The thing you don't see about Blizzcon if you're on the show floor, or watching from home, is the hugs.
Last year's Blizzcon ended with Diablo Immortal. This year, the keynote led with cinematics and playable footage from Overwatch 2, Diablo 4, and a new Hearthstone mode. And that was bookended by protests and Mei Hong Kong shirts out the front, a pre-keynote apology from J. Allen Brack, and the United States winning the Overwatch World Cup on their own turf with a robot cow and a LEGO turret.
That's also not to mention the successful launch of WoW Classic, Sylvanas copping flak for doing absolutely nothing wrong, Warcraft 3: Reforged brewing away in the background, and Diablo Immortal quietly shaping up rather well (although that game is still a little persona non grata after its reception last year).
All in all, things improved. That's what the public and press see, and it's the kind of win that Blizzard needed for themselves more than anything else. It's been one of the roughest years for the developer, and the pressure only continued to mount as things got closer to Blizzcon.
Diablo IV’s announcement at Blizzcon yesterday was packed with gruesome death. The long-awaited sequel’s tone is dark, and that carries over into the gameplay. My hands-on time with a demo build was exciting. Diablo IV eagerly ramps up the gore and dark magic for an experience that feels old-school but adds a few modern twists.
Battle royales were the flavour of the month, and now it's auto battlers. Blizzard's digital CCG Hearthstone announced it was jumping on the trend with Hearthstone Battlegrounds, a new game mode dedicated to 8-player round-by-round drafting, and while it's still early days the build on the Blizzcon floor shows that the auto battler format can definitely work with cards.
Overwatch 2 game director Jeff Kaplan said that the team wanted to redefine what people expected from a video game sequel. That might not come to fruition in time, but so far the Overwatch fan base is happy that they won't have to spend another few hundred hours grinding out skins and cosmetics.
But it wasn't just the public perception. Walking the halls of the centre over the last two days, in between meetings, grabbing coffee and just generally people watching — mostly watching Blizzard staff — Blizzard employees looked like they'd had a win.
I saw it most in between interviews. If you're part of the media, Blizzcon usually works like this. In between whatever you want to do on the show floor or the demo rooms — there's a private room with PCs, mobiles etc. for press just opposite the media room on the second floor, although you can demo things on the show floor if you need to — everyone generally has a schedule. Some people have more interviews than others, but typically you'll be in the media room. Someone calls out on a loudspeaker for the next round of interviews, and you'll head off to whatever room you're booked in for the two people (it's always two) that you're scheduled to speak with.
The interview rooms are on the second floor as well, split into Blizzard's various franchises. And because the schedule is fairly tight, often you'll be entering a room just as two other developers are leaving.
This works for the Blizzard crew, because it's toften one of the few chances they get to catch up with other peers — Blizzard has thousands of employees, and the size and scope of Blizzcon means they might run into each other once or twice over the course of a show.
So whenever press are being ferried from one interview to another, generally devs will swing by, and that's a chance for them to quickly catch up. This all takes place right in front of you, not that any of the Blizzard staff pay much attention to it. The PR handlers are fairly stressed by this point; the developers are usually a bit tired and their voices raspy, and so they're not really paying a great deal of attention to the fact that someone's standing nearby, watching everything unfold.
Like the hugs.
Blizzard staff — which you could spot via the badges if you were close enough, or the colour of their wristbands if you were a bit further away — were chattier, smiling more and generally a bit chirpier. It's easiest to spot when you're within arm's reach, and compared to last year's conference, there were a lot more hugs. The word "congratulations" got thrown around several times in between my meetings, something I never heard once at Blizzcon last year in all the impromptu meetings I kept watching.
And the hugs stand out because, when you think about it, everyone's tired. Cons aren't a great place for touching people. Sweat is a real issue. Even away from the hustle of the convention floor, it's pretty common to rack up 20,000, 25,000, even 30,000 steps over a single day without even thinking about it. And this is in typical Californian climate: good weather for shorts, a perfect Queensland day.
And it's fascinating watching these small interactions, because Blizzcon is one of those shows where developers will bounce off each other and mingle like that. And sure, Blizzcon isn't the only one. CCP has had an EVE Online convention for years, and id's Quakecon has been around for longer. More developers have started to run their own events too, like Paradox, Warframe and Tennocon, and even the Kiwi makers behind Path of Exile are having their own convention in a fortnight.
But it takes time to build that collegiate culture at a convention. In a way, Blizzcon feels a lot like PAX Australia: it's a big show with the vibe of a small show, possibly because so much of the floor space is dedicated towards people playing games rather than buying merch. And the show's long history means that random members of the public will be able to occasionally stop, spot a developer, say hi, get a photo, and briefly thank them for their work. And then those developers see another developer they know, stop, say hi, and catch up for two seconds before they both have to run off to whatever thing they both have scheduled.
It's fascinating to watch. And it's probably the biggest difference between last year's Blizzcon and the weekend just passed. Developers always talk in interviews about the relief they get from Blizzcon, primarily because they don't have to hold in as many secrets anymore — even when a lot of that information gets leaked out beforehand — but the relief extended much further than that.
When introducing Overwatch 2 during the Blizzcon opening keynote, game director Jeff Kaplan joked about forgetting his lines — but it was fine because the internet had revealed everything he was going to say anyway. But in a follow-up interview with Kotaku Australia, Kaplan went into detail about just how demoralising the leaks were for those working on the game.
The company needed a big win. The writing was on the wall for months. And not everything is perfect — the protests didn't make an enormous amount of noise during the show itself, but their presence will definitely come up in internal meetings and conversations going forward, particularly later this week when Blizzard staffers hold their annual post-Blizzcon debrief.
But wandering around the halls, the quieter parts of the show and seeing those brief instances where developers' walls came down as they embraced each other, Blizzard staffers looked like they'd had a win. Still stressed, certainly tired, but mostly relieved. Finally, the company was talking about games again.