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In-Depth: Sams Talks The State Of Blizzard

In-Depth: Sams Talks The State Of Blizzard Exclusive

July 1, 2008 | By N. Evan Val Zelfden, Staff

July 1, 2008 | By N. Evan Val Zelfden, Staff
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Paul Sams is the chief operating officer at Blizzard Entertainment, the billion-dollar-a-year developer of the Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo franchises.

If Blizzard is seeing any corporate pressures by the higher-ups at the forthcoming new company that bears its name, the studio isn't showing it.

Both of its current upcoming major projects, StarCraft II and Diablo III are exclusive to PC and Mac, and both are ambiguously releasing whenever Blizzard feels they should release - both traits fairly at odds with console-oriented, shareholder-driven Activision.

During the company's Worldwide Invitational in Paris, Sams sat down with Gamasutra for a one-on-one chat, in which he explained why Blizzard will never make a kids'
game, why it "absolutely would" make another MMO but doesn't feel much pressure to move over to consoles, and how the idea of a new franchise is "very intriguing" - so much so that Sams states, "I would absolutely say we will at some point."

Is Diablo III going to have subscription elements, or just be a boxed product?

PS: Well, it's going to be a co-operative game much like Diablo II in the way of the networking gameplay experience, but as it relates to what the business model is and those types of things, what you find with Blizzard is we don't really get into those types of things until quite late in the development process.

Right now, we're really focusing on gameplay, and trying to figure out exactly what the overall experience is going to be, and the whole gameplay progression and everything. And how the game's going to work on, and what the feature system will be there.

Traditionally, what we really try and focus on doing is making a great game, and then we try to wrap the business model around it. But the business model is never - and I know it may seem funny to hear us say that - but it's never in the forefront of our minds. We really are focused on the game.

Like the WoW business model, as an example, we didn't determine what that was going to look like and what that was going to be, until quite late in the game. We didn't finalize what that was going to look like until the last six months prior to launch.

And I would expect with Diablo III and StarCraft II and anything that we do in the future, we'll approach it similarly where we really focus on the game and then talk about what the business model will be.

Have you been considering free-to-play for World of Warcraft, and if you did, what would the Blizzard way of free-to-play look like?

PS: I don't envision us changing the business model for World of Warcraft. It's been working really well in each of the markets.

The game has been designed in such a way to where we determined the business model to wrap that around what the game experience was. Given that we're not looking to significantly modify the overall gameplay experience, which is I think is something you'd need in order to do item-based stuff, what that says to me is the business model's going to remain the same for WoW, and then as new products come about for Blizzard, we'll look at what the business model is that's right for each of those games.

If we make a game that's right for an item-based game, then we would do that - if it's the right business model. But really, the game drives what the business model is. And WoW has been built in such a way where I don't think that would be the way we'd go.

For World of Warcraft, do you know the average operational cost per user, and do they increase?

PS: I do know the answer to that. However, we don't traditionally provide that level of detail on what our operational costs are per subscriber.

What about scale? Have you found that more and more users make it cheaper, or do more and more users actually make it more complex and potentially expensive to manage in the shorter-term?

PS: It kinda depends. When we reach certain thresholds where we have to buy more hardware, then you get bursts of significant costs, but as it relates to our on-going, day-to-day monthly recurring, it does go up as we have more subscribership and more concurrency. We have to add more customer service, so it does cost, but it's an incremental cost, because you do get some economies of scale.

What about console and handheld development in the post-Activision merger world? Is Blizzard going to be doing more of that?

PS: I think a similar answer to the earlier question. We determine the game we want to make and what the gameplay experience is going to be, and we look at what platform we think it makes most sense for.

In the event that we were making a game that we thought appropriate for console, and we thought the gameplay experience would not be deteriorated from what you'd experience on a PC, we'd certainly explore that.

I don't think that we're intimidated by doing something on consoles. Certainly with the merger with Activision, they have a tremendous expertise, and in our past we've done console as well. It's been a while. But we certainly have. And I don't think that's something any of us are concerned about trying to do. It's just a question of what platforms the games make sense on.

If the gameplay makes sense to be on one of those other platforms, we would do it. But I don't think that because of the merger or any other reason we're saying to ourselves, "Well, geez, now we need to go into consoles."

It would only be if the game's appropriate. It wouldn't be because of corporate pressures of anything like that. We will have to want to make it for the platform and the game will have to be suited appropriately.

With World of Warcraft would you want to do handheld games, or maybe even a youth-focused version?

PS: I don't envision us ever doing a children's-based spin-off. That's not really something I can envision, because we really try to hire our core demographic of people.

We ask, "What is it that you'd play next?" And no one's raising their hand to say, "I want to make a kids' version of it." That isn't something that they're geeked up about.

Our feeling is that if you're going to have people put a number of years of their life, and they're going to put their blood, sweat, and tears into the development of the game, they better believe in it, and want to play it, and it's going to be a passion of theirs. And if it's a kid's game - unless that's what they're really into - then it's not going to be great.

Have you thought about possible ways to monetize and integrate mods in your games?

PS: It's certainly something that we've talked about. I think we're looking at the different mods that are coming out - and there are some that are quite good, and I think we'll see some of the things they do integrated into the games.

As it relates to the monetization, we're trying to figure out how it is that we might be able to make that more prominently available to our customers, because some of them are quite good. So, we're exploring that. We don't have anything to share quite yet. I think there's some possibility we can make those available.

What about the user-generated content from Spore and LittleBigPlanet, where it's going to be very automatic, very networked, very ranked and judged? You don't really have to do anything to get the content other people have made.

PS: Well, I would say, if we make those more available and work with the community - if we were to do such a thing - we would make it as seamless as possible. I think it's a bit too early to say what, if any, plans we have about that type of thing. But I can definitely say we're exploring, and looking at it, trying to figure out if there's a way.

At the Paris GDC, Rob Pardo said that he felt Microsoft could be doing a much better job promoting the PC. What type of things are need from Microsoft to make the market grow?

PS: Well, their gaming focus is very much on the [Xbox] 360. And that makes sense, cause they're a hardware manufacturer as well as a software developer. And so they've got a lot of money and investment tied up in that system.

Certainly they have a lot in Windows. And Windows is a system that supports all the business applications as well as games. And I kind of look at it and say to myself, and I think similarly to Rob, is that it would be great if they put more emphasis on the Windows operating system, certainly the most prominent operating system in the world. Even more so than console boxes.

And they own and operate that system, so having them put more energy and effort against it - and they would say that they are, but I think that there's more that can be done.

It makes sense to me, what they're doing - they're putting their energy and focus against the 360. That's where their huge R&D dollars are that they have to earn out on, and that's where I think their gaming bread and butter is right now.

Will Blizzard ever tackle the high-spec PC market, or will you always continue to develop for the lower end?

PS: We don't chase the technology, we focus on making great games that have broad, massive appeal. In order to reach that audience, you have to keep the system requirements down.

I don't want our customers to be in a situation where they have to upgrade their computers every time a game comes out. When you have in mind that you want to make games that are accessible to a broad group, and that's viewed as a priority for everyone from the top and bottom of the teams, you can achieve those things.

Would you ever consider developing an additional MMO?

PS: Honestly, it all is a matter of the game - a game we want to make and a game we want to play. If we came up with an idea, and we came up with a gameplay experience that was most appropriate to have as an MMO, then we absolutely would. We're not afraid to do it.

You wouldn't worry about cannibalizing your market?

PS: Certainly we'd think about those types of things. We'd be mindful of it. But I don't think that we would say, "We're going to do another MMO. Let's do one exactly like this."

There would be some level of enthusiasm and desire from our teams to try and differentiate - they wouldn't try to walk in the shadow of WoW, they'd want to do something that would be different. I think we've proved we're not a one-trick pony.

Blizzard has very strong IP, but it also seems like all of it was created in the last century.

PS: First of all, that's true that we've not introduced any new franchises this century. I think what it really comes down to is, we ask the teams what they want to make next.

I think the folks at our company are concerned, if they're going to do a new franchise, that it be worthy - and that it be something that is equivalent or better than what we've done before, because they don't want to do a franchise that's not.

These are three of the best-selling franchises of all time, and very well-loved. So you've got a pretty high bar of trying to figure out what those franchises might be.

What I will say, though, is that the idea of a new franchise is very intriguing to employees of the company. Are we ever going to release a new one? I would absolutely say we will at some point. I just don't know when that day will be quite yet.

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