Interview: Blizzard's Frank Pearce on Warcraft milestones

Blizzard's Frank Pearce has been with the company since co-founding it in 1991 as Silicon & Synapse, along with Michael Morhaime and Allen Adham. Today, he's the senior vice president and serves as the executive producer of World of Warcraft, which probably includes the duty of swimming in pools filled with gold coins, a la Scrooge McDuck.

We talked to Frank about the milestones that Warcraft recently hit: 15 years for Warcraft and five for World of Warcraft, and how those games have changed the company. Read on beyond the break for the details and find out what he thinks the developer has failed at, why another company might be able to do it better and when you can expect a Blizzard theme park to open.
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So tell us a bit about yourself and how you got here. You founded Silicon & Synapse with Allen Adham and Michael Morhaime in 1991, and now it's Blizzard Entertainment 18 years later. How did that happen?

Sure. I was studying computer science at UCLA and I met Allen Adham there. And Allen had connections within the computer game industry. He was friends with Brian Fargo who was, I think, president and CEO of Interplay. I am not sure what Brian's title was, but Brian was in charge at Interplay at the time. And Allen knew that when he graduated from UCLA, he wanted to make computer video games. Allen graduated about six months after I did. When I graduated, I went to work for Rockwell. And unbeknown to me, I hadn't met Mike while we were at UCLA, but Mike graduated at the same time I did. We probably walked together, but we never knew each other. And Mike went to work for Western Digital.

When Allen graduated in December of 1990, he contacted both Mike and myself and invited us to come with him to make computer games. I was 22 years old at the time. There were people in the department I was working at inside Rockwell that had been there for 15 years that were doing the same thing I was doing, and I had just shown up. I just felt like if I was going to take a chance at the age of 22, it seemed like a good time, so I accepted Allen's invitation to go work with him. And we got our start doing ports of some of Interplay's DOS games to the Amiga platform.

So that was Silicon & Synapse. How did it go from that to Blizzard Entertainment?

Right. When we incorporated, Alan incorporated us under the name Silicon & Synapse. That wasn't really a good name, because no one knew how to spell it. We went through a pretty extensive process to find a new name and came up with Chaos Studios. There were some trademark issues with that name. When it came time to publish a title under that label, we discovered those issues. We had just been acquired by Davidson & Associates shortly after we made the name change to Chaos Studios, so it seemed like an appropriate time to make another change so that we could publish under our own label. And we came up with Blizzard Entertainment.

We specifically selected to append Entertainment as compared to anything else, because we always felt like we wanted to have the option to do more than games. I mean games are our foundation, but we always felt like, you know, if we were creating our own franchises, we would want to someday seem them on the big screen or see them in novelizations or comic books, or whatever. And so, we were conscious of the name when we selected it to call it Blizzard Entertainment, because we knew we wanted to have the option to do more than games in the future.

Where did the Blizzard part come from?

You know, it is a complicated process. You look through the dictionary and make a list of big long words, and you start narrowing it down. [laughs] You get feedback from the people working at the organization, and then you get feedback from the legal department after they have done some trademark searches. And after that big extensive process, Blizzard is where we landed. One of the first things that Allen does as part of the process is to literally start perusing the dictionary.

So, here we are at the 15th anniversary of Warcraft, and the 5th anniversary of World of Warcraft, which is fairly timely because someone in Taiwan apparently beat the game. Have these games changed Blizzard as a company?

"I would say that the Blizzard of today is not anything like we would have imagined it five years ago, and certainly not what we would have imagined it to be 15 years ago."

I would say that the Blizzard of today is not anything like we would have imagined it five years ago, and certainly not what we would have imagined it to be 15 years ago. You can definitely point to the Warcraft franchise as something that really shaped the company. We had a celebration on campus last week ... actually, I guess it was two weeks ago at this point. We had a celebration at our site to celebrate the anniversaries. And I was talking to everyone about how if you look back at the original Warcraft, that was when we had created our quality assurance department. That was when we created our technical support department. That was when we had our first BBS, which was our first foray into dealing directly with our community. There were just so many things that we put in place for the first Warcraft PC game that have been the foundation for the company that we are today.

But the other thing is that that is also our first original PC title, and we have really hung our hat on PC gaming ever since. And then if you look at World of Warcraft, we have about 4,000 employees worldwide today, and five years ago, we probably only had about 500. And the reason for that growth is World of Warcraft, because overnight, once we launched World of Warcraft, we went from a company that was delivering just a boxed product to its fans and transitioned into a company that was a service provider to the fans, because we have got a different business model. And so, with that different business model comes different expectations of ourselves, as well as the expectations from the players. I am not sure that when we launched World of Warcraft that we really anticipated that the transition would be such a dramatic one, because, you know, we definitely underestimated the success that we would experience with WoW.

With that success comes a giant, as you mentioned, audience worldwide that is playing this game. How has that community shaped what you have been doing?

I mean with the Battle.Net service historically, I think that we actually were already accustomed to dealing pretty directly with our community. We already had forums up on our website where we could solicit feedback from the community. Operating beta versions of our games was something that we had already done, dating back to, I think, the first Diablo. So operating betas to get feedback from the community and dealing with the community directly in forums are certainly things that we were familiar with.

But the big impact from WoW, as it relates to that, is just the size and scope of the community and the expectations of the community. And so, with the launch of WoW and the expectations of the community of players, we actually have a staff, a department within the public relations groups, whose responsibility day in and day out is to interact with our community and make sure that the development teams are getting that feedback, because there is so much of it now, we actually need people to be able to sift through it and collate it and filter it down to usable information.

Is the popularity of WoW a dangerous place for Blizzard? It would be easy to just rest on your laurels and watch the money come in every month rather than trying innovative and new things. Is it a fine line you have to walk with that?

Yeah, I think you could say that. I think we recognize, at least we work to recognize, that we are very fortunate, and that if we want to maintain our good fortune, it is going to require a lot of effort on our part. I mean the guys that work on the World of Warcraft team work their asses off all the time to be creating cool and compelling content for the fans. Certainly there is that balance between ... okay, there is the World of Warcraft community and the people that are devoting their time to World of Warcraft.

What happens when we launch Starcraft 2? Will we be cannibalizing our own audience from WoW for players that are going to play Starcraft 2? And the same question comes up for Diablo 3. You know, one of the philosophies we have is that someone is going to come along and be able to compete with World of Warcraft. And if someone is going to create a game that competes with World of Warcraft for the time of those fans, it may as well be us, right? I mean if someone is going to take the fans, we are better off taking them for ourselves with our own games than someone else taking them.

That's not to say that ... I think if there are great games out there, and I think that the players have the bandwidth to experience them. I think they have the time to devote to them if it is a really great game, regardless of who makes it. So that is not to say that if someone else comes out with a great game that competes with World of Warcraft that we can't maintain our audience by continuing to make great content.

It's interesting that you mention that, because recently, Shane Dabiri from Blizzard said there are a lot of developers who are trying to emulate World of Warcraft, and as flattering as that is, it is definitely not the right move, which sounded slightly arrogant. It's like saying, "Hey, we have done it better than anybody else can, so don't even bother." Can someone do it better?


Sure. I think it is definitely a possibility. I think it would be a huge undertaking. We are just celebrating five years of World of Warcraft from a commercial perspective. It has been commercially available for five years, but we had five years of time, and money, and effort invested into it before we even launched. So I mean to try to compete with World of Warcraft by emulating what World of Warcraft has done is a big undertaking. That is not to say someone couldn't do it. I mean we operate World of Warcraft and it seems like a daunting task for us dealing with Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3. So you know, I think there is always space in the market for great games, regardless of the business model and the genre.

Did WoW change significantly from what it was intended to be? Blizzard has traditionally been open about showing the development process -- for instance, at Austin GDC you showed off some concept art for a game that never happened called Nomad ...

Right. Nomad was a completely different game and genre altogether from what World of Warcraft is. That game turned out, Nomad, that is, turned out to not really be what the guys that were making it really wanted to play. They were playing things like Ultima Online and Everquest, and what they really wanted to make and play was an MMO of our own. I mean if you look at Nomad compared to WoW, yeah, it is definitely very, very different from what that team originally started on. If you look at once they started down the path of creating an MMO in the Warcraft universe, I think it stays pretty true to the original vision.

It's just that the scope of Warcraft is enormous, and you have to wonder if it was always planned to be that big.

Yeah. Certainly the scope of the Warcraft universe and the Warcraft franchise has exploded in the last five years with World of Warcraft. But we had 10 years of that franchise that we were using as a foundation for the game. So there was a lot of lore, and a lot of storyline, and a lot of ideas that we could lean on as a springboard.

What was the biggest obstacle in the development process for WoW?

I would probably point to the capacity plan that we had for commercial launch. We had the capacity on our servers for about 400,000 subscribers. That is what we planned for in the first year of commercial release. And we had exceeded that capacity within the first month of commercial release. And there is a lead time to deploy servers to the infrastructure. There is a lead time to get all that infrastructure in place. And we reached a point shortly after commercial launch where we literally had to stop shipping boxes to retail so that we could catch up on the capacity of the infrastructure to support the demand.

That's with WoW, and with Warcraft the last game was what, the Frozen Throne expansion back in 2003?

Right.

Are you guys planning on revisiting that part of the franchise? Will there be a Warcraft 4 or has Warcraft run its course?

You know. It is hard to say. Because World of Warcraft is a service as much as a game, that development team and the guys that are responsible for the Warcraft lore have that as an outlet for a lot of the storytelling that they want to do. Whether or not we would do a Warcraft 4 or a Warcraft in any other genre would really depend on the development teams that are available. The team that is working on Starcraft 2 right now is the development team that created Warcraft 3. And we make sure that when a team frees up that that development team is very actively involved in determining what their next project is going to be. It is not brought down from any ivory tower in terms of what a team is going to work on.

For us, we are a culture of gamers, and it is really important that the people that are making the games are making a game that they want to play. So if one of our development teams came free and they really wanted to make a Warcraft 4, and it was a really compelling concept, then we would certainly consider it. We have a lot of options, and we have a lot of ideas, so it just depends. Certainly the door is not closed to it, but it would really depend on the development teams.

World of Warcraft seems to cross the meta-boundaries a lot these days. You have a Murlock Marine pet who fights a Zergling. You have the Mr.T Mohawk grenades and commercials. Does Blizzard ever nix things that are too meta? How do you decide kind of how to stay on that edge?

Most of it revolves around making sure that that stuff isn't going to impact gameplay. Like if it is cosmetic and it is just cool and fun, then we will brainstorm and come up with all kinds of ideas. I mean we have done all sorts of wild stuff over the years as it relates to that type of thing. You know, it just depends on the opportunity, right? Like, the Murlock Marine was a BlizzCon pet. The Mr.T Mohawk grenade is part of the holiday promotion we are running right now. There is a commercial that goes with it on TV. We have done some cool cosmetic type items in conjunction with our partnership with Upper Deck and the trading card game.

We might do cosmetic type things like pets related to promotions like recruit of friends or the Scroll of Resurrection, which is a promotion to try to bring back subscribers ... or, I am sorry. I shouldn't call them subscribers. Now we are talking marketing speak. But, to bring back "players" to the game that may have canceled their subscription, whose friends are still playing, and their friends want to see them come back to the game. So we have different opportunities for different things. We are doing the Pet Store right now on the website, which is a very new thing for us, because we are selling virtual pets on the website. They are just cosmetic. One of the pets, we are sending half of the proceeds to the Make A Wish Foundation. So I mean, yeah, it is just making sure that if we are doing something meta like that that it is cosmetic and doesn't affect gameplay, and doesn't break too far out of the realm of what the universe represents.

We noticed that Blizzard has moved into a number of micro-transactions. You have the pet store, there is faction and race changing, there is server jumping. So have you consciously shied away from doing anything that could unbalance the game? Like purchasing epic weapons?

Yeah. I mean there is a balance there, too, right? I mean arguably, no one has done a profit/loss statement on it, because it is a gray area, right? I mean sure, we could sell items. We could sell gold. But that affects the economy. That affects the game experience. And that could effect, you know, the time that someone decides they want to devote to the experience. Maybe they don't want to devote as much time to the experience if they are fast tracking through the experience because they are able to spend real world money on expediting the experience.

Some of those services that you talked about, like the race change, faction change, the realm transfer, when we originally created the game, we thought realms with thousands of people on them would adequately allow people to play with their friends and play together. But because the game has become so large and there are so many people playing it around the world, you might bump into someone and establish a relationship with them. But if they play on a different realm, your only option to play the game with them is to re-roll. And so, some of these services, we deliberately added so that people would have the option to play with their friends that they may not have had the opportunity to play with before.

Other MMOs, like City of Heroes and Star Wars Galaxies, have included user-customizable quests or areas. Do you think you would ever work on anything like that, or do you like to keep everything under your own control?


That is a good question. I think for WoW, it presents certain unique challenges, because when we started creating the tools and the technology that we created for the game 10 years ago, user generated content wasn't something people were talking about. So you know, I am a big fan of anything that we can do to help create additional experiences within the game. So I would like the development team to evaluate ways that we can take and do some procedurally generated content, not to take the experience, like, not for 100% of the development process.

But if we can do procedurally generated content to get us 50% of the way or 70% of the way there, it allows the guys on the team to focus on a broader experience or a deeper experience that they wouldn't otherwise be able to deliver to the player, because they are currently creating most of this stuff by hand. So you know, user generated content definitely falls into the category of something we could leverage to deliver additional experience to the players, but not really something that we have got on the list right now.

We've seen major promotion between Blizzard and Mountain Dew, Battle Bots, celebrities like Ozzy Osbourne, Mr. T, etc. Is there anything else big coming up soon?


Well, the most recent promotion was the Mr. T stuff with the Mohawk Grenade. And we have got a new marketing campaign that we are running on TV in conjunction with that. I think we only launched that within the last two weeks. So that is something that we will have to look at and see how well we do with that. I think we also had a Black Friday special that we were running.

$5 for the game.

$5 for the game, yeah. Again, we will have to collate the numbers and see how that did and really take a step back and decide. I don't think you will see anything new short-term. I mean we will definitely be evaluating stuff with the possibility of more BlizzCon and next year's holiday season. We have an in-house marketing department with really capable and smart guys that are really passionate about that stuff. I work on the product development side.

So you say, "Let's do a commercial with Mr. T and the Mohawk grenade," I say, "That sounds awesome." [laughs] But beyond that, it is a different language. But no, if you look at the history of Warcraft and the history of World of Warcraft, the size of the marketing department we have today has grown in conjunction with the Warcraft player base as well. I mean 15 years ago, we didn't do our own marketing. Our parent company did that function for us. And over the years, we have grown to the point where that is something we want to be able to manage ourselves.

Speaking of marketing, some people have been asking, "Can we please get a girl in one of those 'What's Your Game' ads?"

Do you have any suggestions about who would be a good candidate?

I probably have a long list I could send over.

We are always brainstorming ideas for people for that style of commercials. I think a woman doing those commercials would be awesome. Send us your top three we will forward it to the marketing guys.

15 years is a long time to establish a community of gamers. Were there times where you were just like, "Wow. We dropped the ball here. We need to fix this," or, "We really did this great. Let's improve on this."

Yes.

Great answer. Alright. Thank you.

"I think that we have failed multiple times with some features."

*laughs* I don't know. If you want some specific examples, you are going to make me ... I am old. I have to try to remember some of the stuff that has happened. I think that we have failed multiple times with some features. Like the Looking for Group system has never panned out for us. We are working on a new one, and hopefully we will get it right this time. But definitely, I think we dropped the ball in the way the Looking for Group system has worked in the past. We have definitely ... I think when we launched ... let's see. I can't even remember. How did we handle capacity for Burning Crusade when we launched? I mentioned the capacity issues we had when we originally launched commercially, so we definitely ... with the launch of Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, we really felt like we learned from our mistakes, and those launches went really, really smoothly for us.

Some of the stuff that we deal with from a global scope is a big challenge. I wouldn't say that we have necessarily dropped the ball, but it is always an ongoing issue. We have a lot of fans in China and we really want to be able to put the game experience in their hands. And to do that, we have to interact with the government agencies there and work with them to make sure that we can get the game in the hands of the fans there. I don't know that we have ever necessarily dropped the ball. For me, it was pretty disappointing this past summer when the game had to go dark in China while we transitioned to our new partner. I think everyone understands that that is a process. All the fans there understand that that is a process. I wish we could have done it on a tighter timeline.

Was that when you switched from The 9 to NetEase?

From The 9 to NetEase, yeah.

Was that worth it, in your opinion, that switch?

Yeah. I think NetEase has been a great partner so far. They are really committed to ... they are gamers like we are. When I had the chance to meet them, I thought they were really committed to the quality of the experience. We have really high standards for quality, so it always takes time for us to find the right people to partner with, whether it is for distributing and operating the game in China, or whether it is for a movie or anything like that. We always want to be very patient and meticulous when identifying a partner to make sure that we have found someone that shares our philosophies.

So will there be a Blizzard in Vegas in July?

Vegas in July ...? Oh, is that when the convention center says they are hosting BlizzCon? So the challenge we have with BlizzCon ... like, most conventions operate on a very annual basis. And with BlizzCon, we want to make sure that when we host BlizzCon, we are hosting it at a time when we actually have cool things to show our fans so that when they show up for this event that they actually have preliminary versions of the games that they can play. And so, it is tough for us to do that on a perfectly annual schedule, host BlizzCon and make sure that we are providing a compelling experience.

So we want the flexibility to host BlizzCon when it makes sense to host BlizzCon. And all these convention centers operate on these very fixed schedules. If the motorcycle convention is being hosted at the convention center in whatever city, they host it there every year that weekend. And so it is really hard for us to get weekends. So like in this case, the weekend that we were looking at ... I mean it wasn't like we decided we were going to host BlizzCon in Vegas that weekend. We thought, you know, if we want to host BlizzCon in Vegas, we need a hold on the convention center. So well in advance, we saw what dates they had available and we put a hold. But then in evaluating it, that is not the right date to host BlizzCon.

It sounds like you guys just need to build your own convention center somewhere.

Yeah. What we can do is we can build a convention center and an adjacent Blizzard theme park. Actually, I had people ask me in interviews, "Hey, you know, any chance that we would ever see a Blizzard theme park, or at least a Blizzard themed ride in any of the theme parks?" My answer is that we already operate a huge theme park, and we have got 12 million players that are in that theme park. Because basically, World of Warcraft is a virtual theme park that we operate.

But nothing is outside the realm of possibility. You never know.

Certainly not.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.