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Blizzard’s Q4 2014 Report: Hearthstone Edition

The big news in the Activision Blizzard Quarterly Report everywhere else is that WoW appears to have stabilized at 10 million subscriptions. Also, that Hearthstone has 25 million registered users, whatever that means. After reading through the transcript of the earnings call however, it turns out that we can estimate exactly how well Hearthstone is performing. Spoiler alert: it’s pretty damn good.

First, we have this quote from Bobby Kotick:

Last year, we launched 2 of the most successful new entertainment brands, Destiny and Blizzard’s Hearthstone. Combined, they attracted over 40 million registered players worldwide and generated more than $850 million in non-GAAP revenue, a testament to our team’s proven abilities to capture the imaginations of millions of people around the world time and time again.

Then from Eric Hirshberg (CEO of Activision):

So in closing, over the last 3 years, Activision Publishing has methodically expanded its portfolio, and for the first time in its history, now has 3 tent-pole properties, each of which generated over $500 million in non-GAAP revenue this year and drove the highest digital revenues in Activision Publishing’s history.

So by the power of inductive reasoning, we can say Hearthstone made around $350 million in revenue last year. Further, according to Thomas Tippl (COO), Destiny and Hearthstone are “tent-pole franchises” that were “profitable out of the gate” and are expected to “contribute to [Activision Blizzard’s] results every year in a significant way.” Combine that with Mike Morhaime confirming that the December release of the Goblins vs Gnomes expansion resulted in the highest monthly active players and highest revenue quarter-to-date, that indicates Hearthstone is still growing a year later. That’s kind of a big deal.

Now, it’s entirely possible that “more than $500 million” means Destiny has a larger slice of the $850 million combined revenue pie than I am assuming here. Maybe Hearthstone “only” achieved $300 million. Or even as little as $250 million. It’s helpful to keep some perspective though: all of paper and digital Magic: the Gathering brings in $250 million in revenue. So, on the low end, Hearthstone is already a bigger franchise than Magic: the Gathering. And apparently growing.

Not bad for a “casual app with a PC port.”

What Are Those Titan Devs Doing Now?

Adam of Noisy Rogue brought up an interesting point recently regarding the cancellation of Titan:

Nobody outside the Blizzard bubble knows what Jeff Kaplan is doing right now. Apart from him there are over a hundred other developers and designers that have been working on Titan for almost seven years. It’s a lot of talent. […]

Hey, yeah, what are they going to do with all the people who were working on Titan?

So what we know is that Titan had 100 developers working on it last August, until it was slashed down to 30 when it “went back to the drawing board.” Mike Morhaime said they moved the slashed devs over to Diablo and the Blizzard MOBA. But then I got to thinking: wasn’t the dev count on WoW beefed up recently? Indeed it was, as reported on 8/25/13:

The team size has increased 40% and another 40% increase is planned, which will hopefully allow for a new content patch every month, a new raid tier every three to five months, and an annual expansion.

So the timeline makes sense that a lot of those Titan devs were moved over into WoW in addition to Diablo and the MOBA. But then I came across this Icy Veins interview with Tom Chilton from August 2014 (emphasis mine):

Q. You announced repeatedly that you would release content faster: “every 6 months”, “no more ICC”. Obviously, that did not really work out, so we were just wondering what caused it.

A. That is definitely fair criticism. We did a good job earlier in Mists of Pandaria, having the content come at a more frequent intervals, and certainly we had hoped to have Warlords of Draenor out a couple of months ago. The reality is that scaling up the number of people that we have, to work on multiple projects at once has slowed us down. Honestly, it should have not come as a surprise to us. We increased the size of the team by 50% and the majority of those people had never worked on World of Warcraft before or any other MMO, so it is really difficult for them to create content right away, without getting up to speed. So we ended up redoing a lot of the content that we were doing for Warlords to make sure that we would get it at the quality level that we would expect.

Now I’m not sure what to think. Did Blizzard hire a whole bunch of brand new developers for the WoW team? Were the 30 core devs left behind on Titan the only ones with WoW experience, e.g. Kaplan, etc? We do know that Blizzard is already designing the expansion after Warlords right now, so perhaps the new guys got relegated to Warlords and the core-crew is working on whatever Orcish masturbation fantasy is undoubtedly next (“Thrall’s child is all grown up and mad with power!”). I mean, Jesus, it’s been World of Hordecraft aside from that one brief period of time in Wrath. And it’s arguable that the Taunka and Horde Death Knight quests were far superior to what the Alliance got.

I’m not bitter or anything.

By the way, while I was Googling researching this post, I came across this rather interesting picture:

The jokes almost write themselves.

The jokes almost write themselves.

This slide came from the Hearthstone fireside chat back in November 2013, with those numbers representing the team sizes of those three games at release. In other words, vanilla WoW had 60 people, Diablo 3 had 75, and Hearthstone 15. Supposedly Diablo 3 is in a better place these days, but it kinda tells you a lot about the relative worth of even Blizzard developers when you have 75 people collectively cranking out the clusterfuck of Diablo 3 on release. More is less, it would seem.

Titan Felled

I spent about 10 minutes coming up with various clever variations on Titanfall and Attack on Titan, but alas.

Blizzard has killed Project Titan after seven years in development. That Polygon article is overflowing with choice quotes.

“We had created World of Warcraft, and we felt really confident that we knew how to make MMOs,” Morhaime said. “So we set out to make the most ambitious thing that you could possibly imagine. And it didn’t come together.

“We didn’t find the fun,” Morhaime continued. “We didn’t find the passion. We talked about how we put it through a reevaluation period, and actually, what we reevaluated is whether that’s the game we really wanted to be making. The answer is no.”

Some would certainly argue that Titan isn’t the only project they can no longer find the fun/passion for.

“Are we the MMORPG company?” he added later, in conclusion to that line of questioning.

Morhaime answered that last rhetorical question quite simply: “We don’t want to identify ourselves with a particular genre. We just want to make great games every time.”

Like… wow. (Err… no pun intended) That has “exit strategy” written all over it. And speaking of that:

Throughout the interview, Metzen and Morhaime suggested that the recent trend of smaller-scale Blizzard releases like Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm has played a part in the company moving away from Titan. […]

He explained that Hearthstone had helped the studio realize that they don’t need to fit themselves into the box of only making products of a certain scale.

I didn’t get the chance to mention it earlier, but Hearthstone hit 20 million players. Or “players,” whatever. It is still 10 million more than they had in March. While it’s tough to actually come to any sort of definitive conclusions about the significance of those numbers given how it’s a F2P game that is hitting mobile devices, it is clear that it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. If this analyst from CinemaBlend.com (…err) can be believed, Hearthstone could pull in $30 million in revenue this year… which is basically 14% of what WoW brings in yearly. Not bad for a team of 12-15 people.

Back to Titan though, being cynical is easy and mostly safe. However, I am beginning to agree with Gazimoff of Mana Obscura in that this might be the death of the super-genre MMO. “We won’t see another heavyweight MMORPG released by a major studio in the next two years.” I was going to say that EverQuest Next sort of proves that wrong, but that is probably a bit more than two years out, and who knows if it even gets released at all; Landmark might just cannibalize it, if it doesn’t cannibalize itself first. But surely there is something else… oh. Maybe not.

Whether you are celebrating the news – perhaps hoping that more tightly-focused niche MMOs will spring up in the vacuum “as they should be” – or lamenting the loss of AAA tourism, I do want to take a moment to mark the occasion. Because it is an end of an era, or another sign of it at the least. And while we can sit back and suggest that WoW “ruined” “real” virtual worlds like Ultima Online or Everquest or whatever, I do feel a bit sad to think that what we have is it. Specialization is great and all, but when I look at the ex-WoW guild member friends I have made, I see a group of people whom I have never consistently played any other games with. The “super-genre” WoW was pretty much the extent of our shared gaming interests; there is some tiny overlap here and there, but getting the hardcore Civ, the Team Fortress 2, and The Sims players all together as an officer core for a 5-year old guild was goddamn magic.

Titan was unlikely to have rekindled things for my disparate, dispersed cohorts, true. Sometimes things just reach their natural conclusions. And maybe there is something to be said about making friends with more similar interests in the first place. Still… I can’t help but feel a loss, somehow.

Blizzard News Recap

So, hey, how about that. Leave the country for just two weeks and look what happens.

Blizzard Q2 2014 Investor Call

The big news, of course, is the fact that WoW has dropped 800k subs and is down to 6.8 million from Q1. MMO-Champion has a rather interesting interactive graph on the linked page, but let’s go ahead and take a screenshot for posterity:

Presumably there will be a soft landing at some point.

Presumably there will be a soft landing at some point.

Honestly, it is hard to add anything to that; the graph really speaks for itself. I guess it is interesting to note that we are now well below the numbers of vanilla WoW at this point. It is also interesting to note that the number of subscribers WoW lost in the last few months is larger than the total reported subs for The Elder Scrolls Online. Or Wildstar + EVE. So anytime someone happens to discount WoW as a fluke and/or “not representative of the genre as a whole,” just remember that this is a fluke on scale with the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy.

There are bigger games, of course, like League of Legends. There still ain’t any bigger MMOs. And let’s face it: there isn’t likely to ever be any.

Back to that investor call, and the unintentionally hilarious corporate doublespeak:

Starting off with World of Warcraft. The franchise remains healthy with revenues up year-over-year. This is due in part to ongoing interest in Warlords of Draenor presales, which now exceed 1.5 million, and the character boost, which suggests strong support for the expansion by the community.

Yeah, sure, I can see it that way, Mike Morhaime. Someone who purchases a(n additional) character boost is likely a person preparing to use said boosted character in the next expansion. At the same time, is a boosted character not also a vote of no confidence of all the content that it was boosted past? Shit, the expansion is not out for another three months, and this is a report of player behavior from earlier in the year anyway. I’m not one of those guys who cry over planned obsolescence, but c’mon man, this is a sword with two edges. Be careful where you pick it up.

In looking over the rest of the call transcript, most of it had to do with Destiny and Call of Duty questions. Hearthstone was a surprise darling, but we sort of knew that already.

Warloads of Draenor

Release date of November 13th. And there’s a video!

I pretty much agree with the prevailing blogging opinion that the Warlords trailer is excellent on a technical level and somewhat of a horrible trainwreck on grokkable level. Are we supposed to know who these orcs are? It might be a little racist, but I can barely tell any of them apart. And then you get the confused sympathy going on, which results in you thinking the final boss of the expansion is actually a good guy. I mean, we just saw him kill a demon and everything! To the average person watching this thing, they aren’t going to know that the final scene is meant to imply the “good guys” will soon be invading an alternate timeline in which they don’t exist, only to be pushed back into their own world again and beaten silly by 10 or 25 kleptomaniacs in silly costumes.

And when I put it like that, I still almost feel bad for them.

Then I remember that alternate timelines and time travel in general is literally the worst narrative gimmick in literature (and all mediums, really), possibly tied with “it was all a dream.” It is always total bullshit because nobody ever treats it seriously, least of all the authors themselves. Bioshock Infinite, anyone? Warlords is all just another Metzen Horde masturbation fantasy that plumbs the shockingly shallow depths of the Warcraft RTS plot in search of remaining nuggets (or crumbs thereof) which can be squeezed and bled before the swan song of an Emerald Dream expansion.

In my attempt at researching the possibility that the Warlords narrative could be saved by Naaru somehow, I stumbled upon this blog post which does a good job at asserting the fact that we might be battling high lieutenants of the Burning Legion by the end. Up to and including Sargeras. I like the research supporting that position, but again, it all highlights for me the reason why time travel is stupid everywhere. Because now there is an infinite number Sargerases, and Titans, and McGuffins such that the likelihood of the “original” world existing at all is vanishingly small. Maybe the Bronze Dragonflight are supposed to keep all that shit on lockdown, but all it takes is a single “he/she went insane” and suddenly they are attacking every reality.

…which is sort of how the Burning Legion are described. Hmm.

Nah. The writers over there aren’t that clever.

Blue Balls

I debated titling this “Diablo’s Blue Balls,” but [spoiler] Diablo doesn’t have balls.

To the ongoing amazement of all (including myself), I have continued to play Diablo 3. You know, the game that I quit twice? In fairness, “playing” consists of 40-60 minute circuits of Act 1 Inferno with 177% Magic Find as I farm random items to sell on the AH for gold to purchase actual items, so that some semblance of progression can be squeezed from the rock that is Act 3 Inferno.

After three days of putting off another progression attempt like one does a dental appointment or a particularly difficult bowel movement, I finally sat on the chair and grit my teeth while awaiting the verdict. It was worse than I imagined. The “awesome” 1.5 million gold weapon I purchased actually decreased my DPS and survivability. In a panic, I scoured the AH for other upgrades… upgrades which helped in the sense of elongating the amount of time it took my face to collapse from the champion pack curb-stomp.

Up until now, I have been treating Diablo 3 as I treated daily quests in WoW: a not entirely joyless task in service of the greater goal of progression. The allure of rare items netting real money certainly added spice to the stew, but the endpoint always was taking down the titular Diablo on Inferno. As has become increasingly clear, that goal is no longer entirely reasonable.

Mike Morhaime has some words to say about Diablo 3 at this two-month mark, although you have to swim through six paragraphs of PR bullshit to find any:

You’ve seen some of that work already in patch 1.0.3, and you’ll see additional improvements with patch 1.0.4. On the game balance front, this update will contain changes designed to further deliver on the team’s goal of promoting “build diversity,” with buffs to many rarely used, underpowered class abilities. Another topic we’ve seen actively discussed is the fact that better, more distinct Legendary items are needed. We agree. Patch 1.0.4 will also include new and improved Legendary items that are more interesting, more powerful, and more epic in ways you probably won’t be expecting.

[…] On the flipside, we are also committed to ensuring you have a great experience with Diablo III without feeling like the auction house is mandatory, which was never our intention. Thank you for all the feedback about that.

[…] We’re also working on a gameplay system that will provide players who have max-level, high-powered characters new goals to strive for as an alternative to the “item hunt.” We’re not ready to get into specifics just yet, but I can say that we’re actively taking your feedback into account as we plan out the future of the game.

After thoroughly washing my hands, what I got from all that was: nothing.

To suggest that the designers never intended the AH to be mandatory is simply ludicrous. I do not mean that in a “greedy corporation cash shop” sense, I mean that in a “did these morons ever do any projection analysis of what the hardest difficulties require in their own goddamn game” sense. It matters not that a pro player can cheaply gear themselves well enough to go through Act 2 when all that budget gear came from other players. Was the design really that a player would spend 2+ months farming an Act for upgrades to progress to the next one when that is eight times as long as it took to get there in the first place? And, please, spare me the Diablo 2 anecdotes unless it involves the necessity of specific gear to finish the final boss.

…that is kind of the rub though, right?

As a player, I want both the fun to never end and the satisfaction of a completed experience. Meanwhile, the designers of MMOs and cash shop games want to delay the gratification for as long as possible while still retaining player interest. If the tacit tension between both parties is maintained successfully, both profit. After all, a game that abruptly ends before the player wants it to is just as bad as an unfinished game drained down to the curdled dregs at the bottom of an otherwise bone-dry barrel of fun.

…except that is wrong. The latter is worse than the former, and you do not even really need balls to appreciate that fact. Simply examine every unsatisfying ending to any game you have played – the one quality they will all have in common is lack of closure. Of release.

If Inferno was easier, there is little doubt that I would have completed it and shelved Diablo weeks ago. Many could argue that Blizzard was doing me a favor by setting forth this Sisyphean task, as those are (presumably) weeks of fun I would not have otherwise had. But that is not what happens. What happens is I sit here, without even the satisfaction of a logical endpoint, miserably looking back on those weeks of “fun” with a jaundiced eye and two blue balls.

And what I see is time spent playing Diablo 3 when I could have had more fun playing damn near anything else.