It’s easy to understand why the Blizzard Entertainment convention, BlizzCon, sells out as quickly as any hot concert ticket or Broadway show and why those who cannot go in person are willing to pay for a virtual pass.
Blizzard knows how to create a world, fill it with challenges and rewards, layer in puzzles and jokes, and then to administer the whole behemoth so that the individuals among the massive numbers of humans involved can find the particular brand of fun they prefer.
Whether you are a devotee or casual player of any of the Blizzard Entertainment games - Diablo, World of Warcraft, Starcraft - or whether you are someone simply interested in the intersections of virtual and actual worlds, BlizzCon is worth the price of admission as surely as any theme park or museum.
The 2013 BlizzCon, November 8-9 at the Anaheim Convention Center, does not disappoint. After the opening ceremonies, the convention main stage hosts a series of game announcements to the faithful about what the future holds for game play. The first talk gives the first real glimpse of the next game expansion, The Warlords of Draenor. The expansion has the fuel of much speculation and now, as they are unveiled to an overflow crowd, cheers erupt in the room and the audience anticipation ripples through the room. Players will rush from the keynote to the computer consoles for a first look at some of the promised upgrades and additions.
A sea of computers, all loaded up with the latest iteration of the games, fills the center of the hall. The sight of that many monitors reduces the distance between the real world and the virtual. Attendees line up for a chance to sample the future, which in the case of World of Warcraft means playing the new upgraded character models. The publicly playable game at the moment still uses character models designed for the digital world of ten years ago. Ahead of its time then, the game needs to jazz up the mechanics to take advantage of the greater computing power and screen resolution of today’s public.
You also have the chance to sample upcoming games before their release to the public. Blizzard is preparing two new games that are offshoots of their other franchises: Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone. Heroes of the Storm is a team play game and Hearthstone is a turn-based card game. One of the great things about Hearthstone is that it will be free to download and play, though, as with all things Blizzard, there will be plenty of opportunities to purchase additional game cards and vanity items.
Just like the games themselves, the conference doesn’t just offer opportunities for individual play experience, it also hosts competitive challenges and spectator sport. That the convention floor includes a separate pet battle area where you can play against another attendee in a single match of turn-based competition. If you win, you get a sticker. Three stickers and you get a free BlizzCon tee shirt as a prize.
The convention also hosts a number of competitions that start Friday afternoon on the main stage. One person I spoke with comes to every convention for the spectator sport of watching the Starcraft Championship. The top players from within the online game are flown to the convention to compete live for the top spot. These players are public personae, just like the leaders in any other competitive game. They have trading cards and fans who root for them, who come to see them play.
Beyond all the game play experiences, BlizzCon offers people ways to connect with friends and fellow players. MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) like WOW subdivide game play so that a player not only must choose a region of the world to play in but must choose a realm which has a limited number of participants, and then chooses a faction. In addition, players can join with other players into semi-formal communities of players called guilds. Guilds can have up to a hundred players, most of whom do not know each other IRL (in real life) but who chat, play, and socialize online every day. The convention includes a meeting area where people can gather to meet others from their realm or guild, whether by pre-arrangement or simply by chance.
The convention also lets folks meet and interact with the creators of the game. There is an Artists Stage where the folks who create the visuals give demos of their art and answer questions. There is a Voice Actors Stage where players can see the people behind the NPCs (Non-Playing Characters) and get autographs is they want. And there are booths to meet the game developers and speak to them about the challenges at the level of game design and gain some insight into the thinking behind the way things work. There are a couple of game-specific stages as well: The Starcraft II Stage and the WOW and Hearthstone Stage.
People enjoy the sense of being among their fellow players in the actual world. There is a sense of camaraderie and an easy familiarity. You can strike up a chat with anyone without worrying about it being awkward. The games give you a context that allows you to interact casually and playfully.
The playfulness is augmented by all the people in costume. Some wear a single item that recalls the game. Others wear amazingly constructed and unbelievably complex outfits designed to replicate in three dimensions characters and creatures from the virtual world. There is always a costume competition and some folks go all out for it.
All in all, BlizzCon 2013 is fun whether you are a player or not. It has the exotic flavor of a carnival sideshow, the excitement of a championship competition, and the challenge of an arcade that caters to the hard-core and the novice.