Reading Between The Lines: The LA Times Interview with Mike Ybarra

This week, the headline on most gaming sites was that Blizzard had recommitted to a Blizzcon in-person event for 2023. However, that tidbit fell out of a longer and more interesting interview with current Blizzard figurehead Mike “Qwik” Ybarra.

In the modern hellscape of the United States, a fawning profile of a corporate leader accompanied by a largely softball interview isn’t really groundbreaking or surprising. I wouldn’t have expected the LA Times to come out swinging with a more investigative approach to what specific changes Ybarra is attempting to spearhead. There’s enough to give you some context (he’s meeting with women across the levels of the company to ensure that teams and the company as a whole are doing better at inclusion efforts), but a lot of it reads like PR. Still, the piece is interesting for what it does say.

I think I want to dive into the piece first by saying that I don’t envy Ybarra’s role. He is still very much on cleanup duty, responding to a company in crisis, a stalwart name in gaming that has seen massive declines in quality, volume of output, and has seen the carefully-cultivated image they projected into the world shattered by these factors and the revelations of wide-scale, Blizzard-specific cultural rot, on top of anything that could be said to be sourced from the poisoned well of Activision. Ybarra seems like a nice-enough guy on the surface that I don’t have a feeling he’s the wrong guy for the job or that I dislike him, but as the figurehead of Blizzard discussing the company in the current context, he’s going to catch some heat (and some strays, to be fair) for how Blizzard behaves and the content they output at the moment, regardless of how much involvement he actually had.

I wanted to break down a couple of my takeaways and points of critique for the approach Ybarra has expressed, because while I think there are some things to like, there are some that fill me with less joy and more dread.

Blizzard Needs To Increase Their Output

One thing Ybarra points out and is quite true is that the studio has had massive, generational gaps in content releases across most of their franchises. Diablo III launched in 2012 and saw an expansion in 2014, with no new title until 2022’s Diablo Immortal (we’ll be coming back to that one momentarily). Starcraft: Brood War released in 1998 and Starcraft II’s initial launch was not until 2010, a 12-year gap. Even right now, Overwatch released in 2016, and Overwatch 2’s initial free-to-play PvP component is scheduled for later this year, a 6-year gap (and especially egregious considering that much of the actual backbone of Overwatch 2 is design and content from the original!). Of the mainline Blizzard franchises, only Warcraft has seen a steady cadence of content, with each WoW expansion launching within 2 years and some change of the prior drop, and while there have been consistent issues with patch cadence (outside of the excellent pacing of most of Legion’s patches), the game generally has new content on the horizon.

Blizzard’s old mantra is “it’s done when it’s done” and that worked back in the nineties and early 2000s when the company was still bringing out new content on a regular basis and was still perceived as a smaller, scrappier company, but WoW changed all of that, and gaps like those mentioned above are outlandishly large even compared to that old line of thought. Yes, things should be released when they are done and ready for public consumption, but Blizzard’s role is to ensure that the pacing of these things is satisfying to players and keeps their brands in the conversation. Diablo and Starcraft are what got me into Blizzard in the first place, and how much of an afterthought they have been in recent times is a big part of why I fell out of love with Blizzard (aside from the rampant cultural issues). WoW definitely helped sustain it, but even that game has had issues with reduced content on elongated schedules that have made being invested for a full expansion cycle feel less worthwhile.

So I’m glad that Ybarra is cognizant of that and has actions he has actually taken in the leadership role to point at as helping this. In the past, both Mike Morhaime and J Allen Brack would often handwave the problem as “Blizzard polish” and when titles failed to launch polished, they’d just shuffle on anyways with vague talk about open positions and hiring for new roles. Ybarra can point to the acquisition of Proletariat and their subsequent integration with the WoW team and today’s news of the maintenance-mode for Heroes of the Storm as moves he is taking to better allocate the staff he does have while rapidly bringing in new staff to get to work. Whatever else I will say about Ybarra’s interview, I think this is a good sign of change on the production side.

Blizzard Has Culture Rot That Needs More Than Meetings and Empty Promises

The interview positions Ybarra as a forward-focused leader, hesitant to talk about Blizzard’s past as more than a lesson for the future. That is fine to a point – he became the leader of the company after what most people are mad at the company for, after all – but he owns a significant share of responsibility for ensuring change, and I think that resisting the discussion of Blizzard’s past transgressions is problematic for that role. To actually face the issues with the seriousness they deserve, I’d like to see him be more open about the failings of past Blizzard, to lean into that harder and more deftly. You cannot solve the problems Blizzard faces by putting on the blinders or refusing to elaborate on them, and while he makes a passing attempt at referencing the Blizzcon panel question that blew up last summer (about catalog models), he doesn’t really touch on the specifics.

Ybarra’s one stated measure in the piece is that he has monthly meetings with 3 women from each team at Blizzard to find opportunities for improvement and to learn where the teams are doing well. That’s great and I believe there is value to be had in that, but at the same time, I’ve been in meetings and skip-levels at software companies and the idea that a meeting with an executive translates into action even a majority of the time is misleading. I definitely am not inside Blizzard and thus unable to speak to how effective employees might find these measures, but they sound pretty hollow and empty as a casual observer. Measures like hiring veteran women executives to head up Culture and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are better steps (and quite telling of Blizzard’s modern core audience that these were dismissed with vitriol in comment sections) but there is still nothing to say externally about how these moves have improved things. Blizzard remains a company that is 77% male (in spite of industry figures for the number of educated and capable women who could fill such roles) and has a long road to walk to make meaningful progress on these issues, the seriousness of which is undercut by how often the company publicly pretends that nothing is wrong or denies knowing of systemic issues that were quite clearly known of.

On that same note, while Ybarra mentions leading meetings with “culture” before pivoting to product, that as a statement is quite empty and might as well mean nothing. If the culture of the company was more public, more open to scrutiny that didn’t involve exposes from lawsuits and filings, I might be able to find some meaning in that, but again, as a software company veteran, “culture” and “values” are just PR speak gibberish that are moving and malleable targets to leadership. Blizzard in particular is notorious for this – “every voice matters” unless it hurts the bottom line, “think globally” except for, again, when it risks emptying the coffers, and “learn and grow” unless you’re a high-enough level employee who can get away with a series of known sexual harassments and have them swept under the rug because you’re buddies with the president of the company, where action was only finally taken once the risk of public knowledge of the case became too high to ignore. The current culture at Blizzard, such as we can see it from the outside, is rotten, malnourished, and in need of a full-on cleanse, one that the company has not really made strides towards from that same viewpoint. These things can take time, but given how often Blizzard ends up in headlines denying known facts, well, I think cynicism is quite warranted here.

He Said Some Real Bullshit About Diablo Immortal

Look, I think the thing with Diablo Immortal that comes up is this – it is a decently fun game on the merits. However, its monetization model is undeniably predatory in a way that is breathtakingly awful, such that its core gameplay (a refined and revamped version of Diablo III) isn’t enough to ignore the business model. Ybarra gets defensive of this title, trying to excuse the model as “free…to hundreds of millions of people, where they can literally do 99.5% of everything in the game” and like, I want to see the data on that. Can you do the Helliquary raids without paying for gems and stay current with the game as new content releases? Can you play PvP without the power-imbalance of free versus paid becoming a factor?

He tries to handwave it as “monetization comes in at the end game” which is absolutely not true, the game beats you over the head with battle passes, loot chests, and more at nearly every point in the process, and then turns it over to the PR folks to say that “the majority of players are not spending money” while declining to get more specific on the stats. He just barrels through with how well-rated the game is on the App Store on iOS, attempting to imply that the complaints are from a minority of players. That approach would certainly explain why the team continues to push ahead with new battle pass seasons and increased monetization while not actually stopping to meaningfully address the problems players have with the monetization and how much of a meme the game’s business model has become.

This is the thing that irks me about the interview and the approach Ybarra seems to be taking – Warcraft Arclight Rumble looks cool and interesting, but they’re singing a monetization song that is the same as the DI team – early on, deny deny deny, and then at launch, hide behind weasel words and layers of obfuscation and bullshit. On that front, it makes trusting Ybarra as the new leader of Blizzard substantially harder as a fan, because some of his statements are just flat-out lies here and Blizzard has a chance to lead in a positive or negative direction on monetization, and just like the fucking Overwatch loot boxes, they are picking the negative and doubling down on it.

There Will Be A Blizzcon 2023, But Should There Be?

The big headline that came out of all of this for most gaming sites was the soft confirmation that we’d get a Blizzcon 2023 in-person. I have…a very complicated set of emotions on this, which likely deserves a post unto itself. But, here’s the basics: I love Blizzcon, and I have a lot of fond memories of going to Blizzcon, the road trips, the camaraderie, and the carefree nature of the whole weekend. I’ve driven down and committed 16 hours of round-trip roadtrip to it multiple times, and the last one to date in 2019, I even made a point of flying in from an around-the-world trip to go, going from Tokyo back into the states, dealing with jet lag on registration day and the whole package of issues that came with that trip, just to be there and meet my friends and hangout. If Blizzcon was just a celebration of “the community” it would be great and I probably would, while reluctant, support it coming back.

However, Blizzcon has never truly been about “the community.” It is about Blizzard, celebrating themselves, sharing how great they are, and how special it is that this corporate entity has inspired all of us nerds to get into an uncomfortable convention center for 2 days a year at high prices to worship at their altar. I’ve never felt like Blizzcon is made for me, but rather that it is marketed to me – find out about the new WoW content, play demos, listen to developers talk about the content they made on a big stage – it does end up appealing to me, but the design is to celebrate Blizzard. Even the vestigial bits of community interaction have faded – taking away tables and space from realm meetup areas, gradually pushing them further and further into corners and away from being a focus, and the best community events aren’t often those put on by Blizzard, but instead those from fansites and the like. All of this is without even mentioning the central role that Blizzcon had to some of the allegations in the DFEH lawsuit against Blizzard – the Cosby Suite, the way developers would schmooze with fans in the Hilton lobby, and the like.

I have so many mixed feelings because there is a big part of me that loves Blizzcon – the trip, the event itself, the partying and nightlife around it, and I came away from each Blizzcon I attended with a melancholy that the show had ended because I had a good time. However, Blizzcon continuing on feels a lot like the way Vince McMahon of the WWE, fresh off a slate of claims of hush money paid out for affairs, continues to put himself on TV as a “fuck you” to people – it’s gross, it reminds people that consequences don’t exist if you/your company has enough money, and you probably shouldn’t do it. Blizzcon is the stage that allowed Blizzard developers to become “rockstars,” to feel invincible and like consequences wouldn’t catch up with them, and it is one of the main venues by which Blizzard laundered its reputation and reset the framing around the company. I have very little faith that a new Blizzcon format would change that much, and that’s even assuming that they try at all to actually “retool” the event as they’ve publicly claimed. Should developers be drinking and partying with fans? Probably not, but one of my best memories is sitting in the Hilton lobby with dungeon encounter designers on WoW talking about boss mechanics and talking through the design process with them over beers. It’s hard for me to imagine what a “proper” and behaved Blizzcon would even look like, even if I agree that some of those changes are necessary. I feel like it would lose some soul for the changes and become much more of a corporate live-action commercial than it already is, but I also don’t disagree with the idea that change is necessary. I also find it personally hard to reconcile that I’m okay with the idea of attending an FFXIV Fan Fest (which would, theoretically, be this fall in the US) but bristle at the idea of Blizzcon – and any handwaving I can do about the different nature of the two events and how the developers behave at each in comparison feels like handwaving and not a real, substantive difference.

In Closing

I want to say this to close out, sort of bookending the post – I generally find Mike Ybarra an agreeable, good individual, who seems to have some measure of seriousness and interest in fixing the very real problems Blizzard faces. However, as we rapidly close in on the one-year mark since the DFEH suit was unveiled, it feels like Blizzard is sort of treading water on the cultural issues and systemic rot they allowed in their own house, and Ybarra defending some of the worst decisions in game design the company has made while being alarmingly vague about actual concrete steps being taken to address all of these things doesn’t help. I don’t envy him – he has a Herculean task before him that will take years of work to pay off in any real way. Because of the scale of the problem, I am critical now because I think he needs to embrace the challenge in a more serious manner – being willing to more openly address the journey that led him to his role, that led the company to the current state it is in, and to share more specific actions that he intends to take in his role as leader to push the company to sunnier days. I think he’s honest to a point about his intentions, but it is also quite difficult to read this interview and glean anything other than glossy corporate-speak from it, which is hard to buy into sincerely.

Ultimately though, I don’t expect a profile of an executive in a major mainstream print outlet to be anything other than fawning, so I got about what I expected. I do think that it will take time to see the state that Blizzard lands in after all of this, but right now, things are still looking relatively grim for the company, not helped by the constant backstepping barrage of bad news, denials of wrongdoing, and snail-paced change seen from the outside. On the company’s release schedules and dedication to new content faster, I think we’ll have to see what comes next, after Diablo IV, after Overwatch 2, and after the patch cycle of Dragonflight, and on the culture front, it feels necessary to continue external pressure on the company to do a better job, especially when it comes to open and transparent disclosure of issues and the steps being taken to course-correct.

2 thoughts on “Reading Between The Lines: The LA Times Interview with Mike Ybarra

  1. I look at Ybarra the way I look at all CEOs: they hear what their underlings want them to hear –and what they themselves want to hear– so that their investors are happy. He’s not there to make the customer happy, but the people who pay his salary: the investors. He can say anything he wants as longs as the investors know they’re going to make money off of his leadership. When you filter the interview through that viewpoint, his hedging on Diablo Immortal makes perfect sense: the investors don’t give a rat’s ass about monetization or ethics or anything at all other than profit, and if DI makes a ton of money and the “metrics” look good, then the investors are happy.

    “Ethics are for the little people.” –Leona Helmsley (probably)

    The sad thing is that a large subset of gamers likely agree with the investors: as long as it’s profitable and more content is coming, who cares? Ethics is for religion, not playing.

    But the thing is, we should care. Ethics and morality do matter. And if you’ve been in Corporate America long enough, you see through the crap just like you have, and we point out that the emperor has no clothes on. Investors believe only in money, but we, the people who give Blizzard our money, should demand better. In the end, that’s how meaningful change will happen, when customers vote with their wallets. If you want to feel better about attending FFXIV Fan Fest versus BlizzCon, vote with your wallet.

    Liked by 1 person

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