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Blizzard's Perfect Storm

The industry's top developer knows the merits of the confessional

Blizzard Entertainment is, by many measures, the world's most successful game developer. It's not only got a string of hits to its name, it has also consistently demonstrated an astonishing ability to deliver longevity. World of Warcraft's ongoing success is one clear example, but it's worth noting that Warcraft 3, StarCraft and even the truly venerable Diablo 2 are still widely played and highly rated by fans.

No other game developer could have put on an event like last weekend's Blizzard Worldwide Invitational in Paris. All the reporting from that event, however, makes it clear that not only was Blizzard's huge success on display - so, too, was the attitude and approach that has created that success. Cause and effect, together under one roof.

The effects are clear and easy to see. Thousands of devoted fans, travelling from around the world. Enormously skilled matches being played by professionals, using games up to a decade old. Long queues for memorabilia. Above all, 10.7 million people paying every single month to play WoW, making it into one of the most commercially successful entertainment products in history.

The causes, however, are a little more subtle - sufficiently so that many other developers and publishers consider Blizzard to be some kind of "special case", a company which lies outside the rules of the industry in some unique manner and whose success simply cannot be emulated.

This is patent nonsense. Blizzard is stuffed with stunningly talented people, from the management level right down to the most junior development positions, of that there can be no doubt - but there are many talented people working in the videogames sector. The only "magic" thing about Blizzard is how well they manage and focus that talent into creating some of the world's best games, time and time again.

For those who care to look, Blizzard actually put much of that mechanism on display in Paris last weekend. Look around the coverage of the event that's gone online in the past few days, and you see a company baring its development soul in front of thousands of its toughest critics - the fans who actually pay for its products.

That, in itself, is symptomatic of the firm's approach. It's astonishingly transparent, to an extent which would give most developers cold sweats. With WoW expansion Wrath of the Lich King and new RTS title StarCraft II still months away, the designers of both games took the stage in front of packed audiences to discuss intimate details of the creative process for both games - warts and all. Tricky questions about unit balancing and design changes were aired and discussed in a frank, honest way.

The Burning Crusade, the last WoW expansion, was meanwhile placed on the table for dissection. This product - which, it's worth remembering, is actually Blizzard's presently active product, and its current flag-bearer at retail - was given a post-mortem examination by its designers, and no punches were pulled as the team ripped it open and explored their mistakes, and what can be learned from them.

This does, of course, sometimes happen to other games - but generally only in developer-specific publications, for the consumption of the team's peers. Few developers have the bravery, or indeed the desire, to stand up in front of fans and the world's media and say, "here's where my game failed, and here's what I learned". Even if the designers and creative types wanted to, the idea would give most publishers fainting fits.

Yet in doing so, Blizzard demonstrates an honesty and an openness which connects them with the fans. Other aspects of its approach echo this. When it patches its games, for instance, it issues incredibly lengthy patch notes which explain every minute change it has made. Even its senior executives are happy to talk about challenges as well as triumphs, a kind of honesty which doesn't normally strike executives until their company is in trouble and explanations are needed.

You could argue, pretty convincingly, that this is simply a demonstration of how comfortable Blizzard is with itself - and with WoW continuing to be the industry's greatest money printing machine, why wouldn't they be comfortable? They can afford to talk to fans, to open themselves up and to dodge all the bluster and petty hype-building, because they have something nobody else has - the most commercially successful game in the world.

However, there's an equal argument which says that Blizzard's success is in part due to that approach, which predates the success of World of Warcraft. Indeed, even at the launch of World of Warcraft in London all those years ago, the developers were astonishingly open and conversational about a game whose launch was still years away.

No, it's not Blizzard's commercial success which has created the comfort zone that allows developers to talk in this way. Rather, it's the fact that Blizzard is at peace with its internal processes. It is comfortable and happy with the systems it uses to design games, to assess and refine those designs, and to measure the quality of its games as they progress - and that gives it the confidence to talk to the world about what's happening behind the scenes.

Many other developers, even some of the world's finest, will wryly compare their business to a swan - graceful above the water, but if you look below the water, it's all feet thrashing away crazily to maintain that gliding motion. Blizzard no doubt has moments like that - its scramble to meet demand for WoW in the first few months after launch revealed that the company's processes don't anticipate everything, for instance. However, in general, its system for refining and improving games from the design stage right up to launch seems to be firmly bedded-in.

It's not perfectionism, either, no matter how many commentators seek to ascribe that label to the firm. Perfectionism isn't a commercially viable attitude, and while the firm certainly has perfectionist tendencies (a game as balanced as StarCraft couldn't have been created without them), its real outlook is one of realism. Blizzard, it's clear, has an "it's good enough, ship it" mentality, just as all other developers do. It's just that it sets the "good enough" bar far higher than most, and it seems to have a solid understanding of how to improve a product that's not good enough - something which many developers struggle with.

The products that Blizzard Entertainment creates are magical, there's no doubt about that - but there's nothing magic about the creative process which builds them. Most other developers have many lessons to learn from the Californian studio - and thanks to the first of them, openness and transparency, the study materials for those lessons are freely available to any who care to look.

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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