My initial plan this week was to write about whether or not World of Warcraft was successfully creating an echo chamber in which everyone still invested in the game was basically complicit in parroting bad arguments about how the game’s content should be developed. This is still a true statement, and I think it’s the sort of thing worth examining, especially when that was exactly what helped spell doom for Carbine Studios in short order. But before I sat down to write it, I found myself asking an even better question: Does Blizzard as a whole even care?
Obviously, when I ask this question it’s more about upper management, as I have no doubt there are people working within the rank-and-file who care a great deal about WoW and want to make it the best game that it can possibly be. These people either do not seem to have senior decision-maker power, or their conception of “the best game it can possibly be” is a very narrow option with starkly limited appeal. But my real question is whether the leadership shares that interest, and we have to discuss that by starting with understanding why Overwatch was a success.
Here’s the thing: I think if you talked to someone about the strengths of Blizzard before WoW came out, one of the things that people would point to was the strength of the studio’s storytelling.
A lot of things led to the popularity of what were at the time the studio’s three big gems: Diablo II, StarCraft, and Warcraft III. The strong multiplayer options, a sense of continued support, and a tendency to throw in everything that seemed cool with a gleeful adolescent excess – those were already there. But a key part to what made all of this stuff really memorable was the storytelling. Characters like Arthas, Illidan, Kerrigan, Artanis, the Prime Evils, and so forth stuck in people’s minds. It was clear that this was a studio that placed as high an emphasis on narrative as it placed on mechanics.
Whether or not these things were as good as you remember or not is, in this case, kind of irrelevant. Yes, there are definitely flaws in these games, frequently many as I look back on them. But the impression was there, and so WoW kind of inherited the expectation that it would be made by this studio that cared as much about narrative as it cared about strong mechanical foundations.
Fast-forward to now, and even WoW’s most ardent fans will try to spin the narrative that this isn’t a story-focused game and who cares about the game’s story? No one has ever cared about the story. And of course this is wrong, but it also has a point: It turns out that “story” might not have actually been what Blizzard ever focused on to a memorable degree. Or at least, it’s not what the studio wants to capitalize on these days.
Overwatch does not have a story. Oh, it has a background narrative that has been built up very slowly over the years it’s been around, and supposedly the game’s sequel will eventually include PvE content and story. That was even the focal point when Overwatch 2 was announced. Now it’s an afterthought, and if/when that gets cancelled, it’ll make sense because I think Overwatch marked a shift in how the studio thought of itself.
If I ask you to explain your favorite Overwatch character to me, you will most likely have one story, if any, in which that character actually took any actions. These characters are not memorable because of their stories because they don’t freaking have any. What they have are introductory vignettes and character concepts – stuff that you later plug into an actual narrative to make an interesting story.
But it seems as if Blizzard has decided it’s way easier to just market the character concept. People will still buy shirts with Mei on them even if Mei never actually does anything or has a character arc. And giving her actual things to do beyond a vague collection of traits runs the risk of people getting annoyed that she’s being characterized badly or doesn’t live up to her potential or whatever.
There definitely seems to have been a shift in how Blizzard thinks about its characters. No longer are characters the players you use to tell a story. Now, it seems the point is the characters, and the story is at best something you set up to give the characters something to do. Consider how much Nova appeared as a memorable character despite not actually having a starring role in any game until StarCraft II DLC that wasn’t even very well received.
I definitely think that Blizzard sees Warcraft as a valuable IP. But I increasingly get the sense that its leadership doesn’t see its characters or its setting as the pieces to tell a story. The franchise is considered valuable because there are characters to mine within it, and frankly trying to tell actual stories with people like Sylvanas apparently just leads to problems anyway. Sure, you could point out that the problems are a direct result of inconsistent writing and characterization, but at the same time, I don’t think any of the people making decisions about this really think that hard about it to begin with.
On some level this is not unique. Many people have pointed out that at this point, actual physical comic books don’t make money for Marvel or DC Comics; they’re basically marketing for ideas and seeing which concepts take off with consumers, sort of like selling people market research. It’s not exactly stunning to think that Blizzard might see WoW itself as more of a legacy product the studio is obligated to support rather than one of the crown jewels of the studio over the past several years.
A worse possibility, though, is that the studio does still see this game as a necessary and vital part of its ongoing strategy. Obviously money is still being sunk into development, and it obviously has an impact on Blizzard’s MAU counts and overall revenue. In which case, we’re once again left wondering why the studio continues on a course that seems to broadly discard an awful lot of feedback and opinions about the direction of the game.
But at that point we’re retreading a lot of the same old ground, and there’s not much more to say about it, is there?
I’m not arguing that Blizzard regards the Warcraft IP fundamentally as a thing to harvest for memorable characters at this point, although projects like Arclight Rumble definitely lend some credence to that particular theory. I’m mostly saying that it’s worth asking the question and considering that perhaps this is the primary goal of the MMO at this point: to make characters people connect with so they can later be resold and repackaged.
That’s a pretty cynical take on things, but given the game’s existing issues and current development environment, I think it’s also an honest take. Just because something is cynical and depressing to consider doesn’t make it wrong, after all.