Blizzard @ 25

Or, How to build worlds for fun and profit

Blizzard doesn't release games. It builds worlds.

For two decades, the games company has been defined by three franchises: Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo. Each has its own grand mythology and universe for players to explore. Each continually updated and refined over many years to keep players coming back between major new releases.

Now, a fourth franchise, Overwatch , has launched to instant success. As Blizzard celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2016, it's clear the company still knows how to create rich new stories for players to fall in love with.

"The biggest driver of their success is consistently high quality games," says Michael Pachter, a games industry analyst from Wedbush Securities. "The second is longevity, which in turn drives loyalty.

"They have touched 150 million people with their games, according to Blizzard, and those 150 million people have uniformly had good experiences over the last 25 years."

Greg Moore is one such gamer touched by Blizzard. He works in the online video industry and has played World of Warcraft constantly since it launched."They are always exploring new ways of telling stories, and adding new mechanics to allow those stories to be told," says Moore. "They're like Apple in that they may not do something first, but when they do it, they do it the best."

So how do you achieve such consistent high quality? I spoke to senior figures at Blizzard to find out.

What's at stake?

Blizzard's first set of games, made under the name Silicon & Synapse, were all about fun: car racers, puzzle platformers and superhero-themed fighters.

"When we were making games in the early '90s for the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, popular games didn't have any real story," says Mike Morhaime, co-founder and president of Blizzard Entertainment. "What matters is how fun it is."

The name change to Blizzard came alongside its first major hit, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, a game in a then-new genre called real-time strategy (RTS).

It was also the moment when story became part of the company's design philosophy.

"There needed to be a reason why the orcs and humans were fighting and to know what's at stake," says Morhaime. "With RTS, we're able to develop this narrative strategy and backstory. That proved to us how much more meaningful and deep and immersive a game experience could be if you had that world built around it."

After the success of the first Warcraft and its sequel, Warcraft II, Blizzard developed StarCraft.

StarCraft was slated as a fast follow up to the series -- still an RTS, and based on the same technology as Warcraft II, but with a new science fiction universe to explore. At its first public reveal, it was derided for being too much like Warcraft. "Orcs in Space" rang the dismissive cry at E3 1996, the game industry's most important annual trade show. Blizzard's StarCraft team returned home knowing there was a lot of work to do to prove it was more than just some Warcraft spin-off.

"Most players won't remember whether the game was late -- only whether it was great," reads one part of Blizzard's mission statement.

So Blizzard let StarCraft be late. Reworking the underlying technology from scratch, the game designers were given the tools to tell the story they previously only saw in their minds. A slick new RTS experience with story flowing through all layers of the game experience -- cut-scene animations, mission introductions with voice artistry, story moments triggered during the progress of a specific game moment.

Around 18 months after its original target release date, StarCraft launched to become the best selling PC game of 1998 and went on to sell around 9.5 million copies over the following years.


Failure is an option

At a now-famous talk he gave at a game developers convention in 2008, Morhaime revealed a long list of cancelled projects from Blizzard history: Warcraft Adventures (a point-and-click adventure), Games People Play (a word puzzle), Shattered Nations, Crixa and others. Morhaime wasn't just airing dirty laundry, he was making a point about being decisive.

"A lot of the successful Blizzard games that you know actually grew out of failed projects," says Morhaime. "That was the case with World of Warcraft. We canceled a project and decided to work on that one. We've had a lot of success making that tough call in changing course when it became clear that another path was the right one."

Another industry expert backs up that claim. "They weed out the bad ideas really well and that takes a lot of discipline," says IDC analyst Lewis Ward.

World of Warcraft was a wildly ambitious concept. And while feedback wasn't as negative as first impressions of StarCraft, it didn't garner the attention Blizzard hoped for when it was first revealed to the public at E3 2003.

The massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) was competing against a sequel to the first big name in the genre, Sony Online Entertainment's Everquest, as well as a new launch with the biggest franchise name possible, EA's Star Wars Galaxies.

Attracting a large base of players quickly and then maintaining it is critical to any 'MMO'. The massively multiplayer part of that name isn't just a capability to allow many thousands, even millions, of players to all play in the same game world at the same time. It is also designed as an experience where you form a game community and play directly alongside friends and team up into guilds. With too few players your world will feel empty, the players will know the world isn't doing well.

Before World of Warcraft, hundreds of thousands of subscribers was a great number for any MMORPG. When WoW launched in 2004, it blew past four million players in its first year and kept climbing rapidly, peaking at 12 million monthly subscribers in 2010 (that's well over $1 billion dollars per year in revenue).

Now, the peak seems to be behind it, and subscribers ebb and flow with new expansions. But there's no question WoW redefined the benchmarks for success.

"The huge part of it was keeping the world bright, colourful, epic and to make it an inviting, exciting place," said J. Allen Brack, executive producer of World of Warcraft, when we spoke about World of Warcraft's fifth anniversary. "This was never intended to be a world that you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time in."


Evolve or perish

Spending a lot of time anywhere can eventually feel stale. So how did Blizzard manage to keep World of Warcraft interesting enough to keep players giving them money every single month over the course of what is now 12 years and counting?

It's been about more than releasing content expansions every couple of years. It's about the tweaks to how the game itself plays and how it delivers the story experience too.

With each expansion, World of Warcraft has gotten better at making players "feel like they're part of the story itself," says Jeff Kaplan, a former game director of World of Warcraft and now game director of Overwatch.

"If you look back, there was no cohesive storyline going on in the world itself. Then we had a driving narrative in [first expansion] Burning Crusade.

"The WoW team now give you all sorts of really deep and rich events that play out in the game. It's a great game to study the evolution of storytelling and how it can get stronger, even when a game is already live."

"They're really good at iteration," industry analyst Michael Pachter says of Blizzard. "They constantly tweak games to keep players engaged. I think it's a matter of their DNA."

Blizzard has also turned opinion around on games that didn't launch so well. Its action RPG Diablo III launched in 2012, 12 years after Diablo II, and became the fastest-selling PC game ever with 3.5 million copies sold in the first 24 hours, according to Blizzard.

But Diablo III drew criticism for problem features, such as a real-money auction house and online-only gameplay. Unlike World of Warcraft, Diablo is a one-off purchase, with no ongoing revenues to pay for ongoing development. Yet over the four years since its release, Blizzard has continued to develop the game continuously, with each tweak, upgrade and overhaul receiving increasingly positive responses from the game's community.

"The Diablo example is a good one," says Pachter on Blizzard's approach to constant refinement. "They are not done when a game launches.

A World of new heroes

World of Warcraft wasn't the only big hit to spin out of an unsuccessful project. "Titan" was set to be another MMO game of some kind, Blizzard's follow up to World of Warcraft. After seven years and what analysts pegged at 50 million dollars or more of investment, Blizzard shut it down.

The Titan team became the crew behind Overwatch, Blizzard's first new world concept since the 1990s and its first foray into the first-person shooting format. There were even hints some Overwatch story ideas were brought across from its Titan roots. But this was also a team-based shooter with the Blizzard twist, a deep story concept and engaging hero designs that Blizzard hoped would capture the imagination of fans very quickly.

And capture imaginations it did. In its first three months on the market in early 2016, Overwatch pulled in more than $500 million in sales, according to Activision Blizzard's quarterly earnings report. Reaching 20 million players in October, Overwatch became Blizzard's biggest and fastest-selling game ever, and the title helped push Activision Blizzard to a record setting quarterly result.

The tough call, once again, was the right one.


More than words

For Overwatch, Blizzard had to flesh out the universe outside the game itself. It's an action-focused team shooter -- there are heroes to play and maps to fight on, but that's it inside the game. So how do you tell the Overwatch story?

"How can you insert as much flavour as possible into everything you do?" asks Kaplan. "You have to look at your game type, the genre and the type of gameplay. Try to create a world that can exist regardless of whether or not you're able to go to cut scene animations and write heavy plot."

Blizzard had become known for the quality of its cut scenes, teaser videos and opening cinematics. World of Warcraft, StarCraft II and Diablo III have all been beneficiaries of the great work of the company's cinematics team. What was a department of around a dozen people in the late 1990s has grown to over 200, producing these short pieces of work at a quality you might expect from a Pixar or Dreamworks.

That capability was put to the test as the team moved into producing animated short films to reveal the story behind the world of Overwatch. Players would see the key protagonists of the game and their relationships, and discover the tensions that made this world interesting.

"Here's a game that actually has no storytelling," says Morhaime. "Yet it's one of the richest worlds we have built, [with] a tonne of character and depth and story that we're making sure people know about outside the game. That really does add to the connection people feel with the world as they're playing the game."

The animated short films reveal backstory for the game's diverse line up of heroes -- like the gorilla scientist, Winston; the time-shifting test pilot, Tracer; the skull-faced bad guy, Reaper; the bird-loving battle robot, Bastion.

But by capturing key moments of story conflict, they also show off the unique abilities each hero can use in the game -- Winston's electric weaponry and rage powers; Tracer's various time-shift capabilities; Reaper's ability to dissolve into mist to float around the battlefield. It all maintains a direct connection to the things players can do.

The story also bounces back and forth between the game and the animated shorts. After a character smashed through a window in one film, Kaplan's team went back and smashed that window in the game map. In another short, a character is assassinated outside a London theatre, so the team added a candle-lit memorial to the game map as a tribute.

"There's a lot more of those moments in the game, where we're going to do storytelling in other mediums," says Kaplan. "You're going to see that this was planned all along.

"For some people, they're just going to enjoy the game. They'll never notice this stuff. But for the people that want to, that care, they're going to find a lot of extra depth."

The hero factory

For all the details Blizzard builds into its epic fantasy and science fiction worlds, Kaplan says it should always come back to the player.

"People have always asked who the main character is in World of Warcraft, and they always expect the answer is one of these awesome epic heroes of the game: Thrall, or Jaina, or Sylvanas. The truth is there's two main characters: the player and the world itself."

In interviews with top creatives at Blizzard, the description of the company as a "hero factory" crops up often. Morhaime says the phrase has a dual meaning.

"Of course, we create a lot of heroes," he says. "But the real intention of that is to make the player feel like a hero in all of our games."

For all its in-game rewards, one reward for player loyalty stands out from the rest. As part of World of Warcraft's 10th anniversary celebrations in 2015, Blizzard sent cast metal statues to every player who had maintained a subscription for the entire 10 years as a thank you for their loyalty.

Greg Moore was one of the lucky ones to receive that ten year statue."The 10-year anniversary statue said to me that Blizzard knows that the core of all it's games are the players," says Moore. "Blizzard has shown for a long time that they know the players are the centre of their universe.

"Other games and MMOs have responded to criticism in ways that suggests they've forgotten this and that players want to spoil the purity of their vision." 

Blizzard also throws a now-annual party for its biggest fans, BlizzCon, in Anaheim, California and each year tickets sell out within minutes. The company's 10th BlizzCon approaches, the time of year when the company announces new games and expansions, holds world championship tournaments for its competitive games, and just spends time with fans to remember why they do what they do.

"It's become the essential physical manifestation of our community," says Morhaime. "We're all getting together to spend three days just talking about and celebrating Blizzard games. We know we couldn't do what we do without their support. It's really great to hear that feedback firsthand and to see and understand what these games mean."

For all the company's success, Morhaime knows that it always comes back to serving fans well, and continuing to tell great stories.

"None of it is guaranteed in the future," says Morhaime. "It's been a lot of hard work and it hasn't come easy. I think it's going to continue just being a lot of hard work and perseverance and a lot of great people working together."