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It's not Activision that has the “good old Blizzard” on its conscience, but the success of WoW

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The Blizzard of 2024 no longer has anything to do with the milestone forge that once invented Diablo, Warcraft and Starcraft. But who is to blame for this change? Many fans point to Activision. However, the main responsibility lies with the most successful MMORPG in video game history.

Do you know the saying “Where it says Blizzard on it, it has Blizzard in it!”? After the disastrous Warcraft 3 Reforged, the virtual monetization hell of Diablo Immortal, and mixed WoW expansions like Battle for Azeroth, it may be hard to believe, but there was actually a time when the Blizzard Entertainment logo stood for quality.

With Warcraft, Diablo and Starcraft, the Californians had ultimately created three of the most famous brands in video game history and also several celebrated games with milestone status. But that was a long time ago.

Today, Blizzard is primarily associated with heavily monetized service games and some of the biggest scandals in the games industry. For many gamers it seems clear: Activision is responsible for this change! After all, things have been going downhill since the merger with Activision Blizzard in July 2008. In our analysis we show you that the decisive turning point can be found much earlier.

In the early 1990s, the small Blizzard team proudly presented the new game: The Lost Vikings.

How big was Activision's influence on Blizzard?

First of all, let's note: When the new holding company Activision Blizzard was created from Activision and Blizzard as part of the merger with Vivendi Games, Vivendi continued to have the majority rights. Activision's CEO Bobby Kotick took over management of almost all areas, only Blizzard was given a special role and was allowed to develop games independently and bring them to market via Vivendi.

This power structure only shifted between 2013 and 2016 because Vivendi gradually monetized its own shares. And who was the buyer? Of course, Bobby Kotick or Activision. As a result, eight years after the merger, Blizzard was completely under the publisher's thumb.

But was the influence felt immediately from that moment on? With Jay Wilson (game director of Diablo 3; was at Blizzard until 2016) there is at least one insider who reported on this during a panel during the Retro Gaming Expo in Portland (via YouTube). However, the influence is said to have been barely noticeable at first and was limited to individual areas.

Wilson reports on meetings set up by Activision about how to make more money with Heroes of the Storm. Although the MOBA had many of the typical Blizzard strengths (low barrier to entry, good readability and playability, high level of polish), it could not assert itself against the established, overwhelming competition from League of Legends or DOTA 2.

According to Wilson, Activision is also said to have been involved in the conception phase of Diablo Immortal. The publisher really wanted a Diablo with a Free2Play payment model.

2018 as a year of separation: Save, save, save!

However, a Kotaku article by investigative journalist Jason Schreier from November 2018 states (based on eleven anonymous sources) that it was only in 2018 that the culture at Blizzard was said to have changed noticeably due to the increasing influence of Activision.

Instead of “It's done when it's done” (an old Blizzard motto: games are only released when they are finished and meet your own quality standards), the aim was to reduce costs and increase the number of releases per year.

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The reason: From the third quarter of 2017, the number of monthly active players at Blizzard fell drastically (from 47 million MAUs in the second quarter to 22 million MAUs in the first quarter of 2022). There were hardly any releases. New releases like Destiny 2 fell short of expectations.

It certainly didn't help that Blizzard's co-founder and CEO Mike Morhaime resigned in October 2018. His successor, J. Allen Brack, was only president and therefore no longer acted on an equal footing with CEO Bobby Kotick.

These reports were confirmed in December 2018 by another insider report by Jason Schreier for Kotaku. In this, the sources report that many of the strategic decisions since 2018 have been made by the finance department (which is said to have had no say in previous years). The victims of the austerity include the esports division of Heroes of the Storm (with the discontinuation of the Storm Global Championship in December 2018) as well as the far-too-early released Warcraft 3 Reforged (according to a Bloomberg report from July 2021, Activision is said to be on the early release and the deletion of various features).

Grown on Blizzard's own crap

According to various reports, there was almost certainly a negative influence from Activision on Blizzard, but probably only from 2018 onwards. By then, those responsible for Blizzard had already stained their clean slate from the first ten years with a few spots. Here is a best-of of the Blizzard fails up to 2016:

  • Cataclysm (released in December 2010) is the first WoW expansion that was loudly criticized by large parts of the community and is still one of the most unpopular expansions in WoW history.
  • In July 2010, Blizzard would like to introduce that you can only comment in the forum using your Real ID credentials. After a short but violent shitstorm, the decision-makers withdrew this plan.
  • Diablo 3 made negative headlines when it launched – “thanks” to online coercion, server problems and real-money trading in the auction house.
  • Blizzard neglects to secure DOTA rights. Valve is faster. Blizzard DOTA must become Heroes of the Storm. The development of the comparatively small title will take at least five years.
  • In September 2014, Blizzard stopped developing Titan. Due to the early announcement in 2008 and the full-bodied promises of some developers, this premature cancellation feels much more like a failure for the team involved than it did with a Warcraft adventure or a Starcraft Ghost.
  • The WoW expansion Warlords of Draenor launches in November 2014 with a lot of potential, but then suffers from enormous content holes and perhaps the worst content patch in WoW history (patch 6.1 had highlights such as the selfie camera, Twitter integration or the new character models for blood elves in the luggage).
  • In 2015, Blizzard introduced the WoW brand and with it official real money trading in the European version of World of Warcraft.
  • In 2016, the Blizzard developers fulfilled an oft-mentioned wish from the community, but the implementation could hardly have been more loveless: The first Diablo gets a new edition, as a simple retro event in Diablo 3.
WoW success WotLK expansion
WoW enjoyed its greatest success during the WotLK expansion.

Suspect number 1: World of Warcraft

Let's rewind a few years. Before 2008 (and the merger to Activision Blizzard), there were two important dates that had a fundamental impact on Blizzard as a company: November 23, 2004 and February 11, 2005. You certainly know the dates.

Everything changed with the release of World of Warcraft. For many players, for the industry and of course for Blizzard itself. At its peak, twelve million subscribers played the enormously successful online role-playing game (during the WotLK expansion, from October 2010). And what to do with all that money? As is often the case, Blizzard's answer was: grow!

While the company had fewer than 500 employees before the WoW launch, the number of employees rose to around 4,600 by 2009. Examples such as Westwood and Bullfrog show that such rapid growth leads to major problems that can even undermine entire companies.

Two things in particular happened at Blizzard: Firstly, the corporate culture is said to have changed noticeably, but this only came to light in the wake of the big sexism scandal in 2021. According to an August 2021 report by Jason Schreier for Bloomberg, WoW's success left top developers treated like rock stars, leaving them untouchable for complaints.

This is said to have developed into a so-called “frat boy culture” at Blizzard (comparable to that at Ubisoft): male employees gathered at work to drink alcohol, for example, only to then search the workplaces of female employees and hit on them.

Secondly, after 2004, Blizzard's focus was clearly on World of Warcraft. While Blizzard games for various franchises had been released almost every year since 1994, between 2004 and 2009 only WoW took place.

WoW Sky Horse Mount
The Sky Horse Mount made more money than Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty at launch.

Starcraft 2 was another “old school” Blizzard game in 2010 that actually got off to a good start, but former Blizzard developer Jason Hall revealed on Twitch in November 2023 why the team had folded despite good sales figures : The recently released and first paid sky steed mount for World of Warcraft made more money than Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty.

Such experiences as well as the enormous success of WoW partly explain why Blizzard has gradually turned into the games-as-a-service direction. The other part can be broken down into the ever-changing market realities. This includes the fact that developing games is becoming more and more expensive, but also that success on the stock market is an obligation. After WoW, Blizzard had to measure itself against exactly this success and adapt its own corporate strategy accordingly.

All of these factors in combination, triggered by World of Warcraft, ensured that the “Blizzard company” – with its thousands of employees, service focus and a partly toxic culture – had little to do with it well before Activision exerted its influence had to do with “good old” Blizzard.

Johanna Faries has been the new Blizzard President since February 2024.

There is no way back, but…

The bad news: There is no way back for the company. The “good old Blizzard” will never exist again. On the one hand, because there are now significantly more than 6,000 people working at Blizzard. The focus will therefore continue to be on service and mobile games that can be comprehensively monetized.

On the other hand, there are hardly any veterans on board anymore. Instead of Blizzard founders Mike Morhaime, Allen Adham and Frank Pearce, Johanna Farie (formerly Activision), Rod Fergusson (formerly The Coalition), Holly Longdale (formerly Daybreak) and others are leading the way. Only a few of the long-serving Blizzard veterans are still at the start. Chris Metzen for example, Aaron Keller, Wyatt Cheng or Tom Chilton.

The list of former, long-time Blizzard developers reads significantly longer. Most recently it came out that Marc Messenger left the company in January 2024 (via Reddit). Among other things, he was responsible for the fantastic intro cinematic of WoW: Legion.

But there is also good news: As part of Microsoft, Blizzard now has the opportunity to implement projects outside of the core portfolio without a service model that fit well with Xbox Game Pass. Small gems like Hi-Fi Rush from Tango Gameworks or Pentiment from Obsidian prove this. Would you also like a new game with a story focus in the Starcraft universe?

Are you looking for more reading material about Blizzard under Team Xbox? Take a look here: Blizzard wanted to be free of Activision – But Microsoft won't allow that

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