could please get gendered versions of their animal forms (short Blizzard answer: no).

All groups had to deal with Blizzard developers stressing that the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion pack Wrath of the Lich King is going to become ‘not easier, but more accessible’, with ‘less barriers’ and ‘reduced complexity’ (one might suspect these terms now form the official developer’s mantra, as they were heard many, many times). Some cheered, some winced, some took their opinions to the web to cause yet another flame war between casuals and hardcore players.

All I can say is that it’s a logical step that Blizzard is supporting the more casual approach to World of Warcraft play. By far the largest part of the player base can be considered ‘casual’ players.

On the other hand, it’s also usually this group who cause the feeling of a fragmented, individualised community. You can’t really blame casual players though; not everyone wants a ‘second life’. WotLK’s design approach simply looks like the future of the genre in its popular form. We will have to wait another few months for the expansion pack to come out to see if it’s really that bad/good for the community as a whole.

Oh, and the game they were hinting at in the days before WWI? It was Diabo III. When they thought it couldn’t get worse, here’s another title for moral crusader's on game addiction and violence to start worrying about. Hell, it must be the devil’s work!

1 comment:

Marloes said...

Leuk om te lezen! Ook ik ben erg benieuwd naar WotLK, maar pas volgens mij wel goed tussen de door Blizzard voorziene doelgroep van casual players. En die Murloc-man, oh oh :D