The Passion of Blizzard

Scott Andrews at Blizzard Watch had an interesting piece up this week that really got me thinking about another aspect of Blizzard that is often overlooked in modern times.

The Blizzard mythology is built on a foundation of passion and a sort of scrappy, punk-rock, DIY aesthetic. The story Blizzard tells about their history is one that fits a lot of American software startups from the eighties – some bros from college shared a house and brought their Apple IIs and IBM compatibles into the house and started programming, and then games came out, and the guiding principle was like the art, man.

The thing about Blizzard’s story is that while I don’t doubt at least a portion of the story, they maintain that the spirit of those young days carried longer into the future, and when Blizzard became what most of us know (instead of an SNES developer building for a publisher on a contract, a self-sustaining and published company under the Vivendi umbrella), that ideology supposedly persisted. The Blizzard that made Diablo II and Starcraft is supposed to be the same as the upstart that made Lost Vikings and struggled to gain a foothold and relevance.

The truth is, of course, somewhere in the middle. Blizzard definitely maintained a degree of the attitude that defined those early days into the early aughts, while the risk that accompanied those prior releases largely faded.

You can see this clearly in Blizzard’s marquee, franchise-starting titles. Look at Warcraft, Diablo, and Starcraft – the games are imbued with a sensibility and artistic honesty that is clear and defined. Warcraft is Warhammer, and it just tweaked a bit to make the lack of a license work – but it is fairly honest about that and it does something interesting with the changes to that mythology. Starcraft is a sort of love story to the kind of sci-fi action films that defined the childhoods and aging of the Blizzard employees working on it. Diablo is a dark RPG that creates a ton of possibilities and is just generally fun to play.

Where I would argue it changed was at World of Warcraft. When the original vanilla title launched in November 2004, it changed everything for Blizzard. Look at the releases they had after WoW – it took 5 years after WoW for Starcraft II, and another 3 years past that for Diablo III. Blizzard stopped being punk-rock with WoW, they, in effect, sold out – Blizzard went from a diverse company portfolio of interesting and well-made intellectual property franchises to “the WoW company.” To be fair, under the incentives of our current economic system, this is an understandable outcome, but it also feels like the future of those other two franchises were shafted in service of WoW. Starcraft II is perfectly serviceable as a title, but the long time to release meant the game came out in a world where RTS titles aren’t that popular and don’t really sell. Diablo III could have built a simple smash and loot, but needed additional revenue and forced systems that tarnished the game.

So I think it is safe to say that Blizzard’s passion is largely gone. Their post-WoW new era titles have had some success – Overwatch is a juggernaut, but even its community has some issues with the current state of the title, and Hearthstone is interesting but as Andrews points out, the title is confusingly pushing towards more single-player content with a card game format built for competitive gameplay.

In saying that, I don’t think that Blizzard employees are lacking in passion, a point echoed by Andrews as well. When I went to visit a year ago, everyone I met was personable, friendly, and deeply engaged. I saw artists working with deep focus on building the future of WoW, people discussing the game honestly, openly, and positive they could correct course and deliver for the players. I don’t doubt the sincerity of any one person’s passion within the teams at Blizzard – what I doubt is the company structure as a whole. The company is obviously accountable to shareholders for their results or lack thereof, and they work under one of the most creatively stifled publishers in the world, Activision, which releases almost nothing but safe yearly refreshes of major franchises and takes a publishing stake in already-promising titles.

Under that umbrella, it is easy to see the force behind many of modern Blizzard’s decisions. While I would say they are victims of their own success, they have also made the choices that put them here and are the only ones who can make decisions to push away from their current torpor.

To tie it back into the article topic, Blizzcon is a perfect chance to show a renewed passion in the company’s processes and projects. Last year was a transitional year, but also the end state of Blizzard’s evolution to corporate juggernaut and away from the foundation that built the studio into what it is. My hopes for Blizzcon 2019 are up in a myriad of posts already written and published and a few more to come, but I agree that 2019 is a Blizzcon that will show the future of the company as a whole. After how Blizzard started the year, a lot of fans have apathy or hostility to the company and are eager to see a change in output for the better.

For me? I used to be a huge multi-franchise fan of Blizzard, but I haven’t played anything outside of WoW other than a round of Overwatch for testing my new PC in over 2 years. I’d love to have a fantastic new PC Diablo game, a Starcraft game, single-player Overwatch content, and maybe even something new and revolutionary – an odyssey for the company.

Whatever it takes, I hope Blizzard rediscovers their passion and delivers a fantastic Blizzcon. If not, well, at least I’ll go to the Eorzea Cafe before coming back to the US!

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