Think every aspect of your game play has to be customized for regional players? Blizzard disagrees, and in his keynote for the Austin GDC, president Mike Morhaime discussed this and other lessons learned throughout the company's release history.
Morhaime's keynote speech focused on the ten lessons Blizzard has learned in globalizing its IP, and started with a brief rundown of the company history, starting with him and his 2 recent UCLA graduate friends in 1991, and the $10,000 each they got as graduation presents or borrowed from their grandmothers.
Blizzard: The Beginning
Cutting their teeth and learning about game development by doing Amiga and Mac conversions of PC games and moving to 16 bit console titles, the decline of the console market focused the company on PC games, where it began with Warcraft.
World of Warcraft, said Morhaime, has "really transformed the company in ways we couldn't possibly have imagined at the time, but through that process and all these years, we've really stayed committed to the same core philosophies that we were committed to at the beginning."
First and foremost was "gameplay first," "one of our mantras," said Morhaime, and though he admitted it wasn't going to be a design talk as with the previous Austin GDC, "I should say right off the bat that if we don't get this part right, none of the rest of this matters."
Morhaime said Blizzard uses a model of the market of a donut, with core gamers in the middle -- the opinion makers, and casual players as the ring around.
"In order to be real successful we want to hit both of those markets," he said, achievable by trying to build games "deep and replayable while being accessible to wide market," through low system requirements, and the separate mantra, "easy to learn, difficult to master."
On Brand Protection Above All
The next philosophy is to "build and protect the brand" -- "The Blizzard name is our most important property," he said, and it stands for "high quality, fun, and polish." The company thinks of its brand as a bank account, constantly trying to "make 'brand deposits' and avoid 'brand withdrawals.'"
Next, Morhaime said the company always resists the pressure to ship early. Pressure, he said, comes from all around to ship the game as soon as possible, something Blizzard tries to resist as shipping early is "very risky," and, referring to the last point, "shipping a game early can do tremendous damage to a brand or a franchise."
He pleaded that the industry "think long term" and said "shipping early and losing players is very short term mentality." The company fought this battle in 1996 when Diablo missed its holiday release schedule, which, in the end, perhaps impacted day one sales, but went on to sell well throughout 1997.
"Nobody looks back at Diablo and says 'if only they'd released it 3 weeks earlier'," said Morhaime, and through that experience the company was able to educate its parent company that it's quality that matters -- something Blizzard had to deal with again as Burning Crusade missed its own holiday deadline.
Morhaime: Focus On Specifics
Next, Morhaime said developers should "resist the pressure to do everything at once": there's a lot of pressure to do everything, to compete everywhere, to not miss an opportunity, but he instead said to "build on your successes, gain expertise, then get more ambitious - if you try to do everything at once, your risk goes up at not getting anything right."
Morhaime then looked specifically at how Blizzard has evolved as a global company. When the company stated, the U.S. was its most important market, and it would complete a game in English and then go on to localize it for other markets.
It found, though, as Europe became more important, that the grey market of importers was having an impact on sales -- hardcore fans would have already imported the game on its U.S. release, so the company worked to shorten the delay between regional launches.
Asia developed quite differently, he said, noting that in the region game rooms were very important, with some 20,000 in Korea, and 200,000 in China. By contrast, he said, "there are about 30,000 McDonalds in the whole world," and said making sure your game operates well in game rooms is very important.
The 'Myth Of Regional Taste'
Morhaime then turned to the "myth of regional taste" -- something he said might be a controversial point. "You hear a lot of talk that the way to succeed internationally is to localize and customize your game for local tastes, to have people in each region to tell you local tastes, and that's the key. We don't think about it like that."
"We think there are different styles of play that exist everywhere, just in different concentrations," he continued, such as the prevalence of PVP versus PVE players in Korea, "but you still have both, and you still have both here."
Instead Blizzard takes the approach that there are different styles of play that exist everywhere, "so instead of creating 15 different versions, we look at what the different styles are and make sure the game provides something for the different styles," striving to "make everyone feel welcome in the game."
Morhaime did note that it was important to "think globally," noting its experience in adding a samurai panda race in Warcraft 3, upsetting Chinese players as they saw their own animal in Japanese garb. Blizzard quickly changed the race to wear Chinese armor and weaponry, and got a lot of appreciative response that Blizzard was actually listening.
Global thinking leads to global challenges, though, and Morhaime noted that the company was very wrong about its estimates of World of Warcraft demand, which it always considered would fall under the ceiling of Warcraft 3, previously its best-selling game.
"We had to stop shipping boxes to retail because we didn't have capacity to support them," he said, and immediately after launching the game Blizzard was "in the fire of trying to play catch up."
The Difficulties Of Scaling
That's when the company learned its next lesson that "HR is really important" in scaling up entire business overnight. Blizzard also found at that time that "running a MMORPG is not just game development."
Though it'd already had experience running BattleNet, "when you go to running a subscription based service with paying subscribers, it's really a whole new ballgame. We thought we understood this."
"It's all of these other things that impact players experience that are maybe just as important as the game itself," said Morhaime, saying the company had to "shift our mindset that we weren't just a game developer, we were a service company, and we needed to apply things that service companies do."
Those things included, most importantly, communication. Blizzard frequently had to deal with a doubly bad situation where the developers couldn't yet identify a bug, so therefore community managers couldn't relate the problem to players, falling into a "holding pattern of not saying anything, while the community is 'wigging out', which is what communities do when you don't talk with them."
Blizzard set up a process to keep both the community and international staff informed through formalized email lists, and by adding a "layer of people around the development team to keep internal people informed."
'Never Trust Version 1.0'
Next, Morhaime said the company strove to "avoid financial incentives," not internally but with this player. He said, simply, "What happens if there's a financial reward for doing something is many people go out and do that thing."
In the real world, he said, if it's possible to sell gold to make money, people will farm gold to sell, and of course this has implications in the game world as well. Between sweatshops to farm gold, trojans to steal accounts and stolen credit cards, all to sell gold and items to "rich Americans," Blizzard said it was the company's duty to "protect our players" and "minimize the financial rewards from behaving in this way," which he characterized as "a constant battle."
Morhaime concluded with his key point, that testing was also of the utmost importance, and to "never trust version 1.0." "Everyone at Blizzard tests," he said, from private alphas to public betas.
He said you will always "find out a few things you don't find out internally" through public betas, not just in server loads, but in what Blizzard refers to as "cheese."
"If there's a most efficient way to play the game that will get you accomplishments faster, that's what people will do, even if it's boring and tedious," he said. "They'll do it and think your game is boring and tedious and not fun -- try to eliminate those."
For the Burning Crusade launch, Morhaime said they applied all of the rules, padding forecasts for day one demand, and, happily, "This time we were prepared - servers withstood initial demand very well, and our customer service guys felt Burning Crusade launched like a very smooth patch release," the best case scenario for the company.