D.I.C.E. '08: Blizzard talks about blowing up

Mike Morhaime, Rob Pardo, and Frank Pearce give insight on how the company grew from an upstart developer to a worldwide publishing giant.

LAS VEGAS--Since the launch of World of Warcraft in 2004, it seems as if Blizzard Entertainment isn't able to do anything that isn't massive. The developer has come to dominate the massively multiplayer online space, topping the NPD Group's 2007 US PC game best-seller list and reaching an unparalleled 10 million WOW subscribers at the start of 2008.

The Irvine, California-based developer also happened to be the subject of one of the biggest mergers of 2007, when its parent company, French megacorp Vivendi, brought Santa Monica-based Activision into the fold in a deal valued at nearly $19 billion. The offspring of that merger--Activision Blizzard, also lovingly referred to as Act-ard--was the subject of the morning's first session during the D.I.C.E. Summit. (The summit kicked off yesterday in style with a madness-filled keynote from Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski.)

Morhaime, Pardo, and Pearce under the lights.

Titled "Blizzard: From Developer to Worldwide Publisher," the session was lorded over by Blizzard top brass: Mike Morhaime, president and cofounder; Rob Pardo, vice president of game design; and Frank Pearce, executive vice president of product development. Once Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences prez Joseph Olin concluded his opening remarks introducing the trio of A-list game vets, the trio took the stage to rapt applause.

Morhaime began the session by noting that Blizzard will be celebrating its 17th anniversary as of tomorrow, and the occasion marked an ideal opportunity to take a look back at the company's humble beginnings as a startup run by three UCLA grads. One of the biggest reasons for Blizzard's current success, Morhaime said, was that the company has retained the keys to the castle by maintaining control over its properties despite myriad changes of ownership.

The Blizzard president went on to say that its initial steps into publishing were modeled after Interplay, which at the time had a distribution and marketing deal with EA whereby Interplay was still credited as the publisher. Morhaime and company were convinced to sell the company to Davidson Associates in 1994 because of that company's promise to respect Blizzard's creative control and simply supply the company with the resources it needed.

"It gave us the illusion that even though we sold the company, we still owned it--still had control to make the games that we wanted to play," Morhaime said.

Morhaime said it was this initial relationship that helped lay down a proven track record of success, which subsequently provided them with bargaining power to keep the operation as it is, despite the many changes in ownership. At that point, Pearce chirped in, saying, "Blizzard is kind of like a cockroach: We keep surviving while everything else changes." Pardo, who joined the company in 1997, said that one of the biggest surprises from when he joined the company was that it is rare to see people from Blizzard's parent company walking the halls. Boasting further, the WOW lead designer said that Blizzard never has to show its products to anyone else to get a green light.

Pardo attributed this to Morhaime's extensive experience with handling new bosses. The Blizzard president said that once the Activision-Vivendi Games merger goes through, the company's chairman, current Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, will be his eighth boss. Jokester Pearce quickly followed that up, saying, "We have a term for every time we have a new partner--we say Mike has to train his new boss." "Umm, yeah, we talk about that inside the offices," Morhaime stuttered back to raucous laughter from the audience. "Uhh, things are going great so far with Bobby."

Returning to a more serious note, the panel said that their current success is attributable to the layers of experience they've been able to build over the years. Pearce notes that even from the start, when doing ports for Interplay, they gained knowledge that they still employ today. Specifically, that knowledge was applied in creating Mac versions of World of Warcraft, and it helps with compatibility for their users.

"Everything we do has helped build a knowledge base for taking calculated risks," Pearce said. Pearce said that once the company began doing original games for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, it taught them how to develop with a small team. This expanded when they were acquired by Davidson, which gave them the resources to bump their staff to 20 and lay the infrastructure for Battle.net, the online portal for Blizzard's real-time strategy games. He continued by pointing out that Battle.net was a huge factor in the building experience for World of Warcraft, and said that operating an online infrastructure wasn't a foreign concept at that point. Building out their studio in such a fashion also helped them realize the importance of doing all of the work internally, from development, to tech support, to quality assurance, to public relations.

"It isn't one thing that makes WOW successful," Pearce noted. "It was building on everything that we've done and taking calculated risks...When we launched WOW, it had 10 years of fan base already built up."

"We didn't try to do WOW day one," Pardo continued. "With each game, we've gotten a little more ambitious. We're careful when we choose to innovate and when we try to take baby steps. If we tried to do WOW from scratch, it would be a monumental effort. We already had the community for WOW. Even though they weren't MMO players, they were willing to try it out."

Returning to the importance of having all of the staff in-house, Pardo said that the company is currently laser-focused on being the industry leader in customer service. Once Blizzard achieves that goal, it will be ready to become ambitious again.

Shifting gears to Blizzard's process of making games, Morhaime noted that gameplay is a "core value" at the company, saying, "If the gameplay isn't there, then all the other layers almost don't matter." Morhaime said that this value was learned early on with the company's first original game for the SNES in 1993, Lost Vikings. The game was a hard lesson in the iterative process, said Morhaime, continuing, "We thought the game was basically good enough. [Former Interplay CEO] Brian Fargo took the game home and had a ton of feedback for us. We thought we were in the home stretch. He had a list of things that we weren't eager to hear."

Morhaime said that the company didn't have the resources to make the changes that Fargo suggested, namely the Viking character models, but the Interplay exec lent them an artist to redo the sprites to add diversity.

"It was our first painful iterative process," Morhaime said. "It's been repeated on every single Blizzard game. Generally you start off going in one direction, think you've got it figured out, and everyone on the design team thinks it's great, then open it up to the rest of the company and find out, no, it isn't great, lots of serious issues."

Pardo picked up the conversation from there, saying that the problem behind hiring the best-in-field is that these people tend to be focused on their own discipline--which can on occasion be at odds with the gameplay-first mantra. The challenge, then, becomes getting these people on the same page of focusing talent on the overall gameplay.

Referencing Verbinski's keynote last night, Pardo said he was envious of the film industry for being able to go through multiple storyboards before arriving at a final product. For games, he said, you have to bite the bullet and do a lot of time-consuming implementation before finding out if the experience of actually playing the game is fun. This iterative process at Blizzard has led to three ultimate outcomes after a game's initial incarnation, with either: massive tweaks being made to the initial concept, a complete reboot of the project, or the tough call to cancel the game. "It's hard, it makes us infamous for never hitting ship dates, but we're committed to it," Pardo confessed.

Moving to their next point, the team revealed their "Eye of Sauron" strategy for game development. Once the team knows it is going in the right direction, they begin refocusing other resources to the project--which is often at the expense of other games. Morhaime said that during the period leading up to WOW's launch, they pulled people off of Starcraft 2 development, which significantly impacted the timeline of that game but ultimately helped lead to a better product in WOW. Once the game is in its home stretch, Blizzard creates "strike teams" that consist of its top people to focus in on certain areas or zones, which then recommend an often massive list of tweaks to bring back to the development team. "You have to keep tabs on it, though," he noted. "Otherwise, you start chasing perfectionism. If you try to do that, you'll never finish. We're just really late."

Blizzard's rejects.

Pearce then brought up the importance of thinking globally. Using the example of the Pandaren Brewmaster in WOW, Pearce said that the original concept art was for a panda dressed as a samurai. It turns out that the Chinese and Japanese aren't always on the most amicable of terms, and they received a heavy amount of lip from Chinese players who took exception with having their iconic animal garbed in Japanese fare. Continuing, Pardo said that a publisher needs to be an expert in the region into which they want to expand. He also cautioned that it isn't wise to spend all day making sure no one is offended, but it is definitely worth vetting content with international teams.

Morhaime then returned to the topic of Blizzard's success. He says he is often questioned on how his company has a 100 percent hit rate, but said that is merely the appearance. The fact of the matter is that many projects have been canceled after moving forward with development, listing as a sample Games People Play, Crixa, Shatterd Nations, Pax Imperia, Denizen, Warcraft Adventures, Nomad, and Raiko. No mention was made of Starcraft: Ghost, Blizzard's indefinitely suspended last-generation console title.

Concluding, Morhaime said that the worst thing a studio can do is release a project that doesn't live up to standards of quality. "Yes we may hit our financial goals, but it hurts the brand," and that is ultimately far worse, he noted. "The worse thing we can do is to release a game that doesn't live up to our quality standards."

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74 comments
NWA89
NWA89

Blizzard's games gives a fantastic and unique feeling when you play it, what you can't feel when you play other games. All of their games owns every today's crap shiny and boring games. I don't care much about graphics, and thats why I like Blizzard. They're the best. Look at WarCraft II, III, Diablo I-II, Diablo II:LoD is still one of the most played games in RPG-category, after WoW, ofcourse. I really like how they did WoW. I wait for Star Craft II and Diablo III, however.

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

Now if only more companies were like Blizzard, the game industry would be a much different beast.

Maximum_VeNoM
Maximum_VeNoM

I'm not saying that I don't care about the canceling the other project about it... all I want is them to make StarCraft II antile the summer if possible nothing more... if not I'll be dissapointed... But as Blizzard says: " We'll take as much time as we want" but look at the bright side of taking so much time to prepare SC II it realy looks great and the progress they've made is incredible no doubth about it...But if possible them to tell will they release it antile the Jun mounth ends ?!

Soilfusion
Soilfusion

They state that WoW was so successful due to a big fan base of RTS'ers wanting to give it a go and I think he struck on the core ideal of why WoW is so huge. Without Warcraft 3 I think it would of been a major flop, the avatar system in that game really does introduce you to the fundamental ideal of RPG's. Also, the PVP side of WoW was huge and pretty much unexplored in mmo's before, granted DAoC did explore this but I believe the WoW version was a lot more accessible. This was also one thing that really gave it an edge over everquest and alike, there was something for everyone and if you were feeling bloodthirsty you could just join a battleground or raid an enemy town. Also the 40 man raiding instances were well thought out and steeped in lore and atmosphere, downing Ragnaros for the first time gave you a sense of euphoria that is unparalleled by anything out on the market at this point in time. The lore is a major factor to this game and without Warcraft 1, 2, 3 this would just seem like a once upon a time fairytale that was dreamt up to fit this game. No game out right now can compete with the sheer might of world of warcraft because it also brings with it a massive legacy of lore, a great community and there is probably something in the game to suit everyone. P.S. FOR THE HORDE!!!

kingofqueen
kingofqueen

all the games from blizzard are superb,the guy who say WOW is not good is so wrong,it's the best online game ever.try to name somthing better then

map4000
map4000

Things like these are why i love Blizz so much...and i hate EA so much.

marco0798
marco0798

REd_toe D3 will be coming sometime after WoW is finished that means u got WoTLK and one more expansion then DIABLO will come....

jansdman
jansdman

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

nate1222
nate1222

Blizzard has earned their success. WoW, Starcraft, Diablo2, all rocked. I still play Starcraft and Diablo 2. My sister-in-law plays WoW religeously. I also like the fact that Blizzard keeps its system requirements low/modest. This makes it easier for average, everyday folks to use their products. More developers should be taking that approach, including console manufacturers/developers.

PS3Compass
PS3Compass

STARCRAFT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Octaaf7
Octaaf7

startcraft 2 startcraft 2?? when does it comes out!!!

Azwhtknight
Azwhtknight

Kudos Blizzard! I would like to thank you for not compromising yourselves over the years and putting together true classics. If more companies would think about the end product rather than just "how fast can we put a game out there," the game industry would be a much better place. Besides there is definitely more money to be made in the long run by quality of games not quantity of games. I would much rather buy a game that was consistently delayed because of concern with improving the quality or content of the game rather than a game that was just put out "as is"on time.

Tupaschoal
Tupaschoal

I'm a Blizzard fan, I can't think in a Blizzard game that's not good and like Erebus a game developed by Blizzard is for me a game with 100% quality although not all the genres satisfies me.

Erebus
Erebus

I associate the Blizzard brand name with 100% quality. Whether or not the game is for me is irrelevant. I do not play WoW.

REd_toe
REd_toe

well guess what the D3 team isn't round anymore, so stop wishing and dreaming.

Alf
Alf

i'd kill for Diablo 3...

Hartner_X
Hartner_X

siiixon: You cant't expect a game from 2004 to look like a 2008 game (though CCP did manage to do that with EVE Online), though as you said WoW ain't innovative and has never been. I can´t say that I has played a more boring MMO than WoW. But maybe that because I'm an EVEr and have pretty high standards thanks to that...

estw
estw

WOW is overrated , there are lots of good mmo's out there u just have to look for them

siiixon
siiixon

no there is tons wrong with WOW, grafix is old and annoyingly ugly for 2008 standards, and the game it self lack of any innovation considering its 2008... its just stone old and we have nothing new and innovative to play with

scottwilkins
scottwilkins

Only real problem I see with WoW is that it has stagnated. Originally players were told there would be frequent and substantial updates to the game. Instead, changes made usually resulted in gameplay losses, and no real updates came until BC, which required payment. I don't mind a monthly payment for quality such as WoW originally gave us, but the expense is too much for a game that doesn't grow with the investment.

Spincut
Spincut

a shame though, Blizzard hasnt made a satisfying single player experience in a long time. I simply dont see WOW as a game worth this much time and expenditure just because it's better than other MMORGS, being better than a mediocre game that demands more time and money out of most to begin with is a low bar in the first place, so i dont see WOW toppling any barriers by being the superior product. Oh well, at least they finally found the time to stop counting the millions they're making from stringing along consumers into paying a monthly fee to make what will hopefully be another solid self containing single player game in Starcraft II.

mload
mload

WHY WON'T YOU MAKE DIABLO 3!!11!1!!!1!!11!1111

brood_aliance
brood_aliance

Concluding, Morhaime said that the worst thing a studio can do is release a project that doesn't live up to standards of quality. "Yes we may hit our financial goals, but it hurts the brand," and that is ultimately far worse, he noted. "The worse thing we can do is to release a game that doesn't live up to our quality standards." This has to be the "golden rule" that ALL game developers should follow. That is why Blizzard, Bioware, Bethesda, Crytek, Infinity Ward, Valve, and what used to be Westwood are so respected and successful. If only game publishers/developers could just fess up a bit more money, the reward could be huge.

Red_Jester
Red_Jester

Even though I can't stand WoW and what it's done to the MMO community and - indeed - the internet itself, the fact that it had such an effect is Remarkable. While, said I said, I don't like it, to not respect WoW is foolish. As it is foolish to not respect every other Blizzard game. They're simply a fantastic developer, and I hope that remains after this new merger. And knowing blizzard, they won't let a merger change their quality standards. Now for the long and most likely delayed filled wait for SC2. So true. I also hate what WoW has done to the MMO community. Guilds and communities used to be so much deeper before WoW. While I do love the fact that MMOs now have solo friendly gameplay and loads of quests thanks to WoW, it's just sad to see the casual gamers coming in to them even though they're growing the MMO market. Any MMOs with forced grouping are almost guaranteed to die now that WoW is released. Most players are so used to soloing and questing in addition to WoW claiming most of the market, so you'll have a hard time finding a group in any new MMOs. I suppose that's why almost every recently released and upcoming western MMOs are using the same leveling style as WoW. Most likely isn't the right word for Starcraft 2. The DEFINITE delays would fit that sentence better. All worth it, though.

Red_Jester
Red_Jester

There's a good and bad thing about Blizzards graphics in games. When they first released details about their games, they all looked eye-popping, then after years of delays, they just look good when released for the reason of perfecting the game. It's an issue that effects all Blizzard games, but it's worth it for every single one. Their 2D games may not be fair to compare to WCIII, though. 2D games aged much better than 3D games in my opinion. I still think Starcraft looks great while Warcraft III definately shows age now. It seems that now Blizzard is currently designing their visuals to be ready for all systems to handle at mostly high settings. Starcraft 2 while artistically great and super clean, already look a little aged, but they're only trying to let as many people as possible enjoy the full experience of their games. Especially in other parts of the world where top of the line computers aren't readily available like in the US and Western Europe.

Tebbit
Tebbit

The great thing about Blizzard is that none of their games age particulaly terribly, because though graphics may change, the game still plays damn well. Look at Warcraft 3 for example. Graphically very simple, but because of the fantastic art direction and excellent gameplay people still play it today, and have no qualms about the technical graphics. The same goes for Starcraft, and even Lost Vikings. What most modern developers today don't understand is that if you have fine gameplay and amazing graphics, the experience just wont be the same as if the gameplay is at least equal to the graphics.

PiNwOrM
PiNwOrM

Even though I can't stand WoW and what it's done to the MMO community and - indeed - the internet itself, the fact that it had such an effect is Remarkable. While, said I said, I don't like it, to not respect WoW is foolish. As it is foolish to not respect every other Blizzard game. They're simply a fantastic developer, and I hope that remains after this new merger. And knowing blizzard, they won't let a merger change their quality standards. Now for the long and most likely delayed filled wait for SC2.

glitchgeeman
glitchgeeman

Great article, but it does nothing to satisfy me desire to know Starcraft II's release date.

MadeInFinland
MadeInFinland

I love Blizzard's games.. how I wish I could one day work there.

DFalcon999
DFalcon999

I think Blizzard is a fair company in terms of skill, but unlike many others, I don't think everything they touch is gold. I still remembered WHY they really canceled WarCraft Adventures- Because they thought it wouldn't have won as many rewards as Curse of Monkey Island. Seriously, what the hell? You worry about your CUSTOMERS, not about what and how many awards you win.

console-deity
console-deity

May their sacrifices be for ever remembered, because we in the end got to taste the sweet fruits of their labor.

peterles
peterles

blizz owns. i bought a cd-rom for like 200 bones back in 95-96 to play tides of darkness on my 386. got sc and bw the day they came out, same with wc3 and ft. diablo 1 & 2 own. wow owns bliz owns.

Thrall-3-20
Thrall-3-20

I hope they don't ruin starcraft by going MMO with it... Hm, seems that SC:Ghost may return? I hope so.

Sandro909
Sandro909

What? No video? I would've liked to watch this.

Wowzer7
Wowzer7

If only every company followed the way Blizzard handles their games, perhaps we wouldn't have a huge amount of bad games every year. Hopefully, just hopefully, companies will take something from this and incorporate it into their own practices.

nate1222
nate1222

Hey! What's wrong with me! I forgot kick ass Diablo II!

Montrealien
Montrealien

ok, I am sick and tired of all you people calling for a World of Starcrat!!! it is that hard to to make the word world in plural? Worlds of Starcraft...ahhh, there we go.

nate1222
nate1222

I still rock out on Starcraft. My sister-in-law plays the hell outta WoW. Even people who don't fancy themselves 'Gamers' play WoW. That's the sort of thing that makes a dev/publisher stand out. Kinda like the Wii, huh?

Toribor
Toribor

Although Blizzard made a mistake by letting the Diablo team go (and become Flagship studios) they are still an excellent company who turns out some amazing games. Go Blizzard!

Tremere1
Tremere1

Now there is a company you need to follow.

SpAnKaL42069
SpAnKaL42069

Blizzard is one most top notch Developers in the world! Every game they turn out is award winning! Go Blizzard! Go!

Need_A_Dime
Need_A_Dime

@ DFTricks "putted" .................. really? /facepalm

DFTricks
DFTricks

Even if the RTS Warcraft games where good it's really Starcraft that putted the compagny on the map.

tlow0678
tlow0678

@ Vonkronz World of starcraft? That would be like, AMAZING! I'd be a Zerg Cerebrate :P

john1912
john1912

Anyone else think flagship are kicking themselves right now?