The Inside Story of Blizzard's Departures - IGN Special Report
IGN has released a
by Senior News Editor Kat Bailey, detailing the string of high profile departures over the last several years; from Senior Vice President Chris Metzen, to CEO Mike Morhaime, and more recently Overwatch Game Director Jeff Kaplan. The in-depth expose is incredibly long and detailed, so we encourage you to read it in its entirety, though we've recapped some of the major talking points below.
Below is our recap of IGN's special report, but make sure to check out the full article to get all the details!
Highs and Lows
Blizzard Entertainment's history is punctuated by incredible high points, establishing billion dollar franchises, and creating a culture in which employees would routinely stay for years or decades — a rarity in the games industry.
In a 2016 documentary, veteran developer Chris Metzen, fresh off the launch of Overwatch, articulated Blizzard’s worldview. “What are we really doing? Are we just selling product for a corporation? I guess that’s a part of it, but we’re artists and craftsmen and technologists and writers and poets and all these other things coming together to build something greater than any of us could have ever achieved on our own. That has always been the story of Blizzard. What are we prepared to spend the next five years of our lives on, together?”
Though with that has also come low points, with long periods of drought between major releases, while ancillary offerings such as Warcraft III's launch and Diablo Immortal's initial BlizzCon 2018 announcement both falling flat. Fans aren't the only ones suffering either, as employees also feel the strain in the form of reduced annual profits sharing, while new releases are still years away.
Looking back on BlizzCon 2018, Cheng says “hindsight is 20/20” when it comes to the decision to open BlizzCon with Diablo Immortal. “e all thought that no one was really making mobile games at the quality that we wanted to see. I think that we had not yet announced Diablo 4. We had not yet announced Diablo 2: Resurrected from our vantage point,” Cheng told IGN.
This isn't unique to Blizzard though, as most big-budget studios face multi-year gaps between releases, and working from home has only made that process more difficult. In truth, Blizzard is still mostly doing fine - Shadowlands has been a comparatively successful expansion, helping boost overall revenue by around 7 percent, and looking forward, Diablo Immortal reviews are looking very strong despite initial misgivings, while Diablo 2: Resurrected is already breaking records in the technical alpha stage. Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2 are still a way out though, citing 2022 as the earliest, with speculation as late as 2023 to align with the 5th anniverary of the Overwatch League.
"Every year they'd be like, ‘Oh, you know, it's just a down time. We're not shipping anything. But like, it'll probably get better next year.’"
High Level Departures
While Blizzard says its voluntary turnover is significantly under industry average and that departures among developers who have been with the company for longer than 10 years are in fact decreasing, several high-profile departures have contributed to the sense among fans, media, and many within the company that Blizzard is experiencing an exodus. It may be true that a development team is more than just one highly visible leader, though sources within Blizzard say that the departures have had a ripple effect on teams used to long-term stability, while employees feel the loss of mentor-figures such as Kaplan.
“ was the last person that we would have conversations about, ‘How long is he gonna last?’ Because he's the last big blow,” says a source within Blizzard who agreed to speak at length with IGN about the state of the company (and asked to be kept anonymous for this report). “So to some degree, now that he's gone, I don't even know who else could make that big of a wave. I don't even think you'll hear about anybody else of that magnitude.”
Few of these veteran developers are retiring or joining big-budget games though - most have launched new indie studios, presumably hoping to recapture the feeling of doing impactful work with a small team, building a new project from the ground up. Some of these Blizzard veterans have done so several times, such as Patrick Wyatt founding ArenaNet, En Masse Entertainment, and One More Game, while serving in the early-stages of several more studios. Most recently, Chris Metzen co-founded Warchief Gaming, Second Dinner was founded by Ben Brode following his departure in 2018, Frost Giant Studio was created by several former Starcraft 2 developers with the intent of launching the next great RTS, Lightforge Games was opened by former Blizzard and Epic Games employees, and Dreamhaven was started by former Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime.
Burnout is common in tech, particularly in games, which is a notorious grind even when not taking into account practices like crunch. At Blizzard, where it’s possible to spend a decade or more working on one game, it’s natural to want a change of scenery.
There's a popular narrative among fans and media that Activision has been clamping down and exerting more influence over Blizzard design direction, but reports indicate that Blizzard continues to enjoy its own editorial independence, to the point that even talking about money is actively discouraged in some areas. A firewall of sorts has been constructed around the core game development teams, with every effort being made to protect Blizzard’s internal development culture, and game development has remained relatively untouched by layoffs over the recent years.
“I can't think of one time where Activision has… or sorry, like management, has come in and asked us to change a creative decision about any of our games. They have so much faith and trust that these talented developers that they've hired are making the right choices for their games. They give us free rein to do that.”
Blizzard’s internal review process was purportedly revamped around 2018, adopting a stricter, one-size-fits-all approach that put the company on the path toward being beholden to stricter performance curves as Blizzard HR was consolidated into the company at large. Blizzard responded in a statement, "We are constantly exploring ways to better serve the needs of our player community while simultaneously supporting our people. Right now, we’re intensely focused on developing and releasing more games and content and hiring more than 500 developers across announced, and unannounced, projects.
Despite the attempts to shelter core game development, developers have felt the impact. With less support from Blizzard’s esports and community sections, IGN has heard stories of Blizzard devs having to pick up the slack by helping out with events or writing patch notes. One way or another, everyone has felt the cuts around Blizzard.
Salaries and bonuses have been another sensitive subject at Blizzard of late. In December 2018, Blizzard ended its holiday bonus program, integrating the payouts into salaries instead, and although World of Warcraft’s latest expansion proved successful Blizzard soon announced that employees would be receiving about half of their expected profit-sharing, based on performance. In an email to employees obtained by IGN, Brack attributed the number to reduced second-half profits for 2020, promising better times ahead, pointing to Diablo 4, Overwatch 2, and additional, unannounced projects as reasons to be optimistic.
“If we deliver on our slate of plans, we expect 2021 and 2022 to be great years for Blizzard,” Brack wrote a month and a half before Kaplan’s departure.
Blizzard responded with the following statement: "We believe in a pay-for-performance philosophy that encourages us to make content that resonates with our players. Like many other compensation programs, Blizzard’s profit-sharing program is directly tied to our business performance — the details have not changed for a number of years. Last year, we had successful releases, but we also heavily invested in our future. We’re looking forward to sharing what we’re working on with players, and ultimately rewarding our teams for their contributions."
A Blizzard spokesperson reportedly told IGN that it "recently awarded equity to almost every single employee, adding over $100 million to the Blizzard equity grant pool." A source within Blizzard says that "recently awarded" is a strong term since almost all employees don't know what they're getting yet, but that employees have been told "you are getting something."
Better times may be ahead, though between Diablo Immortal, Diablo 2: Resurrected, Diablo 4, and Overwatch 2 on the horizon. Diablo Immortal may even be the biggest upset, considered to have a chance to be bigger than Call of Duty Mobile - pointing to earnings potential in Asia, where games like Diablo tend to be more popular than shooters and Blizzard already has an established foothold.
“Most of the top titles in that space were natively built in Asia, either by NetEase or Tencent. And none of them have the IP cachet that Diablo has,” Uerkwitz says of Blizzard’s upcoming free-to-play mobile game, which is still set to go into full release in 2021. “I think Diablo has been a sneaky success on PC for years in Asia, and so I think putting them together with NetEase – with their expertise of this style of game – positions it well to kind of be the leader of that space similar to how became the leader of the shooter genre on mobile over there.”
“We are about to turn the corner into a really exciting time,” Ion Hazzikostas says optimistically. “I think Blizzard has long development cycles. The games that we make are not games that are produced and turned around quickly in a year or two. People have seen what's in the works with Diablo 4, with Overwatch 2, and are incredibly excited about both of those games. e have other projects that are in the works, and I think, you know, folks across the world will be seeing before too long what we're up to, and I can't wait to share that with them.”
As a reminder, the above is a light paraphrasing of IGN's reporting, rather than our own assessments. While it's true that Blizzard has suffered from a rash of departures, it doesn't necessarily reflect a catastrophic failure of development - despite long periods of wait between major launches, Blizzard has still been very successful with its near cyclic rate of Warcraft and Hearthstone expansion launches.
While it's hard to escape the negative optics of these high profile departures, many of them were long divorced from WoW in the first place. A number of the original World of Warcraft developers left years before the so-called "modern" era of Cataclysm for the same reason that others are leaving now - 5 years is a very long time to work on a single project in the video game industry, much less the 10-15 that many Blizzard veterans have reached, and there's a strong allure to getting in on the ground floor of starting something new, though it should also be recognized that those senior developers have the financial freedom to take on riskier indie startups that other developers often lack.
That said, something the article doesn't note is that none of those new "ex-Blizzard" studios have announced projects yet and probably won't for several years. Despite their pedigree, "ex-Blizzard studios" do not have a very successful track record, with the majority floundering after one mediocre release, if any at all. This isn't necessarily the fault of the developers themselves, as the video game industry is notoriously hard to break into, but doesn't change the fact that Blizzard spinoffs
Red 5 Studios
, Hyboreal Games,
En Masse Entertainment
are all now defunct, with very few successful launches between them.
Ready at Dawn
had a string of minor successes, though it has now been acquired by Oculus Studios and Facebook, leaving
(creators of Guild Wars) as the only current successful spinoff still active, though incidentally none of its three founding members are still with the studio. Meanwhile
One More Game
have all yet to announce any projects.
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