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Blizzard Entertainment has acquired Spellbreak maker Proletariat to beef up the staff on its massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft.
Under the deal, Boston-based Proletariat will become part of Blizzard, and its team of 100 people will begin working on World of Warcraft, including the Dragonflight expansion coming later this year. Spellbreak, a battle royale game where wizards and witches cast spells at each other, will be sunset. (The company announced this news yesterday.)
The move is the biggest acquisition that Blizzard has made — at least for the past decade — to expand its studios. In this case, the mission is to beef up the staffing for World of Warcraft so that it can hit quality and timing goals for expansions. Terms of this transaction were not disclosed.
Activision Blizzard, the parent company of Blizzard, also folded Vicarious Visions, a longtime Activision studio, into Blizzard to work on the Diablo franchise in January 2021. But Blizzard hasn’t been particularly acquisitive, as one of the few we can remember was the acquisition of Swinging Ape in 2005. Rather, Blizzard itself got tossed around quite a bit in its early days before landing with Activision Blizzard back in 2008. Proletariat has been working with Blizzard since May.
“We are putting players at the forefront of everything we do, and we are working hard to both meet and
exceed their expectations,” said Mike Ybarra, president of Blizzard Entertainment, in a statement. “A big part of caring for our teams is making sure we have the resources to produce experiences our communities will love while giving our teams space to explore even more creative opportunities within their projects. Proletariat is a perfect fit for supporting Blizzard’s mission in bringing high-quality content to our players more often.”
It’s an awkward time for Blizzard to do this, as its parent Activision Blizzard is in the process of being acquired by Microsoft for $68.5 billion. And Blizzard Entertainment has been the primary division under investigation by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing in a big sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit against Activision Blizzard.
Dealing with past challenges
John Hight, general manager of World of Warcraft at Blizzard, said in an interview with GamesBeat it was challenging to support Shadowlands last year, and he acknowledged that sizable gaps occurred between WoW content updates. Fans always wanted more, and while the team has continued to increase in size, it has been hard hiring.
I asked Seth Sivak, CEO of Proletariat, if the company hesitated on the deal because of Blizzard’s weakening reputation, which has taken hits in recent years. I mentioned the sexual discrimination investigation, the criticism of the Shadowlands expansion, the departure of numerous well-known developers, and other loss of talent.
“We had a very kind of open and transparent conversation about this,” Sivak said. “And I think the Blizzard team recognized some of the challenges they’ve had. In some of the earliest conversations, we discussed just how they were looking at continuing to improve the culture and continuing to make a great place for developers to work.”
He added, “That was encouraging. Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done to continue to make an awesome place for developers to work. But we were pretty happy and satisfied with the direction that teams are going.”
Hight said it was “devastating” for him to go through the turmoil in the past year and to hear the things that happened. But he noted the company is changing its culture and that’s “not a one and done.”
He said, “You have to change your culture. You have to make sure that it’s now more inclusive in our workplace. You have to make sure that the people who make WoW and the people who play WoW are well supported.”
As for the Microsoft deal, Sivak said he didn’t know what change would come as a result but he is excited about the direction the company is going. Asked if the company would work on new games, Sivak said the focus for now is helping to build WoW. Hight said the goal was to get access not only to the talented team but a senior leadership team with a lot of experience.
How the deal came together
“As you probably are aware, folks in World of Warcraft have a voracious appetite for content,” said Hight. ”And what we’ve seen over the last year is that we need to increase the amount of content that we can create, and the frequency with which we’re putting it in the hands of our players.”
Toward the end of last year, the company started looking for other opportunities besides hiring more people at its internal studio. It searched for external partners and Proletariat was on the short list as it was a well-known game studio.
“My first conversation with Seth was back in December,” Hight said. “I was really impressed with him. And then the team felt like he had a lot of shared values and had a lot of knowledge of World of Warcraft. The team had the ability to do stylized art, which we do, and work within medieval fantasy, which we love. And they had a lot of fans. So from their discussions ensued.”
Sivak said the company was also looking for what to do next. He said the team saw the opportunity to evolve as a studio and work on World of Warcraft would fulfill the mission of delivering great multiplayer games. They started talking more seriously in the past couple of months.
“The opportunity to expand the world of Azeroth for the players got us really excited,” Sivak said.
Hight said the consolidation in the industry is giving Blizzard some exciting opportunities, as it now has studios working on WoW on both coasts, with the potential to tap into new sources of talent. Of course, the pandemic has made it harder to hire people in some respects, and Proletariat isn’t yet working at the office in Boston. Blizzard itself has options including working in the office sometimes.
Hight noted that the company has shipped multiple expansions with a remote workforce, and the company has options for a hybrid environment.
“That’s one of the things that made this decision easy for us to start working with Proletariat, as they have a large remote work force,” Hight said.
Sivak said, “As we looked at where what the next chapter was going to be for Proletariat, this opportunity just meant that we could accelerate what we wanted to do. Being able to work for the World of Warcraft audiences is really awesome. And the level of ambition on where I think both teams want to take World of Warcraft is incredibly exciting for us.”
Hight said some of Proletariat’s work will appear in the Dragonflight expansion. And Proletariat will be adding to its staff in Boston.
Proletariat was founded in 2012 by industry veterans from Insomniac, Harmonix, and Turbine. The team has experience building MMORPGs and includes, among others, former lead designers of Asheron’s Call, Lord of the Rings Online, and Dungeons & Dragons Online. At Proletariat, the team has operated live games for nearly a decade, having most recently released the cross-platform action-spellcasting battle royale game, Spellbreak, in the fall of 2020.
But Sivak acknowledged that the game, while it got good reviews, never reached “escape velocity” in terms of scaling up the number of users to justify its ongoing existence. The company had done relatively few updates recently for the game.
“Spellbreak was a critical success, and we felt like we really delivered something fresh in the battle royale genre,” Sivak said. “There is a lot of competition in that area, where you are competing with some of the biggest games in the world. We just couldn’t get the escape velocity necessary for us to continue to expand it.”
Proletariat began working with the World of Warcraft development team in May and will be fully
integrated into Blizzard Entertainment over the coming months.
“The really exciting part is what we’re going to build going forward,” Sivak said. “That was the real selling point for us, the level of ambition for what we want to do with World of Warcraft.”
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