Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What I Did For My Winter Vacation

(Or: the BlizzCon After Action Report)

Friday and Saturday my partner and I went to BlizzCon. I may have mentioned that. Here is what we did.

Thursday: Flew in early to LGB(T), a great little airport which happens to have a JetBlue direct flight from PDX. PDX is also a great little airport, which makes the experience of flying the PDX-LGB route one of the more pleasant experiences you can have while flying these days. Even the TSA people are unfailingly polite and positive. We then grabbed our rental car and got In-n-Out (because In-n-Out). We ran a couple more errands getting various electronica we'd managed to forget to pack, and then we were off to the Anaheim convention center to get our BlizzCon badges and goodie bags. Some folk had lined up for hours to be the first through the door at registration; we showed up at around noon, strolled straight through the line, and never stopped walking until we were back at the car, loot and ID in hand. This will be a theme for the whole con, actually: if you're not particularly invested in being first, there's really no reason to spend a lot of time in queues. Not that I didn't spend time in queues, but it was a much less daunting and painful experience when compared to other cons I've attended.

We hung out, checked out the loot, and then grabbed dinner at a fantastic hole-in-the-wall place which we'd discovered on our last trip to Disneyland, Lindo Michoacan. It was still there, and still delicious. As far as I can tell, there isn't really any great authentic mexican food here in PDX, so the chance to really tuck in (the menu is in Spanish and if you can't read it you have to ask for the gringo menu) was great. After a filling dinner, we went and picked up a fellow convention-goer from the airport, and then the three of us hit up the World of Podcasts preconvention party in the Hilton. Drinks and panels and art, oh my! We also met up with some friends we hadn't seen in ages, and two friends we'd never met in person before, and had a great time being terrible and disruptive.

Friday morning we headed over to the convention center, and tried to avoid the gigantic crowd of people waiting for the doors to open. Since the Opening Ceremony was being broadcast everywhere, and there were big screens everywhere, front-row seating wasn't really a priority. Instead, we wandered around avoiding the initial crush, then homed in on our more hardy friends who had scored some great seats and saved them for us. It pays to have dedicated friends.

Mike Morhaime delivered his usual earnest-but-incredibly-stiff speech (because while I'm sure he's a great person it's fantastically clear that being a public figure isn't really his forté), which included a condemnation of GamerGate. Then, of course, Chris Metzen took the stage, and there's a guy who's comfortable in front of crowds. That was when they announced the brand new IP that rose from the ashes of the TITAN project: Overwatch. A pretty impressive phoenix, too; a new IP in a new genre-space that Blizzard hasn't tried to compete in before, it's definitely got people talking. Then they officially kicked off the Con, and it was "wander around and find stuff to do" time. I mostly orbited the space, deciding that this or that line was too long for me, and checking out the cool cinematics, interesting art, and fantastic cosplay.

For lunch my partner and I hit up the carts lined up outside the convention center, and then dove back in for a while, me doing my random walking while others in the group pinned down what they wanted to do. We stood in a surprisingly short line to play the new Hearthstone expansion, Goblins vs. Gnomes, and then we went on to get creamed trying out the new Starcraft II expansion, Legacy of the Void.

Not wanting to hang around so much for the talent contest (though the MC this year was Chris Hardwick, a much better choice and a much more enthusiastic and positive guy all around), we bailed a little early and went for dinner, and then post-convention drinks at more parties.

Saturday was the second and final day of the con, and we got there rather early in a bid to get a good spot for the Live Raid. The Live Raid sounds pretty silly: two raid teams competing against each other to complete content in the least amount of time. It's not PvP (player versus player) (though there is a PvP Arena competition which is pretty cool), it's strictly PvE (Player versus Environment), so what's really on display is strategy and proficiency in managing a team and working as a team to overcome obstacles. I like team-based stuff, and I'm already in a raid, but I was shocked at how into watching (and rewatching) the Live Raid last year; this year, on the big screen with a room full of fans, it was brilliant. My partner mentioned that now she knew how football fans feel at a live football game, where everyone is watching and reacting and understands what certain things mean and why other certain things are good or bad or surprising. It's true that the crowd watching the raid, no matter which side they were rooting for, was very engaged and interested in the experience itself. If Blizzard decided to put on some sort of Live Raid competition every week, I would buy a season pass and watch it every damn week. I'd buy jerseys and foam fingers and everything. I would be so invested in a Raid League, it's not even funny.

After the Live Raid, which was awesome, we then went to catch the collection of various trailers, cinematics, and clips at the theatre they set up. They had rolled everything into one 30 minute presentation which included a teaser trailer and a screen test for the Warcraft Movie (due out in 2016) and that was very, very, good. I then snuck back to the hotel for a nap and a soak in the hot tub while my partner and some friends chain-queued for more demos. I joined up with them and tried out the Overwatch demo, and I have to say I was actually quite impressed.

Overwatch is a FPS battleground-model game right now, which means it's squared off to compete with games like Team Fortress 2 or Call of Duty, which is a risky and somewhat gutsy move on Blizzard's part. That said, what I saw and what I played, I liked. It's still early days; the beta isn't even going to be live until "sometime in 2015", but the build we demoed was pretty solid. The character models and gameplay felt good and tight, if not tuned perfectly, and the character designs and abilities were distinct and engaging enough that even though I don't usually play FPS games, I'll be interested to try this one out. Plus, Blizzard explicitly said "we want to do better with diversity and gender representation and here's our first try," which was five women, three PoCs, two robots, and a hyper-intelligent gorilla wearing glasses. Which is a pretty good first try considering TF2 has no female characters and Ubisoft keeps complaining that women are too hard to code.

The closing act for the con was Metallica, and I wasn't a Metallica fan even back when I didn't have hearing problems, so instead we played some more of the demos, then headed out for dinner and delicious, delicious sushi. After that we went back to our hotel and played Star Fluxx and drank until the bar closed.

And that was BlizzCon 2014! It was a lot of fun and assuming I'm working again soon, we'll try and go back next year. Seeing friends both old and new was great, and I am sad we didn't get to spend more time with everyone, and part of the hope in 2015 is to make that possible by getting a more centrally-located room with space to entertain with boardgames and drinks and whatnot.