With massively successful PC MMO World of Warcraft celebrating its fifth anniversary, and the overarching Warcraft real-time strategy game series its 15th anniversary, there's plenty to talk about. Of course, Blizzard's series of games has always been beloved by gamers, but matching the success that WoW has found in the marketplace is a task that few franchises are up to.
It's difficult to remember at times, but Blizzard had humbler beginnings. To chart a course all the way back to the company's origins, back when it published console game titles for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, Gamasutra spoke to Samwise Didier, the senior director of StarCraft II and art director of the first three Warcraft games, and J. Allen Brack, production director for World of Warcraft.
In this in-depth interview, the two reflect on the company's history, the evolving style of the Warcraft series, the position the company finds itself in in the overarching Activision Blizzard culture, and even the future of geek culture in the mainstream -- with video games and fringe film now at the top of the cultural heap in many respects.
One of the things that's most interesting about Warcraft is that it is borne entirely out of games, not an external license, and now is an extremely successful setting that spans genres. How does it feel to have helped create such a huge property?
Sam Didier: It's actually kind of like watching your child grow. I've fathered many illegitimate children, Warcraft being one. You create this thing, and you have all kinds of great hopes for it, but you never really know how far it's going to go.
Warcraft started out as this small game. Not a lot of people knew about it, but the people who did were really into it. I took a lot of pride in that. And now that it's kind of grown into this gigantic, nation-wide, worldwide entity, it blows my mind that there are people out there who know more about this game than I do. They'll let me know when I'm incorrect. When I'm stating some fact about the Warrior class, they'll go, "Oh no, that got changed in this patch." "Oh. Okay."
It's really a cool feeling, though, to know that something that we created here as a bunch of dorky guys and girls could become something everybody knows about. When we first started making the games here, people would always ask us if we made Street Fighter or if we made Doom. And nowadays, when someone finds out that I work in the game industry, they go, "Oh, did you work on World of Warcraft?" I always say, "No, I didn't work on it," because otherwise I'd spend the next three or four hours arguing about how come we changed this spell or altered that class.
So, your answer hasn't changed, but your reasons have.
SD: Yeah. [laughs]
J. Allen Brack: For me, it's pretty humbling, honestly, to be part of something so huge. In terms of Blizzard games, I have only worked on World of Warcraft. I worked at other places before, but I was always a fan of the Warcraft series. I learned how to use a null modem cable for Warcraft 1.
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans
Same here. My friend and I used to play Warcraft 1 all the time via null modem.
JAB: Yeah, exactly. So, for me, it's been really a dream to be able to play the Warcraft games for so long, and then to work on World of Warcraft. It's very humbling and very much a dream job.
Sam, you've been at Blizzard since before Blizzard even moved into PC games, right?
SD: Yeah. The first games I worked on were like Lost Vikings and Rock 'N Roll Racing -- all of our Nintendo and Sega games.
So as someone who was involved in the art direction of Warcraft for its entire history, I'm curious how much intention you guys had behind the evolution of its tone. From the original game through Warcraft III, then WoW, there's been a big shift -- more exaggerated and stylized, for one thing. Were you consciously trying to distinguish it from its influences?
Sam Didier: The influences are pretty clear -- Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings. We're all big comic book fans. But the actual art style evolved more out of us being comfortable making our own games. When we first started with Warcraft on the PC, people said that nobody on the PC liked action games or anything like that. They were saying, "Oh no, the PC audience is older, and they like slow-paced games and more realism in the graphics and storylines."
So we started off with Warcraft being kind of tame. It was a little bit more like medieval Europe -- your classic castles and farm buildings and stuff like that. Once that games were a success, we kind of started putting a little bit more of our own flavor into it. Warcraft II had a lot more humorous elements.
I remember the Orcs got more defined in that respect.
SD: There was a lot more non-typical European kind of medieval chivalry-type stuff. That's when we started throwing in ogres and dwarves and goblins and elves. And as we progressed to the [Warcraft II] expansion and Warcraft III, we really started asking, "You know what? What do we want to do with this? How do we want this style to go? We've pushed the comic book look, the bolder colors, into it. What do you guys want to do?"
That's when we really started pushing the art style we wanted, because we knew that the first couple games were successful and that we had a fan base. Now we didn't have to hold our cards close. We could kind of just start doing the crazy things we wanted to do. Hero [units] were coming out and there were all sorts of other things like that, so we really got to flex our creative juices.
But we always had bulkier, heavily-proportioned guys, and the colors, I think, were more primary -- reds, blues, yellows, things like that. We didn't have too much dull gray and dull brown. It was a little more vibrant, I believe, from the beginning.
At that time, J, you were working at Origin, followed by Star Wars: Galaxies, right?
Can you speak to how your experiences on those games led you to Blizzard, and what you've brought to World of Warcraft?
JAB: Definitely. I actually got into the game industry shortly before Warcraft 1 came out. It was one of the first big games that I remember playing.
Descent had come around at that time, and Doom II had come out around that time, and those were the three games we were playing. I had also played Dune II, the real-time strategy game Westwood made, and thought that was really great, so I was excited about the real-time strategy genre.
I started at Origin and worked on Wing Commander games, and eventually got to working on an online Wing Commander game with some people who had worked on Ultima Online.
We had them come over to be the online experts, and we had some people come over from the Wing Commander team to have the Wing Commander expertise, and the idea was we were going to make an online Privateer-style game. That was really exciting.
So this was after the EA acquisition.
JAB: Yes. The EA acquisition happened for Origin a lot sooner than people remember. EA purchased Origin in 1992. But that was the first time I ever really got into online games. I had been bigger into BBS games. But then Ultima Online came out. I played a good amount of that. I got into online games then, and I've worked on online games ever since. I was part of the startup for [Sony Online Entertainment's] Austin studio. We worked on a game that became Star Wars: Galaxies.
They're really an exciting type of game to work on. They have a lot of different problems to solve. I like solving problems. My job is very much solving problems, and online games seem to have more problems than most to be solved. [laughs] There are plenty of opportunities to feel like, "Hey, I did some good here."
Shipping an online game is a huge achievement, and you definitely learn a lot. I think that experience of game development as well as running the live game for Star Wars led to Blizzard being interested in me. I played World of Warcraft when it game out, and I loved the game. I was a big player before I even came to Blizzard.
Does it ever get frustrating to go such long periods of time between release? Blizzard has a reputation for taking its time, but there was about a decade or so where the company created several new franchises and released games and expansions on at least a fairly regular basis.
SD: No. To me, we've always taken our time making games. Back in the day, with Warcraft, it was a year to develop the game. Now it's multiple years. But a lot of it deals with how much we can actually put into the game. With the old Nintendo stuff, you only had so much space. The game was done when you were out of space. But now the game is done when we say it's done. We can put as much into it as we want.
It was nice back then being able to work and finish games and crank them out, but now it's like working on a giant masterpiece. Everything that we're making, we want to be as good as any of our other games, so we have to make sure that we put all the love and dedication into it.
You can't really rush that and expect it to be a super game, something that people will be playing for five years, that people will be playing for ten years. Whatever the drawbacks are for taking a long time, I think they're worth it. The longevity of the games is more important to me.
And you're primarily working on StarCraft II now?
SD: Yeah. StarCraft is my main focus. I'll still, every once in a while, get asked to work on certain other things, but it's not really on World of Warcraft anymore. That team has got the ball rolling. Everything is awesome over there.
JAB: We look at Sam as kind of our grandfather consultant [laughs]. He comes in and helps out with very specific things or ideas or things like that to make sure we're staying true.
World of Warcraft is its own beast, but StarCraft II will be the first other game Blizzard has released during this console cycle. There aren't as many big high-budget tent-pole PC strategy releases this time around. Is that on the team's mind much?
SD: I'm sure the PR and marketing guys think about that more than I do. StarCraft's taken so long to make, and we also had to work on Warcraft III and [its expansion] The Frozen Throne in between the release of StarCraft [and StarCraft II], not to mention WoW and various other projects. I just don't really worry about when it's going to be released, or if it's been ten years from this and that.
We're working on games and having fun working on the games. It's usually marketing that's pushing with, "Well, you know, it's been so long since this game came out." We were like, "Well, we're currently working on Warcraft III. We can't work on StarCraft right now. How about when Warcraft III is done, we'll start on StarCraft II?" "Okay."
JAB: There are a lot of different ways to run your game business. Blizzard definitely has the philosophy of, "Make a game that the team is really excited about working on, and you're going to get a great product. If you have a great product, then it's going to do well." That's the way Blizzard has chosen to be successful.
Having been a company that, for almost all of its life, been a subsidiary of various larger companies, do you ever get the sense that that's something that your given parent company has to adjust for? Internal teams usually aren't given that flexibility. Do you think you're at a point now where you've just demonstrated it will pay off, and they'll leave you alone?
SD: Yeah, definitely. [Blizzard co-founders] Frank [Pearce] and Mike [Morhaime] like to say that they've had half a dozen different bosses over the last fifteen years or so, and that with each of them, they have to sit down and have the discussion: "This is our philosophy. This is what we want to do. This is how we want to do it. And this is the past success we've had following the model."
Like J. said, there are a lot of different ways you can be successful, but luckily, the various different companies that have owned Blizzard have respected that and seen Blizzard grow under their watch, as it were, time and time again.
I think a lot of it is definitely the history and the reputation. We have this legacy and we have this brand following and brand loyalty. That plays into it as well.
JAB: I think as long as we're releasing such awesome games, I think we don't have to [worry]. When we release a bad game, then I think we might have to be worried about more management from above, but we haven't.
As long as we have enough time to make a great game, it's been proven that that game is going to be played for longer than the number of years it took to develop.
The whole Blizzard philosophy is that the Blizzard brand is the most important thing. We want to make sure that no matter what game we ever release, that the player perspective is, "This has Blizzard on it. I don't need to know what's inside. I know it's going to be a great experience."
That's probably gotten a boost from World of Warcraft. There are a lot of people who never played a Blizzard game before that.
JAB: I would definitely agree. I think it's generated a lot of interest in other Warcraft games, and Diablo or StarCraft or other games Blizzard has worked on over the years. With WoW in particular being online, there are a lot of people where it was the first video game that they ever played, which is really mind-boggling.
How invested do you feel in the broader PC market? Blizzard's safety is probably not in question, but do you worry about a less vibrant PC ecosystem going forward?
SD: I don't see the PC market as being bad. I mean, we didn't have 12 million players ten years ago. Whatever the format, console or PC, I think if there is a good game, it's going to be played. We're working on PC because it's familiar to us and it's relatively easy and it's not changing formats every other year and there aren't three different versions. Console, we have to worry about [those things]. I think the PC is really a good market to target.
JAB: It's obviously because we've made only PC games for the last 15 years, but there's a perception, I think, that Blizzard is anti-console, and that's absolutely not the case. We just want to make the right game for the right platform. Think about StarCraft II. Some real-time strategy games have tried to happen on the console. Some of those have been successful, but overall, our experience is that it's going to be a better game on the PC, ergo it's developed on the PC.
It's very similar with World of Warcraft. We developed the game for the PC. It's a very PC-centric control scheme and the way of playing the game is PC-centric. But we're a company of gamers. I have two consoles at home. Sam has consoles. We're a culture of gamers. We will definitely work on a console game at some point. I have no doubt about that. It's just [a matter of] what game. What makes the most sense?
Are you working on one now?
SD: About seven actually. [laughs] We've got StarCraft 17 in the works.
JAB: That's on the Xbox 870, right?
JAB: And World of Lost Vikings. We announced that at Worldwide Invitational Paris a couple years ago.
That one didn't get much pickup in the press, for some reason.
JAB: Probably because it was French.
It's definitely the case though that the PC is changing. It's going in an even more heavily online direction, but in some cases that means away from the traditional core packaged goods business.
JAB: I think we agree with that. And I don't actually think that that's a bad thing. It's one of the strengths of the platform, right? With the introduction of broadband, with the near-infinite hard drive space that everyone has, with the huge amounts of memory, it makes sense that you would play to the platform strength.
So, yeah, PC gaming has definitely changed. Now, to be fair, I've been reading in various magazines and websites that they're very convinced for more than 10 years that PC gaming was dead.
JAB: And here we are still, increasing the number of Blizzard fans on PC.
SD: Or making zombies.
JAB: Let's talk about that. That's a good point.
SD: It's awesome.
JAB: But I think that, looking at the history, every two years there was the article saying, "This thing has happened on the console that's going to make PC gaming die." And then PC gaming always seems to figure out a way to reinvent itself -- either through MMOs or online games or other things that have a strong multiplayer component, or just the superior keyboard and mouse control scheme.
The way you were describing development, it sounds like you have one team that's largely RTS-focused, having gone from StarCraft to Warcraft III to StarCraft II.
SD: No, the way it started is the team that I'm on is called Team One, because it was the first team we had here. That team worked on the bulk of Nintendo and Sega games, then Warcraft, StarCraft, Warcraft III.
And we did have Blizzard North; that was our dedicated Diablo team. But when World of Warcraft was starting, some of the artists from [Team One] moved over to starting up that team, so the [World of Warcraft team] got founded as Team Two. Then the Diablo team is Team Three.
We also have about seventeen other teams that are working on super secret things that we can tell you about later if the price is right. [laughs]
But because we've worked on RTSes, it doesn't necessarily preclude us from working on anything else. It's just that after StarCraft, we wanted to hit up Warcraft again. And after Warcraft, we wanted to go back and see StarCraft.
I don't know what the calling will be after we finish StarCraft II, but by then it will be about 2020 [laughs]. So, we'll have to see how that goes.
Will there be a Warcraft IV?
SD: We haven't actually done any talking about it, but who knows? With the way Blizzard runs its studios, the team leadership is really in charge of what that team does.
And there's obviously a lot of input. We've got [creative director] Chris Metzen and [game design executive VP] Rob Pardo, who have a lot of opinions, and Frank Pearce, who has a lot of opinions about what we should be doing.
The bottom line really is that things that the team is excited about turn out great. So whenever StarCraft II is done, that team will start brainstorming about something they want to figure out and see what they get excited about, and that's probably what they will end up working on, because it takes a lot of energy and it takes a lot of effort to make games. It's really the passion you have, the success that you want to receive from that product that really makes it an awesome experience.
I've gotten the sense from various statements made by [Activision CEO] Bobby Kotick that he'd like to capitalize more on the PC in the future -- in part because of its lack of platform royalties and oversight by a platform holder -- but in general Activision is geared much more towards understanding the console market. With Blizzard now being part of the family, do you guys do any consulting along those lines for the parent company or other studios?
JAB: We do talk with other studios. Activision is a big company and has a lot of smaller studios underneath the Activision umbrella. We meet with guys from those studios from time to time. We met with the Infinity Ward guys. We met with the Guitar Hero folks. It's more an informal get-together than it is any kind of, "Let's chart the course for the PC for the next five years type of thing." It's more just organic things.
People from Blizzard have said when they started working on World of Warcraft, they were targeting subscriber counts of a few hundred thousand or so, because that was what had been previously demonstrated in MMOs. Why do you think Blizzard's success has been so uniquely massive in the traditional subscription-driven space?
SD: I can tell you that, dealing with dark powers, we've made allegiances with things that we probably shouldn't, but we don't talk about that. He who shall not be named has told me not to talk about it.
Really, it's kind of a stupid answer, but I think Warcraft is just an easy world to get into. Everybody knows some little bit of fantasy, whether it's from playing Dungeons & Dragons when they were kids, or reading Lord of the Rings. It's a pretty simple world to get into immediately. As far as the game itself, the reason why it's so popular is it's just a fun game. If the game sucked, no one would be playing it. It's just a fun game.
JAB: I think the archetypes for fantasy games are well known. Our generation has kind of grown up, as Sammy said, with D&D and Lord of the Rings. It's really weird as a kid to be the outcast.
SD: Outcast is a little cool and powerful. I'd say the dork, the geek.
JAB: Okay, to be surrounded by other geek guys who were looked upon with disdain. Being that guy as a kid, and then growing up, we've [seen] the rise of geek culture and the takeover of geek culture -- shows like Fringe and Heroes that could never have existed on TV just a few years ago. Movies like Dark Knight and Iron Man. Things that, years ago, would've bombed. The generation is starting to be itself and be part of the world. Here's a game that really resonates with a lot of people who had that experience.
You also now have generations growing up who, even if they don't have experience with those particular things, are born into a world where there have always been video games.
SD: We're making babies, and our babies will continue on in our legacy.
JAB: Yeah, I think that's the maturing of the game industry. The generation that is here now is the first gamer generation that was there from the beginning, that remembers a time when there were no video games.
Now they're in this epoch where there are video games. Life and culture have changed as a result of that. It's hugely significant. There's no one being born now into a world where video games didn't exist. For them, video games are just like TV. They're just like radio. They're just like movies. It's not a new or special thing. It's just another form of entertainment.
We're getting really philosophical here!