Last week the Activision-Blizzard earnings announcement indicated that World of Warcraft had dropped from over 10 million subscribers, a position held from November 2014 through at least the end of the year, to 7.1 million subscribers, putting its player base back down to where it stood during the 13 month Pandaria content drought.
That is a tough drop to explain away as “expected and consistent” so soon after Warlords of Draenor and given past history. The much reviled Cataclysm expansion bottomed out at 9.1 million, while Mists of Pandaria took at least 18 months to hit low ebb at 6.8 million subscribers. (MMO Champion has a nice chart showing this.) Their might be a seed of something in SynCaine’s hyperbole.
So it seemed like an odd moment for Blizzard to turn around and ban more than 100,000 accounts, unless it was an attempt to get all the bad news in at once. Only, the bans won’t be reflected in the subscription numbers until the next quarterly report, so that doesn’t really fly.
The first I noticed that something might be up was yesterday morning on Twitter when, in amongst the widespread moaning about the Jem and the Holograms trailer I saw a tweet (since deleted) from somebody enraged that Blizzard had banned a friend’s WoW account for NO REASON.
And then, as the day wore on, we found out that there was likely a reason after all. The official Blizzard announcement was:
Blizzard is serious about this sort of thing. It is ingrained in their corporate culture, forged by their experiences with the original StarCraft, which practically became the national sport in South Korea, that cheats are bad and a threat to their long-term success. And so they are very aggressive in seeking out any hacks, cheats, or exploits, and have been since day one of WoW. Blizzard’s Warden software has been around a long time.
Of course, there are a lot of “but I was only…” sorts of defense comments out there from the banned. There is a fine collection of them over at the bottom of the latest post over at The Nosy Gamer, who covers botting and RMT topics regularly.
But we all know it was cheating, both those making the lame rationalizations and those of us reading them. I ran a poll about six years back where I listed out a bunch of behaviors and let people choose what they felt was cheating. The results stratified into three groups, with the “we all know they’re cheating” items at the top, the uncomfortable ones in the middle, and the pet peeves at the bottom. And botting, automation of complex tasks, was right there at the top of the list.
But even if we were going to rationalize and try and kid ourselves that maybe botting some things isn’t so bad, that boring game play somehow legitimizes it, or run off and try to whitewash gold farming to frame it as a good thing, it doesn’t really matter because, as I said above, Blizzard’s corporate culture cannot see it as something besides a bad thing that must be fought.
I used to think the term “corporate culture” was a bullshit phrase. But that was more because describing corporate culture to somebody is often like trying to describe water to a fish. It is just there, all pervasive, yet just part of the environment, just the way things are. Even if you change jobs, moving to another company, it can be hard to really see the full embrace of the culture. One person just assimilates and learns how things are done. To really see corporate culture you have to go through a merger or an acquisition and see two different cultures clash. That is one point when you can really identify what the culture is, when it appears in sharp relief.
At my last company we went through a series of such moves over the course of a decade, and I went from my opinion about corporate culture being bullshit to wondering how some companies survive given how immutable corporate culture can be. Culture is like a tangible substance. It can be like mold in your attic, where sometimes it is just easier to tear the house down and start over.
At one point we were acquired by a hardware company that desperately wanted to be a software company. We went from just shipping a disk or a download to a long and convoluted certification and sales process that looked remarkably like what you would do to sell hardware. I had a 200-page guide covering everything we needed to do to move software from “we’re done, ship it!” to the point when sales could sell it. And we couldn’t do a thing about it because they bought us, so their culture “won,” so we had to be a software company that worked like a hardware company, right down to refusing just to sell software unless we installed it on the hardware on which it would run before it left our building.
That quickly strangled sales, until we were acquired again. This time though it was by a company that was a spin off from the phone company, with all the baggage that implies to anybody who has ever worked for/with any of the one-time Baby Bells. For somebody from Silicon Valley with a background in start ups, it was almost literally like living in a Dilbert cartoon.
So when I see a company like Nintendo clinging to a hardware based business philosophy while pundits shout that they need to get into selling software, I know what I am seeing is corporate culture… or maybe corporate identity is a better term… at play. Yes, they have recently made some minor moves in the direction of software only business, but for all they have said, it still strikes me as something to appease stock holders rather than a serious effort to change how the company works. They still see themselves as a hardware company, measure their success by the number of Wii U or 3DS units sold, and see software as a way to move hardware rather than a revenue stream unto itself. We’re not going to see core Pokemon RPG games or Mario Kart on iOS or Android. It will take a near-extinction level event to get there, and while the Wii U has been a serious disappointment, that has been off-set by very healthy 3DS sales, which no doubt reinfoces the idea inside Nintendo that the problem with the Wii U was one of execution and not a call to change business models.
All of which is a very round-about way for me to say that it comes as absolutely no surprise to me at all that Blizzard chose to ban more than 100,000 accounts (and remove the corresponding revenue) right on the heels of announcing that they were down nearly 30% when it came to subscriptions. Corporate culture will dictate.