Why Fan Expectations for Blizzard are Hopeless

Fallout from BlizzCon and the Diablo Immortal announcement continues and some fans who feel betrayed by it are now looking at every Blizzard word and action trying to find new reasons to be angry at the company.

Time for the daily minute of hate

There was that whole statement made, then retracted, about Blizzard having planned to show a trailer for Diablo IV at BlizzCon.  Blizzard keeps coyly stating that they have “multiple” Diablo project ongoing, but their refusal to give us a hint as to what is really in the bag just gets more frustrating every time they repeat it.  It is feeling less like a reassurance and more like a taunt every time they say it.

And then there was Allen Adham’s statement at a press conference:

Many of us over the last few years have shifted from playing primarily desktop to playing many hours on mobile, and we have many of our best developers now working on new mobile titles across all of our IPs. Some of them are with external partners like Diablo Immortal. Many of them are being developed internally only, and we’ll have information to share on those in the future.

That practically the hair of enraged on fire.

The statement was quickly interpreted and repeated as Blizzard moving on to only doing mobile titles, with all their good developers are working exclusively on mobile, and that Blizzard is essentially abandoning PC and console games to whatever interns happen to be handy to take over the reigns.

This panicked point of view both accepts and ignores the long history of Blizzard.  Ben Kuchera did an excellent article over at Polygon about how Diablo Immortal broke the “rules” of Blizzard.  The essence is that Blizzard only ever makes games that are improvements of existing titles, trotting out the evidence with which many of us are already familiar, summed up in this list:

  • World of Warcraft: Blizzard does Everquest!
  • Warcraft: Blizzard does Dune!
  • Overwatch: Blizzard does Team Fortress 2!
  • Hearthstone: Blizzard does Magic: The Gathering!
  • Heroes of the Storm: Blizzard does Dota 2!

Unfortunately, he missed a key aspect of the Blizzard story.

While it is absolutely true that Blizzard does this, they also only do this whole improvement cycle for games they are actively playing.

I was just reading David Craddock’s Stay Awhile and Listen Vol. I, received as part of my Kickstarter pledge for Vol. II, which details the early days of both Blizzard and Condor.  Blizzard’s first big title was the original Warcraft, which was, as note above, an improvement over the game Dune, which the team had played and loved.  Condor, which was purchased and became Blizzard North, was working on the original Diablo, which was a graphical version of Rogue, incorporating the random levels and monsters and loot ideas from the text game, which the key people at Condor had played to death in college.

Ben Kuchura, while mentioning David Brevik and his plans for an action RPG in his article, missed the whole Rogue angle.  It should be on that bullet point list above as “Blizzard does Rogue-like RPGs!”

So Blizzard doesn’t just improve games that are already out there, they improve games they actively playing and enjoy.  So you can see from the list above not just what they did, but the games they were playing and passionate about that got them on track to make the Blizzard versions.

And we’ve had ample evidence of this, up to and including not only tales of the Blizzard dev team recruiting from their EverQuest guild but a full on homage to EverQuest as their inspiration for WoW as part of the keynote of a past BlizzCon.

So you can see the problem here.  Blizzard devs play a game, love it, then make their own improved version.  And what happens after that?

Sure, sometimes they play their own game and realize they can do better.  Warcraft begat Warcraft II which begat Warcraft III as the tech and the team capabilities improved.  Likewise, Diablo led to Diablo II.

But when the game is good and the devs aren’t inspired to improve it because they like it as it is or have moved on, where do you go?

You get things like StarCraft II.

StarCraft II isn’t a bad game.  But the design is so close to StarCraft in so many ways that is feels like it was made just to get the original on a better engine rather than evolve the franchise in any significant way.

Likewise Diablo III, also a decent game, started off with some bad ideas likely because it was made by people who didn’t get the core of Diablo II.  When your core fans are complaining about the game being too light and colorful and that the itemization sucks… and that the cash money auction house is killing the game and looks like a cash grab… it might be better to pay attention rather than dismiss them.

But Blizzard rarely pays attention to fans.  They make the games they want to make because those are versions of the games they already play.  Clearly there wasn’t a big Diablo contingent left at Blizzard when Blizzard North left the building over a dispute with how Vivendi was pushing them towards things they didn’t want to do.

And we see it with World of Warcraft with every expansion.  In 2004 they launched something based off of the EverQuest template.  Since then they have fumbled about looking for ways to improve things.  When you’re making a product, you have free reign over ideas.  But when you have a product in production you suddenly have to listen to the customer support team and the GMs and IT team and whoever else has to keep things going every day.  You stop being as focused on innovation and start solving complaints to keep people from tying up the support line.

World of Warcraft was an improvement for MMOs the way the mini-van was for family transportation, replacing EverQuest the way the mini-van replaced the station wagon.   But after that you just refine.  The Blizzard team is adding cup holders and such.  And it isn’t because of the live team, B-list developer rumor perpetuated by angry fans.  It is because Blizzard mostly got what they wanted on the first pass, but the game made, and continues to make, so much money they felt they had to keep extending it.  You don’t walk away from a billion dollar a year game.

And so it goes.  Blizzard is never going to make another MMORPG because what would they copy?  They are never going to make another RTS because what would they copy?  It isn’t even a matter of competing against themselves as, say, another collectable card game would inevitably do.  It is simply that once you’ve made the game you really want and refined it a bit, you’re done.  After that you just fiddle and add some content or features to generate some more revenue.

So what does Blizzard do now?

They find a new game to copy and refine.  In this case, as Allen Adham stated above, the senior developers have been playing a lot of mobile games.  What does Blizzard do historically?  They copy and improve the games they are currently playing.  So this statement is a clear indicator where Blizzard is going.

The odd bit is the deal with NetEase.  That is not something Blizzard does.  So my guess on that front is that Diablo Immortal is a move more to sate the board of directors and the large investor groups than what they really want to do.  Blizzard is part of a publicly held corporation and has to bow to the whims of the shareholders, and we know rule by the masses rarely leads anywhere fruitful.  The only mistake was thinking Diablo fans would give a shit about it.

I suspect that, at best, this is Blizzard setting their mobile baseline and learning the ropes from NetEase while they work on the mobile game they really want to make… and grab some of the China market along the way, since the Chinese government is no longer approving foreign video games for domestic consumption.  But the end result, given what Allen Adham said, is that the next real Blizzard title… not Diablo Immortal, but whatever it is they are actually working on down in Irvine… will be a mobile title.

It isn’t a cash grab or a betrayal, it is just the way Blizzard works.  It is how they harness their passion for what they do best.  It is following the same system that made them the company they are today.  You can’t put a gun to their heads and force them to be passionate about WoW or Diablo again.  It just isn’t possible.  The moment has passed.

The actual cash grab is the stuff that likely interests fans more.  StarCraft RemasteredWarcraft III ReforgedWorld of Warcraft Classic.  Those are milking the fans by attempting to relive past glories.   Remastering an old title to stoke nostalgia is an excellent way to get money from your installed base.

I am not saying Blizzard doesn’t love those titles, that there isn’t a ton of affection for the days when WoW or WC3 were fresh and new.  You could see that affection at BlizzCon, when the devs on those projects… often devs who started at Blizz working on those titles… were talking about them.  But there isn’t a long and successful and lucrative tradition where Blizzard remakes one of their own titles fifteen years later.

So we will eventually get a “real” Blizzard mobile game… because, again, Diablo Immortal isn’t it… that might make people rethink mobile games.  And we will get the remakes and remasters, which will make the old school happy.

And maybe we’ll get a Diablo IV.  But it won’t be anything new.  At best it will be a good refinement based on lessons learned from Diablo III, the same way all the other games Blizzard has essentially “finished” keep going.  At least that is the way it looks to me.

14 thoughts on “Why Fan Expectations for Blizzard are Hopeless

  1. ~Syl (@MMOsyl)

    It’s an interesting angle makes you wonder what that next mobile game will be they really want to make. As far as improving online genres goes, they can still make a better “survival builder voxel game…on an island!” ;)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Syl – But is there a survival builder voxel game that the Blizzard devs are playing and about which they are passionate? I don’t doubt they have the talent to build the best one ever, but the catch is that they have to be into it before they can make it happen.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Bhagpuss

    It’s very hard to predict this stuff. A few years back almost everyone thought mobile devices would kill the demand for other platforms; laptops were supposed to be eaten by tablets and consoles were widely reported to be on their final generation. Neither happened. Apparently people just buy more platforms and use all of them, hence the increasing demand for and provision of cross-play.

    I struggle to understand why PC gaming is still a thing at all, given that desktop PCs are fast vanishing from their traditional roles in offices and businesses. It would seem to leave “desktop” PCs for the home as a bizarre and exceptionally expensive niche hobby. Yet PC games persist and sell in boatloads, bringing in billions. While that lasts people will keep making them, I guess.

    As for mobile gaming, I doubt we are yet at the stage that PC gaming was in the early ’90s. There’s a huge amount of technical and aesthetic progress still ahead. I jsut wonder whether we’ll ever get to the point where mobile catches up with console/PC before the next, currently unimagined, platform arrives.

    As for Blizzard, they are going fast down the road of becoming the latest video game company it’s fashionable to hate. Must be an interesting experience for them.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Marathal – When was Microsoft ever passionate about anything besides market domination and stock price?

    Blizzard has repeatedly been passionate about its games. It just moves on, we don’t.

    So I don’t think that analogy fits with anything I said.

    Like

  5. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Marathal – This isn’t to pick on you, as I have seen that Steve Jobs/Bill Gates thing posted a lot when it comes to Blizzard at BlizzCon this year, so I am going to follow on with this.

    I think you can make the argument that Blizzard is far more Apple than Microsoft and, I would submit, that WoW is pretty much Blizzard’s iPhone.

    Like the iPhone, with WoW Blizzard took something already defined, refined and perfected it, and basically made it the standard by which all of its competitors are judged. The market for MMORPGs is much bigger than just WoW‘s audience, but WoW is still considered the dominant player. Everybody else has to explain how they are better than WoW in some way, usually by price (free to play) or features (housing or whatever feature you want that WoW doesn’t offer), which also describes the iPhone in its market.

    Basically, Blizzard’s method is pretty much the same as Steve Jobs’, stealing somebody’s idea and making it better.

    All of which might make Heroes of the Storm Apple TV I guess. Maybe?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. SynCaine

    I’d love to see Blizzard try to make a Clash of Clans style game, or even something like Clash Royale, partly to see if they could actually do it and be successful vs someone who is already very good in that space (they failed to challenge LoL with HotS, and Overwatch plays second fiddle to PUBG/Fortnite).

    Like

  7. Nogamara

    I don’t really get the “Blizzard” hype. I still see it as “they made a good few games that happened to suit me” – but I couldn’t be less interested than Hearthstone, Overwatch, or Heroes of the Storm. Oh, and I’m apparently past my WoW days, although I get a little excited from time to time. Since the D3 reboot without the RMT I don’t miss D2 in any shape or form – maybe I’m downplaying it a bit, but I never saw myself as a “Blizzard fan”. I was in “id Software fan” – but that stopped after Quake 3, so also 15 years ago, although Quake Champions is quite nice…

    Like

  8. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Nogamara – I think that is a related but slightly different discussion. There was certainly some assumption by Blizzard, the gaming press, and some fans that if you like a Blizzard game then you like Blizzard then you should be excited by Blizzard announcing any game, even if it isn’t aimed at you.

    I am more of the opinion there are people who like one or more Blizzard games and that is often the extent of the relationship. You could see in some of the BlizzCon blog coverage something of a lack of self-awareness when declaring the event boring when it was clear up front that the author in question was only interested in 1 out of the 6 main games that Blizz was presenting. It isn’t a difficult logical jump to figure out why BlizzCon isn’t interesting to you if you don’t care about 5/6th of what is being presented.

    Anyway, I tried to avoid using the term “Blizzard fans,” and when I do use “fans” it can be read as “fans of a specific Blizzard game or franchise.”

    Like

  9. Archey

    Thanks for this. It really does explain the arc of Blizzard’s existence and does seem to have a fair chance of being true.

    I wonder if they wouldn’t be better served by going private again. They don’t seem at a loss for cash flow and would be less beholden to shareholders that may or may not care or have any clue about the games industry. But maybe they have enough sway that it doesn’t matter since they regularly produce, at a minimum, above average performing games. Being employee owned does work for boutique shops in other industries.

    Like

  10. Random Poster

    “I wonder if they wouldn’t be better served by going private again.”

    As they are a part of Activision this has less than a snowballs chance in hell of happening.

    I’ve always wondered what Blizzard got out of that transaction, aside from boatloads of money for the ceo’s and the like, but for Blizzard the company/developers. It seems to me that with WoW, Blizzard had achieved the ability to not have to worry about cash for the foreseeable future which is one of the main things you see studio’s state after acquisition (see any of the studios MS purchased this year) as the main reason for agreeing to be acquired.

    From the outside it just seems like it has all been one way Activision picked up a game that pretty much prints money for them anything above and beyond that is just extra.

    Like

  11. Isey

    Anyone skim through Blizzard devs social media accounts to see what they could be playing? Fortnite (Battle Royale), Survival games?

    I mean, I could check but would just rather someone else do it.

    Like

  12. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Archey – Yeah, Blizzard is already a wholly owned subsidiary of another company, and has been since 1994 when they sold themselves to Davidson & Associates. That let the founders stop paying the bills out of their own pockets and made them fairly rich for the time. The name Blizzard actually only became the company name, the third one, after the acquisition.

    D&A was later sold to Comp-U-Card International (I am sure a company called “CUC” would do well today) which put them together with other acquisitions under a company called Cendant Software which was then sold to Havas which itself merged with Vivendi. Vivendi then purchased a majority stake in Activision. During that time it pushed Blizzard and Activision together as a business unit as part of the deal. But then Vivendi got in its own trouble and Activision-Blizzard managed to wriggle off the hook and go their own way.

    So at this point Blizzard has been wholly owned by somebody else for 24 years. They could be sold or spun off as their own entity if Activision-Blizzard needed to do that, but since Blizzard is consistently the biggest revenue earning unit in the company, that is unlikely to ever happen. Any independence Blizzard appears to have is based off of the amount of money they make. They falter there and they might lose even that independence.

    Like

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