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Focus On: Blizzard Entertainment (Part One)

Few developers can claim the kind of consistent commercial and critical success which Blizzard Entertainment has to its name. The firm can honestly say that it has never made an unsuccessful game; with a string of hits behind it and three enormous franchises (StarCraft, WarCraft and Diablo) successfully established, it is the jewel in the crown of owner Vivendi Universal Games and its name commands a mixture of envy and awe from peers in the development industry.

Not content to rest on its laurels, the Californian company has launched itself with gusto at two huge new challenges - building a massively multiplayer title, and bringing one of its most successful PC franchises to consoles.

Today, in the first part of our interview with creative director Chris Metzen and senior VP of business operations Paul Sams, we discuss the status of the company, and how it's addressing the first of those new challenges - World of Warcraft, the MMORPG that has taken North America by storm, whose European launch is looming, and whose development process Metzen readily describes as a "monster".

Click here for the second part of the interview, where Blizzard speaks about the saga behind, and status of, eagerly awaited console title StarCraft Ghost, their thoughts on console game development, their relationship with publisher Vivendi Universal Games - and how a successful design formula has helped them to make games which are loved by hardcore and mass-market gamers alike.

Part One: The Perfect Storm

First off, just a little background about the company - with the opening of new offices in Korea and Europe in recent months, what size are you now, and how many studios are you operating?

Paul Sams: We have our main headquarters studio which is in Irvine, we've got in excess of 300 people there between developers, support staff, quality assurance, game masters, tech support and all of our positions for running the business - marketing, PR and what have you. We also have another studio in Redwood City which is in Northern California, which is approximately 45 people or so.

Then we also have two additional organisations, one in Paris which is Blizzard Europe, which we just created, and Blizzard Korea, which was just recently created as well. Those groups were primarily created to support World of Warcraft, because we're going directly into each of those territories, and as a result, we made sure there's a Blizzard-focused team in each of those areas.

Aside from World of Warcraft, Blizzard has also been in the news of late because of a number of high-profile departures - a number of senior people have left to set up their own studios. How has that affected the company?

Paul: I think that has been a situation where people were making it to be something bigger than it necessarily was. What I mean by that is that Blizzard, from its very first day, has always had a very similar thought - and that is that there's no one person that makes a Blizzard game. We have probably one of the most collaborative design and development processes that I've ever heard of in the industry. Every single person in the company, from the president to the receptionist plays our games and gives feedback on our games, gives play-balance feedback and what have you.

And so, while there were certainly people that were very important that left, it's still the same company. The people that are running the company, as an example... The person with the shortest amount of tenure has, I think, seven or eight years. Two of the three people that are leading the company are founders, and the other two - Chris and I - both have over ten years. So we've been with the company for a long time, the core leadership still remains, and many of the people that have helped create these worlds, and helped create the visuals associated with these worlds, are still there. The art director for the company, who helped create all these visuals, is still there. The person that has created the worlds is still here.

So yes, there have been some people that left, but at the end of the day, we're all about the collaborative effort. There isn't one key person - there are a lot of studios where that's the case, but it's not at Blizzard.

Moving on to World of Warcraft, then; how have you found moving to developing a massively multiplayer game? Has this been a real paradigm shift for you creatively and in terms of your process?

Paul: I think there are two parts to that answer, and I think I can field half of it and Chris can probably field the other half.

From a company perspective, we're shifting from a situation where we create a PC boxed product and put it on the shelves, although yes, we support it with patches and what have you over time. But with this product, because it's a subscription based product, because this type of product requires so much support, our company focus and thought process has had to shift. We're not only creating what I believe to be a great game, but we're also having to create a world-class service organisation.

People, when they're paying, are expecting things that we, historically, have not had to provide them. Now, we're going to be providing 24 by 7 support in-game. We're going to have local servers for these products, with local technical people on the ground that can do all the maintenance and upgrades and what have you that need to be done. And so, a huge amount of effort had to go into preparing for the operations associated with doing something that is this large in scale.

Then, obviously, there are some creative aspects as well that Chris can touch on...

Chris Metzen: These kinds of games are monsters. Totally unlike anything else we've tried to build. The sheer number of artists and coders and designers that you have to throw at it is really beyond the pale of what we're used to. In terms of just the sheer magnitude of lands and creatures and animations and tilesets, and just all the art resources you could ever imagine, which all need to be programmed as well, it's beyond anything we've tried to create before.

We're used to these nice, finite, closed-ended games that we can power through, put on a shelf, go home and sleep for a month. This is just a completely different kind of monster - it will not end. We're prepared for years and years, for this thing to be up and running, so it really did involve a big shift, not only in the business but specifically the running of our team and the structure of our team. The influx of new players, new designers, new artists needed to bring this thing off forced us to really rethink our small team minded culture. We're dealing with a much larger team, but we've gone out of our way to try and maintain that small team culture, which got us to this point - to keep things very familiar, to keep the vibe alive, so that the ultimate vision - the singular vision - that's provided at the end of the day isn't drowned out just by the sheer influx of new perspectives.

So yeah, it's been quite shift. But you know, I think we're weathering it pretty well. *laughs*

How do you manage building new content and expanding the world, basically continuing the development process for several years, and still prevent yourself ending up in a situation where you're in crunch time for five years?

Paul: That's tricky! *laughs*

Chris: That's an amazingly insightful question - and I wake up screaming at night wondering about the very specific solution to that.

Like Paul was saying, the fact of this game, the fact of its scale, has forced us to really look at a lot of parts of our development psychology, our mindset. We've really been learning vast lessons as we've gone forward.

Paul: I think that it's really requiring us to change the way that we're thinking at the end of the day. As you said, it looks like it'd be very easy to get yourself into a situation where you were burning for five years, and obviously we can't allow that to happen because there are a lot of people here whom we want to have personal lives, and to be happy so that they want to remain with the company for quite some time. So we're having to put a lot more plans into place to be able to effectively manage this than we've had to in the past.

When we would create these other types of games, it was... Well, I don't want to say it was seat of the pants, but it didn't require as much planning, candidly.

Chris: It was looser, more organic.

Paul: The amount of planning associated with something like this, and the planning associated with dealing with how frequently you're going to do content updates, and how much content you're going to try and push into those updates, while simultaneously having to worry about expansion sets and how big those are going to be... How you're going to deal with the staffing, how you split the team, if at all, some of them dealing with this, and some of them dealing with that... Do you have multiple content updates that have to go on simultaneously? How many pieces do you have to break the team into, and is that something that is manageable? Do you have enough leaders within the team to then lead each of those components?

So, there's a lot for us to think about, and we've been spending a huge amount of time trying to formulate plans that will allow for us to be successful in that regard. There probably is no more insightful question you could ask than that - it is a Herculean type of effort, and Chris is not completely joking when he says he wakes up screaming at night, because every day that passes we get more and more overwhelmed with how much is involved in running a business like this.

I think we're ready, and I think that we have the right people to do it, but at the same time, I think that there's going to be some learning that we're going to have to go through. As a result, I think that we'll refine and improve how we do it - I think things will take a bit longer at the beginning because we'll be refining our processes, but I think over time we'll also find a lot of time-saving efforts and money-saving efforts and what have you.

It's not going to be one of those things that is just snap your fingers and it's all good - there's a lot to it!

Given the magnitude of that task, do you see Blizzard as having transitioned into being a massively multiplayer company, or are you spinning that off as a separate unit alongside your traditional games business?

Paul: I think it's the latter. We have a group of people that are completely focused on this, and I see it as a business unit within Blizzard. It isn't necessarily formally a business unit - there's no president of our MMO business - but it's certainly functionally that way. We have people whose sole focus is dealing with the operational effects and the development effects, and the marketing associated with dealing with this product.

At the same time, we don't intend to completely leave our roots. We think there are a lot of people who still want to play the types of products that we have historically made. And so, I envision us doing both - and because we have people who are experienced at both, and we have management that are experienced at both, I think that we'll be able to pull it off, but it will take a lot of effort, and a lot more planning than we've traditionally done.

Click here for the second part of the interview, where Blizzard speaks about the saga behind, and status of, eagerly awaited console title StarCraft Ghost, their thoughts on console game development, their relationship with publisher Vivendi Universal Games - and how a successful design formula has helped them to make games which are loved by hardcore and mass-market gamers alike.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.