One of the top game industry items this week was the news that Gears of War head Rod Fergusson will be making the jump to Blizzard Entertainment next month, where the development veteran will oversee the Diablo franchise. Typically, shifts like these aren’t of note to the average video game player — people change jobs all the time, after all. But Fergusson’s studio swap is curious when we consider the wider shifts happening at Blizzard recently.
Followers of the game business may know Fergusson by nicknames such as “the fixer” and “the closer.” The man has made a name for himself over the years as the sort of person who can run a tight ship and bring projects across the finish line. Perhaps most notably, he helped BioShock Infinite overcome years of development hell, shaping it up into a product that was received positively by the general public.
To hire Fergusson is to seek to get things done — in this case, presumably to ship Diablo 4, which is currently in development at the Irvine, California-based studio. While Blizzard hasn’t so much as announced a launch window for the game, a Kotaku report on the Diablo franchise states that the game may very well arrive this year. If Fergusson is on deck, my gut says that Blizzard wants it done sooner rather than later.
According to that same report, the suits at Activision have been worried about the company’s growth over the last couple of years. Typically, Blizzard’s style is to stew on things for as long as it needs to, and once a game is out, chances are pretty good that the developer will support it for as long as possible — to wit, World of Warcraft, which at this point is over 15 years old, is still going strong. It’s a thoughtful approach that has helped Blizzard become a beloved gaming company, but it’s also one that may be on its way out. Development on Heroes of the Storm (2015), Blizzard’s take on the MOBA genre, for instance, has already started to slow down as the studio shifts its employees onto more successful projects.
“We’re constantly changing and evolving not only our games, but how we support and grow them,” Blizzard president J. Allen Brack wrote when the company announced its decision to scale back development for Heroes of the Storm.
“Over the past several years, the work of evaluating our development processes and making hard decisions has led to new games and other products that we’re proud of,” he continued. “We now have more live games and unannounced projects than at any point in the company’s history.”
The “more” is key here. In Kotaku’s report, the news outlet says that Activision wants to “boost Blizzard’s content output and release more games on a regular schedule.” Diablo 4 presumably falls under that umbrella, but this shift may also help explain some of Blizzard’s other recent announcements.
The 2019 reveal of Overwatch 2, for example, seemed to surprise and confuse many, given that the first game came out in the spring of 2016. Blizzard doesn’t typically make sequels this quickly. It’s especially perplexing when you consider that Blizzard says it will continue to update the first game with content included in the sequel. Overwatch 2 maps and characters will also make an appearance in Overwatch, in an attempt to give fans “a shared multiplayer environment where no one gets left behind,” according to series director Jeff Kaplan.
It’s a cool idea, but it also makes you wonder why a sequel exists when the company could just continue to update and change the existing game. The whole thing starts to make sense, though, if you factor in Activision’s desire to sell more games.
And what better way to sell more games than to expand to new platforms? Blizzard began as a PC-focused developer, and it made a push into the world of consoles over the past few years, but one place where the storied studio has barely scratched the surface is mobile. Soon, that may change — and Diablo: Immortal, which was announced in 2018, may just be the tip of the iceberg.
“In terms of Blizzard’s approach to mobile gaming, many of us over the last few years have shifted from playing primarily desktop to playing many hours on mobile, and we have many of our best developers now working on new mobile titles across all of our IPs,” said studio co-founder Allen Adham during a BlizzCon 2018 press conference. “Some of them are with external partners, like Diablo: Immortal. Many of them are being developed internally only, and we’ll have information to share on those in the future.”
The question then becomes, can Blizzard maintain its usual level of quality while also increasing its output? The recent release of Warcraft 3: Reforged, which aimed to modernize the RTS classic, doesn’t inspire confidence. The remake debuted with a number of performance and connectivity issues, and bafflingly, it even changed how the original game works. The situation got bad enough that Blizzard started offering fans refunds regardless of playtime.
Granted, Blizzard didn’t have fixer Rod Fergusson in its ranks for Reforged. And based on what we know of Diablo 4, it’s looking to be the sort of grim, badass action game that fans are hoping for. The next game in the demon-slaying franchise just happens to be shaping up during a period of sweeping cultural change at the development studio, and that’s bound to influence the game somehow.
“We have more new products in development today at Blizzard than we’ve ever had in our history,” Adham said at BlizzCon 2018. “And our future is very bright.”