Paul Sams is the chief operating officer of Blizzard Entertainment. The Irvine, Calif.-based company is a division of Activision Blizzard, the newly created gaming powerhouse created from the $18 billion merger of Activision and Vivendi Games. Sams is one of the top executives responsible for making sure that Blizzard keeps pumping out hits like “World of Warcraft,” which has 10-million-plus paying subscribers.
VB: How many people do you have in Blizzard?
PS: It’s around 3,000 globally.
VB: Will Blizzard will still be left autonomous? And what’s critical about what should be left alone?
PS: From top to bottom. There is not one individual thing or person at Blizzard that is the magic ingredient. We have great people in all departments and regions. All product decisions should stay as they are. We are the only company in the world that has been as successful in all the markets where we participate. We have a global reach. Usually, [when people say they have a global reach, they] just mean they sell in Japan. But we’ve got product across Asia. No other company has been able to do that. We have built a global expertise that none of our other competitors have. It’s hard for them to gain that expertise because you have to start with products that consumers love. That’s why it’s important for Blizzard to continue to run its operations. The Activision leadership understands that. Our merger provides a broad portfolio, with Blizzard in PCs and online games, while Activision is strong in consoles. The combination makes us No. 1. Blizzard knows how to provide Blizzard experiences better than anyone else. The same goes for Activision games, like playing music games in the living room.
PS: Yes, we don’t care where the ideas come from. Just that they’re great. We won’t hesitate to exchange information on how things can be done better.
VB: Your games take a long time compared to the rivals, and your games wind up being better. You took six years on World of Warcraft, while NCSoft took six years on Tabula Rasa and they didn’t get anywhere near the same result.
PS: This may sound boastful. But I believe we have the very best game developers in the world. The key element is they have a recipe. They are the best at their craft, whether that’s programming, art, or sound. Also, we have a rule. We only hire gamers. The very best programmer on the planet could walk into our doors. If he or she isn’t a gamer, we’re not going to hire them. They won’t be right for us. We want people who play the games they are making to be part of the decision-making process. Something that is common among most other publishers is they sit in a big board room and they have a lot of people with button-down shirts, slacks, analyst reports, marketing people, sales people, and finance people. They sit in a room and talk about strategy. Those folks, who may not be gamers, will be making decisions on what the products will be. Then they tell the development team that the next great thing is to do a sailing online game. They can say that they think that sailing is an under-served market and the CEO is really passionate about sailing. The odds are there aren’t a lot of sailors on that development team. At Blizzard, the difference is that we ask the team what they want to make next. At Blizzard, it doesn’t matter what marketing says or what business development says. When you empower developers to make the game they want to play, you have a level of commitment that is unlike anything you are going to get from product concepts handed down from up high based on analyst reports and sales reports.
VB: And you give them resources?
PS: We don’t pull the rug out from under them after three or four years. So sorry, we have to ship it to make our financial goals. If the game is not done, it does not ship. It does not matter what else is going on. That is our history and our future. We help steer and guide. The executives don’t just sit around and play golf. At the end of the day, we really trust the developer.
VB: I suppose if you don’t ship, you don’t learn anything. I notice that Microsoft has canceled a lot of massively multiplayer online games. They start them and then they cancel them.
PS: It’s a great decision to cancel products. If they don’t think they will be great products, they should cancel them. If they publish them, it’s not fair to gamers. It hurts their reputation. At Blizzard, we do that. We have canceled products that have had tens of millions of dollars invested in them. You can learn a lot of things even if you don’t ship. You can understand what went wrong and learn from your competitors. Blizzard does a lot of innovation. At the same time, we look at those who refine and polish games in certain genres. We take ideas and try to perfect the game-play experience. We saw how it was terrible how you had to wait for other players to finish fighting a boss in an MMO game before you got your chance. We create “instance dungeons.” That was where we would spawn another instance of that dungeon if it was crowded. So everybody could play that same part of the game at the same time. Now it’s the model of the industry.
PS: We wish we could make them faster. You can make a really good game in a reasonable time frame but the time it takes to polish it and make it great is not a short period. If people want our games more quickly, they would get something not as good. We have an uncompromising view on what we should deliver. It’s painful for us and them at times. It causes strife. But it’s good for everyone. They can then feel fulfilled and like they got their money’s worth.
VB: You’ve got StarCraft II, Diablo III, World of Warcraft: The Wrath of the Lich King, and a new MMO?
PS: We have three announced games. You may be referring to the fact that some folks have noticed on our web site that we are hiring for a next-generation MMO. That’s listed on our web site but we aren’t ready to share anything on that yet. We’re hiring for that. We’re also trying to move to best-in-class customer service now.
If you liked this Q&A, please check out our others:
Byron Acohido, author, “Zero Day Threat”, on who to blame for identity theft
John Antal, chief of staff and military/historical director at Gearbox Software, making “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway”
Wagner James Au, author “The Making of Second Life”, on life in a virtual world
Cammie Dunaway, sales and marketing chief at Nintendo’s U.S. unit, on broadening the game market
Jon Goldman, chairman Foundation 9, on game development as a model
Seth Goldstein, CEO Social Media, on social networking’s future
John Schappert, corporate vice president at Microsoft’s game division, on changes to Xbox 360 gaming
Curt Schilling, founder of 38 Studios and Boston Red Sox pitcher, on starting a fantasy online game
Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of InnoCentive, on expanding R&D crowdsourcing