Friday, November 1, 2019

BlizzCon and Live Services

I didn't want to write too much about Blizzcon, partly because everyone else in your RSS feed is already doing that and mostly because I just feel very 'meh' about the company right now. But I thought the 'sorta apology' tied in well to my post from two days ago about game subscriptions. The apology that kicked off the festivities was fine. But we've heard some variation of "We hear you, and promise in the future to make it better" for as long as Blizzard has been a company. It might as well be their motto. It rarely matches with any actual action taken by the company. It is unusual that it was attached to the word 'sorry'. They don't usually break that word out until they've hit the 'mainstream press is noticing' level of notoriety.

(On a side note, I feel my usual ambivalence towards their actual announcements. My backlog is very full and my ability to care about games that I can't actually play yet just isn't there. That's been true for nearly 3 decades for me, so that's just business as usual.)

Back on track, in my last post I mentioned my excitement at game subscription services. A low monthly fee that acts as a content discovery vehicle is something that works for me. But Blizzcon does remind me of one negative aspect of these subscription services, as well as just any live service in general.

I cancelled my World of Warcraft subscription after the big brouhaha. As I mentioned in my post at the time it wasn't some form of formal boycott, nor did I feel like I was sending any sort of message towards Blizzard. Video games are entertainment and its hard to enjoy something tied to a company behaving badly towards something that actually matters. I removed WoW from hard drive to free up some much need disk space.

But GOG's rerelease of Warcraft 1 and 2, as well as Diablo 1 remained on that hard drive. Granted, I didn't play them, but I didn't remove their icons from my desktop either. Being tied to the hip with a misbehaving company on a subscription feels worse than having a static game. After all, I already paid for Warcraft 1. That deal is done. There is no outstanding relationship with Blizzard on that one.

But a subscription fee, or just a live game with microtransactions is a different deal. It's a relationship. But by it's nature it's always a one-sided one. My side of the relationship is an emotional one. I'm fulfilling my need to be entertained. Maybe more if we accept that video games are art and can deliver emotions beyond just bliss. But the company's side of this relationship is pure business. Sure there's some give-and-take. Microsoft wants to populate their service with games people want to play. That's acting on feedback from their playerbase, but only to the extent that it increases sub numbers.

Blizzard is in this place now as well. Blizzard hasn't been in the business of caring about player feedback in a non-business way for a while now (see the entirety of the Battle for Azeroth beta). Changes made to retail WoW are focused on increasing subs and nothing more. Blizzard leadership relented and shipped WoW Classic purely because it made too much fiscal sense not to.

This makes it either a one-sided relationship, or at least a very shallow one. Not a problem on the surface. But companies like Blizzard, Microsoft, etc. are motivated to pretend there is more to it than that. Blizzcon is a way to monetize product announcements marketed as a community event. As their CEO said during his apology, Blizzard is motivated to bring gamers together through 'epic entertainment'. Quite a grandiose statement. One that would be more believable if WoW's 15 year old social features were more robust than instant messaging programs from two decades ago. There is no 'higher standard' at Blizzard. There is no 'grand vision'. It's just a video game company that made it's name years ago because it was willing to put the spit shine on releases where other companies would have shipped subpar work out the door. That hasn't been the case for nearly a decade now.

Blizzard gets to charge a premium for its relationship with it's userbase. Blizzard gets to force users to use it's launcher to play its games, and innudate that launcher with it's own adds because of its relationship with it's userbase. It's a tangible, but emotional connection that means real dollars for the company. Blizzard had to make an apology because being perceived as special is worth real world dollars. Otherwise, 15 dollars for a WoW subscription, plus 50 dollars for an expansion every so often, doesn't make a lot of sense in the world of Game Passes, Humble Bundles, and Free to Play titles.

Live services and subscriptions have made content cheaper than ever and that forces companies to find something else to charge a premium for. For Microsoft, Game Pass will subsidize hardware sales and Gold Live subscriptions. For Blizzard, it's an emotional attachment to the IP and the company itself. For me, Blizzard lost the ability to charge that premium.

Users leaving a company because of various reasons has and will always be a thing. But for the next several years it seems most video game companies are really going to need to be on their best behavior and their reputation and reliability are going to matter more than it ever has.

I know this was more rambly than my usual posts, but this has been in the back of my mind for a while. I don't really want a closer relationship with random corporations. I'm perfectly content with purchasing a thing and then said company fucking off. But that's not really the reality for much of the current gaming landscape. Subscription services, I hope, are the way to make the best of that.


  1. Good post, Everwake.

    I work for a company in a different industry that sees itself as the top of its field -- able to (and so does) charge a premium for this reputation.

    It is a constant ride along the knifes edge to maintain that position of privilege to say the least. And you're right -- it translates directly into real world dollars and so is something considered worth fighting for even amongst the beancounter division.

    But that knifes edge exists at least in part because we're often pushing the line to see what else might be accepted -- or accepted enough to come out on top over any potential PR hit.

    But also as you say it isn't the voice of the people that matters much in that consideration. We know we can ride a wave of bad PR til interest moves on if that's all it is.

    But when people start voting with their subscription dollars and churning off the service -- that's when the backtracks and apologies start to come out.

    Watching this in another industry entirely has been quite fascinating.

  2. I think the desire and interest of a general consumer base to care about this sort of thing, or indeed even notice it, is hugely exaggerated. It is possible to engender societal change by political action - we see it happening all the time - but it depends on said change becoming the focus of influential media organizations. If things don't get reported ad nauseam to the point where it becomes impossible to avoid the narrative outside of becoming a (digital) hermit, it's all but impossible to build sufficient moment to enact any lasting change.

    I don't see any sign of this happening with Blizzard. They seem to have managed a clear-up quite successfully at Blizzcon, albeit more by luck than judgment. They were very fortunate this all blew up this year, when they had a whole slew of shiny new toys to wave. Imagine if it had happened before 2018's Blizzcon and they'd had to come out with nothing new other than Diablo Immortal.

    The other thing is that the public has an extremely limited aperture for outrage. It's limited to two or three topics at a time. Unless there was a rolling rebellion against some kind of perceived shared principle common to many game companies, the travails of any individual game producer is more likely to benefit the rest than harm them. If people stop playing Blizzard games it will most likely be to move to games by other producers - and once the media focus moves on, as it inevitably will, many of those who were outraged will drift back, if they were ever all that committed in the first place.

    If you factor in subscription portals that include a number of games then it makes moving away and staying away far more problematic. What do you think the response will be if the next company to provoke these levels of outrage happens to be Valve? How many people are going to give up access to their Steam library? And how long will they keep it up?

    1. I was rambling with my words here, but I think my point extends farther than just whatever the latest outrage is. Blizzard losing its foothold as a special or premium company was happening before the Hong Kong stuff. If you look at prestige brands from the past, most of them failed or lessened for reasons that weren't a sharp outcry, but simply because they lost their premium image. Cadillac is a brand running on fumes for instance. There isn't any one reason for Cadillac to fail, it just fell out of favor for a lot of smaller reasons.

      Nowadays, other companies are able to match Blizzard in the quality of their titles. Blizzard won't be able to differentiate themselves this way. Stuff like Hong Kong would hurt a normal company, but it hurts Blizzard more because it scratches at the veneer that Blizzard was somehow different than Rockstar, EA, etc.