[Editor’s note: On July 11th, an anonymous user claiming to work at Blizzard posted a massive letter about the state of the sinking ship that is World of Warcraft. People generally seeing the leak as authentic now have even more reasons to hold that belief, because Mark Kern, the former team lead for the celebrated classic era of WoW, has reposted the leak and commented that it rings true. He also in reply posted his own perspectives and experiences and elaborated on what’s happening at Blizzard.]
Supposedly this is Blizzard leak about the current state of WoW. It may not be legit, but the attitude described about monetization and how devs view gamers, and hate of streamers is true overall in AAA dev.
How did we get here? A couple things happened in AAA dev that lead up to this point. The biggest thing is the money. Once AAA gaming got bigger than all media, you start to attract a lot of execs who are in it for the immense profit vs the love of making games. This change starts at the top, and is made worse by game companies going public.
This starts to flow down to middle management, who are starting to make serious cash. The “why” of a company changes. Instead of going for games they would love to play and identifying as gamers themselves, there is now a sense of “other.”
“WE made the games, THEY pay for them.”
OG Blizzard culture used to be “We are gamers, right down to the receptionist, and we make game for ourselves because we are gamers.” That is gone now, and devs at many AAA studios are distinctly US vs THEM (the “whiny, entitled gamers”).
This was not helped by the increase in personal attacks on devs by gamers themselves. Gamers are passionate, and unfortunately this sometimes this move beyond criticizing the game, to personal attacks and some really unsavory and threatening behaviors.
Let’s get back to the money. Once games were obvious money makers, and EVERYONE started to play them, and a “cool” rep, you started to attract a different type of developer.
The first wave did it for free, made very little money, very little success, just to make dreams happen.
But once games were viewed as a stable(myth) and more glamour “Career choice” with good pay, you started to attract the types of professional who are very good at their job, but are definitely what I call the Nine to Fivers. They treat it not as a passion, but as a routine job.
Again, this wasn’t helped by upper management, who by now is fully flooded with MBA and Marketing types, who treat devs poorly and binge hire and fire them from project to project, treating them as tools. Hard to have passion when both management and angry gamers don’t have your back.
Then, Zygna blew up big on Facebook, and metrics were becoming important along with predatory monetization. When mobile exploded and everything become “free but with pay2win” the sheer scale of gaming profits leapt an order of magnitude or two forwards. Billions…not millions.
Suddenly, making games for games sake was not the goal. Now games needed to collect metrics, retain users, and the way success was judged was more about how much money per user you could make vs having a great game.
The focus moved from gameplay to monetization metrics. When you design for monetization metrics, you get a very different type of game than if you design for gameplay.
The two are often at odds. You find yourself deliberately making your game worse so it can sell better convenience items and power items.
Steve Jobs was right. When you let this type of “why” drive your company, and you make monetization the only goal, you kill the innovation in your company and you drive out the innovators and makers.
While Jobs was talking about sales and marketing staff vs product makers, in games it’s worse.
In games, designers are now the sales staff. The gamification of monetization makes or breaks a AAA game. So now, even your product people are contaminated with this mentality.
The devs who do it for the passion, who are tired of being blamed by gamers for corporate decisions above them, and who do it out of genuine passion…well they leave and go indie. What remains are those who are doing it as a job. One they often hate, and they are not innovators.
The arrogance is also real. Steve talks about how you get surprised, because you have a monopoly on the market. WoW had the at monopoly on MMOs. And they are no longer gamers but game salespeople.
So of course they are prone to disruption.
In this case, it wasn’t Square and Final Fantasy BY ITSELF. That just happened to be a game that was competing on gameplay instead of monetization because they were NOT the monopoly. It’s also an old enough game where the old values of gameplay were more important.
What sparked the exodus from wow started with a player base that was tired of being treated as customers are often treated in a monopoly (taken for granted, poor service in terms of content, not being listened to, milked for cash and fees).
Then came the streamers.
Streamers are the world’s BIGGEST force in game marketing. They can make you a success overnight with ZERO trad marketing (APEX Legends), or they can absolutely tear your game down.
Many in traditional AAA game marketing never understood this, and many still don’t get it today. When streamers were just getting started, I was told by my EA and AAA staffed marketing team what a WASTE it was to do YouTube and Twitch (even though it cost a fraction of ad spend).
Of course, they were wrong, and they now curry favor and spend money on twitch and YouTube. But they don’t really UNDERSTAND it. They spend money on it, but they don’t actually watch the streams to understand when things are going wrong. Or they don’t believe it will affect them.
So when Asmongold started dipping his toes into alternatives to WoW, interviewing Final Fantasy content creators and then, finally, playing it himself on stream, Blizzard was unaware or unbelieving of what was happening. THEY were the monopoly.
Even Asmongold was taken by shock at the sheer number of viewers his Final Fantasy stream attracted. Even he had underestimated the number of dissatisfied and curious for alternative WoW gamers.
Well, what happens in streaming? Once ONE content creator hits a gold vein of views, OTHERS quickly hop on. Suddenly you have many WoW streamers talking about Final Fantasy and starting to stream it. What’s a WoW gamer to think?
The rest is history. The King is dethroned, an expression of shock on his face.
Sometimes you don’t need the best product. You just need to be good enough to take advantage of a company that has rested too long on their brand and monopoly to actually change, innovate and improve.
This won’t stop. WoW gamers are leaving for good.
But if the monopoly can wake up, and pull an expansion out as a turnaround as drastic as Square itself did with A Realm Reborn, it can flip it around again.
The problem is, Blizzard, you chased all your innovators away. Oh well.
PS. I leave a tip for Final Fantasy XIV. Follow this and you will 10x your sales and userbase. Take it from the wow guy. Fix your account website! Take 6 devs and do an EMERGENCY REWRITE. Thank me later. It took me 3 hours to buy your game and figure out account issues. I’m not alone.