Many of you who know me well well know that I am a huge nerd. One of the nerdy things I love, and have always loved is video games. Even as a kid, I would spend hours programming games in BASIC on my TI99/4A computer, and then leave the computer on all night because, as I never had a hard drive, as soon as I shut the computer off, the game would be gone. Before that I had the Atari 2600 – after the TI99 I had a Commodore 64, then an Amiga and finally a PC – all of these systems were for one primary purpose – playing games.
My life obviously took a different turn as a musician and composer, but I still have a passion for games, my current passion being World of Warcraft, the MMORPG (and for those not hip enough to know, that means Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game – gah) that was developed by Blizzard Entertainment and released in November, 2004.
I’ve always had great respect for Blizzards games ever since I played the first Warcraft RTS (Real Time Strategy) back in 1994. Every game that followed was simply the best game for that particular genre of games on the market. Every aspect of the games were awe-inspiringly great. I think even the first game music that I really thought was great was the music for Diablo II.
But the one, single aspect of Blizzard that I have always been most impressed with was simply their working philosophy, it’s not done until it’s done. While every other game company out there had hard deadlines for its programmers, often resulting in sub-par or even broken games, Blizzard sometimes took years to develop a single game, and stood by their stance, insisting that the game would be worth the wait – and they were always right.
When World of Warcraft was released in November, 2004, I was one of the first in line to play, and as usual, I was not dissapointed. In fact, Blizzard had once again outdone themselves – the game was incredible. I’ve pretty much only played WoW since then – a record breaking 4 1/2 years – longer than I’ve played any other single game, and my faith in Blizzard has never wavered, until now. Allow me to digress into another example to illustrate my current worries.
I’m not sure many of you remember the original MP3.Com. In it’s current incarnation, it’s basically an online music store, similar to sites like Napster.com or iTunes. When it was founded in 1997 however, the site was exclusively for independent artists to post their music. They had the option to offer free downloads, or to stream the music and sell CDs, which MP3.Com would manufacture.
I was one of the first composers to post my music on MP3.Com in 1997, and even though I was just starting out, still an undergraduate in college at the time, I started to gain a small fan base for my music. Incredibly, MP3.Com established a program where they actually paid the artists on the site based on how many downloads you were getting. I would say that over the course of about 4 months, I was paid around $2500.00. Needless to say, MP3.Com was an incredible outlet for independent artists, and it was clear that the owners of the site truly did care about the independent artist and wanted to see them succeed.
But, as with most great things, it didn’t last. In 2001, MP3.Com was bought by the huge conglomerate Vivendi Universal. From the moment Vivendi took over, things started to change. For one, the artist pay-out program was stopped immediately – can’t have those dead-beat artists making too much money! Then, in an attempt to generate more revenue, they started to split the artist pages (which originally was just one simple page per artist) into multiple pages per artist, so they could generate more ad space, and sure enough, more and more ads started to show up all over the site (WoW players – is this starting to sound familiar?). The site started to cater more and more to major label acts, making the transition to what the site is now. With added pages, and more advertising, the site gradually became unwieldy and belabored for the user to navigate. In 2003, Vivendi dumped the site off to CNET, and CNET promptly killed the site in December of 2003, re-opening it in it’s current state.
Blizzard and World of Warcraft
Blizzard to me has always been like the original MP3.Com was – uncompromising and more concerned with putting out the best product out there than with trying to make loads of fast money. They were independently owned, and operated on their own terms, which is the main reason they are what they are today.
However, like MP3.Com, Blizzard was eventually bought out by, once again, Vivendi Universal. Given my personal history with MP3.Com, I was very worried by this news. Blizzard assured their many fans that the sell-off would not in any way affect how Blizzard does business or how it makes its games. Everything would continue as it had. I have to also say that this was almost a direct quote from when Vivendi initially took over MP3.Com – chillingly close.
In 2007, Vivendi games merged with Activision, and created Activision Blizzard – a huge conglomerate of video game developers. All together, this conglomerate owns many of the top video games on the market today, including World of Warcraft and Guitar Hero to name just a few. Again, we were told not to worry – that nothing at Blizzard would change – right.
With the release in November of last year of World of Warcraft’s second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, I was already starting to suspect change at Blizzard. Right away, I could see that many aspect of the expansion were unfinished – one look at any crafting profession in the game could tell you this. Also, the only large, multiple-boss dungeon that was (and still is) available was one that essentially already existed from the original game, but had been re-tooled for Wrath. Compare this to the first expansion, which featured two large, multi-boss raid dungeons (Karazhan and Serpent Shrine Cavern) and 2 “single boss” dungeons (Gruul’s Lair and Magtheridon’s Lair) from day one of the expansion – all completely new.
Still, Blizzard told us over and over, nothing’s changed – it’s still “not ready until it’s ready.”
Recently with the release of patch 3.0.8, it is becoming clear to me that things definitely are not the same at Blizzard. Things are clearly being released before they are ready, and I suspect that Blizzard is now being given hard deadlines by their Activision overlords. The expansion has been a series of one buggy patch after another, patch 3.0.8 being possibly the buggiest patch yet to be released, requiring multiple re-patches and hot fixes. The game itself is also laggy and choppy for many players, and I have heard reports (and have experienced it myself) of WoW overheating video cards, crashing unexpectedly, etc. Five years ago, these are things I would have never expected from Blizzard, but they are becoming more and more accepted by the player base, all while Ghostcrawler tells us nothing has changed – there’s nothing to worry about.
In addition, like MP3.Com, ads are starting to pop up all over Blizzards site and forums, where there were never ads before. I also expect ads to start appearing on the game launcher very soon. With 12+ million subscribers at an average of $15 per month, does Blizzard really need additional revenue from advertising? It’s not a huge deal – none of this is really yet – but they are all signs – signs that point in a disturbing direction.
This is what happens when large corporations take over smaller, independently owned businesses. The swoop in with their arrogance and “we know best” philosophy, and slowly the smaller company is made to tow the company line. I sincerely hope that the recent troubles are temporary, and that Blizzard is an exception, and that I’m totally wrong, but I have a feeling I’m not wrong. I’ve just not seen this issue discussed in the WoW community at all, and I think it should be discussed.
I still love WoW – I would go as far as to say that I think WoW is probably the greatest computer game ever made, and I hope it stays that way and is not run into the ground like MP3.Com was.