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.

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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.
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.
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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