NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Blizzard Entertainment's disastrous remake of the classic video game Warcraft III last year was the result of mismanagement and financial pressures, according to newly revealed documents and people with knowledge of the failed launch.
The release also reflected Blizzard's significant cultural changes in recent years, as corporate owner Activision Blizzard has pushed the game developer to cut costs and prioritise its biggest titles.
Warcraft III: Reforged was a long-awaited reimagining of one of Blizzard's most popular games. Blizzard President J. Allen Brack called the original title "monumentally important" when Reforged was announced in 2018.
The company promised "over four hours of updated in-game cutscenes and re-recorded voice-overs". But the project was never a priority for the company, in part because a remaster of an old strategy game had little chance of becoming the type of billion-dollar product that Activision wanted, according to the people, who asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak on company matters.
With Blizzard pressured to focus on its biggest franchises, Warcraft III: Reforged could not get the ambitious budget that its leaders wanted.
When Warcraft III: Reforged was released on Jan 28, 2020, it was widely panned, earning a 59 of 100 on the review aggregation website Metacritic.
The game was buggy and missing the components that Blizzard had promised earlier, including the updated cutscenes - sequences that develop the story line but are not part of game play - and re-recorded voice-overs.
The remake even lacked features that the original Warcraft III had contained in 2002, such as a "ladder" system that ranked competitive players. Blizzard also had disabled the original version of the game on its digital platform, so the inferior remake was the only version that fans could easily play.
In the weeks after launch, Blizzard promised to update the game and add some of those features over time, but 18 months later, they are still nowhere to be found.
"Warcraft III: Reforged not only felt like a disappointing remaster, but it actually made the online experience of the original game worse for fans who have been playing it continuously for almost 20 years," said Mr Wes Fenlon, an editor for the website PC Gamer. "Five years ago, I think Blizzard was one of the few big game companies that could still cast itself as being your friend, but I think that innocent trust is gone now."
At the time, the company apologised for the launch and said it had chosen to backtrack on updating the cinematics because "we did not want the in-game cutscenes to steer too far from the original game".
But documentation produced after its release, as well as interviews with 11 people who worked on or close to the game, indicate that Reforged was actually rescoped due to budget cuts and internal arguments over the game's direction.
In a statement, an Activision Blizzard spokesman said the company offered "no-questions-asked refunds" to Warcraft III: Reforged owners.
"Blizzard prides itself on releasing games when they're ready - gameplay and quality come first and foremost - and our goal is always to do right by our community," the spokesman said.
"The central issue with Warcraft III: Reforged was an early, unclear vision and misalignment about whether the game was a remaster or a remake. This led to other challenges with the scope and features of the game, and communication on the team, with leadership and beyond, which all snowballed closer to launch. Developers across Blizzard pitched in to help, but ultimately bug fixing and other tasks related to the end of development couldn't correct the more fundamental issues."
The spokesman added that as a result of the negative reactions to Warcraft III: Reforged, the upcoming Diablo II remake, planned for release in September, will be "a pure remaster, faithful to the art, gameplay, and cinematics of the original game".
Since its founding in 1991, Blizzard has grown into one of the biggest United States-based game publishers by releasing critically acclaimed, lucrative titles. Franchises such as Diablo and Overwatch have helped Activision Blizzard reach US$8 billion (S$10.9 billion) in revenue last year.
Blizzard's success, under co-founder and former chief executive officer Mike Morhaime, was a product of its high standards for quality and willingness to delay games until they were ready.
But Activision, which absorbed Blizzard in 2007 and had left it largely to operate independently, has been taking a bigger role in Blizzard's operations recently, putting financial pressures on the developer.
Warcraft III: Reforged was Blizzard's first bad game and another blemish for a company that has faced multiple internal challenges in recent years, including high-level departures like Mr Morhaime and disputes over low wages.
Blizzard also faced widespread criticism and calls for a boycott after banning a player who supported Hong Kong's protest movement on a livestream.
This week, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Activision Blizzard over claims of harassment and discrimination, accusing the company of facilitating a sexist culture.
Small teams like Classic Games, which worked on remakes including Reforged, were all but ignored in favour of potential billion-dollar games like Diablo IV and Overwatch 2. Blizzard even cancelled some of its other projects in favour of the proven hits. Eight months after the release of Warcraft III: Reforged, the Classic Games team was dismantled.
Blizzard chose to plow ahead with a premature release of Warcraft III: Reforged largely because it had already taken pre-orders from players, according to people familiar with the decision. The company could not bump the game too much more without potentially being forced to send out refunds and risking that fans would not buy the game again.
In notes from an internal postmortem of the game reviewed by Bloomberg, developers on Warcraft III: Reforged acknowledged this issue. "We took pre-orders when we knew the game wasn't ready yet," they said, adding later that the company needed to "resist the urge to ship an unfinished product because of financial pressure".
The Blizzard spokesman said that "in hindsight, we should have taken more time to get it right, even if it meant returning pre-orders".
In the beginning, the Classics Game team had ambitious plans. Throughout 2017 and 2018, developers revamped the game's script and re-recorded all the dialogue. The goal was to rewrite scenes and flesh out characters to align them with the lore of World Of Warcraft, the massively popular online game that had been evolving the story of the franchise for the previous decade and a half.
Mr David Fried, a designer on the original Warcraft III who was briefly brought back to work on Reforged, said in an e-mail that "there were things in the works for Warcraft III: Reforged that would have absolutely revitalised a classic game".
But behind the scenes, things were not going well. Members of the team began worrying that they had promised more than they could deliver. Remastering Warcraft III was more complicated than their previous remake, StarCraft, thanks to its three-dimensional models.
The team was small, the production was disorganised and the amount of work in front of them was daunting. It had taken months to revamp one of Warcraft III's levels; now they would have to do the same for dozens more. Morale plummeted.
Mr Rob Bridenbecker, the head of the Classic Games team, was known for an aggressive managerial style, for taking frequent trips out of the country during production and a tendency to give unrealistic deadlines.
Miscommunication became a serious issue across the team, as did arguments over the scope and art style, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr Bridenbecker, who left Blizzard in April, declined to comment.
"We have developers who have dealt with exhaustion, anxiety, depression and more for a year now," the developers later said in the postmortem. "Many have lost trust in the team and this company. Many players have also lost trust, and the launch certainly didn't help an already rough year for Blizzard's image."
The team, which had a reputation of taking on outcasts from other Blizzard departments, was restricted in hiring due to a limited budget. Some people had to do multiple jobs at once, working many nights and weekends to try to finish the game.
Technological obstacles and conflicts among the team only exacerbated the problems. A mass layoff of nearly 800 people in February 2019 hollowed out Blizzard's support departments, which also hurt the team.
"We were missing and/or had the wrong people in certain lead roles," the postmortem said. "The team structure didn't set up the project for success."
Warcraft III: Reforged began gradually losing features. Management threw out the revised scripts and re-recordings the team had done, according to the people familiar with the process, choosing instead to stick with the original dialogue and voice acting.
Mr Fried, who departed the project as it was rescoped, pinned the blame for these shifts on Blizzard's corporate parent.
"I am deeply disappointed that Activision would actively work against the interests of all players in the manner that they did," he said. He added that it was "quite telling" that Mr Morhaime had resigned just weeks before Warcraft III: Reforged was presented in November 2018 at Blizzcon, the company's annual fan convention.
The developers of the game blamed Mr Bridenbecker and other executives. "Leadership seemed totally out of touch with the velocity and scope of the project until extremely late in development," the team said in the postmortem.
"Senior voices in the department warned leadership about the impending disaster of Warcraft on several occasions over the last year or so, but were ignored."
By the end of 2019, the Classic Games team had brought in help from all across Blizzard to finish Warcraft III: Reforged. It would not be enough.
When Blizzard releases a new game, there is usually some sort of celebration - a lavish launch party full of drinks and speeches. For Warcraft III: Reforged, however, there were no champagne toasts; just wincing anticipation of how angry players would be when they saw how many features were missing from the game.
The next Classic Games project, Diablo II: Resurrected, due out in September, is being produced by other teams. The project was transferred to the Diablo IV team and Albany, New York-based Vicarious Visions, which was absorbed into Blizzard earlier this year. People who have seen and played that game are optimistic about its chances.
Blizzard vowed to patch and update Warcraft III: Reforged, but progress has been slow. In lieu of official support, a group of fans began writing their own patches for the game, building a service called Warcraft 3 Champions that aims to add back missing features. This version of the game includes a competitive ladder.
"We have a level of freedom that Blizzard could never have," said Mr John Graves, a member of the Warcraft 3 Champions team who has made the project his full-time job for the last year.
The Blizzard spokesman said the company has "a new team dedicated to updating Warcraft III: Reforged with improvements. In these efforts, we realise our work and actions will speak louder than our words. Across many projects, we've made process improvements, implemented better milestone planning, and improved visibility into work-in-progress."
But a year and a half after launch, Blizzard's Warcraft III: Reforged remains incomplete. And the company is left facing questions, including whether it will be able to recover from the brand damage caused by the missed expectations.
"I think Blizzard lost some community trust," said Ms Elizabeth Harper, editorial director for the website Blizzard Watch. "But they've earned quite a bit of trust over the years, and it will take more than one bad game release to destroy it."