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Game development veteran Bill Roper played a key role in the rise of the seminal Warcraft and Diablo series throughout the 1990s, and then co-founded eventually ill-fated Hellgate developer Flagship Studios. Now at Cryptic Studios, he talks in-depth in a major Gamasutra retrospective interview.

May 15, 2009

28 Min Read

Author: by Ben Fritz

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.

It would seem like if you're not going to have a special process or something, then you have to have a lot of trust with the people, I assume. That can easily go awry...

BR: Yeah, and it's not that Blizzard was and certainly isn't at this point process-less, but we were never doing things like vertical slices, you know all these things that have become, in our industry, standard nomenclature. It was more about, "Is the idea for the game solid? Let's get something quick that we can look at out and prove to ourselves that it's going to be good, and then make it."

I think the tone of the things that I carried since that time to even now is, "What's the big picture goal?" Don't get mired down in things. Don't become a slave to a design document or an original idea if it doesn't work. You have to want to throw stuff out.

Like, "Yes, I know that skill or spell or item isn't working the way that you designed it in your head and intended to, but it's really fun, so let's leave that in," as opposed to, "Oh no, I've got to fix it. It's not doing what I thought it was going to do." I don't care. Is it fun? Is it enjoyable?

And is that based on trusting what you guys think is fun, or is that based on doing a lot testing, or more of both?

BR: Oh, it's both. It's always about interaction with the community. You know, as much time as you can be in beta testing is great. Getting in front of people. You always start with really, really friends-and-family stuff before the game's ready to be pushed out anywhere for people to see. You're getting people that you know to come in. "Hey, just play this, what do you think? Is it cool? Are you enjoying it?" You know, watching them play.

Taking the games to shows, that's another thing that Blizzard always did and still does. What a lot more companies do now is take the game to go to E3 and then send the developers to E3... To have the game up and running, and then watching people play it, really learning off of just seeing live user interaction.

And for you, in a position as a producer, it's got to be interesting. Usually I think of the producer as being the one who is like, "Well, we got a deadline at this date, we got this budget, and we gotta have a vertical slice done with this person." It seems like for the environment, it's got to be a very interesting job for the producer.

BR: Yeah, I mean you still have to do all those things -- not the vertical slice part -- we still had budgets to watch and dates to hit. I think that Blizzard is certainly an aberration. It's very difficult and dangerous for people to look at that and say, "Oh, we're going to use the Blizzard model," because you pretty much have to have absolute support from your parent company when you're starting. Blizzard now, they hire people to shovel money right into rooms. (laughs).

But back in the day, that wasn't the case, but there was always the support from when they were first acquired by Davidson & Associates, and Bob and Jan Davidson said, "Look, we just want you guys to do what you do; we just want you to do it for us. We'll make sure you have the support to do that."

I think that's a combination of being extremely fortunate in the ownership that's been over Blizzard over the years, the companies that owned them; and we always fought hard to maintain that. If we need another three months, six months, year, there had to be that trust there and that support from the people with the money to say, "Okay, we know that that's going to be important."

Was there anything specific as you got into World of Warcraft -- after the plenty years you'd been there at that point -- about MMO development? Were there specific lessons there that are different than the stuff you've been talking about? Because that's a longer process, and that's very different, creating a world...

roper_bill.jpgBR: I didn't work a lot directly on WoW. By that point, I had moved up to Blizzard North and was working on Diablo II, D2X, and then working on projects before we left. World of Warcraft was never... I don't think any game at Blizzard, we never sat around and said, "Oh, we're going to sell six million copies of the game."

I remember with World of Warcraft distinctly at one point, sitting around at a strike team meeting, a director's team meeting, looking at how long the game had been in development, and everything was saying, "You know, we're going to have to get a million users. We're never going to make our money back."

It was a huge investment. And I think the reason why, to be honest, was that we were building an MMO the same way we built the multiplayer games. It was a game in every way on a completely different scale, but we approached it the same way we approached it the same way we approached everything else. So, that meant that we didn't have the best tools.

The key was oftentimes a lot of dedication brute force as opposed to automated testing sweeps. "Yeah, okay, we need to have 140 testers that would commune 24/7 in shifts." The development team size ended up being over 100 guys. Especially at the beginning of Warcraft, there was no transition to "Oh, we're making an MMO, and this is how you make those," because there really wasn't "the way you made those."

There was really two or three that had any level of success in the U.S. It's kind of crazy to think back to it, but when WoW was getting ready to come out, the biggest American-made -- or probably Western-made, even -- MMO was EverQuest.

And I think their top at one point was like 345,000 subscribers. And here we were talking about -- because of the way development had flowed, doing it like we'd done everything else -- we were like, "God, we've gotta have like triple."

And with that, like, "Oh my God, what have we gotten ourselves into"?

BR: It definitely was. "How are we ever going to do that?" Then, it was like, "Wow, can we do that?" 300,000 was a ridiculous number. I think the downside now is that people look at the success of World of Warcraft, publishers or fans, everybody looks at the success of that, and they go, "Oh, well, a great MMO? That's 11 million."

No, that's one. That's one game that's done that. No one else in the West has been even close. And I think it's challenging from the standpoint that gets looked at as an expectation or a goal to hit. It's a totally ridiculous goal to try to be hitting. "Oh, we're gonna go build an MMO that's going to compete with that."

To skip around, and you can talk about it in terms of being in Cryptic now or Flagship or anything, but... For an MMO specifically, are there different scales of MMOs you can make, or does there, to a certain extent -- because it's massive, by definition it's a massive game -- does it have to be big and extensive and at least a few hundred thousand people?

BR: No, it can be all sizes. You look at a game like Puzzle Pirates, for example, right? That's an MMO, that's a really good game. I don't know the last time they put their numbers out, but I'm sure they could run along great with 30, 40,000 people. There are games that are MMOs, but they're just built to different scales with different audiences.

At Cryptic... we're tapping into a couple of specific genres. MMOs, which have gotten much bigger -- that's the other side of the World of Warcraft effect, there's a lot more people playing them and are interested in them. We're also tapping into the comics genre and superheroes and the interest in that -- again, another area that's seen a lot of rise in popularity with the movies that have come out.

If you look across the water, right over to Korea and China, they crank out MMOs like crazy. There's like a new one out every week or two, it seems. And they're of all sizes and all complexity levels. Some are really intense and really game mechanic-y and hard to even delve into; some are super simple that are designed for kids that are like 10-12 years old.

I think that there's a really broad range of MMO types that you can have out there, and that depending on how you've built it, how you've thought about it, you can have a "small" number of players doing that and have it be a completely sustainable business module.

NCsoft/Cryptic Studios' City of Heroes

When you look at your decision, the point that you left at Blizzard to start your own thing with other guys, is there a certain point for any developer in their career where you work high enough at an organization like Blizzard, and you sort of need to go off on your own? Is that what you'd say to anybody? You know, "You spend 10 to 15 years, you get confident, and then you have to start your own thing." Is that kind of how the industry works, or were there really specific circumstances?

BR: There were for us. We actually didn't think we were going to be leaving. Really, what happened was that there was... That was during a time when it was very unclear as to whether Vivendi was going to keep their games units.

You know, Jean-Marie Messier was the CEO of Vivendi in France, he was kind of being challenged. He had bought a lot of media companies and all these different things. And so they were trying to sell all those assets.

Was that around the time you sold Universal?

BR: Yeah, we sold Universal and all those things. So, they weren't sure they were going to get the games division they had, of which Blizzard was a big part. And literally, every week, we would hear rumors on the internet. The story I tell is that our guys came from Blizzard North this morning and are like, "Hey, we read on MSNBC today that Microsoft is going to buy us." And we were like, "We haven't heard anything."

And so, we would call down over to Irvine and talk with Mike Morhaime, and we were like, "Hey Mike, have you heard..." Mike's all, "No, I'll call Torrance." And then, so he calls the West Coast office, like, "We haven't heard anything," they call New York. And New York, like, "No." They call France. And so, we hear about it, and then like a day and a half later, literally the message we get back was, "They say you can't believe what you read on the internet." "Okay, well, should we believe this?" (laughs)

It got to the point where there was really no detailed communication coming out, we didn't know what was happening. It was amazingly distracting. We weren't getting good development work or anything out of our guys. Everyone was really nervous. At that point in time, there was nothing that could guarantee anybody being there.

No one had any golden handcuffs. No one had any non-competes or anything. Somebody could have bought us. Like, Turner Broadcasting could have bought us and said, "Hey, we really like these IPs that you have, but we don't want to get into games. And so, we're going to buy your properties and fire everbody." And there was nothing there to protect anyone.

We were really concerned about that. And so, David Brevik, Eric and Max Schaefer, and myself basically kept pushing for, you know, "We really need to be involved in what you guys are talking about, if you're meeting with potential publishers or talking about spinning the company as an IP or something. You need to have the executives involved in that."

To try to force that issue, to get them to talk with us, the four of us put in our resignation, with basically the trigger for us not to be resigning was to email us or phone call us, so like talk to us.

So like, just care.

BR: Yeah, just talk to us. A day and a half later, we heard back from that chain. Mike called me and said, "I'm supposed to come up Monday and get you guys cleared out." So, it wasn't like we really wanted to leave.

Right, it wasn't like you had this plan for this new company.

BR: Yeah, we didn't like, "Ah, let's go make..." We were trying to do the right thing for our guys and for the company in a very tumultuous time. That's five or six years now, five and a half years now.

You look at where Blizzard is now, it's like, "Oh, they'd never be sold," but no, Blizzard has been sold so many times. That was the joke, that every E3, there was a different owner name over the booth. You know, Davidson, then it was Havas, then it was CUC, then it was Cendant, then it was Vivendi, and just this chain of buyers.

Yeah, my sense is that the people surprised, most of anybody, was Vivendi a few years ago -- realizing this is an amazing asset.

BR: Yeah. So that's why we left. They basically said, "Well, okay, I guess we're taking your resignations." So, literally, the four of us met over the weekend totally shocked, like "Okay, well, what should we do? We're all out of work. What do you guys want to do?"

So we said, "Hey, let's start a new company." And that Monday was very difficult to tell all the guys, "We're not here anymore," these guys who we've been with for a long time. Some guys were there from when Dave, Eric, and Max started Condor, which became Blizzard North.

And I started getting phone calls from a couple people I knew on the news side, and I realized that when GameSpot called, I was like, "Oh, I need to have some way for people to contact us if we're going to actually start a new company." I mean, my Blizzard email was my email, and I did everything through that. So, I put my cell phone number, like, "Okay, here's how you can reach me. So, my cell phone became my company phone for those first months.

That couldn't have been annoying at all. (laughs)

BR: Oh, I would get calls at three in the morning, and I'd always answer them. I don't know, maybe it was an Asian publisher. One time, I answered the phone, "(Groggy voice) Hello, this is Bill." And I hear this, "Uh huh, I didn't think you'd actually answer."

It was like some fanboy, totally geeked out, just wanted to leave a message on the phone, and I'm answering it. He's like, "Whoa, that's really weird. But it was good because I really wanted to say that I really loved the games that you guys made, and I wish you a lot of luck on whatever you do next." It was like this really cool...

It definitely wasn't something where you have that thing like, "I've been here for this many years; I've gotta go and do this thing." It was a matter of circumstance.

Do you look at the Flagship experience as something that was really good and kind of went awry and "that's really sad"? Do you look at it as something that never really came together?

BR: That was some of my biggest highs and biggest lows in the industry. Things definitely were exciting and were really good about it, things that were ultimately big disappointments. Having to shut down a company was something I never had to do before.

It was a really dark time. It cost me a lot more than just the money we'd put into the company and things like that. It cost me a lot on a personal level with friends and loved ones that I wasn't able to keep in the process.

Since it was the first company that I'd run, I took it extremely personally. Now that I'm on the other side of it, I can look back at it and say, "Well, that's business; it happens. I'm not happy about it." I learned an amazing amount from the process. Those are things that I use everyday.

EA/Flagship Studios' Hellgate: London

So, what are a few of the biggest things that you think you learned in that process?

BR: I think a lot of it is just looking at business models that work and don't work, ways to interact with publishers that worked and didn't work, gameplay decisions that we made. Things like just doing far too much in our design, trying to do way too many things, trying to appease too many people and players.

But I think the biggest one that I learned, and it's very cliché, is that it's just a business. I was very personally, more emotionally invested in the company. And everyday when we were struggling to keep it open, the thought of "I'm going to let down a hundred people and let all these guys go," like, "I'm going to ruin their lives. I can't make this happen."

And so that was really hard. Being on the other side of it, I can look at that and say, "I learned a lot from this failure." Every week easily at Cryptic, if not every day, someone says, "Hey, we should do this." I'm like, "No, that won't work, and here's why it doesn't work."

Whether that's a design decision, something about a business model, or just like an academic discussion, I can say I have both sides of that coin now. I can say, "These are the things that were amazingly successful at Blizzard and how they worked. And these were the things that were amazingly unsuccessful at Flagship."

And so, I think I learned as much from the failure, if not more, than the successes. I think the biggest disappointment was how -- because it was my first time through -- how negatively that impacted my personal life. Now I can see that, you know. It's nice because I know that won't happen again. That's one of the things you learn from it.

We love what we do -- I think that everyone that you talk to, all the legends, everyone loves games. We're passionate about making games and making things that will make people happy. But at the same time, the more you do it, the older you get, and you realize, "But it's just a business. We're not sending people to the moon. We're not saving lives. We're not curing cancer."

If you fail, the world goes on.

BR: If you fail, the world goes on. But I think you have to have that failure that first time to realize that, and then you're able to, or at least personally I was able to take stock and say, "Okay, I can move forward then," and able to strike a better balance.

Thatis something that's very hard in this industry because we do get so passionate about it. You hear the stories of crunch time, working 18-hour days for weeks and months on end, that's because we want to put out something great.

Right, you feel ownership.

BR: Yeah, you feel ownership over it. But at the same time, you have to be able to step back and be able to at the end of the day step away from it. And that's the hard balance. I think that's what you see that I think a lot of us up here today [at a Westwood College-arranged event featuring 'game design legends'] as we were talking to the students, like, "I know it sounds really exciting and sexy and awesome to be in games, but there's a high amount of competition. People will put in whatever it takes to put in."

This is my fifteenth year this July. This July will be my fifteenth year in the industry, and I feel like I spent the first 14 or so climbing my way to the top and being competitive. Or maybe not at the top, but a place where...

Right, like you're a legend.

BR: Yeah. A place where I know what I'm doing and could be valuable wherever I go.

It seems like you feel a little bit more zen about when things are going to work out.

BR: Yeah, it's that and just because I think you have to be. Because if you don't, you'll eat yourself from inside, right? And I think that's especially more when you get to the top of a company, a development team, or a leadership position.

On the business side, if you're a company that's making MMOs and that's your business, what do you sort of see as the state of that? When I look at the problems that a lot of game publishers and with Warcraft gaining so many subscribers, I wonder if even in a recession, are MMOs a great place to be since they're such a good value for the money.

BR: It is.

And they're still super competitive, very capital intensive. Do you see this as a scary or tougher time than ever, or a better time to be doing MMOs as opposed to doing a simple console game?

BR: I think it's actually both. It's a scarier time more because of the competition and the level of expectation from gamers, to be honest in the economy. Publishers are going to roll dice on games.

They roll dice on games that they think are the good ones, whether that's a console title, whether that's a mobile app on the iPhone, whether that's an MMO on the PC, whatever that is. They're gonna pick the games that they think have the best opportunity to move a meter.

The frightening part is just the level of competition coupled with that expectation of players. We definitely saw that with Hellgate at Flagship. The game disappointed a lot of people. It wasn't horrible. It wasn't great, but it was a good game, it was solid, and it really failed out at filling up because the level of expectation based on the amount of...

Because of the competition, the amount of hype you're generating or press you have to do, and all those things to really get it into the consciousness of gamers, then it just keeps raising and raising and raising and raising that expectation.

I think there was also the fact that we were a bunch of ex-Blizzard guys and the guys who made Diablo. And so it's like, "Oh, this is gonna be the best game ever made." It was the best game we could make, but it didn't meet those expectations. And that is a frightening proposition because we spent the time we needed to, we spent the money on it. At the end, we needed more time than we had...

Did you feel like, a few months before, that this is maybe not going to be what you want it to be?

BR: Yeah, and I think everyone knew. But the publishers were kind of all in, financially. We were an independent company; we didn't have any more money to put into it. So, we did what we could and released it, and because it's a game that has an online life force, you keep hoping that you're going to be able to update it, which we worked hard at, but it couldn't sustain the company.

In terms of what we're doing now at Cryptic and what I do there now, I think it's great because yes, there's that competition. You're striving to make the best game that you can, but MMOs are such an amazing value proposition.

Yes, you're buying the initial product, but for the monthly fee that you pay, if you're paying 15 dollars a month, the amount of time you can spend with the social network and the community that you gain out of it is amazing. So, I think it's both. I really think it's both.

roper_atari.jpgI'll ask you one more question. It's about being part of Atari now. Were you guys definitely looking to be a part or feeling that was the place you need to be and talking to different publishers, or did Atari approach you somewhat surprisingly? And also I should ask that given Atari's history, were you surprised that Atari was in a position to come in and acquire you.

BR: Well, it was kind of interesting because when I started there, when I started at Cryptic, I went through the interview process, I talked with John Needham who's the CEO, Jack Emmert who's our CCO, Craig Zinkievich, who's the EP on Star Trek Online...

I met all the guys, and then took a position there, and the day I start, Jack was like, "Oh, by the way, we're probably going to get acquired by Atari." I had no idea. I was like, "Wow, that's awesome." I think that it was a really, really good move. The amount of support and stability that provides is great. The fact that Phil Harrison is running things there now is really great. He's a pretty amazing guy.

The long term vision and goals that Cryptic set forth for how they wanted to be online, having tools and engines and an online console platform that they're using, and all those things were perfectly in mind with what Atari wants to accomplish.

You know, Cryptic represents having something like half of the development size of Atari internally. So, it wasn't like being acquired by a gigantic megacorp. It was being able to come in and... I think that's probably one of the big reasons they chose to work with Atari, that we can come in and be significant.

And they have a lot at stake, obviously.

BR: Yeah, and so there is that highly invested interest that exists between both groups. We constantly sit around talking about "how can we cross promote with Atari?" You know, like, "Sure, let's promote Atari games on the Cryptic websites. Let's put Cryptic stuff on the Atari sites."

Because it's the goal of wanting to now be a part of that. And to be honest, being an old guy -- I actually had a Pong TV system when I was a kid and everything -- it's funny. It's kind of a geeky goodness to it. "I work for Atari! I work at Cryptic, but Atari is the parent company."

Yeah, despite everything they've been through, it's still a great brand, right?

BR: It is. I mean, it's amazingly well known. You see the logo. You can go buy an Atari shirt at Hot Topic.

Yeah, I think that's how they made half their money last year.

BR: (Laughs) Right. That's kind of the amazing part, that they've got people in place now that are saying, "We still have this amazing brand that people have known for decades. Let's remake it into what it was."

To have the opportunity to be a part of that is really exciting. It really feels like everyone at Cryptic and everyone at Atari -- everyone's dedicated to actually making that happen.

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