If you want to chart the moment when Blizzard stopped being Blizzard, you got a really nice data point when J. Allen Brack stepped down yesterday. His replacements are not “Blizzard people.” These are not people who have been with the company for years on end and have ultimately been a part of the structure and culture through the year. They’re essentially Activision appointees, and they make it very clear that the days of Blizzard’s wholly cherished autonomy are over now.
This isn’t meant to be a eulogy for Brack, who has clearly been a terrible leader for Blizzard and successfully managed to botch multiple front-page scandals in the three years he’s been in charge. And that’s without counting his earlier time at the studio, since the lawsuit includes allegations that he utterly failed to handle the sexual harassment people knew full well was occurring within the studio for years. So I’m not going to miss Brack. But I think it’s really interesting that the studio behind World of Warcraft is collapsing in front of our eyes, and I think it’s worth considering a bit of what that means in a larger industry sense.
As with so many elements of this particular set of events that have been rampaging for a couple of weeks now, I want to really make a point of defining the terms and making it clear that I’m not trying to go for hyperbole. (Which, you know… is a real thing, I do love my hyperbole.) Blizzard is, more than likely, going to continue making up half of the name of Activision-Blizzard for some time. The studio is unlikely to close down. It’s even a little too early to be certain of what the future is going to be for WoW in terms of design principles, although I certainly have suspicions now; that’s a future column.
When I say that it will never be Blizzard again, I’m referring to two separate yet connected clauses that mean that while the name will remain intact, the image of the studio and the feelings it conjured are gone forever now. For one thing, it’s no longer operating with even a pretense of independence; for another, Blizzard’s myth of polish and cool has been destroyed irreversibly now.
For a game studio, Blizzard has always had a distinct identity – one that it’s eroded a lot in recent years, but one that’s still been there just the same. It was never a studio that put out a lot of games, nor one that blazed new trails in design. Instead, it put out products that were slow to release but polished, coherent, and built to have a long tail of support. Buying a new Blizzard game meant buying something you fully expected to enjoy alone or with friends for ages, and you expected the company would support that all the way along.
This was, in fact, a valuable myth to cultivate. It was an impression that the studio tried hard to play up, and I think at the root the whole idea of BlizzCon was always about selling what amounts to a consumer identity. It was a sleight of hand, treating your place as a marketing demographic as if it put you as part of some unique identity, but then… that was Blizzard. They were cool. They made pop culture jokes in addition to telling sweeping fantasy stories. They felt like scrappy underdogs and independent artists, like the last of some artistic bastion.
Or at least, that’s what the PR told you.
The reality, of course, was the Blizzard was never as cool or counter-cultural as it wanted people to believe. On some level, that’s fine. Getting people to feel like they’re cheering for an underdog is a time-honored trick, and it seemed like Blizzard’s employment of this particular trick was harmless. It’s only now that we look back at the ashes of years and years and years of harassment and abuse that it’s clear that not only was this a lie, but it wasn’t just a little lie. It was a lie right down to the bones.
And now it’s over. Because the one thing that Blizzard had managed to hold on to over the years wasn’t really about its characters. Despite the importance of the IPs that game like Heroes of the Storm are built around, Blizzard’s real powerhouse weapon was another myth: that the studio never really changed when Activision got involved. Sure, it had more money to throw around, but the image that it tried to cultivate was that nothing ever really changed at Blizzard.
This is a half-truth. Certainly the studio stayed more independent than you might have otherwise thought, but there were lots of subtle changes over the years that you could see if you paid close attention. HOTS feels like part of that, even. Sure, the multiplayer had always been an element of Blizzard’s games, but increasingly there seemed to be a push away from games offering any sort of story or single-player components to be enjoyed.
But it’s over now. The people who are in charge of the studio now don’t have any particular loyalty to Blizzard; they’re Activision people moved in to take over the control from Brack. Blizzard is, at the end of the day, an ailing studio that somebody professional needs to take charge of. And what do you think that’s going to do to the studio on every level?
It’s going to change it.
You might be keen to point out, of course, that the frankly egregiously disgusting crap that has clearly been going on behind the scenes means that changing Blizzard’s culture is a good thing. This is not just a company that can shift but in fact needs to do so. Do I need to refresh your memory on all of the crap we’ve been covering for the past two weeks related to this company? It’s awful. Changing this is a good thing, and it is clear that there is a sickness that needs to be purged.
There’s more sickness that’s going not purged at the top as well, of course, but the point here is that Brack needed to go. Not just because he happened to be presiding when things happened but because it was at least in part his bad leadership that led to the more recent abuses happening, and his mistakes that helped bring us to this point. He is, like the leaders who came before him, culpable.
But that’s why this is a death in two ways. Blizzard will no doubt changing because it no longer has even the veneer of independence it treasured for so long. It’s clear that this independence was not exactly a good thing, given what we now know was going on behind the scenes. These sorts of things happen every so often in the MMO space, but this is WoW’s studio falling apart in a way it doesn’t. Not like Daybreak, or something. Blizzard has problems, but it doesn’t collapse, right?
And it’s still not collapsing in that sense. The name will live on. WoW will not shut down. That’s just silly to consider. Heck, there are possible positives here for the game that require another column. But… it won’t be under Blizzard any more. The Blizzard name will still appear, but we learned that the name never meant what we thought it did, and now the people in charge don’t care about what it was ever supposed to mean.
It’s gone now. And that is… kind of astonishing.
The saga so far: