What If Being Good Isn’t Enough? Dragonflight and the Looming Specter Of Activision-Blizzard News

The Dragonflight expansion announcement last month was…odd.

It was weird because of a confluence of factors – COVID-19 delays to Shadowlands’ entire content pipeline, how late it was in the normal hype cycle of a WoW expansion unveiling, the style and delivery of it compared to the traditional unveiling at a Blizzcon, and, of course, the ongoing issues with Activision-Blizzard’s workplace, with news about employees being union-busted coming out on a regular basis and the issues of sexual harassment and discrimination that were unveiled nearly a year ago now. The announcement was content-light and a bit lacking, in that there was a mix of specific details (scattered to the winds via interviews) and vague confirmations of cool new features in the official hype video.

But in the month that has passed now since the unveiling, I’ve noticed an interesting response or lack-thereof to the expansion news, and that is what I want to talk about today.

One of the posts I read with utter intrigue was that of Bhagpuss, whose MMO tastes are about as diametrically opposed to mine as could be. A small comment up top in his post and a small thought experiment in the comments later, and it left me thinking. This trend repeated in Wowhead comments, with a few exchanges from the author of that site’s most recent look at the ATVI investor data that caught my eye. I’ve screenshotted the comment that most grabbed me, because it will become the theme I want to explore today.

In both Bhagpuss’ post and this comment, there is a clear theme emerging – the discussion of the viability of WoW, Activision-Blizzard as an entity, or Dragonflight as an expansion divorced from the current goings-on at the company itself, the expansion looked at as a product alone on just the merits of what it delivers. In order to discuss the expansion, there is a certain amount of “pretend for a moment that Blizzard isn’t embroiled in numerous scandals” that happens in order to push forward into discussing the game alone. To be fair, I think this is valid – at this point, there is a baseline understanding of the turmoil at Blizzard and evaluating the product of that work environment does not itself mean a good review or favorable opinion of the product is an endorsement of the work culture that created it. There are things in the Dragonflight preview that looked great, and to a certain extent, most fans reading a site like Wowhead or an MMO blog like Bhagpuss’ or my own are people entrenched in the news around the game.

However, I think there is an assumption, made largely by the Wowhead author shown above, that the controversy has made its mark already and that the game is not likely to suffer more losses due to it, and I think this is an assertion worth challenging.

On the face of it, I think that WoW has taken the majority of the impact it was due to receive from the scandals at Activision-Blizzard. It probably got hit the hardest of any ATVI property, in part because some of the most visible people of the scandal – Alex Afrasiabi for his harassment and general behavior and the laissez-faire “let it slide” that kept Afrasiabi around from J Allen Brack, the game’s former producer and then President of Blizzard – were both WoW-centric personalities most known for their work on the game. In that light, it is probably fair to say that most active, steady WoW players have already made up their minds on staying invested in the game or not – and they’ve either left, continued as normal, or found a way to make that decision in-line with their own moral compass, and so on the surface, sure, why not – the impact has been had.

But sunk-cost fallacy is a hell of a drug, and there is a prevailing mindset I see often in my circles around the game, which is that they paid for the current expansion and they’re going to get all they can from it first. Most of them are still enjoying the game, maybe not as much as they’d like, but there is enough there for them to dig into and the stock stuff they enjoy is still there. Some of them will certainly defend the honor of the videogame from perceived attack, and yet the need to do so throughout Shadowlands has clearly worn on them. Hell, I felt that a lot in 9.1 myself – I went back and forth quite publicly here about how I felt with WoW last summer, both pre and post-revelations. For this type of person, I think that they see Shadowlands as sunk-cost – a sort of “I paid for this content, and I’m going to get all of it before I decide to keep going into 10.0 or not” mindset. Regardless of the fact that you have to keep paying for that sub, whether through money or gold, there is a reasonable response in the idea of wanting to get the investment of money in the box back out of the game in enjoyment. Right up until I uninstalled the game, I had the same mindset myself – I felt a need to see it through, to see the whole story, to justify the $120 collector’s edition purchase, and to be able to validate my early impressions and desire to like the game. To that audience, they are locked in through Shadowlands unless they hit a wall, but Dragonflight? I wouldn’t assume that they’ll all stay.

Yet at the same time, I think that there is a side missing from that discussion.

In the community around WoW and MMOs in general, we all understand that there is a cyclical business model where a large chunk of players come back, play a new expansion, dip out around 1-3 months deep, and they’re happy. Hell, a ton of my old raiders and friends are this way with WoW specifically – it is this piece of their life, but not a going concern, so we see them every expansion, they tease maybe playing more or going deeper this time out, but they hit that wall and bow out. Yet a frequent blindspot (my own often included) is that these players are probably the bulk of those healthy, record-setting day 1 sales numbers. These people are not blind to the news about the game, its developer, and the culture under which the game was made, and they weren’t recorded as objectors back last summer when the news broke because many of them had already unsubscribed and left the game behind for Shadowlands. If Blizzard wants to have a strong day 1 and another record-setting launch day, they need those players to come around – and they aren’t showing many signs of it, at least in my circles.

And it leads me to wonder – what if Dragonflight being good isn’t enough?

The preview didn’t have much to go on, but it looked promising enough as a WoW expansion. There are elements of reinvention, of classic Blizzard “inspiration” taken from other games, pivots on things that players have bemoaned through Shadowlands, and a lot of long-term things that have needed addressing, like the UI rework, earlier access to flight, and some vague promises in various interviews about mindfulness of player time and effort with more ease of access to things like Renown and a conscious design effort around making boss fights in raids less addon-dependent. I wasn’t 100% sold or impressed, but I can respect that Blizzard and the WoW team are making a conscious effort to meet the playerbase closer to where they are, or at least it seems that way in these early days. Did I feel as hyped for the news as I have been at any prior point? No, but my reaction is in some ways understandable as such. Was my circle of WoW-friends as hyped? Also no, and that one caught me off-guard. Sure, there was some measure of excitement, including from me – but it faded very, very quickly, and that is something I actually didn’t predict.

With the gift of hindsight and having written for 5 years and the prior two expansion announcements before Dragonflight, my site metrics can paint an anecdotal tale. When both BfA and Shadowlands were announced, I saw sustained traffic for up to two weeks that was beyond my normal numbers. The BfA news was my most-read post for around 3 weeks and provided a two-week shot in the arm of visitors (roughly a doubling of traffic tapering to a 50% increase after the first week), while Shadowlands’ unveiling was a 100% increase in views that lasted for nearly a full week before tapering off, and the increase was far larger in pure view count given the increased visibility I had at that point. Dragonflight’s announcement got me…a two-day spike of around 40%. These are all anecdotes, obviously – my site is not anyone’s definition of an accurate read on how these things are working, but at the same time, I can say that a lot of my traffic comes from search, not normal readers, so even with my turn away from WoW overall, I would have expected to see more views over a longer period of time, especially since I had follow-up posts quickly on the heels of the announcement for a few days.

Through this lens, there is a lot to unpack. Ultimately, do I think any one thing is driving down the response towards Dragonflight? Not really, no. I think that there are a lot of impact points that are adding up to a general sense of ennui towards the expansion. In no particular order, there’s the lawsuits against Blizzard, the outward lack of visible changes and the visible ones often being poorly received (the Diversity Index tool, the co-leads role imploding, etc), the unionization push being stepped on by the company at every opportunity, a string of sub-par WoW expansions leading us to Dragonflight, the lack of details on Dragonflight, the scattered approach to the unveiling that has things without context in interviews and other online content instead of in a single place, the lack of a release date or even window for it, and the general competitive state of the MMO market right now. All of these things add up to a lot of hits on WoW, and the current push around Dragonflight just isn’t strong enough to overcome them – yet.

Will these things make an actual difference once the game is closer to launch or actually launched? It is hard to say. Right now, the game is obviously on poor footing because there isn’t much to it one way or the other – if we do the thought experiment of putting all other factors out of mind, Dragonflight hasn’t inspired a hype train just because there isn’t much there yet. I believe that it will end up getting a more proper hype cycle in due time and that interest in the expansion will increase, because actual gameplay, alpha tests, and influencer content is going to show a more-realized expansion than what we have now. At the same time, however, I find the Wowhead author train-of-thought on this one to be tellingly wrong – I don’t think we’ve felt the last tremors of fallout from the issues at Activision-Blizzard on WoW’s playerbase, not yet. Once Shadowlands is firmly in the rear-view mirror, I think a lot of people are going to have a decision to make about whether or not they continue with the game, and a lot of people poking their heads out to see about returning after playing the first 3 months of Shadowlands might not bother to come back. I don’t think there’s a massive wave of such people, and I think the author of that comment left it open-ended enough to account for some reaction like what I’ve described here, but I think the general view inside the house of WoW has yet to fully account for what reactions will be like when the whole fanbase is called to the game by a new expansion for the first time after what has happened and been revealed.

My bold prediction for now is a gamble – Dragonflight will be the first expansion to underperform its predecessor on launch day(correction: Shintar in the comments correctly noted that it would be the second time on record, as MoP was previously outsold by Cataclysm by around 600k units after a week of MoP sales). It’ll sell strong and there will be a lot of active players on day 1, but Shadowlands was just shy of 4 million day one copies, and I don’t think that Dragonflight is quite going to get there. I don’t believe that it will be far below Shadowlands’ day-1 results either, like maybe a 3 million opening, but I think that there’s already been a sea-change in the genre and a lot of WoW players have been vacuumed up by other games or just exited the genre for other things. Right now, the game being weak on subscriber count and MAU metrics is to be expected – it is the final arc of the expansion and there’s not a ton of new stuff to see, and even with the Season 4 content to come, there isn’t a whole lot of actually-new content to sink your teeth into unless you do Mythic Plus, PvP, or raid.

My conclusion is this – I think that expecting Dragonflight to do poorly is missing the point as there just isn’t enough about the expansion out yet to draw that conclusion. Likewise, I think that believing that the worst is over now for impacts to WoW’s bottom-line over the harassment and discrimination cases brought to light last summer is also naïve to a degree, because I think there is a category of player who is bought-in for Shadowlands as a whole and once that is over, all bets are off. My opinion is that Dragonflight is going to have some issues pulling players back in, regardless of how great it may look as we get closer to an actual launch, but I also think that it is still going to be a fairly big launch with a strong player number – not as high as the continual record-breaking launches, but not in the toilet either. As long as Blizzard doesn’t jump drastically in one direction or the other, I expect this analysis to hold – everything is off if they decide to crush the union, fire people, and Bobby Kotick drinks blood live on Twitch, but it is also off if they unionize the whole company, fire Kotick, and give everyone who has played 15 years or more an Alexstraza statue with both of her forms in it.

19 thoughts on “What If Being Good Isn’t Enough? Dragonflight and the Looming Specter Of Activision-Blizzard News

  1. Dragonflight will be the first expansion to underperform its predecessor on launch day.

    Just wanted to point out that Mists of Pandaria already holds that title. Cata sold 3.3 million copies on launch day, while MoP’s sales day one sales were so low that Blizzard didn’t even report them (outside sources estimated them to be less than a million)… after a week they finally said that they were up to 2.7 million.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. MoP was in a unique position, though. The ‘sub for a year’ and get Diablo 3 free, plus get in the MoP beta really made a difference. So many people played the hell out of the beta for those six months of beta that they just passed on the launch as there wasn’t anything new for them. That long beta and the Cataclysm content drought were the first signs of Blizzard starting to struggle with keeping Wow going at the pace they wanted.

      It’s also amusing to remember when the above offer was viewed as Blizzard being worried about the Swtor launch. How times have changed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I did the advance purchase for two accounts, got Diablo, played it some once they fixed the problems, got beta on my account the last week before the expansion event. My wife never got beta. Won’t fall for that carrot anymore

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  2. I think the general beta is where there’s a chance for a solid ‘word of mouth’ hype cycle. If the talk about Dragonflight is that it’s a solid expansion, such as Legion, you’ll see a lot of people on Day 1. If the talk is just that it is an Ok expansion, then not so much. Anecdotally, my guild is waiting to hear from people who traditionally get into the beta. Those reports are going to influence our small group.

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  3. Maybe I’m being the oblivious bonehead again here but I’ll go out on a limb and say that the whole ActiBlizz fiasco has been a lot more low-key in both my guilds, one is German and one is (mostly) UK-based. All the “I’m quitting because they’re terrible people” is what I read on the internet and I’m basically the only person who talked about it in my immediate circles (and then decided to stay).

    Also both guilds are really old and the majority of people seem to be of the “I am not a video gamer, I play WoW”, with a few here and there that come and go based on expansion or availability of other games. Only playing one toon for the whole expansion (or several of them) or raidlogging (with the exception of one M+ per week) is pretty common right from the start, so that’s also not “lost interest”.

    So, what does it have to do with everything? I am predicting that the people will return for launch and then decide whether they like it, just as usual. (There are also several clusters of friends and/or family involved, so of course that’s another draw). I simply can’t predict what the majority will do, but a good chunk of players here returned (or have stayed) for Shadowlands, so the ActiBlizz problems don’t seem to hold.

    Not sure if that was useful to type up. I guess I’m also really curious how it will pan out. If my personal motivation/fun stays on this current level, I will be buying and playing on day one, despite not being excited about it right now.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree. There will be those prominent people with streams that will come back under the guise that they are to support the employees that are still there. They will continue to condemn the company for past actions and lack of progress in change, but ultimately they will return.

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    2. Thanks for the comment! I do think there is an element of that in a lot of places – it was sort of a thing and it might have been discussed in-group for a minute and then everyone came to their own decisions. In my guild, there was discussion about it for like a day or so and then people individually made up their minds. My guild is pretty heavy on WoW-lifers, too, and I suspect that played a role there as well. I think you’re right to a point – day one allure is hard to shake, even given opinions against the company, and the long-tail on release is likely to help in that regard.

      It’s all personal and anecdotal at this point, but I appreciate your take and anecdotes all the same!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I had a comment. I guess it got lost. Basically, I am subbed to the franchise, I will wait until we have something actually playable before I make my decision on a basic digital download.

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  5. I think it’ll be at least another year before we see the direct effects of the scandals and internal reshuffling. All that is going to hit Blizz at the wellhead of the pipeline, but those effects *will* propagate down the pipeline.

    We’re already seeing the effects of COVID on the pipeline, which starting having a direct impact in the office 2 years ago. They had ‘x’ amount of buffer to work out of, that got consumed, and now we’re seeing the direct effects of a number of things, such as the pause in work while people got situated in WFH life, the change in productivity and quality as an effect, the change in work culture as people were forced to use other media to communicate instead of meeting meeting meeting. I actually expect some of those to be positives, at least until the Suits try to eff around with it.

    What was it – six, eight months ago when the metaphysical bombs went off? Work was already well underway on DF and its announce cinematic by then. From time of announce to release, figure 18 months, and figure 18 before the announce, too. For a piece of hardware that would be about half, but this is a far more complex system than, say, a fax machine.

    What I’m getting at here is that everything we see coming from blizz in terms of product has to be contextualized as far as what was going on a year to 18 months ago.

    It’s somewhat amusing when Franchise X comes out with a thing and some incredibly short time later Blizz announces a thing and people jump on it as being derivative of Franchise X’s announcement. As if. BLIZZ CAN ONLY WISH IT WAS THAT AGILE.

    Blizz is a hulking monster. Not as big as, say, HP, but more on par with “the littlest big company in the world” because despite the size, they still are ‘blessed’ with typical big-corporate culture internally, from what I can see. But they are not a start up. They have tons of people that will never meet or even email each other. Most of them won’t know who they roll up to beyond two or three levels up.

    So that’s the beast we need to understand, if we really want to understand it outside of that context at all.

    Myself, I’m giving it a year or so more before I write them off and find something else to do with my spare time. If there haven’t been significant changes by then, they’re not going to do it and all the talk we hear NOW is just to get us off their backs while they continue to plot how to be really shitty to their people.

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    1. I agree with the whole, oh look Blizz is copying x game. Dragonflight was probably mostly conceptualized long before game x was released. That said with the constant churn in the industry I am sure a great many ideas that were thought about and shelved for later development find their way to new companies with the former employees.

      I agree with the timeframe, 2 years of WFH is going to rear it’s ugly head, sure you can do a bit of work at a home PC, but I’m sure there is a lot of encrypted software that just doesn’t get outside of internal servers, and it would take a fairly decent home PC to work on animation and the artwork. Who knows, maybe the cinematic was a tease to get some hype going, get some players to come back, or entice others to stay. I am surprised that we really haven’t seen a lot more from them. In the end, it was more of a “here’s what’s in development. All that’s missing is “release summer of 2024”

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      1. For what it’s worth, the example most people have on the Blizzard cribbing notes is dragonriding, whose feature set corresponds pretty neatly to Guild Wars 2 flight, which was added in 2017. I do think they clearly got some “inspiration” from it, and I don’t think that is bad – people like that system generally, and if it becomes the way by which they let flying happen earlier in an expansion and make it feel more exciting and fun, then that is a good thing.

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      2. Maybe it was a half way response. They resist giving us flying until lat in the expansion, we want it much sooner, word gets around that “well, guild wars is doing it like this” hmm, ok, maybe we meet the players half way, give them the ability to fly, but they will need to work at it to make it like what they expect.

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      3. WoW cribbing from other platforms is nothing new. One of the very first reviews of WoW I ever read basically boiled down to “like EQ, but better.” Hell, even Diablo falls under that, “like Rogue, but with much better graphics”. (also known as “a roguelike”)

        What I was referring to though is the serendipity where we see Franchise X come out with, say, “Shadow Bringer” and WoW inside of a month announce “Shadowlands”. Coincidence? Sure. Cribbing? Not likely.

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  6. I had to go back through the link you kindly gave me to remind myself what I’d said about the Dragonflight reveal. I have to say it certainly hasn’t been on my mind since about the day after it happened. Of course, I’m only a very casual WoW player so I’m not heavily invested anyway.

    On the topic of whether it’s a good idea to put aside the terrible things Blizzard employees have been caught doing, even in a thought experiment, I was a little surprised at how sensitive some people seemed to be about it. It seemed harmless enough to me but then I was never much enamored of Blizzard as a company to begin with so I just feel appalled by the revelations, not betrayed.

    As things stand now, I wouldn’t buy Dragonflight even if the reviews reckoned it the best WoW expansion to date. It’s not even that I think Blizzard is worse than other companies. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear similar stories about other companies of similar size and repute. The difference is that carrying on playing, or worse yet paying, after the revelations feels too much like complicity. Whether the transition to new ownership and the subsequent departure of the current leadership will be sufficient to make buying the expansion an option remains to be seen. I think it will take a bit more than that.

    How many other people feel the same way is very hard to guess but I suspect that, regardless of either the quality of the expansion or the moral state of the company, WoW’s time at the top may simply have come to an end. It’s been a good run but all things come to an end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you can ever find it you should watch the documentary Atari Game Over. It is fascinating seeing the culture at the company back then. It really shows that behind closed doors there are some things that never really changed, except that the people doing it have gotten fewer and far between.

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  7. I suspect that Dragonflight won’t have as many sales as previous expansions, making it the second to do so as Shintar pointed out first, but also because it doesn’t follow the “Azeroth is in peril with bigger bigger BIGGER BADS!” hype routine that most of the expacs preceding it hyped up. (Again, with the exception of Mists.) Dragonflight’s hype is about exploration and how the Flights fit into a post-Aspect Azeroth, which is very much a low key thing, and not something you can hype up as an upcoming raid.

    SEE: The Heart of Creation raid in the Dragon Isles, where the Flights debate philosophy! just doesn’t have a ring to it. I mean, I’d go on that sort of raid, but then again I minored in Philosophy in college, so I’d actually enjoy that sort of debate.

    But that decline in purchases isn’t necessary a bad thing, either. If the people who dislike the “woke” attitude –of which I’d just call “common sense”– of a post lawsuit Blizzard left for a place like League or DOTA where they could be jerks to their hearts’ content, a smaller WoW that is a more pleasant place to play in is a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The Dragonflight reveal didn’t do it for me. The problem with Blizzard for me isn’t that they got some details wrong, it’s that those details are being driven by an underlying game design philosophy that appears to be incompatible with what I’d want. So unless they explicitly describe what their philosophy now is (rather than requiring me to guess what it is from the current actions) and unless I find that philosophy to be acceptable, I’m not going to bite.

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