A follow up to my thoughts on Blizzard

Hi all, so in the wake of the news of layoffs at Activision / Blizzard from yesterday, a few people have referenced a thread I wrote earlier in the year giving my thoughts on the state of the company (Blizzard specifically).
I’d like to give an update. (This is a long one)

Note: if you haven’t read that old thread, it would be helpful to do so (compact version here). Also, I actually started this as a series of tweets and it turned out to be impossibly long, so I decided to post it here… Sorry for the weird formatting.

Alright, so here are my thoughts on the latest developments, again trying to look at things as objectively and dispassionately as possible.

I think there are two very separate issues at play, and many people are conflating them: on one hand the “morality” of a company, and on the other their ability to produce high quality games.
They are very different, and I’d like to address both.

And if you are wondering why I’m talking about game quality in the context of layoffs, please remember that the “Blizzard sucks” wave I was originally addressing started with the idea that “Blizzard has changed and their games suck now” (more or less). Most of it is fueled by the announcement of Diablo Immortal, and BfA not meeting gamers expectations.
All of this was covered in the original thread.

So first, let’s talk about layoffs and morality.

If you’ll remember, my argument was that incentivising departures was the best way of doing cost reduction. I stand by that, and I agree that today’s layoffs are obviously a different story.

For those who don’t know, last year was a record year for the company, generating almost 2 billion dollars in profit, and they are now laying off about 8% of the staff (about 800 people) across the three companies under Activision/Blizzard: Activision Publishing, Blizzard Entertainment, and King.

So yes, I do agree that a company that makes billions and pays its executives millions laying off workers is morally problematic. I also believe that there are only two ways of addressing this: unionization, and legislation.
If you agree with me… congratulations, you’re a socialist!

I suspect many people who are angry about all of this, especially in the US, will reel at the mention of socialism. This is partly because many won’t understand what the term implies (Europe is doing fine), but regardless, if you don’t support at least one of these ideas, I’m not sure what the outrage amounts to, beyond servicing an overarching narrative of “being angry at a company”. And if there are other ideas on how to fix things, please do tell.

Listen, no system is perfect. But in most of Europe (and especially in France), companies can’t just lay people off; there are rules and laws on how and when. And when it happens, employees get about two years of unemployment benefits, and everyone gets “free” healthcare and education.
Getting laid off is never fun, but it is a lot less devastating when you know you can still pay your rent next month and your kids will still be able to go to school and you’ll get treated if you get sick.

I would also say that if you don’t support the idea of games industry’s unionization, then I’m not sure you actually care about the layoffs and these people’s well being in the first place. Without unions representing employees, executives and shareholders have all the power, and things like this can happen far more easily. Unions give employees a seat at the table.

Maybe you think this is going too far. Maybe you think there’s a middle ground. I can understand that. But one thing is certain: in the US especially, employees that are not unionized have no say in what happens to them.
And maybe you disagree entirely, and you think that companies should be allowed to fire people whenever they want. That’s fine, but in that case I guess you’re fine with these layoffs, and there isn’t a lot more to discuss here.

I’m sure some people will say that I shouldn’t bring politics into gaming. Well I’m sorry but that’s what we’re talking about. If you care about these people getting laid off by a company that makes tons of money, you care about the way things run. That’s politics.

So just to make this point very clear again: I do not like this situation.
If you don’t like it either, we’re in agreement.

With all that being said, Blizzard apparently offering significant benefits to the people being laid off: severance package, continued health benefits, career coaching, job placement assistance, profit sharing from last year…
I think we’re still on the side of “bad” (whereas incentivized departure were edging on the side of “good”), but it could be a lot worse.
I have no idea how things are going at Activision and King, but I can only hope they are being treated in the same way.

Alright. Second, the quality of their games.

Blizzard has not put out a “full” new game since Overwatch, in 2016. It has been three years without a single real new game. Expansions, new characters, sure. But the slate of Blizzard games is stale.

This has everything to do with the quality of their games: in my original thread I said that this is a consequence of the way Blizzard has always worked, meaning they do not release a game if it is not ready. And clearly, the (many) new games they are working on are not ready. They have even confirmed that they won’t have any major releases in 2019.

Many of the people who are angry at Blizzard seem to be angry at that lack of output. So should they be forced to release them? I think the answer there is clearly no… Right?
They should be allowed to work on the games until they are ready, and be given the means to do so. This is what a “good” company would do, and the opposite of what a “bad” company would force developers to do.

Why then are we seeing claims of mismanagement? Sometimes plans don’t work out, and the awesome games you were planning on releasing in 2017 or 2018 aren’t up to the company’s standards. That just happens everywhere, for every company. Games are really hard to do.
And what do you do when that happens? What do you do when that happens even more than you’re expecting? Is it mismanagement to delay the release? Is it mismanagement to release a game that isn’t ready?
And if you think this hasn’t happened before, remember that from 2004 to 2010, Blizzard only put out WoW expansions (one of which was Cataclysm, which, if you think people don’t like BfA…). There was no actual new game for six years. Sure, the company was busy scaling to the success of its MMO, but that’s not the only reason. That’s how Blizzard has always operated.

I understand people would want the games to be good AND released faster. I would love that too. It would possibly avoid layoffs and we’d all love Blizzard. But sometimes reality doesn’t align with our hopes and dreams.
And if you do know the secret to these magical “good management” super powers that insure awesome polished games always come out when they’re planned, then please do share. I think a lot of people in a lot of companies and industries would be interested.

Back to development. In my earlier thread, I was also pointing out that development was not being impacted by the cost reduction efforts.
This is also being confirmed today, as the layoffs are happening in support departments (publishing, marketing, etc), and development teams are actually hiring, with an expected 20% growth over the year.
To me, this means they are committed to giving devs the ressources they need. Isn’t that a good thing for the quality of the actual games being developed? I fail to see how it wouldn’t be.

The other thing I often hear is “they’re only developing F2P mobile games that SUCK”. First, we don’t know they’ll suck. And second, I don’t know why they’d stop developing PC games that make money. Did you not enjoy Overwatch or Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm? If you didn’t, you haven’t liked Blizzard for a long time… But if you did, maybe you’ll think the next PC games they release will be good too.

And please don’t tell me that don’t care and you’ll never give Activision / Blizzard games a chance again, because you’re so outraged by these corporate shenanigans. Angry gamers are angry because they want to be angry, not because of morality.

Let me illustrate with two quick examples:

  1. The Witcher III is one of the most beloved games in the world. Gamers regularly hold it up as an exemple of how companies should make games and care for gamers, asking other companies to follow their exemple.
    No one cares that CD Project actually received millions in government subsidies (which american companies don’t get), or that Polish workers “cost” significantly less than US/Western Europe counterparts, or that they have been famous for horrendous crunch periods.
  2. EA is probably the most hated and “immoral” gaming company in the world (right below Activision). Just over a year ago they were being blasted for horrible business practices that were destroying games.
    Well, Apex Legends came out last week, and everyone loves it. 25 million players in a week, streams everywhere, and the community is ecstatic. I’m not seeing people standing on soap boxes, trying to open gamers’ eyes to the fact that we are rewarding the disgusting behavior of evil EA. (Which wouldn’t make Apex any less of a good game BTW.)

My point is: the company’s morality and the quality of the games are two separate issues. You can be upset about one, or both, or neither. But saying one will go bad because the other already has makes no sense.

We don’t know what the next Blizzard games will be like. I suspect when Diablo 4 (and other games) is finally announced, the people who are the angriest today will probably play it and enjoy it, just like everyone else. Because I think this anger, now taking the form of outrage against an “immoral” corporation, is often gamers being angry that Blizzard isn’t giving them games. When they get them, I suspect they will, sadly, mostly forget about laid off employees.

A quick note: if that isn’t you and you feel I’m misrepresenting you in my descriptions, let me take a moment to apologize. I might be doing a lot of “one size fits all” comparisons here, and I understand that this isn’t ideal. But let’s agree that there’s maybe a bit of the angry gamer archetype in everyone, and that sometimes it takes the better of us. It’s a useful shorthand to describe some tendencies the community has, and some behaviors that I have witnessed, many times. Maybe everything doesn’t apply to you, but I’m guessing some of it applies to many of us. At least that’s what I’m going for.

Look, I get it. It’s disappointing that we haven’t seen new games from the company. I’m disappointed too, I want them to make great games.
And when they actually come out, we’ll be able to judge them. If they’re great, I’ll be happy. If they suck, they’ll suck and I’ll lament the loss of the Blizzard of old. But until we actually see those games, I think it’s fair to reserve judgement on their quality. Is that so unreasonable?

About the way the company is restructuring

I’d also like to comment on why I think the layoffs are happening the way they are, and to give maybe a bit of ammunition to the people who want to be angry (but not in the way they think).

It seems to me that the layoffs are explained by a simple situation: Activision Publishing is finding itself with… very little to do. Their only “big” game is Call of Duty, and everything else (including Destiny) is gone. So they have a lot of people twiddling their thumbs, and many of them have the same job descriptions as people at Blizzard (and probably King).
From a business perspective it makes perfect sense to cut these redundancies and bring everything under one team.

Again, I’ll let you appreciate the morality of executives leading companies to that situation and taking millions in bonuses while the workers suffer the consequences… With the caveat that the company is actually making record profits, so are the execs not doing their jobs? Yes they are. The system is working as intended. So once more for those in the back: the only way to bring a modicum of balance to that power dynamic would be unionization and/or legislation.

Hey friend, are you angry at Blizzard and still reading? Great. If you want to be concerned about the company’s future, here’s how to do it.

I believe that what has always made Blizzard special is the fact that developers, not the marketing people, are holding the power.
At Blizzard, a game director or exec producer is responsible for everything. “The devs” decide when the game comes out, what events happen, what merch gets OKed, etc. They’re aware of every part of the business of course, including the marketing requirements and financial objectives. The support staff will propose stuff, but in the end the devs decide (I would know, I was one of those PR people proposing stuff). And beyond that, Blizzard always took pride in doing EVERYTHING themselves. Which is both awesome (quality) and infuriating (super slow… everything).

Well, now it seems marketing / PR / etc is going to be handled on the Activision side. And we all know that at most other companies (and definitely Activision) the marketing people hold the cards. If a game has to come out at a certain date to meet targets, chances are it will comes out on that date. And that’s not the way Blizzard operates…
The new organization doesn’t have to mean that the power dynamic will change; after all, ActiBlizz is all about money, and Blizzard devs are really good at making games that sell super well and make a lot of money. That’s why they’re bolstering development, and that’s why, even it’s hard to believe, it would not make sense for Kotick to disturb that process. Consolidating support departments can make sense. Messing up Blizzard’s dev know how doesn’t.

But the concern exists now. Things can change, relationships can slide, and now the situation makes that more possible. That is my main worry when it comes to games quality, and I think this one is actually warranted. We’ll see…

A few more quick thoughts

  • It’s possible that Morhaime’s retirement had roots in this decision. I think it’s common knowledge that he loved the fact that Blizzard was doing everything themselves. It was a point of pride for him. Some people will argue that the layoffs would be too much for him, but I don’t believe that: he oversaw layoffs before (for exemple when support automation in WoW made a lot of the CS staff redundant; yes, your ability to share loot with your group without contacting support wasn’t just for your convenience), so I doubt the idea of these layoffs would have been unbearable to him. But taking a piece out of Blizz… maybe.
    As we’ve said before, he also had been working there for nearly 30 years, so it could be that he was just tired… I guess we’ll never know.
  • Many people think “Blizzard has changed”, and “that’s why they suck now”. We might have to consider it’s the opposite. Indeed, the industry has changed a lot recently, and I’d argue Blizzard has not
    We get more awesome games than we could have ever hoped for nowadays, every month sees multiple must play releases, and on top of that so many service games capture our attention forever, in ways that only WoW and MMOs did all those years ago.
    And in the middle of that, Blizzard is still taking ages to do anything. Maybe Blizzard’s way of doing things is old fashioned, and we’re not just happy playing Overwatch or Hearthstone with patches for five years anymore. Maybe we want new stuff, agile development, quick releases… But that’s not what Blizzard does. What if “when it’s done” is the problem?
    I don’t want to believe it is, but if I’m being honest, I have to wonder.
  • It goes without saying, but if you’re reading this and have been impacted by these layoffs, or by anything similar in the past, my heart goes out to you. I know that losing a job, especially a job at Blizzard, isn’t just about a paycheck (which is bad enough), but also means losing an incredibly fun and precious environment, losing friends, and likely parting with a work that brought you comfort every day. I sincerely hope that you find the support you need and that you end up landing on your feet, and that in a few years you’ll look back at this, feeling stronger and happier.
    And by the way, I also hope that this article isn’t hurtful in any way… I’ve tried very hard to be respectful, and hopefully I haven’t messed it up.
  • “Dispassionate”
    I’d like to try and explain why I try to look at all of this as rationally and dispassionately as possible.
    I remember angry people booing Wyatt Cheng on stage at BlizzCon. Those people are likely now saying how much they care about the people at Blizzard. Maybe I’m wrong, but I honestly doubt they actually do.
    The same people might think I’m being cold, or a corporate shill or whatever, because I’m not inflammatory enough. But I worked for years with the people that are affected. The tweets I’m reading are from people I actually know. I assure you I care, probably more than most. I care enough that I’m trying to rationally argue for unpopular ideas that I believe are needed, and would help situations like this.
    I’ve had someone message me, relishing the prospect of their favorite YouTuber having another opportunity of taking a swing at Activision for this. I’m sorry but that is not healthy.
    I understand passion, but when too much of it turns into anger we become irrational. And when we lack reason, we misunderstand situations, and we make bad assessments and decisions. In this case, I’m trying to assess the situation without lashing out senselessly.
    Maybe I’m failing, and maybe I am biased.
    But I just think I’m not letting myself get carried away.

In conclusion: unions.