World of Warcraft has the scope that would occupy most companies' resources entirely. Yet Blizzard is set to revive two of its franchises with the release of StarCraft II and Diablo III as well as its original online service Battle.net. Producing product at this level, while continuing to manage an MMO which at over 10 million subscribers still hasn't hit its peek, seems hard to imagine never mind actually accomplish.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with Frank Pearce, senior vice president for Blizzard, in California, where he talked about the upcoming changes to Battle.net, the MMO market, working with Activision, and communicating with consumers.
Q: At events like BlizzCon your company is very open to taking with fans about mistakes, even on titles that are yet to come out. As a company culture it is quite rare to be this open, why did you decide to go down this route?
Frank Pearce: The panels here are about being open with the fans. I don't think the mistakes we've made are big, huge secrets anyway, right? You can see the mistakes in the results of the work anyway. It's more important to acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them than to keep them secret.
Q: How are you hoping to advance community building in the upcoming revamped Battle.net?
Frank Pearce: That's going to be a big challenge for us. It's something we've got to figure out and we definitely have an ambitious feature set plan in store for the Battle.net launch with StarCraft II. Definitely improved friends list, improved functionality for groups, whether that's clans or guilds, better chat functionality, voice over IP, anything we can do. Some of it's going to depend on how ambitious the feature is, whether we can get it in conjunction with StarCraft II or if it has to come out at a later date. We'll see what we can do.
Q: Have you looked at what other RTS titles have done, such as Command & Conquer 3's video chat function?
Frank Pearce: I haven't had a chance to look at that myself yet but we've got guys on the StarCraft II team that play other RTS's pretty regularly. They have a library of RTS games in the dev team they're in, so we look at all that stuff and take inspiration where it makes sense.
Q: How do you intend to make Battle.net the hub for e-sports, considering a number of contenders that have taken the lead since its launch?
Frank Pearce: We'll take a look at the ladder system and the ranking system and see how we can improve that. Better support for leagues, whether they're Blizzard leagues or third-party leagues, better support for play-by-play commentary, better support for replays. In Warcraft III the replays function wasn't something we contemplated from the beginning, whereas in StarCraft II, seeing how critical that was for e-spot in Warcraft III, we definitely put that in form day one.
Q: Diablo III looks set to be a success given the large fan base the series already has, but how do you intend to draw in new players who have never experienced the original two?
Frank Pearce: It's just one of those things where we have to abide by our philosophy of making a game accessible, 'Easy to learn, hard to master', I know we say that all the time but it's true. If you make the entry level experience accessible and introduce the concepts gradually to the player they learn how to play the game without even knowing that they've learnt it.
I found WoW, which was my first MMO, pretty accessible to someone who has never played an MMO before. We've got guys on the WoW team whose fathers play the game. play it at an expert level and they've never played an MMO or a computer game before. It's just a situation where we'll make sure that we make it accessible to players that are new to that experience.
But I think that the Diablo style of play is actually lends itself very well to that because the interface with the mouse is very straightforward and simple, for the most part, and to get to the more expert level of play you have to add in keyboard short cuts.
Q: What's your opinion on the MMO market? Every few weeks there seems to be a new company with a new MMO entering the market, can the industry support this type of growth?
Frank Pearce: Certainly. The market is growing every day. There are games that are launching that are of interest to all sorts of different players. Some games are more niche in nature and some are more mainstream. I don't think that any one game precludes anyone from playing multiple games or other games. Certainly we don't think that's the case, we've got StarCraft II and Diablo III in development and we'll be launching those products and World of Warcraft will hopefully be something our players are playing as well.
Q: Paul Sams once described Activision's CEO, Bobby Kotic, as one of the most experienced executive Blizzard has ever worked with. What measurable effect he has had on the company and what benefits has he brought?
Frank Pearce: I think the inspiration that Bobby gave was that 'we're going to leave you guys alone to do what you want to do and we're not going to change it'. Because Activision has such an experienced management team they recognise the value in what we've created up to this point and how we've achieved that success and they want us to continue to go down that path. If opportunities come up to co-operate on a collaborative product development we would certainly consider that… Like that Level 70 Elite Tauren Chieftain song which is downloadable on Guitar Hero that we just did because it was cool.
Q: But surely that honeymoon period has to come to an end and Activision will tell you do something they want?
Frank Pearce: Yeah, we're used to being under a corporate umbrella. Before the Activision-Blizzard merger we were part of Vivendi Games. Mike [Morhaime] and Paul [Sams], part of their job responsibilities is to make sure that the product development groups are isolated from that and don't have to deal with that. So if that conversation ever came up it would be with Mike and Paul and it would be Mike and Paul's responsibly to come to the appropriate conclusion.
Q: As a company you've always argued that its your games that dictate what platform you develop on, but the longer you avoid console development don't you risk another company establishing itself as the lead MMO provider in that space as you have done on PCs?
Frank Pearce: That's certainly a possibility. But we've got so many great products in development we've got our hands full with those products. We can't do everything for every space. Actually, that's one of the great things about the Activision-blizzard merger, is that Activision is very strong on the console side and we're very strong on the PC side so it's very complimentary.
Q: What did you think of the troubles GOA had in launching Warhammer Online in Europe, does it surprise you that some companies struggle to launch an MMO?
Frank Pearce: Launching an MMO is a huge, difficult undertaking so no it doesn't surprise me when companies face challenges launching an MMO. We faced similar challenges ourselves, we had challenges when with our website when we sold BlizzCon tickets. We've got e-commerce set up for our store and we've got World of Warcraft billing but we still had challenges with BlizzCon tickets. None of the things that industry is doing in this space is easy to do and I think sometimes people take that for granted.
Q: You guys got a strong reaction from fans of the Diablo series over the artwork with some submitting photoshopped images with effects that just simply wouldn't work in development. Why do you think fans reacted this way and do you think it shows a lack of public knowledge in games development?
Frank Pearce: It just shows a passion for their preference which is fine. One of the things you find on the internet is that the people who have the most to say are the most vocal. I'm sure there were a lot of people out there that thought the art style looked great but because they were satisfied you didn't hear from them. At the end of the day we need to make sure the gameplay experience is really compelling. If the gameplay experience is really compelling hopefully no one is paying to much attention to whether the art has too many rainbows or not - not that I expect too many rainbows in Diablo III.
It's a similar situation to the one we faced when we launched the original StarCraft. When we launched the original StarCraft we got a lot of criticism because the game wasn't 3D and games coming out at the time were 3D. We talked about it and we said: 'It's more important that we make a great game. To make a great game we need to make it 2D and to make a great game we need to make it accessible, which also precludes 3D.' So we made a great game and it was 2D and initially everyone criticised us for not making a 3D game. Ten years later it's still really popular and it's still played in the e-sports community and it was a great game and everyone has forgotten about the fact that it wasn't 3D.
Q: In discussions with people from Blizzard I've noticed that the original StarCraft and expansion, Brood War, is close to your hearts maybe even more so than any other games. Why is this?
Frank Pearce: A lot of the veteran leadership of Blizzard Entertainment worked on StarCraft. I was a programmer on StarCraft, Mike [Morhaime] worked code on StarCraft. It was something that not only were we excited to play from a player perspective but we were also emotionally invested in the development. We poured our blood, sweat and tears into that product.
Mike had to take a business trip for the purpose of dealing with some StarCraft: Brood War stuff, he took that business trip on his birthday - that's how important StarCraft was to us at the time. I think it has a lot to do with the emotional investment in the development of the title.
Q: Is producing a World of Warcraft expansion every year still an ambition and do you feel any extra pressure to do that now that companies, such as Turbine, have said they will?
Frank Pearce: I don't think we would impose pressure on ourselves to do something like that based on what other companies are doing. Ultimately we want to do what is right for the franchise and what is right for Blizzard as an organisation. Ideally our goal would be to ship one with the regularity of 12 months or so, but we're so ambitious with the type of content that we want to put it makes a difficult challenge, especially when you mix in content patches and developers working on the content patches are the same developers working on the expansions. that's how we maintain consistent quality across that content.
We'd like to be able to deliver them on a tighter schedule but ultimately we want to make sure the content is right. We're constantly trying to do things to improve that efficiency, a lot of the tools that we've developed internally at this point are commercial quality in terms of development tools. We have a whole team of programmers, probably six or seven programmers, devoted to developing tools full time. We'll look at the scope of content for future expansions and try to pick a list of features and the amount of content that we can deliver on a more timely schedule but also still meet everyone's expectations in terms of what they want out of a boxed WoW expansion.
Frank Pearce is the senior vice president of Blizzard. Interview by James Lee.