An alarmingly high number companies have been lured into creating an MMO only to be hit with disappointing user numbers after the initial launch, a continued slow down, and eventual closure. At the centre of all this is the promise of success enjoyed by Blizzard's World of Warcraft, which pulls developers and publishers into a market strewn with more bodies than the monster laden dungeons so many of these games feature.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with Blizzard's COO, Paul Sams, at the madcap fanfest that is BlizzCon in Anaheim, California to discuss the pitfalls and competition in the MMO space. Here he talks about Warhammer Online, how companies underestimate launching MMOs and the benefits Activision's CEO Bobby Kotick has brought to Blizzard.
Q: Did you notice a drop off in World of Warcraft users when Warhammer Online launched?
Paul Sams: Not significantly, we've certainly had some of that happen, which is the same thing we experienced with Age of Conan and each time an MMO has come out we've seen some amount of reduction of use. The good news is that we've seen a significant number of people, well over half, that cited Warhammer as their reason for leaving - they've already returned.
Q: Did you find GOAs struggle to launch Warhammer Online in Europe surprising?
Paul Sams: It does and it doesn't surprise me. It surprise me because Mythic is a very good company and it doesn't surprise me at the same time because it's really hard, what they're trying to do and what we've done. We respect those guys over there a lot and certainly wish them well to succeed but having registration troubles having server troubles, these are things that come with the territory when you're talking about managing a game as big as World of Warcraft or Warhammer or anything like that. So, It's not a surprise because it is really difficult.
Q: Do you believe companies fail to understand how challenging the logistics of a massively multiplayer game can be?
Paul Sams: A lot of companies do and as a result they don't make these types of games, so I think that those folks realised how challenging it is and said 'well it's not in our competency, it's a huge investment and as a result maybe we shouldn't do that, we'll let Blizzard do that'.
Other companies that chose to go down that road, it makes sense that they might want to because they look at the success of World of Warcraft and they say 'wow, we sure would like to do that'. I think sometimes those folks are the ones who underestimate it most because they see a lot of dollar signs but the fact is that it's nightmarishly difficult to do.
We've gotten a lot of black eyes along the way and I think the fact that we had banked so much credibility with our customers in our previous games that some of the things we encountered where maybe we didn't do as good a job as we could have or should have because we didn't know better or because something just went haywire, I think that they just gave us a break.
They said: 'You know what, you guys have done right by us in the past. We'll give you a hall pass on this particular thing that… knowing that you're going to fix it'. We're in a fortunate position in that regard, because we have a player base that has been with us for a long time, they trust in us and believe in us and ultimately if we make an error in judgment and we do something wrong then we'll do right by them and we'll fix it.
Q: You once said Activision's CEO Bobby Kotick was one of the most experienced people Blizzard has ever worked with. What impact has he had on the company and has he had a measurable effect?
Paul Sams: Well I think one of the things that has been most interesting about Bobby is how connected this guy is. Anytime we talk about anything that we haven't been involved in before, if we're chatting with him about it he'll say 'oh well, have you spoken to so and so?' Typically the name that he mentions is a name where you're like 'no of course we haven't talked to so and so', and he says: 'Well let me take care of that. I'll set up a phone call or we'll get together with that person or that group'.
The first time or two he suggested that, we thought to ourselves 'Really?! Can he really cause this meeting to occur?'. What we found out was that he knows everyone and their mother and he has interacted with them in some shape or form and has allowed us to be in a situation where we have access to people we maybe wouldn't have had otherwise so we can explore different possibilities and avenues for running our business. In addition to that he's a very strong businessman and so as an example there are certain things in certain deals we've done over the months that I believe are better as a result of the fact that we had... additional smart people that you can bounce ideas off of.
Q: What's your opinion on the MMO market right now? Every once in a while there appears to be a new start-up MMO company with a couple million dollars in funding - can the market support this kind of growth?
Paul Sams: I'm not sure that there is a lot of opportunities to grow and you're talking about people coming up with a few million dollars: a few million dollars in this business isn't going to get you anywhere. I'm not saying that to be arrogant, I'm just saying that because it's a fact. To develop a AAA MMO, to be able to build the hardware infrastructure, to be able to build a customer service infrastructure, to be able to bring together the type of people, the type of talent, that is necessary to build a great one is a tall task.
I think that there's room for a few MMOs and I think that there's very few companies that can do it. I think that it's going to be very challenging for a start-up to do that because of the level of complexity and the amount of experience that you need. What people don't realise, or maybe they don't think about it, is that Blizzard was the leader in online global gaming before we launched WoW. Battle.net was the world's largest online games network period. So we had performed in that capacity for almost eight years prior to the initial launch of World of Warcraft. We're seeing the type of performance for World of Warcraft that benefits from that long term leadership position in online gaming and the fact that it's a franchise that is known and loved globally, it takes advantage of the fact that we have probably amongst the most experienced development teams in the industry. The tenure of our developers and our key team members is very long compared to our competitors, so you have a lot of tribal knowledge that's built up and hopefully we make less mistakes along the way than others that haven't had that kind of experience might.
I think Warhammer is best positioned to succeed out of the various products that have come out thus far since World of Warcraft has come out. It seems to be a good game, certainly a great company, Mythic and Mark [Jacobs] over there and his team, they're very, very talented. But I think without EA they would have struggled as well, because EA fortunately for them has a lot of money and so they were able to put forward a lot of marketing dollars and were able to support the huge infrastructure that they require for these kinds of games. It's a tough road and as I said, if we had not had the benefits of the trust of our customers because of the years of delivering for them, I think that we could have been in trouble a few times. There have been big challenges and mistakes that we've made and we've been fortunate enough to get by them.
Q: As the leading MMO, there have been a number of other developers Blizzard has inspired. Are there any business or products outside of the gaming industry that inspired you?
Paul Sams: Well I think certainly there are a lot of developers that would say that there are certain popular movies and certain popular comics and novels what have you that were an inspiration to them. Like all the companies that make the types of games we make, Tolkien was certainly an influence. All of the product offerings in our business have in some way shape or form being influenced by Tolkien and have been influenced by a variety of other incredible creators that have come before us.
Q: You once said it was an aspiration to release an expansion to World of Warcraft every year, is that still the case? Do you feel any pressure to do so now that Turbine has said it will with Lord of the Rings Online?
Paul Sams: It is absolutely still one of our aspirational goals to do that. I think it's proving to be challenging because of the size and complexity of the expansion sets we deliver - I think our expansions are typically bigger and more full features than what you see from others and as a result they take longer.
If Turbine can deliver an expansion once a year: good for them. I would just say, and this is not specific to them, I would say that any company that says they can do that good luck, and also make sure that there's a lot of great content. At the end of the day the customers want great content and they want it to be really polished and bug free and if we could pull that off in a shorter time frame and we feel that the value proposition is really high for them still then we would do that certainly, doing one a year would be wonderful. But the content quality drives it to take a bit longer than maybe we would hope and desire.
Q: I know your argument has always been that your games drive you to develop for the PC exclusively but aren't you worried that the longer you hold back from console development you risk a company like Sony Online Entertainment establishing itself as the lead MMO provider in that space, as you have done on PCs?
Paul Sams: I think for us the big issue has always been to find the right platform or platforms for the game that we're making. Up until now, and I can't speak for the future, we have felt like the best home for the products we were making has been the PC. I think that Blizzard will continue to have a tremendous amount of focus on the PC. In the event, however, that we felt there was a product that made sense for console we wouldn't hesitate to do that. It just hasn't worked out this way so far.
Paul Sams is the COO of Blizzard Entertainment. Interview by James Lee.