Is Activision finally devouring Blizzard Entertainment?

Blizzard recently put out a video dubbed "Worlds Unite," showcasing the various franchises that have spawned one of gaming's most dedicated, most passionate fanbases. I count myself among those fans, with literally over a year's worth of World of Warcraft playtime and hundreds of hours across Diablo, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch. But, after a year of plunging quality, the departure of Cofounder Mike Morhaime, and some dubious Activision-style moves, fans are concerned.

The "Worlds Unite" video on YouTube, at the time of posting, has a 2:1 like-to-dislike ratio, with a stream of comments ranging from "thanks but no thanks," to expletive-filled rants about Activision, which isn't exactly known for being consumer-friendly. The same is true across Blizzard's Instagram and Twitter feeds, where fans of all Blizzard's worlds have indeed united — against what they see as a hostile corporate encroachment of what made Blizzard so great.

How did we get here? What will the future hold? Is this the end of Blizzard as we know it?

A year of missteps

Many will argue that we started to see uncharacteristic greed on Blizzard's behalf long before 2018, with manipulative, gambling loot crates in Overwatch and overpriced micropayments in the World of Warcraft store. But it really feels like things came to a head this year.

Somehow, Blizzard has managed to upset not one but several of its core fanbases this year, and I'm sure there are numerous other grievances core fans are aware of. For me, it all started with this summer's Battle for Azeroth expansion for World of Warcraft. What is arguably the least-stable, least-balanced, and possibly, least fun expansion in recent memory, Battle for Azeroth launched in an exceptionally bad state. Poor features in the form of Warfronts and Island Expeditions, combined with ever-increasingly frustrating loot and progression systems, and a litany of other issues, continue to make Battle for Azeroth a controversy that won't seem to go away. It's all the more painful when you consider the previous expansion, Legion, could be considered the best ever.

The dreaded Azerite progression systems that made WoW boring.

The dreaded Azerite progression systems that made WoW boring.

Not long after Battle for Azeroth soured Warcraft fans' opinions of Blizzard's apparent dismissal of its long-held "ship when it's ready" mantra, Blizzard angered Diablo fans with one of the biggest PR disasters of recent memory. At Blizzcon 2018, Blizzard revealed the latest Diablo project to the franchise's most passionate, hardcore PC loyalists — a reskinned NetEase Diablo clone specifically for mobile devices. When asked if the game would ever come to PC, Blizzard's reply was "don't you guys have phones?" which has become a meme-worthy analogy for corporate tone deafness.

Most recently, Blizzard revealed it was shutting down Heroes of the Storm's esports programs, putting dozens of people out of work right before Christmas. Additionally, Blizzard warned fans not to expect as much support as the game had enjoyed in previous years, although a smaller development crew would remain to maintain the free-to-play MOBA.

Blizzard had been criticized before 2018 for the way it has handled things. Diablo III's launch was mired in controversy for its "colourful" tone, weak connectivity, and real money auction house, and previous WoW expansions like Warlord's of Draenor disappointed fans too. But somehow, it feels a little different in 2018. And things are a little different.

Putting the Activision in Activision-Blizzard


Activision (Image credit: Windows Central)

Kotaku has done a ton of reporting on the situation at Blizzard, speaking to past and present employees. The common narrative is that Activision is exerting more influence over Blizzard's creative direction in recent years, pushing the company to cut costs and release more games.

Activision's most notable core franchise, Call of Duty, releases on an annual cadence with fairly minimal changes. Black Ops 4 launched this year, setting records despite having cut its campaign mode, and shipping with a range of remastered maps rather than, you know, new ones. Call of Duty is also notorious for its poor networking infrastructure that has never really seen any serious bumps in quality. By cutting corners, Call of Duty maximizes its margins in a way I worry Activision hopes Blizzard can emulate, in what has proven to be a modest year for the corporation financially.

Up until recently, it felt very much like Blizzard was a separate entity with completely different standards of quality, where fans of all franchises came together and celebrated everything Blizzard, with a ton of cross-over between those core properties. Now, Destiny 2 and Call of Duty feature prominently in Blizzard's marketing and PC launcher, which is not something many fans want to see. Will there be Call of Duty booths at Blizzcon next year? Destiny skins in Overwatch? The fears may be unfounded, but with Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime stepping down, he was seen by many as the last line of defense against Activision's encroachment.

The future?

It's easy to point the finger at Activision for the recent cavalcade of missteps at Blizzard. Activision, as an entity, really doesn't seem to care what its customers think, nor does it seem even slightly bothered about its image as an unfeeling, greedy megacorp. That is perhaps in part because millions of players are more than happy to pick up Call of Duty every year, and more than happy to soldier on in Destiny 2, which has also endured its fair share of criticism. For what Activision core franchises seem to lack in effort, they generally deliver in terms of pure casual fun. Simply put, while there is a lot of noise on social media about Activision's influences on Blizzard, there may be even more people who simply don't care.

Perhaps the core fans who hold Blizzard to that level of quality we've come to expect will move on and be replaced by a new generation of less discerning gamers Activision might see as more profitable. Perhaps Blizzard will right itself in 2019 and beyond, and we can write off this year as an anomaly. A reportedly much-darker Diablo 4 is apparently on the way, despite its no-show at Blizzcon 2018.

As an Overwatch player, a Diablo faithful, a Warcraft devotee, and a Heroes of the Storm fan, I can't help but be disappointed in Blizzard as of late. I don't want to succumb to negativity, but the company has done little to reassure me recently, and I get the feeling plenty of other Blizzard fans feel the same way. We can only really watch and wait to see where the future takes the company, and whether it's time to simply accept that no monarch rules forever.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!