'Activision's effect on Blizzard was like a frog in a boiling pot of water' says former Blizzard director

Blizzard's Big Orc Statue
(Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

Three Blizzard and Blizzard North veterans gave a talk at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, during which there was some red hot Diablo 3 chat. The triumvirate also discussed Blizzard more generally, however, and one topic that came up was the closure of the much-beloved Blizzard North.

Blizzard North, originally founded as an independent studio by Diablo creator David Brevik, was one of very few studios that was able to effectively work with Blizzard in an era where most external projects got cancelled. The decision to close the studio in August 2005 still rankles some to this day, even though Blizzard would absorb much of its key talent and go on to develop more Diablo games itself.

The closure came up during the panel discussion, and Jay Wilson talked about when "they" closed down Blizzard North, at which point composer and sound engineer Matt Uelmen had to get something off his chest. Uelmen did music and sound design, while Jay Wilson had various roles before becoming lead designer on Diablo 3.

"Also "they" closed down, by the way?" said Uelmen. "Wikipedia says that like Vivendi or the  French made a decision… Don't believe the business history you read online, business history is always stupid and wrong. You spend five minutes looking at who owns what and realise what the reality is in most of these situations."

Uelman went on to explain the reality as he saw it unfold.

"The French didn't shut the studio down in 2005, that's the dumbest thing I ever heard," said Uelman. "WoW was making more money than like the CIA selling crack in 1988 [laughs]. And so [Blizzard co-founder and president] Mike Morhaime, who I liked, had all the money and all the leverage in that situation. And it maybe wasn't an inappropriate move no matter how it was handled. It may have been the right call at the time."

Former Blizzard producer Matt Householder added, with a little grin, "we at Blizzard North called ourselves 'BN.' We called Blizzard South 'BS.'" 

"Oh the unkind [terms] Blizzard HQ has for Blizzard North," laughed Jay Wilson.

The Activision takeover

Near the end of the panel discussion there was a question about an even bigger event in Blizzard history: the impact of the Activision takeover, and the formation of Activision Blizzard. This question was fielded by Jay Wilson, who was there at the time.

"Activision's effect on Blizzard was like a frog in a boiling pot of water," said Wilson. "Early on it felt like nothing. Later, as business models progressed for products, it became more and more… the products that were newer, that were making money, had enormous amounts of pressure on them to produce… 

"Like Heroes of the Storm: they were just crushed in meetings with Activision where they were always talking about the bottom line, how to pull more out of that… Diablo 3 wasn't affected too much because we were very solidly a premium boxed model."

The unsurprising revelation and outcome of this, or one of them anyway, was that Activision had a very clear idea of one product that could make a lot of money. Wilson was ready to move on from Blizzard, but he was there in those early stages of integration, and one mooted project kept being raised.

"A lot of talk of Immortal before I left," said Wilson. "They were talking about Immortal, but it hadn't actually started, that was all Activision-Blizzard. They wanted a free-to-play Diablo really badly… and I didn't [laughs]. Now granted, by then I was off Diablo…"

The wider impact was, in Wilson's opinion, that a lot of the great senior leads that had made Blizzard what it was began to peel off, chafing against this different way of doing things. And with them went a certain attitude.

"[Activision] had a big effect on all those business models and, in my opinion, a lot of the higher-up people who left did because they got frustrated with all of that," said Wilson. "I don't think they made those products better. There's a lot of bad things about Blizzard, there's a lot of great things, but I think the best thing… when I was there Blizzard had this saying 'we always want to be the guys in the white hats' which means we always want to be the good guys.

"So if we charge our players for something, and of course we're going to charge them, we're a business… But we always wanted to charge them what we thought was reasonable. So that came in direct conflict with a lot of [Activision's ideas]."

You can see the full panel talk above, and read about what Wilson had to say on Diablo 3's auction house: and why it wasn't as easy to get rid of as you might think.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."