I thought about avoiding this topic, because it sucks and no one wants to think too long about it, but as I write this, the news is breaking over Twitter that nearly 800 employees are being laid off at Activision-Blizzard – many of whom are Blizzard employees, and many of whom are in community relation roles.
But it cannot be avoided, as the contrast stands firm – Activison-Blizzard announces a record year and yet 800 people are being removed from work due to overzealous projections. It is, however, not my place to say to these people that “that is how the system works” (which it is, sure, but maybe that needs to change and that is a topic I will not breach here) or to offer condolences to people I only really met in passing during my campus tour in October, online, or am only really vaguely aware of, although I feel awful for all that are involved and have seen people cut numerous times from work in a similar fashion at a software company I have worked for, so it is a familiar sensation.
What I will talk about here today is what the earnings announcement symbolizes in context to Blizzard’s past, what it potentially means for the future, and some pure opinion on my part about the ethical conundrum it leaves me in as a fan of the company’s products.
Part 1: Blizzard’s History with Layoffs
To my surprise, a few different searches for varieties of the terms Blizzard and Layoffs only yielded results for today’s actions, which I think is a good starting point for this discussion. While the gaming industry is full of people with tales of restructures, reorgs, and relocations, Blizzard has, somewhat interestingly, been immune to that largely through their history. One of the things that stands out about them (well, stood out past tense) is that they avoided the kinds of massive shifts in staff that are far too common in technology firms, especially publicly-traded firms. The only real story I could find is that of Blizzard North, the original developers of Diablo, who were released from the company in 2005. Even Swingin’ Ape Studios, acquired to develop Starcraft: Ghost, were merged into other teams rather than laid off at the cancellation of Ghost! Blizzard’s history has a few stories like this – the Starcraft II team making Heroes of the Storm, and the Titan team picking up the pieces and building Overwatch. (EDIT: my mistake, there was one prior layoff of non-development staff back in 2012, with around 600 affected.)
During WoW’s time as the juggernaut of Blizzard, I can recall only a few major departures, and these were always individual level seperations, not teams or layoffs. There was the departure of Tseric and later Zarhym and Bashiok, all from Community, and the departure of Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street leaving for Riot Games, but outside of that, while I’m sure the team has fundamentally changed and shifted over the years, there just haven’t been that many public departures from the Blizzard team. Diablo III saw the shift and eventual departure of its launch game director, Jay Wilson, but outside of these stories, I struggeld to find many more.
That bodes poorly, to me as an outsider – a company with such a strong culture and reputation, suddenly changes CEOs and with that change comes layoffs and assisted departures? That smells of a negative culture shift. What does it say to us specifically as WoW players?
Part 2: The Immediate Effect on the World of Warcraft Team
The part many of us online have questioned since the news started to break, outside of the human impact, which is the most important part – what effect will this have on WoW? There is a lot to unpack here.
Firstly, the losses are primarily to Blizzard community and event staff, as far as I can tell, and this speaks ill to the impact we’ll see downstream. Communication during Battle for Azeroth has already been severely lacking, and I expect that it will get far worse, as the community managers who did well at interacting with the community on the forums are now, largely, gone. The expectation is that the remainder of the layoffs will impact Activision teams in publishing and those who worked with Destiny, as Bungie has taken the product outside of Activision and so the staff within Activision working on it are no longer needed, unfortunately.
My opinion of this is that it absolutely sends a poor message to cut back on community staff at a time when the game is being flamed for not offering strong community outreach, and especially when the loss is one of the most active community managers in Ythisens. It only says that outreach doesn’t matter, and reinforces perception that player feedback simply doesn’t matter.
Within the earnings announcement was another piece of news, that several Activision-Blizzard IPs would be receiving 20% more development personnel. Now, whether this means 20% per team or 20% spread across all of the teams mentioned is to be announced, but if we assume the most charitable interpretation, as Warcraft is on the list of receiving additional developer headcount, then we can expect that WoW will have more people working on delivering content. This is, perhaps, a good thing – as the timetable for 8.1 seemed to have gotten out of hand and I would hope that we do not see a similar timetable for patch 8.2 or 8.3. How those developers are allocated within the team could have an impact, as we could see more design staff, or more developers, or a mix of both, and it is hard to equate what to expect even if we assume the team just grows by 20% flat out.
Overall, as a player of the game, adding more development staff is a good thing, but the removal of much of the community management staff is a thumb in the eye after all the talk about how poor communication has been for the last year.
Part 3: Will I Keep Playing WoW?
Now is the part where I will dive more into my personal feelings about the matter, as I find it very conflicting.
Firstly, without getting too much into politics, I firmly believe in the principle that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” and today’s news reaffirms that. Companies I love the work of can also be garbage and exploitative, and while I can take into account how garbage the company is or might be, every company has a similar set of operating practices, as that is how the system is designed to work. Not spending my money sends a message that more of the staff who work on the games I enjoy aren’t needed, which is bad, and spending that dollar doesn’t really create a further incentive to remove more staff, the same as not spending it ultimately doesn’t bring back the staff who were laid off.
Is WoW in the best state it could be right now? No, definitely not – but that was the case prior to the layoffs and the people laid off were, in many cases, those trying hard to remedy that by interacting with fans and gathering that feedback.
Ultimately, while I feel very conflicted about subscribing to the game, I still enjoy the time I spend in it and so the end result is that I am going to keep playing. I’m not spending a dime on microtransactions, no matter how cool I think the fox and pig mounts are.
It further conflicts me that I’ll probably still go to Blizzcon, as well. My fear is that losing community and event staff means that this year’s Blizzcon will mark a further decline in the event, with the loss of the Heroes eSports events and fewer event staff, I can only imagine what decline to expect with the event this year, especially given that there were a few prominent issues last year (not talking at all about the Diablo announcement, there were long lines for attractions that in a few cases prompted fire marshall intervention, fewer seats in the main hall, awful security staff, and a disappointing goody bag), but ultimately, Blizzcon is about the community for me and I will continue to attend as long as the players are there to make it fun.
However, for me, this is a moment that will likely mark a turning point for the game – good or bad. Blizzard has had a severe lack of communication with the playerbase this expansion, and this will likely make it worse before it has a chance to get better. Maybe the team will internalize those interactions and we’ll see a model similar to the one adopted by Ghostcrawler during his tenure on the game – but it feels right now like the silence from the team is only going to get worse before it gets better.
I like J Allen Brack, and I think that this is more out of his hands than we might believe. But maybe I want to believe that, because I met him once, during which he was nice and we geeked out about Metallica having just played Blizzcon. On the other hand, the news about these layoffs was being reported for a few days now, and just that threat hanging in the air was enough to make some employees cry in the parking lot at Blizzard before they even knew what would happen, and you know what? Fuck that. No one deserves that, and that is an awful thing to have happen.
Maybe this is the end of Blizzard as we know it – the end of the friendly, aspirational game developer, and maybe in a few years we’ll all have to watch as Activision unhinges its jaw and swallows what remains whole, watching as the pointy AV logo replaces the frosty Blizzard one. Maybe this is the death-knell for Blizzard, as some of the investor questions on the call point to investors lacking confidence in Blizzard’s ability (the example I have in mind was about Overwatch specifically, but the intonation about Blizzard’s capabilities in the question was telling). It could be the start of a positive shift for the company too!
But my mind wanders back to a random sight I had at this most recent Blizzcon, Ythisens just sitting peacefully in the WoW demo area watching everyone play, and for a moment, no matter the Diablo news, the poor reception of BfA, etc – it seemed like a happy moment, a chance to relish in being able to help players enjoy their time in Azeroth, and knowing that guy is gone really sucks. Seeing people with that level of passion, the level of passion Blizzard once inspired, be spit out by the same company, just feels really bad, and a part of me can’t help but doomsay and feel like this is the start of a bad path for Blizzard
However, right now I’m left with a feeling of sadness for all the affected people, a feeling of dread for what this means going forward, and a pit of despair gnawing at me knowing that supporting this company and the game is a lot harder to justify mentally today.