I am often stuck feeling rather conflicted about my enjoyment of games made by modern-day Blizzard Entertainment.
On the one hand, there was a point in time at which Blizzard was who I would readily name as my all-time favorite game studio. The number of hours I’ve lost to Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft of all flavors is high, and they got me to try to grapple with a virtual TCG, a MOBA, and a team shooter, and while I don’t consider myself much a fan of Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, or Overwatch, I enjoy them well enough and don’t regret buying them (or card packs or heroes) and can still go for a short play session of all 3 here and there.
On the other hand, modern Blizzard is an Activision-owned shell of what it once was, and that is becoming more readily apparent year after year.
Over the last 5 years, Blizzard has had an exodus of top-level talent, including names players who follow at a modest amount of attention would recognize easily. Chris Metzen, arguably the creative force behind much of the studio’s portfolio, gone to work on tabletop and pen & paper games with his own Warchief Games (congrats on the Auroboros launch, btw). Ben Brode, the voice and guiding hand of Hearthstone, gone for his own studio Second Dinner, who is working on a title for Marvel. Mike Morhaime, gone, starting Dreamhaven Studios and the related development houses. Omar Gonzales, arguably the biggest driver behind WoW Classic becoming a reality, gone. David Kim, who has worked on all sorts of teams at Blizzard and whose design fingerprints are all over most of the modern Blizzard IP, gone. Rob Pardo, the original lead designer on WoW, started Bonfire Studios, and with him came Josh Mosqueira (the guy in Kotaku’s excellent deep dive into Diablo Immortal who was trying to right the ship with that franchise and go in the darker direction) and Nick Carpenter, the original VP of Art and Cinematics at Blizzard who was by many accounts Chris Metzen’s right-hand man on story and artistic direction.
And now, today, the news that Jeff Kaplan is leaving the company and his post as game director for Overwatch/Overwatch 2.
So, where do we begin?
I think this post is going to have two logical tracks to it. First, I want to discuss Kaplan in particular, as I think he represents an interesting case study in expectations of one’s career, and then secondly we’ll discuss the culture of Blizzard and how their explosive jump onto the scene may have caused a structural rot which is revealing itself more and more in recent years.
Tigole Himself, Gone from Blizzard
Jeff Kaplan (Tigole, because Tig Ol Bitties, get it? ugh…) came to Blizzard in 2002 via the most funny inroad possible. Jeff, as Tigole, was a raid leader in the Everquest guild Legacy of Steel, which Blizzard exec Rob Pardo was the leader of. Kaplan was invited to tour Blizzard by Pardo, and encouraged to apply for a job on the then-nascent World of Warcraft team, with his first work being a quest designer and his first designs being some of the original Westfall questing.
He quickly rose in the ranks as he had a lot of understanding of core MMO mechanics and gameplay from his dedication to EQ, continuing to quest design as one of a team of two while also being a point person for dungeon design. In 2009, he announced leaving the WoW team to work on Blizzard’s stillborn second MMO, Titan. The details are a little fuzzy, but the common folklore is that Titan turned into an unsalvageable mess and what could be saved, mostly in aesthetic and art, was brought in to kickstart a new project, which became Overwatch, and the rest is history. In a relatively short window, Kaplan had been a crucial part of the success of two Blizzard franchises, with WoW becoming Blizzard’s raison d’etre overnight and Overwatch then overtaking it as the de facto number 1 Blizzard earner.
Kaplan is sort of a funny figure to discuss because he is sort of a strange person with what is, from the outside, a whirlwind professional career that emerged from being good at playing Everquest. As Tigole, Jeff Kaplan was a fucking asshole and he will even admit as much. The archived Legacy of Steel forums and blog show Kaplan calling SOE’s encounter designers “retarded chimps chained to a cubicle,” and other choice insults typical of an internet edgelord of that era. At the same time, he seems to be a professional and friendly enough person as Jeff, who was overly self-aware of his perception as Tigole to the point of being excessively apologetic. I’ve met him at Blizzcon and found him to be pretty friendly and personable – he even sat in the regular crowd for the Opening Ceremony instead of being cloistered away backstage, and he didn’t shy away from fans asking for photos or discussing things with people.
His sudden departure seems, well, sudden, but also feels like it makes sense to me.
This is conjecture on my part, mixed with what he’s said in interviews and parsing out what his motivations might be, but here goes – I think Jeff Kaplan is an MMO guy far more than an FPS guy, and I think that while taking Overwatch on was a professional highpoint (it was certainly an achievement in terms of most business metrics), I could see him being the type with a strong affinity for MMOs. He led one of the most successful EQ raiding guilds back in the day, and arguably, a lot of developers built endgame designs around his overly-edgy screeds against the content of Everquest. His first project at Blizzard, the one that brought him to the company – an MMO. The second project he took on by choice at the company – an MMO, one that was trying to push new ground. Overwatch is definitely lemonade from lemons, but I could see the possibility of wanting to work on a different MMO. He specifically cited burnout with working on WoW, but not the MMO genre, and most accounts and folklore of Titan suggest that he was the principal voice on much of the design, and it was a project that lingered in a constant state of development for what seems to have been around 5 years – the same amount of time it took for Project Nomad to become World of Warcraft and then ship.
In the games industry, the impression I get is that most developers and designers are artists, and want to work on things that fit with their artistic desires, even if they don’t have high-level control over the fate of the project. Kaplan joined Blizzard specifically to work on an MMO, and the first move he took was to work on a different MMO there afterwards. On top of that, my perception of how he discusses Overwatch feels a bit more…sanitized, I guess? When talking about WoW or his history with Blizzard prior to Overwatch, there’s a certain amount of animation that feels missing when he talks about Overwatch. That’s just my perception, and I don’t place much if any weight on it, but even in the lookback series they did for Classic, or the history videos played at Blizzcon where you see him in recent times discussing the WoW project’s early days, he just seems more animated, more passionate, more engaged with it. Take nothing away from the man – Overwatch is a stunning achievement of which he was a pivotal part, but I kind of get the impression that he really wishes those assets got to be seen in the vision of Titan he worked to build.
At the same time, I feel like current-day Overwatch is at something of an impasse. The Overwatch League feels like it fell apart a bit and lost momentum after the big launch and second seasons, the game itself is coasting at this point on strong name recognition without major content updates, and Overwatch 2 feels like a weird sequel that could have been a DLC story campaign, especially given the commitment to offering the continuing multiplayer experience in both versions of the game. On top of all of that, Overwatch 2 feels….stalled, I suppose? The announcement of Kaplan’s departure was accompanied by a statement from the new head of that team expressing that they are continuing to work and make progress on the sequel, despite the fact that it had a very meh showing at Blizzconline back in February and now has its game director leaving mid-development.
But enough about Kaplan individually, as he is but the latest in a long line of high-name-recognition talent to leave the company, a company besieged by these departures and the growing influence of parent company Activision.
Blizzard’s History Has A Glaring Flaw That Has Led to Structural Rot
Blizzard, the once Silicon and Synapse, had a bizarre trajectory for a game studio in the nineties.
They started off as a for-hire developer who could drop in on a project and do the development work, making games for several publishers and reaching critical acclaim with their first original title, The Lost Vikings. It didn’t sell well, and Blizzard was not finding success in console titles at the time. They took a bet on the PC RTS market, shipped Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, and the rest was history. Overnight, Blizzard went from a tiny studio making console games in a 3,600 square foot office to a juggernaut in PC gaming. Titles like Diablo (developed by an acquired studio that came to be Blizzard North) and Starcraft cemented their success, and the rest is fairly well known.
But this poses a challenge that I think Blizzard never addressed.
Blizzard’s own retelling of its history casts them as punk rock gaming, following their own artistic urges and doing what they wanted, making games they wanted to play. Suddenly, they went from a tiny contract console developer to an RTS trailblazer, and there was never really an in-between phase where Blizzard could manage their growth effectively. Punk rock aesthetic and do what you want are easy to manage when your whole staff is 12 people, but when the staff grows to thousands almost immediately, you never really get the moment to reflect and recalibrate.
I mean, look at Blizzard’s hits after that early success. For almost a decade, they played it incredibly safe – Diablo was their only venture outside of RTSes until WoW, and they made more Warcraft and expanded their RTS lineup with Starcraft – you could be forgiven for believing that Blizzard was just an RTS house, since even Diablo was made by an acquired studio and not the main Blizzard staff. They rarely experimented, and when they did, it often ended in preemptive cancellation. Warcraft Adventures – cancelled. Starcraft Ghost – cancelled. For a long time, Blizzard was 3 franchises, and their focus shifted to whatever was the biggest hit. Diablo II was huge and it was Blizzard’s identifying game for a lot of people, but then Warcraft III was the new hotness and the title the studio focused on most, followed then by the meteoric rise of WoW and the 6 year span where WoW and its expansions were the only games Blizzard was releasing.
Basically, Blizzard never had a corporate adolescence – they popped out Warcraft and that fundamentally changed them from a tiny indie company with punk aesthetic to big AAA superpower. Any studio that wants to be built on a foundation of artistic integrity and expression has to have the opportunity to build the idea of how they keep that at the core of their work, and Blizzard never really had that chance. They struck gold and ran with it, pumping out RTSes for years while buying up Condor Studios when Diablo was getting hot, using them for the original two games, and then pushing them out because the vision of Diablo III that Blizzard North had didn’t fit Nouveau Blizzard and so they were ousted.
This is where I think the structural rot emerges from.
Obviously, Blizzard wants us all to believe that the company is this trendy, fun artist collective, that everyone there is about doing something great and expressive and that the company doesn’t just churn out what is profitable but instead what is artistically resonant and drives the team out of bed in the morning. The truth, easily visible, however, is quite the opposite – Blizzard has for most of its history been about milking their current hot title while building the folklore of Blizzard Polish, such that people expect everything Blizzard does to be excellent, all while trying to find the precise line in the sand where players will notice that they’ve stopped using most of the polish and are instead having you huff the fumes, get high, and then get sucked into a roped-off ecosystem of paying for loot boxes, card packs, in-game cosmetics, subscriptions and boxed expansions while you have some form of Stockholm Syndrome and defend the game of your choice unironically, all the while mass-firing employees and having an exit path paved with tears and broken dreams, while the high-level staff everyone knows all bail out and run away as fast as they can.
Blizzard invests a lot into their company lore. When you visit the Irvine campus, the front desk is immediately flanked by a TV showing cinematic reels and awards, while the other side immediately gives way to the company museum, loaded with trinkets, artwork, and game boxes of the past. They have an employee library stacked high with books, DVDs and Bluray movies, and games of all sorts, with the walls covered in employee artwork of Blizzard franchises. Employees I talked to were often playing other games at their desks, discussing the gameplay and elements of each title with each other. There’s this very immediately present vibe that everything is a little too put-on, that the company is pushing hard to make you notice how cool and fun the environment is.
But the stories from inside tell a different tale. Employees seem to be pretty happy to work at Blizzard, but the company underpays for the area compared to peers because of the personal fulfillment of working at the Blizzard Entertainment. The mood seems fine enough, but there are obviously a lot of stresses placed on teams. The Diablo Immortal team made a good-seeming mobile Diablo and got stuck holding the bag on-stage for it, announcing it absent any news about the future of mainline Diablo or the maintenance of Diablo III. The WoW team is frequently bearing the brunt of player abuse over mechanics that seem designed to increase player time spent without offering meaningful gameplay. The company loves to talk a big game about eSports, but offers drastically smaller prize pools for many of its games and has slowly been shutting down leagues, just a couple of years after building the Blizzard eSports Arena in Southern California, and they famously missed the boat completely on Starcraft eSports – independent organizations like ESL and Star League really created the big scene for eSports overseas, which Blizzard took more control of for SC II and then squandered it, allowing League of Legends to unseat Starcraft as the defining title of the South Korean eSports scene. Even today, WoW eSports has a smaller and smaller base of players, teams, and viewers, as the product becomes far more insular, with Arena commentators that expect you already know every aspect of PvP play as a viewer, and much the same is true of the MDI, with commentators referring to all kinds of impenetrable jargon that would only appeal to someone already knee-deep in the gameplay mode in question as a player.
Further, while it took nearly a full decade to really sully Blizzard, the acquisition of the company by Activision has finally begun to crack at the company. With Mike Morhaime’s departure, Blizzard appointed a president but not a CEO, giving the leadership of Activision direct control of the company. Since then, it seems they’ve been on a mission to crunch the numbers, and everything we see publicly feels like an extension of that – increases in time-gated and time-wasting content in WoW, drastically deeper focus on RMT cosmetics for WoW and lootboxes for Overwatch, basically a bigger focus on DLC and post-release content purchases than ever before, and the increasing dissatisfaction of many of Blizzard’s longest-tenured employees, while mid-range employees are often shuffled out in frequent reorganizations, ostensibly to save money while Activision CEO Bobby Kotick (a man I am cursed to share a first name with) takes on outlandish pay above industry averages and excessive stock and direct compensation bonuses based on Activision’s outstanding financial performance (which is brought about by direct reductions to employee expenditures caused by mass layoffs!).
All of this, to me, paints a pretty bleak picture of Blizzard. The studio never got to align itself to a core vision of what it should be, and instead has invested in its own hype and crafted folklore after the fact – telling a public version of the story that sees an undefeatable artistic spirit defeat the market as it was to create a bold game studio built on creating art – when the truth tends to be that Blizzard makes safe bets on commercial successes and is largely still propped up by WoW, although Overwatch has become a strong second pillar. My expectation is that Diablo IV will be very good, but very much a Diablo game with a small percentage of new fresh gameplay mixed in and encumbered with microtransactions and DLC new classes as the post launch support. Public perception of Blizzard has waned, as World of Warcraft is no longer the mainstream cultural touchstone it once was, while Overwatch remains popular with a core audience that is larger and more mainstream than WoW ever was, but has also made Blizzard more visible in the mainstream again as they’ve taken progressively worse actions with development and employment and has exposed the sort of sinking-ship vibe they give off. (And to be clear, I say “sinking ship vibe” because there’s not really any sign yet that Blizzard is failing on a business level. In fact, any such failures they are having are down to a lack of artistic vision and integrity).
That’s not to say that current Blizzard doesn’t have people working for what they see as an artistic vision. I think a lot of harsh things are said about Ion Hazzikostas as the face of WoW, but the man’s story of reaching that Game Director role is very similar to Jeff Kaplan’s – a passionate player who, in this case, was actually writing about and analyzing WoW itself, whose fiery passion as a high-end raid leader and content planner found him filling a role on the encounter design team, working up to lead encounter design, to game director. A couple of the glory-days WoW devs are on an incubator team at Blizzard – both Tom Chilton and Cory Stockton are there – and the word is that while the incubator team is mobile-focused, both of those individuals have a fondness for mobile titles and want to bring their vision of excellence to that platform and style, and I can respect that.
However, the company as a whole seems to be very much risk-averse, focused on small steps forward and willing to encumber their titles with engagement mechanics to keep an overzealous corporate parent happy, while the image sold of Blizzard doesn’t match the environment on the inside, which is a standard high-turnover corporate office. There was more color at the Blizzard HQ then I ever saw at my time inside a financial software firm, but the environment itself was very similar – cold, corporate, with too-small and too-short cubicles in the name of “teamwork.” People were generally friendly and seemed pretty happy, but the mood was sort of dour, people focused on work, the WoW team in particular feeling kind of beaten down (my visit was shortly after the launch of BfA, so yeah…). It was a cool place to visit, but I tried to imagine what working there would really be like, and I had a hard time imaging anything that was different than what I was doing at the time.
And that leads to the kind of output Blizzard has had, where only one fully new franchise has launched and the company has instead been overutilizing the classics – building a whole new game using the engine of Starcraft and the assets of the entire Blizzard portfolio, or launching a Warcraft digital TCG that allowed them to repurpose artwork from concepting, prior conventions, and even the actual physical WoW TCG to create a game that leans heavily on WoW to bring players into the setting and classes. Overwatch is their only original IP in over a decade, and that is what made it so significant, but at the same time, it kind of pierces the veil between PR Blizzard and actual Blizzard, if you think about it. Blizzard mythos is an innovative, creative studio with new worlds to explore, but it took around 18 years from Starcraft to Overwatch, original IP to new original IP. If Blizzard had strong, polished games, they’d be able to keep at that, because that was arguably what made it work in the first place, but they slipped away from that to launching things in broken states (elements of nearly every WoW expansion, Warcraft III Reforged, servers on Diablo III day one) and coasting on reputation while delivering largely the same kind of content in every franchise as they have for years.
To me as an outsider, Blizzard used to always feel like this sort of magical place, like just the idea of it was powerful and inspiring. I’ve applied to work there three times when I’ve fit requirements, including one very recently, and even when I think about all of the stuff I just said, I still kind of think working at Blizzard would be wish fulfillment for me. No matter how much I can see current Blizzard as what it is, if you gave me an opportunity to come in and write quests for WoW or work on design, I would almost certainly take it. As an employer, I almost certainly wouldn’t like them, but there is almost certainly always going to be a voice in my head telling me that it would be amazing and my best shot at influencing a game I love in a direction I would like to see.
But it is hard to think much of modern Blizzard when you see the exodus of talent from the company. They all say very similar things, that they loved Blizzard but it was time for something new, that they loved Blizzard in their day but wanted a chance to build a modern version of that original charm from outside, that they had new artistic visions they needed the freedom to chase. And it is easy to think that this PR friendly verbiage is correct, but then it’s like, you mean to tell me you couldn’t start a tabletop gaming division in order to keep Chris Metzen and friends?! Blizzard already has a publishing imprint and everything! You mean you let Chris Metzen walk when you could have just had Warchief Gaming, a division of Blizzard Entertainment, and gave him some autonomy to make what he wanted? The man’s new venture just made half-a-million dollars in one day on Kickstarter for a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons that will cost almost nothing to create and design and similar campaigns could be made 2-3 times a year for a similar margin. Second Dinner, Dreamhaven, and Bonfire are all unproven names with no products to speak of (save for Second Dinner’s early-development unknown Marvel game) but have millions of dollars of investments from outside donors looking to see what they produce.
The power within the company that many of these departures had leads me to believe that the smart money is that Blizzard is going to self-harm right out of relevance. It’s hard, if not impossible for me to believe that Blizzard dies, but I could see them being just a company that coasts on minimal effort new content for pillar titles like WoW and Overwatch. And, to be fair, I don’t think that’s the role that someone like J Allen Brack wants to play, but it is what Activision will push. Bobby Kotick and most of the executive suite at Activision are on-record as not being fond of games. They don’t imagine new worlds or conceive of vast and beautiful artistic visions – they push underpaid staff to keep franchises going while talking about these works of art as “products” and players as “customers,” stripping all of the fun and joy out of gaming and making it this gray matter corporate waste.
Because if Activision was about artistry or artistic vision, you could pay a small amount of money and relinquish some small amount of control to let a Chris Metzen work on tabletop games, or keep Jeff Kaplan working on the next new trends in the MMO space. You could afford and profit from the process and environment fostered by Mike Morhaime and Rob Pardo. You could let Blizzard, or Infinity Ward, Treyarch, Vicarious Visions, and countless other consumed studios build their portfolio on their own terms, leaving happy, creatively fulfilled employees who want to stay and offer their talents to you. You could relinquish your greedy, Dragon-like hold over the value created by your workers so that they can live happy and secure lives that allow them to provide for a family, save for the future, and show up to give 100% at work.
Because right now, from the outside, it kind of looks like you’re killing Blizzard. And I mean, I don’t necessarily love them like I used to at this point in time, but I would still mourn that loss. A lot of people my age had their imaginations and perspectives shaped and changed by the time they spent in WoW, or Diablo, or Starcraft, and I’d hate to see that name used to sell meaningless drivel designed to shovel money out of my wallet with little regard for artistry, message, emotion, or passion. It pains me enough that this is already sort of happening and that I’m watching the people I looked up to, many of whom I enjoyed meeting and talking with at Blizzcons over the years, vanish from Blizzard to work on their own passions with renewed vigor.
For now, I’ll bet that we’ll see Jeff Kaplan in the MMO space again. My curiosity is if he goes to a splintered studio from Blizzard expats or if he starts his own, but I can’t even put together decent speculation on that one, so I’ll leave it there.