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Blizzard's Paul Sams

Warcraft developer's COO talks about Activision Blizzard, success in Asia, and whether or not the company will develop for consoles

Blizzard Entertainment has been busy - not content to work on continuing development for its all-conquering MMO World of Warcraft, it's currently working on a sequel to its sci-fi RTS Starcraft, as well as having just announced the latest in the action RPG Diablo series.

To find out more about how the company will cope with the load, as well as how the Activision merger will affect, how success in Asia came about and whether or not there are plans to develop for consoles, caught up with Blizzard's COO, Paul Sams, at the Worldwide Invitational. Now that Diablo III has been announced, Blizzard will be sustaining three large franchises at once - that's a pretty big ask, isn't it?
Paul Sams

It is. Is there anything you're worried about, particularly?
Paul Sams

Well, we're always worried. We always have a very high bar that we set for ourselves, so I think one of the things that's allowed us to feel a level of comfort is that we've done this progression slowly. It may not feel like that to the outside world, because they don't know all of the details, but what I would say is that over the last four years or so we've amassed the Diablo III team.

We took a base of Blizzard North folks, and added to it, to build the team we have today. The Starcraft II team is the same team that built Warcraft III and Starcraft - certainly we added new people, because some people have gone, but that is the most veteran RTS team in the world. And the World of Warcraft team is a team that's been around for quite a long time.

So while I think I'd be telling you a lie if I said that we didn't have any nervousness, we do feel like we've been able to build some of the best teams in the industry. We've also added to our management team, with people that we've known and trusted for a long time - plus the folks internally have grown, so we feel like we can handle it.

As a result of World of Warcraft we've built a global infrastructure with our European team, our various Asian teams, and we feel that our ability to execute has been really expanded beyond what it's ever been before.

And while I think it will be really, really difficult for us, it's something that I think we'll be able to achieve - because we know that we don't compromise on the quality. If it means that we need to ship one of these games and it's ready, and it means we have to delay another one by a month or two because we want them to stay out of each other's way - we want to make sure we're putting the necessary attention and focus on the game - then we'll do that.

We aren't driven by quarterly results. We aren't driven by semi-annual results. We aren't driven by annual results. We focus on developing great games, and that's not going to change. I think it's something we're going to be able to succeed on, but it's not going to be easy, and I'm sure we'll have many bruises along the way...but I don't think we'll break any bones. The PC games market is changing - would you consider moving to other business models for your games, to reflect those changes?
Paul Sams

I think we would be absolutely open to it, but it's only a matter of what the game is. We don't focus on what the flavour of the month is for business models. What we focus on is making a great game, and a great game experience, and finding the right business model for that game, and that game experience - and the individual markets.

So for example, it wouldn't be unheard of for Blizzard to have a different business model for the same game in Asia as we have in Europe or America. We try to build business models and wrap them around the games - the game is always first and foremost in our minds. Without a great game it doesn't matter what our business model is.

As an example, people talk about the item-based business models becoming very popular, so we should do that. Well, actually, the answer is "No, we shouldn't." If the game justifies it, then we do it. But it's all about the game, it's all about what is appropriate for that type of game in that market.

I wouldn't make assumptions that Blizzard will do what is popular - we're going to do what is right. Mike Morhaime told fans at the WWI that fans wouldn't notice the change post-merger with Activision, but what will the changes be internally?
Paul Sams

There's not a single change as it relates to our management structure, and every single employee is going to be in the same job that they are today. The only real material difference is that Mike Morhaime is going to report to Bobby Kotick instead of Bruce Hack.

Mike has always reported to the CEO of whatever combined company we've been part of, so he's going to do that again. What's interesting is that in the time that Mike has been here, he's had eight different bosses, and somehow through all of those we've been able to maintain the quality and focus that we've always had.

I see no difference, other than probably that Bobby is probably the most experienced gaming CEO that Mike will have ever reported to, and I think that's actually going to be very positive because there's a lot that we can learn from him. And, candidly, there's a lot that he can learn from us.

So there's a tremendous amount of respect between the Activision and Blizzard management teams, and we're going to be interacting with them probably in a similar amount to that which we currently do with Vivendi Games. We have been beyond crystal clear on how we do things, and how we won't be changing things, and I think they understand that.

The fact of the matter is that we've gone into relationships before where people were saying they were going to do this or the other with Blizzard, but if it wasn't something we wanted to do, we said no. And Blizzard was able to prevail in all of those scenarios.

I really feel that because there is such a high level of respect, and an appreciation of what each party has been able to do, and we've worked really hard on the framework of how we're going to operate together, I feel a tremendous level of confidence.

What people don't realise is that Blizzard is absolutely, positively supportive of doing this. I think maybe people believe that Activision and Vivendi got together and sat in a room, and thought it would be great, and then informed us.

But the fact of the matter is that we felt doing something like this was a positive and important thing to have happen, and we were part of all those meetings. We were sitting with Bobby and those folks when we talked about what the structure would be like.

The Vivendi people were there, but the reality is that in Vivendi Games, Blizzard is the crown jewel, so we needed to be on board and believe in it. And honestly, when [Vivendi] said to us they were thinking about exploring the possibility of something like this, we said that if we were going to do something like that, it should be with Activision - those words came from our mouth.

We think they are the right partner at the right time, I really think it's going to be a positive partnership, I think we're going to get stronger together every day, and I think we're going to be able to do things better together at a commercial level than we've ever been able to do.

Plus we'll still have the same great people working together in each of the markets. The Activision people won't be doing PR for us, it's going to be our team still, and that's the same answer for all the different functions. What is it that's keeping you on the PC and off consoles?
Paul Sams

It's really an issue of the games that we're making. I think a lot of companies and a lot of management teams sit down and look at the Wii as being popular, or that the Xbox 360 is doing well, and try to figure out what their product plans will be for that platform.

We don't care. Our attitude is, what game will we make? This is the game we want to make, so what is the appropriate platform for that game? And if the answer is PC only, then we've proven that we're comfortable with that.

In the event that we think it should be a different platform, we'll explore that, and if the right answer is to do that for the game that we're making, we will. We keep in constant contact with all the console manufacturers, we have a great relationship with them. When they do their roadshows and go talk to the publishers that they work with, they always come and see us - and when we're in their areas we always go see them.

So we have the relationships, and believe me, they want to see us on their platforms, but we haven't had the right game for it yet. But I don't think that at any level suggests that we won't be there if the right game comes along. You've had a lot of success in the Asian market - what do you think you've done differently to other publishers?
Paul Sams

Well, I think in Asia - number one is that they are very much into competitive gaming, and if I may say so I think that we have made some of the very best competitive games of all time. This is Paul Sams' personal opinion, but I think that Starcraft is the best game that Blizzard has ever made, it's our most perfect game, and for me it's the best game of all time - it's my favourite game. There's no game that can touch it, for me.

When I say that, I look at Warcraft III, I look at the competitive types of products we've built, I think that they've been right for those markets and they've had fast-paced gameplay which a lot of other RTS games haven't been able to achieve.

I think that one of our key assets is our ability to balance games - it's up there at the highest level, and I think being able to provide balance with fast-paced gameplay has been key. And there was some luck involved, and there was some timing involved.

We've become very big in Korea, and Korea has become a real leader in online gaming in Asia. You talk to people in China, and they speak about trying to do something like Korea did, that they're Korea but two years ago - things like that.

So it's very influential, and when I talk about timing, StarCraft came out in 1998 when the Korean economy was in a shambles, they were in a giant recession, they were having all sorts of problems - people didn't have disposable income to speak of, but they wanted entertainment like anywhere else.

Certainly they could go see movies, those were inexpensive, but then they were also starting to see an increase in broadband, and we happened to have a really great, balanced, competitive game. They wanted to do something to entertain themselves - it was cheap, and the timing was right.

So it was a combination of a great game, the right type of game, timing and it was also very economical for them. Rob Pardo commented at GDC Paris that World of Warcraft was originally planned as a free-to-play game, supported by ads...
Paul Sams

That was the hope and dream - I wouldn't say it was the plan, that was the hope. Would you still consider an ad-supported model for games?
Paul Sams

I think that the market has shown us that it can be achieved. I think we have an openness to it, and I think that certain companies are beginning to show that ad-supported games can be successful at some level. I think a lot of it, again, depends on the game - as an example, you don't particularly want to be running through Stormwind and seeing advertisements for Coca-Cola, it takes you out of that suspension of disbelief.

So the in-game ads, for our current franchises, wouldn't work. But around-game ads I could certainly see more of, but it's figuring out how to do it with the right balance, so that it's not intrusive and doesn't take you out of the immersiveness of the gameplay experience - if there are ways that we can do that, we'd explore that and be open to it.

Paul Sams is the COO of Blizzard Entertainment. Interview by Oli Welsh.

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