As COO for Blizzard Entertainment, Paul Sams is a busy man, currently juggling the imminent launches and associated campaigns for StarCraft II, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm and the company's soon-to-be-updated Battle.net service.
Speaking exclusively to GamesIndustry.biz at this year's BlizzCon, Sams filled us in on why Battle.net has been responsible for delaying the launch of StarCraft II to 2010, how the service radically differs to Valve's Steam and why he wasn't convinced at the start that re-engineering content for Cataclysm would be a good idea.
Q: In your recent Activision/Blizzard investor call you said the main reason for the Starcraft II delay was getting Battle.net ready. What's the hold up?
Paul Sams: Well, the fact of the matter is, what we're trying to do is very big. It's ambitious and, we could have shipped it from my perspective, but we wouldn't have been able to ship it with the feature set that was going to deliver the type of compelling experience that we really wanted throughout the game.
My feeling is that if you're going to relaunch Battle.net you can't just go, "okay here's this extra little feature and this little feature and this one, we're all good everybody, let's go". If we're really going to relaunch Battle.net, then it's going to be the platform we described yesterday in the panel sessions. We can't short-change the players.
Q: Why is it so important to get it right?
Paul Sams: Because it's the platform on which all of our games will be played on from now on. And there's going to be such a huge amount of integration that goes on between games over Battle.net that getting it right the first time is what's required.
Plus, you know, we have a trust relationship with players. We have, I believe, not let them down all that much if at all, you know, on a big scale. And we've been able to, over a decade and a half, build that trust in our players so they know that if they buy a Blizzard product they're going to get a good quality experience.
And so when we launch Starcraft II, together with the new version of Battle.net, we want to make sure it's compelling and people say, "this was worth the wait, this is really cool, and love how this integrates together and understand why this was so critical". Because people say, oh well, Starcraft II is going to be awesome - it's just Battle.net, it's just match-making right? It's really not - it's far beyond that. We've only scratched the surface. We can only say so much right now, but the plans are much bigger, much grander. And have long-term positive implications for gamers.
Q: What do you see as the cross-company and cross-product benefits of the Battle.net platform?
Paul Sams: Well, first of all, from a player perspective, you're going to be able to communicate with people that are on Battle.net. Right now, if you're on WoW, and your friend's playing Starcraft or Diablo or whatever, you've got to figure out where they are through different communication means. And so you're in a situation where you've almost got to come out of the game to be able to do that. We're going to integrate the games so you're going to know when your friends are on and be able to create all sorts of play dates, so to speak.
It's such a huge element, social networking, I don't know about you - if you have a favourite social networking site - I'm traditionally not that guy who does that sort of stuff. I like to go old school and pick up the phone and talk to friends. I might text a little bit here or there but, at the end of the day, I like to hear my friends voices. In the last six months I've gotten into Facebook, and it was because I wanted to do some research related to social networking because of the stuff we're doing with Battle.net. And what I found was, all these people that I'd lost touch with found me and I started talking to them and seeing what they were up to.
With Battle.net, there will be a lot of these types of elements. Beyond that though it'll be friends that I've lost touch with that are also into the same thing as me, which is games. And into Blizzard games at that. There are a lot of cool features - the developers are much better at describing all the cool interconnectivity between all the games, but I feel like - knowing what that feature set is - it's going to be an awesome experience. It's something that I think we're going to be able to view unlike any other games companies out there.
Q: One of the things that Rob talked about in the presentation [at BlizzCon] was the marketplace, which he presented as something for the mod community. But are you seeing that as perhaps an extra revenue stream and a way to monetise Battle.net for the company too?
Paul Sams: It's certainly possible. What we're doing right now is building the feature set and we're building all the different elements of the experience. We're trying to figure out how marketplace is going to work exactly and how consumers are going to be able to interact with that marketplace. It's certainly possible that there could be a charging mechanism at some point. I don't have any real details about that right now, but it's certainly something we're looking at - we're looking at all sorts of possibilities for each of the areas of Battle.net.
Q: Might it be a place where you could release smaller scale Blizzard products too, like pay-for assets?
Paul Sams: Oh, it's certainly possible. I don't know if it's somewhere we would actually go because we do have this issue with focus. We've got four games in development, we've got our cinematic team, we've got Battle.net - that requires us to keep a lot of balls in the air. We don't want to make any big mistakes as you can imagine. So going and doing a bunch of smaller games pay-for there I think is a cool idea... whether or not we're going to be able to pull that off given the focus we want to keep on our big stuff, I don't know. Time will tell on that.
Q: When developing a platform like Battle.net do you think of a company like Valve that has done something similar with Steam? The way that they handled it was to offer it as a service for other companies. Is that something you'd ever consider?
Paul Sams: You know, I don't know. I think at the moment our focus is squarely on Blizzard products and we need to make sure that what we're doing is right for our games. It's also a big differentiator for us. There's really not a lot of companies out there that can or are willing to do this because it's a huge expense and most companies are all about, how can I advertise this across a bunch of different products? But we don't do a lot of products, so I think that because of that a lot of other companies are going to be hesitant to do this type of thing, so it's a key differentiator for us.
So whether we would add third-parties or not... I never want to say never on questions like this but we've got to get our stuff straight and we certainly aren't going to think about third-parties if we don't have our act together, and there's a lot of work to do between now and then. And not just between now and then but even afterwards because the list is long of the things we want to do, and the amount of time we have to get that done is limited for the launch of StarCraft II. So there'll be a lot of cool stuff when we launch, but then there's going to be an ongoing flow of coolness coming in on Battle.net over time. Not only with future products but in between products as well. So new products that come online will benefit from all that stuff.
Q: It's now nearly five years since you launched World of Warcraft and in that time you haven't released any non World of Warcraft games. But it's around the corner now with Starcraft II - how's it going to change things for the company to get another game out there?
Paul Sams: You know honestly, I don't think it's going to because they're different games. There will be some player overlap but I feel like we know how to do RTS titles. That's been our bread and butter. All of our key leadership throughout the years that was involved with that, our key RTS developers, every one of them is still here. Our senior management team has an average tenure of over 14 years. Our senior leadership, all of us, have been at the company for over a third of our lives. Some close to half their lives.
We know how to do that stuff and the developers that are doing StarCraft II - the leadership team for that team are the same group that did Warcraft 3 and many of them did StarCraft. So I feel pretty good about being able to handle that. What I think was the bigger and harder transition was going from being an RTS and RPG company to going to a global MMO subscription based company as well where we had to integrate this massive amount of 24/7 service - that was gigantic and crazy. It's not to say this other stuff won't be hard - it's all hard - but we feel pretty good about the prospects of doing that; we know how to do that.
Q: When it comes to World of Warcraft Cataclysm, was it a difficult decision to devote that much of your development resource to basically re-engineering existing content?
Paul Sams: It depends on who you ask that question to [laughs]. Was it a tough decision for me? Yes, but I wasn't deciding it; it was up to other developers to decide that stuff and then our management team supports them. They're gamers, they know what gamers want next. They even know sometimes what the gamers want next before the gamers know what they want next. So I can tell you that me, the business guy, the operations guy - we were going through the whole process before we really knew all the reasons why.
I was sitting there just going, "Oh my God, really? Should we do that?" And I've got to tell you, I'm completely sold at this point. I think it's the right decision. I think that everybody thinks it's the right decision. But there were a couple of folks that didn't necessarily see why that was the right decision and, you know, I'm honest, I was one of those people that was like, "Really? Are we sure?" But I think it's a good decision. People have been really excited about this - we've had a lot of folk come up and say, wow, we think it's awesome you're doing this. The races look incredible and it's going to be a really great game. And it's going to feel really new, so we're glad about it - it's really good.
Q: So it's a pretty hectic time with everything that's going on within the company. Are you able to move resources around within the company to try to cope dynamically with the demands on you?
Paul Sams: Well, in the old days we used to resource steal constantly and it introduces all sorts of challenges. Pushes games out that shouldn't get pushed out - there's a lot of potential negativity in doing the resource stealing from team to team. So we've tried to build the teams to a size and capability where they can be self-contained and they can do that which is necessary to get their stuff done. Now, does that mean there aren't times when we might pull a couple of people or artists, usually artists, and say, hey can we get a few of your guys to help us do this stuff? Sometimes that happens but it's very uncommon for us, at this point, to resource steal engineers or designers or producers. Once in a while, but we feel good about the way that things are set up, and the teams are able work on their own without having to comp on their brothers and sisters in the company to help them.
Paul Sams is chief operating officer for Blizzard Entertainment. Interview by Oli Welsh.