Business, Entertainment

Former Blizzard employee talks about Activision-Blizzard

Once the news of Activision’s merger with Vivendi Games got out, a lot of Blizzard fans didn’t exactly welcome the news. The general opinion is that no matter how it is sugarcoated – the merging of two companies that have nothing in common is generally a bad thing. Especially a merger of Activision and Vivendi Games, and then with a company whose Blizzard Entertainment division is known for ingenious and highly popular games franchises; Diablo, WarCraft and StarCraft (the best Real Time Strategy game of all times – no discussion).

According to their own statement, Activision Blizzard is "the world’s largest and most profitable pure-play video game publisher".
We received a link to an article on WOW Insider – Under the provocative title Activision-Blizzard is not Blizzard  you can find an article written by Michael Sacco – who has supposedly worked for Blizzard for three years and knows a thing or two about how things are run in Castle Blizzard. The purpose of the text is supposedly to "help curb ignorance and misunderstanding regarding what’s going on with the merger" and say how things really are. The author claims that since he no longer works for Blizzard, he no longer has a vested interest in defending Blizzard or lying to back them up. This of course is the very thing someone who actually has such interest would say. After that, he offers some answers to most commonly asked question about Activision-Blizzard. We bring you a copy&paste of some statements and our comments.

Does a publisher control what a development studio makes?
In many cases? Yes. A publisher generally has certain criteria for what they want published, and are likely to instruct the developer on how and when a game will be published. This may include release dates, game content, etc.
Publisher controls whatever he likes to control at certain points if it is profitable, there is no many or few cases in this matter. If publisher thinks it will bring him money he will do whatever he wants to.

This portion addresses questions about the merger’s affect on Blizzard’s day-to-day:

So if most publishers control what their developers produce, does Activision control what Blizzard does?
No. There are obviously certain considerations, such as funding, that a developer must be aware of when making their game, but Blizzard is in a unique situation in that they (and WoW) are such a cash cow that any A-B interference would likely result in an inferior product — and, subsequently, lower sales. They know that Blizzard does things right, and will continue to do so in the known future, resulting in greater profits for the publisher.

I do not think that at the moment Blizzard is doing so well that they are beyond interference. Otherwise why would they merge anyway?

What about in areas like support?
When I was in support at Blizzard, the only negative change I noticed in my day-to-day work post-merger was that we suddenly had an influx of terrible A-B-themed benefits program posters hung up around the office. Things may have changed since I left, but my contacts have expressed mostly positive opinions about how things are running over there.

Personally, I really doubt that A-B benefits program posters were the only thing he can remember from his office days.

Won’t the merger result in a dip in quality of Blizzard products? Has it already?
No and no. The merger gives Blizzard the opportunity to hire more employees to produce more content while maintaining the standard of quality that we expect from Blizzard. It also allows them to keep more employees due to the new financial backing provided by the merger, which affects things like benefits and payroll. Blizzard has stated that you can’t get quality content made just by throwing money at it, but money obviously helps sometimes.

Considering the amount of low quality content that has been present in WoW since the first expansion came out it is funny to see that Blizzard would use "it is not all about the money" line. It is tragic that a company that sells a product that earns 2.15 billion USD on annual basis needs to merge so that it could hire people. If that attitude was true, gaming development world would be consisted out of one company, and that company is Blizzard.

Did Activision force Blizzard to release Wrath of the Lich King during the holiday season to maximize sales?
Let me answer this with an anecdote. Blizzard’s office walls are decorated with a lot of stuff — concept art, murals, lifesize statues of characters, and posters with Blizzard’s philosophies on art and design, etc. One of these posters talks about mistakes developers make, like pushing for a holiday release when the game’s not done or polished enough.
It’s my belief, which is backed up by Blizzard bigwigs, that if they didn’t feel the expansion was worthy for release then they wouldn’t have released it when it was released.

It is not important if Activision in fact did order them to do it as Blizzard would release it during the holyday season for similar reasons anyway. This goes against the quality part from the introduction quote. We fail to see the point of this part.

What’s up with this money-making scheme of releasing StarCraft II as three games? This is because of their post-merger greed, right?
I’ve been hearing this a lot lately. Even our own Mike Schramm commented that the Blizzard that let people play WarCraft 2 on for free isn’t the same Blizzard that’s releasing three StarCraft II games.
This really, really confuses me. Why would anyone familiar with Blizzard’s work be put off by them releasing expansions? Because that’s exactly what the last two Starcraft II titles will be — expansions. One will add the Zerg campaign and one will add the Protoss campaign, as well as likely multiplayer additions and enhancements to the experience. The single-player campaign for each game will be incredibly robust as well, with tons of in-game engine cinematics and branching events.

Devs explained to me that they had three choices once they realized the depth of the Terran campaign:
– Shorten and pare down each campaign, resulting in campaigns about as long as Warcraft III, and release it as one game.
– Make the campaigns as robust as possible and release the Protoss and Zerg campaigns in expansions.
– Put everything in one game exactly how they want it and have Starcraft II come out in 2014."

They said the the choice was obvious, and I do agree. It’s about delivering the player the best experience.

This last line about delivering the player the best experience is commonly known among pissed of players. As usual they say that content would be too much for one game so they had to make it smaller for fun reasons. It has been proven many times that low quality product usually follows such logic. If real time strategy has three sides it should have three campaigns. It is a standard set in good all days that seems to be fading to oblivion and it is a shame to see Blizzard (once a good name) following this trend.

Won’t this merger result in a lot of stupid cross-promotions?
Probably. Activision isn’t known for its advertising or marketing subtlety. We dealt with it a little at work — Activision sent us a ton of copies of Guitar Hero Aerosmith that none of us really cared about (but hey, extra Rock Band guitar, right?), as well as posters in the office with Activision desperately trying to equate our flagship properties with their licensed crap. Yes, Activision, clearly Zeratul is on the same level as the main character from Kung Fu Panda.

The best I can hope for is that we’ll never see World of Warcraft advertised on KFC combo meal boxes. Blizzard seems to consider the insulation of the WoW universe important, which is why we’ll likely never see in-game advertising or "Lars Umlaut <Guitar Hero>" as an NPC.

He claims that we’ll never see WoW advertise on KFC combo meal boxes yet Blizzard has recently released huge amounts of purely commercial garbage videos with William Shatner, Ozzie Osbourne, Mr. T, Mini-me Troy, Van Damme and others. While they sure are fun to watch – seeing them makes KFC and McDonalds WoW commercials possible.

What’s your personal opinion on the merger?
From a corporate perspective, it makes sense and gives Blizzard access to more funding and assets. You can see that they’ve begun hiring a ton of designers and other WoW-relation positions, which can only increase the amount of content we get to experience and enjoy.
From a gamer’s perspective, Activision is an IP-exploiting shovelware mill run by a doddering blowhard who doesn’t play games and it hurts my heart to see Blizzard’s name attached to them.
On the bright side, if you look at your Wrath box, you won’t see Activision’s logo on it anywhere. That’s more than just literal — it’s symbolic, and I hope that it stays that way for a long, long time.

Like the first part of his article this last one seems sympathetic to readers and tries to connect with them by tossing insult toward Activision and the one who runs it. He indeed has no interest with defending Activision-Blizzard but his supposedly former company Blizzard is a different thing altogether.

When you look at World of Warcraft today and see how different in both design and purpose to the original game – you get the feeling that it definitely is not the Blizzard we all once knew. The one thing I agree with the author is that Activision will not make WoW take the wrong turn and turn into a soulless  commercial cash cow. It will not do that because Blizzard already did it all by themselves a long time ago before the merge. It will stay in control of its assets and continue to pump out trashy expansions and meaningless content unrelated to original RTS games.

But hey, as long as we have Shatner, Ozzie, Mr. T, Van Damme and others watch our backs well are all right, right?