Friday, July 13, 2007

You Can Count on Blizzard

Starcraft 2 may be the most anticipated video game in history. And not just in Korea. Blizzard made an unprecedented move by releasing footage that didn't just show units, but explained their special abilities and which units counter which, and why.

I'm not going to speculate about the units and strategies. Whoever you played in the first one is who you'll likely play in the second. There are a lot of new units, but at the same time—do orcs cast bloodlust?

What I will speculate about, though, is the timeline. To do this, I will look establish some points we can learn from Blizzard's release history of PC games. I will contend that Blizzard has been doing the same things for a long time and that from these things, we can predict a rough release schedule.

Blizzard philosopies

The first trend we need to realize is that Blizzard always has to top itself when making sequels. They’ve stated it, and they back it up with their release history. Everyone wanted Warcraft 3 to be Starcraft 2. Blizzard knew they’d need a lot more time. They tried to buy it with Starcraft: Ghost and Warcraft 3, hoping it would satiate Blizzard fans. Koreans still maintained a monotheistic faith in Starcraft and Starcraft alone.

The second trend to notice is that Blizzard does not commit to specific release dates. They know better, and are honest enough to say it will be released in a quarter instead of a month. With Starcraft 2, they haven’t even said which year it will be released. We have waited a long time between initial news and releases for all the games we hear about.

A third and often unnoticed trend is so important I must also point it out here: they make low risk, consistent and infrequent attempts to expand outside of their current franchises. They don’t want to be stuck making only Warcraft games. Or Starcraft games. Or RTS’s. They already know that the success of franchises, when milked too quickly, simply creates a hollow, average consistent success, one that doesn’t make for great games or great profits. Blizzard doesn’t want to be EA, with Battlefield, Command and Conquer, or Madden games coming out every 1.2 years. They want to make more money than that.

Blizzard’s pattern

Like movie sequels, so go video games—it’s hard to beat an original. Look at the timeline again: Warcraft 2, Diablo, Starcraft, Warcraft Adventures, Diablo 2, Warcraft 3, Starcraft: Ghost. They used to want to be able to go A, B, A, B. With the exception of Diablo 2 (which wasn’t as successful a franchise as Starcraft or Warcraft), it never worked well that way. Look at the two failures: Warcraft Adventures and Starcraft: Ghost. They rushed too quickly to make something for Warcraft and Starcraft. Their games are too damn good to give them only one title’s breathing space. Try two, or in the case of Starcraft 2, three, with expansions for all.

When a Blizzard game is much more of a success than anyone (including Blizzard) imagined, they know they don’t know how to top it. Now that they’ve learned their lesson, what they do is let a franchise rest for a very, very long time while they hope to make another new success with new ideas, because new ideas are much easier to make succeed than old ones are. All they’re really doing is diverting your attention and grabbing your money in another way until they can give you the World of Warcraft they were claiming to have or the Starcraft 2 you really wanted. That’s why Warcraft 3 wasn’t like Starcraft, because people wanted it to be Starcraft 2. But only Starcraft 2 can be Starcraft 2.

With lesson learned, when they made Warcraft 3, they made sure it isn’t like Warcraft 1 or 2. Instead of yet another RTS, they released World of Warcraft because they knew that Starcraft 2 was the only RTS that anyone would be willing to accept, and Warcraft 3 would be the only non-Starcraft-2 RTS that would be accepted. This is why Warcraft 3 took seven years to follow Warcraft 2, and why Starcraft 2 is taking more than 10 years to follow Starcraft 1.

So this is what we can expect—since they’re still hiring key staff for the Starcraft 2 team, you can count on it being a while. People will expect to see Starcraft 2 at the end of 2008, then hear it will come out around April 2009, then find out it will be released in August, October, or December 2009.

And everything else, like World of Warcraft?

Other projects are harder to predict. Will there be another expansion to WoW? Illidan seems such a big character that there can’t be more material, but remember—if people are still playing it, Blizzard will keep making material for it. Kel’Thuzad (if you don’t know who he is, go play the single player WC 3 again) is in an instance, too, remember. The only prediction we can safely make is that it will be a very long time before Blizzard releases another MMORPG. WoW will be around for a long time. The price will stay the same for a long time. There will be many more patches, big and small. Also, Arthas is probably going to stop by.

Blizzard has shown us they’re not afraid to drop projects—there may be another announcement in there. The next game that isn’t Starcraft 2 will be a bombshell. Will it be the expansion into mobile gaming? Or will it be a new franchise out of nowhere, the way Diablo was? And will it end up coming out before Starcraft 2? I don’t know.

If you’re playing Starcraft 1 to “prepare” yourself for Starcraft 2, you may need to cool down. The terran section of the website won’t be opened this summer, nor the protoss one completed. We have at least a year and a half. Still, everyone agrees--“it’s about time”, indeed.

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