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)."

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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.)
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.
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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