AGDC '07: Blizzard gusts into Austin

President Mike Morhaime delivers opening keynote for dev expo with a talk on "How to Rule the World (of Warcraft)."

AUSTIN, Texas--Last October, the online-focused Austin Game Conference was purchased by CMP Group, the organizers of the Game Developers Conference. Now, nearly a year later, the first show under new management has kicked off.

Mike Morhaime (giant pile of WOW money not pictured.)

The event's name has been changed to the Austin Game Developers Conference, but the content remains much the same. There are separate tracks for in-game audio and writing, as well as sessions dedicated to business and marketing issues, and the community-building challenges online game developers face.

Just as in years past, the Austin Convention Center will host an elephant in the room, in the form of Blizzard Entertainment's massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft. Last year's show opened up with Blizzard Entertainment lead designer Rob Pardo detailing the publisher-developer's method of game development, a process responsible for such hits as the Diablo and Starcraft franchises. Among the gems of coffee-mug-worthy wisdom Pardo imparted to the crowd were "don't ship until it's ready," "purity of purpose," "easy to learn, difficult to master," and "concentrated coolness."

Just in case Pardo didn't make the road to commercial MMORPG success clear enough (and judging by WOW's continued stranglehold on the market, he didn't), this year's show is being kicked off by Blizzard president Mike Morhaime's keynote address, "How to Rule the World (of Warcraft): 10 Lessons." Whereas Pardo covered the gameplay and design specifics, Morhaime is set to address the bigger issues surrounding WOW, such as how one takes a hit franchise in one country and makes it a global phenomenon.

Morhaime took the stage of the Austin Convention Center's main ballroom about 10 minutes after his designated start time and launched straight into his presentation by setting up some context for his talk by noting how much has changed in the 21st century. Morhaime noted that just 100 years ago there were only 8,000 cars in the US, there was no Air Force, and only 8 percent of US homes had a telephone.

"It was kind of like World of Warcraft before you had a mount, with no flight paths," Morhaime joked.

The Blizzard president then brought the issue a little closer to home with discussion of Moore's Law, which dictates an exponential increase in technology. He noted that such rapid change is unprecedented and unparalleled in history. Back in 1991, Morhaime said it took him nine hours to fly across the Atlantic. Had the aviation industry kept up with the rate of advancement in computers, Morhaime said the same flight would take about two minutes now.

With that advancement in mind, Morhaime moved the subject to the history of Blizzard and its core philosophies, as well as the challenges and lessons of World of Warcraft. He started the company in 1991 with two fellow UCLA graduates, a pair of PCs, and $20,000 borrowed from relatives to cover startup costs. Morhaime described it as a much simpler time, with the size of a game limited by floppy disks and development teams that consisted of just a handful of people. They started with Macintosh and Amiga ports for other companies, which he said provided them with a lot of insight.

That same year, the Super Nintendo came out in North America, and Blizzard was hired by Interplay to create a SNES racing game (RPM Racing), which it did in four months. That earned them an early completion bonus of "probably about $5,000," according to Morhaime.

He skipped ahead to the company's first PC game, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, and how it was being developed just as the Internet was becoming a big deal. In 1994, the company was acquired by an educational software firm called Davidson and Co., which promised to leave Blizzard creative control while the corporate parent would deal with the business aspects. A series of acquisitions and mergers at the level of Blizzard's parent company followed, ending with a takeover by French multimedia multinational Vivendi.

"World of Warcraft has really transformed the company in ways we couldn't have possibly imagined at the time," Morhaime said. Nevertheless, he believes Blizzard has managed to maintain its control over its games, and has remained true to its core philosophies.

Morhaime described the company's "Gameplay first" philosophy as key to its success. "If we don't get that right, none of the rest of it matters," he said. But given that Pardo covered the company's design philosophy last year, Morhaime skipped through a quick recap of that talk's donut metaphor, and the "easy to learn, difficult to master" mantra. He specifically singled out Guitar Hero as an excellent example of a game that offers both immediately engaging gameplay and also a deeper experience.

The second mantra Morhaime brought up is "Build and protect the brand." The Blizzard name is the company's most important property, he said, which allows gamers to walk into a store and make a purchase based on the Blizzard logo alone. He also discussed wanting to make "brand deposits" and avoid "brand withdrawals," with the point being that people should leave the gaming experience with the feeling that they got at least as much value as they contributed.

Morhaime's third point is "Resist the pressure to ship early." The executive outlined the myriad of pressures that lead people to launch a game early, from players to developers to financial backers. But he said shipping a game early is a risky thing, and is capable of doing tremendous damage to a brand or franchise. "You've only got one chance to make a first impression," Morhaime said, "and making a bad one could lose a player and cause them not to come back."

He specifically mentioned that there's a mentality of rushing games out to meet a company's specific sales quarters. One of the best things that happened to Blizzard was having Diablo miss Christmas, Morhaime said. The game shipped on December 31 despite the team's best attempts to make the deadline, but the game sold well and proved the company's point.

"Nobody looks back and said, 'If only they released it three weeks earlier, how great it would have been,'" Morhaime noted. The fact the success came outside the holiday-shopping season gave Blizzard leverage with its parent company, Vivendi, to take the time to get games right. That leverage came in handy last year when Blizzard opted not to rush World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade for the holiday quarter, and wound up with the most successful PC game launch in history.

The fourth mantra is "Resist the pressure to do everything at once." Morhaime said it's important to build on success, get the expertise, and then get more ambitious. World of Warcraft, for example, was not the company's first experience with online gaming; it built on the experiences and lessons learned through Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft.

Morhaime then turned to Blizzard's evolution as a global company, saying the team originally worked on creating a game first, and only afterward translated it to other markets. Eventually the company noticed that the gray market for imported games in Europe started hurting them. English speakers would import the game, and retailers didn't support Blizzard products as much because imported copies were already prevalent in Europe. He also talked about the growth of game rooms in Asia, and decided that the company needed to make games that could also work well in that environment. The company eventually decided that simultaneous worldwide releases were the way to go.

The next subject was Starcraft's wild popularity in Korea, where there still isn't a Korean-language edition of the game. That popularity convinced Blizzard to release Diablo II worldwide simultaneously, which resulted in greatly increased sales from Europe and Asia. Warcraft III was also a simultaneous worldwide release, but the company staggered the launches for World of Warcraft because it didn't want to further complicate the myriad of MMORPG launch issues with an international release.

Morhaime then discusses the "myth of regional taste." He said there are different styles of play everywhere, and the only difference is the concentration of any given style in a region. Instead of creating 15 different versions of a game to appeal to each region's taste, Morhaime said his company makes one version of a game with elements that appeal to every style of play.

Although the company designs its games to the tastes of its own staff, Morhaime said you do have to be sensitive to other cultures. He brought up the Chinese panda race in Warcraft III, and noted that Chinese players didn't appreciate seeing the characters dressed up in Japanese samurai-style garb. After a significant outcry from the Chinese gaming community, the company quickly revamped the art on the panda race and found that gamers were appreciative of these revised efforts.

Morhaime then gave an overview of the way WOW works. Blizzard handles the game in North America, Europe, and South Korea, and then adopts local partners to operate the game in China and Taiwan. Those partners are responsible for localizing, marketing, and providing customer service for the game in regions where Blizzard doesn't have operations or extensive knowledge of the market.

The fifth point Morhaime brought up dealt with estimating demand for WOW. He showed photos from the midnight opening at Blizzard's local Fry's Electronics and talked about seeing the line of people wrapping around the building three times before streaming down the street. That helped the company realize it would need more hardware to deal with the user demand for the game.

When projecting the original sales figures, Morhaime said people used Warcraft III's benchmarks as the upper limits of sales. They figured that WOW's status as both online-only and subscription-based would keep players away until word-of-mouth got out. However, WOW sales exceeded those of Warcraft III to the point that Blizzard had to stop shipping games to retail simply because it wouldn't be able to support that many new people.

Morhaime's sixth point is that human resources are very important. Blizzard had to scale the business up almost overnight to deal with the game's success, and he admitted the company was not prepared at all.

The seventh takeaway from WOW was that running an MMORPG involves more than just game development. Morhaime said Blizzard figured it would be fine with WOW because of its success running Battle.net for years, but moving to an MMOG and subscription-based service with 24-hour online customer service is a whole different ballgame.

"We had to shift our mindset," Morhaime said. "We weren't just a game developer anymore; we were a service company."

The eighth lesson is "Communicate (or people will make stuff up)." As an example, Morhaime outlined how the WOW community team reacted during emergencies in the game's first few months. As a matter of policy, Blizzard wouldn't say anything to anyone while it was still trying to figure out problems' causes. However, Blizzard's community representatives felt pressure to say something to the users, even though they hadn't been told what exactly had gone wrong. In response to this dilemma, Blizzard created two parallel processes to keep its staff and community informed of different facts.

With time running out in the talk, Morhaime said he was going to pick up the pace. The ninth lesson is to avoid financial incentives. Specifically, he brought up gold farming, account stealing, and credit-card fraud.

"[Gold farming] has bad implications to the wider group of players who just want to play the game," Morhaime said. "For instance, you have sweatshops set up in places of the world where labor is really cheap, with players harvesting gold in the game to sell it to the rich Americans."

He said Blizzard does everything possible to minimize the financial rewards for people running such operations, saying that the company has an obligation to protect its players.

Finally, Morhaime emphasized how important testing is to the process. At Blizzard, everyone tests the game. Once the alpha testing from within the company is complete, then it does a public beta. If there are any exploits (what Blizzard calls "cheese,"), people will take advantage of them simply because it's the most efficient way to play the game, even if it's not fun. So he feels it's important to curb those exploits, because otherwise people will play the game that way and consequently form the perception that the game itself isn't fun.

In prepping for the Burning Crusade launch, the company upgraded its hardware infrastructure to eliminate bottlenecks, which resulted in the addition of a slew of extra capacity for day one. The launch went smoothly, and the customer-service people said it felt like a normal patch release more than a full expansion.

Video of a cosplayer at a Burning Crusade launch event.

Morhaime said it was incredible to watch the response from people at midnight launches of the game around the world. He said it was like a New Year's celebration with a new market launching the game every hour. He then played a video showing crowd reactions to Burning Crusade's launch throughout Europe. It looked much like crowd shots of people lined up for the Lord of the Rings film releases, or the last few Harry Potter books, with plenty of enthusiastic fans dressed up. He then exited the stage to a robust round of applause.

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55 comments
TurambarGS
TurambarGS

That would be stocks in Vivendi - Blizzard is a wholly owned subsidiary of Viv, hence is not publicly traded. Vivendi, on the other hand, is a publicly traded company with a checkered history of profitability. Needless to say, with the boatloads full of cash that Blizzard and its associated intellectual properties are pulling in, it has become one of Vivendi's most important and profitable assets. Still you never know what the books of large multinationals really look like until they crash and despite the positive recent results from Viv, they're still too overdiversified. In short, I'd throw my money elsewhere if I was looking for a growth stock.

cprt2
cprt2

Blizzard,like most games have come an far way from the old 2D top down oldies.I would like an less cartoon one,but hey that would lag pretty bad. Considering,the state of the Internet.The story becomes your quest and soon you get caught up in it.I have tried others and they still set to the old story line.While blizzard goes for more stories.I have to say WOW rules!!! I been playing PC games way back to the old Coco,C64,Atari and on. This game rocks,and is very good challenge.Blizzard keep up the works!!! We just can't let PC games die!!!........aka Gen Hazard.:)

rocking42
rocking42

i reckon hellgate will own wow cant wait till it comes out

Specimen2501
Specimen2501

Stocks in Blizzard before WoW went live, KA CHING!!!!

Olzhas
Olzhas

why dont they make wow kinda like FAble now that was a game

sldr88
sldr88

While i was there as a volunteer, i got in for free, and though i didnt get the chance to speak one on one with the blizzard reps at the exhibit booths they had, everyone i knew that talked to them said they were kind of jerkish and stuck up....but thats not to say they dont have a reason... : P

Metallicantera
Metallicantera

I played wow for awhile, it was pretty cool. But until Diablo 3 comes out i could careless for Blizzard.

gozyaj
gozyaj

I salute!!! ^_^ one of my fav PC games found in this company. Can't wait for their future games. Starcraft 2 - HELL YEAH!!!! WOW - hopefully will came out here in our country (Philippines), just like the other MMORPGs. But WOW will rule them all. DIablo 3 / online?? Who knows. These are from the mind of the masters.

NathanBennell
NathanBennell

Bring on Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning!

Nzilla
Nzilla

Blizzard knows what it's doing. Starcraft and Warcraft are some of my favorite series, and WoW is just plain addicting. These people know how to make games that are fun to play better than just about anyone else. Oh, and by the way. I can't wait for Starcraft 2 to come out.

Kerm1122
Kerm1122

Guns? In WoW!?!? if you want a mmo fps jus go and get Tabula Rosa when it comes out.

dzatal
dzatal

Dear Blizzard I have you're latest craving for Worldwide domination in this sentence. Make a MMO"FPS"! Think about it.......Sweet idea right? Walking around say the same depth as whole large world like WoW but you have guns perhaps. Hotbars and everything else in that nature. But, just FPS style....and maybe with guns. Think about it and get back to me. Your Pal Digitale----Feathermoon

mathewseal123
mathewseal123

I seriously owned all warcraft cept wow i seriously think there is no point on paying 15 bucks a month on a game that u already paid for . I love warcraft and wow i dont think has attracted me because 1. i dont like paying more money after i already bought a game and 2. umm alot of people i know with wow are nerds soo i dont wanna waste that much time . I really want for blizzard to come out with diablo 3 even more then starcraft 2 . I was hoping for diablo 3 .. Im gonna buy starcraft 2 and diablo 3 (if and when it comes out) but im not buying wow .. Unless and only unless it comes to 360 and i dont have to pay 10-15 bucks a month ..... Im actually even afraid to try wow because i dont want to waste time on games when i need to do work

jonfigs
jonfigs

What strikes me funny about this speech is the following; 1. With WOW's huge success not really a secret for a few years now, why do MMO developers still insist on shipping half-baked games to market? 2. While I do understand Blizzard not wanting to cannibalize its PC development, I feel that they are missing out in total world dominance by not releasing WOW on console, like the 360. I would be actively seeking developers to make this happen... even if it took me a year just to put together the right team. 360+WOW=success.

RockySquirrel
RockySquirrel

People who whine about the monthly fees of an MMORPG should read this speech.

Giovanni101
Giovanni101

I don't know if anyone else noticed, but it's pretty ironic that in an article about a speech by Blizzard's president in which he says gold farming is bad, the first ad on the "sponsored links" is # WoW 10000000 Gold stock Visit Web Site Buy WoW Gold now and get it now . Instant Delivery. buy at Cost.

TigerstyleKB
TigerstyleKB

To the WOW bashers out there, Do you like MMORPG'S? If you answered no then I don't think you should really bash WOW as a boring game etc. If you don't like MMORPG'S then of course WOW would not appeal to you. You can't compare games universally. WOW Really is a great MMORPG I have played quite a few and I can say it's one of if not the best one. I have to admit that With Burning crusade the equipment change seemed way too dramatic. With green items becoming better than old Tier equip but other than that flaw the expansion is pretty decent. Blizz really does do their best to stand by their games and should be a benchmark company for other gaming companies. I hope blizz continues to make awesome games and learn from their shortcomings as they have in the past.

nic4games
nic4games

I agree with games that are polished in time rather than game rushed from the market. I have to name EA Games, the worst company to release games that are rush. No effort of some sort of games to prequel like LoTR: BFME 2... no change of gameplay... no change in graphics... no change in features... they just add some **** so they call it part 2. I can w8 games that are well polished!

robbie_basic
robbie_basic

I once read that Blizzard didn't care if you were the most brilliant programmer in the world. Or the most skilled artist. If you didn't have a passion for games first, none of those qualifications mattered. Impressive.

dontcare5454
dontcare5454

Here is how make a global hit make a game that is polished to perfection that runs on anything and do this 10 times over the course of 15 years your name will start selling itself

bawkbawkboo1
bawkbawkboo1

"Morhaime described the company's "Gameplay first" philosophy as key to its success. "If we don't get that right, none of the rest of it matters," he said. Factor Five could learn a thing or two from this guy.

spraynard
spraynard

@ Oni thats why its my opinion :D you dont have to agree

mynumbmind
mynumbmind

Blackthorne!!! great game! big ups to bodendoi

Oni
Oni

spraynard"...... only Nintendo does that imo." Uh .... riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

mynumbmind
mynumbmind

Coolest game i've ever played was on C64 - you were some kinda warrior running around with a shotgun shooting everything up - everytime i see the blizzard logo (which hasn't changed since) i remember that bad-ass-crazy warrior & shotgun action but f*ck me if i can remember the name? anyone?

spraynard
spraynard

::raises personal gripe flag:: play to 60, raid, awesome gear, oh x-pac is here woo!, gear is crap. play to 70, raid, awesome gear, oh another x-pac is here?!, gear is crap. wash and repeat. oh hey a patch, nerf this toon, buff that toon, 2 weeks later...forums explode with people crying, more nerfs...more buffs... ::lowers personal gripe flag:: i do respect Blizzard as a company, all of their products have been great sellers, and from what ive read great games. (ive only played WoW and Diablo from Blizz, didnt like the RTS of Diablo). i like the fact they are putting gameplay first. only Nintendo does that imo.

Balanek
Balanek

burning crusade was rushed. WotLK will be rushed. blizzard used to make good games

playa42018
playa42018

how to rule the world? consistently make good quality games, then release a MMO

comthitnuong
comthitnuong

Though I have no interest in World of Warcraft, I still give them props for the effort that they put into maintaining a standard of quality that they keep for creating truly wonderful games.

Anthony9000
Anthony9000

this game is BORING.......i never got into it and the free trial was dissappointing to me

retrofraction12
retrofraction12

to bad they couldn't make a mmo fps of starcraft, that would own wow.

Wowzer7
Wowzer7

This is why I love Blizzard and what they do. They actually spend the time to work on a game and make it the best it can be. Other companies love to just rush out a game to make a quick buck. If only other developers adopted this way of thinking, then we wouldn't have games such as Big Rigs taking up shelf spaces at the local GameStop.

Zergvasion89
Zergvasion89

"The launch went smoothly, and the customer-service people said it felt like a normal patch release" lawl Standard 12-16 hour universal server crash, business as usual. ^^SmallPower I was going to note that, but you beat me to it. I played WoW when it launched and it was nearly impossible to even level during a session due to the fact that the servers were so incredibly unstable. There are still mass amounts of YTMNDs of people mocking the terrible server times.

SmallPower
SmallPower

Ironic that this guy mentions travel time, which is one of "wow"'s most obvious failings. Would've been interesting to hear him address the problem of empty servers that has many people leaving. But this wouldn't fit with Blizzard's hype about 723,123,291,002 active subscribers, not to mention the 223,923,955,192 new accounts started every day. "The launch went smoothly, and the customer-service people said it felt like a normal patch release" lawl Standard 12-16 hour universal server crash, business as usual. " the game itself isn't fun" A "wow" Gamespot article finally points out the obvious.

Balanek
Balanek

i wish they spent time on the burning crusade. WoW pre-xpac (at least for me)was the maybe one of the best games ever.now its just crap now the new xpac WotLK just seems like a rushed, quickly put togther game to combat the new games like WAR and AoC when they come out. Hero classes/siege weapons were suppost to be in the came november 2004 when the game first game out. why would you want to play a game that resets every year? i dont. see you in warhammer

Darthnaevus
Darthnaevus

i totally agree with you this is the paroxysm of geekness ....

BobC
BobC gamerep

"Where are the marketing secrets? How did you GET that line to wrap around Fry's three times?" You may have missed the point of the speech.

lamprey263
lamprey263

"WOW sales exceeded those of Warcraft III to the point that Blizzard had to stop shipping games to retail simply because it wouldn't be able to support that many new people" :| jesus christ

the_undisturbed
the_undisturbed

when thinking about Blizzard..... ...i think about ea and how rushed they are (and how quite a few of their games just suck)

Neosword
Neosword

Good article, I like hearing Blizzard talk about WoW.

gpyott
gpyott

Good article. Blizzard really is a top-notch developer (imo) and it’s nice to see them share their experiences and best practices with their peers. Just have to love their overall attitude as a company.

BloodMist
BloodMist

I definitely like that part about rushing a game to just get it out the door. *looks over at EA with disdain* Whether you like WoW or not, Blizzard is definitely a company that knows how to do the game developing business right.They've been consistently producing game after game that's both high quality and extremely successful for such a long time that there are very, very few developers that can match.In fact i can think of only two, Nintendo, who of course got Blizzard beat by that by about 10 years or so, and Sega in their heyday....yep, that's about it.And Capcom, Namco, and Konami, to a lesser extent on the whole.