The biggest game announcement in the past few weeks, according to GamesRetail.biz data, was that of Fable III - which Peter Molyneux unveiled at Gamescom. But based on traffic that week, news of World of Warcraft's forthcoming expansion, Cataclysm was a close runner-up.
Here, Blizzard's VP of International, Michael Ryder, talks about the ongoing challenge to keep people excited about a product that's nearly five years old, the pressure of fan expectation on the company, and why delaying Starcraft II was the best option in the pursuit of excellence.
Q: We're just past the first anniversary of the Vivendi Games-Activision merger, and the most recent financials saw World of Warcraft contribute around a third of the company's overall revenues for the quarter. Is that a nice position to be in?
Michael Ryder: I think for Blizzard, we're happy to be in the position we're in, and fortunate because World of Warcraft is continuing to do very well. I have to say that we're pleased with where we are, but we're also looking forward to the new things that we have in the works.
We think the future is even brighter for us moving forward.
Q: The economy's been a challenge for everybody, and nobody's been too sure how consumer spending on games would be affected - yet World of Warcraft continues to perform. Is it unassailable, with respect to the economy?
Michael Ryder: We're up year-over-year in terms of subscribers on World of Warcraft, so while it's true that while the global economic situation isn't great, we've been able to hold our own.
We've been pretty stable over the recent months, but we also feel that at the end of the day people are attracted to compelling content. We also think that World of Warcraft represents very good value for people in terms of their entertainment - the amount of content, the amount of gameplay that we offer, things there are to do, the attractiveness of the community... all of those things, even during a more difficult economic time, represents something that people are still attracted to.
We feel it's our role to try to do our best, and try to keep that going. We always try to keep the players' interest in mind at the top of the list, so we're doing everything we can to continue to make the game attractive for people.
Q: Other MMO products have arrived on the market and failed to get anywhere near WoW's consumer base - it's almost tempting to suggest that the only thing likely to get close to it will be Blizzard's next MMO project... is that something you think about, and maybe wonder if you shouldn't develop another product too quickly?
Michael Ryder: First of all, we don't take anything for granted. We have a lot of respect for the other companies in the industry and we know there are some really talented people out there working on projects we need to be aware of.
At the same time, because we're gamers too, we're happy to see other teams make products that are really great - so we're happy to be in the position we're in, but I wouldn't say that we're complacent in any way. We feel like we have to keep doing what we do day in, day out, to maintain the position we have.
And since we don't have any announced plans for any follow-on product right now, we're focused on making sure World of Warcraft continues to be as successful as it has been.
Q: It's an expensive business, the MMO business - where does innovation come from now? When you've got something working really well, how do you justify the spending?
Michael Ryder: I don't think that innovation for us is necessarily a choice. I think the way that Blizzard operates, we look at players' need, quality, gameplay... all those things that are critically important. We put those at the top of the list, and we've got some really talented people in development who are always looking for some good ideas.
It's not just development either, it's all the services we provide - we look for things we can do to make the experience better. I think we make a big attempt to listen to what the players have to say, and suggestions they might have on areas they feel we do better on.
So one of the innovations we've made recently is using mobile devices for access to the Armory, using mobile devices for authentication - I think that's the beginning of a trend, perhaps, where we look at using mobile devices to make it easier for players to interface with the game. That's an area of innovation that comes naturally - the technology's there, the platform's there.
Definitely when we're looking at creating more content, that's the thing that drives continued interest in World of Warcraft, that we continually come out with content - and it won't be compelling if it's routine, or mundane. If you don't find ways to innovate in gameplay and offer some really new creative stuff, people are going to lose interest.
So I think innovation for us is a mandate - we have to keep doing interesting things in order to expect people to continue to enjoy the game.
Q: There's an interesting balance in deciding what's in a content patch, and what's in an expansion... is that tricky, or fairly straightforward?
Michael Ryder: The development team has a roadmap, and they think about what will come naturally in a patch. Of course they have to think about the time frame, and what's doable in the time they have to release a patch that comes out in a timely way, but also has lots of good stuff in it - whereas there's a more overriding long term thought process that goes into the expansion, because they have more time to get it together.
So I think it just falls out in that equation - what they feel is compelling and the time it will take to execute that. I know there's an awful lot of thought about what goes where, and at the end of the day it's going to come down to a creative process - a gut feeling on the part of the designers and producers about what can be done.
Q: Knowing a little bit about the company, I assume there's never a commercial pressure on the design team to push something out until it's completely ready?
Michael Ryder: You're right - Blizzard's got a very strong culture and values that have been sustained over time, and I think part of that answer is that we never want to fail to deliver on the promise that we make to ourselves: That everything we ship is going to be up to Blizzard's standards.
So if it takes a bit of extra time to get it up there, we'll take it. It's just really important that we do that.
Q: The other main title in the news at the moment is Starcraft II - to my surprise the announcement of its delay to 2010 partly resulted in the company's share price rising 6 per cent... Do you think investors are beginning to understand the importance of getting something right, as opposed to getting something out, and/or is it a sign of confidence in the company's management decisions?
Michael Ryder: I can't say for sure whether I think that's a vote of confidence, because I don't really know what's driving that number or why investors do what they do. I can say that, at least from where I sit, it's really a re-affirmation of Blizzard continuing to do business the way that it always has, and if that has meaning to people that that's the case then I would say that's a good thing.
It's true - we certainly knew there might have been some expectation in the market that the game was going to come out earlier, but as we always say, we're not going to ship something if it's not ready and there were clearly some things that we thought weren't going to be up to snuff if we pushed it out on an earlier date.
So I was happy to see us take the step that we did to make sure we get it right.
Q: The expectation of quality must be tough - and maybe the company's reputation leads to unrealistic expectations: Starcraft II is, at the end of the day, an RTS game but following the level of success Blizzard's enjoyed in the past five years are fans expecting more?
Michael Ryder: It's an interesting question. I don't get the sense when you're walking around within Blizzard that people have the weight of the world on their shoulders. I think that the atmosphere in the company is a very positive one, I think people are enabled to do what they want to do.
We have a lot of great development talent, a lot of people across the board in all the different functions of the company, and everybody is proud to be part of a company where the cultural norm is to try to achieve excellence in all the things that we do.
So I think it's the opposite - I think people are pretty happy working at Blizzard, and there's a confidence that we all work together and do the things we've done in the past, make sure we're focusing on the right things, and making sure we get it right.
Starcraft - it's a great tradition, there aren't too many games that shipped ten or eleven years ago that are still on the shelf. So it's time for Starcraft II, I think we'll build on the success of the first one.
Q: How you appraise the current state of the RTS genre?
Michael Ryder: Well, it's important to look at it globally, so for us we continue to have a game in Starcraft in Korea, for example, is still the most popular game for e-sports. It's a phenomenon in Korea, even today, and it has had continued success around the world even though it is over ten years old.
So I think that says something about the compelling content and a really well executed game will have appeal. Looking at the market globally, in the way that we do, and the fact that we want to be on the forefront of e-sports, we have a franchise in Starcraft that we want to continue to build on.
Again, for us, it's not something that I think we think too much about, because a lot of our products and decisions are driven by the fact we're a company of gamers, and we believe it's a fun experience and a great story. I really think people are going to really happy with it when it comes out. So we feel pretty confident about it.
Q: What's the latest on World of Warcraft in China - is it nearing re-launch?
Michael Ryder: We're working hard to complete the transition - we're working with the government to get the final approvals, and we've made a tremendous amount of progress in a short period of time in transitioning from one partner to another in going to NetEase.
Our servers are up-and-running now in a beta test phase, and concurrency is running quite high, so we know there's continued interest with the players. We've transitioned everyone over to the Battle.Net account management system, which has been a big success for us as well.
We've upgraded the technology and the server hardware across the board and everyone's very pleased with how that's performing. So we feel pretty good about the progress we've made, and hopefully we'll be getting the rest of the approvals we need in the near future and then we'll be back on track.
Michael Ryder is VP of International at Blizzard. Interview by Phil Elliott.