[EDITOR'S NOTE: Blizzard have asked Gamasutra to make it clear that this interview was conducted immediately before the mid-July announcement that the MMO has reached 9 million users, hence the mention of 8.5 million in Pearce's comments on this page.]
One of the most fascinating success stories, albeit the most-repeated, in recent years has been the expansion of Blizzard into the MMO space with the tumultuously successful World Of Warcraft, the largest worldwide success in the history of massively multiplayer games.
In fact, that product is so dominant that at times, it threatens to overwhelm the rest of the company's work, which includes seminal titles in the RTS and other franchises. Blizzard can also be publicity shy at times - which is why Gamasutra was fortunate to catch up with Senior Vice President Frank Pearce, one of the three founders of the original Blizzard (then called Silicon & Synapse) in 1991.
He was accompanied by Starcraft II producer Chris Sigaty, as they discussed the state of Blizzard's union in 2007, the next steps for the firm's MMO and RTS franchises, and just what else they might be working on in the mysterious back rooms of their Southern California HQ.
Where is World of Warcraft going to go from here? You know…you're the biggest fish in the pond right now, what do you do to expand from the pinnacle?
FP: For us, the most important customers are our current customers. So we want to keep doing live content updates. We've got some great content updates in the works - we want to continue providing live content updates for our current subscriber base.
As far as expanding though, that's a big undertaking because, you know, eight and a half million subscribers is a lot. There are some emerging markets that we are constantly evaluating, but if and when we'll hit that up is hard to say.
Do you think there will be a need for a World of Warcraft II? Or will it just be expansions for a long time?
FP: The game's only been out for about 2 1/2 years. So I think for the foreseeable future it’s going to be expansions as it relates to World of Warcraft. We haven’t even thought about the idea of a World of Warcraft II. I mean, we are all really invested in the game ourselves as well, we’re part of the community, we play the game. And we love it and we want to make sure that it has a long lifespan.
What would necessitate a sequel?
FP: What would necessitate a sequel? For us as gamers, we are making the games we want to play. So it would really be about the dev team, and if they said ‘OK, we just can't do what we want to do in regards to the Warcraft intellectual property with the current structure’. It would have to be a situation where we said: 'This is what we want applied to what we want to do, and we can't do it on the current framework’.
Who would you consider to be your actual competition?
FP: There's a lot of great stuff out there, and a lot of good stuff on the horizon. Certainly the Warhammer Online game has a lot of potential, Age of Conan, that looks like it has potential. There's some good stuff out there inbound so we don't spend a lot of time dwelling on what other people are doing. It’s more important that we feel that we're doing right by our customer base, regardless of what other people are doing.
That said, the competition is what's most healthy for the industry, because that's what drives studios to give their all to creating the best product a customer can get. So we embrace that philosophy. We want people to be doing great things within the industry because we’re gamers. We also know that it's what motivates us to deliver great product for our customers.
Do you think that any other online experience will be able to surpass that 9 million mark?
FP: I think it's very likely that some day that will happen, yes. I'm not quite sure when, not quite sure what, but certainly. The Internet is just exploding. I mean all the social communities, experiences. Just the whole virtual aspect of it all has really taken off, and the younger people are really embracing it. I mean, I'm old. I barely text message. This is what everyone's doing.
What do you think of the so-called casual MMOs, like Club Penguin and whatnot, those sorts of things? Is that a... certainly not a threat, because of the different market, but is it that…do you see that sort of thing expanding past the traditional lines of MMOs?
FP: I mean, yeah, something that is easily accessible and easy to get into is certainly something that can draw a lot of people to it, certainly. It’s the sort of thing that's going to introduce people to the whole online experience.
Is that anything that Blizzard is looking at?
FP: Not specifically. I mean, we want to add onto World of Warcraft, and I don't know if you've been up to the website recently, but we've got a component of the web site up called the Armory that we're growing. It's like the item database and the bestiary and all that sort of stuff. So we want to grow in terms of supporting World of Warcraft, but we don't have any specific plans for the casuals. We are experts in what we play, and we wanna play a more traditional sort of game, and not really casual stuff.
Do you find it difficult to design for massively multiplayer online environments? I mean, I know that you're not the designer necessarily. But, you know… constructing a world so that people are really going to latch onto it.
FP: Well, we are really blessed with the Warcraft franchise because it's been around for 13 years now. So in terms of creating a franchise that's going to be near and dear to the hearts of the people who play it, we have some of that to build off of with Warcraft. So we're really fortunate in that regard. In terms of designing an MMO, we don't have any shortage of ideas right now.
We’ve got a big laundry list of backlist features, things that we'd love to have the opportunity to do with World of Warcraft - and really, the challenge is to be able to do all of it. Because we have finite resources, finite in terms of personnel, staff, time, and money and everything. It's…we just can't do it all. So we have to start picking and choosing what to do for the game.
What was the biggest challenge when World Of Warcraft was actually being created for the first time, I mean from the development standpoint?
FP: Really the biggest challenge is…it's just a huge scope of content, and we were developing content in conjunction with the internal toolset that we use to create the content. So it's just really a challenge of creating all this content with finite resources and tools that are in a fledgling state and stuff.
Was there any point where you thought ‘this isn't going to work, no one is going to play this game’?
FP: I don't think we ever really felt that way. I was skeptical, but then when I started playing it… because I actually play single player experiences, old-school, you know, there's a beginning and there is an end, you put it aside and you move on to what's next. This sort of goes on in perpetuity, like ‘okay, what's compelling about playing a game in perpetuity?’
I was really skeptical, but once I started playing it, it was really fun and the… you know, I'm still playing the game. What I discovered is that the most compelling aspect of it is the whole social component. Like now if I log on to play, because I'm in a guild with several hundred people, if I log in to play, and I can’t find guildmates to share the experience with, its not nearly as compelling.
Yeah, I'm actually one of the people kind of like that. I pretty much only play single player or two player head-to-head type stuff. Do you think people like me will ever be lured over?
FP: When I play the experience from leveling up from [level] 1 to 60, it really appealed to that sort of single player old-school component that I'm used to. But then when I hit 60, I started doing more social stuff and raiding and all that sort of stuff. And then when I went back to the level-up curve from 60 to 70, it was much more interesting with people that I've been doing stuff with while I was in the 60s.
So I think if you picked it up and played the 1-to-60 experience, I think that would appeal to what you’re used to. So this is the factor of giving it a shot. One of the real factors is the time investment. The single player experience, especially for like, a console game, is 10, 12, 15 hours, and the level-up from 1 to 60, even the most expert players take like, seven days of play time to achieve that, so...
Many people such as myself actually have time to play on the train on my way to work - would you guys ever consider a handheld or portable version of the franchise? Now that all the consoles are online. I mean the handheld consoles, most of them are online.
FP: This is the sort of idea we’ve heard, but nothing we've pursued with any particular interest, because like I said, we've got such a backlog of other features that we want to get through. That would be really ambitious.
How far do you think the World of Warcraft market can expand? Subscriber-wise, is the sky the limit?
FP: No, I don't think the sky's the limit, eight and a half million is a lot and it's a lot of work for us. But it would be really exciting if we could hit 10 million - not sure if that's possible. We'll have to see.
Are your tools in-house, or do you license tools as well?
FP: It's a mixture right now - right now our artists are using 3DSMax to model. But the level design tool are in-house. We don't have a lot of middleware in the engine - we have some elements, like the sound engine is FMod, and I think we use DivX too. So we have some stuff, but nothing integral to the graphics pipeline or anything like that.
There's been somewhat of a history of server problems as the game grew so aggressively - are those all over and done with, or with 8.5 million people, are the risks even higher?
FP: Those are all over and done with. The servers are running stable. When we were having those problems, some of the servers that were having the biggest problems were in the realm that I was playing on. So if I got home to play in the evening and I couldn't play, I would come in to the office the next morning, and the same for the rest of leadership department, people would hear about it.
But the thing that happened was, we planned for a capacity in the first year, in North America, of like 450,000 - in that range, in the first year. We exceeded that capacity in the first month, so we were playing catch-up for months and months after launch. But with the launch of Burning Crusade, it went really smoothly - we planned well in advance for having a lot of people online, and with the capacity we have now on the servers are pretty stable.
I remember back in the day, we were saying, ‘what are these guys doing with all these millions of dollars?’
FP: We were spending it! We were spending it on servers, but it's not something you can snap your fingers and deploy, there is a lead time to get the hardware and you have to send guys out to install it, and so on. But we definitely invested a lot into upgrading our infrastructure to the point where we’re at today. It's a situation where when it's working really well - everyone just takes it for granted. No one says: ‘Wow, the WoW servers are so stable, this is awesome.’ It just works, and they take it for granted and if it doesn't work, it’s all you hear about. So it's a thankless situation.
There's other things, that on a smaller scale, you see this too - one of them when you talk about like a real-time strategy game like Starcraft 2 is the pathing, the pathing AI. If it works really well, everyone takes it for granted, if it's not working well, everyone fusses about it. So the poor guys working on pathing is like a thankless job, because it’s a really tough problem and so if they do the job well, they don't hear anything, but if they're doing the job poorly all they get is guff for it.
Chris Sigaty: I guess that's kind of true across-the-board, nobody commends you for an awesome save system in a single player experience. But if it sucks then you hear about it.
So, Starcraft 2. Obviously, announced in Korea…what have you taken from the Korean market? I mean obviously, Starcraft is still going ridiculously over there. Have you taken a lot of feedback from that region?
CS: I think definitely more recently, it was…it totally caught us off guard completely with the original Starcraft and the reason we launched in Korea was a sort of nod, in recognizing that community. It's definitely on our radar, we have Blizzard Korea, we've opened offices there, because we they're a very important part of our fan base and community.
FP: I would add actually on that point, the competitive gaming component in Korea is huge. So what we're talking about, what we take away from Korea as far as that market. We always contemplated what we’re going to be doing as far as e-sports go in the context of games, because it's huge there.
CS: Yeah, but we didn't set out to make Starcraft knowing that was going to happen. It happened with Starcraft. Certainly you’ve seen it with World of Warcraft. It's definitely the biggest there… I don’t know if you want me to go to detail there, but they are setting the standard I think for where e-sports and competitive gaming is going and where it should go.
These guys, Frank and I were out at the original worldwide invitational announcement as well and it's the most amazing… I love to watch it. It's amazing, they're not just physically amazing that they're hitting keys as quickly as they are and physically doing things in the game in ways that we never could've anticipated. But it's also how quickly they are intellectually making decisions strategically - thinking, making changes just literally on a moment's notice, it's totally phenomenal.
I was wondering if you took anything from that for Starcraft 2?
CS: Absolutely, we are definitely considering that community. In fact, with Blizzcon, we let the community at large play: anybody that attends and also the pro gamers. And of course we’re not an internal outfit; we will do a beta of the project. So we’ll definitely be hitting up that community solidly for feedback and such.
Are you concerned at all about, when people are at that level…they are used to exact, slight timing of key presses and stuff like that. Is that something you have to take into consideration?
CS: Absolutely, and that's why we want to get that feedback. We actually have a pro gamer on our team who played in Korea with original Starcraft. Those things are super important to us; user interface is really key to some of the things that they're doing so, yes we are definitely considering that.
I've been wondering this kind of globally, and since Starcraft is pretty much the biggest example you can point to: do you guys get any kind of money or influence… any money from or influence on those shows that happened? Like I heard about the 24-hour Starcraft tournament…
CS: For us, I think it's really not directly, but for us it's just being out there and it's part of the influence. But no, not directly but indirectly - certainly. It raises the awareness of the game.
FP: It's more exposure, to have the Starcraft leagues in Korea, where they’re just televising Starcraft matches 24/7. We love it. It's like Texas Hold ‘Em. There's all these different channels and all these different tours that are doing Texas Hold ‘Em and we’d love for Starcraft to be treated like Texas Hold ‘Em in Korea, with all these leagues and channels and stuff.
CS: Twice in Korea now I've been in the malls, and the last time we were there just for the announcement, on a Wednesday, wandering through the mall, I happened upon this store that looks kind of like maybe a show or something is going on. We went in and we're standing in the back looking around in the back of the store and wondering ‘what's going on?’, and we look up on the screen, and it's a Starcraft match, and it's a pro match in the middle of the day on a Wednesday. And there’s all these girls there for the fan club of the guys that are playing, and we're just kind of like: ‘This is surreal, this is crazy awesome.’
FP: Yeah, the first time we were in Korea for the worldwide invitational, we were staying next to a big mall called the COEX, and we had some time to kill in the evening - so we're just walking to the mall to kill time and we come up on this Xbox store. And there's this huge crowd and we’re like ‘What the heck is going on here?’, and they have this small arena in the back. And there were two pro gamers getting ready to face off for a pro match that was being televised live. And we just stumbled upon it.
CS: We had no idea for a while we were just like ‘what's going on? What's this crowd about?’ and finally they flash to the game and we were like “Hey! Starcraft! Good for us!”
Did you say hello or anything?
CS: No, actually, but this last time we were there, they turn the cameras around and I was there with my wife and suddenly you see her face on the TV and we’re like “Whoa,what's going on?” And they say “Here, entertain us in between rounds.” It’s Korea and I mean, it was pretty crazy they turn the cameras back on us. I don't know if they recognized us, I think it was more like, they said “oh God, white barbarians have invaded!”
Have you gotten recognized over there by any of the pro gamers or anything?
CS: No not really, you know...
It's probably for the best.
CS: Yeah, probably is for the best, but really, it's not so much about the game itself. It's about the skill of the players of the game for the most part. Like if you are the poker inventor, you might still get recognized, but it's more the pro poker guys who can get recognized.
FP: The fans recognize the athletes, the pros, you know. We’re like the NFL Commissioner or something.
How long do you think original Starcraft is going to keep going when Starcraft 2 comes out?
CS: You know, for us, we’re definitely not trying to remove the Starcraft original players out of the mix. We believe that people will want to move over and play, but we’re certainly not trying to eliminate anybody. It's a totally different game. It's a lot of the same magic, gameplay-wise: fun gameplay. So I think they can co-exist. I won't know; this is just for me guessing of course, how many people are going to move over.
You mentioned pathfinding earlier, were you having difficulties with that?
CS: Pathing is always a challenge, we actually have pathing at a really good state compared to what happened with Warcraft 3, and the timeframe, and one thing just kind of fell in place and fit in good with Warcraft 3. We’re already in a much better place with Starcraft than we were with Warcraft 3, but you know, there's always little things. And like you said, it's a thankless job. So as soon as…it’s like Chicken Little: “Oh god, the guys are wandering around!,” you know…
FP: We have a really talented guy working on pathing for Starcraft 2.
How far do you think pathing has advanced in the last few years? Not as much as other things?
CS: Yeah, I would say not as much as other things. At a basic level it’s still using stored routines and things like that. So not a ton, no.
Moving on, Chris, were you involved in Starcraft: Ghost at all?
CS: No, I was not.
Because [Blizzard VP] Rob Pardo has been saying that Blizzard hasn't quite given up on it yet.
CS: The official line is that it's on indefinite hold.
I'm still wondering…is Blizzard going to make a single player, kind of third person experience? Because it seems that you could easily build something out of World of Warcraft single player, or something like that. You don’t have to say anything, I was just wondering.
FP: The challenge we always have, not just within the World of Warcraft team like I mentioned earlier, but organization wide, is that there's no shortage of great ideas, right? It's just utilizing the ideas we have the resources to achieve.
Turning to Blizzard itself, have you had to hire up a lot as 8.5 million people trickled in?
FP: Our global headcount is like, 2700. Most of that is customer service for World of Warcraft. I mean in terms of development staff… it’s probably around 350. For all of Blizzard. World of Warcraft development team is about 135 people…40 for you [indicates Chris' Starcraft 2 team], 50 for….Team 3…
Team 3? What’s Team 3 working on?
FP: Team 3 is working on something really awesome.
FP: I will totally tell you, it's really awesome.
Can you give me any hints about it?
FP: Nope, can’t give you any hints.
Well, as long as it's awesome.
CS: Really, really awesome.
FP: We do have a team that does the pre-rendered cinematics, and they’re developers also, and that's like 85 guys, and then we've got sound and Q&A… ends up probably around 300, 350 for development.
So then, customer service is like 2400 people?
FP: It's probably about 2000, but then, what do you call those guys, G and A? General and administrative people, whatever they call the support staff, you know - HR, PR, marketing and those folks. But yeah, probably in excess of 2000.
CS: That's the crazy thing is that, from less than 50 people… it's very different for Frank even [who was one of the three founders], but from less than 50 people, to 2700 people or whatever worldwide is insane.
And how much time as that?
CS: It's been 11 years or so, there were less than 50 people in 1996. In, yeah, just over 11 years.
FP: But the majority of the growth has been over the last four or five years, because I would say that at the launch of World of Warcraft, our headcount was probably only 400 or 500 at most.
How do you know who to hire when you're hiring that many people?
FP: We have some really great managers and customer support, and we have some really high standards in terms of quality standards, and we apply that across the whole organization. Not just about the product, it's about customer service experience and everything, too.
I have a hard time believing there are 2700 competent people…
FP:… in the world?
Yeah [laughter] so if you guys found them all, that's awesome.
CS: You know, sometimes it doesn't work out, and you just gotta make sure that you do the right thing with it.