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Blizzard Entertainment plans to acquire spellbreak maker Proletariat to bolster its massively multiplayer online role-playing game, World of Warcraft. [Updated: 7:59 a.m. Pacific time on 6/29/22 with intent to acquire].
As part of the agreement, the Boston-based Proletariat will become part of Blizzard, and its 100-strong team will begin work on World of Warcraft, including the Dragonflight expansion, due out later this year. Spellbreak, a battle royale game where wizards and witches cast spells on each other, will be sunset. (The company announced this news yesterday.)
The move is the largest acquisition Blizzard has made — at least in the past decade — to expand its studios. In this case, the mission is to increase the workforce for World of Warcraft so that it can meet expansion quality and timing goals. The terms of this transaction were not disclosed.
Activision Blizzard, Blizzard’s parent company, has also brought Vicarious Visions, a longtime Activision studio, into Blizzard to start working on the Diablo franchise in January 2021. But Blizzard wasn’t particularly lucrative, as one of the few we can remember was its 2005 acquisition of Swinging Ape. Rather, Blizzard itself was thrown around quite a bit in its early days before ending up with Activision Blizzard in 2008. Proletariat has been working with Blizzard since May.
“We put gamers first in everything we do and work hard to meet and exceed their expectations,” said Mike Ybarra, president of Blizzard Entertainment, in an (amended) statement. “A crucial part of mentoring players is mentoring our teams – making sure we have the resources to produce experiences our communities will love, while allowing our teams room to be even more creative in their projects explore. Proletariat is a perfect fit to support Blizzard’s mission to bring quality content to our players more often.”
It’s a bad time for Blizzard to do so, as parent company Activision Blizzard is in the process of being acquired by Microsoft for $68.5 billion. And Blizzard Entertainment was the principal investigator investigated by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing in a major 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 that supporting Shadowlands has been a challenge over the past year, and he acknowledged that there have been significant gaps between WoW content updates. Fans always wanted more, and while the team grew, it was difficult to hire new staff.
I asked Seth Sivak, Proletariat’s CEO, if the company hesitated on the deal because of Blizzard’s ailing reputation, which has suffered in recent years. I mentioned the sexual discrimination investigation, the criticism of the Shadowlands expansion, the departure of numerous well-known developers, and other talent losses.
“We had a very open and transparent conversation about it,” Sivak said. “And I think the Blizzard team recognized some of the challenges that they had. In some of the earliest conversations we’ve talked about how they plan to continue improving the culture and continue to create a great place for developers to work.”
He added: “That was encouraging. Obviously, there is still work to be done to continue creating a great developer workplace. But we’ve been pretty happy and satisfied with the direction the teams are going.”
Hight said it was “devastating” for him to go through the turmoil of the past year and hear the things that happened. But he noted that the company is changing its culture and that it’s “not one and done.”
He said: “You have to change your culture. You need to make our workplace more inclusive now. You have to make sure that the people who make WoW and the people who play WoW are well supported.”
Regarding the Microsoft deal, Sivak said he doesn’t know what changes will result, but he’s excited to see the direction the company is taking. When asked if the company would be working on new games, Sivak said the focus for now is on helping build WoW. Hight said the goal is not only to gain access to the talented team, but also to a senior leadership team with a wealth of experience.
How the deal came about
“As you probably know, people in World of Warcraft have an insatiable appetite for content,” Hight said. “And what we’ve seen over the last year is that we need to increase the amount of content we can create and the frequency with which we put it in the hands of our players.”
Towards the end of last year, the company began looking at other options than hiring more staff at its in-house studio. It was looking for external partners and Proletariat was shortlisted as it was a well-known game studio.
“My first conversation with Seth was in December,” Hight said. “I was really impressed by him. And then the team felt that he had a lot of common values and had a lot of knowledge about World of Warcraft. The team had the ability to make stylized art, which is what we do, and work with medieval fantasy, which is what we love. And they had a lot of fans. Our discussions arose from them.”
Sivak said the company is also looking into what to do next. He said the team sees an opportunity to evolve as a studio and that working on World of Warcraft fulfills the mission of delivering great multiplayer games. They’ve started talking more seriously to each other in the last few months.
“We were really excited about the opportunity to expand the world of Azeroth for players,” said Sivak.
Hight said the consolidation in the industry offers some exciting opportunities for Blizzard as it now has studios on both shores working on WoW with the potential to open up new sources of talent. Of course, the pandemic has made it harder to hire people in some ways, and Proletariat isn’t working in the Boston office yet. Blizzard itself has options, including office work at times.
Hight noted that the company has shipped multiple extensions 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 work with Proletariat since they have a large number of remote workers,” Hight said.
Sivak said: “As we looked at what the next chapter would be for the proletariat, this opportunity only meant that we could accelerate what we wanted to do. Being able to work for the World of Warcraft audience is really great. And the level of ambition of where 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 the proletariat will expand its staff in Boston.
Proletariat was founded in 2012 by industry veterans from Insomniac, Harmonix and Turbine. The team has MMORPG development experience and includes former lead designers from Asheron’s Call, Lord of the Rings Online, and Dungeons & Dragons Online. At Proletariat, the team has been running live games for almost a decade and most recently released the cross-platform action spellcasting battle royale game Spellbreak in Fall 2020.
But Sivak conceded that while the game received good reviews, it never achieved the “escape speed” to increase the number of users to justify its continued existence. The company had made relatively few updates to the game recently.
“Spellbreak was a crucial success and we felt like we really delivered something new in the battle royale genre,” said Sivak. “There’s a lot of competition in this space where you’re competing against some of the biggest games in the world. We just couldn’t get the escape velocity needed to expand it further.”
Proletariat began collaborating with the World of Warcraft development team in May and will continue to do so in full
integrated into Blizzard Entertainment in 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 ambition for what we want to do with World of Warcraft.”
[Updated: 7:59 a.m. on 6/29/22. Article was corrected to say Blizzard has the intent to acquire Proletariat. Blizzard also amended the statement from Mike Ybarra and we have updated that].
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