The Path of the Blizzard
Paul Sams and Rob Pardo look back on the rise of one of the most loved games companies in the world
The games which Blizzard Entertainment has made have, almost without exception, been popular with fans to such an extent that the company can almost guarantee a significant dedicated base for any product they'd care to work on - probably regardless of genre.
Even before the mighty MMO project that these days nobody needs to name, the Diablo, StarCraft and Warcraft games were big-sellers for their time, particularly in the US - but it was World of Warcraft that's effectively transformed their position in the industry and essentially fuelled the deal that saw Vivendi Games combine with Activision last year.
The end of 2009 heralded the fifth anniversary of World of Warcraft (WoW), and the fifteenth birthday for the Warcraft franchise as a whole, so it seemed a fitting time to sit down with two of the company's executive management team - COO Paul Sams and executive VP of game design Rob Pardo - to look back on the journey as the rest of the industry ponders what lies ahead. Part two of this feature will follow next week.
Changing the Times
Go back to the beginning of the Warcraft days in the mid nineties and there's no doubt the industry's changed hugely. Companies have grown up or disappeared - or both - while the social view of what it means to play games has altered far beyond the pale stereotype that seemed to exist for so long.
Along the way there are certain companies that have become leading lights, not just for those that work there, but for the people that play their games, and certainly Blizzard numbers among them.
But there are a handful of companies that have succeeded in changing the industry itself - and you'd certainly argue that Blizzard's success has put it in that group too. Paul Sams sees a bit of both along the way.
"Well I would say that it's probably a combination," he explains. "In some respects I think we've changed with the industry. There have been other companies that have certainly done great things, which we've observed - we've looked at the things they were doing well and the things they could have done slightly better, and try to iterate on the things we think are cool ideas, approaches or concepts.
"Certainly I think we've evolved and grown with the industry, because great ideas don't only come from Blizzard. But I also think that Blizzard is a company that's done a lot of great things in the gaming industry, and has really operated in a transformative way in the genres we're in.
"I think World of Warcraft is just the most recent example of that, because I think that's been something you've seen from us not only in the real-time strategy genre and action-RPG genre, but also ultimately the MMO space.
"So I think it's a combination - we've done our fair share to evolve and grow the industry."
Before That MMO...
Given those changes, and the fact that the company's moved from a 30-man development team on the original StarCraft to having its smallest of a multitude of teams being twice that size, is the developer at all recognisable from the pre-WoW days?
"It was much, much smaller," says executive producer and WoW's original lead designer Rob Pardo. "Back then we were working on one game at a time, which was StarCraft, and that was pretty much the whole studio - at least down here in Irvine. We still had the Blizzard North studio, but down in Irvine we all fit in one small building with two floors.
"Certainly on the development side [it's hard to recognise the company from back then]. We have a lot of the same sorts of values, but it's definitely much harder to maintain some things, like company values and gameplay philosophy, once you're as big as we are now."
Talk to any Blizzard employee for long enough and the conversation is likely to come back to those values in some shape or form, because, as both men explain: Blizzard is all about the games.
A Recipe for Success?
In a lot of ways, for anybody searching for that elusive recipe for success, Blizzard's methods aren't of much use. They prioritise the long term view and try to avoid making any decisions that offer only short term benefit, while the internal mantra reads: "Developers rule the day" - a rule which helps the company on any number of levels.
"You'll always find with Blizzard that we have the long-term view on everything," says Sams. "Sometimes, when we sit in meeting rooms and talk about certain things, it's a very common conversation point when we talk about going down a particular road as a short-term decision - and why is it that we think making a short-term decision is the right one for the company, the employees, or the gamers?
"Traditionally what happens is that if we're looking to make a short-term decision it's oftentimes overruled before we do it, because we always have the view that doing the thing that's going to have a mid- or long-term investment for the company, employees and gamers is going to be the right one.
"While it might not bring us the most revenue or benefit immediately, we always take the position that if you do the right thing, that in the mid- or long-term that's always going to be the better answer - the thing that's going to deliver the best results and make people the most delighted... the gamers, the employees, and ultimately because we're a public company, I believe making those decisions is in the best interest of the shareholders as well because they'll see a lot more value creation.
"Short-term target shooting is, in my opinion, not the right answer - it's making sure that the company is built to last, and delivers year-in, year-out on its promises, both on a financial perspective but also on a quality and product experience perspective, which is a key foundation. Blizzard's all about making the best games in the world. All the other stuff comes along with it."
Of course, many will point out, it's an easy view to take when you've got a billion-dollar product in your back pocket - one which, it should be pointed out, challenges the might of the Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto franchises put together.
Living With Acquisitions
Clearly, existing just for the long term simply isn't a viable option for most companies, and Sams agrees - although more developers that would care to admit have really been set up with a view to being acquired at some point down the road, and ultimately the dedication shown to Blizzard by it's employees indicates no desire to move on to something else any time soon, for the most part.
But then, Blizzard has been acquired already - several times, in fact - although it hasn't dented the passion found at the very top of the team.
"One of the things I'd tell you that Blizzard does which is different - if you look at our management team and compare it against other management teams in our space, what you'll find is that two of the three founders of the company are still in senior executive leadership roles: CEO Mike Morhaime and EVP of product development Frank Pearce. They're still here, after approaching 20 years," points out Sams.
"And the average tenure for the rest of the management team is over 15 years - the reason why that's important is because all of us view this as a key component of what defines us in our lives. We all look at this as - aside from our spouses and children - our biggest and best accomplishment, and something we consider as part of the fabric of who we are.
"We're all exceptionally committed, and what you'll find is that when we make decisions, they benefit the employees, players and shareholders - because we're all of those too. So we try to make the very best decisions we can for this thing that's so important to us.
"What you'll also notice is that all of us on this management team have been here - with the exception of one person - for at least a third of our lives... It's a commitment to this company, this brand of Blizzard, to these products of Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo, that's unmatched in our industry.
"It's part of the very fabric of who each of us are, and I think it really drives the quality and results, combined with the fact that we've done a really good job on identifying, hiring and retaining the best, brightest and most passionate people in the business. They've grown to love - or came in loving - these franchises like we do, and while it's a formula that's proven very successful, it's also one that's very, very difficult to match."
Finding the Talent
These days it's likely that Blizzard tops more than a few career ambition lists, for those breaking into the business of making games now, but likely also for more than a few people that have been in the industry for a few years.
Certainly, and this is evident from the games themselves, the company enjoys talent on its books, and with the reputation it currently enjoys, the hardest thing about employing new staff would surely be wading through the resumes that must land on the doormat for each position posted...?
Not so, says Sams - attracting and retaining talent is as much about the person as about their capabilities, he claims, and while it's a nice line, there's evidence to be had in the company's ability to actually keep secrets... something which disappointingly few in the business manage to do, it seems.
So what's the secret?
"It's a tricky one - to be able to say 'Here's the magic formula...' - I don't know if I can deliver that," he admits. "But there's a variety of things that I think have helped to get us where we are, and I'd echo the fact that the games we make are entirely related to the fact that we have incredible people, who are very dedicated and talented.
"How we've attracted those people, how we've identified them, varies - but what I would say is consistent is that we try to identify people who are not only incredibly talented in the craft, whether they're programmer, artist, designer and so on - but in addition to that, people that are gamers, and people that are what I or others at the company would consider perfect matches with our core values.
"For us, we very much want to make sure that when we're hiring people we're not just doing it just because the guy or gal has written a great engine for some other company - but rather that not only do they have those great capabilities, but that they play games, they know what gamers want and what they want as a gamer, what they want to make next and play next, but also that they're going to fit.
"The company might see a guy that's the best programmer they've ever seen, but they're just not a fit - either culturally it won't work, or we don't think the way they're wired is the kind of wiring we feel is necessary to be able to live out our company's core values.
"We really focus on and prioritise those values, and try to intertwine them in all the things we do - whether it's development, or customer service, or other decisions that we make that in the way that it relates to the company, the employees or the players.
"That's something that's a bit hard to identify in an interview, but we've been working hard on it now for a long time, and feel like it's something that - especially with our key leader hires - we've really gotten good at identifying in who is going to live by those values."
Only When it's Ready
But there are other reasons people will see Blizzard as an attractive proposition - yes, other than the license to print money that now drives its ability to run so many teams simultaneously.
"Well, I'd say that if you've been in the games industry for any length of time and you've worked for a variety of companies, what you will hear from developers is that they were working on a game that they were so excited and enthusiastic about... and yet, when it got to the point where the company wanted to ship it and the game wasn't done, that company would oftentimes make the decision to ship it anyway - because they needed to make their quarterly numbers, or whatever.
"So the people who have put in the blood, sweat and tears on making this game that has all the promise - which instead has to be pushed out the door - those types of experiences are pretty devastating to people. Developers know that when they come to Blizzard know that they will get to make the game they want to make, because we let the developers decide what they're going to make.
"They also know that we will not pull the rug out from under them - they will have ample time, budget and support to be able to deliver the game that they envisioned. We will not pull the rug out from under them and ship it before it's done, so people feel that when they out their heart and soul into a game, they'll be able to deliver the game they envisioned and there's not going to be a situation where there are tonnes of compromises, we're shipping too early and everybody does that thing where they say 'Woulda, shoulda, coulda if we'd had the time.'
"I do think that's a meaningful and material part of what attracts people to Blizzard, and I think another big part of it is what we refer to as the Blizzard family. We want people to feel like they can be who they are, they can be creative - and they're not going to have people picking at them because they're trying to be creative, to make something that's new and different.
"We try to do a lot of different things to foster a family environment, a team environment, and I think people genuinely love to work at Blizzard - I think if you were to ask a broad selection of employees at Blizzard I think they'd tell you it was the best place they ever worked, and that they don't want to work anywhere else."
It's safe to assume that Sams is talking from a position of personal experience, and he freely admits as much.
"I can tell you definitively that if Mike Morhaime will continue to allow it, I'll be here until I retire - this is a place I do not want to leave," he says - and why would he? "It's the best place I've ever worked; the only place I can envision working. I don't think there's any place else that I would have a more fulfilling experience - and I think that's a consistent feeling at the company."
Learning Lessons from the Past
So going back to the start of the exploration into Blizzard's path, and understanding why it's made a difference, brings us full circle on the question of how it's impacted the industry. Hinting at the point about finishing games properly, and it's easy to look at how the release schedule changes today as publishers push releases back for that 'extra polish' they need.
But it wasn't always that way - in fact, that mentality has only really come about in the past couple of years, as companies have seen more and more the damage that can be done to a franchise by pushing it out before it's ready, just to hit a fiscal deadline.
By Sams' account, that's never been the way that Blizzard has worked, and while Pardo admits the company's had to learn tough lessons from mistakes such as underestimating demand for Diablo II - a "pants down" moment that he believes restricted its ability to sell to its full potential - the delays to WoW's release, the push back of the Battle.net revamp last year and the rescheduling of StarCraft II to this year all demonstrate an unwillingness to break that rule of release.
"I think that probably is one of the things we've done to influence the industry," concedes Sams. "Certainly not everybody has been able to follow that, because different companies have different situations, and financial pressures are different.
"But Blizzard's always taken the position that if you do right by the players and you only ship games that are done - only games that you want to play next - you'll result in games that others want to play next, and they'll vote with their pocket books very positively.
"It's always made sense to us to make sure the game was right, and it's also a trust issue - if you're a Blizzard gamer and you know that when you go out to the store and lay down your money on the counter to buy the game, you know you're going to get the value you paid for... and then some.
"I feel like that trust we've built is another critical component and other companies observe that - they see that Blizzard has a population of gamers that is very supportive of the company, that's there each and every time. I'd like to believe it's because we treat them with respect; we don't try to fool them or screw them - we try to make sure that every time they give us their money that we do right by them, and they get everything they were hoping for, and then some.
"I think that has probably influenced the industry - there are certain companies that have tried to do that, and modified the manner in which they're operating, or built themselves with that mentality in mind.
"There are some companies that unfortunately haven't done that, but their circumstances are such that maybe they can't, or are unwilling to - or maybe they're just approaching it differently, and not everybody sees the Blizzard way as the right way. But we think it's worked out pretty well for us, and that it's worked out pretty well for gamers around the world."
And there are at least 12 million gamers that would agree with that statement, every single month.
Part two of this feature will follow next week.