Blizzard held its annual BlizzCon event last weekend in the US, giving fans a closer look at the forthcoming Diablo III game, StarCraft II expansion Heart of the Storm and spin-off Defence of the Ancients, as well as more info on World of WarCraft and hints at new projects.
Here, in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, executive vice president Rob Pardo discusses the current state of play at Blizzard, its confusion over Valve’s attempts to trademark ‘DotA’, releasing digital games simultaneously with boxed product, and how it could never dedicate resources to the projects by parent company Activision.
Q: Defence of the Ancients isn't a Blizzard property, it has been born out of Blizzard games and the Blizzard modding community. Now you're in a situation where some of those people are at Valve and they're making what Valve wants to be seen as the official DotA game. I think they're even making a move to trademark the name - what's your response to that?
Rob Pardo: A little bit of confusion to be honest. Certainly, DotA came out of the Blizzard community. It was something that started - I believe the first map I know of was Aeon of Strife, and then there was a Defence of the Ancients map that was made that became the terminology for that style of game, like Tower Defence or Hero Arenas, there were DotA games. The actual Defence of the Ancients map has actually gone through many hands over the years, we've made maps for it, and it's just a really strange move to us that Valve would go off and try to exclusively trademark the term considering it's something that's been freely available to us and everyone in the Warcraft III community up to this point. Valve is usually such a pro-mod community company that it seems like a really strange move to us.
Q: Do you have any idea why they're doing it?
Rob Pardo: I really don't understand, to be honest. I've talked to some of those guys and obviously they do have Abdul Ismail, who most recent was working on the DotA All-Stars map. So I'm assuming since he wants to continue making that map they felt like they should be able to trademark it. To us, that means that you're really taking it away from the Blizzard and WarCraft III community and that doesn't seem the right thing to do.
Q: Unlike others such as League of Legends, you're choosing to use DotA in the title of your mod. If Valve comes to you and says, "we don't want you to use that title" what would your response be?
Rob Pardo: Our response is that they don't own the term 'DotA' at this point. It's something they're obviously filing for but our contention is its something that should continue to be available to Blizzard and to our community.
Q: You've announced that Cataclysm will be available as a download sale immediately at launch. You've been selling via download recently but after a day or two to give the retail shops a chance to sell a few boxes. Why the change for Cataclysm?
Rob Pardo: We've just been slowly changing it over time. Each time we've had a narrower window and I think it's just borne out of the industry changing and digital distribution becoming more and more popular. We're now at the point where it's time, especially for the World of Warcraft community because they're online by definition. They are already able to handle very large pieces of data so we felt that this is the best thing for the community, the opportunity to download and pre-order the game before we launch.
Q: Is it something you only want to do for expansion packs at the moment, or would you consider selling a full game - Diablo III for example - from day one, online?
Rob Pardo: We haven't discussed what we're going to do but I'm sure we'll discuss it. I can't say for sure that this is the way for sure that we'll deliver now all future games, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was, either. Once we get a little closer to Diablo III we'll make a determination. But the day's coming. You can definitely see digital distribution all around the industry, it's becoming a bigger and bigger per cent of the market.
Q: Are you glad it's being taken more seriously by the wider industry?
Rob Pardo: Yes, ultimately I think it's a great way to get games. Speaking to me as a gamer and not even a Blizzard person, it's my preferred way too get games nowadays. Even though I'm confused by Valve with the DotA stuff I love Steam. That's how I get a lot of my PC games, I feel like there's so many advantages for a gamer.
Q: It's interesting that the NPD Group recently admitted that there's been a unnecessarily grim picture of the industry. do you think it's a fair assessment that if you were to bring in download sales and subscription revenues you'd see a very different story about the health of the games industry?
Rob Pardo: I absolutely do. The PC games industry and the gaming industry is super healthy. It's always been tough to do metrics in any industry and especially once you start having a lot of digital distribution it's hard to capture the real metrics of the health of the industry. Even if you look at something like NPD there's still an estimation involved there, they don't really have real-time data from every retail chain. By necessity they're guessing. But I think the industry is as healthy as ever. From our experience our games continue to sell better than the last ones. I always laugh because as long as I've been in the games industry, every year I'm asked "is PC gaming dead?" But it keeps on growing despite the fact it's been pronounced dead 20 times.
Q: The new version of Battle.net is out now - how do you feel it's been going for the few months its been live?
Rob Pardo: It's going really well, and one of the best tests is how stable it was at launch. Despite the fact that we don't have all the features there that we want, with every online release we've had going to back to launch we never get everything in that we want in, but the things that are there are really awesome and it's a really stable platform. You're going to see us really quickly get those other things in. A good example is the community really had an outcry over chat channels, that wasn't something that surprised us, we made a conscious decision to get the game out before chat channels were ready to launch, but that's something the game will be getting shortly.
Q: Did you change expectations too much ?
Rob Pardo: I don't know if we changed them so much but we have a lot of really passionate fans now. It's was one thing that back in the day, no one expected things from us. Now we live in a world where people have very high expectations for our games and services and that's fine, we don't have a problem with that. We just try to be as honest as we can with our fans on where we're at with development and where we're at with features and if it's something that isn't great and the fans point that out then we'll iterate on it and get it right.
Q: Where would you like to go with Battle.net next?
Rob Pardo: There's a lot of things. I don't know if there's a monolithic 'next' but I'd say the next big goal for it is Diablo III. We have lots of ideas that we want to do with Diablo III on the platform. Once we do that, we really have a Blizzard community on Battle.net which has been a big driving factor for us. Previous to StarCraft II and the relaunch of Battle.net we were sitting here with one of our biggest game franchises that wasn't even on the platform - World of Warcraft. So that was a really big moment for us to get WoW on Battle.net, to be able to talk across Battle.net. Once we get Diablo III we'll get all three franchises and it becomes the online version of BlizzCon.
Q: Greg Canessa made some comments recently about how much it's cost - much more than was expected to develop. Now you're in a position as a platform operator - a bit like Valve with Steam - do you have to proportion a lot more of your investment into R&D, into working on these kinds of projects?
Rob Pardo: I don't know about a lot more, it's just the complexity level. We launched Battle.net with the original Diablo and its was a platform back then, it was just that Battle.net was a team of one person, and then it became a team of three people for a very long time. What's happened is the level of complexity with our online game service... all the regions we're in now, there's complexity in the amount of features and the games themselves, that's really blown that out a lot more. We probably didn't anticipate it as much as we did but we're catching up and it's pretty exciting too, to have your own online gaming platform for your games.
One of the other things we're able to do on our platform that you're not going to see on some of the others like Steam or Xbox is that we can integrate the games with the platform much more deeply. When you log on to StarCraft II you're on Battle.net and you're in StarCraft II - it's that fully integrated experience which is not something I think the other services are able to do.
Q: Chris Metzen in his opening address at BlizzCon had almost a manifesto - it was like he was forming a geek political party - it also struck me that he was reminding himself and Blizzard that that is what's at the core of what you are. Do you think that's something you need to do, now that you've becoming so big and so successful?
Rob Pardo: You'd have to talk Chris, I've talked to him a little bit, but I can tell you what I think it was. I don't think it's so much reminding Blizzard, because one of our core corporate values is to actually embrace your inner geek. It's something we really encourage people internally at Blizzard to have. The things Chris put up there are things he's very passionate about. We have people that might be really into technology or iPhones or the iPad, or geeky music, or poker and it's really tapping into that passion. That's one of our core company values. What I think Chris was trying to do to the Blizzard community is make sure the Blizzard community understands that we're all geeks. It's not like there's Blizzard employees and Blizzard fans. We're all excited about this stuff for a reason. He was just trying to make sure that it's clear that we're all the same.
Q: Do you worry about your brand values being somewhat tainted or watered down by the association with Activision? Because that's a brand that is not necessarily so well regarded by gamers. There's a lot of suspicion - I think completely unfounded - but about the effect Activision might be having on Blizzard.
Rob Pardo: Well, the thing that I think a lot of people may not remember is that we've had a long history of this. This is not the first company that we've merged with or whatever else. Ever since Davidson & Associates bought Blizzard 14-ish years ago it's been a full-owned entity. And despite that fact Blizzard has grown as it's own brand and its own identity separate from whatever corporate structure we're part of. At this point more than ever it's really clear. At BlizzCon there's not Activision games down on the show floor. We really like the fact that we're with Activision because they're a really strong, healthy company which is something we've not always had the experience of being attached to. They are still their own thing and we're still our own thing and we're not going to change that identity for anybody.
Q: How much are you prepared to share with the bigger company? Bobby Kotick recently made comments about your expertise in online gaming maybe being useful to Bungie working on their new projects. As a hypothesis, would you be willing to help them out with that or is it too core to what you do, do you have to protect your expertise?
Rob Pardo: We don't necessarily have a problem, it all depends on the level of help. We're not going to send programmers anywhere but that said we're pretty open with sharing ideas and thoughts and challenges, and not even within Activision. Most people would be surprised at how open the games industry is among a lot of developers, how much we do share thoughts and challenges because it makes everyone's games better, it makes the industry better and allows each company to be better. We're not competing against Bungie, we're not competing against Valve. We're all trying to make this the best entertainment medium there is.
As far as sharing within Activision, sure, if any of their studios call up and say "we're having this challenge that you guys have had, how do we solve that?" then we'd do that. Where we'd probably draw the line is actually resources. We're not going to go and design something for them or program something for them because we have to stay focused on our stuff. And that's why we're successful, because we really focus on our own games.
Rob Pardo is executive VP of game design at Blizzard. Interview by Oli Welsh.