Blizzard Studios: A story about former glory

When it comes to the name Blizzard, warm and very nostalgic feelings were my steady companions. Beloved franchises like Warcraft 1-3, Starcraft 1-2 and Diablo 1-2 (intentionally skipping over part 3 – more on that later) will always have a place of honor in my heart, and that hasn’t changed until today. Originally founded in 1991 “Blizzard Entertainment” left a huge impression in the world of gaming. Their motto of “gameplay first” was paired with an extreme sense of quality, and buyers of their games were sure to get something that not only was nearly bug-free, but also polished in both production quality and content.

Back in 1994 Warcraft 1 competed with the graphically superior Dune 2 from 2 years earlier. However it set the groundwork for Multiplayer RTS gaming and pioneered for the rich Warcraft lore we know today.

Warcraft 2 hugely innovated in both graphical ways and in terms of RTS interface handling. The opening cutcene back then was groundbreaking (not so much today).

With their first game: “Warcraft: Orcs&Humans” released in 1994, Blizzard Entertainment started their winning streak of great games for the PC market with an amazing 300.000 units sold. Their first real breakthrough on all fronts however was “Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness” in 1995, with gleaming reviews accross the board and a fantastic Multiplayer mode. 3 Million units in sold back in 2001 acted as proof that innovation and quality are not mutually exclusive, drawing many fans into the now renowned Warcraft universe. With the very, very good expansion “Warcraft 2: Beyond the Dark Portal” in 1996 Blizzard brought a huge and affordably priced package that it was closer to being a full game than anything else.

The glory days

Blizzard followed up upon their initial successes and continued to deliver success after success. 1998 was dominated by the “StarCraft” release, being one of the first space RTS with 3 completely different factions (Terrans, Zerg and Protoss). Two (!) great addons further established this dominance within the same year, adding increasing complexity while still maintaining near-perfect balance between the 3 races. With more than 11 Million copies sold over the first 10 years, Starcraft built a huge following in Korea that plays the game professionally and in public TV until today

 

But let’s not forget that Blizzard could also deliver other things than just strategy. “Diablo” (1998) hugely innovated the dungeon crawler genre, helping to define what would be today’s “Action-Adventure” standard with loot quality, action bar, hero classes and many many more staples that define the whole genre today. The dark and eerie atmosphere of Diablo gave it a very distinct look and feel that is hardly matched by any similar games today. And a total of 2.5 million copies sold show that people really liked what Blizzard had to offer.

Diablo set a new dungeon-crawler standard with its dark and intimidating atmosphere.

 

The classes in Diablo 2 felt very distinct and varied to play. The talent and loot system was just as complex but masterfully combined it with very accessible controls.

At this point I shouldn’t forget to mention the sequel’s huge success: “Diablo 2” (2000) was a fan favorite with over 17 million copies sold! Not only did it hugely innovate towards the predecessor (800×600 resolution towards the previous 640×480), five different character classes, lots of talent complexity and much more diversified rare loot established a game that has a followership until today. Many fans (myself included) still state that Diablo 2 is unmatched until today, with part 3 not even getting close in terms of mood and quality of entertainment. The “Diablo: Lord of Destruction” (2001) 1st-party addon was regarded as one of the best in the whole industry, adding two additional classes and much more content to an already large game.

 

The ongoing standard in the industry

Following up on its previous successes, Blizzard delivered “Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos” (2002), which wasn’t as popular as the other brands, but still getting a formidable 3 million copies sold Much more importantly however it also further cemented Blizzard’s capability to tell great story with amazing cinematic visuals. The Warcraft 3 intro still is one of the most memorable until today, which is why I’m giving it a special place here in this old blog:

Warcraft 3 was one of my all-time favorites in the real time strategy genre and is unbeaten until today. Not only did it innovate with now four (!) completely different races to play, but introduced complex hero ability and item management to the game. A powerful editor came alongside the game, which later resulted in hugely successful fan modifications such as “Defense of the Ancients” (D.O.T.A). The whole “MOBA” genre alone was created thanks to this powerful modification engine, resulting in hugely successful games such as Riot’s: “League of Legends”, Valve’s “DOTA2” or Blizzards own brand: “Heroes of the Storm” which act as echo of the Warcraft-universe up until today. While the game hasn’t ever reached the huge success of the Starcraft or Diablo franchise, fans still get treated with an upcoming Warcraft 3 remake called “Warcraft 3: Reforged” which clearly shows that the Warcraft game installments are far away from dying out.

When WoW was new, exploring the world and planning your travel was part of the process. Fast travel and only few points of interest ruined a lot of this flair.

Quite the contrary: by releasing “World of Warcraft” in 2004, Blizzard singlehandedly killed any competition and dominated the MMO gaming market for a solid decade. The game was so addictive that even big brands such as Warhammer or Lord of the Rings stood no chance against 15 million simultaneous players and over 100 million registered accounts until today. To say that “WoW” has defined a decade of gaming is an understatement, as the game is still going 5-million player strong as of 2018. With now seven active expansions, and numerous revisions of the graphical engine “World of Warcraft” followed the Zeitgeist of gaming and established Blizzard as one of the biggest players on the market.

Unfortunately that fame also attracted people with money that only had one further intent: to make more money. Entry: Activison.

The slow fall of a huge giant

After the merger with Activision in 2008 (thus forming “Activison Blizzard”  – I’ll keep it at “Blizzard” for simplicity) a new direction was becoming more and more visible: “Gameplay” obviously wasn’t put first anymore. Blizzard as a company has become so huge that decisions and consequences weren’t as simple and easy to follow anymore – both for fans and developers alike. Each following World of Warcraft addon was clearly drifting away from what players wanted. While the “Wrath of the Lich King” (2008) was regarded as one of the best Addons for WoW, the followup “WoW: Cataclysm” (2010) was the first addon of which fans weren’t unanimously agreeing about anymore. Ongoing discussions in Chats and Forums underlined what the statistics said: The game was bleeding out players quickly.

In order to pick up those dwindling player numbers Blizzard went for an simplified gameplay direction to meet a wider audience. The problem with that was: many old players (myself included) were with the game since 2004 and didn’t agree with those changes. In consequence, WoW development underwent a very “widespread” range of quality and was losing public media focus very quickly for the first time in over 5 years of market dominance. And it wasn’t just numbers: Blizzard drastically changed it’s face towards the consumer, starting to charge fees for all sorts of additional services in WoW: server transfers, mounts, gold, faction changes – a lot of things were done to appease the masses, but also had that distinct taste of capitalism that seemed to slowly overtake the main factor that defined Blizzard games to this date: fun.

Real money, real fun?

If there has been any doubt about Blizzard’s new way of doing business, the release of Diablo 3 (2012) made it pretty clear that the winds have changed. With an unprecedented 30 million units sold, Diablo 3 was a unprecedentedly long-awaited sequel – namely twelve long years. Needless to say that fan expectations were as high as they can get. People expected Blizzard-level quality of service, and coming from a company that manages one of the biggest MMOs of the world, people were not prepared for what greeted them:

And there was no avoiding that infamous screenshot. Diablo 3 was “always online“, a very unknown concept back in that time and completely out of question in Diablo 2 As one of its main reasons, Blizzard justified the decision with “anti-cheating” (to add server-client synchronization of inventory) which was abundant in Diablo 2’s multiplayer. However, people had a choice to play offline back then, and most of them did.  So behind this “always online” decision of Blizzard was a much MUCH larger intent: Blizzard introduced a real money auction house with Diablo 3. That’s right: people were able to sell in-game items for for real currency, with Blizzard always taking a cut from the sale. This was to counteract a huge Ebay-Black-market that flourished back in the D2-times.

The real money auction house was subject to a lot of controversy in Diablo 3 as you could quite literally pay for power.

Needless to say that this decision had a very stale aftertaste: all of a sudden the loot in Diablo 3 didn’t feel “special” anymore, as you could just go into the auction house and buy upgrades. Adding to this feeling, loot didn’t feel as special anymore and in addition seemed to be dropping not in favor for the player’s hero-class. This alone was opening Blizzard up for a lot of criticism, having manipulated the game to nudge the player into using the auction house. A huge player uproar ensued, leading to the late but eventual closure of the auction house in march 2014, a whole two years after the game’s initial release! As loot was heavily modified afterwards it clearly showed that a design intent was indeed made around the auction house.

To add to this not very flattering picture, Diablo 3 was very fluid and streamlined to play – evil tongues could say that all distinct features that made Diablo 2 so great where sandblasted away. Gone where the dark areas or claustrophic designs – Diablo 3 was very colorful, vibrant and action-oriented. Its mechanics were lacking huge amounts of depth and complexity that fans knew and loved from twelve years back. The story and universe wasn’t expanded upon, yet even felt like it would fit on a small sheet of paper. Diablo 3 relied heavily on established adversaries and settings which a lot of fans regarded as a clear downgrade towards Diablo 2.

And what was most remarkable: a lot of the former polish and “Blizzard” support seemed to be missing. The base game was very quick to finish, and while a solid core was there, the game hasn’t received any major expansions except for “Reaper of Souls” in 2014 and one additional class which cost an additional fee. This felt very different to what fans were used to get, especially with so many big addons being released for other Blizzard titles in the last decade. Gone where the times of big expansions, making way for “services” and micropayments instead. A cynical mind might even conclude that Diablo 3 – even with 30 million units shipped – has suddenly stopped being financially interesting after the auction house debacle and thus the support was concluded.

With Diablo 3 Activision Blizzard has shown a different face to its fans. The face of profit! One can only speculate how bug the influence of the Activision merger is behind this. 

The Blizzard of today

Heavily relying on gambling addiction / lottery mechanics, loot boxes are still a point of debate as of today. However their economical success cannot be denied…

This brings us to the time of today, a time of modern business practices. Enter: “Overwatch” (2016), selling over 40 million copies as of today. It’s solid proof that Blizzard can do very good shooters. It’s a team-focused game that felt very close to Valve’s “Team Fortress 2”, but with much a vibrant colorful design and (stylized, sexualized) characters that appeal to a wide audience – a game for the masses. However it’s not Overwatch I’m going to look at at this point – it’s the business practice of selling people cosmetics in loot boxes that the game made “presentable” overnight. Blizzard likes to argument that these come “optional” however refuses to mention that much older games with similar “unlockable” cosmetics used to have these as either direct purchases, as allowed fan modifications or progress-tied mechanic.

While the whole loot box controversy is still ongoing – some countries now have accepted it as “gambling” and treat it as such – it should be mentioned that this is one more step into the direction of treating the customer just ever so slightly worse than before. Selling additional content in games is absolutely fine, however this example shows that you’re not selling a product, but a “chance” to get any product – just not the one you originally intended to get. And while skins in Overwatch are completely optional – and sure – cosmetic, they are a big part of the game’s progression, as the whole act of “leveling” an account is tied to loot boxes.

At this point you can think of this what you want. Your mileage with “accepting” these conditions as a new standard of today may vary, but there is no denying that the amount of content you get for your money has decreased once more, especially when you compare it to the early “expansion pack” glory days of Blizzard. I hope we can agree on that one?

How to train your audience

So, all new and modern business politics aside – how is Blizzard handling its audience today? From my point of view (mainly playing Heroes of the Storm atm) it’s still “OK”. Interaction with developers could be more frequent on forums and Reddit, but overall the player feedback is heard and worked upon.

However for the Diablo fans out there – well let’s say after my feedback on Diablo 3 above I didn’t expect much myself, but was still amazed about how badly Blizzard handled the announcement of upcoming Diablo installments. On the recent Blizzcon event (2-3 of November) they present their newest content to a large – mainly PC focused – gaming audience. And they were coming forth with this little “mobile gaming” nugget:

I feel sorry for the person having to announce this. This scene shows us a very disconnected Blizzard, that is not even understanding the fan reactions. A later Q&A followed that even brought up the fan question of this being a “out of date April fool’s joke” – ouch! People went wild against the new “Diablo Immortal” trailer because it doesn’t only evade the subject of additional content for Diablo 3, but even teases a game that has been outsourced and very obviously catered towards an Asian market. The reaction on the Youtube trailer was accordingly:

This was hours after the trailer was put online. And how did Blizzard react to this?

  • Original trailer removed, which had 300.000 downvotes at this point
  • Trailer re-uploaded in “Private” and linked from the official page
  • Stating that the game is “build from the ground up” until fans have proven that it is being developed by and outsourced to a Chinese company that already has several games like this on the market
  • In terms of quality the game is described as “stale” and “a reskin” by fans, thus lacking the obvious Blizzard grade of quality at this point

As I stated above, I already don’t expect much out of the Diablo franchise at this point. However, what really baffles me at this point is how Blizzard is handling the damage control. They invited hundreds of fans to an in-house convention event, for which they payed quite a lot of money for, just to announce them a mobile game, six years after the previous Diablo 3 release. The fun bit: According to interviews they have other Diablo content in the making, but failed to mention it at the one moment where it most mattered.

A better way of handling this would’ve been to silently announce the mobile on the website without insulting fans of “the old times” with something they do not want, while basically telling them to “accept it and get with the times”. It’s a very curious situation  – a developer that will obviously aim for a lucrative mobile market using an attractive brand as their workhorse. It’s a model for financial success, but one that has the increasing risk of losing the base of your consumers that made your company successful in the first place.


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