WoW Factor: Some thoughts on the Microsoft acquisition of Activision-Blizzard

Actually call it a comeback.

At this point, keeping up with what’s going on with Activision-Blizzard is far more of an involved project than keeping up with World of Warcraft itself. This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the exact opposite of where I want to be in my career. I got into this field because I really loved WoW and wanted to talk about it, not because I had a deep and abiding affection for corporate shenanigans and a desire to keep track of who’s acquiring whom for absurd sums of money.

Unfortunately, the world is what it is, and whether or not I eagerly want to piece together corporate nonsense has no impact on whether or not there is corporate nonsense to piece together. And let’s not mince words, there are obviously thing to talk about when it comes to this acquisition, as well as speculation on what might happen in the future. So yes, let’s take a look at what we know right now and what impacts this leadership change might have for WoW in general.

First of all, I want to make it clear that my knowledge about this is comes only from experience with how these things usually go, not from either being a deep corporate insider or having more than a cursory understanding. That’s your mountain of salt to munch on as you continue through this particular article. While I am capable of being knowledgeable, it’s still far, far too early to be sure about any of this, especially as even rank and file employees had no knowledge of this ahead of time and were caught completely off-guard.

With all that in mind… well, now we know why Phil Spencer backed off on his negative comments about how terrible Activision-Blizzard management is, huh?

All right, that’s a little too cynical, so let’s try to be a bit more serious. It seems to me that it’s almost a foregone conclusion that a lot of the current corporate structure of Activision-Blizzard is going to change after some time in the transition phase, which is pretty normal; usually you have the same people in a leadership role for a time followed by people being replaced and redundancies being settled. So that is… probably a good thing, given the actual current leadership of Activision-Blizzard.

The obvious things that a lot of people are wondering about (“Will we get WoW on the Xbox?”) are honestly kind of far down on the list at the moment. From a leadership standpoint, what Microsoft wants to do first and foremost is consolidate its hold and repair image problems. Ports and things like that are things to worry about later… if ever. Because WoW actually looks like less of a gem when you start digging into it.

Ever onward.

I don’t mean that in the obvious way that WoW has been plagued by terrible design decisions for ages now and desperately needs new people in charge of it – that should be obvious – but Microsoft also doesn’t care except insofar as it loses money. And on a balance sheet, that’s what WoW looks like right now. It’s a game that was a big deal at one point but has been declining over the years, and it’s definitely not the star of the show for any part of Activision beyond Blizzard itself.

That’s not to say that the new leadership is likely to cut it loose, just that the game needs to be evaluated within this context. Much as when the leadership of Blizzard was brought closer into the Activision fold, this is a place where the people now making the decisions are going to be asking questions about profitability, first and foremost. This may or may not mean good things for the game in the future; I’ve already discussed how this could have short-term benefits and long-term drawbacks.

Of course, there’s also the long-term drawback that Microsoft will soon own another big software company, which is… actually something to be kind of worried about on a whole, especially if you care about the overall environment of game development.

Microsoft has been throwing its weight around buying developers outright over the past few years, and it’s a little surprising to me how many people are generally on board with this. I understand it on one level, of course; there’s reason to be excited to have more titles on Xbox Games Pass, for example, and for no reason that’s ever been adequately explained there seems to be a general perception that this gigantic multinational corporation is somehow a bastion of gaming compared to other gigantic multinational corporations.

But in a larger sense, there’s something to be a little leery about when all of the franchises and studios are controlled by an increasingly small pool of companies. It’s not technically monopolistic, but it runs into the same problem with things like Steam, when one company has an outsized impact on the industry due to simply controlling the infrastructure. There should be some reluctance to cheer this on.

At the same time, there is also an ongoing push-pull cycle in this sort of consolidation; studios get consolidated into smaller groups, smaller studios get bigger, acquisitions happen, onward and in cycles forever. So even though it’s worth keeping this in mind, this is more of a consideration than a red alarm to be raised.

The audience is not amused.

Ultimately, I find myself in the camp that is cautiously optimistic only because things proceeding as they had been already for WoW was clearly not going to work. This might produce no changes whatsoever and might, really, be irrelevant in the game’s larger ongoing decay, but it also has the possibility of having some actual long-term impacts in the positive.

But make no mistake, what we’re talking about here is a chance. The dilution of Blizzard as a distinct entity had already begun and will now be accelerated, not ameliorated by this particular change. If anything, this is even more likely to shine a sharp light on what Blizzard is doing and how the studio is managing its IPs and its overall deployment; the battered nonsense that has been jokingly called a pipeline for the studio’s development is not going to be allowed to continue under Microsoft. Heck, I wrote another whole article about how Blizzard will never be Blizzard again.

This is just making that even more official. Blizzard is part of Microsoft, or will be soon enough. Whatever else is going on with the studio from this point forward needs to be taken with that in mind. On the one hand, that means a lot of what made the studio distinct is going to have to go away; on the other hand, given what we now know about the behind-the-scenes nonsense going on at Blizzard, this may not be such a bad thing after all.

And ultimately, all of it comes down to a distressingly large amount of speculation because WoW seems to still be coasting along on the existing plan and pretending that everything is fine. I can only imagine the turmoil going on with development right now, but you can be assured that this is introducing a fresh wrinkle into what is already a messy period in the game’s history.

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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