Mike Morhaime and the Nine Million Dwarfs: A BlizzCon Retrospective

We take a look back at this year's Blizzard convention, and offer some thoughts on the company as a whole.

The more that I think about it, the more that it all begins to make sense.

Last weekend I watched children standing in long lines clutching $100 tickets, eating over-priced food, greeting their favorite characters in costume form, riding mechanical attractions, and buying loads of merchandise--but I wasn't at Disneyland. Instead, I was across the street at BlizzCon, the massive mecca for one of gaming's most iconic companies. Maybe it was my tired, blurry vision, but looking out the back window of the shuttle on the way to the airport, the convention center began to look a lot like Epcot. While I sat talking to a kid in a StarCraft t-shirt on the way to the airport--his hands tightly wrapped around a poster roll containing Warcraft one-sheets--I had to ask myself: is Blizzard becoming the Disney of gaming?

Those who followed my BlizzCon coverage this year may have already noticed a few references to Disneyland in my various previews and news posts. At the time it was merely a passing nod to the nearby proximity of the ubiquitous park, hiding just behind the row of palms nextdoor. But as FernGully demonstrated, mere trees couldn't hold back the Disney machine. Beginning the moment I checked into my upgraded family-sized hotel room, Disney was everywhere. I had free closed-circuit Disney television, one channel away from HBO's Real Sex. Advertisements for park deals littered the streets and restaurants. No matter where you went, the shadow of the Mouse followed--but then, so did the shadow of the Orc.

Setting out to grab an entrance badge on the eve of BlizzCon, I had only to trace the steady stream of Blizzard-branded bags and happy faces to find my way. At the conference center the lobby was already packed, as if people were perfectly happy to a part of the experience--even if the experience only involved tired staff handing out plastic bags. Though the doors wouldn't open until the next morning, it was as if the show had already begun. As I walked back to the hotel, fireworks shooting up overtop the tree-line to reveal the dormant rollercoasters arching above, there was something in the air, some kind of strange mix of magic and mana. Off to the side, one attendee had his laptop set up in a darkened recess near the convention center, his face awash with liquid crystal as the sounds of his Warcraft guild Ventrilo server filled the air. This was going to be a strange weekend.

In the morning the crowds trickled into the cavernous lobby of the Anaheim Convention Center with some trepidation. Like Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, cute blondes with television gigs would occasionally approach the masses, requesting a fraction of the group to "Cheer for the camera!" The fans gave them what they wanted at first, shouting chants of "We want BlizzCon!" and "We are not prepared!" After a while, this sad parade of camera-wielding puppeteers laced the entire event with a tangible cheapness. Was this going to be one of those awkward degenerate-filled carnivals, where the underlying geekiness would be showcased to a disproportionate extent, and a genuine celebration of gaming would be overshadowed by star-struck basement dwellers?

After a while, though, the cheers died down, and the cameramen went unnoticed. By and large, these people were not the social outcasts that the media was looking for. They came with friends and family members as someone might to a sporting tournament, only the sports here would be electronic. These people weren't here to be pawns of some corporation. No, these were tech-savvy, no-nonsense champions of the right to assemble in a large space and eat soggy pizza in celebration of quality games. They would cheer when they wanted to cheer.

And they cheered when the doors opened, a long roar that spilled out into the empty center. Bursting into Hall A, the endless rows of projector screens and computer terminals greeting them, it was hard not to feel your own pulse quicken. Like the start of a new Warcraft server, the race was on, with the demo stations and limited supplies of merchandise serving as the quest rewards. Rides and stalls lined the perimeter of the space, the vendor NPCs pushing their various wares. The main attractions occupied the central arenas like a three-ring circus--on the right StarCraft II, on your left Wrath of the Lich King, and in the middle, the main stage: Downtown BlizzCon.

BlizzCon is a bring-your-own-mascot affair, and people in costumes representing a wide variety of characters and avatars milled about at all hours of the event. These cheerful players were never unwilling to pose for a picture, although they often showed more skin than you'd ever see walking around at the Magic Kingdom. Surrounding them, dozens of glass-encased displays provided a sense of density to the space, showing off everything from old game packaging and artwork to musical scores and action figures. One child fan, nose to the window, examined an original Warcraft: Orcs & Humans box. "Hey kid, how much is that worth?" asked a grinning convention center employee. "At least $40," the boy replied matter-of-factly. The man looked puzzled, clearly expecting a figure in the triple-digits. The kid moved off to wait in line for an hour to play StarCraft II.

It may seem like a strange cult to outsiders, but for the fans, it's all about the games.

Turn the page for more thoughts on this year's BlizzCon. _PAGE_BREAK_

Without Blizzard's continuously fulfilled promise of quality titles, there would be no BlizzCon. In that way, the response to Blizzard's work resembles the widespread success of Disney's properties. Both companies have generally provided consistently polished examples of their respective forms. Their artwork is sharp, colorful, and creative. Their characters are simple, slightly derivative, yet instantly recognizable. Their stories are full of epic, broad themes of good and evil, and appeal to a wide demographic--a demographic that is maniacally devoted, buying up every t-shirt and collector's edition available.

World of Warcraft itself echoes the World of Disney moniker. Its themed zones illicit the same sense of wonder and stimulation of the imagination that Disney once engendered--and now still does, with the help of Pixar. When I walk through Tirisfal, I think of the Haunted Castle. As I sail into Booty Bay, it's like a boat ride through Pirates of the Caribbean. Even Stormwind Castle, with its towering turrets and friendly color palette, calls to mind Disney's own Cinderella Castle iconography.

And if Blizzard is Disney, then Blizzard's cinematic team is the company's Pixar. Beginning its body of work with rudimentary renders created by a small collection of individuals, Blizzard's in-house film division recently received the green-light to ramp up its staff from a modest 30 employees to a full-fledged team of close to 90 artists. Now in charge of handling the expansive StarCraft II storyline, with its dialogue trees and in-engine cutscenes, the crew is more involved than ever in the development process. When asked whether the team would be interested in creating their own feature film, department head Matt Samia asked the crowd, "How many people would like to see us do it?" One can guess at the reply.

In the early 1990s, Nintendo became the first gaming company to invade both our living rooms and our lingo. Mario and Nintendo became synonymous with video games and fun. The movement went so far as to spawn movies like The Wizard and Super Mario Bros., and while many gamers will surely remember these delightful failures, most of the public will not: they bob-ombed their way to a quick exit from theaters. Years later, the industry is full of fiercely competitive companies, with viral marketing schemes and overblown trailers of the next big action title leading into disappointing video game films like Resident Evil and Tomb Raider. One imagines a graying Mario in front of the fireplace, yammering about the old days, when things were simple. Did you know Sega used to make hardware?

And yet if one company has remained steady throughout the years, it has been Blizzard--and now they are set to take that final, unclaimed prize as they enter the dangerous battlefield of video game adaptations. Legendary Pictures' Warcraft movie will open sometime in 2009. Promising a blend between 300 and Lord of the Rings--two franchises which need no further introduction--it has the potential to be the first video game blockbuster. If the movie captures an audience beyond the 9 million World of Warcraft players, Thrall might soon be as pervasive a cultural entity as Darth Vader--and unlike Lord of the Rings, there will always be more adventures told in Azeroth. Unlike Mario, Blizzard's games are a vessel for storytelling, a necessary component to mass-media marketing. Unlike Disney, Blizzard has yet to seriously falter.

And still, it's all about the games. On my last night in Anaheim, I walked into an empty frozen yogurt shop. The young Korean clerk sat behind the all-white counter, slowly swishing a mop in a lonely dance, like Celso from Grim Fandango. I greeted the man, placed an order, and in my exhaustion handed him a $20 bill, along with a few fivers for good measure.

"I'm sorry," I said, apologizing for the blunder. "It's been a long day. Business."
"Oh yeah? What do you d-d-do?" he said, stammering as he twirled a spiral of yogurt into an empty cup.
"I'm here for the BlizzCon convention. The video g-"
"Ohhh, StarCraft!" His eyes lit up instantly, and he began hammering me with a torrent of questions. "Really? It's h-h-here?! Across the street? Did you get to play it? What's it like? How is it different from the first one?"

We talked for 10 minutes as my yogurt slowly melted away.

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