Last month saw the launch of The Burning Crusade, the first expansion pack for multi-million selling MMO World of Warcraft. In the UK the release was heralded by a special midnight event at HMV's Oxford Street store which more than 1500 fans attended. The healthy turnout surprised even Itzik Ben Bassat, Blizzard's vice president of business development and international, as he told the assembled crowds.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with Ben Bassat to find out how The Burning Crusade fits into Blizzard's overall strategy and how plans are shaping up for future expansion packs - read on for more.
In part two of our interview, to be published tomorrow, Ben Bassat reveals what Blizzard thinks about broken street dates, the next-gen consoles' online offerings and the best way to spend those huge profits.
GamesIndustry.biz: How important is The Burning Crusade in terms of Blizzard's overall strategy for World of Warcraft?
Itzik Ben Bassat: It's very important because it's the first expansion for WOW, so it's a milestone - and it's also important because, like any Blizzard game, we put so much time and effort into every little detail.
We've been working on it so hard for so long that it's really like giving birth to a new baby. We all feel like this is a great moment where we're doing something really big for players.
Have you cracked the WOW formula now?
There's always room for improvement, and we're always evaluating our content to see if content that we've added has changed the way the world exists. The real difference between the expansion and the constant update patches we're doing is that the expansion has added a new dimension to the world; it's beyond new content.
Last year, [Blizzard COO] Paul Sams told us that there are plans to release a new WOW expansion pack every year. Is that still the case?
Absolutely. We worked really hard on positioning ourselves and creating a team that would allow us to do that, and that's still the goal.
We had to delay The Burning Crusade from late last year to early this year but we felt that was a reasonable delay. We did it for very good reasons - we wanted to bring quality content, and to make sure TBC was ready to be launched as a Blizzard product.
So with the annual release schedule, presumably you've already started work on the next expansion pack?
The important thing is to look at the features we want to create for the game. I can tell you that it's longer than the current expansion. That's the reason we're saying we'll have expansions coming year after year, because we have this list of features which goes beyond the next expansion.
For us it's not an automatic thing, we're not an automatic company. If we're passionate about a product we can develop that, if we think we can bring great entertainment, but we wouldn't develop an expansion for the sake of it like some other companies.
Obviously your subscription-based business model is very successful. But what about other models, particularly those used by games in territories like South Korea? Take Cart Rider, for example, where people get the game for free and pay to access items...
As you know we don't support item trading. We believe in providing a quality entertainment experience, and we believe that if we do that it doesn't have to be for free.
A lot of people have said that the Internet can only be used to offer things for free - but things like iTunes and WOW have proved this isn't the case. If you're providing a really good service, quality content and a really cool entertainment experience, then people will play for it.
I like Cart Rider, I've played it myself. I think they had good reasons to go with a different model. If you look at the game's lifespan it's very short, it's not sustainable. So looking at these things, and the fact we're not supporting item trading, shows we made the right choice.
How much impact do things like illegal item trading and gold farming have on your revenues?
I don't know the exact numbers. The important thing thing is we're fighting that through software tools and by making the gameworld safe. We also have gamemasters that wander around to make sure the world is safe for people. If you want to offer a quality service that people will pay for, you need to make it secure and fun.
Itzik Ben Bassat is vice president of business development and international at Blizzard Entertainment. Interview by Ellie Gibson. Visit GamesIndustry.biz tomorrow to read the second part of this feature.