Blizzard's Troubled 2019 Finds the Once Invincible Studio at a Crossroads

Blizzard's Troubled 2019 Finds the Once Invincible Studio at a Crossroads

This past year has found Blizzard embroiled in one controversy after another. What does it say about its future?

I first discovered Blizzard around 1996, when I dialed into a friend's modem to play competitive Warcraft 2 in what would be my first true online gaming experience. Even then it was apparent that Blizzard, which had variously been known as "Silicon & Synapse" and "Chaos Studios," was on another level compared to the competition. Along with Westwood Studios, it helped to pioneer the real-time strategy genre, and it's only grown in stature over the years.

I've been following Blizzard pretty much ever since. I was there playing Big Game Hunters during StarCraft's heyday in the late 90s and early 2000s. I had a torrid affair with Warcraft 3 in 2002. I owned multiple copies of Diablo 3; got hooked into Hearthstone, and even got deep into Heroes of the Storm for a time. Oddly, the only Blizzard game I really missed—outside of The Lost Vikings and a chunk of the SNES catalogue—was World of Warcraft, easily the biggest game of them all.

Over the course of those 20 years, I've watched Blizzard grow into a true juggernaut—easily the single most successful PC developer ever. It's achieved that status with its distinctive house style; its emphasis on accessibility without sacrificing depth, its early embrace of online play, and consistent leadership. But as the decade draws to a close, it's fair to wonder whether Blizzard finds itself at a crossroads.

Blizzard's up and down 2019 is emblematic of where it sits right now. Last last year, Blizzard set the tone by putting Heroes of the Storm, its somewhat disappointing answer to League of Legends, on the backburner. In February, Blizzard laid off some 800 staff members, many of them from its marketing and esports divisions (Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, meanwhile, touted record profits.) Then last week, Blizzard backtracked its suspension of a Hearthstone player supporting the Hong Kong protests after the debacle made international headlines, bringing with it a wave of angry social media responses and vows of boycotts.

Blizzard's flailing, tone deaf response is perhaps a sign that times have changed for the once agile and forward-thinking studio. Behind the scenes, former stalwarts like co-founder Mike Morhaime, CFO Amrita Ahuja, and Hearthstone producer Ben Brode have all departed. The Diablo Immortal reveal at BlizzCon 2018 was a high-profile flop. A first-person shooter set in the StarCraft universe was reportedly canceled in the name of more sequels for other Blizzard titles, while StarCraft itself may simply be dead.

Blizzard's biggest success of 2019? World of Warcraft Classic, a deliberate callback to what many perceive to be the studio's glory days.

To be sure, this is not the first time Blizzard has had to retool and adapt. When StarCraft 2 failed to carry on the success of its predecessor, Blizzard found itself scrambling to catch up with MOBA darling Riot Games. Blizzard subsequently responded with Hearthstone, which reportedly earned $414 million in 2018, and Overwatch, which helped return it to primacy in the esports space. Blizzard might not pump out a big game every year, but when it hits, it tends to hit big.

Which is all to say that concerns about Blizzard's future may be overblown. There are ebbs and flows with every gaming studio, even one as unusually successful as Blizzard, and it's still piling up its share of wins. In particular, recent forays on Nintendo Switch have proven fruitful for Blizzard.

Still, it's not been an easy year for Blizzard, and an increased focus on mobile gaming and sequels suggests a worrying cash grab mentality is taking hold. I hope I'm wrong, because at its best, Blizzard is still capable of producing some truly legendary games. I guess we'll know soon enough. For now though, times are tougher than usual for a studio generally used to unbroken success, and it's hard to say when things will get better.

Witcher 3 arrives on Nintendo Switch on October 15. | CD Projekt Red

Major Game Releases: October 14 to October 18

Here are the major releases for the week of October 14 to October 18. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2019.

  • Disco Elysium [October 15, PC]: Za/Um's intriguing detective RPG drops on PC this week. While it hasn't been getting a lot of attention outside of indie and RPG circles, it has the potential to be one of this year's most interesting games. Look for Mike's impressions soon.
  • Overwatch: Legendary Edition [October 15, Switch]: Things may not be particularly rosy for Blizzard at the moment, but Overwatch on Switch at least has the potential to give the studio a much-needed win. The genre-defining shooter arrives on Switch with all of its DLC, as well as some intriguing new features. If it's as polished as Diablo 3 was on Switch, it should be excellent.
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Complete Edition [October 15, Switch]: Overwatch isn't the only high-profile port coming to Nintendo Switch this week. The Witcher 3 is also making its way over to Nintendo's handheld console, and while it has its share of compromises, being able to play this brilliant RPG on the road is undeniably awesome. If you haven't played it yet and you only own a Switch, you should pick it up regardless. It's one of the best games of the generation.
  • Little Town Hero [October 16, Switch]: While RPG fans wait for Pokemon Sword and Shield, they can whet their appetite with Little Town Hero—Game Freak's other RPG release for 2019. Game Freak has a habit of releasing interesting and experimental side projects, and Little Town Hero is likely to be more of the same. Here's hoping it's more Pocket Card Jockey and less Tembo the Badass Elephant.
  • Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville [October 18, PC, PS4, Xbox One]: Did you know that PopCap Games was releasing a sequel to Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2? Don't worry, we barely remembered ourselves. Between Plants vs. Zombies and Need for Speed, it's been a banner year for weirdly underhyped EA releases.
  • Ring Fit Adventure [October 18, Switch]: And finally we have Ring Fit Adventure, which is ostensibly the Switch's answer to Wii Fit. Could it be the surprise hit of 2019? Well if Labo VR could... okay, bad example. At the very least it seems to be giving Mat a good workout.

This Week's News and Notes

  • A lot happened with Fortnite over the weekend. I've got to hand it to Epic: they managed to turn what is almost certainly server maintenance in preparation for the next map into a major media event.
  • While everyone was busy trying to get back into Fortnite in time to see the whole world get sucked into a black hole (or something), I was busy grinding for a Pep Guardiola card in FIFA 20. Yes, I'm addicted to FIFA Ultimate Team. Yes, I'm ashamed.
  • We're kicking off a new feature series as we get closer to Halloween: Monster of the Week! In it, Caty talks to the designers of iconic video game monsters to learn about their origins and other interesting facts. First up: the Necromorph!
  • Okay, confession time: I'm not all the way down with Link's Awakening's art style. Yes, it's really charming, but I find myself missing the look of the original game. The new style is cutesy almost to the point of being contrived, and it's saddled with weird issues with slowdown. Maybe my mind will change when I spend more time with Link's Awakening, but for now... eh.
  • I've also been playing Untitled Goose Game, and I've discovered that I'm not that great at being a goose. I'm just not enough of a troll, I guess. My partner, however, not only completed the game, but knocked out all of the speedrunning challenges as well. Be afraid of her. Be very afraid.
  • Killer Queen Black finally arrived on console last week, and reporter Mathew Olson used the opportunity to see what it would mean for the Killer Queen community at large. Check it out.
  • What does poor Mimikyu need to do to deserve some respect in this town? Now Pikachu is even stealing its look.
  • Axe of the Blood God: The mailbag returns as Kat and Nadia talk about what RPGs genre novices should tackle first; revisit the legacy of Final Fantasy 13, and more! Plus, they review Indivisible, the new RPG by the creators of Skullgirls. Does it live up to the legacy of Valkyrie Profile? Find out! Subscription info here!

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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