Lost in a Blizzard of Hype

“I don’t care about Starcraft II.” — Me last year.

“Oh my God, is it time for Starcraft II yet?” — Me at present.

Somewhere down the line I will make the grand argument that my reverse course on Starcraft II was born from the unflagging dedication to quality that Blizzard exemplifies in their game development. While the game maker's once mighty guiding North Star is riding low on the horizon of late, its record as a premier game maker remains relatively unimpeachable, so I expect that when I make this argument -- and I will make it -- it will seem pretty damn convincing.

“They just made too good a game to ignore,” I will proclaim emphatically and with the benefit of empirical evidence on my side.

Let me tell you now, it’s a smoke screen made entirely of vaporized, high-grade, Oscar Meyer baloney. A delicious yet questionably toxic smoke screen designed to distract you from the truth, which is that I crossed Blizzard's hype event horizon, and was pulled inextricably into their fold.

I never really really cared for the original Starcraft. I grew up a Warcraft II kind of guy, wielding the unimaginable power of the Orcish Horde across Lordaeron and Kalimdor with impunity. It is, in many ways, the last game that I learned at a depth that made me consistently competitive, and even I — the man that multiplayer games forgot — once invested countless hours on Kali or whatever IPX emulator software I could find holding court and taking on all challengers.

Starcraft failed me not because it wasn’t a well created game. It simply was not Warcraft II. I was a victim of familiarity, and as a result my slow extraction from the RTS genre once powerfully set in motion gathered momentum enough to carry it through decades. In fact, with the possible exception of Rise of Nations, every other RTS game I have played failed for basically the same reason, and so I cared not a whit for Starcraft II at its announcement.

The problem is that Blizzard may be at the top of the game when it comes to promoting their product. There is no better company in the biz at announcing a game. After too many years of website countdowns that lead to the announcement of vague product-point promises and a snazzy logo, watching as Blizzard unleashed videos, gameplay and legitimate content at their announcement set a powerful foundation for mania in the fertile space of gaming media.

It’s like Lays Potato Chips. The more you get, the more you want.

But, it wasn’t until the beta replays starting hitting YouTube that the hook finally sunk its barb into my cheek. Somehow the broadcasting of this game that was still months out, this title that threatened to become an event unto itself, finally fired the right cocktail of chemicals in my brain.

I suppose most of us have had that moment where something you cared nothing about suddenly becomes a thing that you sinfully covet. Watching my first Protoss 4-gate push online as enthusiastic match-casters talked arcane strategies and identified key moments of play by people with unimaginable skill was the zombie bite that muddled my brain and turned me into the mindless automaton I now am.

I’m not suggesting that Blizzard’s approach should be the new model by which every game maker needs to launch a title. Let’s be honest, they can get away with this strategy because they know how to deliver the goods. They have the phenomenal luxury of spending months in a sophisticated beta that outshines most other companies’ release code, because they have authority, they have power and they have leverage. Or, more succinctly, they have cash.

However, breaking from traditional models, even on a budget is not only possible, but potentially a great way of keeping your game current. Look only at what Stardock is doing with Elemental, and you have a great example of how you can leverage a fanbase into visibility.

This industry is far too ridiculously secretive and restrictive, as though every publisher were designing elaborate Manhattan Projects of gaming. There is under-explored benefit to the timely release of meaningful and substantive game information, and by letting a following grow organically rather than through some artificially constructed marketer’s wet dream, there is not only opportunity for generating fan interest, but you might just end up making a better game as well.

As always, Blizzard isn't creating a platform for the new direction all companies should take, but they are showing that by being both daring enough to break traditions and receptive enough to their customers to change course when necessary, they can chart a sophisticated path toward success.

Comments

I'm fairly sure that all the shenanigans Blizzard is doing is meant to increase revenue. I'd be happy for them if it actually does that, but so far, all it's doing is increasing consumer ire to the point where it's detrimental in very real ways.

I blame Kotick and his shortsighted policies.

You don't pull the line until after the fish is hooked.

PyromanFO wrote:

If you don't find competitive play to be exciting, I'd suggest watching an episode of the Day 9 Daily. The man's enthusiasm is infectious. It may not hook you in but if you have even a smidge of competitiveness Day 9 is the one to get you excited about Starcraft 2.

I am competitive, in a personality sense. However, watching SC competitive play just reminds me that I don't have the hyper-multitasking capabilities to play this game on a competitive level, nor the studious knowledge of build orders and rock-paper-scissors unit counters needed. So I'll take my competitive side to games my talents are more suited towards.

Quintin_Stone:

If there's anything The Little One shows, it's that build orders are just a crutch for beginners. You don't need build orders if you know what you want and how to get it in the fastest possible manner.

As someone who dislikes Activision as much as the next guy, I just don't see the conspiratorial nature the way some of you guys do. I _might_ give you the drop of LAN support thing, but I actually am among the many people who wants to see steps toward a platform like the RealID program continue making strides. Whether you agree or disagree is fine, but I feel like a lot of the logical progressions for some people is:

I don't like decision X - A

Blizzard is in partnership with Activision - B

A+B = EVIL CONSPIRACY!

Elysium wrote:

As someone who dislikes Activision as much as the next guy, I just don't see the conspiratorial nature the way some of you guys do.

Normally, I would agree - correlation does not necessarily equal causation.

Despite that, though, Blizzard's situation seems somewhat exceptional. They have been making games with strong community emphasis for a while now, long before Activision started whispering sweet nothings in their ear...and I can't ever remember them making any kind of move like this.

There's certainly a valid argument that their past behavior may not necessarily apply here, because they've never been as big as they are right now with WoW and, as a result, Blizzard may be reacting to a new and different set of community management circumstances altogether.

Still, when you tie Blizzard's past history of community management with Activision's recent history and management shuffling, the possibility of Activision's influence becomes easier to rationalize, even if it isn't necessarily true.

Activision is the mother company of Blizzard and Kotick has nearly direct control and oversight over Blizzard at the moment. I don't think it's conspiratorial to think that he might have something to do with the current goings-on at Blizzard, especially given how Activision has treated other games.

If a nurse gives you a drug, it's not a conspiracy. It's understood that the doctor ordered it so.

I think the nature between Blizzard and fans was already well in transition prior to Activision. As a long time WoW player I can tell you from experience that Blizz had to very much change how they operated with fans years ago, and to be honest their forums have long been a thorn in their side. I recognize the potential hazards of RealID, though frankly I think they should have made the attempt to move forward with it anyway, but it addresses some specific problems rather well I think.

Frankly, and forgive if this offends whomever, but I'm this close to replacing Nazis with Bobby Kotick in a modern recasting of Godwin's Theory.

Activision is the mother company of Blizzard and Kotick has nearly direct control and oversight over Blizzard at the moment. I don't think it's conspiratorial to think that he might have something to do with the current goings-on at Blizzard, especially given how Activision has treated other games.

I think that's a grand statement built entirely on a foundation of assumptions. Of course Blizz and Activision are communicating, but I don't have any idea what the balance of power and latitudes in those relationships are. For all I know Bobby said, go make us a bunch of money, and has stayed out of the whole thing.

If you have actual evidence, I encourage you to add it to the discussion.

Additionally, while Bobby Kotick is the Ahmadinejad of this little passion play, let us not forget that Jean-Bernard Levy (former CEO and chairman of Vivendi, Blizzard's former boss) is Chairman of ActiBlizz board of directors (Supreme Leader)

Elysium wrote:

Frankly, and forgive if this offends whomever, but I'm this close to replacing Nazis with Bobby Kotick in a modern recasting of Godwin's Theory.

Oh yeah, wait until Kotick invades Poland! What will you say then?

Actually, I agree. While I've said I'm off Starcraft 2 until I know more about these 'features' you lose by playing offline a lot of people go to something of an extreme.

Actiblizz are trying to find alternate income streams, this is just good business. They are making some profoundly stupid mistakes, but to their credit they did back down on the RealId idea, maybe they will be more flexible than people may expect.

Off course, everyone is making assumptions here. We just need to wait and see.

*edit*

Semi-tanhausered by Certis' co-founder.

Unfortunately, I think it is inevitable that he and his leadership team will eventually break all that was Blizzard and their product reputation with schemes around over monetizing their customer base.

Blizzard itself, even with subscription based WoW, seemed to walk a healthy line where there was 'enough' profit at a certain point. They had a certain luxury of independence to be able to do that. Blizzard did their thing focusing on a few products around their IPs with broad customer appeal and forgiving technical requirements. They didnt need to squeeze every potential last drop of profit from their customer base by monetizing every angle, and regarding each user as a potential asset.

Not so with Activision.

There is no conspiracy here. Whether to reduce forum clutter / chatter or turn their cloaked user base into a more marketable asset, this was an open push in that direction. Maybe they thought they could leverage the social hub of the Blizzard product line to plant the seed of a gamer focused social network that could compete with the likes of a more general purpose facebook and myspace over time.

Elysium wrote:

I think that's a grand statement built entirely on a foundation of assumptions. Of course Blizz and Activision are communicating, but I don't have any idea what the balance of power and latitudes in those relationships are. For all I know Bobby said, go make us a bunch of money, and has stayed out of the whole thing.

If you have actual evidence, I encourage you to add it to the discussion.

A grand statement? Hardly. Kotick is, quite literally, Blizzard's boss right now. It stands to reason that Blizzard is doing what Kotick wants it to do. It's possible that Kotick is taking a hands-off stand on the entire matter, but we don't know either way.

LarryC wrote:
Elysium wrote:

I think that's a grand statement built entirely on a foundation of assumptions. Of course Blizz and Activision are communicating, but I don't have any idea what the balance of power and latitudes in those relationships are. For all I know Bobby said, go make us a bunch of money, and has stayed out of the whole thing.

If you have actual evidence, I encourage you to add it to the discussion.

A grand statement? Hardly. Kotick is, quite literally, Blizzard's boss right now. It stands to reason that Blizzard is doing what Kotick wants it to do. It's possible that Kotick is taking a hands-off stand on the entire matter, but we don't know either way.

Maybe I'm wrong but I doubt Kotick is micromanaging the Blizzard team. I have several friends who work on the Xbox 360 team here in Seattle, and Steve Ballmer certainly isn't constantly breathing down their necks. As long as they're hitting their overall numbers, they have a lot of creative latitude. I'm guessing the same is probably true of Blizzard and Activision. I'll only be worried if Starcraft 2 or Cataclysm lack the polish we've come to expect from Blizzard.

Also, the publicly released information on the Blizzard/Activision deal indicates that the company retained a lot of autonomy. As far as I know the only person directing Blizzard's operations in any meaningful way is Mike Morhaime.

Elysium wrote:

Also, the publicly released information on the Blizzard/Activision deal indicates that the company retained a lot of autonomy. As far as I know the only person directing Blizzard's operations in any meaningful way is Mike Morhaime.

And the fact that Blizzard has full control over their IP. I seriously believe Kotick, or anyone else at management but not directly working for Blizzard, approaches talks with lots of care. This isn't Infinity Ward. If Blizzard picks up and leaves, Activision goes the Atari way.

There's also the fact that the Blizzard before WoW is completely different from the Blizzard from today. I think people tend to forget that, and excuse certain decisions saying it's Activision's fault. Doubt that in 90% of the cases. In fact, even the 3 tiered release (Terran SP, Protoss SP, Zerg SP) sounds like Blizzard is matching up their drive to make super polished experiences, with the MMO development cycle.

Which is okay, by me, and most excellent by ActiBlizz senior management.

I don't doubt that Blizzard retains a lot of control over their IP. I don't believe that the three tiered release is a sign of Activision influence. However, RealID is not a creative portion of the product.

Neither is something that would be implemented on Activision infrastructure. It would be all Blizzard.

Irongut wrote:

Maybe they thought they could leverage the social hub of the Blizzard product line to plant the seed of a gamer focused social network that could compete with the likes of a more general purpose facebook and myspace over time.

Or Blizzard wanted to create a system that gives people the same experiences that they get on Xbox Live or Steam, and simply made different design decisions to get there. I'm still unconvinced that Activision had anything to do with this.

oMonarca:

I was under the impression that Activision was interested in using Battlenet as a platform for distribution Activision games further down the line. That makes RealID and Battlenet specifics a very important area of mutual interest.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Blizzard is trying to transition out of the role of a pure developer and more into an almost Valve-like hybrid. Using a totally different course, obviously, but before becoming industry darlings I remember not so different grumblings about Valve's course.

This is of course total conjecture, but not one more or less valid than saying that Blizzard is a Kotick puppet.

LarryC wrote:

I was under the impression that Activision was interested in using Battlenet as a platform for distribution Activision games further down the line. That makes RealID and Battlenet specifics a very important area of mutual interest.

Hasn't been announced. If they actually planned to do that, I would imagine that the entire Activision hype machine would've been in full blast over the last year, considering that Battle.net 2.0 is supposed to be officially out next week.

I'm positive we would've heard about CoD integration to the new scheme by now, at least.

cube:

I don't think I'd jump the gun, if I were in Kotick's shoes. Best to see how Battlenet 2.0 does before betting the farmhouse. It's more sensible.

LarryC wrote:

cube:

I don't think I'd jump the gun, if I were in Kotick's shoes. Best to see how Battlenet 2.0 does before betting the farmhouse. It's more sensible.

Totally makes sense. Battle.Net, if properly implemented could be a useful platform for all Actiblizz products and it would be sensible to maintain separation until some of the kinks are worked out.

Also, with Activision's issues with CoD/MW at the moment there is probably a lot in limbo until the dust settles.

Having said all that, with the available information, it's still a reach to be going, 'OMG, Actiblizz is teh evol!!!111000111!!!'

LarryC wrote:

oMonarca:

I was under the impression that Activision was interested in using Battlenet as a platform for distribution Activision games further down the line. That makes RealID and Battlenet specifics a very important area of mutual interest.

Perhaps, in the future, who knows? I bet Activision pays a lot of attention to its studies' pet projects, especially Blizzard's. If there are gains to be had, why not? It's a sensible notion.

What cube says is indeed jumping the gun, but RealID comes, I think, from what WoW has teached Blizzard. I believe Activision is waiting and watching, nevertheless, it doesn't make sense to classify them as an active party in all those shenanigans. If they were, I doubt RealID would get canceled.

After all, IW went ahead with no dedicated servers on a game which had an engine that supported them. The public outcry was bigger, and lasted longer, and it still went ahead.

And RealID gets canceled after 1 week of tears?

I'd say there's still a bit of distance between bnet and steam, there isn't the all-in-one client that distributes/patches every game on the service, does all your friends list, etc.

Yet.

The last time I checked you still just use downloaders, which are provide you with a normal installer. It's part way there, but you could say anything has to potential to be anything else, whether it happens is another matter. I can't help think people who say "bnet is going to become their steam" are on the hype train themselves.

Yeah, I don't believe that it will be their sales portal. Activision already has contracts with Valve(they used steamworks for CoD:MW2), so I don't think they're going to change that at this point.

Plus, Blizzard already has their sales with their own online store, and haven't announced any changes with that, either.

Heard more disturbing rumors. Apparently, there has been a change in the TOS agreement. I don't play WoW, so it'd be nice if anyone can go get a look-see to confirm or refute:

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Spending twice as much time on a game as almost any other competitor can afford means you build the game, and over the next two years as you do nothing but polish it there is plenty of material to push out slowly to build up that excitement.

This is not so much a new paradigm for marketing as it is a luxury that this massive time buffer affords you. For this same reason Team Fortress 2 went from something I could not have cared less about to a must have over the 8 years between Team Fortress (1999) and TF2 (2007.)

It's brilliant, certainly. But it's more a byproduct of a development strategy than a specific tactic that others simply choose not to take. Most other games aren't even out of pre-production in their equivalent timeframe when Blizzard starts the slow reveal (i.e. 18-24 months before launch.)

paketep wrote:

"God, about f*cking time" - me when SC2 was finally announced in 2007

"What the hell happened to Blizzard?. I'm not giving them a single penny ever again" - me after Kotick, the removal of LAN support, the transformation of Battle.Net into a ridiculous Facebook clone, the RealID f*ckup, the BNetD suit, the division of the game in 3, the thousand of stupid declarations saying "we know better than you", "what we're doing is so f*cking good that you're not going to miss that", etc, etc.

It went somewhat the same for me too. Even though, like Elysium, I was a huge fan of Warcraft II and only played a bit if Starcraft, when SC2 was announced I was excited. Since then, for some of the reasons listed in the quote, my interest went from "hell yeah" to "meh."

I was never all that good at multiplayer RTS (excluding comp stomps), so I was mainly interested in SC2 for the single player campaign. When Blizzard announced that they were splitting up the game into a trilogy, that was the first major point that made me lose interest. I was willing to pay $50 for a good RTS SP campaign, but not $150.

It's brilliant, certainly. But it's more a byproduct of a development strategy than a specific tactic that others simply choose not to take. Most other games aren't even out of pre-production in their equivalent timeframe when Blizzard starts the slow reveal (i.e. 18-24 months before launch.)

But, again, I'm not arguing that Blizzard's a model at all applicable to other platforms. I'm simply saying that had they followed the traditional marketing models -- which they certainly had the option to do -- a person like me would never have gotten on board.

There are lessons in that.