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Blizzard's Mike Ryder

As StarCraft II launches globally, the VP of International talks social gaming, Activision, audience expectancies and digital vs retail

Blizzard Entertainment is one of the core pillars of the Activision Blizzard machine, but one that remains largely untouched by the console arm of the business. On the eve of strategy sequel StarCraft II's launch, GamesIndustry.biz talked to the developer's VP of international Mike Ryder, with occasional contribution from the game's software engineer Carl Chimes.

Economical with his words and difficult to steer away from practiced comments, Ryder is perhaps emblematic of how Blizzard works. Here, he responds to queries about social networking, StarCraft II's status within Activision Blizzard as a whole, downloads versus retail and the developer's prestigious place within the industry.

GamesIndustry.bizHow important to Activision rather than Blizzard specifically is StarCraft 2?
Michael Ryder

Well, Activision Blizzard is the corporate entity, so for Activision Blizzard it's important. Certainly it's important to Blizzard. Activision is a separate division, so I'm sure that they'll be glad to see us be successful. It's a separate division so the numbers don't go up for them specifically.

GamesIndustry.bizYes, absolutely – but I mean in terms of Activision Blizzard. There was that figure a few weeks ago that Bobby Kotick quoted, saying console games only account for 30% of the company's revenue. Is Blizzard providing the other 70%?
Michael Ryder

In his position he's speaking for Activision Blizzard.

GamesIndustry.bizYes. But did he mean that other 70% of Activision Blizzard's revenues were provided by Blizzard games?
Michael Ryder

I'm not familiar with that quote, I don't recall hearing it, sorry.

GamesIndustry.bizMoving onto Battle.net, it's a game as service approach. I know you did that with World of WarCraft already, but there the growth was more over time. Is this a whole new philosophy of game design for you, a big step on from simply selling a box, and not simply the launch of a sequel?
Michael Ryder

I would characterise it this way. We focus on our players globally, and one of our goals is to make the game accessible to as many players in different regions as we can. So we actually put a tremendous amount of effort into trying to tailor our business model into different regions, to meet the global economics, the global purchasing patterns, the global culture and as a part of that, whereas in Europe a boxed model in the US a boxed model is appropriate, in certain regions offering a client with a subscription model is a better way to go to make it accessible to those players.

GamesIndustry.bizWe had that figure that came out of the NPD last week saying digital downloads now constitute 48 per cent of PC sales. Is that equivalent to your perception of the situation?
Michael Ryder

I'm not familiar with how they came up with their numbers, but I can tell you that for us, again going back to the idea that we really want to do the best thing that we can for our players, we want to offer them as many alternatives as possible. So certain players in certain regions may want to get content or buy the game digitally. In other places retail is really prevalent. We feel that retail is a really vital part of our business. We built the World of WarCraft business pretty much around the retail channel, so we feel that retail is really important for us, but we also integrate it with the ability to provide digital sales for certain regions as well.

GamesIndustry.bizNPD had Blizzard.com listed as the number 3 or 4 digital distribution channel, after Steam and Direct2Drive – if that's true it's a hell of an achievement for a store that stocks less than half a dozen games...
Michael Ryder

Yeah. I'm just not familiar with how they derived those numbers so I can't really comment on it.

GamesIndustry.bizA lot of people have been saying that, which is interesting. In terms of StarCraft itself, is there any sense at all that it's difficult to be launching an RTS in a climate where the charts and the news are dominated by first-person-shooters? Obviously this one will be enormously successful because of its pre-existent audience, but does standing against the tide feel odd?
Michael Ryder

Well, the way Blizzard works is we make the games that our development team wants to make, so I guess there's a way to look at it from a more analytic perspective, where's the market going and all that sort of thing, but we really feel like we have a great real-time strategy game franchise in StarCraft, and our development team was passionate about making the next StarCraft game. So for us there's nothing unusual about it at all, it just seems to be a very natural thing to bring the market the successor to one of the most successful games that we've ever made.

GamesIndustry.bizThe interesting thing is that only you guys could do this. Other developers, other publishers, other games might have to fight for coverage and pre-orders, but you guys can take that for granted. Does that introduce new pressures?
Michael Ryder

The culture at Blizzard is really important. If someone asks me what is the key to success at Blizzard, I think that it's because we've got a well-defined culture that has some very well-defined values. Those values are about making great games all the time; we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make a great game. But that's not unique to this situation, it's the way it's always been for us. So we don't ship the game until it's ready, we make sure it's a great game or we just don't put it out. That type of mentality is just the way we are, we don't see it as unusual or anything like that.

GamesIndustry.bizAre you still able to envisage what life on the other side of the fence, where success was less guaranteed, would be like?
Michael Ryder

I've worked in other places in the industry and had great experiences, but I can tell you, it's wonderful to work at Blizzard because I'm really proud of the culture we have at Blizzard.

GamesIndustry.bizIs there ever any feeling or worry that the well-earned ivory tower you're in cuts you off from how the rest of the industry is thinking and acting? RealID for instance, while you stepped back on the use of real names, it was not a decision other companies might have made in the first place, because they don't have the clout.
Michael Ryder

I think we behave in the way the Blizzard behaves. I'm not sure I understand your question.

GamesIndustry.bizIt's the ivory tower thing, do you feel defined by that or are you confident that you can think outside of Blizzard-space?
Michael Ryder

I think we feel privileged that there are lots of people who like to play the games that we've made. So we feel a close connection with the players and we want to continue to make them happy.

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Alec Meer


A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.