Blizzard Entertainment is one of the core pillars of the Activision Blizzard machine, but one that remains largely untouched by the console arm of the business. On the eve of strategy sequel StarCraft II's launch, GamesIndustry.biz talked to the developer's VP of international Mike Ryder, with occasional contribution from the game's software engineer Carl Chimes.
Economical with his words and difficult to steer away from practiced comments, Ryder is perhaps emblematic of how Blizzard works. Here, he responds to queries about social networking, StarCraft II's status within Activision Blizzard as a whole, downloads versus retail and the developer's prestigious place within the industry.
Q:How important to Activision rather than Blizzard specifically is StarCraft 2?
Michael Ryder:Well, Activision Blizzard is the corporate entity, so for Activision Blizzard it's important. Certainly it's important to Blizzard. Activision is a separate division, so I'm sure that they'll be glad to see us be successful. It's a separate division so the numbers don't go up for them specifically.
Q:Yes, absolutely – but I mean in terms of Activision Blizzard. There was that figure a few weeks ago that Bobby Kotick quoted, saying console games only account for 30% of the company's revenue. Is Blizzard providing the other 70%?
Michael Ryder:In his position he's speaking for Activision Blizzard.
Q:Yes. But did he mean that other 70% of Activision Blizzard's revenues were provided by Blizzard games?
Michael Ryder:I'm not familiar with that quote, I don't recall hearing it, sorry.
Q:Moving onto Battle.net, it's a game as service approach. I know you did that with World of WarCraft already, but there the growth was more over time. Is this a whole new philosophy of game design for you, a big step on from simply selling a box, and not simply the launch of a sequel?
Michael Ryder:I would characterise it this way. We focus on our players globally, and one of our goals is to make the game accessible to as many players in different regions as we can. So we actually put a tremendous amount of effort into trying to tailor our business model into different regions, to meet the global economics, the global purchasing patterns, the global culture and as a part of that, whereas in Europe a boxed model in the US a boxed model is appropriate, in certain regions offering a client with a subscription model is a better way to go to make it accessible to those players.
Q:We had that figure that came out of the NPD last week saying digital downloads now constitute 48 per cent of PC sales. Is that equivalent to your perception of the situation?
Michael Ryder:I'm not familiar with how they came up with their numbers, but I can tell you that for us, again going back to the idea that we really want to do the best thing that we can for our players, we want to offer them as many alternatives as possible. So certain players in certain regions may want to get content or buy the game digitally. In other places retail is really prevalent. We feel that retail is a really vital part of our business. We built the World of WarCraft business pretty much around the retail channel, so we feel that retail is really important for us, but we also integrate it with the ability to provide digital sales for certain regions as well.
Q:NPD had Blizzard.com listed as the number 3 or 4 digital distribution channel, after Steam and Direct2Drive – if that's true it's a hell of an achievement for a store that stocks less than half a dozen games...
Michael Ryder:Yeah. I'm just not familiar with how they derived those numbers so I can't really comment on it.
Q:A lot of people have been saying that, which is interesting. In terms of StarCraft itself, is there any sense at all that it's difficult to be launching an RTS in a climate where the charts and the news are dominated by first-person-shooters? Obviously this one will be enormously successful because of its pre-existent audience, but does standing against the tide feel odd?
Michael Ryder:Well, the way Blizzard works is we make the games that our development team wants to make, so I guess there's a way to look at it from a more analytic perspective, where's the market going and all that sort of thing, but we really feel like we have a great real-time strategy game franchise in StarCraft, and our development team was passionate about making the next StarCraft game. So for us there's nothing unusual about it at all, it just seems to be a very natural thing to bring the market the successor to one of the most successful games that we've ever made.
Q:The interesting thing is that only you guys could do this. Other developers, other publishers, other games might have to fight for coverage and pre-orders, but you guys can take that for granted. Does that introduce new pressures?
Michael Ryder:The culture at Blizzard is really important. If someone asks me what is the key to success at Blizzard, I think that it's because we've got a well-defined culture that has some very well-defined values. Those values are about making great games all the time; we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make a great game. But that's not unique to this situation, it's the way it's always been for us. So we don't ship the game until it's ready, we make sure it's a great game or we just don't put it out. That type of mentality is just the way we are, we don't see it as unusual or anything like that.
Q:Are you still able to envisage what life on the other side of the fence, where success was less guaranteed, would be like?
Michael Ryder:I've worked in other places in the industry and had great experiences, but I can tell you, it's wonderful to work at Blizzard because I'm really proud of the culture we have at Blizzard.
Q:Is there ever any feeling or worry that the well-earned ivory tower you're in cuts you off from how the rest of the industry is thinking and acting? RealID for instance, while you stepped back on the use of real names, it was not a decision other companies might have made in the first place, because they don't have the clout.
Michael Ryder:I think we behave in the way the Blizzard behaves. I'm not sure I understand your question.
Q:It's the ivory tower thing, do you feel defined by that or are you confident that you can think outside of Blizzard-space?
Michael Ryder:I think we feel privileged that there are lots of people who like to play the games that we've made. So we feel a close connection with the players and we want to continue to make them happy.
Q:Okay. Well, hopefully the launch tonight is going to do that. Are you confident that you're prepared for it, on a technical level? It's traditionally been very hard to launch enormous games that require online access without hitting some problems. Are you braced for it this time – is it even humanly possible to provide all the servers and tech support you'll need for the initial surge?
Michael Ryder:I hope we are. I think we are. We put a lot of work in. We tried to plan for success, so hopefully we'll be ready when the time comes.
Q:How does it work? Do you need to lay on extra servers for the first few days then slim it down later, or are you hoping to maintain the initial tech investment here? Is there a timeline for how you support this thing?
Michael Ryder:I can't say too much about that but I can tell you that it's something we put quite a bit of planning into to estimate how we think things are going to go, and plan for contingencies and redundancies and things like that just to give ourselves some flexibility. At the end of the day we want to provide as great an experience for everybody as we can so hopefully we're ready for whatever the next few months have in store for us.
Q:In terms of Battle.net, how much of your ultimate intention for it is about laying down a social networking infrastructure, not just a support service for the game?
Michael Ryder: Do you want to handle this?
Carl Chimes:I dunno. It was definitely something that we wanted to do, because we think our players really want a way to connect to their friends and to keep their friends…I'm not sure if you're familiar with RealID as opposed to real names on the forum.
Q:I am, yes.
Carl Chimes: They're completely different things. So with RealID two people can agree to be friends and then they share information, they can chat to each other no matter which game they're in. So you can be in World of WarCraft and chat to a StarCraft 2 player. There's a rich presence, so you can see what they're up to so you have something to talk about. There's a little broadcast system so you can say what you're doing at that particular time, so yeah it's important to us to cater to our community, to listen to what they want and to provide functionality we can fill.
Q:How much of it is about being a social service specifically for Blizzard games versus being part of the general trend that's going on at the moment to social networking games, to keeping people as part of a system, with constant interchange and possibilities for revenue?
Carl Chimes: I think when we were designing it, all we had in mind was uniting the Blizzard community together and providing the kind of social interaction our players want.
Q:Are we going to see Facebook plugins and games that extend the experience beyond the core games? Do you subscribe to the idea that that's the future of gaming?
Carl Chimes:I don't think we have any specific plans in that area. It's not necessarily something we would rule out. We make the games that we want to play at Blizzard, so if it was interesting to a development team at Blizzard that might be something that we might pursue.
Michael Ryder: We do have an iterative culture, so if we felt like it was something the players wanted that was an enhancement to the experience we've shown over time that we incorporate new things when we that there's an opportunity to make something that the players want, so it changes over time.
Q:Has there ever any pressure to extend your brands beyond the core titles, from the parent company or whoever else? Or does your place at the heart of Activision Blizzard mean no-one would dare even ask?
Michael Ryder:Things haven't changed at Blizzard since we've merged with Activision. Blizzard culture is still the same. We still make the games that we want to make. We still have the same culture about the quality and the way we work so we're pretty happy…
Carl Chimes:Yeah, we're really proud that it's Blizzard Entertainment that has developed and published StarCraft II. As a developer at Blizzard, I've been there 10 years, the only thing I've noticed change since the merger is free copies of Guitar Hero.
Q:You've both used that line a couple of times: "we make the games that we want to play." Is that absolutely the case with StarCraft II specifically? You have a huge audience heavy with expectations and sense of entitlement here, and guys who actually evolved StarCraft into the game it is today - does that really leave your hand free?
Michael Ryder:I wouldn't describe it as feeling constrained, I would describe it as taking what was already there in StarCraft 1, the existing communities of players and the things that were really working, and building on successes and then trying to take it beyond those areas and then adding additional things… like the storyline in StarCraft II is a big boost to immersing players in the storyline. So I wouldn't describe it at all as being a constraining thing in going from StarCraft 1 to StarCraft 2.
Q:Do you have a sense of what the uptake's going to be in the traditional market for the game – there has been conjecture that while most Korean players are excited about it, they may prove hard to prise away from the first game.
Michael Ryder:We’re happy that people are continuing to play StarCraft 1. We don't mind if people continue to play StarCraft 1. We think that when they see StarCraft II and the new graphics and the number of improvements that we've made, we think and expect that people will move to StarCraft II but we think StarCraft 1 was a great experience, and if people want to continue to play that, that's okay too.
Q:The research you've done, in terms of patterning of how people, especially in Korea and the pro-gaming market, are going to upgrade – are you expecting a single huge surge, or is it more about gradually convincing people to do it?
Michael Ryder:I don't think we know. I think that we're excited by StarCraft II, so obviously we think the people will be excited and want to move on to StarCraft II as well. But we really can't predict how quickly people are going to move.