Today, Mike Morhaime (yes, the very same!) announced the formation of a game company – seemingly, serving many of the same roles as a publisher. Called Dreamhaven, the company has two studios already introduced under its umbrella – Moonshot Games and Secret Door.
This isn’t even the first such company to exist made up or led by Blizzard ex-employees, as Bonfire Studios launched several years ago with Rob Pardo and Nick Carpenter (Blizzard’s former head cinematics guy) at the helm, and Ben Brode launched Second Dinner when leaving Blizzard, which is currently partnering with Marvel on their first title.
Gaming, in many ways, is going through a similar sort of transitional period to lots of other artistic mediums. Many talent are defined by early experiences under other companies, and then parlay that name recognition into their own ventures. The Rock, ahem, sorry, Dwayne Johnson, was a pro-wrestler-turned-actor who worked in cameo appearances and iffy movie ventures, before striking it big via the Fast and Furious franchise and ending up with his own production company which is involved in all of his current projects and allows him to greenlight work he wants to do instead of being dependent on the major studios. When it comes time for distribution, the big studios will line up because he has name value. Music has a lot of artists who start their own labels and build a signature sound that continues their legacy – Dr. Dre famously started Aftermath Records, which led to Eminem getting signed and the label becoming more historically significant in rap.
The system that enables this is ultimately capitalism. As art becomes more commodified, the large AAA studios greenlight what works for sales and mass appeal, which in turn limits the artistic capabilities of the studios under those publishers. Ultimately, as long as we live in a heavily-commodified world, we are stuck with such a system where what tends to be popular and successful remains that which is most promoted and meets expectations of the public looking for the “next _____.”
So, as in all of those industries, big name creators strike out on their own after reaching a point where they are creatively stifled, or where they believe they can reap a bigger return on their name-value while doing what they would prefer to do – making the projects they see in their mind’s-eye.
Blizzard had a long streak of largely not having castaway studios, until the mid-2000s when a series of Blizzard North employees, disenfranchised with the loss of control they had on Diablo III (in retrospect of 1.0, might have had a point!) founded Flagship Studios and made a few titles, most notably Hellgate London (not well received) and Mythos, the spirit of which went on to be Torchlight (pretty good!). They folded, sold off Hellgate London IP, and short of a few employees going on to make Runic Games (who gave me a bottle opener at PAX in 2010ish!), they’ve largely faded from memory, although David Breivik appears from time to time to chastise modern Blizzard.
Given how Flagship….uh, went….it would be reasonable to suspect that Blizzard castaway studios may not end up being that successful, and I think that was a deterrent during the initial wave of skepticism over the acquisition of Blizzard by Activision. You could leave, sure, but who wants to be Bill Roper, highly successful under the Blizzard umbrella only to lose all shine outside that shelter? Okay, that’s harsh – Bill Roper was a good creative mind, but he made a massive bet that the Flagship team’s vision of the future of the action RPG was the right one, and in the end…it wasn’t.
But art thrives on uncertainty, and leaving Blizzard in the 2010s is far less of an unsafe bet. Particularly for Rob Pardo and Nick Carpenter, Ben Brode, but especially for Mike Morhaime, where you have a massive list of achievements and a lot of fan goodwill. The question of what those creatives and the types of people they would hire would make without the oppressive heel of a Bobby Kotick pressing on their necks is a tantalizing one.
These companies are, ultimately, interesting concepts but all have a degree of rightful skepticism. Bonfire has existed for at least 3 years, and has yet to produce a single title, not even a reveal according to their website, which is full of blog posts about not having employee titles and how employees have to build their own work computers (which, to be fair, sounds like my kind of company). I don’t say that to be rude to them either, it seems like they’ve thought a lot about the environment they want to create, which is great! – but it also makes the lack of an announced title or concept feel iffy. Second Dinner is making a Marvel title for mobile, but that is all we have!
And that leads us back to one Mr. Morhaime and Dreamhaven. The company seems to have a strong mix of talent, with other announced names working with the studios being a myriad of well-known Blizzard alumni like Dustin Browder (who I didn’t even know had left Blizzard!) and Alan Dabiri, son of Shane Dabiri who was lead producer on WoW during the golden years of the game, and who himself was game director on Heroes of the Storm.
Their site looks cool, they’ve got an interesting expression of values and a desire to foster a creative spirit with a community focus, all of which are trigger words that hit on a deep nostalgia for Blizzard’s halcyon years. Morhaime did an interview for launch with the Washington Post in which he finally dished on what many have suspected and started to feel creeping in over the past few years – that Activision was starting to exert more force on the company, that the going concerns within the company had shifted from creating compelling products to maintaining higher revenues, and that the Blizzard spirit of old was starting to fade away. Probably the most interesting part to me was that the company was nearly sold out of Vivendi in 2003, with WoW firmly on its way, for a measly $700 million dollar sum, with the biggest name in the running to purchase being Microsoft. (Microsoft Presents: World of Warcraft?! Fuck, that is a grim idea.) Even more interestingly, is that had the company had a crystal ball to tell them what a success WoW was going to be immediately, they could have done a leveraged buyout, taking the company fully independent once again with its original leadership at the helm – and man, I wish we lived in that universe.
But, the problem I maintain with Dreamhaven today is the one I’ve had with Bonfire and with Second Dinner lately, and of a similar shape to the issues I had with Flagship back in the day. In the case of the modern 3 castaway studios, they have no products to show me, nothing more to say to me other than “we were at Blizzard when it was good and you know who we are” and like, sure, that is a fair point, and especially for Dreamhaven, it carries a substantial weight. Mike Morhaime was a hands-on executive who kept Blizzard as shrouded as possible from its various corporate owners while they made the titles that defined them for a generation, and he left once he could no longer manage that, building a new studio outside of the prying eyes of Kotick. I’m certainly interested in whatever they’ll have to show, but right now, all I have to respond to is a slick website and promises of the things that drew me in to Blizzard fandom in my teenage years. The same goes for Bonfire – Rob Pardo was involved in a lot of early work on World of Warcraft, the game that made me very much aware of what the Blizzard name on a box (used to) mean, and I would be curious to see what they have to show – but it has been 3 years with nothing more than a fluffy corporate blog and sugary platitudes about not having a traditional corporate hierarchy, and I mean, I like that idea a lot, but also, it does make me look at a lack of output and think really hard about how maybe that isn’t working for you (anyone not directly doing the work is a parasite and I do believe that but also, a project manager creating timetables and getting buy-in is doing a different sort of labor, perhaps?) Second Dinner is doing something with Marvel for mobile and has an investment from NetEase, but short of a fun logo, what are they offering?
The power these companies wield in the market is largely nostalgic, until an actual product comes out. Flagship Studios was the Diablo team, as it was in the best years but then Hellgate London came out and suddenly they weren’t shit. Right now, Second Dinner reminds me of meeting Ben Brode with my wife at what ended up being his last Blizzcon, but eventually, they’re going to have a Marvel mobile game with a likely-gross monetization model, and that sheen will wear off. Bonfire reminds me of the greatest old Blizzard cinematics, the love and care Carpenter put into stuff like the Cataclysm cinematic or the story-soaked Wrath cinematic, coupled with Pardo’s game design eye, but someday they have to make a thing and be judged on the merits of that thing.
Dreamhaven? Man, that sounds so great, and I wish the edge of my cynicism wasn’t cutting this announcement for me, because the voice in my head already says it: show me the thing that handwaves at your past brilliance without being as good, so I can go back to being disappointed.
Of course, I know there’s every chance it succeeds and that Morhaime, surrounded with talent he fostered the growth of at Blizzard, does something genuinely great. Dreamhaven, unlike the others, is fully self-funded at this point as well, which means that external pressures are, in theory, absent. Of the 3 current studios I’ve mentioned, they have the highest probability in my mind of doing the good things. The fact that they have two studios already and the announcements from the talent working for them indicate that they’ve been working for a while tells me that there may not be such a big gap between company formation and some title announcements. Maybe in 10 years, they’ll have a real WoW Killer on their hands, and we’ll all go to Dreamcon or Havenhome or whatever they want to call it and we’ll get to have limited edition Dreamhaven beers at an event where Mike Morhaime gives a keynote – but that desire and dream is tied up in nostalgia for what Blizzard once was and what I wish they still were.
For now, all I have is this – Morhaime has a new company, and I cannot wait to see what they are working on – for better or for worse.