It should come as no surprise that I could be called “a bit negative” when it comes to Activision|Blizzard… and that it’s something that doesn’t bring me a lot of joy, given how much of a Blizzard fan I am (or was). As a company, Activision has been terrible for years, but they’ve also been connected to some properties and games that I, and a lot of others enjoy.
I’m not a Destiny fan by any means… I know a lot of people who love the game (or more aptly, it’s sequel), but it hasn’t really been for me. I found the first one tedious, and the business model around the sequel turned me off from the outset. However, I also recognize that Bungie is a good company that pours a lot of love into their game and that the business model was probably all the corporate overlords at Activision.
Since they split off from Microsoft in 207, Bungie has technically been an independent studio… Microsoft kept all of the Halo IP but the studio got its freedom. In 2010, they signed a 10-year deal with Activision to publish the Destiny franchise… but as of last week it looks like the deal was ending early, and that going forward, Bungie would be self publishing the game.
Since they lost the Halo IP to Microsoft (which wasn’t shady… Microsoft owned the studio and that was contingent on their split; it’s also the tentpole title for the entire Xbox family), I’m willing to guess that Bungie wasn’t going to let that happen again. Per Activision, Destiny 2 had “not performed as well as [Activision] had hoped“… but if you know anything about AAA publishing, that’s basically code for unrealistic numbers. After all, the new Tomb Raider series had “underperformed” at SquareEnix… “only” selling 3.4 million at launch (which if I remember right would have been more than every other Tomb Raider had done at launch combined).
It’s not uncommon to see expectations of 6+ million sales on a major title, despite the fact that you can count the number of games that do that in any given year on one hand. If you’re not a Call of Duty title (which, despite slowing down, still the best selling game of 2018), Madden (which has been sliding downward for years), or FIFA (which dwarves Madden in sales)… you’re probably not going to get there. I know that Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed, and other big games had great sales this year as well, but there have been several of the “underperformed” articles out there which means that selling anything less than all the copies ever is going to be a miss.
What is Going on at Activision?
When I talked about how badly Blizzard stepped in it with their Diablo: Mobile Microtransaction Edition announcement at BlizzCon, I mentioned how Activision has only made three new games in the past fifteen years. I’d lumped Destiny in there, which I suppose was inaccurate given that Bungie owns it.
There are some clues at what brought about this split, and why the lineup looks to be so light, in the Bungie press released for the self-publishing route.
we’re excited to announce plans for Activision to transfer publishing rights for Destiny to Bungie. With our remarkable Destiny community, we are ready to publish on our own, while Activision will increase their focus on owned IP projects.
Activision looks to focus on owned IP projects… which sort of begs the questions… which ones? They’ve killed off Skylanders (the Toys2Life market is pretty well gone at this point), Call of Duty gets a release every year and they own those studios, but most of the other big upcoming titles they have are just published, not developed. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a new IP coming, but it’s developed and owned by FromSoftware, of Dark Souls fame. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is coming as a Nintendo Switch exclusive, but it’s being developed by Team Ninja.
There have been re-releases of Spyro and Crash Bandicoot, classic games in their own right, but nothing new in the pipeline, but it’s pretty much Call of Duty and the games Blizzard has in the pipeline. And, if you read the other article, that’s just a mobile game and the current titles. Blizzard has had an outsized focus on eSports over the last few years (something that annoys old farts like me which care nothing about them), but the numbers for Overwatch have been slipping and they pulled the rug out from under their DOTA clone, Heroes of the Storm and really pissed off the pro players crowd late last year (that was their job and Blizzard basically terminated the league without any warning).
Before the Bungie split, there had been several high-profile changes and departures, including losing the CFOs at Blizzard and Activision (one of which happened really suddenly when the guy went to Netflix), the departure of Blizzard president Mike Morhaime (one of the last of the old guard there), who was on in an advisory role but looks like he’s cutting that tie in April. The new people going into leadership look to fall into two camps: eSports and Mobile gaming.
We knew that Blizzard is going into the mobile space, hard, to the point of insulting their current fan base. To be clear, I’m not saying that them expanding into mobile is a bad thing… it’s clearly a market that has money in it (though I’d say not a lot of space for growth), and it’s built on the microtransactions that they love so, so much. However, to make the move there, and leaving the existing console/PC space behind, will burn any goodwill with fans. But to go to a convention of your biggest fans and not do nothing for them, but actively insult them during the announcement, you’re doing something wrong.
Activision has only deepened their ties to NetEase, the mobile company they’ve partnered with, and has been trying to shed people that aren’t in line with that. They’ve let Destiny go, one of the biggest titles they have even if it “underperformed.” And thanks to all the BlizzCon news, we know that Activision has been actively meddling in what the golden goose company, Blizzard, was doing and focusing on “reducing cost” and killing projects.
I’ve railed against gamers being entitled before, and we most certainly are. You only need to go in the comment section of the bigger sites or spend a few minutes on Reddit (have bleach and swabs ready for after before you do) to know that it’s an unfortunate fact of the hobby that drives so many people away from it. Threats against developers (especially women) and teams when something isn’t liked, dumbass behavior like swatting, DDoS, racism, and harassment showing up all the time, and in general just negative toxicity because people like, or don’t like, the same thing all add up to some pretty awful stuff around gaming.
That’s not what we are talking about here, though. This is far more of a consumer to provider reaction… it’s never entitlement to say “well, I’m not going to buy this anymore”… it’s the market doing what it does when a company stops providing customers what they want. Activision, even more than EA, Ubisoft, or WB Interactive, have built their empire on predatory practices and regurgitating the same content over and over, and haven’t taken the time to keep the foundation in check. We’re seeing that in Blizzard, long one of the few gaming companies genuinely loved by its fans, has burned away almost all of that goodwill in the past few months, and what it’s left behind is ugly.
Gamer goodwill can evaporate in a moment when a company decides to cut on its fans, and 2018 provided some really big lessons in that. Blizzard, in BlizzCon and the release of the lukewarm WoW expansion managed to undo everything great they’d done the past few years. Bethesda, a game that managed to turn terrible development and QA into an running joke that we all overlooked, lost everything when they rushed out the hackjob that was Fallout 76 (and angered their most faithful fans with the bag fiasco). Electronic Arts and WB Interactive managed to get government regulation and legal action finally moving when they got so greedy with lootboxes that there was a backlash by consumers.
I have no real idea what’s going on inside of Activision Blizzard, but it really seems like they could be looking at a Konami-style exit of the game industry, instead focusing on draining the last life they can from a few titles and making a bunch of mobile trash instead of games. And if history has taught us anything, they may survive it but will be never looked at by their core customers again. That makes me sad, because I still want to love Blizzard, but it feels like they’re on borrowed time. They don’t seem to have an out like Bungie did, being effectively half of the company (and a huge chunk of the profit, thanks to Hearthstone and Overwatch)… so we can only wait and see.