For a company that has dominated certain genres in gaming Blizzard has come a long way, from Lost Vikings and Rock and Roll Racing to World of Warcraft.
Blizzard in its early days was synonym to community minded and therefore responsible for some of the greatest games ever, stealing the hearts of many gamers and building an everlasting relationship with its fans. Somehow over the years they lost that magic, that Blizzard touch.
Before you read any further, this is not a blog about trashing Blizzard even though that’s the new hip thing to do. Since the Warlords of Draenor one patch only expansion gaffe they get all the rage. No, this one has been on my mind for a while now.
Before I can explain why this change hurts so much, I have to take you all the way back to 1991. So sit down and take notes, because I’ll be asking questions later.
In 1991 three young whippersnappers fresh out of UCLA with each a bachelor degree started a video game company called Silicon & Synapse. A name that was associated with plastic surgery too many times to be funny. They ported some games, battle chess 2 (a game I actually played not knowing I will be hooked on one of their creations 20 years later) and a Lord of the rings game.
For another company called Interplay they developed two games called Lost Vikings: a puzzle game where you control 3 vikings and solve puzzles, and Rock and Roll Racing: a top down racing game. In most racing games the car seems to be in one position on your screen, mainly the middle as the track is the part that is moving, but they had the track stationary and the cars where the moving particles. A new take on a genre that has been around before the era of videogames.
In those days they had a lot of money problems, every month they had to turn the couch upside down to find some dimes to pay their staff. But they understood they were working with a vision, so money didn’t matter to most of them. In 1994 in pursuit to be out of money problems they struck a deal with Davidson and Associates.
A company mostly known for there educational games. Dubbing their company Chaos industry – although this didn’t last long as the wife of the owner didn’t like the Chaos part. Therefore after a good old brainstorm session they came up with Blizzard entertainment. They made two games prior to their big hit. Although Blackthorn is one of my favorites, Blizzard will be remembered for Warcraft: Orcs vs Humans. It released in 1994 and changed everything.
A way to the top
Warcraft was a screaming success. A sequel arrived only a year later: Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, which had an expansion a year after that, something not happening often in 1996. In the same year they acquired a small company called Condor Games which were making a RPG game for them called Diablo. They dubbed the studio Blizzard North.
In 1997 they released The Lost Vikings 2 and in 1998 the world saw the first incarnation of Starcraft. The Lost Vikings 2 was the last “different” IP Blizzard would touch in over 17 years. From that moment on they would be a 3 Game franchise company.
Drums of war
Lets fast forward to the year 2003, Blizzard has made a household name for itself in 3 different game franchises.
- Fantasy RTS game-series called Warcaft, their latest release of Warcraft 3 is genre defining. An Epic story telling RTS game, often copied, never equalled.
- Space RTS game-series called Starcraft. Starcraft is one of the founders of E-sports.
- Gothic fantasy game-series called Diablo, with Diablo 2 as the front runner.
Diablo 2 was accompanied with their online platform called battle.net which formed the way for their Magnum Opus, and the Warcraft 3 expansion: the frozen throne laid down the story for their greatest game to date.
World of Warcraft
In 2004 the world of video games changed. With the release of WoW and its immense popularity blizzard had created the goose with the golden eggs. For the next 7 years they only developed expansions for World of Warcraft, with wrath of the lich king as their most successful one hitting the most subscribers ever, after that their subscribers slowly declined.
A deal with the devil.
Without going in to deep with the whole corporate takeover/merging/stockholder non sexy mumbo jumbo, it went along the lines as followed.
Blizzard was acquired by Vivendi in 1996 and Vivendi was merged with Activision in 2007, dubbing itself Activision Blizzard. Then later they split themselves from Vivendi by buying them out in 2013. This was necessary because on paper Vivendi still owned all the rights of all the games Blizzard is now making big money with. Thus making Activision Blizzard an independent company owned for 25% by Robert (Two-face) Kotick who is also the sitting CEO of Activision Blizzard.
Although Blizzard Entertainment claims that it always has had its autonomy, and its own board of directors. One can’t deny the evil that is Kotick.
Robert Kotick is a conundrum of a being, his PR side claims that he loves games, he even has a video game console collection. He preaches for “an institutional quality, well managed company with a focus on the independent developer.” and “Part of the whole philosophy of Activision was whether you’re owned outright or not, if you’re a studio you have control of your destiny, you could make decisions about who to hire, flexibility on what products to make, how to make them, schedules appropriate to make them, budgets.” Which all sounds like a pretty good deal for developers making games under the wing of Activision. They can follow their dreams and passion, and not pure a product. He even pressured Sony into lowering its Playstation 3 price by stating he wouldn’t make any games for their console, if they didn’t do what he want. Sounds a little like blackmail to me, but hey, at least we got cheaper consoles!
Kotick has launched an Independent Games Competition with $500,000 in total available prize money for small developers working with new platforms and has stated that “keeping passion in game development is something that’s important to him”
This character is the Kotick he likes us to see. A driven business man with a gaming heart.
Too bad he has a corporate shadow side. Let me take you back to 2010. There was a company called Infinity Ward, the founder of the now totally milked Call of Duty Franchise. On March 1, Activision reported that two senior employees of Infinity Ward were being fired due to “Breaches of contract and insubordination”.
Jason West (Infinity ward president, co-CCO, and CTO) and Vince Zampella (CEO and co-founder of infinity ward) edited their linkedIn profiles to list Infinity ward as their former employer. Turns out that Jason and Vince had a meeting with the Activision staff and the meeting ended with the arrival of security guards at the studio.
On March the 2nd Kotick adressed the Infinity ward employees. What he said remains unknown till this day. Throughout April and May 2010 almost half of the remaining IW employees resigned, among them lead designers and programmers who worked on Modern Warfare 2. All of them have declined to comment on their reasons for leaving.
On March the 4th West and Zampella filed a lawsuit against Activision.
It was reported that IW has not received royalties from the sales of CoD: MW2, and that the developer may have breached their contract with Activision by holding meetings with other video game publishers including EA. This was revealed to be the reason for their firing. In the month leading up to their leaving, Activision had already hired lawyers to investigate them. Assuming that West and Zampella brought up the lack of royalties, and there for setting the stage of their expulsion. They started asking questions and as a result they were fired.
Other employees formed the Infinity ward employee group.
They filed a lawsuit against Activision for withholding bonuses for their work on MW2. The lawsuit alleges that Activision withheld compensation from the plaintiffs in order to force them to stay and work on Modern Warfare 3. This was settled in a payment of 42 million dollars. The claim was 75 – 125 million.
In 2012, Robert Bowling makes his departure and stated the following:
“Today, I resign from my position as Creative Strategist of Call of Duty, as a lead of Infinity Ward, and as an employee of Activision”
Bowling allegedly left because he was unhappy with the slow evolution of the game, as he responded with “Too much ‘pew pew’ not enough new new”. Also a sign of disagreement between Bowling and IW arose in a live interview with Machinima”: “I feel like we are in a fucking era where everyone is so focused on subscriber numbers and all that stuff that we need to get back to what I feel like we did so much better in the old days of just plain good will, like stuff like the LAN patch, yeah it is lower priority but let’s get it out the fucking door. Let’s just do it.”
West and Zampella and their 38 followers formed a game studio called Respawn Entertainment, and right out of the bat they made Titanfall, a huge hit!
So that is Robert Kotick people, the man who pulls the strings at Blizzard. There is a huge gap between Kotick and his customers, for someone who is claiming to play games, he managed to show that in a very shitty way. Or as the great Tim Schafer has stated: Kotick “doesn’t have to be as much of a dick” in his attitude towards Activision’s customers.
Now you may wonder.. why does this article about Blizzard involve a scandalous history of Infinity ward and Activision. Well this is warning for what can happen if you do not dance to the tunes of Kotick. Yeah for the outside world we make you believe you have some form of freedom. But on the inside we only care about more money. Which brings me to my next point…
Milking cashcows to their last cottage cheese.
Kotick has at times been a controversial figure in the gaming community. In part this can be attributed to advocating a business strategy focused on only developing intellectual property which can be, in his words, “exploited” over a long period, to the exclusion of new titles which cannot guarantee sequels. In responding to why Activision Blizzard chose not to publish certain games following the Activision/Blizzard merger, he stated that focusing on franchises that “have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential and have the potential to become $100 million franchises” has “worked very well for Activision Blizzard”. Kotick described this business strategy as “narrow and deep” or “annualizable” and cited it as key to attracting development talent who may not be drawn to “speculative franchises”. How far away is that statement from his “Part of the whole philosophy of Activision was whether you’re owned outright or not, if you’re a studio you have control of your destiny, you could make decisions about who to hire, flexibility on what products to make, how to make them, schedules appropriate to make them, budgets.” quote?
Where will you attract development talent? The whole TALENT part in that sentence can be removed.
Come work at Activistion where you can make the same shit over and over. You don’t need talent for that, you only need your pink and index finger to make the Ctrl-C -> Ctrl-V manoeuvre.
And this is exactly what we see Blizzard is doing to their games now.
World of Warcraft will be milked to dust. They’re already talking about every year a new expansion model and every year the amount of stuff you can buy in the ingame store grows larger. The huge marketing for WoD turns out to be complete bullshit. More features than ever were cut from final product and they even changed the story mid-expansion. Building up from the Iron Horde as a real threat with Grommash Hellscream being a complete douche bag conquering the planet and mass murdering Draenei, to somehow between the two “major” content patches, we free the same Grommash who got captured by the Burning Legion and after we defeat those Grommash yells “We’re free!!! And everybody cheers for him. Wait what? LAAAAAAMEEEEEE!
And then there’s Starcraft 2, where you have to buy 3 separate games to finish the story. A story which could fit into one game. Why would you do this Blizzard? Why not give us all the story for the price of one game?
Heroes of the storm will be a micro transactions clusterfuck, much like
Hearthstone. Hearthstone started as a side project but after initial success it is already filled with micro transactions model. You want card packs faster than the rest? Then you have to pay up. Most of them are worthless, but there can be a good card in them. You want to have a different portrait, which by the way has no influence on the game whatsoever, you better pay up.
Diablo 3 started with a real money auction house. Where you could pay real money for an item. Earning Blizzard a portion in the process. Although this eventually backfired and nearly destroyed the game so they had to take it out.
You see Blizzard had a problem in Diablo 2 with a shady black market, where players could buy gear. You could say they foiled the purpose of the game. Why grind for 4 hours, if you can buy it from a shady Chinese speaking loon. How do you solve this, is what they should have had asked themselves, instead of : “You know what the problem is with this Black market, we don’t make any money from it” so let’s build a real money auction house. It made it completely redundant to play the game. Where you should be punching Diablo in the balls, you now played the “lets browse all of this spreadsheet shit looking for the cheapest deal”. And with the low drop rate from vanilla Diablo 3 it was extremely discouraging to grind for 5 hours for that legendary weapon, only to find out there were 500 copies on the AH for only 5 dollars.
This was all figured out rather quickly after the launch. But somehow they let it ride for over 2 years. Diablo 3 went from highly anticipated game to… boring stock market exchange simulator.
And all I could think of was: “Why are you letting this happen?”
These games are your children, and you let them be exploited… how can you as a game developer look yourself in the mirror every night.
Probably because you can see the reflection of a huge pile of cash.
The bleak future.
The problems I have with Blizzard is that lots of money doesn’t seem to please them. Along the way since 1992 they transformed from geeks with a passion for games, to corporate douche bags with a passion for money, more money to be precise. The most insulting is that not only they believe the bullshit they are spreading, but they expect you to not only believe it, but pay for it. WoD had an increased price for an expansion, and it brought less to the table. How I long for the days that Blizzard said: “Alright fans! We are making a game called [title here] we only release it when it is very, very good.”
That philosophy is nowhere to be found in present day Blizzard.
That’s why I can only say that Blizzard is dead. Something killed it a long time ago, and its walking around in its skin as if its wearing a Blizzard suit.
I predict we are going to see more meaningless titles, with less real challenging content, more micro transaction bullshit, more promising market campaigns that result into false promises and cut content after millions of people pre-ordered it already.
Overwatch fits this scheme perfectly, the first FPS game for Blizzard entertainment. Why does a company that excels at making the greatest RPG and RTS games out there feels the need to make a first person shooter is beyond me. Especially since it is a hero oriented shooter that most likely will be “free” and you will probably be able to buy different characters, different outfits and all kinds of doodads. Get your wallets out there’s a free game coming!
Of course… Blizzard has done it again. After weeks of research and coming up with a legit reason to hate Blizzard. They won me over with, for me at least, the most anticipated expansion to date. World of Warcraft : Legion. As if they have access to our blog concept messages and my brain.
After seeing the announcement, even when little is known it seems they have their groove back. That means a game tailored by listening to their fans. Yet again I am hooked.. even though trouble is on the horizon. Let’s hope they can deliver.