The rise and fall and fall of Activision Blizzard and WoW

This post: circa 4,500 words, estimated reading time, excluding videos: 22 minutes.

When and how the fall of Blizzard began

For me, the fall of Blizzard didn’t start with the revelations of endemic bullying, racism, and misogynistic sexism.

It didn’t start with Bobby Kotick’s salary rising to over $2m a month, then more a $1m week, topped up further with bonuses and share options worth hundreds of millions of dollars more…

According to Equilar research, Kotick has received $461 million in total compensation since 2007, about $300 million of it in stock. His pay package in 2021, which was more than five times his compensation of $30.1 million in 2019, surpassed his previous record of nearly $65 million in 2012

Marketwatch, June 2021: Activision Blizzard pulls out a win on say-on-pay proposal that includes $150 million CEO pay package

No, it started with the rise of fees for in-game services. The incremental increase in vanity products in the store. The removal of active GMs. All of which was preceded by the merger with Activision and the arrival of Bobby boy.

The day they merged the cash store in-game (in WoD, if I recall), that, for me, is the day Blizzard died.

Blizzard ceased to be about the fans and was wholly about the bottom line. If they messed up, there was no need or intention to apologise (unless it rattled shareholders confidence). It came to a head for me with the WoW BfA expansion. Up to that point I always bought the Collector’s Edition, for the extras, but especially for the artbook. Diablo the CE for Diablo, for Starcraft, etc.

BfA put the price of the CE version up from the usual £60 to over £100 AND to further cement their greed into players hearts, removed the artbook, the disks, even the mousemat. They could have included all that at the raised price, even with the storybook they tossed in. They could have included all that at the old price point, but they wanted to gouge every last penny out of their most loyal players. Their cash cow. Their fodder!

I bought BfA with gold and even then, walked away from the game, with 4 months left on the subscription. True, it was interfering with my studies, but it was easy to walk away because poor design, boring gameplay and all the rest soured the game for me.

With Shadowlands CE (now unavailable), they learned, they added the artbook, the token mousemat, the rest, but they’d already driven away millions of players. For me, like many other loyal fans, BfA was the final straw. Activision Blizzard is not loyal to their fans, but expect unswerving loyalty from them. That’s not how it works. Shadowlands was the first Blizzard product I refused to buy. I could have easily bought it with in-game gold, was tempted to buy the CE box, am still tempted, were it available, but – I feel – with the BfA collector’s Edition, they betrayed us. Broke faith with us.

That, like nothing else in all their history, showed me that we are nothing to them. They don’t care about their staff, their customers, their fans. They only care about money. And even then they are so greedy, so obsessed with profits and cost-cutting, that they can’t – they won’t – even pretend to offer value for money. They want to buy loyalty for scraps as if we are stray animals begging for leftovers.

Long before this lawsuit came to dominate the gaming press, Blizzard sickened me.

As this video from last year points out, Blizzard had already abandoned their fans in favour of their shareholders and out-of-touch profits.



Boasting about subscribers figures

Trade views and missing logs

In the trade press especially, Blizzard used to boast continually about their awesome player base – as it slowly eroded from its peak on around 12m in Burning Crusade. There were still upbeat – until that number dropped below 6m.

Oh my, what a surprise: the minute that happened they decided that it made more sense to aggregate these numbers. They decided they won’t be publishing WoW subscriber numbers separately any longer.

At one point *waves cheerily at WoD* they started losing subscribers by the trainload. Something like a 100,000 a month bailed. Month on month.

So, players and streamers just looked at the server logs. The active player base was down to 3.5m and falling. It’s bounced up and down since then. If they get big advance orders, they tell everyone about it. If – as happens every time – people then say, “Why do I fall for this every time?” and bail, well, that’s not news they want to shout about.

Shareholders don’t like facts like that, they want to be comfortably lied to, assured that their investment is safe. That the company can be trusted.


The figures don’t lie!

{ In 4 years, Blizzard has lost almost half of its monthly active users }

The chart above was posted by /ItsMikeMeekins and shows how Blizzard lost half its base in just 4 years, dropping from 46m to 26m MAUs. This is as revealed by Activision Blizzard’s latest Earning Call (Q2 2021). Within two days of being added it had a staggering 16,800 shares and over 2,200 comments.

That’s in just 2 days. As one poster commented:

The fact that they were losing out during the darkest points of the pandemic when everyone was looking for home recreation and had the time to put in is very telling.

~ /Veritablefilings


For shareholders

From a stockholder and shares potential point of trade, they are still a runner, from the player base – and now staff – well, not so shiny.

Most people, reporting Blizzard’s share price focus on the last day, the last month, the year to date. All of which looks like a grim descent into inevitable bankruptcy. Bale! Sell, sell, sell! Except when you look at the return over one year, even with this last kicking, it’s up around 2%. Over five years, it’s up well over 100%. Dude, it’s doubled your money, hang onto your shares, play the long game!

And that’s how they play it. Don’t tell shareholders anything bad, ever. Massage the figures, obfuscate, use corporate talk to fill long reports – without actually saying anything. Fake it until you make it. Focus on new products “in the pipeline” but for God’s sake don’t mention the release date, or year for that matter, because we have little to offer, and at this point are not sure how fans will respond.

Even Aunt Beeb got a shot in, pointing out:

Activision Blizzard has not released official player counts for World of Warcraft (WoW) for years. But it does tell investors how many “monthly active users” all of its games have every quarter.

Those figures show that its games lost two million players in three months.

cite: BBC: The perfect storm striking World of Warcraft

NME similarly paint a grimmer picture of the situation for Activision Blizzard, Inc, saying, Blizzard has lost nearly half its monthly active users in four years, adding, “Recent allegations of company-wide abuse and harassment certainly won’t help!”

Statista puts the figure at 4.6m subscribers – but shows it in sharp decline year on year without fail since 2016.

A past /reddit post put current subscribers down to 2m by 2018 and BfA

MMO Champion suggests a current active base of 3m players – but lows of 1m in recent years

Activeplayer puts the player count around 5m, but active players is only put at 67,000*
*(That’s across all servers and as of this moment, i.e., the moment I looked. The figure will be different when you look as it’s dynamically calculated).

PC Gamer posted in a similar vein of thought about how Blizzard’s reputation collapsed in just 3 years.

Act Man: Blizzard is STILL terrible.


I’m not a fan of Asmongold, but here, he’s not wrong. Asmongold Comments on Blizzard’s Horrifying Scandal:



Even streamers with massive following have abandoned WoW!

Even people whose livelihood, whose business model is built on supporting Blizzard are saying, “It’s been a good run, but I’m done.” Twitch streamers and YouTubers with nigh-on half a million subscribers are hanging their heads and walking away.

More importantly, in many cases it was before this lawsuit become news, the expose was just the final nail in the coffin.

In the one below you can hear the guy is close to tears in anger and frustration. If you take his feeling and apply that to lower-level staff, you begin to see the bigger picture. What he is saying I’ve been saying for years. Argued with GMs and Devs. And it always falls on death ears.

{ Preach gaming: The End of an Era – Why We’re No Longer Covering WoW }

Similarly, MadSeasonShow (411,000 subscribers) has bailed on Wow, and has Stoopzz and many others (e.g. AsmonGold, with around 750,000 subscribers). Most notably, these announcements often came before the lawsuit announcement. BfA followed by Shadowlands drove them away. The lawsuit is just the final nail for many. Because the game got boring, players dreaded logging in. (Which is how I was when I quit; it was feeding my depression).

Quazii was another. Following a 45 minute farewell, he deleted some of his main Classic characters. Would have been more interesting if he’d deleted all his Shadowlands alts as well, but still. He told his fans “I’m done” and why. The why – as with so many others – was BfA and Shadowlands. It was grind for the sake of grind. RNG to keep people mindlessly grinding and subbed. It was bad design.

Quazii: Goodbye World of Warcraft. Thanks for the Amazing 10 years.

Kudos to him. I won’t do that, I’m too much of a hoarder, even though I know I’ll never return to the game, but if I did delete…

Alts having every recipe in the game from every faction, in every expansion.
Almost every heirloom and pet and around 350 mounts.
A main exalted with every single faction possible.
Tens of millions of gold.
Bank alt after bank alt across 7 accounts.
Alts on English, French, Spanish and Italian servers.
At least 35,0000 hours logged.
A guild that once had 1,000 active members, many of them friends for years, some since the start of WoW.

I walked away in BfA.


‘We are not like that (now)’, Blizzard claim

A day after the lawsuit made headlines, Activision Blizzard released an official statement in response, claiming that the “DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past.” It claimed it has been “extremely cooperative with the DFEH throughout their investigation,” but that they “refused to inform us what issues they perceived.”

Activision Blizzard then accused them of rushing to file an inaccurate complaint and failing to have “good faith discussions with us to better understand and to resolve any claims or concerns before going to litigation.”

We are sickened by the reprehensible conduct of the DFEH to drag into the complaint the tragic suicide of an employee whose passing has no bearing whatsoever on this case and with no regard for her grieving family,” Activision Blizzard wrote. “While we find this behaviour to be disgraceful and unprofessional, it is, unfortunately, an example of how they have conducted themselves throughout the course of their investigation. It is this type of irresponsible behaviour from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California.”

e.g. Rockpapershotgun: The lawsuit claims the company condoned a “hostile work environment”

You have to laugh at the irony of them being sickened by the reprehensible conduct of the DFEH, but not – assuming the claims are true – the sickening, irresponsible and reprehensible conduct of their upper management who, it appears, participated in and or protected those who revelled in their power and permitted abuse within this toxic culture. Until they were outed.

<sarcasm>
That’s not us, sure, perhaps, maybe that was a few bad eggs in the past (yesterday), but that’s not us now (that the lawsuit is public knowledge). Honest. You can trust us, (now).
</sarcasm>

If you listen to the company rhetoric, everything in the news is all lies, it’s faceless unelected officials ruining good, honest businesses like them.

There is no truth in any of their claims.

No truth in any of the media witchhunt. They are the good guys. They say.

Whether their staff believe a word out the mouths of the company spokespeople is another matter: Over 2,000 Activision Blizzard Employees Sign Letter Condemning Company’s Response To Allegations

A post by Upcomer claims Activision Blizzard’s employees are fighting against a broken system and that according to various sources, the company didn’t just tolerate abusers, it protected them.

So, no reason for Luis Barriga and Jesse McCree (Diablo 4’s game director and lead designer respectively to leave the company. No reason for World of Warcraft designer Jonathan LeCraft to be ‘let go’.

No reason that following their departure Blizzard said the company would,

“move forward to ensure a safe, productive work environment for all”.

Eurogamer: Diablo 4 director among trio of men no longer at Blizzard

McCree and LeCraft were reportedly are part of the BlizzCon “Cosby Suite” group, along with Afrisiba. That would be the Afrisiba who was specifically named in the lawsuit against the company. Who was fired by Blizzard for misconduct – for doing nothing wrong, because that never happened. It’s just all a big mistake. Blizzard isn’t like that. Trust us.

Polygon: “Blizzard says it fired ex-World of Warcraft lead named in harassment lawsuit for ‘misconduct’. Investigation into Alex Afrasiabi’s BlizzCon ‘Cosby Suite’ reveals new details.” So, the creative director for World of Warcraft leaves, but he never did anything wrong.

This, it must be remembered, is not a couple of disenfranchised bloggers or streamers, is the State of California, the government. Don’t be surprised if the lawsuit spills over into European countries like France, and others. The company is, top-down, rotten almost to the core. This is not one or two bad apples, it is an endemic, permitted and toxic culture. It seems.
Activision Blizzard sued by California over widespread sexism, sexual harassment

Activision Blizzard, Inc, have, according to their executives and legal team, done no wrong. Which, of course, is why, suddenly, Jesse Meschuk, (formerly) Blizzard’s senior vice president of HR, is ‘no longer with the company’. Senior Vice President left. For no reason, amid a globe-circling scandal that says HR knew all about the bullying, sexual abuse, cube crawling and either covered it up or made the problem go away by threatening employees, by denying them their basic rights. Naturally, he wasn’t fired, he left to "pursue new opportunities".

At the same time, and also specifically named in the lawsuit, J. Allen Brack, Blizzard President Departs as Game Maker Faces Labor Lawsuit.

So, the President of the company, the Senior Vice President of HR and several others directors suddenly leave the company. For no reason.

Early May 2021, before lawsuit become common knowledge: Blizzard is losing millions of players across all of its games

More recently, How Blizzard’s reputation collapsed in just 3 years

This is a company that recently hired Fran Townsend as Executive Vice President for Corporate Affairs. Not being American, the name meant nothing to me, but her work history, it turns out, is rather significant. Described as a ‘torture apologist’ – as in ACTUAL torture, it seems she is a great believer in getting results, no matter what it takes. Or as Kot’s articles put it,

The then-head of Abu Ghraib prison where people were tortured said he felt similarly pressured to increase the amount of intelligence coming out of the interrogations following a visit by Townsend

Townsend later went onto defend the Bush administration’s use of torture, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and forced nudity. “Regardless of what you think on the issue of whether or not waterboarding is torture, there were legal documents created and relied upon by career intelligence officials who then implemented the program,” she said.

Kotaku, March 2021, Activision Blizzard Hires Bush-Era Torture Apologist As Chief Compliance Officer

So, it may be presumed, the top ranks of Blizzard get the nod that the brown stuff is aimed at the fan, their nice, lucrative fan, so, naturally, rather than deal with the underlying issues, they hire an ex-government (possibly CIA trained?) official, once that’s clearly and unapologetically OK with torture to be their guard dog, whether keeping employees in line or warning off government officials from the State of California. That is the level of protection being a billion-dollar company buys, you see.

Analogy

Poor black guy reaching into his car carefully for their licence, the officer ‘fears for their life’ and puts three bullets in him.

Older, rich white guy, a star, runs amok in a shopping mall and rams their sword into a woman in front of witnesses:
CEO: “I feared for my life officer, the woman was crazy, she leapt on my sword.”
Officer, winking and taking a brown envelope, “We understand, Sir. We’ll see their family pays to have your suit cleaned. If you need our help cleaning up anything else, we are here to serve and protect (your corporate interests)”.

(Yes, that’s was an innuendo)

Of course, guilty until proven innocent, but a mass exodus of top executives is a bit of a smoking gun. A suicide, with multiple ties to the company, to directors named in the lawsuit, one investigated by police (but clearly not well enough) are akin to fingerprints on the weapon.

Meanwhile, over 2000 current and former Activision Blizzard employees sign petition calling company response to discrimination lawsuit “abhorrent and insulting”.

While the CEO, Bobby Kotick still silent, and when he does poke his head out of the bunker claims he knows nothing of all this and that Blizzard is a wonderful place to work. I imagine it is if you are on $65 million a year, plus bonuses.


Sorry, not sorry

If you are following this story in the news you will be aware of all the outpourings from past and present directors of Blizzard:

I am sorry, I failed you, we failed you. We are better than this. We will do better. Sorry!”

But, of course, actions are so much louder than words. Those that left did nothing about this for years, decades!

So, they are finally learning, doing better? Are they ****! They are just mouthing platitudes and no doubt angry as heck that people are spoiling their fun.

I have known psychopaths, I know how they think, how they act. They are psychologically incapable of feeling remorse and are often pathological liars. The minute all this blows over, it will be back to business as usual.

Anyway, they are sorry. Oh so sorry.
They will do better.

By that they mean they will protect themselves better!

This is evidenced by their solution, besides hiring a government torturer (apologist) is to hire the biggest, baddest – knock the employees down and remind them of their lowly place, – lawyers they can get.

Activision Blizzard Hires Union-Busting Firm As Workers Start To Come Together. WilmerHale will ‘review’ Activision Blizzard HR policies. They are not there to help employees. They are not there to mediate. They are there to protect corporate profits. Capitalism at is best (its worst).


Not enough? How about securities fraud?

Shareholders are not happy bunnies either, it seems

Activision Blizzard Faces Second Lawsuit Over First Lawsuit
‘Class action suit alleges company purposefully misled investors with false statements.’

The suit not only names the corporate entity Activision Blizzard as a defendant, but also CEO Bobby Kotick, CFO Dennis Durkin, and former CFO Spencer Neumann, three executives who the suit states were instrumental in the spreading of false information.

The article goes into more detail, but the essence is Blizzard specifically told investors, everything is great, yes, we have a few lawsuits, but it happens all the time with big companies. No, no, nothing you need to worry about. While being very aware that they were under investigation, that said investigation involved the death of an employee and complicit blame of senior management and directs, so, a problem. (It’s not as if Blizzard’s investor reports are easy reading!)

The net effect, if you are a hedge fund manager and bought 1,000,000 shares last year at $103.85 and they are now only worth $83.45 with prices still falling, you are down twenty million dollars. You trusted them, they lied to you, because they wanted you to prop up their company, prop up their and Bobby’s bonuses. If it can be shown by The Rosen Law Firm that the ommissions and thus false information was fraudulent, Blizzard and those named in the lawsuit are in a world of trouble, I imagine, because it would be securities fraud.

The Rosen Law Firm is dedicated exclusively to recovering investment losses for investors in public and private companies that have misrepresented material aspects of their business or whose officers and directors have breached their fiduciary duties to shareholders.

 

Under federal law, the crime of Securities Fraud is a Class C felony, punishable by up to twenty years in prison, three years of supervised release, and $5 million in fines. Additionally, disgorgement of any profits will be ordered and any property obtained from the proceeds of the offence can be confiscated.

Hornsby Law Firm: Federal Securities Fraud


NDA’s and burning the evidence

As if all the above is not enough, and as I’ve added to the footnote, it turns out that Blizzard – to block the investigation – have taken to shredding documents and making employees sign an NDA which includes a clause to the effect they can’t talk to anyone investigating the company without clearing it with their boss first. You know, so the underpaid and abused employee doesn’t get their overpaid and bullying boss in hot water.

What is especially interesting is I first read about this on Wowhead, then on Icy-veins. These are companies that greatly or even wholly rely on Blizzard and World of Warcraft. Without WoW, wowhead – a multi-million dollar business – is nothing without WoW. The figure was undisclosed, but ZAM is said to have paid $1 million for them.

It’s just an algorithm, so wildly inaccurate, but based on links, traffic, etc Worth of Web value Wowhead.com at $600 million. The analysis continues:

Estimated revenue per day: $59,999

Estimated revenue per month: $1,799,970

Estimated revenue per year: $21,599,640

And yet, even they are reporting on the dumpster fire Blizzard is turning into:

Department of Fair Employment and Housing has also levelled charges of obstruction, alleging that Activision Blizzard human resources department shredded documents related to the investigation.

… and further alleges that the gaming company has been withholding information relevant to the investigation, using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to require employees to speak with the company before contacting the DFEH, and directly interfering with the State’s ability to investigate, prosecute, and remedy workplace discrimination violations.

These updates follow a report made late last month which depicted a human resources department setup to fail employees from the start.

This all too common story has been repeated at Riot Games, Square Enix, Electronic Arts, and several other major developers, proving a systemic issue across the industry, rather than contained within one studio.

Wowhead:California Expands Discrimination Lawsuit Against Activision Blizzard Citing Interference from HR

It’s all in the wording

Related is a post by Axios: California expands lawsuit against Activision Blizzard

The wording of the Blizzard response is interesting if you have a suspicious mind. It does not dispute the claims as such, instead it says they “complied with every proper request.”

If you remember that they have legal giants WilmerHale effectively controlling HR now, with teams of corporate lawyers going over every word, every comma, every clause, looking for loopholes to exploit, the words take on a darker meaning. i.e. The requests are not deemed ‘proper’, we can dispose of any evidence relating to them.

The wording of the Blizzard response is interesting if you have a suspicious mind. It does not dispute the claims as such, instead it says they “complied with every proper request.”

Conspiracy level thinking, but you are talking about the third biggest game company on the planet, with annual revenues of over $8bn a year. Every day this drags on jeopardizes over $22m a day. $257 a second. If they lose this lawsuit, it greatly increases the damage and threat by all the lawsuits relating to securities fraud (a class C Federal felony). So, it’s not just the State of California, their own staff and their player base after them, it’s also their shareholders.

The DFEH also says Activision Blizzard has stymied its efforts through NDAs, requiring employees to speak with the company ahead of contacting the DFEH, and its involvement with WilmerHale, a law firm the game maker said will investigate misconduct issues.

The suit claims that this “directly interferes” with DFEH’s ability to “investigate, prosecute, and remedy workplace discrimination and harassment violations on behalf of employees and contingent or temporary workers.”

It alleges, in part, that “documents related to investigations and complaints were shredded by human resource personnel” in violation of what it asserts is the game company’s legal obligation to retain them pending the investigation.

A spokesperson for Activision Blizzard told Axios that the company has “complied with every proper request in support of its review even as we had been implementing reforms to ensure our workplaces are welcoming and safe for every employee.”

One take:



At present, Blizzard is starting to look like Stratholme after a visit from Arthas; if the shareholders lawsuits also win, it’s going to make the current dumpster fire look less like a campfire and more like Tel’drassil on a bad day.

{ A lone figure, watching Blizzard’s reputation }

September 2021, the tension rises, slightly

Beside more news that Blizzard and Bobby are indeed now ‘persons of interest’ for the SEC, their Chief Legal Officer, Claire Hart, has thrown in the towel and bailed.

What I thought was funny was that she announced her resignation on LinkedIn, according to PC Gamer. Blizzard Entertainment chief legal officer resigns.

Funny how her decision to leave coincides with news that SEC subpoenas Bobby Kotick as part of a federal investigation into Activision. Icy-Veins, Wallstreet Journal and others echoed the news. The SEC Launches Activision Blizzard Investigation

The Chief Legal Officer’s comment on LinkedIn was, “I have decided to move on to my next adventure.”

Their legal department about now probably looking like those three Madagascar penguins. “Just smile and wave, boys, smile and wave.”




Footnote

The sensible thought is, “If it’s so toxic, leave, find a better place, one that will respect you.”

Not that easy, it seems, as there are few honourable companies left.

While this post is aimed squarely at Blizzard it should be noted and remembered this is an endemic and cultural problem rife across the entire industry. From the CEO of Ubisoft and Ubisoft country by country (e.g. here, Singapore). And it stretches back decades. The problem, besides embracing and wallowing in a ‘boys will be boys’ mentality, is nothing gets fixed.

If a sexual predator is so bad police are involved, or even governments, it is BAD.

If – regardless – they aren’t jailed, there’s no public pillorying, it is BAD.

If, time after time, it’s a nod, a wink, a golden handshake and they move from one company to the next, they aren’t solving the problem, they are spreading it. Like a virus.

These predators are not sacked, in disgrace, they were ‘let go’, they have ‘moved on to explore new avenues’.

Dude, you got off with [it] and a corporate payoff, a gagging order and NDA seals that away. It never happened (to the victims) and if it did, they can’t speak of it. The corporate lawyers saw to that.
“You have your settlement, now keep your mouth shut. Or else”.

Ironically – but not unsurprisingly – a few days after I wrote that came the news that the California lawsuit extents to HR shredding evidence – and allegedly forcing employees to sign NDA’s, forbidding them from talking to the investigators without clearing it with their bosses first! Unbelievable!

And that is why we have the current ‘perfect storm’ at Activision blizzard, Inc. From Bobby boy down, this is the way. As long as they are making coin, everything is golden. The rock stars of the industry can do no wrong. Bit like our Jimmy Saville, a predator protected by ‘The Establish’, by corporations like the BBC.

Rinse and repeat across multiple industries, across all industries and sectors. The leaders and their ‘golden boys’ create a theatre of oppression and fear, aimed and abetted by HR at the behest of upper management. I’ve seen it in action and it’s not pretty, even if – no, especially if – you are in the right. Sooner or later, the culture becomes so toxic that the whole house of cards falls down. Healthier to leave before it does.

Ack

Been playing with computers since the stone age, online since the '80s, and developing websites since the '90s.

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