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Blizzard should be in flames; instead it's having its best year ever

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By all normal metrics, this year's BlizzCon should have been a down year for Blizzard.

Not only did the huge developer just announce the cancellation of its long-awaited MMO Titan just a couple of months ago, but lot of fans — myself included — assumed that it wouldn't have much to announce in Titan's place.

This is a studio that is known for sometimes going five-plus years between major releases. Yet this year alone, Blizzard has released the final version of its digital card game, Hearthstone and an expansion to Diablo 3. That expansion came in a definitive package to consoles as well, a rarity in Blizzard's history that seems to have paid off. Not to mention, next week it will launch its fifth World of Warcraft expansion, Warlords of Draenor.

How could Blizzard possibly have anything new to show us after such an exhausting, stressful, busy year?

Well, one look at our BlizzCon 2014 storystream shows how off-base that concern was.

The new age

Earlier this year, Blizzard's co-founder Mike Morhaime and senior vice president Chris Metzen explained how the company was going through a major transformation in how it views its projects. In particular, they discussed a desire to explore smaller, more focused projects.

That attitude is already paying dividends. Blizzard arguably had four major announcements during its BlizzCon 2014 opening ceremonies, and only one of those was a traditional, hardcore, triple-A Blizzard game: the StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void expansion pack. This had been previously announced, but the developer debuted a new trailer and information.

So what else took the spotlight during the opening ceremony? New characters in Heroes of the Storm and a goofy new expansion for Hearthstone. The latter already had a smaller add-on this year, only a few months after it left beta, and Heroes of the Storm (which is currently still in alpha) receives new characters frequently. Yet those announcements were still met with fanfare, both from the passionate live BlizzCon audience and on social media.

there will never again be a BlizzCon without some meaningful announcement

The brilliance of this shift in Blizzard's design philosophy is that this isn't a one-off occurrence. Assuming that Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm maintain their popularity and the speed with which content can be created for them, there will never again be a BlizzCon without some meaningful announcement for fans of those games.

And that's not all. Blizzard also announced Overwatch, a new property built from the ruins of what was Titan. Not only does this project open up a genre and audience Blizzard hasn't yet conquered — the shooter but all signs point to it operating the same as Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. The colorful cast of characters each with unique powers provides the perfect entry point for the developer to release a stream of new content.

Get used to BlizzCon opening ceremonies that kick off each year with one or more of the following announcements: new characters or maps for Heroes of the Storm, new characters for Overwatch and a new expansion or adventure for Hearthstone. That's not a bad thing, either. As long as Blizzard can keep fans invested in these games, I fully expect fans to react with a similar amount of enthusiasm, year after year.

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor screenshot 1920

what about the big games?

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about this year's BlizzCon and Blizzard's shift in philosophy in general is that the bigger projects aren't going anywhere.

If you happen to be someone who doesn't care one whiff about Hearthstone or Overwatch, well, I suggest giving them a second chance, but it's okay. The stuff you do care about is still there. Diablo and StarCraft and World of Warcraft aren't going anywhere. They're still going to be coming and at likely the exact same pace as always.

In that way, what Blizzard's done here is not exactly a shifting of resources so much as an expansion of resources. It's giving us the same massive games carefully crafted by massive teams, but it's also providing smaller, free-to-play titles with a never-ending flow of hooks to keep you playing.

Blizzard is building something unprecedented and impressive

Blizzard is building something unprecedented and impressive here. So many studios find one thing that works and then throw everything they have into trying to emulate that; Blizzard itself was, by its own admittance, very nearly guilty of this in the rush to create a follow-up MMO to World of Warcraft. But the studio pulled itself back and developed a much smarter, broader approach. It's building many things and making sure each one of them is individually great.

The success of this year's BlizzCon announcements in spite of everything going against Blizzard is a sign of a company that's more flexible, more agile than its size would betray. Blizzard is well past the size at which it should be viewed as a cold, heartless corporation that's only out for cash. Yet it has always managed to successfully cultivate a strong relationship with its fanbase.

BlizzCon is a celebration of that singular connection Blizzard has with its audience. This year threatened to sidetrack that audience lovefest, but the developer turned it around into something we could all get hyped up over.

As Mike Morhaime showed with his remarks about harassment in the game industry, this is a developer that seems to genuinely care about its audience, about keeping us excited and giving us stuff to play across many genres and styles. With that positive attitude and its newfound approach to creating smaller projects on top of the big stuff, Blizzard's 20 year history truly could be, as Chris Metzen put it, "just getting started."