Posted by: seanmalstrom | July 7, 2010

Developer Drift


Above: Blizzard thinks Bnet 2.0 is awesome. Fans disagree.

Many Blizzard fans are worried that Blizzard has become a spawn of Activision and has completely lost touch with what gamers want. I cannot find Activision’s tentacles in Blizzard to explain Bnet 2.0 or other odd decisions the company is making. The companies are still pretty separate.

I remember in 2004 when World of Warcraft became huge, an elder developer from Ultima Online was asked about Blizzard’s success in the MMORPG. His response was brutal: “I think WoW’s success will destroy Blizzard,” he said. What he is referring to is how Ultima Online totally changed his company, and he expected WoW to totally change Blizzard.

This to me sounds like the more striking reason as to what has happened to Blizzard. This has altered Blizzard from being a product company to becoming a service company. And this is why you do not want Nintendo to make a MMORPG. This would explain why the company is just peachy having Starcraft 2 be online only (except for single player) as it feels fine being a ‘service’ orientated company. It looks to increase revenue from having a ‘User Generated Content store’ and managing ‘E-Sports’ both of which are services.

One of the things mentioned in disruption literature is that ‘too much money’ can ‘poison’ a company. Keep in mind that Starcraft 2 is the very first game Blizzard has made since WoW.

”But it is also the first game released since joining with Activsiion.”

True. But the expansions to WoW such as Burning Crusade were met with some disappointment.

With so much money coming in, it is not impossible to think that some of the people inside the company have become arrogant, to think they are geniuses in more ways than one.

From my spy inside Blizzard, I can confirm Blizzard developers are huge Xbox 360 fans, and they love Xbox Live. This is why Bnet 2.0 is taking the shape that it is. It isn’t because Activision doing it, it is because the Blizzard developers are doing it.

Why are Blizzard developers so far off from what people want? They actually did believe we would be ‘excited’ for Bnet 2.0. What happened?

It is a phenomenon I call Developer Drift. Back in 2005, as Nintendo warned about how the video game market is soon to collapse, they talked about Gamer Drift. Gamer Drift were gamers, like Malstrom, who stopped playing games sometime and drifted away doing other things. But let us turn it around. There is no Gamer Drift. It was always Developer Drift. Developers were not interested in continuing to make games I wanted to buy. The classic example is Miyamoto refusing to make 2d Mario games. Or it would be Aonuma deciding to put bizarre things in Zelda, like trains, because he wishes to please his child.

Developer Drift is when the developers’ definition of quality of video game entertainment runs off from the reservation. One of the small perks of game development is that it is very social, and you work with many other gamers. But a problem arises when people validate eccentric tastes through these peers instead of the mass market at large. For example, Blizzard developers think Xbox Live is really cool. However, their audience of PC gamers do not like it at all. Bnet 2.0 is a good example of developer drift where the developers get out of touch with what the market wants.

Developer drift seems to be a problem occurring with game developers who have been working for ten to twenty (or even more) years. If you work with just other developers for so long, it can get you out of touch with the masses. It might explain why we see such huge hits occur with ‘nobodies’ (because they are intertwined with the mass market) but once they become ‘developers’, eventually their work gets out of touch. Their work becomes more ‘niche’.

Starcraft fans are reeling over the strange things Blizzard has done (Bnet 2.0). But I don’t think the worst is over yet.

I bet there is going to be some rude surprises in the single player campaign. I thought the original Starcraft story was fine. I actually really liked the characters referring to me as the ‘magistrate’. Blizzard developers, however, do not appear to like how Starcraft 1 was done. They seem to invest heavily more in the ‘story’ element meaning they are going to Hollywood-ize it.

This brings me flashbacks of Tiberian Sun. It was when Westwood was beginning to enter decline. In Command and Conquer and Red Alert, games the videos were speaking directly to the player as ‘Commander’. In Tiberian Sun, this was removed as Westwood hired Hollywood actors, and you played a “character”. Fans complained that they didn’t want to be a character, and I believe it was changed back for Red Alert 2.

Here is what I expect: massive disappointment with the single player campaign. People will think the story is ‘lame’ (which is probable because we will only see the first third of it), and people will be annoyed at the ret-cons. What you saw occur in Starcraft 1 didn’t happen. Instead, it will be ‘re-visualized’ for you in a cinematic for Starcraft 2. Like, did you not know Raynor and Kerrigan were lovers? Or did you not know that Fenix was Artanis’s mentor? These ret-cons will come up. Fans will complain. Blizzard developers are big fans of Battlestar Galactica (which was a ratings disaster) and that show was totally heavy in ret-cons and characters having ‘identity crisis’. I expect this to be much of Starcraft 2’s story.

Blizzard had to have been very unhappy with consumer anger over Bnet 2.0 since they thought it was so awesome. Now imagine if there is consumer anger over the single player campaign. They already have the second two campaigns written and if people do not like how the single player story is done, Blizzard is stuck between a rock in a hard place.

As game developers get older and the fact that they will have spent most of their lives being game developers, the greater possibility for ‘developer drift’ to occur. A big trigger to ‘developer drift’ is big success. With Nintendo, I believe examples of ‘developer drift’ would be Metroid: Other M, Mario Galaxy 2, and some other games that got greenlit when it was made apparent how successful Wii was (this would put the year the games began in 2007 or 2008). A better example would be 3d gaming in general in the 1990s where developer drift had developers all excited about ‘3d technology’ but the mass audience wasn’t that excited.

Probably the worst trigger of ‘developer drift’ is when the developer literally believes he is a ‘Game god’ and will go to message forums where people worship him as a ‘Game god’ or keep searching the Internet to see what people are saying about him.

The only tonic I know that can solve ‘developer drift’ is failure. Blizzard has never put out a game that has really ‘failed’. While this won’t occur with Starcraft 2, it seems probable that it will occur soon. Blizzard putting out a game not well received would definitely humble the company.

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