INTERVIEW: Blizzard

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: Blizzard

It is hard to think that Blizzard and Activision are part of the same company.

Whereas Activision focuses on its annual iterative franchises, such as Call of Duty and Guitar Hero, Blizzard takes a much slower approach. The release last month of StarCraft II is the publisher and developer’s first game since 2004’s World of Warcraft.

Indeed, the Activision Blizzard management team has been very careful with Blizzard. Rather than mess with the firm’s ecosystem – forcing the company to develop more titles and expansions quicker – the publisher has left it alone to do what it does best.

And it’s easy to see why. World of Warcraft is the No.1 subscription-based MMO in the world, with 11.5 million subscribers worldwide. Meanwhile, Blizzard generated $1.2bn in revenue during 2009 alone – and that’s without releasing a new game or expansion.

For Activision Blizzard, it’s a case of it aint broke, don’t fix it.

“Since we had our merger with Activision, it hasn’t changed anything at Blizzard,” says Michael Ryder, vice president and executive managing director for Blizzard’s international operations.

“We operate in pretty much the same way we always have. Since we have been working with Activision we continue to be who we are. We make the same decisions in the same way we always have, and the relationship with Activision hasn’t change that.

“For Blizzard, our culture is extremely important. It is actually the basis for how we do what we do.

“We have a really strong culture that has a number of values that we share with our offices around the world. That culture, those values, binds us together and it defines the way we want to behave.

“For example, we often talk about play nice and play fair, which has to do how we work with each other and our partners. Preserving that Blizzard culture is a key part of our ability to continue to deliver great games. We nurture it, protect it and take care of it as much as we can, because it is a big part of who we are.”

Blizzard’s business model is also in contrast to Activision’s. Whereas the latter concentrates on shifting boxes at retail, Blizzard is about servicing its fanbase and keeping them engaged. In fact, during our chat, Ryder uses the term ‘community’ 15 times in ten minutes.

“We are very fortunate to have a strong community of players that cares about our games and what Blizzard is doing,” he says.

“We don’t look at it as satisfying or appeasing the audience. We look at it more as working with them. We really want to know what is going on and that is why we have an organisation of people working with the communities, making sure we hear the ideas and the issues.”

These communities aren’t the easiest to please either. Over the last 12 months, core PC gamers have attacked Valve for developing a sequel to Left4Dead so soon after the original, lambasted Infinity Ward for its decision to use dedicated servers on Modern Warfare 2 and has even taken a pop at Blizzard for proposing that fans use their real names on the forums. But Ryder claims that it is this vocal minority that has helped Blizzard become the company that it is.

“When people are passionate about the games they can be vocal and we want them to be,” he adds.

“We benefit from getting their input, and value that. In the case of the names on the forum issue, we were able to hear what they had to say and it caused us to reconsider that. And we decided to hold off on implementing that, and try to achieve the objective of improving our forums in a different way.”

Ryder also says that it is this community that has helped Blizzard starve off the threat of piracy – which has forced other publishers to move away from the PC market altogether.

The firm’s Battle.net online community system is only open to legitimate copies of Blizzard titles, and the publisher says that this is a fantastic incentive for gamers to buy games legally.

“For World of Warcraft we have been able to work well around the piracy issue and we think we’ll be able to do the same with StarCraft II,” continues Ryder.

“The Battle.net solution provides several things. It provides better continuity for the players and it gives them a stronger way to participate in an overall Blizzard community. But what also goes hand-in-hand with the Battle.net solution is that we work really hard to offer a tailored, regional business model, so it reduces the incentives to go to a pirated solution.”

Indeed, Battle.net is fully localised for 14 different territories and the firm’s European base in France boasts an impressive multilingual workforce. Blizzard’s titles, World of Warcraft specifically, are global smash hits. And through its ability to engage with audiences worldwide, Blizzard has built a community that is willing to pay for its products.

It’s this ability to deter piracy and generate money though subscriptions that has helped Blizzard succeed on a platform where others have not.

But the firm hasn’t ruled out a return to consoles.
Blizzard began life working on machines such as the SNES, but hasn’t created a console game since the 1998 N64 release of StarCraft 64. More recently, the company worked on third person shooter StarCraft: Ghost for PlayStation and Xbox, but shelved development of the game in 2006.

Ryder says: “When we decide on the kind of game we want to make, and what the gameplay experience will be, we then think about the platform.

“It’s about the design decisions and what we think is best for our players. In the more recent years it has been PC and online orientated. But we play all kinds of games at Blizzard. We play console games and we are up-to-speed on the console platforms. And if we see an opportunity where the game design would work well on the console, then maybe we will go that way. We just haven’t announced anything yet.”

The majority of Blizzard’s revenue may come from subscriptions to World of Warcraft, but the publisher has cited its close relationship with retail as a major driver behind its success.

A new Blizzard release is a rare thing, and so the arrival of each new game is treated like a major launch event.

Special edition sets, launch parties and simultaneous worldwide releases are all typical for Blizzard, says Ryder. And StarCraft II’s arrival last month was greeted by midnight openings at retailers across the globe, including one at GAME on Oxford Street.

It’s in stark contrast to Blizzard’s PC rivals, who have been increasing their focus on the digital channels.

 “Some of our players like digital solutions but many also like the retail solution,” explains Ryder.

“So we embrace both. We built our entire business around the retail channel and we expect retail to be a vital part of our future. So just like the event in London for StarCraft II was with one of our retail partners, and we are doing it in cities around the world, we really want retail to be a big part of things for us. The collector’s edition of StarCraft II is only available at retail. So we think it is a great collaboration that we want to continue.”

And retail should want to continue it, too. If StarCraft II wasn’t enough, Blizzard is preparing a second major release for 2010 – the long anticipated arrival of the next World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm. And judging by the consumer frenzy around 2008’s Wrath of the Lich King, retail has plenty to get excited about.

Looking further ahead, Blizzard has several other titles in production. There will be two expansions released for StarCraft II, but the next big game to come from the developer is the third in the acclaimed Diablo series.

There’s currently no date for Diablo III and Ryder won’t be drawn on one, simply saying ‘It’ll be released when it’s ready.’ And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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