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The Hard-Won Wisdom of Bill Roper

May 15, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Game development veteran Bill Roper, who played a key role in the rise of the seminal Warcraft and Diablo series throughout the 1990s, recently sat down with Gamasutra to look back at the breadth of his career.

As co-founder of Flagship Studios in 2003, which ground to a halt after Hellgate: London foundered in the public's eyes, he went through a rough career patch, even after so much success as one of those instrumental figures behind Blizzard's rise to power.

Now installed at the Atari-owned Cryptic Studios, where he's working as design director on upcoming superhero MMO Champions Online, in this massive career retrospective, Roper discusses everything from recruitment to the painful lessons he's learned -- and how failure can teach you more than success.

What are you seeing in terms of the job market in the current economy? Are there more young people in games more so than ever? Also, when you look into hiring, I've got to imagine there are more experienced people available compared to a few years ago.

Bill Roper: Yeah, there's definitely a huge push in both directions. We are seeing a lot more students coming in. For the last three years, we've seen a big influx of students that are coming with game degrees and that have had specific education in our industry.

I think there's always been a level of young guys and gals that are interested in gaming and want to get in and do it, but now we're seeing them show up with training, with ability, with some base knowledge that's there. But at the same time, there are a lot of really experienced people because of what's happened with the economy -- the bigger publishers having to lay people off, small independents shutting down.

So, it's a very interesting time to be on the hiring side of things, because you have a pretty wide diversity of ability levels and background coming through. It's actually very helpful when you're building a team; if you're looking for more experienced people at more lead management and executive levels, they are out there.

And when you need people to come in, they're eager to learn and anxious to see what they can do. And bringing in those entry-level people, there's a lot of them coming in, too.

Atari/Cryptic Studios' Champions Online

This has been happening for the past few years; you must have seen it on people who have these specific game degrees. It's fairly a new phenomenon versus someone who maybe has a liberal arts degree and has done some interning at a game company or something. Are you finding that you can find people both ways? Are there interesting differences in somebody who has a game degree versus other people?

BR: It's definitely both ways. I don't necessarily think that because someone comes in with a game degree, that "Oh, well, they're going to be far superior." They definitely have, I think, a higher level of understanding, a better vocabulary; they're able to hit the ground running a lot better.

Every company, every team has its own nuances, its own style of doing things, and its own technologies, so there's always going to be that learning curve. But when you do have students coming in that have gone through gaming degree programs, generally, you just find that they have...

There's the possibility that they're going to have just the higher degree of baseline knowledge. They have that step up to step in and do something at a starting level in the company.

We wanted to maybe go a little big picture and think about the lessons you learned that you're imparting. I guess the first place to start with you is Blizzard and all your time there. When you look back at when you were still at Blizzard and at what you're doing now, what are some of the key lessons in terms of game design -- and obviously especially MMO game design -- that you took from Blizzard and you definitely still see yourself using at Cryptic now?

BR: Wow, I mean, a lot. Blizzard was where I started, and I really had a pretty amazing opportunity to grow up in the industry that way and learn very hands-on with people. For me, being in that weird space where I'm not a programmer, I'm an artist... You always have the soft skills...

Design, producing, those kind of things -- there tends to be less technique that can be taught somewhere. There are design tenets you can learn and things like that, but so much of it is having the level of just natural ability and then honing that by doing it.

I always think that in programming, in art, in music, and in sound, there is that level of natural ability that has to be there, but these are techniques that you use. So, you can get someone to a certain level; it's harder to do with producing. And there are books that everybody gets and things like that.

I found that we didn't tend to do that at Blizzard. It was more feeling with being able to keep vision on the big picture of the project. We never sat around and said like, "We're gonna do Scrum programming" and all the terminology, you know, pair programming or, "We're gonna be using, getting TS," all this different stuff.

It was more about, "Everybody works for the betterment of the project." I think that was a really big one that I still do now when I'm leading the Champions Online team. Everybody has to check their ego at the door.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Dave Endresak
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I thought that this was a very nice interview even though I have never been a fan of Diablo, WoW or various other Blizzard products. In particular, it was very nice to see Bill offer a global perspective several times rather than the much narrower, generally ethnocentric views often expressed by people in various specific markets (English and others). I think this is especially true after Gamasutra's recent reporting of Nexon's announcement that Maple Story has reached 92 million subscribers (6 million in North America). A number like this one and for certain other Asian MMOs (Lineage II, for example, which reports at least 17 million subscribers) offer a much better perspective about WoW's place within the actual global game marketplace. The majority of the world's population do not speak English as their first language, after all, or perhaps at all. ^_^;

I think that Bill's observation about other games being "not even close" to WoW is somewhat dependent on what one considers "close". For example, Guild Wars reported 4 million subscribers 1.5 years ago, and that's a very good number that makes GW one of the more successful MMOs. Of course, even Bill explains that there are various styles of MMO, particularly in East Asian markets, including some with relatively small numbers of players. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, after all, and everyone wants something different for their enjoyment.

The comments about the development of WoW were somewhat interesting, too. Perhaps MMOs would benefit from being developed more along the lines of a typical game rather than if development focuses on perceived standards for MMOs.

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Ruthaniel van-den-Naar
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Hellgate was single player game with some basic multiplayer, but not realy MMO.

I dont like MMO, but you can do better or worst MMO and Hellgate MMO concept was IMHO very bad, only victim of wave MMO's success.

My rating of singleplayer part is 6/10, nothing special and very repetive, more than Diablo father, nothing new, wasting big money.

Ruthaniel van-den-Naar
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"But it's just a business. We're not sending people to the moon. We're not saving lives. We're not curing cancer."

I dont agree, this is big mistake, because we saving souls. Because some games contains piece of art (yes we must work on this, we are on start) and art can save our souls, without art we are as machines. We emotions and ideas to feed our souls, else we the empty, wortless.

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@ Bob

MMO design is just based on stats a lot more than other games. I don't find that a bad thing, but some people prefer twitch and skill based gameplay more. MMOs are not void of twitch and skill though; it is usually introduced when working with a team though, not solo.

Mark Venturelli
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Amazing interview. I already had a lot of sympathy for Bill Roper while watching the sad process of Flagship being shut down and his way of doing things, worrying about all the Flagship guys and gals getting jobs before being completely laid off. He sounds like a very human guy, a good person, so rare to find in any business lately. I would love to work with Bill Roper someday! Great read.

Christopher Wragg
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@Bob Dillan

"I hated wow's combat model since I hate most MMO's combat models."

So you pretty much hate most RPGs....not MMOs. WoWs combat model isn't that different from the older games like never winter nights. They all use relatively the same combat style, because it plays well as an RPG, you know, lots of skills, stat growth, and resource management. In truth most of these mechanics are pretty true to the old paper based RPGs just in an electronic format. So your beef can't be really with the combat, you just don't enjoy most RPGs, that's cool dude, they ain't for everyone.

As for holding games back, I think not, MMOs fit a valid niche in the market, they operate off the entire, people like to play games together concept, it's why consoles and PCs have had this thing called "multiplayer" for a long time, a MMO is just the next logical step in this progression. It opens up whole new realms of possibility when it comes to game design.

Chris Proctor
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"Guild Wars reported 4 million subscribers 1.5 years ago"

Guild Wars is a big success, but this isn't accurate. Guild Wars has sold ~6 million boxes, but that doesn't in any way translate to that many subscribers. It includes each individual expansion box sold, and they don't actually have a subscription model.

A better comparison is Runescape, probably the second largest paying-subscriber base, around 1.5 million.

David Reeves
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Nice read and good to see more of the downs of the industry. Don't get me wrong, I believe by learning from the mistakes.

I think the problem is too much attention is put into hyping a game instead of spending that time and money on development. If it's done well people will come anyway, why though so much effort hyping?

It's a risky business and I do agree with alot of the risk factor, yet I also believe that this can be avoided if the big wigs would get out of the way of the potential in the game being made, that being an MMO or stand alone game. Most of the waste in resources focuses on the head huncho's instead of them being a huge team of well functioning unit.

It's simply too many cooks in the kitchen, with the BS spinners being like Gordon Ramsey. Full of shit and a complete idiot. Is it worth employing these people. For me no.

I was saddened by the conclusion of the article with that big red logo, Atari has pissed off too many people to even be considered a company worth mentioning. I will NEVER EVER buy anything with their logo again. Sometimes you have to let an old dog die to move forward, their strategy in the industry is killing it!

So as far as the future hold's for Bill, good luck and wake up to moving in the wrong direction. They will never be as they were.

Louis Gascoigne
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It's too bad Hellgate had the execution issues that it did because the game itself solidified my own personal belief that it is possible (and desirable) to mix Diablo-style RPG/loot mechanics with a non-targeting system aiming mechanic and play online.

As the saying goes, "I see what you did there."

steve roger
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So, let me ask you guys, is he saying that Hellgate shouldn't have been made? I am talking the game that was hyped before release. It was an action RPG MMO correct? Is he saying that he should have cut back on the action promises? That is what I kept thinking when reading the article and recalling the game. I could be wrong with my assumptions....

Phil Roman
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"Maple Story has reached 92 million subscribers (6 million in North America). A number like this one and for certain other Asian MMOs (Lineage II, for example, which reports at least 17 million subscribers) offer a much better perspective about WoW's place within the actual global game marketplace"

At least in the case of NCSoft, Lineage 2 has had 17 million accounts CREATED. That is NOT their sub base. You can look up their quarterly reports on

I believe the same is true for maple story.

You gotta be careful of that marketing spin.

steve roger
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Ruthan and Bob, I agree wth you about the trouble with Hellgate gameplay. I thought it was going to be the answer to bad MMO combat. I really did expect an action RPG, heavy on the RPG, but a lot of action nonetheless. But it wasn't what I though it would be.

And about the importance of art. I think that you are describing the concept of doing art for art's sake, but he is describing doing art for business's sake. That is a really different viewpoint of art and it's role in the world and it's imporance to man. Art in an MMO is just a means to an end and he is sayng that that end is just money and he doesn't ever want to lose site of that. Otherwise you start making decisions based on art instead of business.

I do think that does diminish art in the process. Which is why I think that ultimately for some people WOW has no soul. Think about Lineage and the adherence to the grind. The look of the art is secondary to leveling and grinding. WOW does that too, but it is just packaged better to attract the Western concept of vanity. I am not saying a person shouldn't like WOW, but it is shallow. Not as shallow as Lineage, but it cerainly not a deep experience.

Cole Lemke
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I am a recent graduate that studied game art and design, so the first two questions were very informative. Its kind of scary graduating and trying to build a career at a time like this. Unless extremely skilled, the only thing us fresh graduate have to offer over the veterans is that we work for peanuts (cheaper pay), which may be beneficial since I'm applying for entry level positions.

Overall, It was a good read. Thanks Bill and Ben for taking the time to put this QandA together for us.

Mickey Mullasan
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Interesting read, the story of Flagship and the lessons to be learned is valuable information for the industry. It is nice to get a certain level of open-ness from companies that fail so that other's mistakes can be avoided. I thought Ion Storm Austin seemed to be another one of these that we can all learn from. It serves as a great ghost story to tell by the fire, so to speak. Failure is much easier to avoid than attaining overwhelming success, and sometimes just minimally avoiding failure is much more necessary and beneficial.

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Frank Lenk
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Hey, Bill... if you ever check back here, I just wanted you to know that Hellgate was one of my favorite games of the past five years. Thanks for making it!

Unlike a lot of other gamers, I went in with zero expectations... and ended up loving every minute. I particularly liked the fact that you offered huge amounts of play time, instead of insanely varied graphics. Most games today are just TOO SHORT; you can't get properly immersed in the environment or the play mechanics. For me, Hellgate hit the sweet spot: just enough action, role-playing and storytelling. Great atmosphere; just-right level of complexity. In fact, a near-perfect game. I'm still re-re-playing it, and expect to keep doing so for many years.

Hellgate belongs up there in the hall of lost classics with games like System Shock 2, that missed their audience perhaps exactly because they broke so much new ground. Don't ever believe that the lack of commercial success implies you were on the wrong track creatively! Me, I'll be waiting for the world to wise up enough so you can do Hellgate II.