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Brave New World

Mike Morhaime opens up about pushing the world's most successful developer into new territory

Blizzard is a company with a lot going on right now. The last five year of its history has been domintaed by World of Warcraft, but its success has allowed it to make some radical moves with implications for both its business and its approach to design - like Diablo 3's real-money trading feature, and the Arcade, where the StarCraft community will be able to sell their own mods.

Orchestrating all this is the unassuming figure of president Mike Morhaime, managing the operations of the world's most successful developer with an ex-programmer's eye for detail. In this interview, we talk to Blizzard's president about keeping World of Warcraft fresh, succeeding in China, Diablo's real-money auction house, and the lie behind the free-to-play future.

GamesIndustry.biz I think it's fair to call World of Warcraft a mature game now it's been running for six, seven years, and especially since you revamped all the content with Cataclysm. Is there a shift in philosophy or direction with this next expansion?
Mike Morhaime

I think we're always looking at what is the right thing for the game, what does the game need, and also trying to evolve the game and elevate it.

GamesIndustry.biz And what do you think it needs right now?
Mike Morhaime

Well I think that with Cataclysm, we did make the endgame a little bit too difficult, and so in some of the recent patching we've been easing up on the difficulty.

I think we want to give people a beautiful new land to explore and a brand new character which plays a little bit different, is cool and unique. We introduced the Pandarens back in Warcraft 3, and we always thought it would be pretty cool to make them officially part of World of Warcraft and let them be a playable race.

Chinese consumers and even the Chinese government is much more open these days to international companies entering the Chinese market

GamesIndustry.biz Is it fair to call this expansion quite light in tone, with features for casual players?
Mike Morhaime

Well I guess the Pandarens are light, there's certainly an amount of levity and humour. And also a nod to Chinese culture. But yeah, really excited about the pet battling system. You know, World of Warcraft needs things like that, mini-games and things that you can do when you're not raiding.

GamesIndustry.biz You're satisfied it's sensitive enough to Chinese cultural concerns? Because you've had regulatory issues there in the past.
Mike Morhaime

Well, now that the expansion is announced, I think we're very interested in feedback on those types of topics, and so we'll be working closely with our local partner NetEase and we have a local office in Shanghai. We'll be getting a lot of feedback about cultural sensitivity issues.

GamesIndustry.biz The game is very popular in China at the moment...
Mike Morhaime

I did get some reaction yesterday from some Chinese gamers who are very excited about the Panderans.

GamesIndustry.biz Did you in fact make the expansion with the Chinese market in mind?
Mike Morhaime

Well, first and foremost we're making it with a global market in mind, and we're doing what we think that the game needs. But we recognise that you can't find pandas anywhere in the world outside of China... unless somebody in China has sent you a panda. So I think that definitely it's an opportunity to inject some Chinese culture into the game and I think that that will be appreciated out in China.

GamesIndustry.biz You've made significant strides in the Chinese market, despite those regulatory hiccups. What advice would you give to Western companies trying to crack the market?
Mike Morhaime

Good question... Be patient. I think that approaching the market too aggressively, you can make some mistakes. I think it's best just to be patient and focus on delivering a high-quality experience to Chinese players, and when there are challenges or roadblocks then you just have to take them one at a time and deal with them. Eventually, hopefully, things will work out, but you can't force it.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think it's getting harder or easier for Western companies to succeed in China?
Mike Morhaime

Well from our perspective, it seems like it's getting easier. I do think that, I mean jeez, China's come so far if you look at the past five years, but go back farther than that I don't think that there were really any companies doing much in China.

I think that Chinese consumers and even the Chinese government is much more open these days to international companies entering the Chinese market. I think they're just very cautious about how quickly that happens and in what ways it happens. But you know, we've had some great discussions with Chinese officials, and they've been very encouraging.

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Oli Welsh

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Oli was Eurogamer's MMO Editor before a seven-year stint as Editor. He worked here for a colossal 14 years, shaping the website and leading it.

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