The storm at Blizzard

There’s a wonderful moment in the 2011 movie Margin Call, when Jeremy Iron’s character states:

I’m here for one reason and one reason alone. I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it. Nothing more. And standing here tonight, I’m afraid that I don’t hear – a – thing. Just… silence.

The line is in reference to the global downturn. It’s a moment that springs to mind off some of the recent Blizzard news simply because it feels like not only are times a changing for them, but there is probably more pain on the horizon for this studio.

This post is of course a reaction to the news that Heroes of the Storm (HotS) is effectively being put into maintenance mode and developers being moved onto other projects. Whilst the official announcement confirms new content was still coming but that the pace would change, in reality this probably means they are simply releasing what they have developed already before making the game stable over its last few years.

Obviously for many fans of the game this news has been met with disappointment. It makes sense to halt development of something if it’s not financially viable. Although without transparency of visibility of the financials one has to trust this wasn’t a case of ‘unrealistic targets’ being set.

This news comes off the back of the recent report from Jason Schreier at Kotaku which had already referenced cost cutting and pressure from the parent company; Activision, to produce new games and increase revenue off the back of the falling engagement numbers. And that after the PR disaster that was Blizzcon 2018.

Whilst Blizzard triumphed mobile phone games after the public outcry to Diablo Immortal, the reality is I suspect it is choosing an easier platform to develop for in the hope of generating revenue sooner. The partnership or outsourcing of the Diablo mobile game to NetEase seems to fit in with this as well. As well as porting existing games to the Nintendo Switch. As much as it is common sense porting Diablo 3 to Nintendo Switch, it will have been a relatively easy and quick venture for Blizzard. Ultimately all of these projects are much easier than bringing a new game, like Diablo 4, to market.

HotS was only 3 years old. Once upon a time you could probably regard it as risk free committing time and money to any Blizzard game. However now there will be people that have spent hundreds on HotS with no real recourse for refunds or any purchase. Even if it was recent spending in-game. I can’t help but feel that with no new games since Overwatch in 2016, World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth coming under criticism, that in many ways Blizzard games are all trending downwards. Certainly there will be other nervous Blizzard communities off the back of this news.

With their co-founder leaving two months ago and the challenges Blizzard faces it feels like a new studio might emerge and it’s games be ones that I don’t care for as much.

Whilst the big western publishers have enjoyed record revenues in recent years, therein lies the problem. And that is the unrealistic year-on-year growth that is expected. I can’t help but feel the pressure Blizzard are coming under is going to similarly affect other studios if the publishers revenues streams start to stall in the next few years.

Live Services – Part 3: The good, the bad and the ugly

For the final part of my three-part series on GaaS (part 1 & part 2) I thought I would list some of the Live Services/GaaS which I think do the whole service model very well. Or indeed very badly.

The good

Path of Exile | Grinding Gear Games
Often the term ‘free to play done right’ is banded around for many games. But I think here it is actually the perfect descriptor. Since 2013, Grinding Gear Games have been working on their ARPG with growing praise from those that have played it. The game does some major things right. All content is free, the game can be played as a free player with no penalty and makes you want to support the developer rather than feel you need to. It is far from perfect in that selling cosmetics limits the visual customisation options and the prices of some of its packs or in-game items feels slightly too expensive. But again it gets the balance right. And ultimately is as close to the best f2p game business model as you will find. The content on offer is fantastic and it is an outstanding ARPG as well.

World of Warcraft | Activision Blizzard
You could probably insert a few MMO’s here, but Blizzard’s 14-year old veteran game’s subscription model still works. And by retaining a subscription model there are very few in-game items to buy for real money. Whilst players moan about subscriptions, they still can provide one of the fairest business models a videogame can use. It’s also worth mentioning that WoW expansions have a Collector’s Edition but with only a few cosmetics included. There’s no Normal, Gold, Ultimate version rubbish here.

Guild Wars 2 | ArenaNet
No subscription and reasonably priced microtransactions. Far from perfect but does a lot of things very well when it comes to its business model. Unlike WoW it doesn’t have a subscription which is its strength.

Warframe | Digital Extremes
Great game, wonderful developer. F2p largely done right although the Prime Access pack are very expensive. However probably the best community manager in any videogame. And a phenomenally unique game. The fact this is the best looter shooter out there speaks volumes.

The bad

Call of Duty | Activision Blizzard
Year on year release. Season Pass, pre-order items, over £100 for the most expensive version and p2w in the form of weapons with better stats being in lootboxes. On top of that, this year’s entry has a slow grind version of Fortnite’s battle pass which has been designed to be very sllloooooowwwww at rewarding the player for obvious reasons. Eugh. About the most offensive cocktail of business models in modern triple AAA videogames.

Destiny | Bungie & Activision Blizzard
Again yearly releases, season passes and an endgame designed around lootboxes. For many including myself the realisation hit with the second game that there just wasn’t enough to justify the high purchase price. Great shooter and for the hardcore group PVE players they will be able to see pass these faults.

Grand Theft Auto Online | Rockstar & Take Two Interactive
A freemium, mobile game in structure. Everything is built around earning money which is very, very slow to acquire. It isn’t pretty. But unfortunately it has generated billions for Take 2 and Rockstar and clearly a blueprint for the recently released Red Dead Online.

FIFA/Madden Ultimate Team | Electronic Arts
I’ve written about this one before but EA has come under increasing criticism for its annual sports titles that appear to have only improvements in things relating to the Ultimate Team modes that are generating EA near or over a $billion every year. Like GTA V it’s effectively a freemium mobile game, with declining reasons for those not wanting to play the online mode to consider buying the game.

And the ugly

Marvel Heroes | Gazillion Entertainment (now defunct)
Marvel Heroes is a story of a f2p ARPG which was quite good fun and had a small but loyal following of fans. But is no longer around since it’s closure in November 2017. The studio and game were shut down only 12 days after Disney announced it was ending it’s working relationship with the developer. It’s a great example of where it’s possible to invest money and time in a service but unfortunately there is no guarantee it will be around that long.

I could list others like Evolve, or Lawbreakers. Indeed maybe even Fallout 76 which has turned into a big mess of a game. But ultimately I just needed one example to make the pun work!


I probably could list more examples in each category but when writing this it started to become clear that a trend has emerged over the last few years which is arguably good for consumers. And that is the rise of smaller, more dynamic studios whose games are reinventing and innovating within the industry without the pressure from publishers. And right now it’s hard to argue that the big five western publishers don’t have a monetisation problem where their greed is killing something special in a lot of their games.

An exile again

I’ve decided to start playing Path of Exile. Properly.  And no I’m not playing because of that announcement in some sort of defiance of Activision Blizzard. Like many just over a week ago I sat down to digest the news from Blizzcon 2018 and saw the mess over Diablo Immortal although I was more enthralled with the news of a Warcraft 3 remaster than disappointment with the latest Diablo news. I do think a mobile version of Diablo could be good but unfortunately Diablo players on PC and console have been starved of content for a long time which I think reflects in some of the reactions to Diablo Immortal.

However seeing the footage of the new Diablo made me want to play a new ARPG. And it seems like no better time than to give Path of Exile a proper go. The bit that helped seal it was the Stash Tab (extra storage) sale over this past weekend and I’ve since invested in one of Grinding Gear Games (GGG) supporter packs.

It is a game I’ve toyed with before (about 16 hours) but always tried to resist the urge to get into it as I had lots of other games on the go. However I go through phases with ARPG games where I want to play them for a bit but only for a while. Although Path of Exile’s endgame can be the pure definition of ‘grind’ I think there is enough to see even as a more casual player.

I used to enjoy picking up Marvel Heroes Online every so often but unfortunately that has now gone. And whilst I really enjoy Diablo 3 I’m loathed to invest too much into a game that is clearly in maintenance mode (I’ve already got around 400 hours between the PC and PS4 versions). Support of an online game matters and in this sense GGG seems to have delivered a very compelling and fair business model. The game is the very definition of what a GaaS should be in my mind. And I think rewarding that with some of my time and money seems a fair exchange.

Talk is cheap

Just over a week ago the maker of the popular Weak Auras addon posted a tweet about the current number of subscribers for World of Warcraft. The tweet was suggesting that after a new API had been made available, that it was possible to derive current subscribers to the game. Current subscribers for the game have dropped by around 2 million only two months after the release, for the western North American and Europe realms (servers).

Because the tweet was based on a soon to be deleted post elsewhere, there was no verification or way to validate the numbers. However this didn’t stop the news spreading and quickly people repeating it as fact. In addition many were quick to shut down conversations in their space (i.e. ResetEra or Reddit) because the claims couldn’t be substantiated. In addition Activision Blizzard responded to say the data was false.

So whilst there is nothing wrong with regarding the original leaked numbers as dubious i.e. anyone can claim anything on the internet. The response from Activision Blizzard should also be treated with cynicism. Many were quick to claim that Activision Blizzard wouldn’t lie because they have a legal responsibility not to mislead their shareholders. However the claim that the numbers are false can be made on so many levels, i.e. the number is only 99.99% accurate, or the data doesn’t include the Asia region subscribers etc. The fact is Activision Blizzard hasn’t published World of Warcraft subscribers numbers since 2015 when the game had 5.5 million subscribers.

Like many other companies Activision Blizzard has moved away from factual and meaningful data such as unit sales and subscribers to ‘player engagement’ and monthly active users (MAU) for the purposes of reporting financial information. However this is less useful data, very easy to hide behind and doesn’t really provide enough detail to analyse. Activision Blizzard MAU data is all players across all of its games and purchases grouped up into one big number. With free-to-play games included it is very difficult to see how World of Warcraft is performing. And since 2015 Activision Blizzard has only ever released ‘positive’ PR data- i.e. sold 3.4 million copies of Battle for Azeroth on day one. It will never release active subscribers unless it a. decided to, and b. the numbers were extremely healthy.

And it isn’t alone in this. Microsoft, for example, since 2015 has stopped reporting on the number of Xbox One units sold, or the number of Xbox Live Gold subscribers (i.e. paying). This is very likely as it was selling less Xbox Ones than Sony’s PlayStation 4 and the fact Gold subscribers was probably declining as a result. In fact we know from other data (i.e EA etc.) that Xbox One has sold less units that the Xbox 360 had at the same time in its lifetime. Microsoft is generating more revenue from digital sales but from less console players. We don’t even know what constitutes a Microsoft MAU. It could simply be someone logging into the Windows 10 Xbox App. In other words pretty garbage information.

However one thing was interesting and that is how people simply discounted that there might only be 3.2 million subscribers (in NA/EU, so excluding Asia servers). I’ve seen people state this couldn’t be true because why would anyone not buy gametime for an expansion they had already purchased (the 3.4m day one sales as noted earlier). Well I know this can be true because I was one of those players. Despite preordering the expansion for Allied Races during Legion I simply didn’t subscribe to World of Warcraft again until after the release of Battle for Azeroth. Also with the ability to buy gametime with in-game gold it’s quite possible the numbers for day one sales could have exceeded the subscribers at release.

In addition if we look at realm data, we can see there are around 5.9 million characters in EU and NA realms at level 111+. With alts and multiple characters it means it ‘could’ have been possible that there were somewhere in the region of 3.2 million subscribers for NA and EU regions at launch. As BellularGaming said in his YouTube video the lack of historic data makes this hard to look at previous trends. That said as with any MMO there is likely to be drop off in players after the release. Certainly there appears to more negativity around for Battle for Azeroth than the previous expansion at this point in its lifetime.

Either way the numbers are certainly not beyond the realms of possibility, and Blizzard quickly logging everyone out of the forums (possibly as a result of shutting down the API) may be an indicator that API had given out more data than ever intended. But unless there was more transparency from Activision Blizzard, we simply won’t know.

The more difficult to answer question might be, if the numbers are close to the truth, then what are the implications for World of Warcraft. Any MMO has a more defined ceiling when selling expansions but there might come a point when Activision Blizzard decides it can make more money from another business model. However it certainly isn’t going to increase any budget or resources for future releases and may explain why World of Warcraft Classic has taken so long to release.