One of the companies that failed to have a presence at E3 this year is one you wouldn't expect: Blizzard Entertainment. Is this a result of poor planning or is it strategy?
Within the first three months of this year, Activision Blizzard raked in nearly a billion dollars. The company's first-quarter revenues in 2009 netted $981 million, more than it expected. Retailers sold 2.8 million copies of Wrath of the Lich King within 24 hours, making it the fastest-selling PC game in history. While the U.S. economy is frantically trying to claw its way out of a recession, consumers keep shelling out hard-earned cash on video games. Almost paradoxically, they continue fueling one of the most cunningly-crafted business machines the gaming industry has ever known; the MMOG market. Perhaps it's just a creature comfort that consumers aren't willing to part with. Or maybe $15 per month is a pittance in exchange for the ability to escape the real-life, econo-political "monsters" stalking us at every turn, if only for a couple hours. Whatever the case, the numbers don't lie…it's a good time to be Blizzard.
And just beyond the horizon, the highly-anticipated Starcraft II and Diablo III are nearing the final and post-production phases, respectively. Fans obediently surrender to the rabid, mouth-foaming frenzy of the hype machine, hunting rumors down like prey and eagerly devouring even the smallest scrap of news tossed from the table. So today, during the final hours of the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo, as publishers tear down their elaborate displays and send their scantily-clad "gamer-girls" back to their modeling agencies, the question of both journalists and fans alike still hangs in the air: "Where the hell was Blizzard?"
Technically, Activision Blizzard is a registered publisher at this year's E3 in Los Angeles. It's just the "Blizzard" half that's missing. More accurately, Blizzard Entertainment; developers of all things Warcraft, as well as other properties like Starcraft, Diablo and Rock N' Roll Racing (gold star if you remember that gem). Blizzard's absence this year didn't actually catch the media and fans by surprise—its PR responded to media inquiry in February with the following message: "Blizzard Entertainment will not be attending or participating in E3 2009." A short—but not exactly sweet—reply. The release contained a brief statement, which more or less explains that Blizzard isn't too fond of the "new" E3, which has been toned down from years past.
The announcement was met with mixed reaction. Because the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) closed E3's doors from the general public a couple years ago (limiting admission to media and industry only), the impact wasn't too significant in the eyes of many fans, since they wouldn't get the chance to experience it first-hand anyway. To that end, there's always BlizzCon; Blizzard's annual convention known for its open-to-the-public ($125 per ticket) and fan-friendly atmosphere.
Still, E3 is a powerful industry expo. It's also a highly-regarded one, despite the sharp drop in attendance after the change to private admission. It's not too far of a stretch to interpret it as a snub on Blizzard's part, especially since its headquarters is pretty much only an hour's drive away from the expo. Is Blizzard so content in its hold over the market that it's just resting on its laurels, confident that customers will keep lining up, with cash-in-hand? There's no doubt Big Blue holds the lion's share of the MMO market (62 percent, actually). But are these subscriptions—these customers—still valued as the foundation that helped build the Blizzard empire? Customers have voiced a feeling of indifference from Blizzard throughout the last year, increasingly prevalent in forums and blogs across the digital landscape. Look hard enough and you'll see it, scattered between all the "QQ."
Blizzard is approaching a significant precipice. Its marketing team will tweet and yammer all day long about "11.5 million subscribers" and "most anticipated sequel," or hint about some "top-secret next-gen MMO." But today's MMO gamers are offered a hell of a lot more choices than they were just a few years ago. Free-to-play models are finally showing signs of getting it right, allowing casual gamers and younger demographics a cheaper—if not completely free—alternative. The insanely-fast emergence of MMO-modeled first-person-shooters being released is poised to capture what was previously considered a totally separate audience. Anyone and everyone is throwing out a trawl net these days, hoping to make the next big catch in the golden seas of the MMO industry.
Yes, we're getting content patches in WoW faster than ever before, but that's a vital necessity for its longevity, and Blizzard knows it. The company also knows that when it comes to info-starved fans, just a little bit can go a long way. That's why it's surprising that Blizzard didn't make an appearance at E3 this year, offering playable demos of Starcraft II and Diablo III, which we all know they've got in some form or another. Or maybe a quick press conference? A cinematic or in-game trailer? Anything is better than nothing.
It's said that patience is a virtue, and that all good things will come in time. It's pretty well-known that Blizzard itself promotes that philosophy. But when fans have spent hundreds of dollars on your games and merchandise—while continuing to throw down cash for a subscription month after month—it begs the question: just how long do they need to wait?
Josh "WaxPaper" Bashara