Blizzard has had a very interesting year, first with the announcement that the company would be skipping its annual BlizzCon expo, and then with the infamously turbulent Diablo III launch. Diablo III has continued to be a sore subject for many of its 10 million-plus players due to game balance and other issues. And finally, the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria, has launched to a largely negative reaction from the player base in the wake of declining monthly subscriber numbers.
Blizzard Entertainment recently held a midnight launch event in their hometown of Irvine, Calif., to kick off the release of Mists of Pandaria. GamesBeat took the rare opportunity to speak with president and CEO Mike Morhaime, as well as chief creative officer Rob Pardo, to discuss many of the pressing issues surrounding the developer/publisher and its games.
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Please note that the two interviews were conducted separately but have been edited together below whenever they both answered the same question.
GamesBeat: I know I’m supposed to soften you up with some easy questions first, but I’m just going to go straight for the hardest hitting questions first. Why is the C in “StarCraft” capitalized, but the C in “Warcraft” is not?
Mike Morhaime: [Laughs] Because, way back when, when we had StarCraft and Warcraft, we were actually writing it both ways. But we made the decision that, ideally, we wanted [a] lowercase c in Warcraft. When it came time to do StarCraft, it turned out there was a — have you heard of the Starcraft van conversion kit? Something like that. Have you seen those campers?
Morhaime: So they had the Starcraft trademark. Part of our agreement with them in terms of the trademark was that we would have to capitalize the C in StarCraft.
GamesBeat: So an RV conversion company directly impacted Korea’s national pastime?
Morhaime: Yeah. We came to an agreement and they said, “Capitalize the C in StarCraft.” So then we said, “Well, should we capitalize the C in Warcraft to be consistent?” And the Warcraft team — back then this would be the Warcraft III team — they said, “No, we actually prefer it lowercase.” So there you go.
GamesBeat: Under normal circumstances, we’d be conducting this interview at BlizzCon, which also has a capital C. Why the decision to skip BlizzCon this year?
Morhaime: We looked at the release schedule for our games, and we have just way too much stuff going on this year. With multiple products coming out, we decided we need to focus on the games. Focus on game development. It turns out that BlizzCon actually takes a lot of work from the development teams to put on BlizzCon. We love BlizzCon. It’s great. It’s our favorite thing to do. But first and foremost, we’re a game company, and we have to make sure we deliver good quality games for our players. So that’s what we did.
There’s a second part of that, which is, we often talk about where to hold BlizzCon.
GamesBeat: Las Vegas is always the right answer.
Morhaime: [Laughs] Well, the reason we hold it in Anaheim every year is so it can be close to the company. All of development can go. We feel like that makes a big impact in terms of the quality of the show that we’re able to have. So one part of it is, not holding BlizzCon allowed us to protect the development teams and allow them to focus on game-making. The other part of it is that it allowed us to hold an event — an eSports event, somewhere else, internationally. We’re using this as an opportunity to hold the Battle.net world championship event in Shanghai.
GamesBeat: What has the overall reaction been like to the Mists of Pandaria expansion? I get little snippets from reading other articles or comments or in the Blizzard forums, but you obviously probably see the bigger picture. Have the Pokémon and Kung Fu Panda jokes stopped yet?
Morhaime: I don’t know if the jokes are ever going to stop. But we are getting a lot of feedback. I’ve been reading a lot of the comments, especially this past week. There’s been a lot of excitement for the expansion. It’s interesting, because of the World of Warcraft annual pass, we had a lot of people — over a million people — that had access to the beta this time around. A lot of people got to experience the expansion. We’ve been very forthcoming in terms of content and previews about what’s in the expansion. I think people know what they’re getting, and they’re really excited about it.
GamesBeat: I think your visible reaction is like, “Ugh, I’m tired of hearing that,” but also, it seems like the obvious go-to thought. When people who don’t know the game look at it, they go, “That looks like a Kung Fu Panda MMO.” When you describe the pet combat system, they go, “Oh, it’s Pokémon.” Even at BlizzCon, both of those announcements kind of inspired chuckles from the audience. At the pet combat system panel, people had this awkward response where it seemed like they weren’t even sure if this expansion was just the continuation of a very old April Fools’ joke.
Morhaime: Yeah. I guess the funny thing for us — this is our perspective — but we’ve been talking about adding Pandaren as a playable race for World of Warcraft since long before Kung Fu Panda. It just so happens that Kung Fu Panda is very popular and they did an awesome job with the movies and we’re fans of the movies also. That doesn’t really change the fact that the Pandaren race has been part of the Warcraft mythology for a really long time. We’ve always thought that they were cool. We’ve always played around with the idea of when would be an appropriate time to make them into a playable race. We’re only having this conversation because they did a great job with their movies.
Rob Pardo: Well, with the Kung Fu Panda thing, it’s kinda tricky because we had pandas first. The Pandaren Brewmaster started in Warcraft III. And it actually originated — I don’t know if you know this — as an April Fools’ joke. We did this whole Pandaren race as a real-time strategy race, and we’ve been slowly adding them to the game. We were originally maybe going to do it as part of the Burning Crusade expansion, but we felt like it was better to hold off until we could do something with their landmass, too.
Somewhere in there, Kung Fu Panda came out. We definitely had a feeling that people who didn’t really know the sequence of events might draw the obvious comparisons. But our pandas, even though they have some of the cutesy vibe, they’re a little bit harder and meaner. You can see that from the opening cinematic. It’s artistically pretty different from the panda you might see in Kung Fu Panda or something. But yeah, the comparisons are going to be there. We have orcs and elves, too.
GamesBeat: Given the issues and drama surrounding Diablo III’s launch, what reassurance do players have that the next time they buy a Blizzard game, they’ll be able to play what they paid for?
Morhaime: Well, Diablo III went from no players to over 10 million in a very short period of time. It’s really difficult to predict that type of response. I’m really not aware of any other website or service that has. I’m sure people will point something out if I put out the challenge. But it’s a really difficult thing to do. When you launch a game, you really don’t know how many people are going to show up. You don’t know how quickly they’ll want to come in to the game. I think, to the team’s credit — this often doesn’t get pointed out — but we were able to recover from the initial launch within a couple of weeks, which is way faster than we were able to recover when we initially launched World of Warcraft.
Pardo: I think we’ve proven, with World of Warcraft, that we’ve gotten pretty good now at having smooth launches. I think Burning Crusade was the last rocky WoW launch. From Lich King to Cataclysm, we’ve had really solid launches. I can’t always promise, because you never know what will happen technically, but I feel really good about [Mists of Pandaria’s] launch. Each of our games have their own code base, and they become mature over time. With World of Warcraft, the game’s been out there for almost eight years now. It’s become very mature, a very solid code base.
GamesBeat: Diablo III certainly wasn’t the only game to have those issues: Guild Wars 2 recently, and also Battlefield 3 last year, just to name a few of the bigger examples. They suffered similar server issues. For customers who paid $60 for the game, they don’t really understand — or maybe don’t even need to — how it works or difficult it is. They just bought something, and they expect it to work. Can you lay out what’s entailed in launching a game? Especially with server stress tests and knowing what the preorder numbers are and such, why are there still issues?
Morhaime: It’s very difficult to simulate load without the players coming in and actually doing the things that players will do. We run tests. We run betas. With Diablo III, we ran a completely open beta where we tried to get as many people to log in and play our beta version as we could. That didn’t even come anywhere near close to the demand that hit us during that first week. The things that happen when you experience that kind of load, it exposes scalability issues that just don’t come out during test.
We were lucky. We did find some of those issues during the open beta. But then other issues happened. The other thing that really killed us during the Diablo III tests is that we didn’t forecast 10 million unit sales that quickly. That exceeded our full year forecast for Diablo III. We were just off by a really large margin. And so we had to expand our server infrastructure. We had to buy additional hardware. We were really scrambling in the beginning.
GamesBeat: A lot of times when there are server issues, a company will talk about turning on more servers. I know this isn’t true, but it sounds like a switch just needed to be flipped somewhere. What exactly does that process entail?
Morhaime: For us that means either buying additional hardware or repurposing hardware that we already have. We do try to maintain disaster recovery hardware that’s dark. In the case of an emergency like this, we can power those on. In the case of Diablo, it got helped out by disaster recovery hardware that we had sitting idle for World of Warcraft. Let’s say World of Warcraft’s site goes down. Let’s say there’s an earthquake somewhere or something happens to a data center. We are in a position to be able to fire up hardware. That hardware helped us out tremendously during the Diablo III launch.
GamesBeat: Do you feel that, whether it’s fair or not, that the drama surrounding Diablo III’s launch diminished Blizzard’s reputation at all? You guys have your own convention — you don’t release a lot of games, but you have a convention where some of the most devoted, hardcore fans show up. Your franchises are literally global phenomenons. Overall, you’re kind of this untouchable developer. And then something happens like Diablo III’s launch, like a black mark. How did that look on your end?
Morhaime: We’ve had our share of challenges in the past. We’ve had our share of server issues in the past. World of Warcraft was not always a smooth situation. People who played World of Warcraft during the first year can attest to that. I think the difference here is that when we did address all the issues, and we did have it fixed, people weren’t as forgiving this time.
GamesBeat: The last question is kind of a design/loot-whore question. Games like Borderlands 2 and Diablo III, and also most MMOs, have two things in common: loot and repetition. Both games, Borderlands and Diablo, they’re fairly short, but they were designed with multiple playthroughs in mind, all in the pursuit of better loot to do the same missions over and over. Diablo III has the randomized dungeons to somewhat counter this, but it’s still the same tilesets and objectives. The reason why I ask the question, where it came from, is when you beat Borderlands 2, you literally get a message saying, “Good job! Now the real game starts! Start over and do the exact same thing you just did,” only now the enemies are a little bit tougher and the loot you find is a little bit better.Do you feel that loot can sometimes be used as a crutch in favor of game design and content? And if so, how do you avoid that or work around that?
Morhaime: Can loot be used as a crutch…? I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. I think that there are a lot of games that are shorter than Diablo or Borderlands or any other game in that genre that don’t have any type of endgame. You pretty much just finish the game and it’s over, and people are really satisfied with that. I think that we tried to make Diablo III, just like we did with Diablo II, a game that people could spend as much time in as they want, with a loot system that does keep going. I don’t think we nailed the itemization at launch. I think the team has done an awful lot to improve that since launch.
I think it’s difficult to test for the very high-level itemization game before you have a whole economy of players coming in and experiencing that. We can look at the numbers. We can look at the tables. We can look at the map of it all. But it really has to feel good. I think it felt pretty good up until a certain point, and then people didn’t feel like they were getting good items quickly enough to feel like they were progressing. But I think it’s improved dramatically since launch, with the most recent patches.
Pardo: I don’t know. If people want to play the same game repetitively, you have to make a decision as a game designer if you want to allow that or disallow that. If you allow it, are you going to allow the player to have some sense of progression within the game? There’s no such thing as a game with unlimited content. You can do things that are procedural. Borderlands does some of that. Obviously, Diablo does. But there’s only so many new environments you can create, so many monsters you can create. And some players are going to mine out all that content. At that point, do you still allow them to progress in the game, and if you do, how?
You can allow them to keep on gaining levels and outmuscle the content, or you can allow them to keep on getting loot. You can have some achievement system, where you keep on killing 10,000 foozles and you get achievements. I don’t know if I’d call it a crutch. It’s more. … How do you allow people to still show that they’re spending all these hours in the game? Loot is one of the more viscerally satisfying ways. You’re seeing your character change. Other people can see your character change and that you’ve put all this additional time into the game.