Blizzard In The Present – The Creeping Influence Of Activision?

For this week’s posts, I’d like to take a deeper look at Blizzard itself, including some recent news about the company structure and how things are being handled internally in the wake of the Diablo Immortal announcement flop, a recap of my tour of the campus during Blizzcon, and a bit of forward-looking discussion about where they go from here!

So, let’s start with the most contentious topic of the three right off the bat – the current state of Blizzard.

Activision – The Publisher That Makes EA Look Good

11 years ago now, Blizzard (or rather, parent company at the time Vivendi) was merged into Activision, forming a new parent company, Activision Blizzard. In the high times of December 2007, Blizzard was riding high on the success of The Burning Crusade, launched in January that year to stellar sales and subscription success. The company had just announced Starcraft II at a special event in Seoul, and that summer at the second-ever Blizzcon announced the second WoW expansion, Wrath of the Lich King.

Blizzard was riding a wave of huge success at this time. World of Warcraft had succeeded beyond expectations, and the announcement of Starcraft II was very exciting. Wrath of the Lich King promised to take players further into the fertile grounds of Warcraft III plot threads, bringing us back to Arthas Menethil and the vile Lich King persona while showing us the scenic vistas of Northrend. In 2008, the announcement of Diablo III further solidified Blizzard’s standing among its fans.

Knowing this, the announcement of Activision entering the fold was startling to most gamers. At this point in history, Activision was…not fondly looked upon, a track record that has not changed much in the intervening 11 years. Long before EA became the dark face of video game villainy, Activision was that for most of us. The company, who mainly facilitated the release of some earlier gems like the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, had become a mundane content mill, pushing the annual release structure with its Call of Duty franchise that became the template for many studios.

A big fuss was made at the time of this news about how Activision would not be meddling in the matters of Blizzard, existing almost as a separate entity. Blizzard would retain its leadership under president Mike Morhaime, and the company would be free to forge ahead on their own plans without obstruction from the parent entity. Activision, as much as we can say about them, was at least partially aware that tying their name to Blizzard could be seen as a negative, so they opted to get out in front of it instead.

And, for a time…that felt correct. Wrath of the Lich King was one of the best expansions to WoW ever. Starcraft II launched to critical acclaim. There were little things that happened here and there to make you wonder if Activision was slowly working into the structure – things like microtransactions in WoW (sparkle pony made it’s debut during Wrath) and the real fun-killer of the Diablo III launch, the real money auction house. But, overall, it seemed like Blizzard had its shit together.

The Slow Decline of Blizzard – WoW In Contraction, Diablo III 1.0, and the Cancellation of Titan

Blizzard in the early 2010’s had a string of near-misses, where their games did not quite hit the mark but ultimately still succeeded. Cataclysm launched, the third expansion for WoW, and while its bullet-pointed list of features seemed particularly exceptional, the execution fell somewhat flat and the end result was that the game’s player population began to contract sharply, cutting nearly in half by the end of the expansion. Diablo III launched in 2012 to early acclaim, which quickly gave way to disappointment as the high-level Inferno gameplay of Diablo III 1.0 felt very much unlike the Diablo formula – requiring farming of gear, strangely strategic conflicts with lots of kiting and doubling-back until your gear was overpowered…or you could just buy some stuff. Diablo was about bosses exploding in loot, but now, they barely trickled out usable gear, and the intent of the unusable stuff was to sell it. It was blatant and unfortunate, and the game slipped into the background.

But these early misses hold nothing up to Blizzard’s biggest miss in Titan. Titan, as we know it publicly, was an MMO that was intended to offer a unique cycle of gameplay, allowing players to engage in literal busywork, taking up professions and living a virtual life, then doing heroic actions off work hours, with more expected standard gameplay. It was a fascinating idea, but all we were supposed to know was that it was Blizzard’s next big thing – the game that would take up the standard-bearer status for them after the peaks of WoW and would deliver a new era of Blizzard.

Well, it was supposed to do these things, but it didn’t. Instead, the game was cancelled. This was a black eye for Blizzard, who had talked publicly about how amazing this “Titan” would be, with no footage, screenshots, or anything resembling a real announcement. While the exact figure is somewhat obscured, the estimated cost of this aborted development was nearly 50 million dollars. While this was nothing to Blizzard, relatively, the lost money had to draw the attention of the bean counters at Activision.

Ultimately, however, the project had created a few problems for Blizzard, and an opportunity – the game had effectively taken what Blizzard deemed its best MMO developers, moving them from the WoW team to the Titan team, leaving the WoW team to rebuild their roster with newer hires and less experienced MMO staff. While this did not affect the quality of WoW early in the process, it could be debated that post-Wrath, some design oddities seem to pop into the scene that would mesh with a less-experienced MMO staff being at the helm.

WoW had a series of missteps that were offset by solid expansions, as Cataclysm led into Mists of Pandaria, which, despite community concerns about tonal mismatch, actually did very well, and offered deep gameplay. This was followed by Warlords of Draenor, which offered some interesting ideas but ultimately failed to engage due to a lack of content and clear rush at the last minute leading to massive shifts in the available content (no Shattrath raid, changed capital cities, only two raid tiers, the massive changes to Gorgrond in late alpha, etc). The player feedback and the desire to make up for it led to Legion, which was fairly well received despite some fumbles early on, and will likely be noted as one of WoW’s better expansions.

As far as opportunity, however, the team had a number of assets that could be rolled forward into a new project, and from the ashes of Titan came Overwatch. It is a fascinating study of how quickly these things can come together – Titan’s “delay” was announced in 2013, with its cancellation confirmed in September 2014, right before Blizzcon 2014, where Overwatch was announced, meaning that in around a year, the team pivoted to a new game using the assets they had and were able to build a playable demo that mirrored the final product pretty closely. Overwatch was a success story for Blizzard, turning the money spent on Titan into something new and different that has become a pillar for the company, but ultimately, it turns out that Titan’s shadow still looms large.

The Kotaku Report, And Why I Think It Is Legitimate

In the aftermath of Blizzcon 2018 and the announcement of Diablo Immortal being met with fan confusion and anger, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier wrote two pieces that offered a narrative of a Blizzard in turmoil – the first, a simpler read, presenting that the original plan for Blizzcon 2018 on the Diablo team was to present Immortal and then to also tease Diablo 4, leaving that tease as the big applause break at the end of the team’s presentation. Several weeks before the con, however, the decision was made that due to the risk of the project not necessarily delivering as promised, they didn’t want to tease Diablo 4, so the announcement was to be just Diablo Immortal and the team put out the blog post to begin the damage control before any of us knew what was to come – that DI was one of many projects and that the team was excited to share more about other projects as the time came.

At the time of that post, I remember thinking that we would get some news but it would be something, and that was better than nothing. Of course, that might have been misguided with the gift of hindsight, but it’s a perspective I can understand. To be fair to DI, some people do want it and are excited for it. To me, as I’ve said before, the gameplay just isn’t to that Diablo standard and so for me it is a disappointment, but it’s clear that the team knew on some level that there would be backlash.

So the second piece of news reported by Jason Schreier via Kotaku was of a lot more interest – it painted a picture that many of us did not want to see of Blizzard. Over a decade past the merger of Activision and Blizzard, and we were now seeing the tendrils of Activision rooting their way into Blizzard. The cancellation of Titan, it turns out, was the avenue via which Activision began to exercise their influence – $50 million in the hole meant that a firmer hand was needed, and so the process began of tightening the belt. Just before the launch of Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, the very popular expansion to D3 that made huge fundamental shifts to the game to deliver a much better experience, the second expansion to D3 was cancelled. This was done without seeing how RoS performed, which was a disappointment to the team. The members of that development team were scattered to the winds to other Blizzard teams, with many going to WoW (explaining the very Diablo-esque systems that became foundational in Warlords of Draenor and especially Legion). The Diablo team was then rebuilt, adding new staff and working on a new Diablo project.

The project was called Hades, and over time, it evolved away from the direction of original Diablo into something new and different for Blizzard – a Dark Souls-like take on the franchise. The camera angle moved to over the shoulder, and the action gameplay took on a new light in this perspective, but the higher-ups axed this project, and members of the team left Blizzard. The report states that the gameplay was not “coming together,” something which was also said of Titan. The remaining team came together to fill the gap for Diablo with something, and that something was Rise of the Necromancer, the DLC that offered up the popular Necromancer class from Diablo II with updates to fit Diablo III.

At the same time, other members of the team were set loose on a new project called Fenris, which was meant to replace Hades and be the Diablo 4 we were waiting for. The good news internally, according to these reports, is that this project has taken shape very well, ditching the brighter color palette of Diablo III for dark, gory, and gross – bringing this iteration of the game back to the roots of the series, and the gameplay direction seems to be very well received among the employees who spoke to Schreier about the project. It also looks to embrace more modern live-services style game design, adding in MMO elements like instanced dungeons and gameplay similar to Strikes from Destiny, aiming to get people together to play through harder content, while also trying to envision what a more social Diablo would look like, focusing on keeping the soul of the game intact with these changes.

Of course, these things also tie well into the big issue of the day – monetization. The argument fans will make, and one I think has merit, is that Diablo III was ultimately abandoned by Blizzard due to a lack of monetization. The RMAH tanked. PvP arena gameplay failed to launch due to the nature of class design, meaning any possible eSports avenue was out. Cosmetics were a late addition to the game, but remained unlocked via gameplay and some via purchase of Collector’s Editions, which is very consumer-friendly, but not inherently monetizable.

The shadow of Titan looms over this project in another way, however. The tease at Blizzcon was originally scheduled to be much more, with the full rollout Blizzard does at their convention – announcements, panel discussions, and a playable demo. In January, this was the plan. As the event lurched closer, however, the fact was that the game wasn’t necessarily ready for that rollout, so maybe a tease – and then that was shot down. Why? Well, Titan.

We knew too much about Titan, if you ask Blizzard. Knowing it existed at all, having hype for a product with no information available – this was an issue for Blizzard, and since it was cancelled, the issue it started remains. If Blizzard announced and showcased the Fenris-codenamed Diablo IV, then it would satiate a lot of players, but if that project were to be cancelled, like the Hades project, or even the early version of Diablo III was, then, well, what would that say? It was too risky to even tease, since the direction was not final, and a lot of questions about the project loomed.

So, they didn’t say anything other than the vague promise of more Diablo games in development, while showcasing the further-along Immortal. Oh no. But many of us had the genuine question – “how much is this game detracting from Diablo IV?”

The Incubator Team, And Blizzard’s Focus On Mobile

The answer to that question is not much at all. Blizzard has, in response to the industry moving towards Mobile gaming, has launched an Incubator team, where many of their most talented developers have moved, including returning co-founder Allen Adham, who leads the team.

The focus of the Incubator team is small team projects, with a focus on quick, iterative launches. The genesis of this team was in Hearthstone’s launch, a game which was made on a shoestring budget with existing middleware tools and assets available from an existing franchise. Hearthstone has become a massive success for Blizzard and led to copycats coming from all variety of other companies (Gwent from CD Projekt Red, Artifact from Valve, and more).

The word is that many of Blizzard’s top developers now belong to this team. Cory Stockton, once a lead designer on WoW, is now a part of this team. Tom Chilton is likely a part of this team, after having left WoW during Legion. But why are they here? Are they being pushed to this team by the higher-ups?

Well…no.

Think about Blizzard’s development processes – many studios work for 2-5 years on a project, but Blizzard’s teams work much longer. The Titan team worked on that project for effectively 7 years prior to cancellation. Diablo III was in the works for nearly 10 years. Starcraft II was in development for 7 years before initial launch, and another 6 past that point. Heroes of the Storm was conceived of as Blizzard DOTA and worked on for nearly 6 years before launch. WoW was developed for 5 years before seeing the light of day, and has been maintained for 14 years since.

The burnout for anyone, making the same product for a double-digit number of years, can be straining. While many of these projects are massive successes that any of us would want to have tied to our names, at the same time, the desire in a creative mind is often to work on something new and different, which is not always satisfied by moving on to an expansion or gameplay shift.

And thus, the incubator team. Diablo Immortal is the first publicly seen project from this team, made with a small Blizzard team in collaboration with NetEase, focused on a quick turn-around and rapid release. The team supposedly has projects around every Blizzard franchise in the works, and the Kotaku piece puts forward a WoW mobile game with singleplayer components. These projects may seem dubiously motivated, but the employees who spoke with Jason Schreier made clear that these are projects that the people on this team want to work on and make – with the commercial viability of mobile being a side-benefit.

Now, I want to see more about this before sounding the alarm, and I feel a need to clarify something I think about this whole mess – mobile isn’t bad. Diablo Immortal is not an announcement that has angered me, and I don’t think it is inherently bad. It is disappointing, given the hype going into Blizzcon 2018. It is further disappointing given that the gameplay of the title is not close to the depth of Diablo, at least not in the demo shown at Blizzcon 2018. However, it could be good, and the WoW project could be good too. I’m not intent on writing off any of these projects just because they are small-team mobile titles, and I would encourage you to try them before writing them off. Having said that, I’ve written off Diablo Immortal for myself because of that gameplay, not because it is mobile. It could be Diablo-deep on that platform, but the team has chosen to not keep that depth there. Coupled with the fact that it offers new lore, and I feel a sense of disappointment with it. It is a game I will not likely play much of, and as a result, I’ll be missing out on some of that lore.

But these titles are not inherently bad. However, Blizzard has saddled this team with a weight due to the handling of the Blizzcon festivities this year, and the reality is that our first impression of this team is always going to be the lackluster reveal of Diablo Immortal and the tone-deaf replies of the development team at Blizzard to dissatisfaction over the title. Even if everything else the team makes is solid gold, original Blizzard quality, it will always have to jump over the tremendous hurdle this announcement has placed in the way.

The Non-Game Discussion – Business Culture and Devolution at Blizzard

So the remaining point to discuss about the Kotaku expose is the following – what about Blizzard’s culture might be turning negative? The answer circles back to our first point of discussion – Activision. There are signs that point to the idea that Activision has taken a more active role in managing Blizzard, and this is contributing to an environmental decline at Blizzard. A new CFO in Amrita Ahuja, a former employee at Activision, delivered an unexpected note at the Blizzard Battle Plan meeting in Spring 2018 – the company was aiming to save money.

This was new to a company that had largely focused on delivering an enjoyable play experience, costs be damned, and so this shift in focus was an alarm bell for many. 2018 has been, for Activision, a soft year, as Destiny 2 failed to deliver the engagement expected and the monthly active users across all franchises, Blizzard included. And while Blizzard delivered a strong 2016, with Overwatch doing over 1 billion dollars in revenue alongside the strong launch of Legion and a handful of Hearthstone expansions, their 2017 and 2018 were relatively weak, as the only new products shipped were Rise of the Necromancer for Diablo III, Starcraft: Remastered, and Battle for Azeroth, alongside the additional expected Hearthstone expansions and patches for their other games. While these products did relatively well, they did not deliver the results of Blizzard’s stellar 2016.

In that context, it makes sense, to a degree. Activision Blizzard as a full entity had been suffering over 2018, and its stock had taken a hit in October on the quarterly earnings announcement. As a publicly-traded company, they do have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to push a higher quarterly result.

However, ultimately, the right way for Blizzard  has never been penny pinching. The company has succeeded by freeing developers to do their best work and deliver it when ready, making the environment around them as fun and freeing as possible. Suddenly, there was a cost pressure tied to action, a push to show growth in Blizzard’s franchises, and then, in the fall of 2018, another big change at Blizzard.

Unexpectedly, Mike Morhaime was gone.

The announcement was unexpected in the gaming community, and it seems to have been somewhat unexpected within Blizzard as well. J Allen Brack, executive producer of WoW, was stepping into his shoes, a good choice, but still, worrying.

The environment described by Schreier paints something familiar to those who have worked under strong corporate cultures before – changes can often be sudden and quick, but often are gradual and slow-shifting, and fear of the changes can often exacerbate these effects.

After all, even if Activision isn’t involved much, knowing that the new CFO is from Activision and Mike Morhaime, advocate of fun game creation and respect for community, is gone – you might think twice about the decisions you’re making at a lower level, pushing out fun in favor of investor-friendly monetization and faster content releases. The fear of what might be happening leads to it actually happening – and the result strangles the creative output of the studio.

In Summary – Blizzard Is Changing, But For What Cause?

Ultimately, while it would be easy to look at this and buy into the fear that Blizzard is becoming Activision more than it is serving its roots, is that the case? I don’t think it is – not yet, at least.

Sure, to be fair, it does appear that at least more influence is being pushed onto the team at Blizzard. Some developers have publicly and privately claimed to be leaving Blizzard due to the influence of Activision, as quoted in Schreier’s piece. The quality of Blizzard’s recent releases has been…questionable, and certainly not to the studio’s pedigree. Relations with the company and the community around it seem strained to a degree not before seen. Fans complain loudly about the state of the franchises they love, and engagement seems to be down. It’s hard to see Activision complaining that Destiny 2 is not good enough at a time when its fanbase is happy with the state of the game and not think, “is that what they want for WoW too?” Then there is the tone-deaf nature of the initial response to Diablo Immortal from the developers, and all of it together paints a pretty damning picture.

And yet, I find reason to be optimistic, at least partially. BfA was not the expansion we wanted it to be, and yet, 8.1 aims to correct many of the missteps of 8.0 – albeit a bit too late. Blizzard has confirmed now that there will be multiple additional Diablo projects announced in 2019. The Overwatch and Hearthstone teams largely continue to deliver good news on their projects. Heroes of the Storm continues on with a strong, simpler take on the MOBA genre. The Classic Games team is bringing us Warcraft III Reforged, which is satisfying to both fans and profit-hungry business people!

Blizzard has had a rough couple of years, undoubtedly. Had they not cancelled the second Diablo III expansion, we’d probably have a much different tone of Immortal. Had BfA implemented some of the beta feedback earlier and focused on some other gameplay improvements, it would have done better. Missteps and fuckups have lined the recent history of Blizzard.

But yet, in many ways, there is hope. There are still core original team members there. J Allen Brack is a Blizzard veteran with respect for the ways in which the company has run things in the past. The early word on Diablo IV fills me with promise, in that it sounds like an excellent continuation of the franchise with new ideas implemented well. The WoW team is pushing hard to improve the core of BfA, although time will tell how 8.1.5 and beyond will do in this regard.

And so, I find myself wary of what Blizzard may become, but optimistic that the team that has made much of my favorite entertainment will dig themselves out of this mess.

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5 thoughts on “Blizzard In The Present – The Creeping Influence Of Activision?

  1. This was a good read, thank you.
    I wonder at the impact of the anticipation that e-sports will be big, very big and the collaboration with China — meaning, it feels like that desire is creeping into WoW with the MDI and the designs to that end. If esports becomes as big as expected, Blizz wants to be in on it fast, right?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think Blizzard was an early pioneer of eSports by accident, given the history of Starcraft and especially Brood War in South Korea, but they weren’t directly involved in much of that. They only really started coming around sharply on it after League of Legends blew up in the West – once they saw a global audience for it, you can see their focus shifting sharply. At this point, nearly everything they make has an eSports component or two, in WoWs case, and they are pushing to keep people engaged with their games in this way – it’s easier to sucker someone into playing WoW again if they can see fun-looking PvE timed runs and the action of arena, even if they don’t stay for long. I imagine nearly everything they make in the future is going to be eSports integrated, and I would expect that this will include new projects and even new IPs.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I didn´t know Titan ended up costing so much time and money. Gosh. Thanks for the insight and break down on this post, I appreciate that 🙂 I´d chip in, but I´m not sure what exactly to say, since we do not know things for sure. I just hope for the best in the future. The next year and expansion of WoW will be groundbreaking, I fear/sense, given such a shift in leadership.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words as always! 🙂

      I’m of two minds on the current state of WoW. On the one hand, negatively, this is probably the worst launch they’ve ever had and it really calls into question a lot of what they’re doing. The game, for a variety of issues, caused a lot of people to turn away, whether boredom, frustration, or some combination of issues, and it feels like Blizzard has been pretty quiet on these issues.

      On the other hand, I remember early Legion was kind of bad in a way too – not to the same extent, but still, it was not great, as people were grinding endless Maw of Souls on M+ and burning out, but at least it wasn’t boredom. Having said that, I look at what happened with Legion as a template – even with the current state of the game, the potential exists that BfA could be turned around. How much and how well, is up to the team, but it’s definitely possible and I sure hope they do!

      The Titan cost was a fun factoid to research – there’s not much data out about it but what is out there activates a lot of interesting ideas for me. There were mentions it was for recruiting employees, using a non-warcraft/starcraft/diablo game as a way to get new developers in-house, and that idea makes me wonder how serious they were about actually shipping it. I might write more about that concept in the future, but it is fascinating how much of modern Blizzard’s behavior can be traced back to what is effectively trauma over Titan.

      Like

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