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GC: WOW Factor

Fri 25 Aug 2006 10:11am GMT / 6:11am EDT / 3:11am PDT

Blizzard's Paul Sams on why 6 million subscribers can't be wrong.

It's odd to learn that Blizzard Entertainment might be wary of taking on a new challenge. After all, the decision to create a Warcraft MMORPG, despite the huge amounts of time, money and risk involved, worked out rather well.

So well, in fact, that the game is now played by more than 6 million players worldwide - and counting. What's more, they're all forking out at least $12.99 a month for the privilege, which means Blizzard probably isn't having too much trouble paying the bills. Namely the bills for their champagne fountains, personal helicopters and office chairs made out of melted-down faberg√ eggs. Possibly.

But as all good businesses know, you can never have too much money. So, what with the next-gen battle truly kicking off at the end of this year, it seems logical that Blizzard might turn its attention to consoles next. Surely there's a huge section of the gaming audience crying out for a console version of World of Warcraft - and since they'll be willing to pay for the privilege, surely Blizzard will oblige?

Not neccessarily, according to chief operating officer Paul Sams. He's kindly agreed to sit down for a chat at the Leipzig Games Convention, and to address the issue of bringing WOW to consoles - an idea which Blizzard is considering but, by the sounds of it, is some way from being committed to.

"We've met with Microsoft, we've met with Sony, and we are exploring these things, but the list of challenges is long," Sams says.

"One really big challenge is that one of the key features of a massively multiplayer game, especially WOW, is consistent and regular content updates. They require hard drive space, and there's a finite amount of that on each of those platforms."

Then there are the strict certification processes put in place by the platform holders. At Blizzard, Sams explains, they build content updates on PC, give them a thorough going over on a test server, and then release them. "There's no certification process outside of Blizzard's internal process. When you introduce Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo, you introduce a whole new certification process."

Which can be a bit of a bloody nightmare, presumably... "It can be. What if we have something that needs to be dealt promptly, a bug that's causing crashes? On PC, we make it, we test it, we deploy it. On console, we could be waiting for days, because you've got to submit and test it. And if they don't like something, we've got to go back to the drawing board."

And it seems Blizzard doesn't like going back to the drawing board - well, not because someone else has told them to, anyway. They remain fiercely autonomous in creative terms from parent company Vivendi, maintaining full control over all decisions that affect their products and the way they're marketed (though Sams talks at great length about what a supportive force Vivendi is). Moving WOW to consoles, Sams says, might mean making compromises - and that doesn't sound like Blizzard's style.

"We have an architecture that we've already established, and it's very set. [The platform holders'] architecture is also very set. How well do those match? What kind of compromises do we have to make, and what kind of compromises do they have to make? The list is not short, to be candid."

Even if Blizzard decided to start work on a console version of WOW tomorrow, Sams continues, we'd have a good while to wait. "It isn't as simple as flipping a switch... It would require a couple of years of development, realistically, to make it playable on those platforms."

So is it worth all the effort? "Potentially, certainly... The issue of certification testing is only one of the many challenges, however. So we have to ask ourselves if there are enough new customers there to justify all of the other issues we'd need to overcome."

But WOW aside, that doesn't mean Blizzard isn't looking into console development at all. "What is more possible is to build something from the ground up... But whether or not it will happen, I'm not sure."

However, Sams is sure about which of the next-gen consoles he personally prefers. "I think the 360 is the best box," he says, but adds that he's also keen to see what the PS3 and Wii can do, and will "absolutely" end up owning all three machines.

In terms of online gaming, though, Sams reckons there's a clear winner. "On console, I think that Live will reign... [Microsoft] has a much longer track record and history of multiplayer gaming, and I think they absolutely will have the lead.

"It's going to be excruciatingly difficult for anyone - including Sony - to take that away from Microsoft. They're way too far ahead."

Observe, though, that Sams began the above statement with "on console". For the majority of online gamers, he believes, the PC is still the platform of choice.

"When you look at Battle.net and you look at the subscriber base we have with World of Warcraft, even Xbox Live is not even close to us... I think we absolutely are winning. And you can count on us bringing MMORGs as well as more games that would be playable over Battle.net."

All in all, it sounds like - for the time being, at least - Blizzard has its attentions firmly focused on PC gaming. And why not? After all, the number of WOW subscribers is already huge ("We're over 6.5 million and just shy of seven million"), and still growing.

"For example," says Sams, "If you look at Europe as a territory, that territory has sold more units in August than it did in December." A videogame that's been around for 18 months, and is still selling better in summer than it did at Christmas? Now there's a rare thing.

And sales are set to get another boost with the release of the first WOW expansion pack, The Burning Crusade. It's not quite ready yet, but Sams says they're "fast approaching the beta test period". As for the finished product - "We're still quoting winter, very confidently... Once we hit beta, you'll know it's coming quite soon."

As previously announced, TBC will feature a host of new content, including two new races along with new zones, dungeons and battlegrounds. According to Sams, it's more than a third of the size of the original game - "Somewhere between a third and a half, yeah."

So will all this extra content mean the game costs Blizzard more to run? "What costs us more to run it is people," he says - as the number of subscribers ramps up, so must the technology.

"We need more firepower on the server side, so we're upgrading the entire global network and we'll be adding new data-centres as well. When you add more players, you also have to increase the number of game-masters and staffers to support all of those players, as well as you have to increase the bandwidth in sizable costs."

But it won't be down to WOW fans to pick up the bill - "We'll be keeping the subscription fee flat," Sams confirms. Though, of course, players will have to pay a one-time fee for the expansion pack itself. Blizzard is considering a releasing a bundle pack which includes the original game, and perhaps a collector's edition - but nothing's been confirmed so far.

Even with the arrival of The Burning Crusade, though, can Blizzard really sustain such a rapid rise in subscriber numbers? It's a question that Sams answers cautiously.

"Will we have the same number of subscribers in two years? I don't know. I certainly hope so, but being realistic, that's a tall order."

Sams believes the key to keeping subscribers, and attracting new ones, is to continuously offer new content. "So, starting with The Burning Crusade, every year thereafter we plan on bringing out a new expansion set every 12 months."

He's also aware that Blizzard could do more to support markets outside North America, where the WOW fanbase is growing all the time. "We're trying to figure out how we can improve, and how we can service each of the regional markets."

And that includes Europe, of course, which Sams describes as "A majorly important market". As a result, Blizzard is hard at work "exploring how we can better service the community in Europe".

Does that mean Blizzcon, the two-day event celebrating all things Blizzard which is held in Anaheim each year, could make it to Europe? "I would say we're certainly exploring that," Sams hints.

What with the forthcoming release of The Burning Crusade, the planned technological overhaul, and the challenges that come with managing a huge online community, it seems that Blizzard has plenty on its plate at the moment. Perhaps too much to start worrying about console gaming. That might come as a disappointment to those who were looking forward to playing a Blizzard MMO on their shiny new machine, but for at nearly 7 million other people, it's not the end of the world...

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