Yesterday, shortly after my post on my mix of excitement and disappointment in Blizzcon 2019, Blizzard posted that they would be skipping on Gamescom 2019, with merchandise available in the main Gamescom store but no other presence whatsoever.
This was a peculiar announcement, to say the least. Gamescom for Blizzard has become something of a miniature Blizzcon, away from home. It famously was the location chosen for the reveal of the Legion expansion in August 2015, and has also served as the backdrop for several major Blizzard reveals since, including the final Warbringers animatic last year, several Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm announcements, and major in-between news for WoW, such as the reveal of the launch date of patch 7.3.
So seeing Blizzard pull out is a bit puzzling, and is compounded by them continuing to offer merchandise to attendees at the show. But why would they pull out?
Trade show attendance is expensive – This is something that I think is well-known, but flying a handful of developers, support staff, and equipment over is both expensive in fiscal terms but also in time terms. When I visited Blizzard last year, one of the things that was talked about frequently was the time lost on development to present at a tradeshow. Something we often take foregranted is that development must divert resources for a tradeshow, even for new products. If something is still in development, you have to stop at a good demonstration point and prepare a build for that specifically. This takes development resources away from building the final product, as often, a tradeshow demo requires a degree of polish, troubleshooting, and debugging that doesn’t translate with 100% efficiency into the finished product. For WoW in particular, as they have many gameplay changes between expansions, this is worse – the BfA demo I first played at Blizzcon 2017 had the pre-8.0 GCD, some artifact traits simply made passive skills, and as such, were completely different to how my Demon Hunter plays in the actual game. With more modern development practices, they might still be creating regular playable builds of the game as it develops, but these builds are for internal consumption and do not require any real polish. While Blizzcon (and Gamescom) demos are not perfectly polished (or even polished to a particularly high standard), they require a lot of added clarity to ensure that players can be left unattended to run through the demo and easily understand what is being presented.
Blizzard cutting costs due to the heavy breath of Bobby Kotick on their necks is likely at least partially the case as well. Think about last year’s Gamescom – while we might consider Battle for Azeroth a “new” game as it changes WoW in a large way, as WoW’s expansions typically have, it is not a new game in the eyes of the business, and so the opportunity to gain value from that transaction is minimal. Sharing the news at Gamescom only serves to present something many players already have or will already have made their minds up about. With increasing pressure for Blizzard to ship a new game to please ATVI investors, taking time out of their development schedule to send their top designers and staff to Cologne to discuss expansions and patches isn’t something that would be taken to kindly, even if it is a good PR move and a community builder for the somewhat neglected EU fanbase.
Blizzard Had Something To Show, But Decided to Save it For Blizzcon? – This one is speculation, but on top of the costs point, there is a profit motive to question. Gamescom makes Blizzard something – they can sell merch on-site, they can increase player engagement and active minutes, and they can promote alongside the other giants of gaming, giving them the appearance of that legitimacy. Showcasing a new title at Gamescom would be a fantastic way to drive people to discuss – look at the Legion announcement, and how many people crowded the neighboring booths to be able to see it live and in-person. I can still remember seeing other developer signs in view and seeing the booths swarmed with people all facing at the Blizzard stage. That is PR that carries a high amount of value.
Now, imagine if they shared a gritty, dirty, dark Diablo IV trailer at Gamescom. Doesn’t have to be gameplay, doesn’t have to be anything major – just a teaser trailer and the developers discussing some details. That is all we had with Legion, after all, and it was voraciously consumed by the audience. Why would you pass that up?
Well – in addition to the cost motive on travel and development time, you also have to consider that Blizzard likely has to pay for booth space. Enough booth space to hold a major reveal is likely quite spendy. When I worked with convention registration, a standard 10 foot square booth with a folding table and drape was in the thousands of dollars. Expanding past that small space would add much more cost. Sure, the PR opportunity is valuable, and the ability to sell more mechandise is a big deal too, but at the same time, you are basically losing money in the short term to put on that show.
Blizzcon, on the other hand, sees Blizzard owning all of the space, and they can allocate as much space as they’d like to their own products. The travel cost is substantially less, and it would give them 2-3 more months to develop their big annoncement projects before having to commit to a demo build. If they had shown at Gamescom, it’s likely we would have had a single build for both shows – so whatever announcement they could have done at Gamescom would likely see us playing the same demo in Anaheim as in Cologne, which is a good cost saving measure and also not really a concern (how many people are really going to both events that aren’t press?). However, this would also fail to communicate any big design shifts that might take place in the space between the two events. There is one other reason I would speculate, though…
Hard Blizzcon Sales Pitch – This is conspiracy-level speculation, but the thought is large in my mind – if I just came off of an event that fans called the “worst Blizzcon ever” with nearly all of my major franchises in decline, frequently being in the news for major layoffs and other awful business moves, and I had just announced a new Blizzcon with more expensive badges and a new option to spend even more money to buy a pass with special lines and priority access, one easy way to ensure people come would be to announce I won’t be at another show they might more easily attend within a week of ticket sales. For those traveling from Europe to Anaheim, the cost of the Blizzcon ticket is the smallest expense they are likely to incur, so increasing that price isn’t likely to raise the ire of those attendees as much, and if I take away their “Blizzcon preview” event, effectively, then it stands to reason that a trip to the States for Blizzcon is at least slightly more appealing.
Now, do I think this was even top 10 on the list of reasons to cancel Gamescom attendance? No, of course not. However, the timing seems to line up a bit too well to me.
Was Blizzard Going to Attend? – The fact that merch will be available still at Gamescom tells me that perhaps Blizzard did plan on attending originally, and the decision to cancel was only recently made. While a list of 2019 exhibitors is not yet published on the official Gamescom site, I imagine that Blizzard would likely have had to have requested a large amount of booth space in advance, certainly at a deadline prior to this announcement. Of course, you or I can’t really know this for sure – but the details available publicly seem to line up with the idea that Blizzard was going to attend, but changed their mind at some point. I would speculate that at least a portion of the need to cancel was driven by a reduced event planning staff, as the events team at Blizzard was one hit hard by the recent layoffs.
Overall, as a Blizzcon 2019 attendee (provided I get tickets), I am sure I will be a beneficiary of this decision – it’s likely that a lot of interesting news and new titles will be shown in Anaheim this November. However, I can’t help but feel a bit of disappointment for European gamers – Blizzcon is such a long way to travel and Gamescom was such a good stage to bring some of that experience closer to home for those fans.