Blizzard plays the hits again, and again, and again.
Starcraft 2 came out on July 27, 2010 and I am still logging 2-6 hours in game per week. That was seven years ago. Seven years ago I had just met my future wife. Seven years ago the Xbox 360 and PS3 were in full swing. Seven years ago the best Mass Effect game came out (Mass Effect 2). I now chase a toddler around my house while trying to sneak in some gaming between family activities. My point is a lot changes in seven years yet I am still playing Starcraft 2.
While most modern Blizzard games have their detractors, by and large they release well polished games that generally support a wide range of player types (casual to hardcore). What makes Blizzard games, particularly Starcraft 2 and Diablo III, still relevant several years later? It comes down to support, adaptation, and monetization.
Say what you want about Blizzard’s support & development model (too fast, too slow, too many changes, not enough changes, etc) but they support their games even when other companies would pack it up and place a game on maintenance mode. It’s easy to say: “Starcraft 2 is a worldwide competitive game so they HAVE to support it…” but that doesn’t cover the care and support that Blizzard has given to the non-competitive aspects of their catalogue, particularly Diablo III. Diablo III (hereafter referred to as D3) is a great example of Blizzard supporting a title that they could have easily walked away from after release (for all intense and purposes it failed to lived up to it’s launch expectations).
The sales of D3 were beyond expectations and Blizzard (likely) recouped their costs on launch day. The truth is Blizzard could have patched a few of the biggest issues, removed the development team, and let the game slowly die over the next several years. They didn’t do that. They rebuilt the internal game mechanics from the ground up and what we have today, while being the same basic premise, is a vastly different experience than what was released on day one. Blizzard rebuilt and supported the game to maintain long term loyalty (likely at the expense of short term ROI). When it comes to their other titles, you can be almost guaranteed there are significant changes in each major patch. Their patch notes (example) are comprehensive and some even include statements from the developers about why they changed certain aspects of the game (see also: nerfed everything you like, buffed everything you hate).
Blizzard isn’t perfect by any means but they interact with their community and support their games better than most other well known development studios. Take a walk through the official forums or browse one of the Blizzard subs on Reddit and you find the developers and community leaders talking about the current state of the game. I could go on and on about about how well Blizzard supports their titles but it would take longer to get to the biggest reason WHY I am still playing older Blizzard titles: Adaptation.
There is a commonly accepted truth in the business world: change is inevitable and a company must adapt to the market. Time and time again, businesses fail when they refuse to adapt. Look at what happened to Kodak when they refused to adapt. What does this mean in the video game world? It means that a company needs to constantly watch market demand and build products accordingly (or be ahead of the curve and create market demand with new products and innovation). Examples of adaptation can be found in every single one of Blizzard’s current games but none more so than Starcraft 2 (SC2). The original release of SC2 followed in the footsteps of SC1 and contained the series staple game modes: campaign, vs a.i., custom, ranked, and arcade. To be fair, that is a lot of options in a single package but realistically the draw of SC2 is the competitive ranked mode. Ranked mode receives most of the attention through balance patches, e-sports coverage, and community updates.
If you’ve been following trends in the video game market over the past few years, you may have noticed an increase in the number of games being built around the multiplayer co-op framework (usually teams of four fighting hordes of enemies). Developers and publishers are both realizing that they can sell their product to a lot more people if they include multiplayer modes that are not based on fighting human opponents. The truth is that competitive multiplayer modes are not for everyone. Spend a minute or two browsing any popular forum or subreddit and you will find scores of people that have the same consistent message: “I would buy the game if it offered multiplayer co-op because I don’t enjoy strictly competitive gameplay.” Blizzard is obviously well aware of this trend and they have adjusted SC2 (a product in the maturity stage of the product life cycle) to be more inclusive of non-competitive gamers. The co-op mode in SC2 is essentially a “mod” of the base game that features custom armies, heroic units, and custom maps specifically designed to enrich a co-op experience – and it’s a hell of a lot of fun considering how dated SC2 is at this point.
Another example of Blizzard adapting to the market can be found in Overwatch. Team Deathmatch, a game mode that Blizzard was reluctant to add, is now available in the arcade section of Overwatch. Take a look across all Blizzard products and one thing is clear: ability to adapt is a competitive advantage for Blizzard.
You are probably curious as to why monetization, a dirty word in the video game industry, is listed as a reason why Blizzard products are so successful. The hard truth is video games are a profit based industry and monetization can help fuel game development & support, even years after a game has been released. I will try to be as clear as possible about this next point: Game modes like SC2 co-op exist because they can be monetized. Blizzard/Activision is not immune to criticism by any means, but let’s be fair to Blizzard: their monetization practices certainly don’t feel like blatant pay walls that exist solely to fleece the customer.
My general experience with Blizzard’s game monetization has always been: I know what I am paying for and I am choosing to pay for it because I like what they are offering. Example: Buying a new commander/army in SC2 co-op mode after playing all the “free” options. That’s a fair trade to me! Blizzard produced seven armies for “free” so I don’t I don’t feel ripped off when buying a new army for $4.99. [Update 12/4/2017: All commanders are free now, up to level five.] I’ve dumped countless hours into Diablo III and I can continue to do so with no restriction even if I don’t buy the Necromancer DLC. It’s that feeling that I am being treated fairly, as a customer, that convinces me that some purchases are worth it. The common argument against late term monetization (or any monetization for that matter) is that the game was already purchased up front so additional monetization shouldn’t be required. There are merits to that argument, in some cases, but we have to accept that money fuels the industry. Monetization can bring features and functions to the game that otherwise wouldn’t exist. SC2 is still supported with additional features, even in maturity, because it can be monetized. SC2 co-op mode wouldn’t exist without some type of optional payment system in place.
In conclusion, Blizzard does a lot of things well and their ability to adapt and monetize (properly) give them a distinct competitive advantage over their competitors. The customer benefits from the product they produce and the cycle continues. It will be interesting to watch where Blizzard goes next but we can be sure these three pillars will drive their development.