If you’ve been giddy with anticipation for this year’s BlizzCon in the hopes that Blizzard would finally unveil its as yet unannounced MMO (codenamed ‘Titan’) follow-up to World of Warcraft (a solid bet), well, you may have to wait a bit longer.
Yesterday, Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat reported on information provided to him by a “source familiar to the matter” that Blizzard had essentially hit the reset button on the ‘Titan’ project. According to the report, Blizzard has pulled 70 of the 100 team members assigned to the project and set them off to work on other Blizzard projects, leaving just 30 of the core members to essentially start over.
We’re still on for BlizzCon then, right? I suppose it’s still possible. After all, Blizzard unveiled Diablo III many years before its eventual release, but even if we’re somehow treated to an announcement this year, VentureBeat’s source warns that gamers shouldn’t expect to see whatever ‘Titan’ ends up being until 2016 – at the earliest! Ouch!
We did manage to reach out to Blizzard on the situation and they replied with the following:
“We've always had a highly iterative development process, and the unannounced MMO is no exception. We've come to a point where we need to make some large design and technology changes to the game. We're using this opportunity to shift some of our resources to assist with other projects while the core team adapts our technology and tools to accommodate these new changes. Note that we haven’t announced any dates for the MMO.”
This statement confirms the major elements reported by VentureBeat, namely that there have been some massive changes made to the project, and that these changes necessitated moving team members onto other projects. It’s also true that Blizzard hasn’t announced a release date (or even the project itself!), but the studio doesn’t appear to be confirming or denying the notion of a 2016 date at this point.
But why do this at all?
Parsing out the scant details we do have, it looks to me as if something caused Blizzard to undertake this massive upheaval and this changed the status of the project such that a production-sized development team is not necessary at the moment. If there are “large design and technology” changes that need to be made that are significant enough to reduce your team to 30 members, it’s possible that you’re looking at a pre-production development team that’s gone back far enough to reassess things from the top level and lay the foundation for whatever technology needed to support that vision.
If this is where the project is and Blizzard has gone back to the drawing board, there would (understandably) be no real reason to keep so many developers on the current team. It would make sense to shift these folks off to other projects until ‘Titan’ gets to a point once again where the additional manpower is necessary.
It’s also possible that the situation is far less grim than the picture the above scenario paints for us. Perhaps a major piece of the project just wasn’t working out or Blizzard hit a roadblock trying to get it working right and no work could continue until this aspect of the project was properly addressed. Consider it a bottleneck of sorts. In this case, 30 members relevant to accomplishing said task are kept on, while the rest of the team helps with other Blizzard projects in the meantime.
The fact of the matter is we don’t know. This also makes this year’s BlizzCon extremely crucial in being able to assess the damage, so to speak. If Blizzard doesn’t announce the project at BlizzCon, there’s a very good chance the first scenario I presented is playing out. However, if we do learn of the project at BlizzCon, then it all depends on how involved the unveiling is.
If Blizzard goes heavy on the details and puts on a showing that would give one the idea that nothing this significant happened this year, then it’s safe to say that scenario two is the more likely reasoning for the shakeup. If it’s only the most basic of announcements, perhaps concept art and high-level discussion of the game’s vision, we may indeed be looking at a project much further out, though perhaps less so than if there were no announcement at all.
Given Blizzard’s track record so far, the notion of going back to the drawing board or outright canceling a major project isn’t exactly a far stretch. Gamers are still giving Blizzard hell for canceling StarCraft: Ghost and I think we all know the Diablo III story. Blizzard is known for taking its sweet time with whatever project the studio working on, similar to Valve (Half-Life 3, anyone?) and something like this is really par for the course at this point.
It can also be a really good thing if your studio can weather the financial burden. Sure, it didn’t work out so well for Diablo III (development hell is often unpredictable), but most of Blizzard’s projects have had lengthy development cycles and came out better for it in the end. We wouldn’t be having this conversation otherwise. Despite the high-profile mistakes of Diablo III, Blizzard is still known for making good games more than bad ones and that’s why we care at all. The optimist in me would rather point at examples such as Valve’s Team Fortress 2 over Duke Nukem Forever or Diablo III. If Valve produced the original vision for TF2, then it’s quite likely it wouldn’t have ended up as much of a massive success as for both gamers and Valve as it is today. Part of that process was making some major shifts and reboots along the course of that project’s development and it’s possible the same could be true for ‘Titan’.
It’s natural to be worried when something like this occurs, but despite Blizzard’s missteps in recent years, I’d like to think that even if ‘Titan’ is largely going back to the drawing board at this point, it will come out better on the other end.
The MMO genre appears to be on the cusp of a major shift. Not only have we grown past the point of attempting to emulate Blizzard’s heavy themepark-focused success in World of Warcraft, but it looks like sandbox-style games are having a serious resurgence not just in MMOs, but across other genres of gaming as well. Given the lengthy development cycle of ‘Titan’ until now, it’s very much possible that the foundation of the project’s design was based on the MMO landscape as it looked up to as recently as even a year or so ago. This was a landscape where game developed content a la World of Warcraft was still king, but also a serious problem for developers to try to keep up with. This foundation is still relevant today, but extrapolate the shifts we’re seeing to the next couple of years and things could be a lot different. This is especially true when SOE not so coyly continues to drop hints that it may be pursuing a decidedly more sandbox approach with EverQuest Next. Perhaps Blizzard’s now reading the same tea leaves and would rather position the game in the lead of a new trend instead of at the end of a dying one.
It’s all a whole heap of speculation at this point, but that’s all we can do right now. Assuming Blizzard doesn’t openly talk about what’s going on with the press, all eyes should be fixed squarely on BlizzCon to get an idea of what’s what.
Aside from all that? I’m just glad that those 70 developers weren’t unceremoniously laid off. With how volatile games development is and the many layoffs we’ve seen studios have experience in the past year alone, this could have been a very real possibility that thankfully didn’t happen.