Opinion

Richard Lewis: Why I believe the Blizzcon apology was rotten to the core

by Richard Lewis

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The timing of Activision-Blizzard’s annual convention couldn’t have been worse. A year of almost entirely negative headlines, accompanied by so much PR spin the price of bullshit has plummeted, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had decided to just skip this one and refund tickets. 

The weeks preceding their showpiece have been beyond anything you could imagine… Scrambling to placate their Chinese masters led to them punishing a Hong Kong national for voicing his support for the ongoing human rights protests in his country.

The punishment was extreme; Hearthstone player Chung 'Blitzchung' Ng Waia received 12 month suspension and was stripped of a year’s worth of prize money. This was later reduced to six month suspension and the prize money was returned to Blitzchung. Most agree this is still too much but it is clear that if you speak up about anything politically inconvenient to Blizzard’s profiteering you too will receive the same punishment.

One of the most embarrassingly false PR statements I have ever seen came out after the damage was done. “I want to be clear,” J Allen Brack wrote. “Our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.

And there was much laughter. If you ever needed any evidence that Activision-Blizzard think of you as nothing more than a bunch of rubes that will always fall in line when they release their latest set of trinkets and toys, there it is. The audacity to type this when a translated statement put out on the official Chinese Weibo page for Hearthstone said “we will always respect and defend the pride of our country” is something you almost have to admire.

Weibo
Weibo

The order of day one of the convention was to placate as many of you angry rabble as possible. The suits sat down and thought about the best way to bring you back into the fold as a docile, spending consumer and they came up with a method as old as time; the empty apology.

Now understand they’re also surprised it took so long to have to deploy this. They didn’t have to deploy any sort of public apology when it was revealed they were under investigation for securities fraud. No apology for last Blizzcon’s “do you guys not have phones” debacle, when the mask dropped and their contempt for you was revealed for a split second. None for patenting match-making that was biased towards you having a bad gaming experience so you spent money on microtransactions to level the playing field. They got away with laying off huge portions of their workforce while Bobby Kotick yucked it up on a shareholder call about how they had made record earnings that same year. They skated when it was revealed that they were using dubious interpretations of taxation law to avoid paying their dues on those record earnings.

They honestly can’t believe that not only has it taken so long but that it is human rights that were the breaking point. After all, they don’t seem to care about them, so they don’t think you should either. So, with hundreds of protesters gathered outside they sent the same man who had told you their punishment of Chung 'Blitzchung' Ng Wai had nothing to do with their business in China to the stage.

In true Blizzard fashion even their mea culpa is bafflingly inept. I don’t know which focus group wrote this damn thing but if it wasn’t for the quiver in Brack’s voice and the wet shine in his eyes it would never have passed with the applause it received from the crowd.

“Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together in a tough Hearthstone esports moment about a month ago," he said. "We did not. We moved too quickly in our decision-making and then to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk to all of you.” 

Meditate on that for a moment and try and mentally metabolize what you’re being fed. First the sheer hubris of the deluded belief that Blizzard could have brought the world together… No. You couldn’t. This is an increasingly popular delusion of games developers who, 15 years ago, positioned themselves as people who just had to make good video games, but now position themselves as Christ-like saviours. Blizzard, you cannot fix the situation between China and Hong Kong. The thing is, no one expected you to. All we expected was for you not to shit on the few voices that spoke out against the Chinese behemoth. You failed.

Blizzard Entertainment
Blizzard Entertainment
This Hong Kong scandal all started when Blizzard suspended Hearthstone pro Blitzchung for expressing his political views.

Then, just when you manage to keep that down without vomiting on your shoes try processing that they think the flaw is that they “moved too quickly”. Speed is irrelevant. Blizzard is inarguably on the wrong side of this argument, unless you happen to agree that global superpowers and US corporations should align to suppress people protesting laws that will enable said superpower to rendition and disappear dissidents. Take all the time you need. If you choose to back China over Hong Kong you are wrong.

Stomach settling now… But wait, what is this fresh assault on my digestion? Blizzard again think it is a matter of speed that is at issue here. That the nonsensical public statement with the most almighty glaring lie at its heart – that your business relations in China were irrelevant and it was really that you don’t want politics being mentioned on your broadcasts – could have been delivered sooner and it would have been accepted. There isn’t an appropriate speed at which to piss in all our faces and tell us that it is simply rain. We’d just rather you didn’t do it at all.

“When I think about how most unhappy I am, I think about two things. We didn’t live up to the higher standards we set for ourselves. Second, we failed in our purpose. For that, I am sorry, and I accept accountability,” he continued with a pause for corporate approved applause.

I’ll ignore the low hanging fruit about the standards they set themselves that have been migrating south faster than birds do for winter. Rather, now we get to the rotten core of the concession. There’s no acknowledgement that they were wrong to punish the player as severely as they did, if at all. There’s no acknowledgement about how hypocritical their corporate values of 'every voice matters' and 'think globally' suddenly seem when you make a point of penalizing a protestor from one of the many parts of the world under the yoke of Chinese oppression.

The arrogance imbued in this part of the statement is subtle and potentially easy to miss. We know you are accountable. We are holding you accountable. You don’t really have a choice in accepting it. Yet you couldn’t even name the incident specifically, you refused to acknowledge what it was you did wrong and it is now clear that you will not change the way you handle these incidents in future.

Blizzcon 2019
Blizzcon 2019
Blizzard CEO J. Allen Brack opened the Blizzcon 2019 festivities by apologizing about how they handled the Hong Kong situation.

The Blizzard apologists will eat it up of course. We all know principles will be very quickly jettisoned when they hit you with the patented games dev brand of dopamine – equal parts nostalgia and impossible promises. They let the apology sit a while then began the cavalcade of consumerist wet dreams. It was too perfect that the first product in the procession was a testament to their rube philosophy. They pitched the audience a fake sequel.

For months I’ve been telling you what Overwatch 2 is. Not my own theories you understand but the direct words from the many Blizzard staff that I know. No one who would have appreciated the information heard any of it because the Overwatch fandom has become a cult that puts Scientology to shame. You must never criticize or question. If you do then you must 'hate' the game and want to 'destroy' it. You become an undesirable.

Yes, the extremists of the Overwatch fanbase are right up there with the mewling manbabies that think Disney’s version of Star Wars is epic; too over-invested and socially inept to ever detach themselves from the umbilical cord of warm feelings that most functional adults get from human interactions. And in the world of corporations that, frankly, disturbing loyalty is never rewarded.

That is why Blizzard are pushing a fake sequel on you. Why call it a 'fake' sequel? The reality is that this is that it is actually an expansion that the developers plan to charge you the same amount that you bought the original game for. Those of us not blinded by the cinematic noticed the sales price was indeed conspicuous by its absence during the talk. That’s because they are gauging reaction before deciding on how much they gouge you.

My sources have told me it’ll be the same price as the original game or close to it. According to them Overwatch has stopped making the type of money Activision-Blizzard like their products to make. You might get misty eyed when you see Tracer pinch Brigette’s cheeks but you’re not hoovering up those loot boxes any more. So, this is what you get – a slot-in campaign mode for the lore-junkies that will make up that financial shortfall and they call it a sequel to leverage the marketing classic 'fear of missing out'.

A panel would later provide vague answers for some of the important questions. If you’re an online player then you don’t have to buy Overwatch 2 to keep playing and that will still be supported. There’ll be crossplay between those who do buy Overwatch 2, which will be the version that exclusively gets the graphical updates. You can play PvP in Overwatch 2 and there’ll be compatibility with original Overwatch players

Blizzard Entertainmnet
Blizzard Entertainmnet
There is a lot of hype surrounding Overwatch 2, but it could just be a case of Blizzard selling an expansion at a full game's price.

So, here’s my prediction. Once they get this cash injection from the IP they will make the original Overwatch free-to-play to try and expand on the dwindling amount of active players. Seems to be the only way they can hope to stand up to the incoming challenge of multiple titles from Riot Games, most notably Project A, all of which you can bet will be free-to-play as well. There’d also be something profoundly sick about charging for a game that has a better, fuller version of it active that also needs to be purchased because it’s totally a sequel guys and not a marketing ploy.

There’s a broader point here about this type of content being something that would be automatically included in any game about 10 years ago, that single-player content was the foundation on which online multiplayer was built. 

The AAA games industry have been stripping away how much they have to give you for years until we arrive at a point where they justify selling you less game in your games. Whatever. What are we going to do? Boycott them? We propel this overpriced garbage onto the best-sellers list year after year, pre-ordering things that don’t exist and barely batting an eyelid when they don’t turn up.

Diablo 4 was the other big reveal. I can’t get my head around what it takes to be a Diablo fan. Whenever I talk to one it’s like James McAvoy in the movie Split. One minute they’re frothing at the mouth about how Blizzard ruined the series, the next a gentle voice is cooing about how great it was the development team stayed committed to make Diablo 3 a great game eventually. I get it guys. It’s tough.

The reality is this: After almost unprecedented industry hype for the time, Diablo 3 was atrocious at launch – and that was for the people that could actually log in and play it. It was sub-par for about two years and then the Reaper of Souls injected some quality into it. By that point, only the minmaxing hardcore remained. Every criticism that game received is absolutely valid and any true fan of the series should be healthily sceptical about what comes next, more so after the dev team tried to peddle the idea that freemium mobile shit knock-offs for the Chinese market could ever come close to a full gaming experience.

'Oooh but it’s going to be dark,' everyone said. 'The story line is going to be the darkest yet.'

As recent events have shown, I fancy myself as a fiction writer, so how about this for a dark story line… A huge corporate monolith that will do anything to make profit bamboozles and placates what should be an angry crowd with carefully crafted propaganda. As the assembled audience stares at the screens they feel their righteous indignation ebb away. What are human rights? What are consumer rights? Consume. Consume. Consume. Hands that were earlier making a fist suddenly extend and touch palms, repeatedly and at increasing speed. The face hurts from rictus grin as unfettered tears of nostalgic joy stream down aching cheeks.

Rubes indeed.