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Chris Metzen was the primary visionary at Blizzard Entertainment on games such as Warcraft, Diablo, StarCraft, and Overwatch. But toiling on games took a toll, and after 22 years, he left it all behind in 2016. Now, four years later, Metzen has recharged and is diving into tabletop games with Warchief Gaming.
The former Blizzard senior vice president is being joined by Mike Gilmartin, who recently left his role as vice president of quality assurance at Blizzard. If it seems like a lot of this is happening — people who worked there starting new game companies — you’re not imagining it. Former Blizzard president Mike Morhaime recently unveiled his game startup Dreamhaven, and former StarCraft production lead Tim Morten started Frost Giant Studios. But in contrast to those companies, Metzen and Gilmartin aren’t making video games. They’re going further back in time to their love of Dungeons & Dragons, and they’re hoping to contribute to the revival of offline tabletop games.
I interviewed both Gilmartin and Metzen for this article, and it was an extraordinary conversation. I’ve viewed Blizzard from the outside over the past decades, and this interview opened some insight into what it was like to be there as a creator.
For the past couple of years, Metzen has been enjoying playing tabletop games with friends in a club, talking with them for hours at a time and enjoying himself. That helped him heal his mind from a kind of burnout, and it made him hungry to create worlds again.
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Metzen opened up about that sense of burnout and creative exhaustion. He felt like he didn’t have a safety net, and that asking for help wasn’t an easy option. He left, relaxed, and is recharged again.
“Tabletop is where I learned to be creative with my friends growing up, playing D&D, playing Warhammer,” he said. “Loving these ideas and playing these games in the same space as my best friends. Those are some of my most cherished memories. At 47, I come back to that. Even after that glorious Blizzard experience, I want that intimate scale again. This is my path.”
Tabletop vs. video games
Gilmartin tried talking Metzen into doing this for a while as an alternative to working at a place like Blizzard, with gigantic projects and equally gigantic responsibilities.
“The basis of our friendship and having done this club over the last couple of years, to me it felt like a very safe foundation,” Metzen said. “There was no version of me going back to some big game company. There was no version of me going back to Blizzard. As much as I love it, and I truly do, I don’t have that in me anymore. I don’t want to be a giant corporate officer. I don’t want to direct giant teams anymore. Maybe one day, but I’m not that guy today.”
Since Metzen had so much success creating worlds at Blizzard that turned into huge franchises, Gilmartin seized on the opportunity and encouraged Metzen to pursue his new dream through the studio in Irvine, California.
“This doesn’t demand hundreds of people. It just demands the right people,” Metzen said. “I’m excited by that, by the simplicity of that. Making richer creative relationships that way, that run a little deeper, that aren’t so frenetic in the way that the pace of making video games can be.”
While tabletop games are a much smaller market opportunity than video games, they are hot now. And Gilmartin thinks that if the tabletop games are successful, they could be licensed to become other things over time, much like comic books can spawn great movies or games (Metzen has written a few comics before, such as IDW Publishing’s Transformers line). Metzen thinks less about that and more about the fact that tabletop games were his first love.
Still, Metzen said he was viewing the moment with some trepidation, as he was turning his hobby into a bet on a new studio. But the bet is small for now, with just three full-time people and other helpers. Metzen doesn’t have to worry that a whole division of hundreds or thousands of employees is dependent on him to come up with creative magic.
And by starting out small in this manner, Metzen and Gilmartin can make sure that they control what they create and build worlds on their own terms.
“Early on, when Chris and I started really jamming about this, we decided that we wanted to control as much of our destiny as possible,” Gilmartin said. “That was one thing we talked about, what would happen if we were to go out and get some funding. One reason we’re doing things the way we’re doing them is because it’s smaller and more scalable. We’re able to control it.”
Metzen added, “It was a privilege to be able to work on all those worlds at Blizzard for all those years. But in this phase of my life, I guess I would say out loud, I’m interested in owning my own ideas. I’m interested in being able to develop them the way my gut tells me I should, without oversight of people I don’t know. That’s a big theme for me, that ownership and authorship.”
The members-only club will continue to operate, so the hobby can live on. But now Warchief Gaming is moving on to some serious work.
Metzen recalled that the time when he felt most creative was when he was working the hardest, going back-and-forth between work on World of Warcraft and Warcraft III — two games that eventually became blockbusters.
“I was so in love with it all. I was in love with the product,” Metzen said. “I was in love with the way that the jobs felt and the teams I was working with. Once World of Warcraft came out and got big, things changed. It was still awesome, and it’s still awesome today. But we went from being this tight little development shop to being a service provider of this big, giant game. That comes with its own rise and fall, its own new conditions and concerns.”
For Metzen, Warchief takes him back to that kind of creative time, before Blizzard became huge.
“It’s building ideas for your friends and laughing at it as we work every day,” he said. “There’s a purity to the smaller scale. Blizzard did exceptional work, but it was at a massive scale. It’s hard to control and keep the train on the tracks. And they’re running multiple trains. They’re all excellent. It’s just a lot of mindshare. This feels like it’s so much more freeing and simplified, the creative process.”
Collaborating on tabletop
Metzen said that the gaming club got him out of the house one or two nights a week, and he came back out of his shell.
Metzen and Gilmartin said they are committed to enhancing the community and elevating the services that gaming clubs can provide, while at the same time building their own worlds and products. They’re being joined by former Blizzard Entertainment game designer Ryan Collins (who worked on Hearthstone) as lead product developer to help turn Warchief’s big ideas into reality.
I can finally talk about what I'm up to! Happy to announce that I joined Warchief as the Lead Product Developer… we are SO excited to show you what we've been working on! https://t.co/fx4BFuhwdn
— Ryan Collins (@Ryolnir) October 27, 2020
With the club in place, it became easier to decide to focus on tabletop games instead of video games.
“Instead of stepping back into the world I had just come from, maybe roll the dice — ha ha — and try a different adventure, where I’m building things that the people at this club would play, that I want to play with them,” Metzen said. “I love video games, and that’s all miraculous, the whole Blizzard thing. But this is where my heart and my head are now. It’s so different from video games. There’s an immediacy to tabletop. People are right across the table from you. The vibe and engagement you get from reading to someone and laughing in the same space over ridiculous dice rolls–there are these moments of absurdity and glory that video games, at their best and most complex, can’t quite capture.”
He added, “I’ve always felt that even things like World of Warcraft, which is still my favorite video game of all time, they’re reaching for what D&D does. I don’t mean to sound arrogant in saying that. For my entire career at Blizzard, I was trying to chase the feelings that tabletop had always given me. Whether I was playing a role-playing game or a wargame, I just wanted to feel those things with the people I was playing with.”
Gilmartin spent 30 years in the industry and 15 years at Blizzard, and he was torn making the choice to leave. Like Metzen, Gilmartin said, “I bleed Blizzard blue.” But he figured this kind of opportunity would never come again, and he had to take it. He’ll focus on the operational side of the company.
“I’ve been doing this since 1990. I’ve had a good run throughout my career,” Gilmartin said. “I’ve been a producer, a designer, a studio head. One thing that, for me — once you get that creative bug in you — at SSI, for example, I was working on doing the map layouts for Dark Sun. Once you start getting into that, you get that creative bug in you, and it’s hard to get that out of you.”
Getting over some imposter syndrome
Metzen has been softened over time. He recently gave a talk about the “talent of empathy” at the recent International Games Summit on Mental Health Awareness. For Metzen, one of the things that he is doing is easing back into creation without the stress and anxiety and pressure.
“I have to admit, it’s weird,” Metzen said as we started our conversation. “I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years, but it’s been a while. I’m stupidly nervous. I hope that doesn’t result in a weird staccato.”
He said he felt like an imposter at Blizzard. The pressures mounted. He felt like the last thing he needed to do was to take a step back.
Toward the end of his time at Blizzard, Metzen said, “I got the speed wobbles a bit toward the end of my Blizzard run. It got to be a bit much for me.”
He realized he had stopped being creative. Metzen said he should have asked for help. But he didn’t, and he just decided to quit.
Metzen said it was a gift to be able to step back, retire from Blizzard, and recover. He said he realized that nobody else gets to step off the treadmill like that. But if anyone earned it, it’s Metzen. His franchises have generated millions of copies sold for Blizzard, and they have generated billions of dollars in sales.
Now, he will try to balance life and work more. He had a child four years ago, and now, after some heavy thinking and collaboration in the early part of the day, he can spend some quality time with the child in the pool in the afternoon — and be present in the moment.
“When you’re running at that pace, it’s hard to be present in other parts of your life,” he said, speaking about Blizzard. “It’s hard to appreciate and feel all the joy around you, because you’re never done with your workday. I feel, at this scale, with this kind of product, I can have both, and I can genuinely enjoy both. That’s a gift, just an absolute gift.”
He said that the balance re-energizes him more each day, and that’s important.
“I think I damaged my transmission a bit, kind of ground my clutch down,” he said. “Getting back into this stuff with Mike and starting this company, I think I’ve found it at last. Being that man at home and being a creative dude in my daily life. It feels good. It’s hard to collate all of that. But I think this feels like balance.”
The company isn’t ready to talk about what it’s doing yet.
“It feels more like — this is a weird analogy, but it feels like we’re in a garage band again, as opposed to this giant symphony orchestra, trying to account for the complexity of all these masterclass musicians,” Metzen said. “We’ve been on big stages, and now we’re back in a garage, playing punk rock that we played as kids. It feels awesome. … For all my nervousness, I know we’re on the right track.”
He added, “We’re going to come out and make some cool shit. Maybe we’ll find an audience. That would be great. Maybe we won’t. I don’t know. But, oh god, I’m having fun again. Jamming with my friends and hooking these ridiculous ideas and these crazy worlds. I needed this in my life.”
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