Monday, October 1, 2012

Blizzard: You've lost the plot

So after playing Torchlight and Torchlight 2 over the last couple of weeks, and enjoying both of them, I've also been thinking about what a debacle Diablo 3 has apparently been.  My younger brother, who bought and played both D3 and TL2, has described TL2 as being, "everything that Diablo 3 should have been, but wasn't."

In addition to this, IncGamers had an interview with David Breivik, one of the founders of Blizzard North, back in August.  In said interview, he was extremely diplomatic, but underneath all of the couching and corporatese, the message basically confirmed the opinion of most gamers I've seen, exemplified by such forum posts as this; namely, that Diablo 3 sucks rocks the size of Gibraltar.

World of Warcraft is also still taking on water, and by all accounts, at an accelerating pace.  WoW lost two million subscribers last year, and has apparently lost close to another million this year.  From what I've read, the official claim is 10.2 million subs, while unofficial estimates are at 9 million+ and falling.  I've always believed that WoW's real playerbase peaked at around 7 million, in around August of 2007, six months after the release of TBC.  The majority of the other 5 million players are directly attributable to the Arena, and being the wrong demographic, for the sake of the long term health of the game, never should have been there at all.

This has made me think long and hard about the future of Blizzard Entertainment as a brand. Truthfully, I think long term, at this point the company is in very serious trouble.

I will be brutally honest.  I've always thought of Blizzard North, exclusively, as the "real," Blizzard.  They are where all of the company's best known games came from; and although I know next to nothing about the company's real structure, the material which they put out, and what little I was able to read, gave me a particular impression.  Namely that of something similar to a rock band; a relatively small, intimate, passionate, and highly intelligent and creative group of people, who seemed to be utterly devoted, in an uncompromising manner, to their art.

As an analogy, I often think of the central characters from the science fiction series, Stargate SG-1.  Blizzard North were the company's A-team, and I feel deserve to be regarded alongside the likes of id Software, and Maxis prior to that company's assimilation, by the demonic organisation known as Electronic Arts.

There is an equally strong sense, from the quality of Torchlight 2, that Runic Games represents a case of the proverbial band having got back together, (at least to an extent) and that that is where they ended up.  The level of polish is reminiscent of what we grew to expect from Blizzard North; and although the devs are clearly a little more concerned with balance this time around than they were with the original game, there is also a sense that they are actually passionate about the game they've produced.  Torchlight 2 does not convey the deeply insulting, pervasive feeling that I had towards the end of my time with WoW, of a sterile game produced by soulless, club tailed, bean counting suits, with the exclusive intent of making money, and also the belief that irrespective of how bad a product it was, the playerbase should simply pay for it, play it, and shut up.

Apparently, with the automatic talent point allocation, Blizzard have carried that same approach over to Diablo 3.  The same insufferable corporate arrogance is also on display with the fact that the game is server based, despite not being an MMORPG.

Allow me to offer you a clue, Blizzard.  Yes, we, the gaming population used to find WoW's routine maintenance and other server problems annoying and frustrating; and truthfully, we would not have tolerated them from anyone else, under any other circumstances.  We tolerated them from you, and the reason why, is that prior to patch 2.4 at least, with WoW, you gave us a superb, utterly peerless game.  You don't need me to tell you that World of Warcraft, at one point at least, was the greatest computer game of all time, out of virtually any genre, to the point where I am still largely obsessed with it myself five years later, to a degree where other people once regularly accused me of mental illness.  Your own prior numbers and feedback would have confirmed that by themselves.

I put up with routine maintenance.  I put up with the Warden.  I put up with the TOS.  I put up with the gutting of the addon system in 2.0, despite it being a move which I considered blatantly fascist.  I put up with Blizzard having a God complex in general terms.  However, here's the point.

You only get to dictate terms in that manner, when you are producing a game of that level of quality. 

You will not be permitted to do so, when you are selling us corporate-produced crap, purely on the basis of other people's past positive efforts, and then expect us to simply accept it and shut up. We are not under any obligation to do so, and we are not going to.  Give us quality of WoW's original standard, and yes, you'll get some latitude.  Give us rubbish, which is obviously designed primarily to fill a box and make money, and you won't.

I've already written extensively about what I believe has caused the systemic demise of World of Warcraft, primarily here, so I'm not going to repeat myself; other than to say that at the time the linked blog post was written, Cataclysm had not yet been released, and when it was released, its' only real effect was to make the situation worse, as predicted.

You've got two choices here, Blizzard.  You can either remain arrogant and unrepentant, and maintain the attitude that you know best, and that you are simply going to keep listening to your bean counting corporate overlords at Activision, and producing sterile crap that is purely focused on the economic bottom line, and to Hell with your actual playerbase.  That road will lead to further erosion of the Blizzard brand, more disillusioned gamers who feel that they have been betrayed, and eventually, the irrelevance of the company.

Or, you can swallow your pride, acknowledge that you've got a problem, listen to the criticism that is being given you by myself and other people, and start doing what it is going to take, to get you back on top.

That means, first and foremost, re-establishing a vague semblance of creative and artistic integrity, as you had in the past.  You perhaps do not understand this, but as it has most graphically been recently illustrated with Christopher Nolan and his Batman film franchise, there is a paradox where money and creativity are concerned.

Namely, that in order to make money, you actually have to completely relinquish money as a focus, and concentrate solely on exercising creative passion, and on the quality of your product.  If you have an uncompromising determination to make an outstanding product, then you need have no fear whatsoever of the market.  You will make money, and you will do so beyond your wildest anticipation.

This has been proven, time and time again.  Stop being fearful.  Stop listening to the suits.  Stop designing character skill trees and other mechanics in corporate board meetings.  That is not the place to do it.  The old way, the way that works, is for developers themselves to act as playtesters, and for game mechanics to actually be updated incrementally, while the developers themselves are playing.

It's your move.