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Focus On: Blizzard Entertainment (Part Two)

This is the second half of a two-part interview with celebrated game studio Blizzard Entertainment. For the first half of the interview, which gives an overview of the studio as well as an in-depth discussion on recently launched MMORPG title World of Warcraft, click here.


Part Two: Ghost In The Machine

Starcraft Ghost is your other announced project, but it's being developed by an external studio - what's Blizzard's direct involvement with it?

Paul:We've been working with a third party developer, and I think they're doing the day to day heavy lifting - they're doing the coding, they're doing the art. At the same time, people such as Chris and certain other game and art type folks are involved to ensure that it's maintaining the continuity, maintaining the look and feel and that it's what people have grown to expect from this franchise.

I would say that we're kind of project managing it, for one, as well as operating in a design, art and world leadership role.

Chris: It's a consultation type role.

Paul: Yeah, it's a kind of a consultation, but because it's our baby, we are certainly in a leadership role in those ways. At the same time, we have a very competent developer in Swinging Ape that is just simply spectacular, and that I think is going to collaborate with us in such a way that's going to bring off a great game.

What's the status of the StarCraft Ghost project at the moment?

Paul:Basically the status of that is that we've kind of gone back and reassessed certain of the elements of the game that we felt needed to be refined. I think E3 was a big influence to us - we looked at other products that were in that genre, and felt as if we were quite competitive in many ways, but maybe there were some other things that we weren't getting to where we needed to go. Our then developer was thinking that they were going to be coming off the product and going on to something else, and as a result had committed themselves to some other things - and while getting the product done sooner would have been nice, we felt that some things needed to be done.

A lot of companies, and fans and the press know, Blizzard doesn't release products until Blizzard believes they're done. We didn't believe it was done, and as a result we went about trying to find another solution to bring the product to fruition. We were fortunate enough to find Swinging Ape at a time where they were between products; their office is ten minutes from ours, and candidly, they're a spectacular team. They're one of the teams that we had originally contemplated using for Starcraft. It just kind of played out nicely given the somewhat challenging circumstances with time.

Is this the first time that you've led a project's development on a console platform?

Paul: It's the first one that we've done since we've been called Blizzard Entertainment. When the company started in 1991, it was called Silicon and Synapse, and we did almost exclusively console products. It wasn't until 1994, when a company called Davidson acquired us, that we moved to PC - prior to that, it was almost entirely a console-focused house.

As a matter of fact, in '93, the year before we were acquired, we had two console products that were named Game of the Year - Rock 'n Roll Racing, and The Lost Vikings. Those are products that we brought out as a classics series on GBA last year, but originally they were on the Genesis and SNES systems.

So our history, our roots were in console, but this is the first console title that we've been involved with in many years.

How do you see that dividing in the future, in terms of console development and PC development? When you look at the platforms even a year down the line, where do you see Blizzard sitting between them?

Paul: I would say that Blizzard will continue to be... If you had to put it on a scale, and you said consoles on this side, PCs on this side, the scale is going to continue to lean towards PC. It's where we think we are most experienced, and where we think most people know Blizzard. We think that we have a lot more things to bring PC gamers.

Now, that's not to say that we will not do additional console products, because we very well may. We're really focusing though, at this point, as it relates to console, on Starcraft Ghost. As we see how that does, and as we see how the brand is received by console gamers, then I think we'll make some other decisions. I hope they'll be decisions that allow us to continue in that way, because I'm personally a console gamer and I'm excited as all hell to get Starcraft Ghost!

In terms of games for the different platforms, you've taken quite a different creative approach on Starcraft Ghost to your PC titles - do you think there's room for Blizzard to develop games which are ported across multiple platforms, or will you continue to develop unique titles for different systems?

Paul: I think that one of the inherent challenges in doing just that is that the gameplay styles, the user interfaces, and the types of games that work on each platform, are very different. Certainly, you can create a great RPG on console that would play well across any of the consoles; however, it's not a slam dunk to think that that same RPG that you create for console would work well on PC - they're just different.

Obviously there are different controls, which is a big part of it. The types of user interface that are acceptable on console versus PC are very different, and what you'll find is that there are not many that are able to transition and do really well on both.

So, to get to the root of your question, do I think that we'll try to do things that are cross platform? Well, I would say that we'll do cross platform from the perspective that we'll do Mac and Windows products, and that we'll do PS2, Xbox and GameCube products, but crossing from console to PC? I think that there's still a bit of time before that's potentially going to work very well.

Maybe with the next generation consoles that will be easier, and hopefully the console manufacturers will be more open to having console to PC play. Right now, while people say that there's an excitement about that, there's not - in my opinion - a lot of openness to it. There are a lot of security concerns by the console manufacturers as to whether, if you're connecting with PC people, they're going to negatively impact the console - you know, utilising hacks and cheats and other things, and whether they'll be able to pollute the console boxes with bad things if they're connecting with each other. So I think there's a bit of time between now and when that will happen.

Have you looked at next-generation console development yet?

Paul: As it relates to Starcraft Ghost, we're certainly contemplating current platforms. But as it relates to the next generation, we've been keeping our eyes on it and we've been getting information about those. I think it's a bit premature for us to say which direction we're going to go in terms of next-generation... I would say that there are a lot of us who are wanting to, and that time will tell as to where we ultimately go.

How does the relationship between Blizzard and Vivendi work? Do you have the freedom to go off and develop whatever you want, or do they get involved in the process of deciding what products to create?

Paul: The people who decide what games Blizzard is going to do are the developers at Blizzard. It's not even the management at Blizzard. We hire only gamers, and whenever we're ready to do a new product, we go to them and we say, "okay, what is it that you want to play next?" As a result, it's oftentimes what they want to make next.

We believe that if we hire only gamers, and we ask them what they want to play next, it's very likely that what they want to play next is what other gamers want to play next, and if they have the ability to make those choices, and they're able to go down roads for which they're very passionate, we think we'll get the best games.

So, Vivendi does not get involved in our day to day business. They provide a lot of support to us - they take care of a lot of things that allow us to keep our eyes on the prize. We want to make games - we don't want to spend time figuring out how we manage our financials, we don't want to worry about whether we run an accrual or a cash business. Let them handle that!

And so, they're very supportive in many of those ways. They deal with manufacturing and operations and different things that really are outside of the scope of making games. Then, obviously, they are our bank - that also is quite helpful.

They're very supportive; there have been rumours that they haven't been, but candidly, they have. They've been a very supportive parent and we have a very good relationship with them. The leadership of the mothership of VU was at Blizzard just last week - we have a very good relationship with them and communicate with them regularly, and because we have the track record that we do, they've given us freedom to do what we want to do, and what they think we do best.

Was Blizzard affected by the problems at Vivendi over the last few years, when it looked like the games division might be sold off or floated?

Paul: I think it affected us from the perspective that there was uncertainty, and we didn't know what was going to happen. We didn't know if we were going to be with them, or if we were going to be going somewhere else. I think with any situation where you don't know what's going to happen, there's concern and nervousness and what have you.

At the end of the day, though, even if we were to have been sold, our belief was that we had a track record that would have allowed us to maintain the same company that we had. It seems hard for me to fathom that a company - whether it be an EA, or a Microsoft, or whoever - would come in and say "okay, yes we're smart, yes we know what we're doing, but you know what? You guys, we know you have eight number one hits in a row, we know that every one of your games has sold over a million units, we know that every one of your games since 1995 has won Game of the Year, but guess what! We're going to completely change up the company - we're going to get rid of your management, we're going to get rid of your leads, we're going to completely change the structure. We're going to, you know, make you wear a special coloured shirt, and this that and the other..."

To us, it just did not make sense that anyone would spend potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, and then go and try to mess with the company. So we had that comfort - that if something did happen, that we felt that any company in their right mind would have not wanted to come in and mess with Blizzard. They would have maybe wanted to look at other parts of the business - maybe - but it would probably not have been Blizzard. We felt that we would have been last on the list to be messed with. That gave us comfort, even in that time of uncertainty.

StarCraft and WarCraft III are particularly popular in "professional" gaming tournaments; how important does Blizzard consider that area to be? Is just a quirky oddity, or is it something you see growing in importance, and in public profile, in the future?

Paul: We see it growing. Not only do we see it growing, but we just hired a person to be in charge of tournaments in our company. We want to do more support of tournaments, and we want to build more tournament capabilities into our products, and to have tournaments and competitive play more in our thought process as we're creating our games.

We want to continue to create great singleplayer product, but that has incredible, compelling multiplayer play that has competitive components. We think that that is another element of the future that we really want to focus on , and we think that we've done a pretty decent job at it so far.

Isn't there a danger that by trying to appeal to that market, you could lose the "average gamer" - people who want to play these games, but aren't interested in playing them to the hardcore level you see in tournaments?

Paul: If that was our focus, I'd say yes. However, it's not. Blizzard has always taken the approach of building games that are easy to learn and hard to master. We always want to make sure that the hardcore is there, because those are the people that supply the most word of mouth support to our products, but in order to get the types of success that we've had, we've had to reach out to the more casual, mass-market type of gamer.

We do not have any desire, and have no intention, of changing that formula. All we're saying is that we're going to provide things above and beyond what we've historically provided, so that it fulfils yet another group of people. With our games such as WarCraft III and StarCraft, you might know that we provide a multiplayer gaming service, Battle.net. On Battle.net you can choose, when you decide to play with your friends, whether you want to play in a ladder game, or if you just want to play in a casual game. There's no reason to play a ladder game, unless that's what you want to do.

So we'll continue to empower the players to choose - if they want to have anonymous match-making, for example. Anonymous match-making is something that we built in WarCraft III that we thought was very helpful to deal with just that. Basically, say for instance you were a reasonably new multi-player gamer in WarCraft III, and so was I, if I went to create a multiplayer game it might grab you, and say "hey, get together with Paul, because guys are at a similar level and as a result should have a reasonably fun and competitive experience."

But yet, those automated games did not have to be a ladder game - so again, it's empowering the customer to choose. Do I want to play in a competitive environment, or do I not? Do I want to play with just random people, or do I have anonymous matchmaking that puts me against people of similar capability?

How have you integrated that kind of thinking into World of Warcraft - especially in terms of dealing with the stereotypical "powerlevelling ex-EverQuest player" types, who can to a degree spoil the experience for others? Have you tried to balance the game so that that's ironed out?

Paul: Most definitely! It's been a major component of our thought process. You know, as I mentioned, that "easy to learn, hard to master" thought process is in everything we do - everything. It is no different here, with World of Warcraft. We had a lot of people in the company that really wanted to make an MMO. They had played EverQuest, played Ultima, played Dark Age of Camelot and had played all of these different types of things - or had played MUDs! - and they were very excited. And then there were other people, me included, who were like "ugh...God, please, why are we doing an MMO?", because it just was not my thing.

So we sat down and tried to figure out what it was that people like me didn't want - why I didn't want to play an MMO, why it was that I felt it was intimidating, or why it wasn't for me. Our answer to that, not entirely but in a large part, was the questing system that we've built. The questing system allows people that were not previously into MMOs because they felt that it was such a huge time commitment to be able to get in and do something meaningful, do something heroic, and complete a task - and then be able to say "okay, I'm going to go to bed", or "my lunch break is over".

You can go into these quests and spend thirty minutes and complete a quest, and if you complete a quest you get a bunch of experience points, and as a result you're well on your way to levelling. It allows people to feel like things are happening for them - whereas in some of the other MMORPGs, it might be a situation where you have to go camp on a monster for two hours and wait while the monster respawns. Well, a mass market person doesn't want to do that - they're thinking to themselves, "are you kidding me? I have thirty minutes, and I have to wait two hours? Well screw this, I'm not doing it!" - And then you've lost them.

We've tried to build in a lot of things that will make it accessible. We tried to make the user interface as intuitive and simple as possible. We tried to basically take a universe that a lot of people knew about and show it to them in a different way.

That's one of the other things that I think is interesting about this product. It's really the only MMO that has an extremely long history, where there are millions and millions of people that are already dedicated to that franchise. They're already tied into the storylines, the characters and what have you, and as a result of that we think that we have a built in audience that is going to be interested in checking it out.

We really believe that if we can get them to try it, that they'll play. I'm a perfect example of that - someone that had tried other MMOs, and was like "hell no, not doing this!" And now... Every day, I'm thinking about it during the day. I wonder what story I'm going to give my wife at night to convince her that I need to go down and do work in our office, when I'm really going on to play WOW.

It's an incredibly addictive game, and it's wonderful, because I can do it in bite-sized chunks or I can play for hours - either way, whatever I have time for, and any time I step into that game, I get to finish something. I get to finish a quest, or I get to kill monsters immediately - bam, and I'm in there, doing it. So I feel that it's very accessible, and it's also really intuitive.


GamesIndustry.biz would like to thank Paul Sams and Chris Metzen for taking time out of a busy European schedule to talk to us. World of WarCraft was released in North America before Christmas, and is expected to launch in Europe later this quarter.

Author

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.

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