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Blizzard Entertainment is under pressure to deliver something big before the end of the year, now that it has delayed Diablo 3 until 2012. It has plenty of options, but signs point to the company finally dropping details about its hotly-anticipated next online game, code-named “Titan.”

Blizzard is the developer behind World of Warcraft and it’s currently the dominant force in online. Its largest gaming event, Blizzcon, is coming up in Anaheim, Calif., in October, and is likely to be the site of major news announcements. That’s because Blizzard is now facing pressure from Electronic Arts, which threw down the gauntlet by announcing it would release its highly-anticipated online game Star Wars: The Old Republic in December this year.

“If they are holding any juicy details, it’s going to be announced at Blizzcon,” M2 Research senior analyst Billy Pidgeon told VentureBeat. “The big news is probably going to be a Diablo 3 date and a possible new announcement about one or more new properties.”

Titan will likely succeed — and possibly kill — the company’s most successful online game, World of Warcraft. That game is the last of a dying breed, a subscription-based online game with more than 11 million users that pay $15 each month to access the game.

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Blizzard Entertainment announced World of Warcraft in September 2001. It came out in November 2004 after being in development for more than three years and after several delays. The game was immediately a hit with fans of massively multiplayer online role-playing games — or MMORPGs — and ended up killing several other subscription-based online games, such as Tabula Rasa and Star Wars: Galaxies. The game grew like wildfire, eventually reaching a peak of more than 12 million active subscribers.

But World of Warcraft is hemorrhaging subscribers, falling to 11.4 million active subscribers in the first quarter this year and then 11.1 million subscribers in the second quarter. Free-to-play and casual games like those developed by Zynga have emerged as a significant competitor to more traditional online games like World of Warcraft. Blizzard tried to counter its losses with its own free-to-play version of the game. New World of Warcraft players can run through the game’s first 20 levels without paying a dime, but have to start paying the subscription fee to go past that.

“It’s normal to see some declines,” Blizzard Entertainment chief executive Mike Morhaime said. “We have seen an increase in new account creations (thanks to a free trial version), but it’s still too early to tell on conversions to subscribership.”

In the past, World of Warcraft has successfully taken down a lot of other online games. But it hasn’t faced competition in the MMORPG space from a major video game company like Electronic Arts, THQ Interactive or Take Two. Until now, none of these have  tried to show down against World of Warcraft.

That will change come December 20 this year, when Electronic Arts releases Star Wars: The Old Republic. BioWare, the team behind smash hits Mass Effect and Dragon Age, is working on this online game, which has been in development for several years. It’s a spiritual successor to the Knights of the Old Republic series, which was very popular with gamers on the original Xbox console. Electronic Arts is betting on the team, which consists of some of the best developers in the industry, delivering another hit capable of bringing down World of Warcraft.

Electronic Arts has timed its release perfectly, because most gamers will be on vacation or heading home from college to spend time with their families during the holidays. That puts some pressure on Blizzard to respond, if only to keep the buzz about its own games simmering.

Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences board member Zack Karlsson doesn’t think Blizzard will announce Titan at Blizzcon. However, he told VentureBeat, Blizzard might want to move aggressively to counter the launch of The Old Republic.

“If I’m them, I park it right on top of some big (The Old Republic) announcement,” Karlsson said. “I’d want (The Old Republic) to spend something big, drop some cashand then run right over them and trump marketing dollars with PR.”

Announcing Titan is not the same as shipping it, however, since Titan won’t be on the market for some time. That means Blizzard will be fighting EA’s shipping game with vaporware of its own.

A leaked product schedule that hit the net in December last year (below) indicates that Blizzard could release Titan in the fourth quarter of 2013. So far the schedule has been accurate (outside of Diablo 3’s delay). Financial research firm Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter told VentureBeat Titan news probably wouldn’t see the light of day given that it’s a 2013 release.

Blizzard, after all, is known for releasing games when they are ready — not when a release schedule dictates it. But the schedule would give Titan a roughly three-year lead time for the game, which is similar to the lead time for World of Warcraft, Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty (announced May 2007 and released July 2010) and Diablo 3 (announced June 2008 and originally slated for late 2011).

“We commonly use the term ‘soon’ when referring to Blizzard releases, because we know that no matter how hard we’re working to reach a target, we’re not going to compromise and launch a game before it’s ready,” Blizzard CEO Morhaime said.

There are three other major “announcements” in Blizzard Entertainment’s pipeline. Blizzcon, which is a two-day event, has plenty of room for multiple announcements — much like what Google does for its annual developer conference Google I/O. Here’s what we think the event could hold.

A Diablo 3 release date: Morhaime said the company was delaying the release of Diablo 3 until the first quarter next year. The company started an open beta for the game last week, which indicated a release was on the horizon. But Diablo 3 is one of the company’s most ambitious projects, and Morhaime said they didn’t want to compromise it by releasing it too early.

“While this news might not be a complete surprise, I know that many were hopeful that Diablo 3 would ship this year,” Morhaime said. “We were too.”

The company still hasn’t committed to an official release date.

A release date for Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm: Blizzard Entertainment sold more than 700,000 copies of Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty in the first four days of the game’s release. The company’s real-time strategy game was so popular when it came out in 1998 that, like Diablo, the company decided to make a sequel for the game.

The Starcraft franchise also holds a special place for Blizzard Entertainment as its flagship e-sports title. E-sports leagues are competitive gaming leagues where players battle it out for cash prizes — sometimes upwards of $10,000 for a championship. Blizzard Entertainment hosts major tournaments at Blizzcon each year.

Unveiling a World of Warcraft expansion pack: Blizzard Entertainment unveiled World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, the third expansion pack for its smash hit online game, at Blizzcon in 2009. The game came out in October the following year and broke sales records for its second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. Blizzard Entertainment sold 3.3 million copies of Cataclysm in its first day of release, compared to 2.8 million copies of Wrath of the Lich King.

A World of Warcraft expansion pack would fill a late 2012 hole, since Diablo 3 is slated for a release earlier that year. There’s always a chance the company will delay its expansion pack, given Blizzard Entertainment’s penchant for holding games until they are ready. But Blizzard Entertainment has been very religious about getting its expansion packs out on time.

Titan news would likely steamroll any announcement that runs alongside it. Blizzard Entertainment has seen incredible success with its three largest franchises, so creating new intellectual property would be an atom bomb for both gamers and investors, and for any other game developer out there that hopes to compete with Blizzard Entertainment. That might prompt the company to wait to announce Titan and unveil new details about its existing franchises, Karlsson said.

“The problem with something that large at Blizzcon is all their other news will get lost,” Karlsson said. “And that makes it pointless to have other news, they need a hole in the cycle to drop something like that.”

That being said, Blizzcon is still the company’s largest event and it only comes around once a year. The event brings in thousands of gamers and press from around the world. There’s a good chance the company will capitalize on the hunger generated by a delay in Diablo 3 that could generate interest in a new game, Pidgeon said.

“We’ve heard some buzz about new content, that would be the blockbuster news,” he said. “Could they announce an extension? Yeah, but it wouldn’t be as exciting as a new title.”

Blizzard representatives have contacted VentureBeat to say that the company does not currently plan on “discussing the unannounced MMO.” But the company still has around a month to decide what to unveil at its largest gamer-centric. Blizzcon begins October 21.

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