AGDC '07: Blizzard president Mike Morhaime

Blizzard's big cheese sits down to talk about the early days, the Warcraft movie, and throwing in the towel on Starcraft: Ghost.

AUSTIN, Texas--Earlier today, Blizzard president Mike Morhaime kicked off the Austin Game Developers Conference with a keynote address discussing the business behind the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft.

With more than 9 million subscribers worldwide, the game far outstripped the company's expectations. As Morhaime explained, that success brought with it some unique problems. For example, when the game launched, Blizzard had to stop sending boxed copies to retailers for a time because their servers couldn't handle any more users than were already playing.

Morhaime's keynote address also touched on a handful of larger issues in the industry, from the growing international presence in online gaming, to real-money trading of in-game items, and short shelf lives for most games. The executive sat down with GameSpot to answer a few questions on those subjects, as well as to discuss what happened with the company's aborted return to consoles, whether the success of World of Warcraft could serve to keep a Starcraft MMOG on the back burner, and how it's dealing with Warcraft's big-screen adaptation.

GS: In your presentation, you talked about the Super Nintendo Entertainment System racing game RPM Racing, but didn't mention it by name. I've noticed I don't see much beyond World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo, and Warcraft associated with the Blizzard name anymore.

MM: When we first started, our initial name was Silicon and Synapse. We kept that name for a few years, and then decided to change it because it was high concept. Nobody really understood what it meant. So we changed the name to Chaos Studios. Then we found out someone was using the name Chaos Technologies, and they wanted six figures for us to continue using it. So we picked something different, and that's when we switched to Blizzard, which was about the same time we started self-publishing our titles like Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. The console games weren't published under the Blizzard brand, which is why you don't associate them with Blizzard. A few years back, we ended up approaching Interplay and buying the rights to all our earlier Interplay titles. So we do own the rights and did release some of them as Game Boy titles.

GS: Do you think titles like Lost Vikings, Blackthorne, and Justice League Task Force count as brand withdrawals?

MM: I think if we were to do them today, they might. But back then, most of them were actually pretty good titles. RPM Racing is probably an exception to that. We weren't particularly proud of the title, and we banged it out pretty quick.

GS: That was how you guys started, three guys and $20,000. You didn't have a lot of leverage with publishers back then. Now, a lot of the AGDC panels and talks here touch on the issue of how independent or unknown developers can get much-needed attention for their projects. Having come from that bootstraps startup position yourself, how is a startup these days with little funding and no leverage over publishers supposed to break through into the big time?

MM: I think that there are some opportunities now that didn't exist a few years ago. You've got platforms like Xbox Live Arcade, and maybe even portable games. Games don't have to be big anymore, so you've got a market for smaller games where you can focus just on gameplay and putting out something great without a team of 50 people. And you can use those types of things to build your development capabilities.

GS: You also said that Blizzard wasn't prepared for the success of World of Warcraft, at least not on the scope that it had achieved. If WOW hadn't been a hit, what was the company's plan B?

MM: I don't think there was any doubt that we had a hit. It's just that we didn't expect it to be such a big hit so soon. If it sold reasonably well, it was still going to be a successful title for us.

GS: Does the overwhelming success of it mean that a hypothetical Starcraft MMOG would be pushed further out because you have this thriving community that you don't want to cannibalize?

MM: Not necessarily. It's actually more a question of us not wanting to cannibalize the resources that are going into supporting the game. We can't just take the World of Warcraft team and have them work on another game. But what we can do is staff up the World of Warcraft team and gradually peel off some of our developers to start working on something new. But it will take time. And we're at the stage right now where we're starting to think about what we want to do next.

GS: When do you think you'll want to talk about what you're doing next?

MM: Probably not for a long time.

GS: You mentioned that Burning Crusade and Diablo both missed the holiday-release window, but both were successful despite that. There's always been this huge buildup of blockbuster titles in the fourth quarter, and a lot of analysts think it still is a seasonal market. In your opinion, is gaming something that can thrive 12 months a year, or does the industry still pigeonhole itself into the holiday market?

MM: I think yes and yes. I agree with all of that. I think it's still a seasonal market, and if you look at the numbers, you'll see that. There is a lift you get from being on the shelves in the fourth quarter. But I think even more important than that is the quality of the games, and the ones that just aren't that good don't have the shelf life of the ones that are. And if you're sacrificing your shelf life for your seasonal lift, I don't think it [pans] out. It's hard to prove that, though, because you can't do both things with one title.

GS: You talked about how the most important quarter for a publicly traded company is the current quarter, and the reward for exceeding expectations seems to be nothing but higher expectations. Given the explosive growth of World of Warcraft, is there any way you can match that same exponential curve, or do you have to keep expectations grounded?

MM: We do try to keep our expectations conservative. We've always done that. We try not to forecast for our best possible scenarios. We try to be conservative and cautious, but I still think there's a lot of potential in the online games market. I think that there are a lot of international markets that haven't come online yet. There's a lot more we can do with World of Warcraft to keep the game fresh and interesting. Also, we are working on other titles like Starcraft 2, and we have other things planned that I'm not able to talk about.

GS: Talking about the international market, we've seen a lot of games that are huge hits like Lineage and Lineage II in Korea, but when they are brought to other markets, they don't succeed as much. In your keynote, you said Blizzard advocates one game with styles of play that appeal to each region. That can't be a one-size-fits-all solution, can it? Certainly there are successes that need to be tailored specifically to a region.

MM: That's true. That's just not our approach.

GS: Do you ever worry about a jack-of-all-trades approach that shortchanges the game's potential?

MM: No, because I also talked about sometimes when you make certain design decisions, that sometimes there is a superior approach. So we're not talking about decisions that create an inferior game. We're talking about decisions that actually make the game better.

GS: Can you give an example?

MM: An example would be with Starcraft and Warcraft III--even World of Warcraft, I guess, would qualify for this. Our games work very well in game rooms (Internet cafes) now because we know that there are game rooms. But even before that, they worked very well in game rooms because we considered the fact that you might want to share the game with your family. One copy of the game, one system, four different people playing it. We designed the game to work well in that environment, so you can each have your own profile and be in different places in the single-player campaign. That allowed us to be a very well-behaved game-room game. That's just being aware that different people are going to be enjoying your game differently.

GS: It's amazing that Starcraft is still unavailable in a Korean-language edition. Will Starcraft II have a Korean language version?

MM: [Laughs.] Absolutely.

GS: The out-of-game market exists because players in the game feel that whatever it is they're looking to buy is really worth real money to them. Whether they bought it or earned it, they feel it has value. How do you take the value out of it for the gold farmers but leave the players feeling that all of their gear and their gold is valuable?

MM: It's challenging. We monitor these activities, and at some point, the amount of time they have to spend to get these items and transfer them to another WOW player becomes too much, and it's just no longer worth their time. And there are certain things in the game that were designed to make it less desirable. For instance, a lot of the best items in the game are soul-bound and can't be transferred player to player.

GS: How often do you get asked about Starcraft: Ghost?

MM: Pretty often.

GS: What happened with Starcraft: Ghost?

MM: We were late to market with a game that was not shaping up to be competitive to some of the other top games that were coming out. We looked at it and realized that there was an awful lot of work we needed to do. Our window was closing on the older-generation platforms, so we had to make a decision whether we would basically take what we'd done onto the next generation of hardware and start from scratch. Ideally, we wanted to release Ghost on the older generation and have our sequel come out on next-generation systems. And then we looked at all the resource needs we had on the PC side of the business with World of Warcraft and our other titles, and we just decided that the resources were spent better on focusing our efforts on our PC titles, so we put Ghost on indefinite hold.

GS: Is cracking back into the console market still on the company's list of objectives?

MM: It is not.

GS: Why was the console market worth getting into in the last generation, but now you're backing away from it?

MM: We thought we would be able to do it without impacting our PC teams. We just had to make a priority call when it became clear that we were getting late to the market with these things, and we were not creating something that would live up to the Blizzard quality I've been talking about without additional resources. Now it's pretty clear that we really could use those resources helping us out on World of Warcraft and other things. Ideally, you try to do everything, but one of my points this morning was about not trying to do everything at the same time and focusing on what's important. And that's what we did.

GS: Last year it didn't seem to matter what session you went to at the Austin Game Conference, all people were talking about was World of Warcraft. Do you ever get sick of hearing about it?

MM: Nope! [Laughs.]

GS: Well, you'll enjoy the rest of your stay in Austin then, I'm sure.

MM: One thing I'm really looking forward to is our Warcraft movie, which we are in the script phase of.

GS: Are you a cinephile?

MM: Well, I love movies.

GS: That counts. When did you start to think that the games you were working on could be movies?

MM: A long time ago. We've been trying to get Hollywood interested in our games as long as I can remember, going back to the Starcraft days. We had been pitching different studios, and what we kept getting back was, "Fantasy movies don't sell." Literally, that was what they told us. We were like, "No you don't understand, we want to make a good fantasy movie. If you make a good one, people will see it."

Then Lord of the Rings came out. And it was doing great. Harry Potter, there's another one. Now they had to admit fantasy movies would sell if they were good. And they said, "Yeah, but your stuff's too similar to Lord of the Rings, and we don't want to go head-to-head with that." We said, "Well OK, they're done."

Finally we hooked up with the Legendary Pictures guys. They're very excited. They seem to get it, and they've put out some very good movies.

GS: Does it matter to you if it stars top-tier celebrities, or would you prefer they find unknowns to inherit the role?

MM: I'd like to see some names in it, but more important than that is the quality of the acting, the production, the direction, and everything.

GS: Are there any hang-ups about it being a game-based movie?

MM: Actually, one of the great things about Legendary is they don't look at it as a video game-based movie, and neither do we. They look at it as this fantasy world that happens to have some games based around it. It's a fantasy world that's strong enough to stand on its own, and it deserves a movie that's strong enough to stand on its own.

GS: Are Starcraft and Diablo strong enough worlds that they could stand on their own in movies?

MM: Absolutely.

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Discussion

70 comments
ShadowYsenko
ShadowYsenko

The warcraft movie would look alot better if they animated it like they do in the cinematics than with real actors. If they used real actors, it would look pretty much like lord of the rings

shootnsumbeball
shootnsumbeball

I'm beginning to lose hope. Maybe they won't even make Diablo III :( . Or maybe they'll make it after Starcraft II. Who knows...

Donnyp
Donnyp

i dont know if i'd see it the adaptation to movie would be to wierd. The games to "Cartoony" to be a live action movie i think.

JimBurber
JimBurber

I think Burt Reynolds is going to play Arthas. That would be awesome

Timbydude
Timbydude

Canceling a game just because it's low quality is indicative of a very, very good company.

surpriseguy
surpriseguy

I just can't wait until a WOW movie. I'm an actor and I will search EVERYWHERE to get an audition for this picutre, it would be so much fun for me!!!

chenodahn
chenodahn

LsTr_Of_SmG You're not too bright are you? When they say resources they don't mean money, they mean quality developers. Blizzard doesn't have huge teams making their games like some companies do, that's why they're games are much better quality than a lot of other games.

Neoyamaneko
Neoyamaneko

At least Blizzard has the cajones to admit with Ghost that 3D Realms doesn't have with Duke Forever. And I only want a Diablo 3 if it isn't as tedious and boring as 2 was.

Dimebag_Darrell
Dimebag_Darrell

LsTr_Of_SmG, While agree that Blizzard's resources issue seems kinda lame, You need to remember that at least 35 - 45% of the money WOW makes them is going BACK into WOW again. Server Maintenance, Game Maintenance, Expansion Development, Patch Development, Game Development (i.e. patches with new missions, new items, new monsters, ect... ) and other WOW stuff. Then about another 5 - 15% goes towards Employee and Stock payments, and another 10 - 20% gets funnelled out of WOW to other projects like SC2 and the other unnamed projects they are running. Whatever is left after that is their profit margin, and they need that to be big at the end of the year in order to keep the company value high, since a company with no value has no stock value. It's all economics and accounting...

Unkillable
Unkillable

What if they had made Ghost into a PC game?

LsTr_Of_SmG
LsTr_Of_SmG

The amount of money that WOW nets them a year and they claim they don't have the resources to work on other ORIGINAL projects - am I the only one thinking WTF here? I mean sequels are all well and good but I'd like to see something new...

xXxDreadlordxXx
xXxDreadlordxXx

I think it`s a great idea to make War Craft or Star Craft movie.Perfect stories,perfect caracters. HURRY WITH STAR CRAFT 2 AND WE ARE WAIT DIABLO 3 what happening with Diablo 3 ???

Faelas
Faelas

Can't wait for SC2! I've probably logged 2500 hours into the original, and still play it from time to time. Keep going Blizz!

comthitnuong
comthitnuong

I am actually glad that they took out SC: Ghost. Based on gameplay footage and other stuff that I saw of it, it definitely did not live up to what Blizzard's standard of quality is. At least there is SC II though.

muffhunter0123
muffhunter0123

diablo would translate well to console be alot like oblivion but could stil be very gd

blackace
blackace

It's too bad Starcraft: Ghost never got completed. I'm one of the lucky few who got to play it at the E3 about 4-5 years ago. The game reminded me of Metroid Prime in some ways. The game was fun and challenging, which was good. The controls still needed some tweaking, but the graphics were well done. I still think Blizzard can do some console games. Maybe not right now, but in 2-3yrs from now, they should. The problem right now is they are finishing StarCraft 2, discussing Starcraft MMO, probably starting Warcraft IV and who knows what they are doing with Diablo. They are still working on WoW's next expansion. That's a lot of work. As Mike said, all their staff resources are too busy with other things. They need to create a new Blizzard studio dedicated to console games. Hire more qualified employees who have worked on quality console titles. Then create an action plan for the next 3-4yrs. It's not like they don't have the money to do this. They are still making profits off of Warcraft and Starcraft games. Their profits on WoW subcriptions is just crazy. They have like over 8 million subscribers now I think. We'll see what happens. It's rare that a company has a worldwide following, but Blizzard actually does.

qiwihead
qiwihead

Well, you have to define what "live action" even is anymore. The fact is that most big-budget Hollywood action movies are as much CG as they are live action. Look at something like Transformers or the Star Wars prequels. Those movie are practically animated movies with some live actors thrown in. I have a feeling that the WoW movie will be similar.

TehPickle
TehPickle

AmmonMoley--Unfortunately, as I recall from a previous article (I believe it was from this years BlizCon) the plan is to make this Warcraft movie live-action. That scares me, their cut-scenes in games have always been fantastic, I'd quite happily watch a feature-length version of that. I just hope their movie doesnt turn out to be like Dungeons & Dragons or something :S

tony2077ca
tony2077ca

come on blizzard make a movie you don't know whats going to happen unless you try

freerunner01
freerunner01

Well we'll see what movie they will be able to make,,,

AmmonMoley
AmmonMoley

I'm glad that Blizzard focuses on quality instead of quantity. I have been a fan of Blizzard since WC: Orc vs. Human and Diablo 1. I'd like to see a 3rd Diablo as well, but SC2 will be a nice addition to my collection. One thing I'd really like to see: a movie using the outstanding images that the Blizzard Team uses for their cut scenes. I mean, a CG movie, with the quality their team has shown in the past, would look and feel awesome. Going live action makes me warry... LOTR could have flopped if the quality of the work had been slighted. Fortunately, Peter Jackson didn't skimp on the quality of the piece.

uberjannie
uberjannie

Well, we have yet to experienced a movie based on a game that is actually any GOOD. Maybe this will shift the tide?

Mr_Koenshaku
Mr_Koenshaku

No future plans for console development, eh? I wonder what they plan to do with the company they specifically acquired for the purpose of making console games. .....Just more faceless grunts for the WoW assembly line now, I suppose. While that's nowhere near as cool as making your own game, I guess it's not that much worse than picking up the pieces of someone else's and trying to finish it. At least they're not out on the street (yet.) I know it really can't be that bad working for a cash-bloated Blizzard on their most successful game; but you have to admit that it's kind of a grim place to be for what was a very promising independent developer. :P

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

I agree with Striker_Zero, I want to see Warcraft 4 too! WOW has an interesting enough storyline for an MMORPG, but I just don't like feeling like a faceless peon that can't really make a big impact on the world. When I learned that you had to be in a raid to take on Kel'Thuzad, I was just flabbergasted. I wanted to -duel- the sucker like a real hero, not like faceless Warrior #23 that'll get devastated in seconds if I tried to take on a big-name NPC one on one. I also want to do things like fight side by side with people like Tyrande Whisperwind and Thrall, not get assigned some random quest by them or turn in quests to them while they stand in their centers of power 24/7 not doing much of anything. Argh, when I started playing WOW I was hoping I'd end up being somebody like Rexxar, who becomes a major hero in their own right, not an eternal peon that'll always lose out to the big names like Illidan and never get to be in adventuring parties with the same sort of big names. I'd really love it if Warcraft 4 came out and I was able to create my own custom hero to play a major role in the game's storyline, even if it was all pre-scripted.

Bowser05
Bowser05

Good interview overall. I like it when they talk about things like this, even if there is a lack of preview info. Guess that means we will NEVER get SC:G at this rate. C&C Renegade was cool and it was only PC...why can't they just make ghost for the pc darn IT!

Comingcurse
Comingcurse

will_serenity: So you don't think Master Chief can sit on a shelf and rot? Never come to fruition, or sell even one copy of his game? I guess you are right. Master Chief can'y do what Nova can. :P

Striker_Zero
Striker_Zero

sigh...i want warcraft 4, i guess i can't complain - they are making starcraft 2, i just wish they'd put heroes in it, I want to see what a lvl 10 Jim Raynor can do!

Striker_Zero
Striker_Zero

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

beckoflight
beckoflight

Bring STARCRAFT 2 faster Blizzard i want to play it because of the story ...to bad the gameplay isn't improved only new units buut i'm happpy to see that its STARRAFT 2 so finish it !

drangel_jam
drangel_jam

Makes so much sense! Too bad I'm not into MMORPG's. Although not a customer, I'm still a Blizzard's fan. I was waiting for Starghost, but now that they decided to put it away, I somehow understand and fully respect their choices and priorities. As long as they strive for quality, passion, and inspirations, because in the end, the rest of the world will pick it up.

will_serenity
will_serenity

I want Starcraft: Ghost! Man, I was looking forward to that game so much. They should have kept making it. Hell, they still make PS2 games. Just make it a PS2 game. *Sigh* It would have owned Halo imo. Let's see Master Chief do what Nova could :P

knight0029
knight0029

I dont really know what to say about the WoW movie.. I just wonder whether it will be good or bad.. depends on the story line..

SteelWingX
SteelWingX

You sat down with the president of Blizzard. And you didn't ask ANYTHING about Diablo III. What the hell is wrong with you??? I feel like I'm in the twilight zone or something, where nobody remembers just how much people loved the Diablo games.

nathris
nathris

Personally I'd badger him with Diablo questions until he lets something slip, or maybe some personal questions or something. These questions are basically confirmation of what Blizzard is about, nothing new here.

choctawfootball
choctawfootball

brendan, surely u have something better to do than interview Mike Morhaime. i dont like blizzard, and i dont like what is happening to WoW. i would rather u ask Mike Morhaime what his favorite color was and if he liked playing golf or video games more. gamespot needs to think about the the hell they are doing. gamespot needs to review games and leave this interview crap for cable tv.

PSdual_wielder
PSdual_wielder

I really appreciate the philosophy behind Blizzard's working minds. Unlike those other devs who base all their ethics around making money...(ahem EA) they really have a passion for what they do and you could see that in them. Ultimately they are still a company that wants to make money, but not in a way that would screw up what they feel deeply for. Thats the kind of development ethics all companies who produces intellectual properties should be like. Keep sticking to making PC games Blizzard, I bet a lot of people won't mind, even console players.

robbie_basic
robbie_basic

I respect Blizzard more than any other entertainment company inany medium bar none.

popopopo_2
popopopo_2

"GS: Are Starcraft and Diablo strong enough worlds that they could stand on their own in movies?" starcraft movie would me interesting..

Lord_Foortwenti
Lord_Foortwenti

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

StephenHu
StephenHu

resources were spent better on focusing our efforts on our PC titles, so we put Ghost on indefinite hold on ya, I knew blizzard would never disappoint their loyal pc fanbase

lamprey263
lamprey263

first they post two articles about Guitar Hero today and now two articles about Bilzzard/WoW; WTF?! It's like going to a multiplex theater with 16 screens but only 4 movies.

nathris
nathris

The Halo movie will be bigger than the WoW movie, simply because an FPS is more mainstream than an RPG, especially a live action one with all kinds of weird races. I'm sure it will be a big success, but you have to realize that over 4 million of the 9 million players are from China, and even though I'm sure they will be the first to pirate it, it won't be a huge success until its dubbed, and even then its only dubbed. Compare that to Halo, with at least as many fans, and the simple fact that an action movie with guns is more appealing to non-gamers than a battle between orcs and humans that isn't LotR. Lord of the Rings was a successful fantasy movie because it's been around for around 70 years and is a classic piece of literature, while Warcraft started as a little known PC game only 12 years ago. People know characters like Gandalf and Sauron, but don't know anything about Thrall or Jaina Proudmoore. Its Blizzard, so you know its not going to be another Uwe Boll movie, but its not even going to come close to LotR status.

TheVinster
TheVinster

Shame about SC: Ghost, it looked great.

EE2lemmonhead
EE2lemmonhead

i think a lot of people wont watch warcraft simply becuz its based on a fantasy world originally emulated by video games...same with halo