Massively Overthinking: What’s Blizzard’s next move?

    
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Gamers and pundits talked a big talk about Blizzard’s prospects over the last few years. Don’t worry about the weak revenues and plunging MAUs, they said. Don’t react to the problematic corporate behavior and the stock massaging. Don’t stress over the delayed pipeline and content droughts. Overwatch 2 and Diablo IV will save the studio, and Microsoft will save the workers.

And now here we are, and the actual real-life numbers show that the pipeline has tapered out again, without a big boom to show for it. Oh, sure, Blizzard snagged a ton of players with the free-to-play launch of Overwatch 2 last year… and lost almost all of them. And it made a ton of money from Diablo IV… but its playerbase continues to shrink anyway, all while World of Warcraft, once the company’s crown jewel, shuffles along unremarked in the background. And looming over all of it is still Microsoft’s impending buyout, now unimpeded by regulators.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I want to talk about what’s going on with this company – call it a mid-year predictions post, centered on this one studio that’s become such a hub for drama over the last five years. What in the heck is happening at Blizzard? Where do we see the company in a year? Three? Five? What specific reasons are there to hope or despair when you look at the remaining pipeline and prospects for the company? And what do you think Microsoft is going to do first? What’s Blizzard’s next move?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I was actually just talking about the state of Blizz with another gamer. Unless Microsoft is somehow going to free Blizzard from Activision, at best, Blizzard will just be like EA, putting out expensive games with high price tags that the masses will buy and complain about. Maybe win a few awards. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen at Blizzard if nothing changes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we either get an Overwatch 3 or an Overwatch spinoff or two.

If Microsoft does actually do something and cares about the Blizzard-that-was, I think it’d start to move out Activision heads/hires from the Blizz game development process. I’m not sure if that would help much, as I’ve barely touched any Blizzard products in the last few years, but Diablo IV is popular with some of my contacts, so the studio hasn’t totally lost its touch. Perhaps that could help bring back the OW2 playerbase. Sadly, though, between its age and “meh” expansions, I can’t see World of Warcraft becoming big again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft pushes for a sequel if it’s feeling it.

Andy McAdams: Whatever’s happening over there, there’s almost guaranteed to be a low-level hum of panic and desperation as the subtext to every conversation and interaction internally. I don’t play Overwatch, but the strategy there is scattered at best. While I don’t many people would say they aren’t playing OW because of the scattered approach explicitly, I think the many competing narratives and themes, combined with samey-gameplay, and predatory monetization pushed a lot of folks out of the game.

I played Diablo IV, and the experience was really polished. Sure, there were bugs, but they were infrequent enough to be forgiven. But classes were unbalanced unless you followed the min-maxed builds, and the slightest deviation had huge issues for your survivability, especially on Rogue. Even that could be forgiven if the experience wasn’t so… samey. I didn’t even get close to level 100, and I got bored with the grind. It felt pointless: After level 20 or so, the only items you cared about were legendaries, and 99.999% of everything else got either vendored or broken down for parts, and even a huge number of legendaries were completely useless. Gold dropped at absolutely stupid rates, and everything was expensive as hell to that point it was nonsensical. It suffered from a lack of direction and an over-reliance on the promise of the season system to give you something to do – but only if you enjoy playing the same content, with less procedural generation, eighty-thousand times. It was a fun gaming experience wrapped in a series of decisions that made no sense when taken as a whole. I played D2 and D3 for huge amounts of time. I played D4 for a few weeks.

Dragonflight did the best it could have. It was a fun expansion and probably the most fun I’ve had in WoW in a long time. But Dragonflight didn’t save WoW; it just bought time. It slowed down the hemorrhaging of subscribers enough to give Blizz some small measure of breathing room. I got bored of the game when I wanted to play my drakthyr, but my only options were mythics or raids until my eyes bled or just grinding out the same five world quests – and that’s a huge problem. The game was fun, but there weren’t enough of the parts I found fun. Dragonflight was a good expansion with a lot going for it, but it wasn’t enough.

If Blizzard is going to make a rebound, WoW is its only hope to do so. WoW still has a dedicated fanbase and legions of people who want it to succeed. WoW has decades of folks with an emotional connection to the game who would love to play a game that wanted them in it. Blizzard has already started a tiny, sullen pivot towards making the game about more than mythic+ and raid epeenery, perhaps a small recognition that raiders and mythic+ don’t pay the bills in the game (surprise – they never have). And yes for as much of an uphill journey it will be, turning WoW around will be exponentially easier than OW2 or Diablo IV. The devs are already on the path, however much they resent it, and they have a legion of players eager to come back to Azeroth, if we were only given a reason to do so.

But let me be clear, continuing at the current speed and direction is not how Blizzard makes a comeback. It needs to build on the momentum from the best parts of Dragonflight to do even more of that and faster. Ion needs to realize that focus groups of elite raiders and mythic+ champs are not representative of his game’s userbase. While it’s never been a winning strategy for WoW, catering to those folks is losing now even harder than it was before. Ion needs to find a way to make elements of life sims, sandboxes, survival games equal peers to the raiders and mythic+ game design. The “raiders and mythic+ or GTFO” crowd cannot sustain WoW, and continuing to ignore that fact only wastes the opportunity Blizzard earned off the back of Dragonflight.

So Blizzard’s future, for better or worse, is entirely dependent on WoW’s future success. If Blizzard wanted to get really crazy, it would try to remake WoW into a next-gen game with virtual world elements. It won’t do it, but if it could turn WoW into an actual virtual world and still have all the stuff that makes the game great today, we’d see a seismic shift in the industry again.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I know Blizzard still has some games in development, like Arclight and the survival game, and I’m sure we’ll get another WoW expansion and some interesting spins on WoW Classic. Hearthstone will creep along too. But I don’t think Overwatch 2 will make it more than another couple of years. Maybe Overwatch Classic would be a fun revival, but eh. I am not anticipating Diablo IV having any more staying power with its seasons than Diablo III did, though I am sure it’ll get injections of buzz and money with the expansions in development.

But overall, it seems clear to me that Activision has wrung as much blood out of Blizzard as it possibly could, and I mean that on every level. The brain drain and worker abuse from the last half-decade has taken its toll on the institutional knowledgebase and talentbase at the company, and budgets are clearly being squeezed, given the slashed content and weaker expansions on offer in the last year or two. I don’t think it’s ever going to have a big day in the sun again. It’s over.

I don’t support letting the industry become dominated by a couple of megacorps who control all the IPs, games, and platforms, so Microsoft should never have been allowed to buy ABK. But since it’s happening, I can only hope Microsoft will make Blizzard boring. And I mean that literally. Clean up the unionbusting shitshow, oust the people making dreadful development decisions, make better use of the IPs, and make it much harder for the top talent to flee to better companies (by being a better company – just pay them what they are worth and stop driving out everyone who knows how MMOs work, for god’s sake). That’s what I hope. Will it happen? Eh.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I honestly don’t think we’ll understand the shape of Blizzard in one or five years. The only prediction I could make with any sense of confidence would be that those 10-year agreements will be lit aflame and cast to the winds come year 11, when all of those games become Xbox or Windows Store exclusives.

There is at least some hope to be had in the near-term in regards to Microsoft’s agreement with the CWA to not interfere with unionization efforts, and I would like to think that the company would do something like a mopping of Blizzard if only to clean up its tangential image, but I’m not really holding my breath too much on anything else to change. These multi-billion mergers are always a long con, and it will be consumers getting the fleecing.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): While this year hasn’t been an across-the-board failure for Blizzard, I’m also sure it’s not going as hoped. It did seem like the studio was putting all of its proverbial eggs in the Diablo basket, and now that the big launch of the year is behind us, one does hope Blizz has plans for next big steps. It really can’t afford to continue to drag its feet on projects — including outright cancelations! — without bringing many to market. We’ll see some smaller announcements this year, including Hardcore Classic, maybe the next phase of WoW Classic, and maybe the next WoW expansion, but new blood is needed. There are several of those behind-locked-doors projects (including that survival MMO that everyone’s forgotten is supposedly in the works) that are brewing. Blizz needs to cut its losses in dying departments and throw extra effort into building up these games — and talking them up too!

Oh, and announcing World of Warcraft housing? I mean, it can’t hurt at this point.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): Blizzard has been such a non factor in my gaming life that it’s tough to say what I expect from it. I basically just played console games until the 2000s with a couple of exceptions. I had a Warcraft demo disc that I played hundreds of times as one of the few games my parents let me install on the computer. Then later in school I got Warcraft 3 to play with a roommate. Diablo just never made it into my catalogue either. I didn’t have the time or funds to play WoW either. So Blizzard and I never had a real long-term relationship.

If I ventured a guess, it’d be the announcement at least of something to try and capture the nostalgia of the millions of WoW players that have lapsed. Maybe a real sequel; I just don’t know.

Tyler Edwards (blog): Honestly, I’m not sure, and I’d raise my eyebrow a bit at anyone who claims they know exactly what the correct course of action is here.

It’s worth remembering that while Blizzard’s user numbers are down, it’s still making gobs of money. I’m not saying everything’s hunky dory because it definitely isn’t, but it’s not like the studio is clinging to life, either. Many speculate their plan is to simply get more money from fewer players, and while we as players may justifiably find that distasteful, it may prove perfectly viable as a business model.

A lot of people are going to suggest radical overhauls to this or that game, and that could work, but it could also just end up alienating the players Blizzard has left. I think the best I can do — probably the best anyone can do — is talk about my own personal bugbears and things that might get me back into these games.

I’ve been saying this for like 10 years and been wrong every time, but it could be time to consider dropping the sub fee for WoW. It would undoubtedly bring in a lot of looky-loos, and at least some are bound to stick around. The game is already so micro-transaction heavy it wouldn’t even need to change much to support a F2P or B2P model. I have trouble seeing myself going back now that it’s reverted to the (terrible) old talent model, especially after having missed so many expansions, but a sufficiently interesting expansion premise might do it. Or maybe a dark ranger class…

I think Diablo IV’s current controversies are a bit of a tempest in a teapot. If you’re threatening a boycott over class balance changes, it might be time to touch grass. I’m not saying the changes aren’t bad, but come on, guys, it’s just numbers. It’ll all change in another few weeks anyway. That said, I am bothered by the fact all post-launch content is apparently going to be locked behind seasonal play. That coupled with the content maybe being temporary, and my plans to pick up D4 on sale look increasingly unlikely. I’ve never played seasonal characters, and I have no interest in needing to relevel a new character for every new content update, nor in being lost in the story because I missed a bunch of previous seasons. So if Blizzard found a way to fix those issues, the game would be back on my radar.

Scaled back though it may be, I do think there’s still a chance for Overwatch 2’s PvE offerings to pick up some fans, even if it’s a small chance. A lot is going to come down to how much replay value the PvE content will have. There are also some small, easy things the studio could do to help entice PvE players, as well. I’d play a lot more if you could complete daily challenges to progress the battlepass in versus AI.

Stepping back, I’d say what I want is for Blizzard to start thinking big again. It used to be the “go big or go home” developer. Not necessarily innovative per se, but delivering with a level of ambition, passion, and bombast that no one else could equal. Warcraft III doubled the number of playable factions and destroyed half of Azeroth. StarCraft II split its campaign into three entire games. Diablo III turned its players into literal demigods with the gameplay to match.

Blizzard doesn’t do stuff like that anymore. Everything feels like a play to nostalgia, a desperate attempt to recapture past glory. Dragonflight is resurrecting an already concluded plot thread just to cash in on the popularity of dragons in fantasy fandom. Diablo IV was clearly conceptualized as Diablo II 2: Diablo With a Vengeance.

Blizzard needs to start dreaming big again. It feels like Overwatch has been the last bastion of that vibrancy — go watch the Genesis shorts; they’re incredible — but it’s struggled to make the gameplay live up to the beauty of its lore, and with the PvE offerings scaled back, it seems like that state of affairs may be continuing for the foreseeable future.

But how do you bring that kind of passion and ambition back? It’s not something there’s a formula or a spreadsheet for. Maybe improving conditions at the company and boosting worker morale might do it — it’s surely hard to do your best work under poor conditions — but I don’t know if that’s a silver bullet. The company needs to take chances, but that is of course inherently risky, and the more the numbers fall, the more risk averse the execs are likely to be. All I know is it needs to stop being a nostalgia act. The more desperately it tries to replicate the successes of yesteryear, the less it feels like the Blizzard I used to love.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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