The "games as service" concept isn't new, but 2017 is the year that it has really taken hold. Instead of jumping straight from sequel to sequel, developers across the industry seem to have shifted more to creating updates for their games and extending the time you spend with each title to its absolute maximum. And few companies take advantage of that system better than Blizzard.
Famously, Blizzard doesn't move on to sequels quickly. Diablo III launched five years ago. Starcraft II started ten years ago. And World of Warcraft began back in 2004. But while the online modes for Blizzard's big franchises get constant updates, and there's a new expansion for the other games almost every year, why have we yet to see games like Diablo 4 or World of Warcraft 2?
At Blizzcon 2017, I was able to talk to representatives from almost every Blizzard game about sequels. For some games, a follow-up obviously doesn't make sense. An Overwatch 2 or a Hearthstone 2 would run contrary to experiences those games have created. Overwatch has sidestepped traditional character-driven FPS boundaries by telling its narrative through media outside the game. And Hearthstone is built around leveling-up your chosen classes and carrying your cards and decks over from year to year.
But there is a precedent for companies producing sequels in the other types of games Blizzard develops. Square Enix rebooted its MMO Final Fantasy XI with FFXIV. And, obviously games like Starcraft II and Diablo III are sequels themselves. So what's the philosophy behind Blizzard's iteration process? When does it decide it's time to move on to either a sequel, or a new project entirely?
Scott Mercer (principal designer): "That is a difficult question. Saying,'It gives us all sleepless nights,' might be a little too strong, but it's a lot of soul searching. A lot comes down to what the team wants to do. What do they feel passionate about? What do they want to work on next? And for every team, that's different. I worked on Warcraft 3 after which I was like, 'Hey, what is that team going to work on next?' We didn't just want to make Warcraft 4 afterwards we work on something different.
"As humans, we're looking for that next challenge. So that's why I think a lot of times you'll see, in some cases, us going to new places like on Overwatch. I mean, that's one of the things that brought me to the team. I was excited about a new IP and a new world. For all the different Blizzard teams and for us it's that sort of question: What are we jazzed to work on? And the answer's different for all the different teams."
Tim Morten (production director): "Yeah, there's no exact formula, obviously. There's a balance for us between really appreciating the player base that we've got--as you know, we recently released a remaster for Starcraft 1, and many players are still enjoying that game that's now almost 20 years old. Next year will be its 20th anniversary. So, we really want to service that player base. And Starcraft II has had this incredibly stable player base that we want to continue to service as well.
"I think the industry in general has evolved to a point where we are continuing to service players longer on a single title, and really let them immerse themselves in the world. From a development perspective, it gives us a chance to iterate and improve on the user experience--add new content, add new features. We don't have a finite transition point in mind, but we do know we've got a really passionate audience that we want to keep providing content to."
World of Warcraft
John Hight (production director): "I think we've been fortunate to have dedicated fans for 13 years. We have regular content coming out, and so it's actually been a pretty dramatic evolution of the game. You'll have the opportunity to do this not too far in the future with Classic coming out, but just compare us to where we were when we first released WoW to where we are now and where we're gonna be with Battle for Azeroth.
"If you only looked at those two points, you would conclude that Battle for Azeroth is the sequel. It is 'WoW 2.' The evolution has happened over 13 years. It's just that because it's happened in bits and pieces, I don't know that people recognize how much things have changed. How the distance of view in the game, the resolution we have and the graphical fidelity we have in our characters, all of them have gone high-resolution. The spell effects that we've added and the combat mechanics that have changed through every class; the way the interface has changed. For better or worse, you have to relearn a little bit each time, but we're trying to make it a little bit easier and a little bit more fun to really get into your character and have mastery over it.
"And the storytelling that we do--in Legion alone, we had more voiceover than any of our previous expansions, and in many cases more than two or three expansions combined. It's a phenomenal amount, and we're gonna continue to do that because we like the richness it adds to the story.
"We can think of a million things we want to do with the game, and it's a rich playing field to come up with new ideas, new stories, and new features for. That's where we're at. It's really how much do we want to do right now versus how much we're gonna do in the future?"
Heroes of the Storm
Kaeo Milker (production director): "Right now Heroes of the Storm is this living, breathing game. We are updating it constantly. We have patches every week. We have new heroes coming out every three to five weeks. There's major patches with features and content every six weeks. It is just constantly growing and evolving, and it gets just bigger and better all the time.
"So there's not really a world where we say, 'Let's just go in a completely different direction, it has to be new.' Heroes 2.0 is really about going through our progression and rewards, and opening up all the game's content. Letting people earn it by just playing the game, by leveling up all their heroes.
"Before, there was a wall. You would hit level 40 and that was it. You just stopped. Everybody who played the game at all hit 40 would say, 'Okay, now what am I doing?' So we wanted to uncap that, and let people just keep playing. No matter what you do, no matter what mode you play in, you're always making progress and then you're always getting cool rewards. We're positioning that as Heroes 2.0 because that was a pretty dramatic shift, but the core game was still Heroes of the Storm. That's game that we're always building on, and always making better.
"I think it's a different world to live in. Coming from making Starcraft and Warcraft 3, those were box games. You do the box game, and then a couple years later you have an expansion. Then at some point, you're like, 'Okay, now let's move on.' Heroes of the Storm keeps living and breathing and growing, and it's really fun to work on something like that."
Max Ma (lead UI designer): "To me we're making Heartstone 11 right now. I remember I joined the team back when we were just about to start designing Hearthstone for mobile. To me, that's a brand new game by itself. As the user interface designer on the team, every screen is brand new; we were building it from the ground up. And like improving the new player experience, there are still some things we want to tackle in the future. I feel like there's so many challenges and so many things we can do to make the game even better."
Dave Kosak (lead mission designer): "It's about, 'How do you give value to your player that's invested in your game?' With Hearthstone, there's so much to do; there's so much more we want to do with this game. It doesn't give players a lot of value to suddenly switch to a Hearthstone 2. Their collection is in Hearthstone. We can still do a million new things with Hearthstone--this new single-player mode in Hearthstone, Dungeon Run, is tremendous. So, we just keep giving players value.
"It's really the same with World of Warcraft. You saw what they were announcing here at the show. It's amazing. World of Warcraft is still going strong because there's just so many ways to give players value in this game world that they've been invested in for more than a decade. I think Hearthstone has a long, long, long future in front of it where we can still continue to give people value."
For more content from Blizzcon 2017, check out our roundup of the biggest news and announcements here.