It’s been some month for Activision Blizzard. The company rediscovered lost fans with the successful release of World of Warcraft Classic. Catalysed (along with the NBA) a worldwide debate about maintaining its values while expanding into China. Then made over US$600 million in three days with the Call of Duty Modern Warfare launch weekend.
It’s true the industry giant isn’t as prolific as it once, heavily relying on Call of Duty and remakes in 2019. However, Activision Blizzard is still in the industry’s top 5 money-spinners. It’s also easily still the biggest of the traditional, third-party game publishers. But internally, it feels like the balance of power has shifted.
With Bungie exorcising itself from the behemoth, and taking the Destiny IP with it, the Blizzard Entertainment half of Activision Blizzard is bearing the weight into 2020. Especially with series like Skylanders, Guitar Hero, and Tony Hawk falling out of favour with gamers. The latter franchise even splitting with the company altogether.
It means that BlizzCon 2019 wasn’t just a celebration event for fans, but an investor’s showcase. One that saw Activision Blizzard’s share price peak to a one-year high. So, will 2020 see Activision Blizzard solidify its place as top-dog among the thirds?
Blizzard’s Big Guns Fire
If you hadn’t caught the news, Blizzard was firing on all cylinders at BlizzCon 2019. It not only wheeled out four of its big five franchises (sorry StarCraft fans), but did so with the kind of news that really excited fans. And excited fans means excited investors.
Leading the list were reveals for Diablo IV and Overwatch 2. Sequels to two of the biggest franchises in the industry, the latter brings with it a lucrative ongoing cosmetic income stream and big esports opportunities.
Can Diablo IV Do It Again?
Focusing in on Diablo IV; it’s the follow-up to 2012’s Diablo III, which moved a mammoth 30 million copies. A huge number when you consider that the isometric action-RPG isn’t the most mainstream of genres. Not to mention the lacklustre reception the game received, initially at least, from rusted-on fans.
Said fans, however, have responded well to Diablo IV’s reveal. The game looks to return to a grittier, gorier style while stripping back some of the bloat in the skills system. That hype bodes well for big sales. However, there are two caveats.
Diablo IV will be taking an always-on approach to the game, providing a shared open world in which players can come across each other on their travels. Whether they’re simply ships passing in the night or gamers who party-up on some quests is down to the individuals.
While great on paper, “always-on” and “shared world” are not always hits with gamers. Just look to Xbox One for the former and the Fallout series for the latter, both of which suffered massively from attempting these strategies in recent years. It’s true that with Battle.Net, Blizzard and its audience are better placed than most to jump on the bandwagon, but it leaves big question marks all the same.
Then there is also the release date. Blizzard suggested that Diablo IV wasn’t about to appear anytime soon, but pointed to a PS4, XBO, and PC release strategy. These two statements don’t co-exist a year out from a new generation of gaming. If Diablo IV is the last release of a dying generation, it will struggle. Hopefully, it’s a cross-gen launch title.
Overwatch 2’s Curious Strategy
Since its release in 2016, over 50 million gamers have jumped into Overwatch to enjoy its joyously colourful, infinitely playable online hero shooting. However, how many still play? While still very popular, both in homes and in the esports community, the boom in free-to-play Battle Royale games (led by Fortnite and Apex Legends), has no doubt made an impact.
Still, you must respect an IP that’s had that kind of response. Even if Blizzard is taking a curious approach to Overwatch 2.
The game does not act to supersede its predecessor, but instead partner up with it. In PvP, the two games will share new maps, heroes, and cosmetics, looking to create a larger and more active player pool. So, what’s the point of the sequel then? To add PvE content in the form of co-op driven Story and Hero missions. As well as putting the emphasis on expanding the universe and lore by better leveraging players’ love for the characters.
It’s a risky approach, no doubt. And again, the lack of a release date in the shadow of a new generation of consoles cannot be ignored. But if Overwatch 2 was to arrive cross-gen into that launch window, you’d back it in for some serious success.
Is It a Wow Moment for World of Warcraft?
World of Warcraft, and its spin-offs World of Warcraft Classic and Hearthstone, also have a big 2020 ahead.
Blizzard tipped its hand with WoW Classic, committing to patches and updates moving forward to support that fanbase. While it’s unclear how the game will evolve through 2020, the studio isn’t about to abandon those fans it reengaged through the remake.
More pertinent to the company’s 2020 market forecast is The Shadowlands expansion for the World of Warcraft main game. No specific release date was confirmed, although tradition would point to a Q3 arrival. But more interesting is the decision to squish the level cap down to 60, driving all current max cap players down to 50.
It shows an active effort to bring more weight to the expansions, by reducing the grind for new players hoping to jump in and experience the title. It’s a move that may give lapsed or curious fans a reason to reinvest with the series. Resurfacing the well-known Lich King in the reveal trailer was also a wise move.
Elsewhere, Hearthstone – which now claims a player base of over 100 million, as well as an esport scene in its own right – also made some moves to reinvigorate fan interest. While a new expansion is rote, the arrival of a new mode is a rare and welcome move.
Called Battlegrounds, it’ll dip into the auto battler space. Less about physically playing your cards and engaging in moment-to-moment strategy, this more managerial, resource-management style of play sees you selecting heroes and customising the playing board itself in arena combat against seven other players. It’ll soft launch in beta from mid-November, so we’ll know shortly if players are on board.
Elsewhere at Activision Blizzard
While it’s Blizzard Entertainment currently waving the Activision Blizzard flag hardest in 2020, Activision itself isn’t set to stand on the sidelines. A new Call of Duty game goes without saying, but it is most probably set to be cross-gen. We expect it to double up on current consoles while being a launch title for the new Xbox (codenamed Project Scarlett) and the PlayStation 5.
Both consoles are locked for November 2020 releases, and it’s not a stretch to say – even this far out – that a Call of Duty game would be the top-selling next-gen game of Christmas.
The company has also declared plans to revitalise the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon brands after successful remakes in 2019. In August, Activision president Rob Kotick made that intention clear, telling investors it was time to “think about totally new content within these IPs.”
But elsewhere, it’s unclear what we’ll see. In 2019 Activision Blizzard experimented with new IP by backing From Software’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. However, the mediocre result of four million units shipped wouldn’t have excited the powers that be.
One thing is for sure, we’ll have to keep a close eye on the company over the coming 12 months: there will be plenty going on.