As fan frustration mounts, Blizzard comes under fire. Will the world famous developer be able to get their mojo back?

Nobody was really sure in early 2014 how audiences would respond to Blizzard Entertainment’s newest PC offering, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. The project had originally been conceived as an internal experiment to allow a small “arthouse” development team to test new out business models on a tighter, lower risk budget. Executives felt that outside the box thinking would be crucial at a time when their  flagship title World of Warcraft was rapidly losing revenue as players grew out of the game. Despite being a bit of a gamble, the experiment soon paid off handsomely. High production value, iconic characters, and internal cross promotions soon had Blue fans not just flocking to the online card game- but falling in love with it.

The company successfully followed up the initial launch of Hearthstone with generally well received expansions, a mobile client, and memorable TV commercials. Soon a star was born. It wasn’t just fans who stepped in line to play; the media, company employees, and professional “E-Sports” gamers all queued up to match strategic wits and see who could put together the best 30 card deck full of monsters and magic. Tournaments began popping up, YouTube was swarmed with hilarious highlight clips, and Hearthstone became a Twitch mainstay.

A Wall Street Rockstar

Soon the unthinkable happened, and even adults who hadn’t played a single video game since childhood discovered they just couldn’t stop playing the game. After just a few years, the publisher reported a whopping 30 million players were dueling to the death with a variety of spells and fantasy creatures. Although the game was advertised as free to play, optional microtransactions such as extra card packs and adventure content sales steadily climbed until they reached a whopping $395 million in 2016. Magic: The Gathering, the card game that had started it all, got left in the dust. Activision Blizzard, Inc. shareholders thanked the high heavens that the company had found a replacement revenue stream to account for Warcraft’s dropping numbers, and Blizzard’s Development Team#5 was given a green light to do as they pleased- no questions asked. But warning signs began appearing in 2015 that started accumulating until last December, when the state of the game reached full on crisis mode. As of today the hit title is in a quasi-fatal flat spin, and the jury is out on whether the game can recover its lustre. So just what happened? Let’s take a look back.

Although the game’s first two expansions were downright fun to play, that’s when the troubles began. The first expansion Goblins Vs. Gnomes saw the rise of the infamous Dr. Boom, a playing card universally accepted as so strong that it was “broken”. Fans complained vociferously that it was unbalanced, and Blizzard turned a deaf ear to the outcry. Because every player had to have one in their deck if they wanted to seriously play the game, owning a copy of Dr. Boom required spending somewhere around $30 on card packs to obtain one. Because the game had been widely touted by the developer as “Free To Play”, or F2P in gaming parlance, this cheesed off casual players who felt like Blizzard had misrepresented their product. It also initiated the beginnings of toxic class warfare on the company web forums between hardcore players with big wallets and those just looking for a brief diversion from their day. It set a bitter tone for the way the entire player population communicated with each other ingame, on Reddit, and on official chatboards. As for developer communication with the fans buying their wares, well… that was non-existent which didn’t help matters much.

The next expansion, The Grand Tournament injected fresh new cards and strategy into the game. But again, it included another broken card alleged to be a revenue boosting hack. The “Mysterious Challenger” minion card sold packs left and right as players chose to play as, or against, the new menace. But unlike Dr. Boom it was genuinely frustrating to play against; it’s inescapable and toxic presence made a day’s worth of gaming far less enjoyable. Community complaints went over the top, and Blizzard began taking heat for staying mum on the way fans felt. Soon Team 5 responded by finally engaging in communication with the very fans paying their salaries- in the form of regular but coldly disingenuous PR spin. Development team leads began issuing regular statements on the forums dismissing consumer feedback as uneducated and at odds with their “development philosophy”. PR slip ups continued as one developer admitted their team didn’t have a big enough staff to playtest their own creations much before selling them, and then newly promoted Lead Designer Ben Brode took over spokesman duties and really stirred the pot.

In December of 2015 Ben posted a controversial video on YouTube and the Battle.net game portal entitled “Developer Insights”. He explained the company’s reasoning on why they released bad cards not fit for actual gameplay. He explained that they engaged in this practice intentionally as an instructive tool to teach players how to choose the good ones. Since folks pretty much already have a good understanding of what sucks and what does not, this did not go over well. It also raised eyebrows by pitting Brode’s own team against Blizzard’s core values and reputation for releasing only the best that gaming has to offer. His comments got panned as poor cover for allegations the company was diluting card packs with tons of junk- in an effort to strongarm players into spending exorbitant sums of money fishing for competitive cards.

Competing Developers Smell Blood In The Water

The cost of both the game design blunders and PR flubs was real, and potential competitors on the market smelled blood in the water. Seemingly overnight, the online card game Shadowverse sprang up of out of nowhere to promptly begin stealing Blizzard’s lunch. Released in the second half of 2016, Shadowverse raked in an astounding $100 million in sales in just 6 months. Newcomer Gwent, published by CD Project Rekt and garnering rave reviews during a closed beta last year, also looks to cash in on frustrated Hearthstone fans as it approaches readiness for full launch in a few months. But it’s not just AAA game developers looking to throw their own Explorer’s Hat into the ring- everyone from major publishers on down to indie developers are keen to get their own piece of the pie. And it’s only common sense that disenfranchised Hearthstone players will be the #1 target audience they all seek to attract.

Hearthstone finally reached a spiritual and creative low point in December of last year, with the introduction of the infamous Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion. Though financially profitable, the Hearthstone gameplay experience itself at this point had utterly collapsed under the weight of poor game design, and no executive checks or balances on quality control. The so-called “Pirate Package” again sold packs at a blistering pace, matched only by the speed at which designers could throw away their artistic integrity. Cards like Small Time Buccaneer and “Fiery Win Axe” guaranteed wins for some players- and guaranteed that others uninstalled the game. The industry trendsetter was no longer interactive, and devolved into a Rock-Paper-Scissors money grab devoid of much strategy at all. Hearthstone, once a media darling, got ferociously attacked in the press. High profile E-Sports personalities partially responsible for the game’s success began publicly tearing into the game. The fans responsible for pouring millions of dollars and thousands of hours into the game felt utterly betrayed by the long painful saga they had endured.

Now the world famous publisher of the Warcraft and Diablo franchises is looking to change that in early April with the release of yet another new expansion, Journey to Un’Goro. The dinosaur themed expansion aims to take WoW players familiar with the zone on a trip down memory lane, courtesy of popular new fan favorite Elise Starseeker. But serious questions remain if fans will be willing to stick around- particularly as senior designers publicly double down on the very same “philosophical” positions that their fans have been begging them to reverse course on. Noninteractive matches devoid of strategic decision making, and Win Axes look very likely to continue dominating the gameplay experience.

Only time will tell how things will pan out for the game in 2017, and whether or not shareholders & executives will recognize just how much danger their newfound cash cow is in. But it is looking fairly certain that this ultimately will go down in history as a lesson to game developers everywhere. After all, long term business success always was, and always will be a battle for hearts and minds. Not just a battle to snatch your wallet.

 

 

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