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2012 Predictions for Blizzard: Social features, pandas, and summertime

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Mathew McCurley takes you through the world running parallel to the games we love and enjoy, full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps.

Last week, you all happily indulged some thought leak from me, considering it was the holidays and I usually have a lot that I would like to say. Thankfully, you all obliged. Thank you kindly. Now, as we hit 2012 with a running head start, I've got more words that I want you to read. Blizzard is a company that is always looking to grow and expand, not necessarily in the realm of people or functions but opportunities and numbers. Blizzard is in the business of making games, making money, and hopefully having some fun along the way. I've got some predictions based on the business of things.

Please don't take my predictions as set-in-stone realism. I know for a fact a lot of what I'm predicting is pie in the sky, but that's what I'm hoping for this year -- big changes. World of Warcraft is entering into almost eight years of service, and with such computer game old age setting it, it's time to revitalize the product and push for another bright eight years to come. Read on for my Blizzard predictions in 2012.

Likely predictions

Mists of Pandaria will launch in 2012, most likely summer. I don't see how Blizzard and World of Warcraft can continue to remain relevant without a release of Mists of Pandaria this year, most likely during the second half of the year. With The Old Republic capturing a lot of imaginations and Guild Wars 2 potentially getting released in 2012 (seriously, hasn't this game been in development for 900 years?), Blizzard has to push out content or pack it up. Ten million players aren't going anywhere fast, but Blizzard needs to keep those players' imaginations running wild about WoW. Locking in people for a year was a good first start. Now, Blizzard has to make sure everyone is pumped for Pandaria, and it's happening sooner than you think.

Mists of Pandaria beta will begin in March, around the time Diablo III launches. I have a good feeling the Mists of Pandaria beta will begin in late March or early April to make way for a July or August release. With Diablo III out the door and the transition being made to the live team for content updates and cleaning up after launch, the Mists of Pandaria team will get its beta up and running. How do you make sure to minimize the damage to your beta servers? Run the beta while Diablo III is holding on to people's thoughts and minds. Then, as a month or two goes by and stress tests begin to happen in earnest, the Mists of Pandaria can enter into a few weeks of hard testing and be ready to roll.

Remember, Mists of Pandaria doesn't look like the type of beta that will need as much time polishing systems versus an expansion like Cataclysm, which required a longer beta period because so much of the game fundamentally changed. With Mists, a lot of what is being fundamentally changed is coming in patches, like the talents, and the content is much more straightforward. At least, that's how it seems.

Diablo III will launch to record numbers. The big caveat to when the Mists of Pandaria beta lauches is when Diablo III goes live, even though those teams don't have much to do with each other. Diablo III will release in 2012, most likely during February or March, to record numbers. One sad and broke freelance writer will be sitting at home, surrounded by Top Ramen, tears streaming down his cheeks, inputting the serial number for a Diablo III collector's edition and happily running around with a pet in WoW because of it. Thanks, Blizzard. I almost don't want this one to come true.

Somewhat likely predictions

World of Warcraft hits the respectable plateau of 10 million subscribers. The 10-million-player milestone will be the new milestone to reach for ultra-platinum, mega-successful MMOs. WoW will fluctuate happily around 10 million players from here on out, and that won't be a bad thing. Ten years ago, EverQuest was happily promoting the fact that its 1 million accounts had something like 300,000 simultaneous players. I think Blizzard and the industry as a whole cannot shake the importance, 10 years later and 10 more million players later, of what a powerhouse WoW still is. If 10 million customers is a bad benchmark for a product like WoW, I would hate to be the impossibly awesome benchmark that never gets to socialize with anyone, ever.

The Diablo III real-money auction house will have some overblown problem associated with it a few months down the road that will likely not affect you. I hope that I'm not true with this one, but I have a feeling we'll be seeing Glider 2.0 with an enterprising young gentlemen or lady finding a keen way of doing something exploitative with the real-money auction house. The problem won't be anywhere near the severity of those caused by Glider or combated with such force as Glider was dealt with, but it will be significant. Will it be a huge deal to you and me? Probably not. Will it involve hacking and real money? Probably. Will our accounts be compromised? Probably not.

I expect the real-money auction house to cause waves, some damage, and potentially a lawsuit or two that you read about on a video games news website and just sort of laugh about. There are tons of people ready and willing to try to make a quick buck off of new endeavors like this. I don't know. There is just this feeling in the air, a gentle breeze with an ominous message -- someone will try to mess with the real-money aspects of the Diablo III auction house, and we will know about it.

WoW subscriber numbers will take another hit due to other games, but it won't be as large of a hit as the last two earnings calls. The next earnings call will show a drop in subscribers, most likely. That much we can predict with a decent amount of certainty. Players are giving other games a shot, and with such a full video game holiday season and releases like Arkham City, Skyrim, The Old Republic and more games that sort of hit the same demographics, Blizzard will have to account for those numbers. The caveat to all of this is that the drop will not be as huge of a drop as the last few earnings calls have revealed, and WoW will stay above the 10-million-subscriber mark.

Shot-in-the-dark predictions

StarCraft will be the highlight of BlizzCon in 2012, with Titan finally being revealed. I have a weird feeling we won't be seeing the new StarCraft game, Heart of the Swarm, until at least Q4 2012. With Diablo III and Mists of Pandaria as huge bombshell releases for Blizzard, the new StarCraft expansion is one of those games that might feel a little lost in the WoW and Diablo forest right now. BlizzCon will be heavily about StarCraft in preparation for its launch much like BlizzCon 2011 was mainly a Diablo III hype-up show. Oh, yeah, and Mists of Pandaria.

This would be a more secure prediction if I hadn't included Titan. Blizzard has to say words about Titan at some point, and two years prior to its supposed release is as good a time as any. We'll see basic gameplay and features and be told to return next year for a full demo as Blizzard approaches alpha, beta, and eventually release.

Mists of Pandaria will feature updated player models or an updated graphics engine or some other secret feature not revealed at BlizzCon 2011. There is a secret feature included in Mists of Pandaria that none of us know about. It is the proverbial secret weapon, ace up the sleeve, that Blizzard has kept a tight hold on -- a secret that will drive the hype train into Panda Station. Blizzard knows that it has to drip out features, especially with all of the experience it has launching successful titles.

All that I'm saying is we didn't learn everything at BlizzCon, and expect something big from Mists of Pandaria. Will it be an upgraded graphics engine and new models? Maybe. I'm hoping so.

Battle.net will get its social redesign in 2012, or we will at least get a sneak peek. Earlier this year, I predicted that Battle.net was going to become more like Steam and take on aspects of social media websites and networks like Facebook and Twitter. Over time, and especially in 2012, I believe Battle.net will begin to get its social design. Battle.net will begin to open up to more places and be able to interact with your social media networks, friend lists, and all sorts of cool stuff. A perfect world for me exists when I can take a screenshot in game, quickly edit that shot on some Battle.net layer that lives above all my Blizzard games, and then post it to my Battle.net wall, Twitter, Facebook, and more with the click of a button. Maybe? Who knows.

World of Warcraft will get a new box that contains WoW, The Burning Crusade, and Wrath of the Lich King together. We've been talking about a new box for years, and 2012 is the year for the new box to happen. I predict we will see a new World of Warcraft box on shelves that contains everything up until the 80-to-85 content that came with Cataclysm, as well as the goblin and worgen races. Blizzard's biggest problem is player accessibility, which has been at the center of many of the patch 4.3 changes to the game, including the Raid Finder. Any moves Blizzard can make to lower the barrier to entry to World of Warcraft means only good things for new players and subscriber numbers, so count on seeing a more accessible boxed version of WoW coming soon. The developers wanted to do it for Cataclysm, but this time it will really happen.

Those are my predictions for Blizzard in the upcoming year. Don't take me at my word, though -- in a year, we'll see how many of my predictions actually came true. See you guys next week.

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wowinsider.com.


Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Lawbringer

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