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

    
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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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Anthony Clark

This is what happens when you have an executive branch that completely disconnected from the reality of the customer base, and is nothing more than greedy.

As with a lot of issues, this is very poor leadership. The head of the snake must be taken off first.

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Jeremy Barnes

Well, we’ve seen diablo immortal in action… when are they adding the ‘elevating mobile gameplay’?

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Utakata

With the development side being increasingly stacked by the Peter Principle and while the corporate side is increasingly being stacked with shit-gibbons, none of this is coming off as any surprise…

…although at the time, number of players and myself saw the writing on the wall of this when Blizz merged with ActiVison. While it gave Blizz greater resources, assets, yada yada, it’s clear now when they made a deal with the Devil, their souls will be eventually collected down the road. /sigh

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Brinto Sfj

Incoming “Boby did nothing wrong” comments… very soon…

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Ashfyn Ninegold

That was a good article and highlights how a single narrative about a complex organization doesn’t begin to tell the story. Every individual has a story, a reason, a motivator.

Diablo may well save Blizzard’s hindquarters, which would be ironic considering how thoroughly ActiBlizz disowned D3 for so long.

Cheng and communicating: It’s clear the team didn’t take the DI announcement seriously enough. Which shows they didn’t understand how abandoned the Diablo community felt. A simple glance at the forums, or really any D3 fan media at the time, would have given them a clue. Are they still as isolated from their fans?

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Bruno Brito

I think the investor who thinks the bleeding can be stopped and Blizzard can be saved is either naive or too hopeful. The mass 30% drop of players didn’t happen because of one bad xpac, it happened because of consistent bad decisions that seem to have no end to them. Recovering these kind of players is extremely hard. Also, both OW2 and D4 will be B2P games, which means it helps with a burst of cashflow but doesn’t guarantee retention and that’s what Blizzard struggles with these days.

The way i see it, their best retention tool is WoW, and they’ll need to heavily change their design philosophy if they want this game to recover old players and get new ones. Blizzard settled the trend for players to be content-locusts and now it’s biting them in the ass.

Poetic.

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jealouspirate

I read the whole thing and thought it was a great article. Lots of nuanced discussion, not just the typical “Blizzard bad” that you see a lot these days.

Interesting to see how, even with the number of people leaving, Blizzard’s employee turnover is still lower than average in the industry, especially for people with 10+ years experience. Their abnormally high employee retention is partly what draws so much attention to the departures, since it’s not the usual for Blizzard like at other companies. Of course the individuals who have left were also greatly admired by staff, so it has a disproportionate effect on morale.

Will be interested to see how the next couple years go for Blizzard. I think if D4 and OW2 are big hits, and Immortal rakes in cash in Asia, this will just be seen as an unfortunate few years and things will be good again. However, if those games keep getting pushed back and then underperform, it’ll be pretty bad.

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Dug From The Earth

“We sold out to activision” events lead desperate games journalist site to report on the obvious.

Im pretty sure if you delved into google enough you would find past articles from IGN speaking positively of the introduction of Blizzard into the Activision hive mind.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

Technically, Blizzard “sold out” to Davidson & Associates in 1994 and has been owned by somebody else ever since.

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Utakata

While that maybe true, I believe the real seal of fate of that came with the ActiVision merger.

SirUrza
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SirUrza

Why do all the IGN links point to a Gamasutra article from March about Activision hiring a new CFO?