A new investigation into Diablo 4’s development has painted a picture of chaos and mismanagement at Activision Blizzard, reportedly resulting in a dash to meet a release date – said to be 6th June next year – that staff believe is “unlikely” to be met without ” many hours of overtime or cut features”.
In a new report by The Washington Post, assembled after speaking with 15 current and former Blizzard employees, it’s claimed Diablo 4’s development was troubled from the off, with leadership at the time instilling the project with a “sense of inertia” as large parts of the game was constantly revamped and scrapped – including a planned battle royale mode.
Talking to The Washington Post, team members laid much of the early blame at director Luis Barriga and lead designer Jesse McCree, both of who left the studio in 2021, amid serious allegations of institutionalized discrimination and harassment at Activision Blizzard. Colleagues claim, for instance, McCree “would grow intrigued by different aspects of the game and then lose interest and hand it off to other people without finishing what he started.”
“You could tell that they weren’t very confident,” a former Blizzard employee told the Post. “There wasn’t a lot of vision for the game. They were changing their minds a lot, sometimes without even giving things a fair shot, like over the weekend. This started to really slowly start to burn people out.”
Creative director Sebastian Stępień – who previously served as director on The Witcher 3 and head writer on Cyberpunk 2077 – is also cited as a “source of turmoil” within the team, with employees discussing some “particularly disturbing revisions” Stępień made to the script upon joining the project.
One version of his revised script, written in 2019, is said to have “repeatedly mentioned the rape of a love interest and referred to this female character as the raped woman as her primary description”. Two employees recall a line in the script saying, “And then she was raped, brutally.” Interviewees say the inclusion of sexual assault was added merely to make a “grittier and tonally darker” Diablo,”rather than engaging with the subject in a sensitive way.”
After employees pleaded with leaders to revise this version of the story, it was eventually overhauled, with the female character being cut from the story entirely. Activision did not deny the claims to the Post, instead saying, “The story in question was floated more than three years ago under different leadership as character backstory, not game content.”
Stępień’s insistence on “taking the entire game and rewriting it himself” reportedly “delayed the story’s development for months”, compounding issues caused by Diablo 4’s indecisive early development. These, in turn, are said to have been massively impacted by staff departures as key employees went elsewhere for “more competitive wages and better working conditions”.
Activision eventually move to bring Vicarious Visions, now known as Blizzard Albany, onto the project, but the process of merging the teams is said to have been “bumpy”, given the latter’s relative inexperience with Diablo and the “few plans” in place to integrate the two.
“At a certain point, throwing bodies at the problem does not solve the problem,” one current Blizzard Albany employee told The Washington Post. “If you add them late enough in the project, it doesn’t matter that you hired an entire studio, because they’ll never be up to date in time to help on the shipping game.”
As a result of its development upheaval, Diablo 4 is said to have seen multiple internal, unannounced release dates over the years, with Activision at one point floating 2021 as a release goal. That reportedly shifted to December 2022 following the game’s reveal at BlizzCon 2019, but developers are said to have “appealed for more time to avoid massive cuts to the game”. That lead to a revised release goal of April 2023, but the team “felt it still needed more time”, whereupon launch was reportedly shifted to 6th June next year.
“We’re at the point where they’re not willing to delay the game anymore,” one current Blizzard Albany employee told the Post. “So we all just have to go along and figure out how much we’re willing to hurt ourselves to make sure the game gets released in a good enough state.”
In order to meet its latest release target, Activision Blizzard is said to be incentivizing longer working hours among employees by promising perks some describe as “paltry”, including profit-sharing to cover meals. Activision Blizzard, for its part, told the Post, “Overtime is voluntary and limited to specific teams”.
Unsurprisingly, employees the publication spoke to say Diablo 4’s strained development process could impact both the quality of the game – some believe it will be “fun” while others describe it as “mediocre but passable” – and employee health.
Concerns over working conditions have continued to dog Activision Blizzard following a State of California lawsuit called the company “a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women” last July. Since then, Activision has faced multiple fresh allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, as well as unionization efforts by employees looking for better, fairer working conditions.
In response, Activision has continued its attempts to thwart unionization efforts, albeit unsuccessfully, and announced the results of its own internal investigation into itself, claiming it found “no widespread harassment” at the company. Today, it also announced it is counter-suing the DFEH, which it says “deliberately unleashed a hurricane of hostile media coverage”.