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 extremely keen sense of quality. 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. This standard of high quality was not a small thing. It was kept up more than 20 years, and almost unbeaten in the whole gaming industry – which is quite a feat considering the the wide sea of PC hardware configurations out there.

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, a huge success back in the day. Their first real breakthrough on all fronts however was “Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness” in 1995, with gleaming reviews across 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 extremely well-recieved expansion “Warcraft 2: Beyond the Dark Portal” in 1996 Blizzard added an affordably-priced package that it was closer to being a full game than anything else. It set the bar for future games to come, and barely any other company could compete in both attention to detail as well as level of quality.

The glory days

And Blizzard didn’t rest on early laurels, continuing 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) that made even the big competitors Command and Conquer / Dune 2 pale in comparison. Two great addons further established 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 that lasted for decades. In Korea the game even got dedicated TV channels just to showcase for professional play, and Starcraft 1 even endured the success of Starcraft 2 in terms of raw player base thanks to a near perfect balance in competitive matches.

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 more game design staples that define the whole genre today. The dark and eerie atmosphere of Diablo gave it a very distinct look and feel that felt genre-defining up until today. And total of 2.5 million copies sold show that people really liked what Blizzard had to offer, even with the game being more niche than Starcraft.

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). Diablo 2 also added five very distinct character classes, lots of lore, more talent complexity and much more diversified rare loot. It established a fan followership that still considers it the best Diablo today. 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 Craft of War

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. Please enjoy:

Warcraft 3 was one of my all-time favorites in the real-time strategy genre and is still unmatched in style and balance 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 graphical editor came alongside the game, which resulted in hugely successful fan modifications such as “Defense of the Ancients” (D.O.T.A). Thanks to the powerful editor, the whole “MOBA” (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre , resulting in hugely successful modern day games such as Riot’s: “League of Legends”, Valve’s “DOTA2” or Blizzards own free-to-play installment: “Heroes of the Storm“. While Warcraft 3 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 universe is still far, far away from dying.

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” (WoW) in 2004, Blizzard singlehandedly dropped a gaming bomb on the world. The game literally killed any MMO-competition and dominated the market for a solid decade. The game was so addictive that even big brands such as Warhammer 40k or even Lord of the Rings stood no chance against 15 million simultaneous players and over 100 million registered accounts in total. 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. If you are interested in WoW, make sure to read my related article on that one!

The huge success of World of Warcraft and the public fame that came with it almost singlehandedly helped PC gaming to get out of its niche role. But unfortunately, this sudden mass-appeal also attracted people with money that only had one further intent: to make even more money.

Entry: Activison.

The slow fall of a huge giant

After the merger with Activision in 2008 (thus forming “Activison Blizzard”  – I’ll stick with “Blizzard” for simplicity) a new direction was becoming more and more visible: “Gameplay” obviously wasn’t put “first” anymore, also because said merger came with stock market implications. Alongside to the huge success of WoW, Blizzard’s portfolio has now become so huge that decisions and consequences weren’t as simple and easy to understand anymore – both for fans and the dev teams alike.

Following this trend, each of the coming World of Warcraft addons was slowly drifting away from what core players wanted in favor of a more mass-audience oriented approach. 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 Blizzard addon ever of which fans weren’t unanimously agreeing about anymore. Ongoing discussions in the official forums underlined what the statistics said: The game was bleeding out players rapidly just months after the release. People canceled their subscriptions after checking out what the addon had to offer and then moved on to play other games.

In order to pick up those dwindling player numbers Blizzard went for an even more simplified gameplay direction to gain a new audience. The problem: this approach alienated many old hardcore players (myself included) which were with the game since 2004 and didn’t agree with a lot of those streamlining and accessibility decisions. Now being in damage-control mode after more than a decade of success, WoW’s development suddenly showed a very “widespread” range of quality and was losing public media appeal very quickly. WoW – for the first time in over 5 years – was slowly losing its market dominance.

And it wasn’t all just numbers: Blizzard drastically changed its face towards the consumer, starting to charge fees for all sorts of additional services in WoW: server transfers, character boosts, mounts, gold, faction changes – a lot of things were done to appease the masses, but also had that distinct aftertaste of capitalism that seemed to slowly overtake the main factor that defined Blizzard games to this date: fun while actually playing the game, not paying for the game. The new motto that the company now seemed to adapt was rather along the lines of “If you can sell it, make a service out of it”.

Real money, real fun?

If there has ever been any doubt about Blizzard’s new business motto, the release of Diablo 3 (2012) showed fans the winds of change. With an unprecedented 30 million units sold, Diablo 3 was an unprecedentedly long-awaited sequel – twelve long years to be specific. Needless to say that said fan expectations were as high as they can get. On release people jumped onto the game blindly, as they were used to Blizzard simply delivering as it used to. Gamers all over the world expected that Blizzard-level quality of service and polish, and with good reason: Coming from a company that manages one of the biggest MMOs worldwide, people were far-and-wide not prepared for what greeted them:

This status endured for the first weeks of the game, making it nearly unplayable for other than pure hardcore players. Lags in a single-player focused game were also an unfortunate Blizzard-defined “novelty” in the dungeon crawler genre.

What was Blizzard’s response? They “didn’t expect this kind of server onslaught”. And there was no avoiding that infamous screenshot. Diablo 3 was enforced to be always online on the first day of release, which was a very unknown concept back in that time and completely out of question for Diablo 2 As one of its main reasons, Blizzard justified the decision with “anti-cheating”  – to add a server-client synchronization and thus avoid item duplication – a thing which was abundant in Diablo 2’s multiplayer and locally stored files. Of course there was also the ever so often used argument of anti-piracy…

However, people playing Diablo 2 back in the days had a choice to play offline and most of them did, not caring about Online at all.  As it turns out to be, this “always online” decision of Blizzard had a much MUCH more predatory intent: it introduced a real money auction house with Diablo 3. As non-fan of the series, yes – read that right: people were able to sell in-game items for actual currency – Blizzard of course always taking a cut from the sale. This was to counteract a huge Ebay-Gray-market that flourished back in the D2-times. So they thought: why not go with the times instead of fighting them? Right? Right?!!

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 – very similar to the demons depicted in Diablo itself – had a very rotten and evil 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 straight upgrades. And as a matter of pure coincidence, loot didn’t feel “special” as often anymore, with drop chances apparently much in favor against the player’s chosen hero-class. This fact alone opened Blizzard up for a lot of criticism, having manipulated the game to nudge the player into using the real money auction house. An ongoing  player uproar ensued, leading to final closure of the auction house in march 2014, a whole two years later after the game’s initial release! As loot chance was heavily modified afterwards it clearly showed that a design decisions were indeed made around the auction house. The money was earned, but also the damage was done to both a cherished brand and company.

To add to this not very flattering picture, Diablo 3 was very fluid and streamlined to play, but also very simplified. Evil natures among players could mention that all these unique features of Diablo 2’s greatness where cleanly sandblasted away: Gone where the dark areas or claustrophobic designs of former Diablo installments. Diablo 3 was very colorful, vibrant, easy to play and action-oriented instead, the lore could easily fit on a sheet of paper. Its mechanics were lacking huge amounts of depth and complexity that fans learned to appreciate from twelve years ago. 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, lore and settings which a lot of fans regarded as a clear stagnation or even downgrade towards Diablo 2.

And what was most remarkable: a lot of the expected ongoing “Blizzard” support and polish seemed to be missing. The base game was very quick to finish (a few hours at most), and while a solid game play core was there, the game didn’t receive any major expansions except for the “Reaper of Souls” addon in 2014 and one additional “Necromancer” class for an additional fee. This felt very different to what fans were used to get, especially with so many huge addons made available for other Blizzard titles in the last decade. It was a wake-up call for fans, one that made them realized that the time of good quality expansions came to an abrupt end. Blizzard was instead much more inclined towards “services” and “micro payments” instead. Cynical minds might conclude that Diablo 3 – even with 30 million units shipped – has suddenly stopped being financially interesting – especially after the auction house debacle – and thus the support for the game was reduced to a minimum.

With Diablo 3 Activision Blizzard has shown a very different face to its fans. The face of profit! One can only speculate how big the influence of the Activision merger behind all this really was, but the business strategy surely has changed without a doubt. 

A shade of its past

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 Blizzard today, a time of modern business practices and steady monetization. Enter: “Overwatch” (2016), selling over 40 million copies as of today. It’s solid proof that Blizzard can also produce very popular and critically acclaimed first-person shooters. It’s a team-focused game that felt very close to Valve’s “Team Fortress 2” was, but with much a more vibrant design and (stylized, sexualized, idealized) characters that appeal to a much wider audience – a true 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” in what was basically a moment’s notice. Blizzard likes to argument the fact that these boxes 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. The whole discussion about the spiral of addiction and gambling implications however will not be covered in this article, but should be mentioned at this point.

While the whole loot box controversy is still ongoing today – with some countries now have finally having accepted it as “gambling” treating it as such – it should be mentioned that this is clearly and once more a step into the direction of treating the customer just ever so slightly worse than before. Now don’t get me wrong: selling additional content in games is absolutely fine and healthy to keep the development running! However, this business example clearly shows that you’re not selling a product, but a “chance” to get any random product – and most likely not the one you originally wanted. And while skins in Overwatch are completely optional – and sure – purely cosmetic, they are basically the ONLY part of the game’s level progression, as the whole act of “leveling” an account is tied a drop of a loot box.

At this point you can think of this what you want. Try to transfer this business model to any other product you purchase in your daily life (let’s say: a smartphone or a car), and then tell me if you would be cool with getting a random color each time you buy – because, you know – it’s “just cosmetic” and doesn’t affect performance, right?

However I don’t wanna discard that personal mileage with “accepting” these conditions as a new gaming standard may vary based on personal preference – yet some gamers even appreciate the surprise of a randomized reward, which is fine.  But there is no denying that over just a few years the amount of actual content you get for your money has decreased significantly, especially when you compare it to the early “expansion pack” glory days of Blizzard. And I sure ho we can agree on that one, can’t we?

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. Both the “Heroes of the Storm” and “Hearthstone” teams are doing a decent job, as both games are going well. The Overwatch dev team is also not doing too badly as far as I’m involved, as the game is still going strong.

As for the Diablo fans out there – well let’s just say that after the facts I stated on on Diablo 3 above I didn’t expect much from Blizzard. However I was still amazed about how badly Blizzard handled the announcement of upcoming Diablo installments. On their house-internal BlizzCon event (2-3rd of November, 2018) they present new content to a large – mainly PC focused – gaming hardcore audience. And while doing so this year, they were coming forth with this little “mobile gaming” nugget:

As still a huge fan of the “old” Blizzard team I feel sorry for the person having to announce this. This announcement was made for shareholders, not fans. It shows us a very disconnected company, one that is not even close to understanding the fan reactions, yet even anticipating them or coming prepared with additional news to cushion the blow. A later cringe-worthy Q&A followed that announcement which even brought up the fan question of this all being an “out of date April fool’s joke” – Ouch! Unsurprisingly, fans went rampant against the new “Diablo Immortal” trailer because not only does it evade the subject of additional content for Diablo 3, but even teases a game of which the development has been outsourced to China and is also very clearly catered towards the same Asian market. At this point people would’ve been content with even seeing a remake of Diablo 2 just to get anything of their Blizzcon experience, and I couldn’t blame them for it.

The fan-reaction on the official Youtube trailer was accordingly:

This was hours after the trailer was put online. And how did Blizzard react to this? Here’s a summary on what I got from Forums and Reddit:

  • Original trailer removed roughly a day later, had 300.000 downvotes at this point
  • Trailer re-uploaded in “Private” and linked from the official page
  • Dislikes “gone” all of a sudden (but that could’ve been bot-votes too)
  • Official statements 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, re-using assets from several similar games already on the market
  • In terms of actual quality the game was described as “stale” and “just a reskin” by fans and magazines alike, thus lacking the expected Blizzard grade of quality at least at this point

As I stated above, personally I already don’t expect much out of the Diablo franchise anymore – not after the D3 happenings. There are better alternatives out there if you care for dungeon crawlers and action RPGs. However, what really baffles me at this point is how Blizzard is handling the damage control and fan base interaction. They invited hundreds of fans to an in-house convention for which said fans paid quite a lot of money. They go ahead and announce to them a mobile game, six years after the previous Diablo 3 release, knowing that PC platform fans (their core audience) are starving for new content. They even market Diablo Immortal as “fun demon slaying for the family” towards their fans. And the most delicate bit about all this? According to interviews from various news outlets they even had other Diablo content in the making, but failed to mention any details at the one moment where mattered most.

On that note: while secrecy about new announcements might be a good thing for the sake of first impressions, a better way of handling this would’ve been to skip the Diablo panel altogether and instead silently announce the mobile version on the website. The approach Blizzard instead opted for was to insult many fans that grew up with their games, helped making them to become the company they are today. In return, Blizzard showed them something they clearly did not ask for, while basically telling them to “accept it and get with the times”, adding flavor-quotes like “don’t you guys have phones?” to an already stirred dumpster-fire.

And the personal verdict?

So how do I summarize all this? Let’s simply say that Blizzard is in a very peculiar situation right now. On the one side there’s a developer that obviously aims for a more diverse business strategy. They got both Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm in the lucrative free-to-play and mobile market, using attractive established brands such as Warcraft and Diablo as a workhorse. However they also disregard what implications this might have on their brands – compare that with Nintendo refusing to go “mobile” for the longest time for the very same reason.

Summarizing a quarter century of gaming, Blizzard has established a huge and almost religious fan base to cater to. It’s a loyal and very dedicated fan base that almost no other studio worldwide could even get remotely close to. The Blizzard of today is still going strong as a company – almost like a role model for financial success in gaming. But it’s also feeding of past successes while catering less and less to it’s core audience. Instead we get to see a transformed Blizzard, one that willingly risks losing the dedicated fans that made the company successful in the first place – and that also including myself.


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