I really wanted to write a different column this week. I really did. But wouldn’t you know it, Activision-Blizzard had to remind everyone that it’s a horrible company along the way, and so here we are.
Let’s be clear about something here: That story is not about Blizzard specifically being bad, but rather about terrible behavior on the part of Activision corporate leadership, which has already given us a whole lot of gems in terms of terrible corporate behavior. You probably already knew that. And yes, it managed to run headlong into Blizzard trying to drum up hype about one of its games in the near future and on the day itself, but one wasn’t created to distract from the other; it’s just a case of awful coincidence. Sometimes bad things are actually accidental.
But I think this is kind of on the minds of everyone with the World of Warcraft expansion announcement just around the corner (we’ve already talked about how it’s almost certainly Dragonflight, and that has my actual predictions). This is Blizzard trying to win back the crowd, yes, absolutely. But some of that crowd isn’t looking at Blizzard askance just because of terrible design choices but because of gigantic scandals. What about those people?
The answer, of course, is that Dragonflight is not going to win those gamers over. It can’t. It never was meant to. It’s impossible.
You can look at this from a cynical standpoint if you want and say that this is just how Blizzard always reacts to a scandal breaking, just like when it completely screwed things up regarding Hong Kong. You could also look at this with a slightly more charitable lens if you’d like and say that there’s only so much Blizzard can do to really make up for years and years and years of empowering sexual harassers now that (most of?) those people are gone and (some of?) the people who kept them in power are gone. In both cases, though, the end strategy seems pretty clear to me. “Hopefully, if we do a good enough job with games, none of that is going to matter.”
And whether you’re cynical or charitable in your reading, the end result is the same. Just like when I was raking Blizzard over the coals for how the company managed the Hong Kong scandal, I noted that we had reached a point when Blizzard had done everything it was going to do. You could forgive the studio or not, but if you were hoping that further absence would make it change its tune further… it was best to disabuse yourself of that notion. It just wasn’t in the cards.
Does that mean you’re obligated to forgive and forget? No. Quite the opposite. It means you have to start asking yourself a much harder question: Is there a future when I can forgive any of this? Because the answer is going to vary from person to person.
But the point here is that we’re not just talking about forgiveness and whether or not it can be given, or whether or not it’s earned, or any of that. What we’re talking about here is Dragonflight and whether or not you can overlook all of the stuff I just talked about in order to be hyped up for the next expansion… and more importantly, how little the next expansion announcement is really going to do about that.
WoW’s next expansion is stuck in a very unpleasant place for a lot of reasons, but I think it’s facing a much bigger lift than any previous expansion has. When Legion was announced, it had to win back a crowd that had been burned by a bad expansion immediately before. Dragonflight has to win back a crowd that’s been burned by two bad expansions before it, and a crowd that’s extremely angry at this studio for being horrible on several levels and mismanaging two back-to-back scandals, one of which is still open and active.
So what’s the approach going to be? It’s pretty obvious: “If we do a good enough job with this expansion, it’s not actually going to matter.”
Again, you can read this with a cynical or charitable eye. You can genuinely believe that Blizzard is trying to do better than it has in the past with diversity and weeding out harassment, or you can genuinely believe that the roots of unionization and worker’s rights have now worked their way so thoroughly into the studio that it can’t be rooted out and the workers will, eventually, win. You can genuinely believe that there are only so many amends to be made and it’s not worth forever trying to change and fix things.
Or you can believe that a bandage has been slapped on the most egregious wounds and a show has been made to hopefully mollify the angriest voices in the audience. I don’t know which one is the truth, and I suspect it’s not even a case of one being right or wrong; they’re more likely both true in portions. Sometimes these things can be like that.
But regardless of how you read things, the point remains that if you were expecting more truly significant changes… well, that doesn’t seem to be happening, and the studio has had more than a year now. What we’ve got is what we’ve got, and for every new diversity boss and charity pledge, we get another story about unionbusting and corruption. And Dragonflight has to be taken as its own thing, not as a commentary on that.
This is not the same as saying it should be taken wholly on its own, or even that you can fully divorce this announcement from its surrounding context. Things don’t happen in a sealed container, segmented off from everything else. Rather, I’m saying that if you’re still asking a question of whether or not you can find it in yourself to accept and move on from Blizzard’s ongoing roil of corporate scandals, that’s a separate question from whatever happens during the expansion reveal.
And in fact, you should be asking both questions. Because if you think that the strategy of “here’s a new game you want, aren’t you willing to overlook our other stuff” is kind of gross? You’re right.
Our world and our lives are filled to the brim with people who believe, correctly or not, that so long as they do something well enough, it doesn’t matter how bad they are at anything else. The restaurant that believes it’s fine for it to lobby against LGBTQ rights so long as it makes very good chicken sandwiches. The plumber who thinks you’ll keep hiring him if he’s cheap and does good work even when he spouts racist epithets. The lawyer who knows that her husband isn’t going to leave over her infidelity so long as she keeps bringing home plenty of money.
And yes, the game company that believes you’ll overlook its scandals if it makes fun games.
Am I saying that it doesn’t matter how fun Dragonflight looks and you’re a bad person if you decide that it’s enough for you to go back to the game? No. I’m saying that you have to consider these two facts as separate clauses. You have to ask yourself “does Dragonflight look fun” and “can I forgive Blizzard for its behavior” separately.
Because Dragonflight cannot fix what is broken there. It never could. And if you can’t separate an expansion looking fun from whether or not you can move on from corporate foulness, you’re ultimately asking the wrong question about what is keeping you away from Blizzard.