Coming on Blizzard's 17th anniversary as a company, the lead team -- co-founder and CEO Mike Morhaime, game design senior VP Rob Pardo, and product development executive VP Frank Pearce -- got together at the 2008 DICE Summit in Las Vegas to reflect, and to discuss how small steps on a long journey helped create a game industry giant.
In 1991, the company was founded as Silicon and Synapse – Pearce and Morhaime first met through a mutual friend named Allen Adham -- and neither of them had any game development experience.
Said Pearce, "One thing that’s interesting about this is, if you look at the corporate entities that owned Blizzard over the years, none of them really knew about game development.” The history includes Davidson & Associates and CUC International.
Explained Morhaime, "From working with Interplay, we learned from them what they did right and some things they did wrong. We wanted to have the illusion that even though we sold the company, we still owned it. That we still had the control to do what we wanted to do, and the Davidsons allowed us to do that."
Change and Independence
At the time Davidson & Associates was acquired by CUC in 1996, the Blizzard team had a set format. "We were able to keep our business intact while the corporations changed above us," Morhaime added.
Pardo says that, at the time he joined up, one of the things he found interesting was that people from parent companies were never seen walking around the office. "We still get to base our decisions on what we want to make," he said. "Mike, how do you manage that?”
"There's been lots of change over the years," Morhaime reflected, noting that once the Activision-Blizzard merger goes through, Morhaime will have his eighth boss.
"Working with Interplay was mostly great, but there was something not so great," Morhaime continued. "We did a deal with them to release French versions of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.”
But, Morhaime explains, the game was never actually localized into French -- just the manual, and since the copy protection required players to add word five on page five, the all-French manual prevented people from running the game.
Small Steps, Big Focus
At first, the team just did ports from DOS to Mac, Amiga and Commodore. Said Pearce, "You could say that’s inconsequential, but in fact it was really notable. We still make Mac versions today, because we think it’s important, and that helps us with compatibility issues with a wider audience."
He added, "The success of WoW is based on all the things we’ve learned over the years. When we launched that game the series was 10 years old."
Agreed Pardo, "We’ve taken steps toward our success. We didn’t come out of the gate and try to do World of Warcraft from day one."
Currently, the team explains, all quality assurance and customer service is in-house at Blizzard. According to Pardo, becoming a customer service leader is their "big focus" right now.
Said Morhaime, "Our view of what we’re responsible for has evolved from just your experience inside the game, to also your experience interacting with the game… we’re basically responsible for making sure you have a great time.”
He stressed that "gameplay first" is one of the company's core values. "Lost Vikings was our first really original game. We learned our first lessons in iteration there. Our original idea for Lost Vikings came from the game Lemmings. Gradually we whittled down our number of Vikings from fifty, to five, to eventually three. We thought the game was good enough, but Brian Fargo of Interplay took it home and played it, and had lots of feedback for us.”
Morhaime explained that while the team wasn't eager to hear the feedback, he was glad to know the president of the company plays the games and has ideas about them. "It means he really cares," he said. "When I digested it, I thought hey, these are good comments.”
Fargo didn't like the Vikings and wanted them redone, thinking they all looked too similar, and assigned someone to re-draw and re-animate them all. "That was our first painful iterative process with a game," recalls Morhaime, "and it’s happened with every game at Blizzard.”
The Iteration Process
Pardo was struck by Gore Verbinski's DICE keynote, in which he discussed the iteration process for the Pirates of the Caribbean film, and the process of drawing storyboards and then throwing them out.
"I was kind of getting really jealous, because I wished I could do that on a game," Pardo reflected. "But with games, you can’t do storyboards -- it’s an interactive medium. You can’t really iterate until you have some stuff built. Unless you have enough art and gameplay infrastructure in the game, you can’t tell if you’re going in the right direction.”
So what works for the Blizzard team? "We come up with a lot of great ideas, we talk about them, we implement a lot of art and gameplay, and then we go ‘shit, that kind of sucks.’ So do we do a re-boot, throw out everything -- or do we make the call to cancel a game if there’s no realistic restart to do? It’s one of the things that makes us infamous for never hitting a release date, but it’s part of 'gameplay first'."
Hopefully, the team says, a fun game that the developers enjoy making won't be hard to force them to play, too -- they'll be playing it already and making it better.
The Eye Of Sauron
The developers called it their "Eye of Sauron" concept, after the all-seeing Lord of the Rings villain. "Once we're further into the process we start focusing the Eye of Sauron on the game," Pardo said. "We have more people in the company working on it. During Warcraft III, Mike did some programming and editing in the sound engine. With WoW, we took resources off of the Starcraft II design team to get that finished."
Feedback is given across teams with "strike teams" to get views from the outside, and then, iteration. "We do it every couple of weeks," Pardo says. "It’s possible to go too far, and that’s what me and Frank are supposed to keep charge of. We’re trying to make great entertainment projects, not perfect ones. If we wanted to make perfect ones, we’d never be finished."
Morhaime explains that the "Eye of Sauron" metaphor -- nothing escapes the eye -- means that nothing goes unnoticed when a game is looked at multiple times.
Pearce also says the team has learned to think globally. "There was a Pandaren brewmaster for Warcraft III – and the artist drew Japanese pandas. And he drew this Samurai panda. Turns out the Japanese and the Chinese aren’t big fans of each other, and the Chinese people objected to this animal of theirs being dressed in Japanese garb. So we had to change it."
Morhaime agreed that some training of the mind is necessary. “Living here in the United States, we kind of had a North American focus. We had to catch ourselves when we weren’t considering that we have players all around the world."
Moreover, Pearce adds, "People don’t just play the games at home, they play the games in game rooms in China and Seoul, where it’s a totally different payment model, too. It comes down to, if you want to be successful globally, you have to think about what markets you want to go into. One thing we do is send game charges to your account, not to your computer. It’s a small thing, but it really helps people play in that game room environment."
The Plus Side of Cancellation
The team listed canceled titles, which included Nomad, Raiko, Warcraft Adventures, Games People Play, Crixa, Shattered Nations, Pax Impera, and Denizen. Notably, the postponed Starcraft Ghost wasn't included in the list.
Morhaime's point?" We don’t have a 100 percent hit rate - we just cancel all the ones that aren’t going well."
Agreed Pearce, "It’s an issue of making sure we’re not risking long-term gain for short-term benefits. We could ship a sub-par game, but ultimately, it hurts the brand. We should ship it when it’s ready or we shouldn’t ship it at all."
In the audience question-and-answer segment, the team was asked about the biggest fight they ever had on the job. Recalled Pearce, "I would say the one that stands out is when we were working on Warcraft III – there was a contingency that wanted to include naval units in Reign of Chaos. We already had an ambitious schedule and ambitious design, and ultimately we omitted the naval units, but it was lots of controversy."
Pardo recalls it differently, calling the design fights at Blizzard "bitter." "This involved Allen Adham -- he was very interested in seeing naval units, and people felt the loss of it from Warcraft II to III. In Warcraft III we had hero units, and they were useless in naval units, because they couldn’t use them."
He concluded, "We had a showdown in front of the entire development team, trying to persuade the team one way or the other, and I won, which I think was the first time with Allen."