In 1991 a company called Silicon & Synapse was founded by three graduates from UCLA - Mike Morhaime, Allen Adham and Frank Pearce. That company was later renamed Blizzard Entertainment, and is now one of the most influential and successful videogame businesses in the world.
During this year's Games Convention GamesIndustry.biz was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time with Frank Pearce, now senior VP at Blizzard, to talk about the progress of Starcraft II, working with online communities, the lessons learned from World of Warcraft's success, and how to keep secrets.
Q: First of all, how is development on StarCraft II coming along?
Frank Pearce: Yeah, it's going pretty well, the game's pretty fun to play. There are guys back in the office who are playing it multiplayer and are having a good time, so that's always a good sign.
We've got a lot of work to do still on the single player campaign, and we have a lot of work to do on the Battle.net feature set, so we don't have any specific release date in mind - because we have so much work to do.
Q: What's the feedback been like so far from fans and the community?
Frank Pearce: I think the folks who have had an opportunity to play it have enjoyed it.
Q: Have there been any different opinions across territories? It's a game that has strong global success.
Frank Pearce: No, the feedback's been pretty consistent in each region.
Q: When it comes to putting together a sequel for a benchmark title like StarCraft, do you look around at what other companies have done in the genre since the original title?
Frank Pearce: Yeah, we've got a lot of guys on the team that are pretty passionate about playing RTS games, so they're playing all the games that come out as they're released. We don't try to chase feature sets for the sake of chasing them
If it makes more sense for the game because it's fun, or makes it more immersive, compelling or whatever it is, then we certainly want to do that. But a lot of the feature set we've got with StarCraft II, we've used our previous series of RTS titles as a foundation.
So like Warcraft III, the replay functionality wasn't something we contemplated from day one, it was an afterthought and wasn't implemented as well as it could have been - so that's something that we can do from day one for StarCraft II, which should be pretty cool.
We want to take the storytelling component in the single-player campaign to the next level, so we're talking about branching missions, decisions on the gamer's part in terms of the technology that's available to them - there's a lot of buzz on the Internet around social communities, and we've got those social communities around our games and we want to leverage that to bring those players closer together on Battle.net.
Q: That's the basis of the plan to unite communities from all of Blizzard's titles more?
Frank Pearce: We'd definitely like to be able to bring the entire Blizzard community together online. Battlenet would certinaly be a good tool to make that happen. The WoW community is massive, the StarCraft community is large as well.
We'll have to see - we probably won't be able to implement all the plans that we have in mind when StarCraft II launches, but with Battlenet being an online destination, we can add features as we go.
Q: Do you see lots of crossover between the different players of your games?
Frank Pearce: We did some research, and I can't remember which direction we did it in - whether it was StarCraft players that played WoW or vice versa - and there's a fair amount of overlap.
Q: But part of the appeal must be the ability to drive players from one game to another?
Frank Pearce: Yeah, definitely. With a game like StarCraft a match only takes 15 or 20 minutes, and you could fit one of those in while you're waiting for your raid to form.
Q: How interesting has it been for you to watch the success of World of Warcraft?
Frank Pearce: I don't know if I'd describe it as "interesting" as much as exhausting. We've got almost 3000 employees worldwide now, and the majority of that growth is due to the success of World of Warcraft.
As a company we've found ourselves spread very, very thin - because the World of Warcraft community has a voracious appetite for content. That development team is 130 people, they're working on content patches, they're working on an expansion set, they've got their hands full - and then we've got the other development teams that we need to continue to support as well.
So it's great, it's a great problem to have, but it is a lot of work. We've learned a lot, made a lot of mistakes along the way. It's been good experience for us, I wouldn't say that we've regretted it... but "interesting" isn't how we'd describe it necessarily.
Q: With World of Warcraft you've had to learn to deal with a community 24-hours per day - are there lessons there you can take to other titles, maybe in marketing methods?
Frank Pearce: Yes, but keep in mind that even before World of Warcraft we were managing online communities in Battlenet, so we were able to leverage some of that experience and take it to World of Warcraft.
But definitely with the active community, and size of that community, we've learned a lot. We actually have full time staff devoted to interacting with the community for World of Warcraft, so as we go forward we're going to have full time staff responsible for the different products.
So we recently hired somebody to do community management for some of our legacy titles, and when we launch StarCraft II we'll have community representatives for that group as well.
Q: You have three very strong franchises that you're able to run parallel now instead of one at a time - how much difference does that make to the company?
Frank Pearce: I would say that's been part of our growth over the last several years - getting to a point where each of the development teams can operate more independently and autonomously than they have historically. We were always in a situation where in order to achieve the standards of quality that we wanted, it required the focus of the large majority of the company to get a game out the door.
So it's pretty cool, the guys at the office are all really passionate about the different franchises we've got, the communities are all really passionate about the franchises too. It's been almost ten years since we launched the original StarCraft and almost ten years since we launched the expansion - so it'll be nice to be able to service the franchises more regularly than we have.
Q: With so many people hanging on every letter that's written about Blizzard it must be tough to keep secrets, but you seem to manage it pretty well - why is that?
Frank Pearce: Well, part of it's because the employees and developers take an immense amount of pride in the work that they're doing, and have a really good understanding of the industry. They recognise the value we get from controlling the flow of information out of the company.
It's the job of the folks in the PR team to figure out how we can leverage the information we have for the best exposure, and the developers and employees understand that. They value the unveilings that we're able to do, because we're able to keep secrets.
The experience at the Worldwide Invitational in Paris wouldn't have been nearly the same if we couldn't keep a secret, and the same with the Worldwide Invitational the prior year when we announced StarCraft II.
Q: It's become one of the most fun sports in videogame journalism now - "Blizzard Speculation". You have three strong franchises currently, but it would be a lot of work now, because of the standards you've set, to launch a new IP?
Frank Pearce: Yeah, it would definitely be a lot of work. You know a big factor is the development teams, and what they want to work on. One of the ways we achieve our high levels of quality is by making sure the development teams are really passionate about the games they're working on.
So if there was a development team that was really passionate about a new intellectual property idea, then we'd give that strong consideration.
Q: And is that how decisions are influenced within the company?
Frank Pearce: It's a huge factor.
Q: And is it a reason why you're able to keep key talent?
Frank Pearce: Definitely - to have the development team intimately involved in determining what they're going to be spending the next several years of their lives on is critical.
Q: The Activision Blizzard merger has all gone through now, and the Blizzard side of things has seemed pretty smooth - is everybody at Blizzard pretty happy with the process?
Frank Pearce: From a product development process it went off without any hitches, it was pretty seamless from that perspective. There are folks at the office that were impacted more notably than others, and there are still some folks that are still interfacing with Activision to finalise the merger - they're going to want to unify our benefits and all that stuff.
But the developers aren't intimately involved in that process, it's the HR folks, the finance, operation and IT folks - they're impacted. But their job is to deal with that sort of stuff anyway.
The Activision management team is really experienced - Bobby [Kotick] bought Activision the same year that we incorporated, back in 1991.
Frank Pearce is co-founder and senior VP at Blizzard Entertainment. Interview by Phil Elliott.