Wow Factor: The future of Blizzard is bleak

Get back.

So yesterday our Massively Overthinking roundtable asked everyone to sound off on the future of Blizzard because… well, the studio had a plan to weather all of its controversies and basically reclaim the conversation completely, and it did not work. This is probably a good thing, partly because the conversations the studio was trying to dodge are seriously awful, and partly because there is a part of me that will always be at least mildly annoyed by plans that involve dodging actual responsibility. But… now what?

The thing is that I am not here to watch this studio specifically… but I am someone with that history. And I have a prediction that is perhaps even more bleak than that of many of my colleagues. It’s indisputable that Blizzard’s moves have left the studio drained of brainpower and staff, left adrift on a turbulent sea of its own making. Where we disagree is not on those points but on the results.

Or, to avoid burying the lead, the future of Blizzard? What future?

The majority of the opposition to the (really not good) Microsoft merger has not been swept away, and that is almost certainly going to mean that the merger goes through, Microsoft acquires another studio, and we all get to continue living through a landscape in which our monopoly laws were never actually written to deal with the current state and valuation of IPs. That’s not a great thing.

But let’s look at this from Microsoft’s perspective. What does Blizzard bring to Microsoft?

No, I’m not talking about Activision. I’m talking about Blizzard. I’m talking about having a logo that says “Blizzard Entertainment” on products.

The people who pushed hard to keep Blizzard’s autonomy in Activision’s structure are gone, and as I’ve mentioned before, the current studio head Mike Ybarra is an Activision guy through and through. (Just look at his whole “we know you don’t want to come back to the office but nobody cares so just quit already” speech.) The studio name is now associated with disappointment. Diablo IV didn’t fail as roundly as Overwatch 2, but once you’re into the realm of “degrees of failure,” is it really worth debating over the fine points of proportion? It didn’t bring food and water and smite our enemies, and that’s what it needed to do.

Oh, and then there’s World of Warcraft.

It crawl.

I’m not just saying that to be glib. Well, not just to be glib. WoW is yesterday’s news at this point. Looking at the people in charge and the decisions that they have made, I think it is difficult to assume that anyone would look at the people who enthusiastically took the game from a goliath of the industry to its current limping-along status and say, “Yeah, these are people who should be in charge of more stuff.”

Basically, from Microsoft’s perspective, there is nothing worth keeping “Blizzard” around for. It makes more sense to just fold the studio in even more resolutely into Activision. And that’s neglecting the fact that not only does Blizzard take forever to push things out to ultimately disappointing sales, poor retention, or both, it’s a problem that isn’t shared elsewhere in Activision. You can say a lot of things about Call of Duty, but “slow to release” is not one of those things.

For Blizzard’s autonomy, its best-case scenario is benign neglect. And for the people who like its game, that just means withering and dying. Far more likely is the people in charge looking at the mess that Blizzard has made of its own IPs and bringing in new leadership to make a whole lot of changes.

Will that be a good thing for people who play and enjoy these games? Hard to say. Microsoft doesn’t have an awful or great track record with these things; the company clearly takes the games it develops and oversees seriously, but it also sees every IP as a stone to be squeezed until the last droplets of blood have been exhausted. I don’t know how that’s going to turn out.

But I do know that I don’t see this being a case of the long-awaited “Finally, Blizzard Is Good Again” crowd that so many people are crowing for. Not for the first time, I want to point out that the rot at Blizzard clearly went back ages, that it was in place since the older days of the company. The awfulness is coming from inside the house. There is no antediluvian golden age to return to, and the problems the studio’s games have now are of a type with problems that Blizzard has always had.

And that kind of informs the three biggest recent releases from Blizzard, when you think about it. All three of them were an attempt to play the classics, and all three didn’t work.


OW2 was meant to recapture the buzz and appeal of the original game, and I have no doubt that the shift in priorities and abandonment of the game’s original animating impulse came in no small part because the original didn’t have this PvE stuff so that’s optional, right? Diablo IV was showing that the franchise still had a lot of legs, please ignore the mobile game, we only put a little bit of microtransaction hell in this one so it’s all good, right? And Dragonflight almost comes attached with a little note saying “this is what you wanted, please love us again, will you say WoW is good again”?

None of this worked. The band came out and tried to play the hits to prove that they still had it in them, and it turns out they did not. And that means that it’s going to be really hard to go up in front of people who get to decide about your studio’s continued autonomy and say with any conviction that Blizzard should really be allowed to keep doing its own thing because it knows how to do this best.

“That seems a bit pessimistic.” You’re right! It does. It absolutely does. This is a pessimistic look at the future that assumes things are going to get worse for the studio and for the people who really enjoy its games. And it’s not great for people who are already wrestling with the fact that it’s hard to support Blizzard and still feel like you’re making an ethical decision because this doesn’t make things feel any better as a whole.

Does that mean we’re due for a wave of shutdowns? Not yet. There’s still some steam in the engine yet, after all. WoW is definitely not the crown jewel it used to be, but it still makes money, so it’s not worth gutting it so that it slips to making no money. But whatever comes next, whatever happens in its future, I think we’re going to be looking at a future when it does so without really being Blizzard any more. It’s going to just have Blizzard as a point of origin, and that will be the end of its time.

Whether that’s better or worse is going to depend on your particular perspective. Myself, I’d just like to imagine a future where the people in charge of WoW aren’t deeply upsetting to talk about. I’d like to believe.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades 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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