New Blizzard analysis chronicles the studio’s five-year decline and developer exodus

Yes, it's really weird to talk about Warlords in the context of a success, for me as much as you.

The slow decline of Blizzard has been exhaustively covered over the last couple of years, but sometimes, it’s more jolting to see it all in print in one place, which is exactly what IGN has done in a new “special report” that characterizes the studio as a “company at a crossroads.” Blizzard’s narrative is that its string of high-profile departures over the last year is normal and lower than the industry average, but Bailey – with the help of a range of anon and public sources, including company directors and analysts – argues that the high rank of those leaving suggests a very different story about a team in turmoil.

The chronology isn’t new to MMO players: Overwatch’s launch in 2016 was a huge success for the company, as Blizzard spun up new incubator teams and esports pushes, and company leadership thought it was in the middle of a “little renaissance.” But by 2018, it became obvious that the pipeline was a lot longer than anyone thought, and it didn’t have enough games on tap to put on a solid 2018 BlizzCon. 2019 brought mass layoffs and the Blitzchung fiasco. 2020 brought the Warcraft 3 disaster and COVID; 2021 brought still more layoffs and the hiring of extremely controversial (internally and externally) political appointees up the chain at Activision. And while the company on the whole continues making money, we’ve seen a massive slide in monthly active users and multiple departures of big names: Chris Metzen, Ben Brode, Dustin Browder, Jeff Kaplan, Tim Morten, Kevin Dong, Ray Gresko, Frank Pearce, Alex Afrasiabi, Chris Sigaty, Glenn Rane, Omar Gonzalez, Dave Kosak, and of course, Mike Morhaime himself, just to name a few. Sources in particular pointed to the shift from Morhaime to Brack as the line between “spend whatever you want” to “we need to cut costs.”

“A narrative emerged around this time among fans and media that Activision was clamping down and exerting more and more influence over Blizzard — a narrative that many within Blizzard believe. But Blizzard also continues to cherish what could be called its editorial independence, to the point that even talking about money is actively discouraged in some areas. A firewall of sorts has been constructed around the core game development teams, with every effort being made to protect Blizzard’s internal development culture. When the layoffs hit in 2019, game development escaped relatively unscathed.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound as if the wage disparities Blizzard employees agitated against last summer have been solved either; pay problems have apparently continued into 2021, as the most recent quarter closed with J. Allen Brack telling Blizzard employees that “reduced second-half profits for 2020” had led to a halving of the expected profits directed toward employees through the profit-sharing program, all set against the backdrop of massive profits for the Acti-Blizz execs. As one source put it, WoW and Hearthstone can pick up only so much slack for the rest of the studio.

“Like many other compensation programs, Blizzard’s profit-sharing program is directly tied to our business performance — the details have not changed for a number of years. Last year, we had successful releases, but we also heavily invested in our future,” told IGN publicly. “We’re looking forward to sharing what we’re working on with players, and ultimately rewarding our teams for their contributions.” Indeed, Brack basically told staff to hang in there a few more years until the big new games (Diablo IV and Overwatch 2) are shipped, at which point, remaining employees hope, the “bleeding” will stop.

Ultimately, it sounds like people are leaving in spite of their loyalty to Blizzard, partly because of burnout, partly because of Blizzard’s decline, partly because of operational problems, and partly because the money and opportunity is simply better elsewhere, especially as venture capitalists continue pouring cash into the industry and Blizzard continues tightening its purse strings and offloading work from laid-off staff to remaining staff.

A few other takeaways from the piece:

  • IGN talked to Wyatt Cheng about that disastrous 2018 BlizzCon and the infamous “don’t you have phones” remark. He admitted that Blizzard didn’t do a good job communicating its plans to “elevate” mobile game standards or reveal the game.
  • One analyst believes Overwatch 2 won’t make it out the door until 2023, but the overall sentiment is that Diablo IV and especially Diablo Immortal are going to blow up in both the West and East and potentially save Blizzard’s hide.
  • Having trouble keeping all the spin-off studios straight? We are too; we have a joke in our office about press releases on new studios founded by Blizzard vets because it seems like we get ’em all the time. They’re Second Dinner, Frost Giant, Lightforge Games, Secret Door, Dreamhaven, Moonshot, and Warchief Gaming.
Source: IGN
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