Blizzard is going through some changes at the moment. This is a good thing, as Blizzard has made it clear that it is a gigantic open sewer long filled with vile predators and people who enabled those predators via inaction. You probably don’t need to be reminded that J. Allen Brack is out and a pair of Activision suits are now in charge of the studio, but just in case you did need to be reminded… there’s your reminder. And occasionally rather than talking about ethics or the fact that the company is a fecal rodeo, I do actually talk about the game this column is named after!
Yeah, at this point, World of Warcraft itself is lower on the priority list.
Now that there’s new management in charge, though, I wanted to take some time to speculate on what I see as the most likely eventualities – or at least a likely set of eventualities – for the future of this particular game. And it starts with re-examining a central conceit that I laid down in an earlier column about what needs to happen in order for major changes to take place within the game.
For those of you who don’t want to read that particular column, the short version is that in order for major changes to actually happen to the game’s design philosophy, there needs to be a shift in the upper management in a rather significant way. When I wrote about that in May, it sure didn’t seem particularly likely. But now we have two new people in charge of Blizzard who are, in very non-hyperbolic and practical terms, like a sledgehammer to the existing edifice.
We’ve also seen a pretty consistent bloodbath in the upper echelons of directors and supervisors who seem like they might be accountable for some of this ongoing sex scandal that Activision desperately wishes would go away in the court of public opinion if nowhere else. So… yeah, that big management shakeup I mentioned? We might actually be seeing that happening.
Here’s the next important point in the short term: I see this being bad news for Ion Hazzikostas. Not because I believe that he’s at this point one of the unnamed individuals in the lawsuit, but because the new management has a different perspective than Brack did. Brack saw someone who was, for better or worse, one of the stalwart members of this particular team. The new studio heads, though, might look at him instead as someone whose leadership has seen a precipitous decline in the game’s concurrent users while the studio has steadily bled its userbase as an aggregate.
Does that look good for you?
It’s a little too early and far too hyperbolic to declare that the writing is on the wall for Hazzikostas in his current capacity, but just from a hypothetical standpoint, if I were an executive being sent in to make this division start being more profitable? The first thing I would want is for someone to be in charge who was actually working to give players what they say they want. Whether that’s the current guy in charge or not doesn’t really matter to me.
Hey, we want to boost our image and make this more profitable again, right? Give them cross-faction play and chat and grouping. Remove borrowed power. Give them deterministic gear. I want people to be saying that WoW is better than it’s ever been, and I want to see that happening by Friday. Get it together.
All right, they’re probably not actually going to talk about deterministic gear and borrowed power. That’s not the point. You get what I’m actually arguing here. More control means more control, and in the short term, this probably sounds actually kind of awesome. If you’re anyone other than a cutting-edge Mythic raider (and really, even if you are that), you’ve been subsisting on a diet of bread and water for a long time; the idea of suddenly being a priority in a push to win back the crowd probably sounds like your diet has just shifted to soft drinks and frosting.
Is it a good thing? Well… if I’m right, it will be. For a little while, at least.
See, I didn’t choose my analogy there by throwing darts at a board. If you’ve ever tried to eat a whole can of frosting before (read: If you’ve ever been a college student), you probably have found that for the first few spoonfuls, it’s amazing. It’s the best thing ever. The problem is that you quickly realize that this can of frosting has a lot of frosting in it, and before you’re halfway through, your teeth are probably hurting and you’re sick of all the frosting. You’re realizing that as nice as frosting is, it gets to be a bit much really quickly without anything to cut the flavor.
Do you know what Activision wants out of Blizzard? The short version is that it wants World of Warcraft to be like Call of Duty. Maybe not in the sense of pumping out a new expansion every year (though that would definitely be nice), but absolutely in the sense of providing a regular stream of new content that gets good reviews without controversy and without problems.
The problem in this scenario isn’t that we won’t get something we want. The problem comes down to motivation. The difference in what is getting served up is not a matter of things being changed due to a philosophical shift within the design staff but rather a design philosophy shifting from a wrong-headed perspective to one that’s entirely focused on a steady content churn that no one can take too much offense to. It means that there’s no longer an emphasis on concluding or telling stories or any of the things people claim they want Blizzard to fix; just on getting a marketable expansion out post-haste.
In the longer term, it’s hard to say that this is going to be strictly better than what we have now. On the bright side, we’ll no longer be dealing with the ego of people who have a need for the top end to get ever higher while the majority of players remain stuck in place. But it means more motivation for esports in different venues, more push to get any content out the door, and far more motivation to just keep hammering things down over time. If you think the storytelling is weak now, just wait until we’re on another yearly expansion that’s trying to convince us this new big bad is actually worse than the Legion, and you know it’s not building to anything because it can’t.
Or, to put it more simply, WoW will steadily go from being a product that is assembled from genuine, if wrong-headed, passion… to being one that is unambiguously an assembly line product, where people are just pumping out the next part because that needs to release this quarter, and if it’s disliked than the next release will roll a lot of that back.
Is that a better future than what we have now? I don’t know. I don’t actually have the ability to predict the future. But it’s sure what seems likely to me.