The dust is finally starting to settle from Microsoft’s huge acquisition of Activision Blizzard, but even Blizzard president Mike Ybarra still isn’t exactly sure how things will change for the company. “I literally haven’t sat down with [Microsoft Gaming CEO] Phil [Spencer] and said, ‘So what does all this mean?’” Ybarra tells The Verge in an interview.
Ybarra doesn’t seem worried, though. As part of his opening remarks at Friday’s BlizzCon 2023 keynote, Ybarra said that the show was the start of a “new era” for the company.
“I think the way [Spencer] approaches building teams and focusing on culture and enabling creative freedom is going to give Blizzard a lot more of that sense of being an independent studio than ever before,” Ybarra says. “That’s what I really mean when I talk about a new era of possibilities, of empowerment, of serving players even better than we ever have.” (It probably also helps that Ybarra worked for Spencer for eight years before joining Blizzard.)
Right now, things are “pretty much business as usual,” Ybarra says. Spencer and his team visited Blizzard recently, but “it was more about just meeting people,” Ybarra says. “They didn’t want to talk about business.” It seems like that means any Microsoft-driven changes might be a little ways out; Spencer has already said not to expect any Activision Blizzard games on Xbox Game Pass until 2024, for example.
While we were talking, Ybarra reflected on Blizzard’s history, which he broke into three phases: pre-World of Warcraft (games like the first three Warcraft titles, Diablo and Diablo II, and StarCraft); World of Warcraft (released in 2004); and now “this next chapter” under Microsoft’s ownership.
There are a lot of ways that the next chapter could go. Blizzard is juggling a lot of big live service games right now, including Diablo IV, Overwatch 2, classic and modern versions of World of Warcraft, and even a newly launched Warcraft mobile title. Diablo IV seems to be in a good place again after a post-launch stumble, while Overwatch 2 fans are still coming to grips with its ambitious hero mode getting scrapped and some potentially big changes to Overwatch esports. At BlizzCon, the company announced three brand-new World of Warcraft expansions under the “Worldsoul Saga” banner, but the announcement felt kind of like a Disney presentation of a new Marvel phase — which isn’t exactly a compliment at a time when Marvel isn’t doing so hot right now.
And Activision Blizzard, as a company, has had a tumultuous few years as it’s reckoned with litigation over an alleged culture of harassment (which outgoing CEO Bobby Kotick has denied) and unionization efforts. Ybarra, in 2022, detailed what the company would be doing to rebuild players’ trust — including that executives and management would be measured “directly against culture improvement.” Blizzard also recently announced it had hired Pamela Burga as its global diversity, equity, and inclusion officer.
Ybarra is confident that Blizzard can handle everything it’s working on. In Friday’s keynote, there was “nothing that we felt we had to show and [then] we’ll see in 10 years when it comes out,” he says. “This is all stuff happening now.” And Ybarra knows that players have high expectations. “Players have no patience,” he says. “They want new stuff every day, every hour. We’re trying to react that way while holding the Blizzard quality bar high.”
Blizzard is famous for making huge games that are frequently updated over years, but that model isn’t as popular as it once was; Fortnite maker Epic Games and Destiny 2 developer Bungie both recently laid off staff amid business challenges. I asked how Blizzard thinks about the live service model.
“We know players want new content literally almost every single day. At the same time, it takes large teams to be able to deliver that. So you have to monetize it in the right ways. At the same time, I always tell the teams, ‘When someone spends one dollar or a penny with Blizzard, I want them to feel good after they do that. How do we get to a world where we know that’s always going to be the basis of what we’re doing?’”
He says the team wrestles with the idea of releasing a standalone game without live components. “We want to serve players with more content in our universes. At the same time, we want to make sure we’re responsible and meet their expectations. I think we’re still fine-tuning a lot of those things as we go forward. But it’s something top of mind for me as we go forward.”
We’re not afraid to turn models upside down
I pushed him on that — it feels like it would be a big deal if Blizzard released a game that wasn’t a live service. “We’re not afraid to create new IPs,” he says. “We’re not afraid to turn models upside down.” He says he looks for teams that come with an idea — “that can be someone that has an idea for a four-hour experience or a 400-hour experience” — and for Blizzard, “I’m open to all of those ideas.”
That gave me the perfect opportunity to ask about the untitled survival game Blizzard announced in January 2022, but Ybarra didn’t say much. “When that game is ready to showcase itself, that team will come to me and say we’re ready.” (He did acknowledge that the recruiting website Blizzard launched for the game “got more attention than we thought it would” which, he says, in hindsight, the company should have expected.)
You might want to get ready for more Blizzard mobile games, though. The company just launched Warcraft Rumble, and Diablo Immortal seems to have been a success, earning more than $500 million in its first year, according to Data.ai. (Though I imagine the company hasn’t forgotten Diablo Immortal’s meme-worthy 2019 announcement.) “Mobile is a hyper growth area for us,” he says. “I would love our IPs everywhere.”
Ybarra didn’t have anything to share about if or when the majority of Blizzard’s games would return to China after they were shut down in the country in January. “There are millions of players in China who love Blizzard games and all of us at Blizzard want to make sure they can play our games,” Ybarra says. “We’re a worldwide company. I want us in every single country around the globe and China included. So as we go forward, we’ll evaluate that and see what happens.”
And if you were hoping for news about StarCraft, unfortunately, Ybarra didn’t have anything to share about that series — despite Spencer name-dropping it onstage during Friday’s keynote. “StarCraft is something that we love,” Ybarra says. “We hear the feedback from players about it. But we’re not talking about anything just yet.”