It may be a matter of public record that I harbor a certain degree of dislike for Activision/Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, but really only in the sense that I wish him an eternity of pain and suffering at the claws of specially-trained torture demons, that his blighted genescape be eradicated from this earth as one might eradicate smallpox or plague. But I only feel this way because his pompous bean-counting has already damaged a creative industry, and he’s intent on turning that creativity into something that can be quantified on a spreadsheet. Still, reading my latest Game Informer, I could hardly blame Kotick for the remark that he wouldn’t have paid seven million dollars for Blizzard in 1995. Of course, he later paid something like 18 billion dollars for the company, but that was later.
After all, in 1995 Blizzard had Warcraft, which helped launch the real-time strategy format (Dune II, from Westwood, was the other driver), but which hadn’t yet become a guaranteed franchise. This is long before Blizzard gave us Starcraft and Diablo, and of course long, long before World of Warcraft changed the games game forever. Back then games cost a few hundred thousand, or at most a few million, dollars to make; I remember how shocked everyone was late in the year when it was learned that Origin had ponied up $14 million for Wing Commander IV. So Blizzard looked like it had a pretty bright future ahead of it, but I don’t think anyone guessed what that future would be. Kotick can hardly be blamed for lacking the prescience to foresee it.
It does sort of make you think, though. 1995 falls into a period some refer to as the “Silver Age” of gaming – ’94 had been one of the best and most important years for the PC, the console market was still chiefly Nintendo and SEGA, and audiences in general were considerably smaller. While I imagine that some industry analysts knew even then that gaming was about to explode, the explosion wasn’t immediately apparent to most of us. In some ways 1993’s DOOM was the game that started it all: the 3D revolution, the rise of video games as a major market commodity, and even the corporate mergering we’re seeing today. Heck, even DOOM creator id Software, independent of all independents, is now a fully-owned subsidiary of Zenimax, while Activision/Blizzard owns what seems like the entire known universe.
Perhaps the interesting thing about the ActiBlizzard relationship, as pointed out here in this 1UP piece, is that Blizzard is anathema to most of Bobby Kotick’s views on how the games industry should be run. Even before World of Warcraft, Blizzard had enough financial stability to produce games at its own (often leisurely) pace, not releasing products until they were highly tuned. Blizzard also has a history of scrapping or offloading titles that are approaching completion – Warcraft Adventures was over 90% complete when the project was canceled – simply because the company felt the product wasn’t worthy of the Blizzard name. Kotick would never bin a 90%-complete project, he’d order it released as is and command a shower of patches, in hopes that some level of sales would recoup at least a fraction of his investment.
Simply put, Blizzard is more interested in quality than profit or timeliness, while Kotick cares nothing at all for quality and has eyes only for the bottom line. Blizzard is like Valve in this way – both companies have the dollars to produce what they want at the pace they want, essentially ignoring the calendar in the interest of producing superb product. Naturally most developers lack the money to do this, and of those who do, many are still trammeled by the wishes of their publisher, who very possibly owns them. The key difference between Valve and Blizzard is that Valve has always been, and remains, independent. That its Steam service makes the company a publisher in its own right suggests that Valve will likely remain its own master well into the future.
So while I’m sure some of the venomous Kotick-haters out there (among whose number I count myself) will find some way to ridicule the man for failing to buy Blizzard back in 1995, there’s simply not much there there.
Don’t worry, though, it’s only a matter of time (seconds, probably) before Kotick says or does something characteristically asinine and we can get back to good old vilification.