Mike Morhaime, the cofounder of Blizzard who stepped away in 2018, recently announced that he would be starting a new game company called Dreamhaven. It will act as a parent company to two sub-companies, filled with ex-Blizzard developers.
In the interview with VentureBeat, this line shot out like an arrow:
“We’re almost trying to create a haven for creators who want an environment that is development friendly, values product, and player experience over short-term financial pressures,” Morhaime said.
That garnered a literal LOL from me. Because, you know, the implication.
Supposedly the two sub-companies are developing a game apiece, but there are no details as of yet, not even what genre they are eyeing. Given how most of them are ex-Hearthstone developers, I would assume at least one of them will be a card game.
So how ’bout that BlizzCon?
Let me dedicate some space to the The Apology. Or, rather, “apology.” A lot of my fellow bloggers seemed surprised that one was offered right in the opening ceremony, but it seems unthinkable that Blizzard would have tried to not address the one thing that threatened to overshadow their whole trade show. Can you imagine the headlines all weekend if Brack said nothing?
Which is amusing to think about, because he did say nothing:
Before we start the opening ceremony, I want to say a few words. Y’know uh Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together in a tough Hearthstone Esports moment about a month ago and we did not. We moved too quickly in our decision making and then to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you. When I think about what I’m most unhappy about, there’s really two things. The first one is we didn’t live up to the high standards that we really set for ourselves and the second is that we failed at our purpose. And for that I’m sorry and I accept accountability.
I’m going to pause here, as it is a bit of a pet peeve of mine whenever someone says “I accept accountability” when there aren’t any consequences to account for. Imagine a parent saying that to the store manager when their child knocks over a display case, but then just leaving without, you know, paying for the shit that got broke. Brack “accepts accountability” and that means… what? Nothing. Is he going to take a pay cut? Resign? Maybe this will be filed in his Permanent Record?
[…] We will do better going forward. But, our actions are going to matter more than any of these words as we walk around this weekend. I hope it is clear how committed we are to everyone’s right to express themselves in all kinds of ways and all kinds of places. I’ve actually seen and heard many of you expressing yourselves this morning.
This is likely a reference to the protesters outside, the people wearing Hong Kong tshirts, and possibly the person walking around in a Winnie the Pooh costume. Which SynCaine sees as a huge deal, for Blizzard allowing someone to do. Because allowing them through the door is surely more potentially damaging than ejecting someone for an obscure reference to China’s president.
Give me a break.
What this apology did was give enough cover for those that were only reluctantly boycotting Blizzard to go back playing games guilt-free. As Brack clarifies in this PCGamer interview, the 6-month ban on Blitzchung (and the casters!) is staying. Would people have boycotted at all if this was the initial punishment? I don’t know – you tell me. The prize money confiscation was especially egregious in my mind, but the whole thing kind of reeks. At the same time, having no policy at all regarding non-Hearthstone speech during a Hearthstone victory interview seems untenable as well.
But, whatever. If an apology with nothing behind it is good enough to allow you to have fun playing videogames again, then have at it. I never joined the boycott myself, because half the items in my house come from China so it all seemed kind of hypocritical. Yes, Blizzard said the quiet part out loud. But if you think the makers of your George Foreman grill would not have also done the same thing in a hypothetical grilling tournament scenario, you are naive to the extreme. Same with the people flocking to Final Fantasy 14 after the controversy, as if Square Enix made some kind of heroic stand against China. You know, what with their partnership with Tencent and all.
I have nothing against principles. I love’em, in fact. But they only ever mean anything when you actually stick with them. If what Brack said at BlizzCon was enough to move your needle, well… maybe you were better off in the peanut gallery with the rest of us.
To recap: Blizzard banned blitzchung on Tuesday for 1 year and took away his prize money.
Late in the day on Friday, Blizzard reverses course… a little bit. Basically, J. Allen Brack releases a non-apology hitting on Core Values and mission statements like it was co-authored by a guy desperately applying to the last open position in Human Resources. The brass tacks are that Blitzchung gets his prize money and he and the shoutcasters are only banned for six months.
Blizzard also very much wants you to know that while “the process wasn’t adequate, and we reacted too quickly,” that this speedy, inadequately processed response was not due to China:
The specific views expressed by blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.
We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took.
If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.
That’s certainly in line with the Official Blizzard-China social media account of the incident back on Thursday (translated by IGN):
“We express our strong indignation [or resentment] and condemnation of the events that occurred in the Hearthstone Asia Pacific competition last weekend and absolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas during any events [or games]. The players involved will be banned, and the commentators involved will be immediately terminated from any official business. Also, we will protect [or safeguard] our national dignity [or honor].”
Oh, wait, no it’s not.
The broader context of the drama is also instructive. Specifically, the General Manager for the Houston Rockets tweeted a pro-Hong Kong message that threatened to upend billions of dollars in NBA deals and merchandise in China. That tweet went out on October 4th, and the Chinese backlash – including banning broadcasts of Rockets’ games – started on October 6th.
The NBA sent out this tweet on October 7th:
“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA said in a statement, adding: “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
Then on October 8th, after considerable domestic backlash, the NBA basically said “just kidding, we’re totes in favor of free speech.” To which China responded by immediately halting all NBA preseason broadcasts and issuing this statement:
“We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Silver’s stated support of Morey’s right to free speech. We believe any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability do not belong to the category of free speech,” the network said. “We will also immediately examine all other cooperation and exchanges with the NBA.”
Then, October 9th, all official Chinese partners with the NBA suspended ties.
…only to reverse course on October 10th, per the New York Times. The speculation is China started to realize how visible its hand up the asses of these puppets had become, and started to worry maybe things were becoming a bit too counter-productive. Indeed, China’s insane overreaction certainly has brought Hong Kong protests and China’s ethnic cleansing of Muslims into greater awareness, if only for a little while.
So, to summarize:
- Oct 4th: Pro-Hong Kong tweet by Rockets’ General Manager
- Oct 6th: Chinese backlash | blitzchung’s pro-Hong Kong interview statement
- Oct 7th: NBA apologizes to China
- Oct 8th: NBA takes it back, China angry | Blizzard apologizes to China, bans blitzchung
- Oct 9th: China suspends relationship with NBA
- Oct 10th: China unsuspends relationship with NBA
- Oct 11th: Blizzard lessens ban on blitzchung
Funny how that all works out.
In fairness to Blizzard, it is possible that everything is just a big coincidence. I doubt it was Brack himself who decided on the punishment – whomever made the call did already have a set of rules in black & white to follow, including the bit about zeroing out prize money. Beyond the bullshit, Blizzard also has a vested interest in not having the winner’s interview becoming a political podium. Imagine a parade of “Make America Great Again” and “Black Lives Matter” and “But Her Emails!” After seeing the wide-ranging backlash, it’s also entirely plausible to need a few days to properly vet a review and response.
The deeper concern here is how much American companies and institutions may have internalized Chinese (government) values along the way. It is one thing for China to threaten to shut down access if a punishment is not meted out. It is a far more pernicious thing if the NBA and Blizzard preemptively overreacted on behalf of China, in anticipation of the belt. Their behavior this time has been very visible. What is less visible is when they change rules, company culture, and otherwise align themselves in subtle ways such that it becomes impossible to offend China in the first place.
No amount of free speech will overcome self-censorship, the Great Firewall in your mind.
These are interesting times we live in. And ones that seem to, on occasion, move very quickly.
The context, for posterity’s sake, is Blizzard confiscating the prize money from a recent Hearthstone event winner and banning him for a year due to a pro-Hong Kong Live interview statement. No, really. Here’s a link to the official Blizzard blog post, for however long that stays up:
Upon further review we have found the action has violated the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules section 6.1 (o) and is individual behavior which does not represent Blizzard or Hearthstone Esports. 6.1 (o) is found below.
2019 HEARTHSTONE® GRANDMASTERS OFFICIAL COMPETITION RULES v1.4 p.12, Section 6.1 (o)
Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.
At least two prominent bloggers on my roll have said they will be canceling their subscriptions. If posts on Reddit can be believed, there are thousands of others doing likewise. Not a particularly good bit of PR right as patch 8.3 previews are making the rounds and Blizzcon is less than a month away.
Of course, none of it is likely to matter. Blizzard made a completely rational business decision.
Tencent owning a 5% stake in Activision Blizzard is almost wholly irrelevant in the broader truth that China is an insanely large market for games. Like $31 billion and growing to $41.5 billion in five years kind of big. By 2023 there will be more PC gamers in China than the entire population of the US. The latest news is that the US pulled ahead this year in terms of market size, but that is attributed to the fact that China freezed approval of new game licenses for almost a year and put restrictions on screen time for children. Even with zero investment from Tencent, losing access to that “second place” market would be a significant setback for any gaming company.
Don’t get me wrong, I consider China to be one of the most repressive, authoritarian regimes on the planet. But… up to this point, that didn’t seem to matter to anyone. It could be that this was just a particularly egregious example that shocked people into wakefulness, similar to certain phone calls to Ukraine. And that’s fine! Whatever it takes to get people to pay attention to the fact that corporations are not your friend, and that if it were profitable, these men and women board members would have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to destabilize the United States and/or any other country.
Canceling your subscription and deleting Blizzard games is one way to protest. I hope you don’t close Battle.net and boot up League of Legends (100% Tencent owned), anything on the Epic Games launcher (48.4% owned), PUBG (11.5%), Path of Exile (80%), Clash of Clans/Royale (84.3%), or any of the other games on the list though. Perhaps that is unfair, as I don’t think the Path of Exiles devs have banned pro-Hong Kong players for interviews. On the other hand, I don’t think these other companies were forced to let go of the tiger’s tail just yet. Nevermind any non-Tencent companies that would be willing to walk the same road for access to hundreds of millions of Chinese customers.
Incidentally, the makers of Gods Unchained (another digital card game) came out with this statement:
.@Blizzard_Ent just banned @blitzchungHS and stripped his Hearthstone winnings because they care about money more than freedom. We will pay for ALL his lost winnings and a ticket to our $500k tournament: no player should be punished for their beliefs. #freegaming
Cool, huh? I suppose it’s a bit easier to stand up to China when you build your card game around one-time printings of cards, including Mythic-rarity ones of which only four are printed per year, one of which just sold for $62,000:
Ultimately, I do hope that Blizzard reverses course. I hope that all the negative PR and boycotting is effective enough at providing change. I hope that American companies will stop bending over backwards to appeal to oppressive regimes.
I had also hoped in the last election that people who would have literally died without Preexisting Conditions protections would not have voted for politicians expressly running to remove said protections, but here we are. This is the world in which we inhabit… until it bursts into flames.
…in the movie department. Well, the in-game movie department, amirite?
The above is an “official” compilation of all of the cinematics in Battle for Azeroth proper. Clocking in at nearly 24 minutes, it’s quite a lot. This does not include the three Warbringers shorts (Jaina, Sylvanas, Azshara), or the copious amount of in-game animation. It’s almost enough to compel me back into the fold.
Alas, unlike my blogging peers, I have but 1.5 hours a day to play games, and I sure as shit ain’t playing Beta for Azeroth anymore. Maybe it got better since I last played… which was an entire baby ago. Ah well. We’ll see how things go an expansion or two from now.
No matter the dire economic news surrounding Activision Blizzard, one thing always keeps me grounded: when there’s a WoW “sale.” Then it’s made clear they aren’t hurting enough.
Stock price of ATVI was $83.19 in September 2018, and it closed $42.92 Monday. That’s damn near half the value in six months.
Now, obviously, cutting prices for (apparently) extremely lucrative services will cut into profits, but it nevertheless boggles my mind that twenty-one dollars ($21) is the sale price of this sort of thing. Or that moving servers – which is a cell on a data table somewhere – costs seventeen fifty ($17.50) on a discount. Especially when you can buy an entirely new copy of same goddamn game for $40. And that comes with all the expansions, 30-days of game time, and a level 110-character boost.
Blizzard has gotten a bit clever over the years though, as it says “new account required.” It used to be that you could buy another box and basically merge them under one account, thus netting you a level 110 boost token for the sale price of a box instead of the $60 or whatever nonsense they sell it for in-game. Maybe it still works that way? Regardless, the process is obfuscated enough to likely dissuade most from realizing it.
As for me, it’s a bit of a moot point. Even if the BfA expansion was any good at all – it isn’t – I have less than zero desire to head back to WoW at the moment. Seeing the naked hubris of “sales” like this though, only reinforces my resolve to stay away from a game in which people are so invested that these prices “make sense.”
As gaming pundits, we often make claims that X change or Y addition are terrible design decisions that will cause companies to lose money, subscribers, etc. They are easy claims to make, when there is absolutely no sense of follow-up or acknowledgement that something like stock price is affected by many different factors.
Well, color me surprised when I stumbled across the actual stock prices of gaming companies the other day. That gaming stocks have been pummeled this year is putting it mildly.
ATVI is Activision Blizzard, currently trading at $46.52, and the stock is down -26.53% year-to-date (YTD). If you look at just the last six months, it is down -36%. EA is, well, EA, currently trading at $81.18 and down -22.73% YTD. Again, if you look just at the last six months, EA is down -40%.
It is incredibly easy to say “well of course.” Beta for Azeroth will probably go down as one of the worst expansions in WoW history – or at least give Cataclysm a run for its money – so of course the stock prices reflect that. Then with EA, you only have to look at all the “historical inaccuracies” they added to Battlefield V and the controversies that spawned. Get woke, go broke, right?
Well… hold up.
TTWO is Take Two Interactive, and is currently trading at $101.69. You might know this company as the one who released a little game called Red Dead Redemption 2. The YTD movement has been… -7.87%. That is certainly less of a drop than Blizzard and EA though right? Yeah, sorta. The three month decline has been -24% though, and that’s with a critically acclaimed (Metacritic: 97) title coming out a month ago.
This is not to suggest that what a company does, or any sort of controversies it generates, has no impact on their bottom line and thus stock price. But sometimes it’s good to acknowledge that there is a large gap between what we feel should be the natural consequence of a given design choice, and what actually happens in the real world. On occasion, things line up and we appear prescient. A lot of the time though, we rage in our little bubbles and the world moves on without us.
Very clever, Blizzard. Very clever.
I had a post all queued up to go on a rant about how terrible professions have been designed this expansion. I still feel that way, actually, so let me just say it: professions in Battle for Azeroth are a lazy copy & paste job from Legion, including all of the mistakes. Well, most of them: at least alts aren’t as punished by needing mythic dungeons or whatever for Rank 2.
One of the principle sources of my ire however, were all the useless crafts and crafting materials.
Remember Unbroken Tooth in Legion? Well, the functional equivalent of that is Calcified Bone in BfA, which is selling for an average of 6 copper on my server. It’s supposed to be a higher-tier material, but all it does is displace the actually-useful Blood-Stained Bone material in Skinning – which will be relevant all expansion due to people crafting and scrapping leather wrists for Expulsom. So why have Calcified Bone at all? Why not split Blood-Stained Bone off and make Calcified Bone the crafting material needed for mail gear or whatever?
There’s not a good reason other than the lazy interns tasked with designing professions. But they’re going to get away with it because of Warfronts.
Basically, Warfronts are going to be item sinks for the entire expansion. The Horde have the turn-ins this week, and they include things like Great Sea Catfish and Straddling Viridium. Before this week, Great Sea Catfish was absolute garbage. Not only did you catch it in fresh water (huh?), you could only cook it into non-buff food. It’s greatest claim to fame was setting the floor price for Aromatic Fish Oil. Now you need 60 of them to get 500 Azerite Power and some reputation.
Meanwhile, while the 3% movement speed gems were nice in the first three days of the new expansion, I had bought several for below vendor price in the past few weeks. Now? There was about ~6 hours in which they were selling for 400g apiece. It says a lot about the game that people were willing to pay nearly 6000g to get 500 AP, but whatever, I just supply the things.
Guild Wars 2 has a similar “solution” for its own terrible loot system, in that the Mystic Forge lets you throw 4 (stacks of) items into a hole, and sometimes get a goodie out the other side. It kinda makes up for the fact that you accumulate an astronomical amount of debris in your inventory, and Warfronts provide a similar sink.
It’s all a bandaid, of course. The fundamental issue is that Blizzard regrets the existence of professions, and doesn’t know what to do with them. Should they be the source of the best gear in the game? “No, that should be raids.” Should they give better gear than WQs? “Also no, we need people out in the world.” Should they give gear that invalidates dungeon gear? “No, unless it requires dungeon drop materials, in which case we’ll allow it.” Should crafted gear be a catch-up mechanism? “Sure, that sounds fine.” You do realize that as soon as you put on crafted gear, then WQs will start immediately offering upgrades, right? “Working as intended.”
But, whatever. Warfronts are a thing now, and I just made 60,000g in a single day because of them. Mostly from Coarse Leather Barding and Prospecting Platinum Ore for gems. Next week should be much the same, up until people stop caring about maxing out AP. Which, given how the anti-alts philosophy Blizzard had in Legion has dropped, might not be for a while.
As of Battle for Azeroth, WoW professions have become almost entirely disposable.
I noticed this last night as I was puttering around on some of my alts. Three of them wear leather armor, so I was hopping onto each one trying to remember which had Leatherworking. As it turns out, none of them did. So, without much thought, I dropped Skinning on the rogue and then… paused. “Leather is cheap, but those Blood-Stained Bones are relatively expensive.” Then I decided that my druid would likely be more efficient at AoE farming for leather anyway, so I logged onto her and then dropped Enchanting without a pause and gave her Skinning.
If you have not been keeping track at home, Blizzard had been moving towards the Single Expansion Relevance model for a while now. Professions used to start at 1, and you would need to dedicate tens of thousands of gold/hours farming to level them up to 300+ just to get near where current-content gear was. If you kept up, you were sitting pretty, because everyone else just coming back from a break or brand new players had a huge grind ahead of them.
It was not a particularly elegant model, but it still felt… reasonable. Plus, the constant need for old-world mats for newly profession-ed characters meant that lowbies had a good shot at become rich by just gathering herbs/ore as they leveled. There was a whole micro-economy that existed there, including the savvy Auctioneers who were able to throw together a “profession kit” that would allow someone to max out to current content within 30 minutes. The dedication needed to remain in your own professions would inspire people to level alts just to have additional options, who then needed to be leveled and geared and fed a diet of AH materials, and so on, and so forth.
Then things started to change.
The first steps were allowing players to harvest current-expansion nodes even as a starter herbalist/miner. Blizzard made sure that the product extracted was basically junk, or 1/10th of the normal result, but you could at least tap the node. And that was reasonable, especially for the gathering professions, as it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to force high-level characters to be scouring old Azeroth for Tin nodes.
Then came the gimmie recipes for crafters, which allowed them to use current-expansion resources to rank up 400+ levels. One would think that such a feature killed off the old-school profession kits, but all it really did was set a price ceiling at which it was cheaper to just buy new herbs/ore. This was especially true at the beginning of an expansion, when the latest herbs/ore were selling for hundreds of gold apiece.
Somewhere in there, Blizzard also introduced profession books, which would allow you to “relearn” all the recipes you had lost when abandoning a profession.
With BfA, the circle is now complete. Professions are entirely stratified into expansion-specific tiers. Profession bonuses, which were the bane of hardcore raiders, were watered-down and diluted into irrelevance. Once a part of your character’s identity and story, professions are, at most, a (temporary) economic decision. Hell, in the heady days of a new expansion release, it can sometimes be worth the 1000g fee to relearn a profession if you can make ten times that amount in a night of being a temporary whatever. Blizzard helpfully removed most of the dungeon requirements for 3-star ranks, so the barriers has never been lower.
And all of that is probably for the best.
I sat here a while, exploring my feelings on the matter, before coming to that conclusion. I am a huge critic of any game design in which someone can lose on the character select screen, and WoW’s profession bonuses combined with the grind back up to max rank was just another form of that. That is on top of the ~5%/month churn rate which could see your entire MMO population turn over every 20 months. A new expansion is usually released how often, again? It’s just not a good design IMO to require people to pump out thousands of useless pieces of junk to increase a number to a sufficient degree to get to starting line.
Nevertheless, yeah, there is a part of me that had fond memories of the old system. My namesake paladin has been a Jewelcrafting/Alchemist since 2008 and none of that matters. I spent hundreds of hours leveling up a fleet of alts to cover every profitable base each expansion, and now the same thing could be done by one toon and a willingness to drop 1000g.
I am sort of waiting for the day when Blizzard just goes full GW2 and lets you buy extra profession slots for real money and otherwise just be done with the restrictions altogether.
Has anyone else felt like Battle for Azeroth is a bit… familiar? Like Legion 2.0?
The situation didn’t really strike me until last night. I do not have a character at max level – I have been just gathering and crafting pretty much nonstop – but I have progressed enough to unlock the Garrison. Or War Table. Or whatever the hell it’s called now. It’s pretty much exactly the same interface as the one in Legion, up to an including the same art assets. The same chance for bonus loot. The same method of collecting resources. World Quests are the same. Emissaries are the same… I think. Rare mobs and treasure chests peppering the map are the same.
On the one hand, this is great. These systems work. Remember Daily Quests? We had those since TBC and everyone was sick of them. World Quests on the other hand, feel materially different despite providing the same function. Artifact Power got a bit goofy near the end of Legion, but overall design structure of having steady progression over the life of an expansion without incentivizing mindless grinding worked (crazy mythic raiders excluded). So we have Azerite replacing AP without even needing to replace the term “AP.” Double efficiency!
On the other hand… I dunno.
There is a lot to be said about the penchant of Blizzard devs to throw out the baby, bathwater, and kitchen sink simultaneously, between releases. How many times have warlocks been overhauled, even mid-expansion? At the same time, I feel like the devs have perhaps hewn a bit too close to what came before with BfA. Where are the “Aha!” moments? Where are the game-changers? Where are the elements that justify an 8.0 instead of a 7.4? Is a bunch of new maps enough?
The launch of BfA was so smooth because there was no demarcation between it and Legion.
I suppose we should be happy, yeah? Less absurd content droughts, more design systems that clearly work instead of wild experiments. Any yet, my brow is furrowed. What is Blizzard doing with all that time they saved? No new talents, no new classes, no new races (Allied Races are reskins, IMO), no new systems. Maybe the island battles with the “advanced AI” will change things? Am I missing something else?
I remember when Farms were introduced in MoP, and it blew my mind. Or the rare elite mobs that dropped cool (and functional!) toys to use. Then Garrisons in WoD. Of course, the Garrison wasn’t necessarily good design insofar as they kept people locked in a personal instance all the time, but from a player perspective they were really compelling (and rewarding). To this day, I still have several characters doing chores around the Garrison, crafting bags and such.
Then there were the Artifacts in Legion. To this day, it blows my mind how much content Blizzard packed in there. Like, do you guys understand how much class-specific content was added in one expansion? There was some recycling when it came to unlocking some of the spec-specific weapons – I groaned every time I got sent back to Karazhan on alts – but everything was basically brand new per class. It’s a real shame alts were actively punished so much during Legion, but I may end up going back at some point to finish the class campaigns just for the lore. My jaw hit the floor when my Death Knight started taking orders from the Lich King, for example.
Now, in Battle for Azeroth we can be excited for… uh… hmm.
I’m not looking to be buried under 2+ full skill bars, or DPS rotations that require an addon to perform. I don’t necessarily even want something that will compel me to spend 10 minutes maintaining it every day, three expansions later. But I do very much enjoy a new puzzle to wrap my mind around and optimize. And I’m not seeing anything remotely like that in Battle for Azeroth thus far. Just a lot of reused, recycled systems with new numbers to the right of the plus sign.
That is what character progression MMOs are about, of course. Usually, there’s more spice though.