WoW Factor: No, Activision is not the reason you’re unhappy with World of Warcraft

    
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HOW DID THIS HAPPEN SO PREDICTABLY!

There’s a narrative that’s been making the rounds for a little while now among the World of Warcraft community, buoyed a lot by the fact that we’ve seen lots of evidence that Activision is taking a much more active hand in Blizzard’s business lately. This has become especially evident with Mike Morhaime’s full and final departure announced. Essentially, the narrative is that Activision (seen here terrorizing children in this 19th-century woodcut) has forced the good people at Blizzard to make games bad because evil corporate suits and profit uber alles.

It’s a nice narrative that is only slightly hamstrung by the fact that it’s pretty clearly wrong.

This isn’t to say that Activision’s increased influence on Blizzard hasn’t had a tangible presence on the studio; Diablo Immortal’s awful announcement, the whole “retiring cash shop items” debacle, and so forth are likely more about profit-driven oversight. But if you’re going to blame Activision for the modern state of WoW, you’re overlooking a lot of important information along the way.

We all remember this expansion was a thing, right? Yes? Let's proceed.Let’s start with the biggest and most glaring issue for this theory: that it involves sort of forgetting an entire decade of history beforehand.

The Activision-Blizzard pairing became a thing in 2008. The current year is 2019. For purposes of perspective, WoW launched in November 2004, which means that it’s had nearly 11 years of operation under the shared banner. That means that these companies have been a shared entity for five of the game’s expansions from launch. This is not a new development.

That’s not to say that there’s never been any push-and-pull between the Blizzard side and the Activision side; while we don’t know all of the details, I’d be willing to bet money that this has been a longstanding issue between the two sides of the corporate structure. But putting forth the idea that Battle for Azeroth is the product of Activision influence requires neglecting that the fact that studio was just as much tied to Activision when Legion came out.

Blizzard has always held itself publicly aloof and apart from Activision as a whole, of course. This is what’s known as brand management. But that line has been crumbling for years; witness the inclusion of Call of Duty into the Battle.net launcher before Destiny 2 joined in, a steady process of cross-branding that in and of itself gets people accustomed to this presence. And these are also not new developments.

The fact of the matter is that even if you want to write off modern Blizzard as a result of Activision’s influence, this is not a case of a recent change. This is the old adage about a frog in a pot of boiling water; change the temperature slowly enough and the frog will never notice until it’s too late.

But all of this also relies on the idea that this is a recent change, rather than something that has been creeping up on the game reliably for several years. And basically everything you see people being upset about in the game’s current state of design and development has a straight throughline in the game from the past several years.

Don’t like a lack of any sort of consistent upgrades? That’s been a problem the game has had ever since Cataclysm started demolishing the badge system. Unhappy with the whole RNG aspect of Titanforging? That started gaining steam with Thunderforged items back in Mists of Pandaria and is itself an outgrowth of the desire for more “thrilling” randomness. (Because you never know what you’re going to get, you see.) Are you upset that the story seems to regularly discard existing characterizations and history for whatever villainous arc du jour the writers want? Bucko, this has been a problem at least since Cataclysm, and arguably it’s been an issue since Wrath of the Lich King.

And if you don’t like the idea of having combat that yanked out a bunch of existing abilities and skills without adding anything and with no regard for overall actual feel? Hey, look at that, it’s a philosophical change we’ve had in place since Mists of Pandaria. And, you know, arguably Cataclysm and its willingness to just gut fundamental systems without really understanding why they worked, but at this point we’re covering content that’s already been covered before.

Nothing here is a new problem. It’s easy to forget that this is part of a steady progression for the title and its development history, since everyone was over the moon about what was on display in Legion, but all of the same problems have been there in the philosophical underpinnings for a long while now – with or without Activision having an influence on the development team.

Making an expansion people still look back on with fondness despite its issues worked out pretty well for making money, huh?

Even if you’re eager to believe that this is the fault of a corporate strategy to make more money, it doesn’t even make sense as one. “We’ll release an expansion that people will be unenthusiastic about from the premise alone, then we’ll get people less excited about it after they buy it and thus discourage them from subscribing! We’ll rake in less money from the same work!” Doesn’t really work, does it?

Yeah, there’s some short-term profit from box sales, and there are plenty of companies who love that short-term profit (Activision included), but the brain trust at Blizzard did not exactly spring out with a surprise when Battle for Azeroth proved wildly disappointing. It’s not like this was a crowd-pleasing premise, and the people who were actually excited about it usually spent a fair amount of time explaining why to the confusion of other fans. As you do.

Who's responsible? And who benefits?“So why does it matter, though?” you ask. “Who cares if it’s maybe not really Activision’s fault? Are you some Activision fan?”

The general dislike I have of Activision isn’t really germane to this discussion; Activision as a company seems to have a profit focus that far exceeds a lot of the more demonized companies out there, but it’s been carefully managed (until relatively recently) as a brand to avoid the sort of loathing that seems to engender for other labels. It’s not really a matter of wanting to defend Activision. It’s a matter of wanting to make sure that the people blamed for decisions are the ones most likely to be making those decisions.

Let me circle back to Mike Morhaime: He was hardly my favorite person, but he did, at least, seem to genuinely make an effort to correct glaring mistakes when it came to business management. He made mistakes but owned them and backed off, and he wasn’t involved in the day-to-day game design choices. Blaming him for, say, the balance issues of Enhancement Shaman in patch 6.1 wouldn’t be fair to him.

Similarly, blaming the programmer who actually went in and adjusted numbers until Enhancement Shaman abilities were tuned as ordered isn’t fair. The people to look at are the people actually making the design decisions and whether or not they’re doing their jobs properly.

I don’t know exactly what the design leads have as a mandate from the top at this point; all I can judge are the results, which are… well, just plain bad. And that has nothing to do with Activision whatsoever. If you don’t like the job being done with the game, focus on the teams actually responsible for it.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.

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Marcelo Linhares

I beg to differ.
WotlK was the begining of WoW downfall IMO. A lot of reskinned gear, mobs and remove from what questing in WoW made it epic.
I remember back in the day doing class quests, for example, all this gave me a lot of immersion. Even dungeons required you to actually go there before it.
now it all felt like casual sex. We clean up after we are done and not even bother adding to friends.

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Tithian

Don’t like a lack of any sort of consistent upgrades? That’s been a problem the game has had ever since Cataclysm started demolishing the badge system. Unhappy with the whole RNG aspect of Titanforging? That started gaining steam with Thunderforged items back in Mists of Pandaria

If nothing else, this is proof to the exact opposite of what you’re saying. Cataclysm was the first full expansion that would be influenced by Activision, as the team usually starts working on an expansion around the time the previous one hits the servers. I certainly don’t know if it was Acti that forced the devs to tune down the Wrath heroics/Naxx on launch, and later add LFD, but it sure seems so to me.

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Bruno Brito

Don’t like a lack of any sort of consistent upgrades? That’s been a problem the game has had ever since Cataclysm started demolishing the badge system.

To be fair, that was a problem in Vanilla. It “disappeared” in TBC, came back in Cata.

I certainly don’t know if it was Acti that forced the devs to tune down the Wrath heroics/Naxx on launch, and later add LFD, but it sure seems so to me.

I will repeat myself: I would agree with everything you guys said, IF Activision had forced Blizzard to improve their cashshop. It’s still one of the weakests in the market, specially by P2W/cashgrabbing standards.

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Tithian

a) In vanilla and TBC badge gear were not needed, because crafting and rep gear (and to some extent, 20-man raid gear) were a valid replacement of raid gear (and some were BiS up to 1.12, in vanilla). Those were pretty much gone in WotLK and beyond.

b) You cannot compare cash shops in Sub-games and F2P games. And if a F2P game has an optional sub, they almost always give you a good chunk of currency as a a monthly stipend to spend on the shop. “Not that much of a cashgrab” is not a saving grace.

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Roger Melly

Exactly .Very well put .

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Stanelis

2008 you say ? What a coincidence, as the game went downhill from wotlk (that was released in 2009), and it is something supported with hard data (the amount of concurrent players subscribed at any given time).

For a lot of players, bfa is the final straw, especially after they ve forgiven blizzard for the disaster that wod was.

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Bannex

I think the problem with wow is the fact that they’ve slowly transitioned from industry leader to industry follower.

Playing bfa feels like a bunch of mobile games in one without the ability to pay for convenience.

From combat to reward system the expansion has bled all the fun out of the game in favor of convoluted reward systems.

This is not Activision’s fault, it’s the game director’s fault. The guy has clearly lost all interest in the game.

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Isarii

This is true just not of WoW, but of recent Blizzard games in general.

CCGs were popular so they made Hearthstone. MOBAs were popular so they made HotS – far too late to be that successful. Team Shooters started becoming popular and low and behold Overwatch arrived.

It’s felt like Blizzard has just been sniffing out trends for awhile, so you’re right – it’s not surprising at all that WoW’s development has been following suite more and more.

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Jack Kerras

They’ve been polishers rather than innovators for some time.

What they generally do is make a humane, decent, slippery, excellent version of whatever thing is reasonably popular but somewhat esoteric and friction-y.

Generally, chewing a weird esoteric thing up until it’s public-appropriate and thoroughly salable also means that you take off a lot of the rough edges that make it truly interesting and weird and fun, like the difference between Morrowind (a not-very-good game with lots of fun systems to explore and break) and Oblivion (a not-particularly-broken system that was no fun to experiment in, but with drastically more tangible and weighty moment-to-moment combat gameplay).

They’re consistently a financial success, but it’s rare for them to come up with something earth-shattering these days. They just have a ton of industry clout and could, until the purse-strings tightening, just take their fucking time with whatever they build.

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Roger Melly

I stopped playing about a year after the Lich King came out so that was some time in 2009 . The reason for quitting was I didn’t like some of the changes they were making to the game at the time , it seemed even back then the game was being dumbed down but the thing that led me to leave ultimately was the looking for a group tool ( which killed world pvp my main interest ) .

This all happened directly after Activision got involved prior to that I thought the game was great . I remember people at the time saying it was Activision’s influence on Blizzard but how true that was I don’t know all I knew was the game was going in a direction that I didn’t want to go .

The rot started before Cataclysm even came out and it seemed to start not long after Activision got involved but then again it could all be down to Blizzard . The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle with Activision making suggestions to streamline the game to make it more user friendly/appealing to a younger demographic . This served them well for a period but it was always short termism . Tastes have changed now and the younger gaming audience is more likely to play Fornite than WoW . Also if you make the game too easy it becomes boring after a while because you achieve everything you need to within a shorter period of time so you end up cancelling your sub .

There have been times over the last ten years I have gone back for a month or two or taken a free welcome back offer up so I know what the game is like now and it is a shadow of the game it was from the 2004 -2009 period .

At least there is classic coming out this year and given the new mmo’s releasing this year all seem pretty uninteresting I might even be back . Let’s hope they don’t mess that up too by introducing dungeon finders on pvp servers . I wouldn’t be surprised by this time next year the classic servers will have more player than the live ones .

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Utakata

Or tl,dr: The only folks to blame here for the less than stellar BfA expansion is Blizzard, and not Activision. /deal

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Dobablo

BfA is a refined iteration of the previous game. The only folks to blame are the WoW fans who wanted more and better but got more with marginal tweaks.

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Randy Savage

Rubbish. The fans wanted Legion 2.0. We got Legion 0.5. There’s nothing refined about BfA compared to its Legion predecessor. It’s almost as if they developed the damn thing in a vacuum because they’re incapable of admitting their mistakes, let alone correcting them for future iterations.

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Utakata

If you think “refined” here is cut and neutered all the good stuff that made Legion successful, then you’ll have no argument from me.

However, if you think “WoW fans” are the only ones to blame here, then what nonsense. They didn’t develop and publish the game. /shrug

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Bruno Brito

I don’t think you know what “refined” means.

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Manos Vasiliadis

People will find something to blame anyway and it doesn’t really matter. The realization here is that the blizzard we knew 15 years ago doesn’t exist anymore.

I liked bellular’s theory about Activision and Blizzard being polar opposites in terms of business practices, and as they merged they were bound to influence one another. BfA is the amalgamation of that merge. All the expansions since Wotlk had glaring issues but now they stepped a bit too far.

I find it not fair to leave out the rest of the blizzard games in articles like this, because the bigger picture is more telling of the abomination blizzard has become. Also Destiny 2. Is that blizzard’s fault alone?

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Zora

Well, blizzard post-vivendi survived as a company solely because Kotick dragged their sorry complacent arses out of the venture-capitalism chopping block they were all collectively destined for, so a growing influence is there at some point.

But it’s the very same influence they always have been subjected and willingly exposed themselves to the moment they went public: print money and do as you will, fail and get reined in.

When you cock-up the colossal black hole that project titan was or fail to grow your portfolio consistently for years, your shareholders will come knocking and demand more control over your operations whether it’s activision, vivendi or mother therese.

And the failures that led to shorter leashes are their own, nobody questioned the golden hen until it stopped laying eggs ensuring all it’s worth for now is for broth :P

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Cosmic Cleric

When you cock-up the colossal black hole that project titan was

Can’t help thinking that that was a cancellation by Activision because “MMO’s are no longer a thing (profitable)”business reason, rather than because Blizzard failed building it reasons.

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Neurotic

I still don’t really understand the BfA hate. I’m not a raider or a PvPer, so maybe that’s it. I log in every day (almost) for an hour or two (more if I can), and play to my heart’s content. And I’ve done it like that since WoTLK (from EU beta through TBC I was a bit more hardcore).
But I’ve enjoyed every expansion, esp. Cata and MoP (WoD was cool but quite confusing). To me, BfA is awesome because it’s a) more grounded than Legion (was getting tired of the cosmic stuff), and b) does Indeed dip back into some interesting recent lore to serve up fresh Azerothian fun. I only hope the next ex-pack follows suit.

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Manos Vasiliadis

Unless you are a new player to the game, what’s hard to understand?
Classes are dull because they are the same as legion minus some skills. Gearing is the worst and something the devs already acknowledged and try to fix. Content is coming out at larger intervals than it did in legion. Game is feeling like a hunt for rng to roll a better item.
To be content with BfA is fine, but is not really an argument. It did some things better than legion, but the main issues are around system designs, not art and lore.

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Utakata

Mr. Neurotic is unlikely a new player here. But someone who in their opinion enjoys BfA. You are free to disagree with our Vulcan friend as I do. But the fact remains he likes this expansion for whatever reasons. He’s probably not the only one. So give him a break! :)

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Anton Mochalin

I’m totally okay with World of Warcraft because I don’t play it. Can’t even imagine why you think I’m not happy with it.