The weird thing about my current position is that for the first time in at least a little while, there isn’t a new disaster to talk about when it comes to World of Warcraft. Don’t get me wrong, the game still has a plethora of problems, but all of them are problems I’ve discussed extensively before now. It’s not new stuff. And while I could talk about how it feels curious to me that the game is currently unwilling to let its patches breathe for even a moment before promising the next thing is coming, today I want to talk about… Overwatch 2.
Don’t worry, I’m not going into some hellish reality wherein my job involves watching Blizzard as a whole or something. But Overwatch 2’s meteoric fall actually offers an important lesson, and it can be smartly be applied to WoW as it stands. Not in a direct parallel, but in the sense that it contains a number of lessons in microcosm that Blizzard seems intent on not learning – to its peril.
When Overwatch launched, it was a hit. This was in the time before Blizzard had a reputation like the one it currently does, and the promise of a new IP from the company was actually embraced… and there was good reason for that. But it did face criticism pretty quickly because while there was a lot of game to like if you were a fan of endless arena matches with a cast of colorful characters, there was kind of nothing else there if that didn’t delight you.
I don’t mean to downplay that aspect, mind you. For some people, Blizzard games have always thrived on their multiplayer aspects. But for many of the studio’s previous offerings, some of the success was that there were two tracks you could enjoy equally or separately. You could just go nuts on multiplayer, or you could focus on single-player story-driven gameplay, or you could enjoy both equally. Overwatch had only the former.
At launch, this was described as an experiment in handling story differently, but in practice it was… well, not that. There was no story movement in the game whatsoever because there kind of couldn’t be, and while the game still had fans, there was a hole there, something very much missing. We know that lack was felt by players and the studio itself because when Overwatch 2 was announced, the focus was overwhelmingly placed on the idea that now there’s story and PvE gameplay and something other than endless team-based shooting.
It was a good announcement and the right one to make. Sure, it was kind of weird to have a sequel to add in the basic story of the game (remember, OW2’s trailer picks up basically five minutes after the first game’s premise), but whatever. It was a good pitch.
It’s a shame that game got cancelled after launch.
The point of this column is not recounting all of that but to skip to now, when the most recent financial report makes it clear that this game is in full-on floundering mode. The fact that it’s coming to Steam tells you everything you need to know; if Blizzard is willing to do that to OW2, that’s a sign that a failure there is considered largely irrelevant. We’ve gone from a big success story to total irrelevance, and a big part of that is that regardless of when the studio decided to pull the entire draw of OW2 out of its development pipeline, the developers did so on the basis of total misapprehension.
Free-to-play did not expand the game’s audience because the audience who liked Overwatch already played Overwatch. It made the splash it was going to make. What could have actually drawn in more players was the idea of gameplay that the original did not offer, and that wasn’t on display at launch. Even if the launch hadn’t already been controversial and hadn’t been the subject of some serious side-eye (and it was on both counts), that wasn’t going to draw in new players. Instead, it drove off existing players.
Announcing (well, admitting would be more accurate) that the game was never getting 90% of the content people were looking forward to just cemented that. Whether or not the developers behind that choice have realized what they’ve done or not is inconsequential; the writing is on the wall. People are leaving, and they’re not coming back. Why would they come back? The sequel ultimately made things worse for the people who were already there and did nothing to draw in people who weren’t. It’s the worst of all possible worlds.
Watching the Overwatch League crumble as well… I can’t imagine the people internally are unaware of how badly this is all going. However bad it looks from here, it probably looks worse behind the scenes.
So what’s the lesson here? Well, if you look at the arc, you see a game that had an audience, reached a peak, slowly lost that audience, and has now continued to lose that audience while promising the other audience it already alienated that they have no reason to bother coming back. Oh yeah, and all the rich people who invested in OWL at its height are pissed. Roll credits.
Do you see the applicability?
One of the big points that I and many other people have noted about Dragonflight is that in many places it is at least a half-step toward better decisions. It still has a lot of the major flaws that prior expansions have had, but they are softened. They are lessened. And that’s good.
But looking at the financial reports? Looking at the user counts? Just taking stock of of everything? OW2 should be a wake-up call. WoW has a huge audience that it has alienated, and those players are not coming back. I don’t need to speculate about that fact because we have three quarters of financial reports making that abundantly clear. Dragonflight did not light people on fire. Yet we still have interviews wherein Ion Hazzikostas is parroting the same line that he’s very proud of about how gearing shouldn’t involve predictable results or it gets boring.
My dude. My guy. However deeply held your beliefs may be, the facts on paper are against you. What you thought was a half-step toward making things better was not enough.
If the next expansion for the game is just a little better than Dragonflight, it wouldn’t be surprising if the game starts moving into a much lower-budget era in general because it’s a sign that forward momentum is just gone. WoW needs players excited about it. Not just the current players, but the whole base of potential and former WoW players in general. It needs an overhaul of how it prioritizes playstyles, rewards, and content in general. Blizzard is past the point where it could reasonably get by with half measures.
This is not, in and of itself, a novel observation. It’s not even a novel observation from me. But it’s hard to imagine being inside meetings where you’re watching OW2 fall apart and thinking to yourself that it has no applicability to your own shrinking audience. And that means taking a look at what you had considered an actual hard line and worthwhile design for players and asking yourself if you’re not causing your own problem.
Of course, considering the current brain trust in charge of WoW it’s hard to imagine that self-reflection is exactly abundant. But that’s what escalates the whole thing to farcical levels.