Blizzard Entertainment is the division of Activision Blizzard that’s brought us games like StarCraft, Diablo, and World of Warcraft, and it turned 25 this week. We ran an interview with Blizzard chief executive Mike Morhaime, who was one of the three original founders who started the company during the golden age of PC games.
But we also interviewed Frank Pearce, another cofounder who had to code games and answer the phones too when the company started in 1991. But now he’s the chief development officer at the 4,000-employee company in Irvine, California. The company started in 1991 as Silicon & Synapse, with Allen Adham, Morhaime, and Frank Pearce as its founders. They started out as work for hire, making games for Interplay Productions. But now they’ve grown into a 4,000-employee powerhouse, with $1.56 billion in the 12 months that ended December. 31, the leading subscriber online game in World of Warcraft, a 30 million seller in Diablo III, and two growing esports with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft (a card battler) and Heroes of the Storm (an online multiplayer strategy game). Throughout the ups and downs, the changes in ownership, a transition in power, the company has outlived the competition.
And Pearce has been there for the full ride.
GamesBeat interviewed Pearce last week to catch up on 25 years of history and Blizzard’s outlook for the future. We did a joint interview with me and GamesBeat contributing writers Heather Newman and Kevin Hovdestad.
We talked about the creation of Blizzard, the transitions that took place over time, making games like Warcraft, Blizzard’s future, the emergence of esports, and why Pearce has stuck around. His answer to that last bit: “We have a ton of stuff to do.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I was looking at an original Chaos Studios story I did for the L.A. Times. I interviewed Allen, and I remember meeting Mike. I didn’t remember meeting you when I was doing that story, though. I know you were around.
Frank Pearce: You probably did. Well, I don’t know. It depends on how long ago it was. In the early days, everyone had to pitch in and do everything. It wasn’t uncommon for me to answer the phones and sit by the front door.
GamesBeat: That’s what Mike mentioned. I wonder what your perspective is on what it was like to get started back then. How do you feel about it now?
Pearce: We’re a lot older and wiser today than we were back then. We were just out of school. Allen had experience in the industry. He had contacts. That really helped jumpstart what we were trying to do. I didn’t know much about making computer games at all. Mike didn’t either.
You have to understand that 25 years ago, there was no World Wide Web. There weren’t cell phones people carried in their pocket with fingertip access to all the knowledge the world has to offer. We had to learn everything through trial and error or by reading books printed on paper. People didn’t get news on the internet. They got it through printed media.
Scope of projects was much smaller back then, which was beneficial for us. We didn’t have a tremendous number of folks working in the office. We could make a project with just a small handful of people – one full-time programmer and a few other folks helping part-time. Maybe a couple of artists. It’s interesting to see how, in some respects, the industry has come full circle in that regard because of those devices in our pockets. It’s now easier for a small team of people to start something up and create content and get it into the hands of lots of people. That’s great for the industry.
GamesBeat: When you guys were starting to do games like Warcraft with Davidson, what was it like? It was interesting to hear from Mike how far back your ethic around quality comes from, the commitment to never ship anything that’s not ready. He mentioned that it went back to Lost Vikings. What was the point where you felt you were doing really serious work?
Pearce: It was probably long after Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Everything we’ve done is about building on our previous experiences and advancing our learning around what we already know. I’d say that StarCraft, or maybe Diablo, is where it really felt like it was much bigger than we’d potentially anticipated.
Diablo was the first game on Battle.net. That’s where multiplayer took off for us. The original StarCraft was where we started to see the impact of a global player community and the birth of Esports. Both of those games—they came out within about 18 months of each other. They had a huge impact on what we were doing, how we were doing it, and the people we were doing it for. With those games, all of a sudden we had a massive online global community.
GamesBeat: Did you think of any particular companies as your most serious competition back then?
Pearce: I don’t know if we really thought about it as much back then. A lot of the stuff everyone was doing was a bit in its infancy as far as online gaming and multiplayer gaming. There were certainly other products in the spaces we were making games, but we loved to play those games ourselves. We didn’t play the games we were making exclusively. We played lots of other games as well. I always felt like, back then, it was good for the industry for more than one studio to be making great products. It kept us on our toes and made sure we were working very hard to deliver the best experience for our players.
It’s interesting to think about competition in today’s space. Back then I do think that if you’d asked us about competition, we would have thought primarily about other companies that were making games. I’d suggest that today, competition for what we do goes far beyond just the gaming space. We have to compete with anything that occupies people’s leisure time. That includes the way people spend time on social media, or how and when they choose to watch movies and TV, reading books, shopping on the internet, watching the Super Bowl. All these things occupy people’s time. It’s all on demand these days. Everyone consumes it in very small time segments. All these things have a huge impact on what we’re doing here day to day.
GamesBeat: You’ve had a couple of very early folks and founders leave. Allen Adham left, and Rob Pardo did, too. How did you feel at times like that? And why have you stuck around for so long?
Pearce: I attribute almost all of what we have here to Allen. Allen and Mike and I were all there on day one, but it was Allen that sought out Mike and me and asked us to work with him making games. Allen had the contacts. Allen had the foundation of any knowledge around what we were doing. Allen had the vision.
It was a little bit sad to see Allen move on, but at the same time, he’d done a great job making sure that when he was ready to move on to other things, what he left behind was in good hands. By the time Allen left, I think it was shortly before World of Warcraft shipped. World of Warcraft was looking great. Everyone believed in it. We greatly underestimated the success we were going to achieve with World of Warcraft, but we’d grown an employee community of nearly 500 people by the time we shipped the game. Since then we’ve grown to more than 5,000 people. It’s difficult to attribute the success of what we do today, certainly, to any one person or small group of individuals.
When Rob moved on that was tough too. Rob contributed a tremendous amount to everything we’ve done since he arrived on the scene in 1998. But again, we take very seriously the idea that we have to lay the foundation for the future of Blizzard not only in how we plan around our product lineup, but also how we plan around talent. It’s true for me, and I believe it’s true for Mike as well, that we’d like to see Blizzard persist long after we’re gone. For that to happen, we have to have a culture here of trust and developing the people that will carry on the Blizzard mission.
As for why I stick around, we still have a ton of stuff to do, from my perspective. There’s no shortage of great ideas. There’s a finite amount of resources to execute all the great ideas we’ve got. We get to work with passionate and talented people, day in and day out. The reality is that the products we’re creating are great. I enjoy them. Our friends and family all enjoy them.
The sense of pride I felt back in the day—it was blood, sweat, and tears to get a product done. We could go down to the store, walk in, and see the results of our efforts on the shelves. We knew that we were creating experiences for thousands or millions of people. It’s not always easy to find a gig where you know that your efforts are enjoyed by that many people. Something about that’s valuable.
GamesBeat: You talked about how everything you’ve done in the past is about building on your experiences, the experiences you’ve had working with your own games and the games you play. What lessons are you learning now for the next generation of Blizzard’s games?
Pearce: The World of Warcraft development team right now is 250 people, just the innermost development team. That doesn’t include everyone else that supports those efforts. That’s a massive team by our standards. We’re learning things every day. Right now they’re experimenting with having groups of people that aren’t necessarily structured by the discipline they specialize in, but instead focus on specific feature sets they’re implementing. We have all kinds of things to learn about organization.
One of our core values is “Learn and grow.” We have an entire department dedicated to that, learning and organizational development. They’re constantly providing offerings and training for people here to become better leaders and improve in their craft. A constant challenge we face is that we’re hiring people from all different backgrounds and disciplines. The people working on the games are primarily content creators, but they want to be able to advance in their careers. A lot of times that means they have to expand their skill set. I guess the answer to your question is that we’re learning things as an organization, but it’s also important that each of the individuals that make up the organization is also advancing their skills.
The other thing I’d say is important—we’ve been operating World of Warcraft for 11 years. It’ll be 12 at the end of this year. When people started playing World of Warcraft the idea of sitting down at a scheduled time to do a four-hour raid was acceptable. That’s less … appealing would be one word? It doesn’t accommodate people today.
With a product like Hearthstone, which I was playing while I waited to take this call, you can sit down and experience what you’re doing in a matter of a few minutes. The lesson there is that we need diversity in our offerings, in what we provide to our community. That means diversity of platforms that we offer our products on, diversity in the genres we offer, and even to some extent diversity in the type of entertainment we provide.
When we chose to name the company Blizzard Entertainment, after we’d gone through other choices that didn’t work out as well, the choice to say “Entertainment” was conscious. Not “Studios” or “Games.’ Even way back then, before we had shipped Orcs and Humans, we believed that we were going to be creating franchises that would be leveraged for far more than just games. On June 10 the Warcraft movie releases in North America. That’s something we can point to as far as furthering diversity in what we offer to our community.
GamesBeat: You talked about the turning point in game development when an international community could come together playing an online game. Do you get the sense that there’s a technological change waiting in the wings, whatever it might be, that has the potential to change the game industry in that same fundamental way?
Pearce: I’d argue that it’s not waiting in the wings. Our smartphones we’re all carrying around in our pockets, those are significant in terms of who’s going to be interested in occupying their leisure time with interactive entertainment and what devices they’re going to do it with. My parents are 72 years old. I never would have imagined it, but they both have smartphones. They both have Facebook accounts. They spend some of their leisure time with those. Devices like that are going to give us the opportunity to reach people we wouldn’t have been able to reach before.
GamesBeat: Clearly you’ve done that with Hearthstone. Do you believe there are other genres the company can work with that might give you further reach to an additional audience there?
Pearce: For sure. I don’t necessarily know what it is right now, but we’ve got our hands full with everything we’re trying to execute against. I do think exploration in some strategic spaces is going to be important as we move forward. Mobile devices will be one of the key spaces for conscious discussion.
GamesBeat: Do you think mobile devices in general — not only as a platform but as a tool for reaching a broader audience or reaching an audience in a different way — do they have the potential to change the way your company as a whole sees game development?
Pearce: It’s probably a little of both. I don’t think we can abandon the spaces we currently operate in. We have a very healthy business on the PC. It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to abandon the massive community that’s loyal to what we do on that platform. I don’t think the PC business is dropping off a cliff any time soon. We have a lot of our roots in console development. You can look at Diablo III and say that we’ve gotten back to that. Overwatch should be awesome on consoles. We announced that at BlizzCon this past year. It’s about an opportunity for us to just offer more diversity in the platforms that people can experience our franchises with.
GamesBeat: You talked about diversity in genres. Do you feel like there are additional genres that are ripe for Blizzard to take on at this point?
Pearce: We have a pretty good range of choices right now. Some of it remains to be seen in the FPS space. That’s a highly competitive space to function in. There’s not a single 800-pound gorilla. It’s more like multiple 1,200-pound gorillas. I’ve played Overwatch and it’s awesome. It has a lot of personality. Hopefully it’ll have some appeal for folks looking for something a little different.
As it relates to the realtime strategy space, that’s one of those areas where—if we were going to continue to evaluate experiences in realtime strategy, we need to figure out what that means by today’s standards. Legacy of the Void did great. We reached millions of players with it. We have a passionate and loyal following. But I don’t know that people want to sit down and play 45-minute missions anymore. That space might need some reinventing. Even though it’s a space we already operate in, that offers us some pretty exciting possibilities.
We have a very loyal Diablo community. It’s going to be important for us to continue to support that community. I don’t know what that necessarily means right now because we’re still actively supporting our Diablo III players. But I don’t think we want to let our franchises go dormant for as long as we have historically. We have loyal communities around these franchises and it’s not fair to let them go dormant that long.
GamesBeat: Do you think there are strategy opportunities in the mobile space? It certainly seems to be a meeting of two areas you have some interest. You certainly have a great amount of experience in RTS.
Pearce: It’s definitely something we want to have a conscious evaluation of. If you look at Overwatch and StarCraft, we have multiple franchises that would potentially lend themselves to that concept.
GamesBeat: You talked a bit about the idea of Blizzard as an entertainment company, not just a game development studio. One thing we talked about with Mike was your presence at the forefront of development in esports and the competitive scene, how that became this thing that’s its own separate form of entertainment. From your perspective, what else would you like to see Blizzard doing in esports?
Pearce: I don’t know if we have an answer to that. We’re actively exploring it right now. We have very ambitious goals around Esports for 2016. I’m sure you’ve seen the Heroes of the Storm announcements and the collegiate competitive offering we’re doing with Hearthstone, Heroes, and StarCraft II. We have so much stuff going on I can’t keep up with it.
It’s an opportunity for us to expose these experiences to people that is an easier onramp. We used to think, by the standards of the day, that World of Warcraft was a pretty accessible game. 11 years later the standards have changed. A lot of games out there, including ours, don’t have as easy an onramp as they could have.
Even if you look at Hearthstone as an example—you can play through the tutorial, which is pretty comprehensible and not too difficult to get through, but that doesn’t give you an understanding of the reality of that experience. That’s challenging. You have the basic card collection and you have to build a deck. Deck building is probably the most difficult element of the game. Hearthstone as an esport is an opportunity to lengthen that onramp for people and expose it to people who’d never have heard of it. That’s where I view the biggest opportunity over the next couple of years — exposure and onboarding into the space.
GamesBeat: On the esports side of that world, you guys have become responsible for a lot of people having entire careers. People have become streamers and gamers whose living is based on your products. Does that relationship to people whose livelihood now depends on the balance of your products change the nature of how you approach development at all?
Pearce: A little bit. One thing we’re always trying to do when developing a product is iterate on the experience. We can expose the product for a first look to folks internally. Before we started the closed beta for Overwatch, we had an internal alpha the employees could play. Having all of these community influencers out there gives us an extra step in the process to expose our work in progress to what you could describe as experts in the field of playing these games, as opposed to just the broader community. The community might be very passionate, but doesn’t necessarily have the in-depth perspective that these influencers have.
Rob would be better suited to address the question than I would. We’ve hosted a number of community summits on the campus here for folks to come in and hear from us about some of the things we’re thinking and play the works in progress. My understanding is it’s been very well-received. I can’t remember how many we did last year. Maybe as many as a dozen across a number of games.
GamesBeat: You talked about how all of the leisure-time activities people take part in are having an impact on what you do from day to day. Can you elaborate on what that impact has been, and what you expect it to be moving forward?
Pearce: The biggest impact is that people want to be able to access their leisure-time experiences wherever they are, whenever it is, on whatever device is most convenient at the time.
That presents certain unique challenges for a game like World of Warcraft. We started working on it in 2000 when we had no idea smartphones would ever exist. Now the development team needs to think about, “Well, if someone’s not at their desk playing World of Warcraft on their PC, what else can we do to keep them engaged in that community and that experience? What does that mean for mobile devices? What does that mean for esports?”
As the owners of these experiences, we have to think about how someone wants to engage with our games beyond the original platform for which it was created. What’s the portal into World of Warcraft through other methods, be they technology or experience?
GamesBeat: You’ve talked a lot about the differences between the way development was at Blizzard years ago versus the way it is now. How do you see it continuing to change over the coming years? How is your core business model or the games that you make or the way you present them to your community likely to change?
Pearce: As it relates to business model, I have the same thoughts there as I do about genres and platforms. It’s important for us to have diversity in business models as well. We’ve done a good job of that. We have free-to-play. We have subscription. We have traditional boxed licenses.
We’ll need to evolve with the industry as it relates to business models, but we need to make the right choices for the experiences we’re developing. I don’t think it’s right for the development teams to be shoehorned into creating content for a specific business model. This is still a creative space. We have creative people. To get the best outcomes from their efforts, they need the freedom to explore their creativity.
One of the more important challenges for me is figuring out how we can do more with less manpower. The World of Warcraft team is 250 people and they’re able to create a tremendous amount of content, but all of us would like to be able to get more content to the community more quickly. Not that this is necessarily right for World of Warcraft, but it’s worth exploring something new, whether it’s procedural content or user-generated content or combinations of all of this, or just better tools.
Our communities are voracious consumers of the experiences we create. Anything we can do to provide more of what they crave is good. If people run out of things to do, they’ll go find other ways to occupy their time. They might not come back to where we’re doing. It’s not about trying to retain these people in our communities so we can reap the financial rewards of it. We’re craftsmen. We’re proud of the work we do. We want to see the work we do enjoyed by as many people as possible.
GamesBeat: Historically Blizzard games have been pretty much a walled garden for additional content creation, though. We’ve seen some examples on the strategy side, or simple UI mods for World of Warcraft, but when it comes to additional in-game content, do you see that changing?
Pearce: It’s something every team should keep in mind as they’re evaluating something new. I don’t think it should be imposed on them. But I’m a huge fan of commercial-quality tools for content creation that we can include with our products. I worked on Warcraft III. I worked on StarCraft, and a little bit on StarCraft II at the very beginning. I’ve always been a huge proponent of making sure the tools we’re creating are easy to use. It’s not just because we need our guys to be able to create great content. It gives us the option to consider allowing the community to self-service with content.
We haven’t done that with all our products. It might not be the right answer for everything. But the end result for whatever product we have, as it relates to user-generated content, shouldn’t be an accident. It should be a conscious decision.
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