What do we expect from Blizzard? Past, Present and Future of the Diablo Series
Concept Art Diablo III
November 2, 2018, Blizzard completed its keynote address at the annual BlizzCon festival with the announcement of the development of the Diablo game for phones. The news was met with weak applause. It was an incomprehensible marketing decision that immediately caused controversial opinions - fans of the legendary action-RPG franchise loudly accused the company of neglecting PC players .
Perhaps Blizzard’s marketing team had expected Diablo fans to be inspired by Diablo Immortal , but this announcement was another odd move in the series of wild decisions made to Diablo over the past few years. After a disastrous releaseDiablo III on the PC in 2012 and the long road to redemption, which ended with the release in 2014 of the expansion of Reaper of Souls , fans were expecting long-term support, and possibly the second expansion of the third part of Diablo . After all, she still sold over 30 million copies.
But after 2014, Diablo III updates were small and sporadic, and now, four years later, Blizzard's announcement about creating Diablo Immortal while fans were hungry for any news on Diablo IV , led to serious questions about the future of the franchise .
What happens to Diablo ? What happened to the long-term Diablo III development plan ? Is the fact that the development of Diablo Immortal is partially transferred to the Chinese company NetEase, a sign that Blizzard has lowered its standards or decided to abandon its main audience? Will Diablo IV be developed , or has Blizzard traded PC games for mobile?
To try to answer this question, I spoke with 11 current and former Blizzard employees, each of whom spoke anonymously because he does not have permission to contact the press. They told me about the canceled second expansion for Diablo III and about Diablo IVwhich is really being developed, but in 2016 there was a “restart” of the project. My interlocutors talked about the popularity of the series in China, which was one of the main reasons for the emergence of Diablo Immortal , as well as how the ghost of the canceled game Titan continues to influence many Blizzard decisions.
Some of my contacts raised questions about the impact on many of their favorite video game developer, its owner, Activision. In 2008, Activision merged with the publisher Vivendi (currently holding a Blizzard stake) and became known as Activision Blizzard, but for the past decade, Blizzard has been proud of its remaining independence. With its own management structure and campus in Irvine, California, Blizzard has always stood out among other departments and subsidiaries of Activision. (Activision's headquarters is located an hour from Irwin, in Santa Monica.) Instead of sticking to rigorous production cycles and, say, releasing the Call of Duty series for Activision annuallyBlizzard has traditionally given its developers as much time as possible. Including thanks to this company is known for creating some of the best games in the world.
However, Blizzard employees say that one of the most important topics discussed this year was cost cutting. Fans, as well as people working and working in Blizzard, suspected that this could lead to profound changes in the company's culture.
When we asked for comments, Blizzard mailed us a statement signed by its official representative. I will quote him: “Blizzard was and remains a company, in which developers are the main ones. All the games we create are the realization of the ideas of the developers themselves in love with their business. This also applies to Diablo Immortal , as well as toWarcraft: Orcs & Humans , or Overwatch , or any other game created by us. We think it's best to make games that our developers believe in. ”
At the end of 2013, or perhaps at the beginning of 2014, shortly before the release of Reaper of Souls , Blizzard made a statement inside the company that hit the development team: the second expansion of Diablo III is canceled. Team 3, the Blizzard department in charge of Diablo , did not have time to invest a lot of work in this second expansion - they were mainly engaged in the Reaper - but it was planned as their next project. And now it turned out that he would not be.
“Management said to the team:“ You have finished the Reaper of Soulsand he is very good. But we think that for the franchise it will be better to move to Diablo IV , whatever form it takes, ”” one of the employees present at the time told us. “The team as a whole, as it seemed to me, felt that I had received a signal of confidence in the leadership towards them. They thought Diablo III was a huge failure. ”
Is Diablo III Reallywas a failure? Of course, the release in May 2012 of the long-awaited action-RPG turned into an instant catastrophe: fans around the world tried to launch the game and ran across the infamous “Error 37”, which has already become a meme. There were other problems, for example, a cruel complexity curve and an auction for real money, which allowed players to buy and sell loot for cash, distorting the balance of Diablo III items .
During 2012 and 2013, Team 3 fixed many of these errors by changing the difficulty system and removing the auction from the game. Diablo III gradually turned into a favorite game, and after Reaper of Souls, released in March 2014, the development team has turned it into one of the critically acclaimed action-RPG. Then why did Blizzard cancel the second extension?
“Many were amazed by this,” says one of the witnesses. “I think many of the developers reasoned like this:“ We made mistakes in Diablo III , but realized them and released Reaper to show what we can do. We fixed the game, and the Reaper is really good. " It seems to me that many thought that they would have coped with further development and that the second extension, whatever it turned out, would be the highest degree of expression of this ... Refusing to continue, even without checking how the Reaper will show itself , caused serious pain. ”
It is still unclear why Blizzard did not want to continue supporting the game, which had such great commercial success, but Team 3 had a theory that Blizzard management lost faith in Diablo III and perceived it as a mistake even before the release of Reaper . “The feedback on the game was such that the management thought:“ The developers seriously screwed up, ”explains another participant of the events. "They could wait a few months and see how the Reaper manifests itself , but in their opinion, Diablo III was hopeless." (When Reaper was released on PC at the end of March 2014, Blizzard said it had sold 2.7 million copies in its first week — a large number, but only a small fraction of about 15 million copiesDiablo III , sold on PCs and consoles.)
Blizzard did not tell about the cancellation of this particular expansion, but in its statement it mentioned the cancellation of projects in general. “As for the cancellation of game projects, we consider it our strength, a reflection of our desire for quality - we always adhere to this style of work,” said a company spokesman. “Over the past three decades, we have released about 50% of the total number of projects under development - only those that corresponded to the quality level of Blizzard. The decision to cancel the game is not easy to make, but for us it was always the right decision. Cancellation Titan led to the emergence of Overwatch , and the cancellation of Nomad - to World of Warcraft".
In March 2014, when fans celebrated the release of Diablo III with the victorious Reaper of Souls , the team of Team 3 split up. Some developers have left the company, others have been transferred to other projects, such as World of Warcraft or the nascent Overwatch . Some remained to work on Diablo III patches , but Team 3 no longer existed in full force. “At that moment, when Blizzard had the strongest Diablo development team , the company smashed it into a bunch of parts,” one person who worked on Reaper of Souls told us.. For these developers, such a move by the management of Blizzard seemed contradictory. "It would be more like Blizzard if the team were given more time to see how the Reaper will manifest itself and what the second expansion will be like," this developer added.
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls .
The remaining Team 3 developers began to discuss what Diablo IV might be like . Josh Mosquera, who started in the team of console developers Diablo III , and then took over the reins of Reaper of Souls , was to become the lead developer of the new project, codenamed Hades ("Hades"). His goal was to direct the franchise in a completely different course.
According to three people familiar with the project, Moscier and his team developed Hades as Diablo in the style of Dark Souls . The game was supposed to be a gothic dungeon crawler complex. Instead of the isometric angle of the camera, the usual for the first three Diablo, she had to use a third-person view and a camera located above the character’s shoulder. This was very different from all previous games, and some Blizzard employees even thought that the project should not be called Diablo IV . From 2014 to 2016, it was the main project of Team 3, developed in parallel with several patches and small content updates of Diablo III . Then, like the second expansion of Diablo III before it, the Hades project was canceled.
As in the case of any other cancellation, there are many possible reasons for it, but two people who participated in its creation reported that Hades had difficulties in developing. “The game could not take its form,” said one of them. In mid-2016, Mosquera left Blizzard. It is not entirely clear whether he left due to the cancellation of Hades, or whether Hades was canceled due to his departure, but it is quite clear that at this stage the project was put on the shelf. (When Kotaku contacted Mosciero, he declined to comment.)
In the following months, Team 3 was engaged in two tasks. Developers who had nothing to do after Hades canceled created downloadable content for Diablo III called Rise of the Necromancer.- The addition of a new character class that the team hoped would satisfy fans eager for Diablo updates . And some of them began to work on a project codenamed Fenris.
Fenris, according to all our sources, is the current incarnation of Diablo IV . Team 3 has been working on this version of the game since 2016, and those who saw it were optimistic. “Design Director Luis Barriga has created a very powerful vision for the game,” says a former employee. "In Blizzard, it delighted so many."
One of the key parts of this vision was graphic style. When developing games, many studios use what they call pillars — principles that allow defining the goals of the game so that all team members understand them. In Fenris, one of these pillars would be simple: welcome the darkness.
“Many people felt that Diablo III departed from what Diablo Diablo did in terms of graphic style and spell effects,” says a Blizzard employee. He adds that Fenris was keen to look more like the much loved Diablo II . Another employee says: “They wanted to make it repulsive, dark, to get rid of everything that looked in Diablo IIIcartoony ... Create what people were afraid of in Diablo II , but at the modern level. ”
Fenris is still in the early stages of development, and most likely will not be released until 2020, and even later, so you can say with absolute certainty that many current decisions will change over time. (We do not know whether it will be first released on a PC or scheduled for simultaneous release on PCs and consoles. In fact, the team might not have made such a decision yet.) For example, one of the topics of discussion is whether to keep the isometric angle of the camera or use the view from the third person, which was prototyped for Hades. According to three sources familiar with Fenris, the latest builds of the game were isometric, like the previous Diablo games , but the question is whether this situation will continue.
Another pillar of Fenris - the desire to make Diablo more social, inspired by Destiny and add to the game what one of the Blizzard developers called “light MMO elements”, to develop Blizzard's past successes in the MMO genre. In previous Diablo games , hub cities were present, which were full of quest givers and vendors. Imagine that exploring these hubs, you can meet other players and join them. And what if you could go with them created dungeons, as in Destiny raids or instances of World of Warcraft ?
“While the question is this: if these are analogs of“ raids ”, where players must pass a well-developed dungeon level with a good storyline, how will this be combined with Diablo ?” Said one source familiar with the project. “What if we just have the familiar Diablo style , in which several people on the map do different cool things?”
Another question that was hanging in the air was how to monetize Fenris. Other major Blizzard games, like Overwatch and Hearthstone , provide a steady stream of revenue through cosmetic microtransactions and card sets. In the case of DiabloBlizzard has not yet found a way to create such a cash generator. (“The company has always had problems with ensuring the long-term monetization of Diablo III ,” said one former employee.) From what we heard, it follows that there are still no answers to these questions for Fenris, and they may remain unanswered long.
Fenris is still at an early stage of creation, and all of these principles may change or not be included in the final product at all. However, if the fourth Diablo is in active development, it’s hard not to ask the question: why does Blizzard not talk about it? The company hinted at the existence of the game, insisting in posts and broadcasts that “several Diablo projects” are in development , but the mention of the phrase “Diablo IV "could significantly reduce the resentment caused by Diablo Immortal .
Earlier this month, I reported that Blizzard recorded video for BlizzCon , in which co-founder Allen Edham talks about Diablo IV. Blizzard later challenged claims that the video was created for BlizzCon. In subsequent discussions, two sources informed me that, despite the company's statements, in 2018 there were plans to announce the development of the game this year. “In January they were ready for this. “We’ll do everything right, we’ll have a playable demo,” said one. “But by May, the game has not progressed much. These are common problems. Sometimes the work goes slower than you want. " According to this source, by the summer the company still believed that the announcement would be made. “I think the problem is in terminology ... If the opinion had changed at any moment, they could have said:“ It was not planned as well. ” At least, as the development team said, the teaser should be released, such were the intentions. ”
On the other hand, a developer not involved in the creation of Diablo , but participating in the planning of BlizzCon, told me that according to his information, it was not planned to announce Diablo IV on the show .
The announcement of the development of Diablo Immortal at BlizzCon 2018 caused a widespread negative reaction.
Be that as it may, the announcement of the development of Diablo IV did not happen. There is one theory why this happened: Blizzard is haunted by the ghost of Titan .
Under the code name Titan, a completely new MMO was hidden, which Blizzard began developing around 2007. She thought of as a combination of The Sims , Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 : during the day, the player went about his business, and at night turned into a superhero. Titan was supposed to be a new twist on the genre, as it used to happen with World of Warcraft. (You can read more about how this was conceived in our 2014 report .)
In early 2013, after a long and slow development cycle, Blizzard canceled Titan . Part of his team turned to the development of Overwatch , which was a great success, but for Blizzard the project became a stain on reputation - a huge waste of time and money, which, to the displeasure of many, the public learned. Not only did the company spend resources on a failed game - everyone knew about it. Blizzard announced the project in 2008 , and its existence was often mentioned over the following years.
Therefore, given the fact that Fenris is in its early development stage, as well as the fact that the fourth Diablo has already undergone a serious “reset”, the team rightly worries about another long development cycle that could end in disaster. Even the words " Diablo IV " can raise expectations that developers still do not want to justify. “The Diablo team is paranoidly afraid to say something extra, and then fall into a vicious circle,” said one of the former Blizzard developers. "They don't want to show the game until they have a trailer and a demo."
“Obviously, the shadow of Titan dominates us all,” said another former Blizzard employee. Developer adds - despite the fact that from the ashesTitan appeared Overwatch , "people do not see that Titan was a success."
"I believe that the company seeks to announce the game is already close to the date when people can play it," says the current developer of Blizzard, mentioning both Titan and another notorious canceled Blizzard project called StarCraft: Ghost. "They prepared people for great disappointment." In a statement, Blizzard also confirms this. “With regard to undeclared games, there may be a lot of changes in the development and direction of the project during the development process, so we try not to share the details until the projects are ready. When announcing the development, we prefer to have a clear plan with specific details, and maybe a playable demo. This applies to projects Diablo , and other games. "
It is also logical to ask the question: how much did Titan influence the development process of Blizzard? Over the past few years, we have seen a seven or eight year development cycle for Titan , Diablo III(the development of which began at the beginning of the two thousandth, but the game itself was released in 2012), and StarCraft II (from 2003 to 2010). Some Blizzard veteran developers have been working on a single project for over a decade, which has led some of them to strive to create smaller and shorter games. That is why Blizzard now has a new undercover department that works a little differently than the rest.
In the days that followed BlizzCon 2018, when Diablo fans around the world were indignant at the announcement of the release of Diablo Immortal and the lack of news about Diablo IV , many of them wondered: did the development of Diablo Immortal neglect other Diablo games ?
As it turned out, Diablo IV and Diablo Immortal are developed by different teams working in different departments. The project called Fenris is engaged in Team 3, and Diablo Immortal is partly developed by NetEase, and partly by a small group of Blizzard employees, one of the company's newest departments: incubation.
In 2016, when co-founder of Blizzard, Allen Edham returned to the company, he announced that he would head this new department. Inspired by the serious success of the experimental card game Hearthstone (2014), this “incubation” department was supposed to help cultivate new innovative projects for the company. He distracted the work of some Blizzard veterans, such as Tom Chilton, who for six years was director of World of Warcraft and six years before that — her designer. (Now Chilton is leading the development of a mobile game.)
Another development veteran who went into the incubation is Wyatt Cheng, who has been working on Diablo III for more than ten years.and, in the words of two people who know him, who wanted to change. Blizzard has entered into a partnership agreement with the Chinese company NetEase to publish Diablo III as a free-to-play in China, where it received great success. Around 2016 or 2017, the two companies decided to collaborate and start developing what will be called Diablo Immortal - Diablo games for mobile only, of which Cheng will be the lead designer. “In fact, it appeared only because we became aware of how they are waiting for it in China,” says the developer of the company. "In fact, it is being done for China."
Three sources from Blizzard told me that the release of Diablo Immortal was originallyit was planned only in China, at least for the first months or even a year, mainly to test it among Chinese fans before release in the West. “The quality bar in the Chinese market, especially in terms of frame rates, is incredibly low,” said one source. "There you can release as a finished game what would be considered here as an alpha version." According to these sources, Blizzard later decided to devote more time to polishing the game and prepare it for an international announcement and release.
In a statement, Blizzard reported that Diablo ImmortalIt was developed both for the western and for the eastern markets, but did not comment on whether the issue was initially planned first in China. “One of our core values is global thinking, and our history has shown that we strive to release our games in as many languages as possible so that as many players as possible can enjoy them,” the official said. "We immediately knew that we wanted to bring Diablo Immortal to the audience around the world."
The cinematic trailer for Diablo Immortal has become one of the videos that have received the greatest number of dizlik on YouTube.
Diablo Immortal is not the only mobile game in the “incubation” department of Blizzard, and although skeptical fans may question the reasons for launching these games, both current and former employees insist that these games are being developed because Blizzard developers genuinely want to create them.
"In Blizzard, there are a lot of players in mobile games," said a full-time developer. “Many are really excited about mobile gaming. Immortal Reactioninside the company is very different from the reaction of the rest of the world. This is partly due to the fact that people want to work on smaller projects, and small games look more logical on mobile platforms. ”
For example, the developers told me that some people from Blizzard play Pokémon Go . According to one of the developers, the famous statue of an orc in the center of the Blizzard campus has become a “jim” (Pokémon Gym), and the staff conduct daily wars to control this point.
The logical continuation of this was the fact that one of the “incubation” teams took up the development of the Warcraft version of the Pokémon Go , which is now being done for smartphones. Of course, management sees the Warcraft franchise in this spin-off.a source of great profit, but the game is also produced because lead designer Corey Stockton (who previously worked on World of Warcraft ) is a huge Pokémon fan . (People who played mobile Warcraft say that it is nevertheless closer to the franchise than to Pokémon Go and contains single-user mechanics.)
Perhaps for Edham this is a win-win situation. Thanks to mobile games, Blizzard can satisfy the demands of Activision investors by contacting the emerging video game markets in China and India. At the same time, the company will delight veterans, allowing them to work on small projects. “In fact, everything that is in the“ incubation ”departments remains there, because Allen Edham considers these projects worthy of attention,” said another full-time developer. Perhaps these mobile games will not be particularly attractive for most of the hardcore Blizzard fans who prefer to play only on PCs, but developers really like them.
In addition, the impact of Activision on Blizzard over the past year has become very sensitive - employees of Blizzard say that the situation for the once autonomous company is beginning to change a little.
In the spring of 2018, during a general meeting of “Battle Plan,” Chief Financial Officer Amrita Ahuja appealed to all company personnel. For many, it was a surprise that one of the goals of Blizzard for the year was called saving money.
“For the first time we heard that a year’s priority would be cost cutting and economy,” says one of the meeting participants. "We put it this way: do not waste money unnecessarily."
Ahuja was a newcomer to Blizzard, she became CFO after transferring from Activision headquarters to Santa Monica, where she worked in the finance and investor relations departments for eight years. The staff of Blizzard had the feeling that she came to clean up the budget, save as much money as possible, and at the same time stimulate the performance of Blizzard. (In a statement, Blizzard said, "We actively attracted Ahuja and selected her from a large list of competent and qualified candidates.") Overwatch released in 2016 was a huge hit, but in 2017 and 2018 the company released few products - StarCraft remaster , World of Warcraft extension and, of course, patches and updates to other games.
Traditionally, Blizzard remained completely independent of Activision, had its own quality standards and brands, to the extent that they were perceived as two completely different companies. You can find Easter eggs from World of Warcraft in StarCraft II , but you will never see the Overwatch character in Call of Duty . However, in recent years the situation has changed. The Blizzard digital store Battle.net now has Activision - Destiny 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 games . Bungie appeared on the BlizzCon 2018 broadcast to announce that Destiny 2 will be temporarily free.. And the Blizzard developers are starting to feel that the two companies are getting closer and closer.
It turned out that 2018 will be faded for Activision. The company is dissatisfied with the results shown by Destiny , and the November report on the fiscal third quarter disappointed investors. One of the exciting trends in accountants has been the stagnation of Blizzard's MAU (the number of monthly active users), which is an important metric for games-based services such as Hearthstone and Overwatch . As Activision told investors, throughout 2018, these figures have declined. Given the lack of new Blizzard games, it's easy to see why the Activision executives might want to intervene.
"It may seem that Blizzard is" bent over "and we have no money," said a former Blizzard employee, who, he said, this year left the company partly due to the impact of Activision. “By the way every little thing is considered in terms of costs. But this is obviously not the case. However, I first heard the phrase "We need to show growth." I was extremely disappointed. ”
The Blizzard online store now sells games created by other Activision studios.
It seems that Blizzard is increasing the number of development teams - one full-time developer told us that his team is being motivated to expand - while at the same time reducing costs in all other areas. Perhaps this process is not over yet, because Activision seems to be still trying to increase the volume of Blizzard products and release more games on a regular basis. Probably, the statement of Ahuja in the spring of 2018 can only be the beginning.
“We were asked to spend less on each item of expenses, because the company does not create new intellectual property,” says one of the former developers. " Overwatchraised the bar for how much we can earn in one year, so there was a lot of pressure from Activision. They want to show the shareholders something. ”(In a report on the company's financial activities after the release of Overwatch, Activision reported that the game earned her more than a billion dollars in revenue.)
Then, in October 2018, Blizzard lost its leader. Co-founder and CEO Mike Morheim, who informally communicated with fans at each BlizzCon, announced that he was leaving and replacing a veteran of World of Warcraft, producer Jay Allen Brack. Allen Edham and Ray Gresco's development director also joined Blizzard's top executives, perhaps for the studio to be managed by game developers who live and breathe the company.
This was a great shock to Blizzard, and it happened just at the time when questions about Activision pressure had already arisen. Many in the company loved Morheim. One former Blizzard developer called him "anti-CEO."
“He did not care about profitability. He just wanted the developers to be happy, he wanted to make good games and make the community happy. ”
Suddenly, rumors began to spread, concerns about future spending cuts and speculation about what plans Activision CEO Bobby Kotick has on Blizzard. “Inside Blizzard, we began to feel that finances had become as important as they had never been before,” said one recently resigned employee. "This could never be heard three or four years ago."
Changes in culture are not always obvious. Anyone who has worked in a large company can confirm that invisible pressure can build up gradually. “There is a temptation to call Activision a villain, but I think its impact is much weaker,” says one of the full-time developers. Someone in Blizzard can make a decision with the best intentions, but if he unconsciously realizes that the corporate bosses from Activision want to cut costs and please investors, then who knows what can affect their opinion? Activision and Blizzard are getting closer, so who knows what connections we will see among its various departments? Today, many are worried about Blizzard, both inside and outside the company. Strange decisions associated with the Diablo franchiseonly reinforce it. Some of the current and former employees of Blizzard believe that the abolition of the second expansion of Diablo III was one of the most serious mistakes of the company in recent years. One of the veterans of Blizzard recalls: “Many of us spoke to each other:“ If only we had made this second extension, instead of losing half the team as a result of its cancellation. And then these changes in the staff, in the leadership, the failure with Hades ... If we had not done this and just focused on creating a quality third act of Diablo , then now he would have already left. "
In Diablo has a future that is not associated with the entire mobile gaming. Let Diablo III move towards sunset, but Diablo 4still in development, despite a culture of secrecy that does not allow Blizzard to even mention this name. There is no way for us to know what will happen to the project in the future, but so far it exists. The big question is what will Blizzard look like in two years? And after five? How will corporate expectations and pressure affect the company, which players have been fond of for almost three decades? We may not know the answers until BlizzCon 2028.