Activision Blizzard is currently under investigation following accusations of harassment, discrimination, and fostering a hostile work environment. You can read more about the investigation here.
While some gamers have spent the last few years speculating that Blizzard’s string of public problems (which includes layoffs, botched remasters, delays, employee departures, and a series of PR disasters) meant that the company was in serious trouble, a recent report from IGN seemingly confirms that the company is at least struggling to maintain its culture and standards just as new financial issues make the upcoming releases of Diablo 4, Overwatch 2, Diablo Immortal, and Diablo 2: Resurrected more important than ever.
If you haven’t read the report, please be sure to find the time to do so. It’s a fascinating look at the state of Blizzard and how the company seems to be at a crossroads at the moment in regards to where they’ve been and where they’re going.
However, if I had to pull one line from the article that most clearly summarizes the significance of what’s happening inside the company, it would have to be this one from an unnamed Blizzard source:
“It feels like the company is just bleeding and taking punches, and realistically, the only thing that is gonna stop that is shipping Diablo 4 or Overwatch 2. We talk all the time about like, ‘We really kinda messed up long-term planning, you know? Our release slates and things like that.’ If you look at how long the games take to make, and Diablo 4 and Overwatch are probably shaping up to ship roughly around the same time or in successive years, it is hard to imagine this not happening again to Blizzard.”
As someone who would consider themselves to be something close to a lifelong fan of Blizzard and their games, it hurts to say that it’s starting to sound like shipping Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4 won’t be what saves this company from its biggest problem.
When I say biggest problem, I’m not talking about the quality of Blizzard’s games. While Warcraft 3 Reforged was a giant miss, World of Warcraft Classic, Shadowlands, and recent Hearthstone expansions have all been good to great. Diablo 2: Resurrected is also shaping up nicely. That report claims that Blizzard has sacrificed very little (if any) “creative control” to Activision, and it certainly feels like the company is filled with top talent that is still very much capable of making worthwhile games.
This also isn’t about money, even though it honestly also kind of is. The report notes that Blizzard’s games just don’t generate as much revenue as Activision properties like Call of Duty and the fact that they don’t make quite that kind of money means that Blizzard probably does lose a little ground in terms of their ability to make decisions that affect the overall Activision Blizzard brand. That makes it more difficult for the studio to properly take advantage of that fully-operational battle station. Even still, it’s not like Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4 are going to determine whether or not the company is able to financially stay alive.
No, Blizzard’s biggest problem at the moment is burnout. To be more specific, it sounds like some of Blizzard’s employees are exhausted by the drama, exhausted by the departures, exhausted by the COVID-19 development conditions (as so many employees in the gaming industry are), and exhausted by the lack of recent releases and recent successes.
Burnout may be common in any creative field (or just about any career or endeavor, for that matter), but this report suggests that this is a kind of burnout that goes well beyond physical or mental fatigue. As notable veteran Blizzard employees leave the company to work on smaller projects in a way that reminds them of how they used to work on games, there’s this feeling that those who remain are watching someone else’s house. They can walk the halls, they can raid the fridge, but at some point, they’ll likely realize that the house isn’t their home. Meanwhile, the odds that they’ll be able to work on a new franchise truly of their own design seemingly become slimmer, as evidenced by the high-profile exits of former Blizzard legends who left partially to do just that.
While there are certainly many on the Overwatch 2 team that have worked on that franchise since the beginning, Jeff Kaplan’s recent departure from the company (and quotes in this article related to Kaplan’s exit) strongly seem to suggest that there’s this feeling of “what’s next?” lingering over a game that would otherwise appear to be a surefire hit. What appeared to be a relatively simple follow-up may now need to help revive mass interest in the franchise.
As for Diablo 4, we’ve already spoken about how that game is inherently burdened by considerable expectations strangely made worse by the fact that older Diablo games have aged so well. It’s almost cruel that the Diablo 4 team is expected to make a game that will not only live up to those considerable expectations but be released in a timely enough manner to satisfy the kind of quarterly financial expectations that the studio just never really had to fret over before.
It’s hard enough to battle burnout on an individual level, but when that burnout is reaching company-wide levels and is partially based on having to work on the same franchises that the company is still very much clearly dependent on, it’s not clear how Blizzard escapes this rut.
There was a time when Blizzard infamously took years to actually release games, but when they did release new games, those titles typically represented all the time and the passion that went into them. Now, you have Blizzard employees talking about Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2 like the thing that’s going to be most exciting about them is when they’re finally done and released. I’d never question the effort going into these games, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that these major games are shaping up to be as much of a burden as they are passion projects.
Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2 could end up being incredible financial and critical success for Blizzard, and the company will still have to answer the question “What’s next?” A Blizzard source has said that there’s only so much financial weight that Hearthstone and World of Warcraft can carry, and with no new Warcraft RTS, Starcraft sequel, significant Heroes of the Storm revival, or major new Blizzard franchise on the horizon, it’s not clear where the company goes from here and how they answer that question in a way that addresses those feelings of burnout that more and more notable Blizzard talents seem to be battling against.
In the same way that BioWare doesn’t feel like quite the same BioWare that many of knew and loved, there’s this feeling that the Blizzard that remains can’t be treated like the Blizzard that was. While there is still plenty of time for the company to define itself in this new era, the fact that they seem so dependent on the significant success of two sequels to its few living franchises and are seemingly sweating the idea that they’ll be released in the near future doesn’t bode well for a studio that doesn’t need hits so much as it needs something that excites fans (and its own employees) in a way that goes far beyond favorable quarterly reports.