To say it’s been a turbulent few months at Blizzard would be an understatement. Leadership changes, in-game protests, employee walkouts, and campaigns calling on players to cancel their World of Warcraft subscriptions have caused Blizzard to go from one of the most beloved names in the video game industry to one associated with deeply troubling sexual harassment and discrimination allegations outlined in multiple lawsuits and investigations.
Changes both big and small have come to Blizzard and its flagship title as a result. The World of Warcraft team put out multiple statements laying out their plans to make Azeroth a more welcoming and inclusive place, and while some of those changes are already live, many of them are set to happen with the release of the upcoming patch 9.1.5 for World of Warcraft’s latest expansion, Shadowlands.
As the first patch to be released in the wake of the ongoing fallout from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s initial lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, it’s clear based on a recent interview that World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas intends for patch 9.1.5 to be a major turning point for both the development team and for Blizzard’s MMORPG. Whether it’s looking to create a more open, safe work environment or attempting to cast off nearly two decades’ worth of assumptions about what World of Warcraft can be, Hazzikostas described patch 9.1.5 as the start of a “new perspective” for the game going forward.
Hazzikostas said recent months at the studio have been simultaneously extremely challenging and inspiring, as he witnessed Blizzard come together to find and fix problems in how the organization operates. Some changes have happened at a high level, while others have happened on a team-by-team basis.
“Some changes happened immediately,” Hazzikostas said. “I don’t want to say little because I don’t want to minimize any of this, but it’s things like reviewing the wording and how we phrase the job descriptions that we post for our roles, to make sure there aren’t things that are subtly or subliminally deterring a diverse range of candidates that we want to attract. It’s looking at practices for how we conduct our meetings, and to push towards a culture where it’s well within etiquette to call people out for minor transgressions or talking over someone or interrupting someone in a meeting. The little things that can accumulate to create an environment where people don’t feel completely at ease. Ultimately, for what we do, for the business we are in, which is creative and collaborative, we need everyone to feel at ease and everyone to trust one another, to feel open, to feel safe. At all levels of our organization, those are the conversations that are going on, asking, ‘What more can we do?'”
“It’s incumbent on us, [it’s] our duty, that the world we are curating, the world we are the caretakers of, remains reflective of our team’s values and our playerbase’s values in 2021 and beyond.” — WoW game director Ion Hozzikostas
The question of “what more can we do” has also manifested in the form of in-game changes coming in patch 9.1.5 to remove or alter problematic content. World of Warcraft is a 17-year-old game, and it’s not exactly surprising that some older jokes, references, or imagery have not withstood the test of time.
“Unlike many products of art that you can say are maybe a product of their time–like old animations, animated shorts, Disney, you name it–from 80 years ago…World of Warcraft is an evolving, living world,” Hazzikostas said. “[It’s] something that was made in 2005 but doesn’t remain in 2005, it’s re-experienced and republished every day, every hour, for new people who log in for the first time and explore Azeroth. It’s incumbent on us, [it’s] our duty, that the world we are curating, the world we are the caretakers of, remains reflective of our team’s values and our playerbase’s values in 2021 and beyond.”
Hazzikostas explained how the team is currently going about reevaluating older game content for the modern era. The World of Warcraft team has set up internal channels for team members to speak up about pieces of potentially problematic content that may be worth taking a second look at. He called it a bottom-up effort on the part of the team, with members calling attention to various aspects of the game that may have bothered them for a long time but, without an official method for calling attention to the content in question, was previously never looked at with a critical eye.
Once flagged for another look, a panel of team leads of different backgrounds, races, genders, and perspectives evaluate the content before determining whether or not it should stay as is, be reworked, or be removed from the game entirely. It all comes down to whether or not the content in question is making the game a less welcoming environment.
“That’s really the line we are trying to draw,” Hazzikostas said. “Things that were limiting in their perspective, things that could signal that World of Warcraft and Azeroth were a place more for some than others. There’s plenty of room for humor, and humor is going to land for some and not land for others. Some people are going to find some things offensive to their sensibilities, but that’s not universally what we are trying to target. At the end of the day we are a T for Teen game. There are double entendres, there are things along those lines that are there to stay. It’s making sure we are taking all perspectives into account, when we are making those jokes we aren’t making them at the expense of particularly lesser represented groups.”
Some of the changes have come at the request of the community, and the team is making an effort to pay closer attention to those. Though the content is being changed now, Hazzikostas said fan discussions revolving around the depiction of female Mogu and the name of the Twin Consorts raid encounter in 2013’s Mists of Pandaria expansion are examples of instances where fan concerns fell on deaf ears.
“It’s not like these are invented issues,” he said. “There were voices saying these things and we weren’t listening closely enough. Now we are trying to change that.”
In addition to attempts to make Azeroth a more welcoming place, patch 9.1.5 brings big changes to a number of Shadowlands gameplay systems, many of which have been long requested by fans.
“A key piece of the 9.1.5 changes is not us just looking back at certain things we did in Shadowlands and revisiting them; it reflects a new perspective going forward in a lot of ways,” Hazzikostas said.
The “new perspective” Hazzikostas mentioned looks to be a better understanding of what modern World of Warcraft players are looking to get out of the long-running MMORPG. Whether it’s the host of alt-friendly changes coming in patch 9.1.5 or the removal of rigid, unpopular systems like Conduit Energy, Hazzikostas seemed more aware than ever that players have changed in the almost two decades since World of Warcraft first burst onto the MMO scene.
He described how in the early days of World of Warcraft, few players made alt characters, and almost no in-game accomplishments were account-wide. There was a firm belief on the developer side that players needed to be invested in their characters, and that meant everything in the game needed to be done on a per-character basis. Now, however, Hazzikostas said most players have on average two or three characters they play regularly.
“I think we at times clung too closely to those traditions, many of those which were instilled in us by our old bosses–many of them the founders and leaders of the team–of the importance of the investment in your character and character as the lens through which you view the world,” Hazzikostas said. “Increasingly, what we’ve been hearing from players is that, you know what, I view the world through my own eyes as a human sitting behind the keyboard, and I’ve done this questline, and I enjoyed it the first time, but I don’t want to do this questline again, and if you make me, it makes me not want to play the character at all.”
That’s where patch 9.1.5’s numerous alt-focused changes come in. Players will finally be able to skip the expansion’s introductory questline after having already completed it on another character, and players who have already reached max renown with a Covenant will be able to freely jump between Covenants on alts. Players will also have the ability to level up while in the expansion’s roguelite dungeon, Torghast.
“Whereas before we were approaching most decisions from character first as our starting point and then occasionally making things account-wide unlocks in the case of cosmetics or achievements and things like that, I think now increasingly we are asking the question in regard to every almost reward, every piece of content, is this something that holds up for multiple playthroughs?” he said. “Is this something that’s going to feel meaningfully different on a different character?”
As for why some of the changes like being able to more freely swap between Covenants and the removal of Conduit Energy took so long, despite being long criticized by many fans, Hazzikostas said it came down to initially wanting players to make semi-permanent choices in the vein of World of Warcraft Classic talent trees. He admits that changes to the systems should have come sooner, as the list of positives for more permanent choices became shorter as players began to feel more and more constrained by Shadowlands’ systems in the months following the expansion’s launch.
“It’s patterns we’ve been trained to think in and accustomed to think in,” he said. “Working on World of Warcraft this long, that can lead to what seems like stubbornness to the outside, and I get that and I get that is frustrating. It’s taken us some time to come around and really realize, ‘Let’s accept that when we set up friction, people are going to find a way through it. By definition friction is not fun, you’re dealing with something annoying that’s sticking and slowing you down, why are we doing that? Let’s let people go from something they enjoy to something they enjoy without hurdles.'”
Whether or not all the changes above will be enough to bring back players who may have let their subscriptions lapse in response to the state of Shadowlands or the lawsuits remains to be seen. Hazzikostas knows there is still work to be done. It’s perhaps for that reason Blizzard recently announced it would be canceling its 2022 BlizzCon event, with the time and resources that would usually be used to put on the annual convention instead going towards supporting Blizzard’s various development teams as the studio looks to reevaluate what BlizzCon means in the wake of all that has happened in recent months.
It’s clear there is still a long road ahead for the studio. The state of California’s lawsuit is still ongoing amidst calls of ethical violations, and Activision Blizzard recently reached a $18 million settlement with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a separate lawsuit. Activision Blizzard will be using the $18 million to compensate harassment victims and fund anti-harassment and discrimination programs, with any remaining money in the fund to be put towards various charities. Yet another ongoing class action lawsuit claims Activision Blizzard misled investors by failing to disclose the state of California’s investigation. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is also conducting an investigation related to whether or not the company misled investors.
All the while, a large and vocal contingent of Activision, Blizzard, and King employees, called the ABK Workers Alliance, has yet to have all four of its demands for a better workplace fully met by company leadership. Those demands include an end to forced arbitration, the adoption of inclusive recruitment and hiring practices, increased pay transparency through compensation metrics, and an audit of company policies to be performed by a neutral third party.
“We know we have work to do to win back the community’s trust. I know we as a leadership group within Blizzard have work to do to win back our team’s trust and our employee’s trust.” — WoW game director Ion Hazzikostas
Some of those demands are finally, after months of silence, being acknowledged by leadership. In a letter from Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick posted online prior to the company’s November 2 investor call, Kotick said the company is looking to adopt the “strictest harassment and non-retaliation policies of any employer.” He pledged the company will increase the percentage of women and non-binary people employees by 50%, alongside investing $250 million “to accelerate opportunities for diverse talent.” Kotick also vowed to end forced arbitration of sexual harassment and discrimination claims. More pay transparency is coming as well, with Kotick saying the company will be sharing pay equity reports annually.
The changes outlined above are a step in the right direction and do look to at least partially meet employee demands. But other actions taken by the company go against the wishes of the ABK Workers Alliance. Activision Blizzard did select a third party to conduct an audit of company policies, but, as the ABK Workers Alliance has pointed out, the law firm in question, WilmerHale, has a pre-existing relationship with some Activision Blizzard executives and is known to have used anti-union tactics on behalf of companies like Amazon and Uber in the past.
Though Hazzikostas said those in leadership positions at Blizzard are focused right now on listening to the voices of their teams and their communities to bring about change, much of that change will be dependent on how far Activision Blizzard’s executive leadership is willing to go to make things right. The ABK Workers Alliance tweeted over the weekend asking if Kotick would voluntarily recognize a union at the company, but it remains to be seen whether Activision Blizzard leadership will do so should unionization efforts move forward.
“I think everything that came out was deeply and justifiably distributing and upsetting, to our community and to us,” Hazzikostas said. “I understand and would not deny that for a second. What I would ask is that people judge the World of Warcraft team, and judge World of Warcraft, by our actions, as a team, as a game, going forward. We know we have work to do to win back the community’s trust. I know we as a leadership group within Blizzard have work to do to win back our team’s trust and our employee’s trust.”
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands patch 9.1.5 launches November 2. You can read the full patch notes for the upcoming update here.
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