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AGDC: How to rule the World (of Warcraft)


I'm attending the Austin Game Developers Conference this week, and today's big event is a keynote by Mike Morhaime, president and co-founder of Blizzard Entertainment. Titled How to Rule the World (of Warcraft): Ten Lessons, I doubt it covers guild management, PvP tactics, or farming for gold -- but I'm certainly interested in Morhaime's thoughts on the operation and administration of the Warcraft universe. Keep reading for a play-by-play of the keynote!

9:25 AM CST: The ballroom is filling up, and everyone is waiting for the show to get started.

9:36 AM CST: The ballroom is working its way towards full, all of us waiting on the man of the hour to show.

9:40 AM CST: A speaker apologizes for the lateness, but they wanted as many people to have the chance to attend as possible. World of Warcraft as a world-wide brand. Introducing Mike Morhaime to talk about 10 lessons learned from producing a global IP brand.

9:42 AM CST: The stuff we're doing today wouldn't have been previously possible. Our century is the first to have an electronic games industry and this generation is the first one to grow up playing games. Looking back at the 20th century, we've had:
  • A revolution in transportation, communication, information
  • Rate of technological progress has continued to increase exponentially
  • This is unprecedented in the history of the world (the real world)

9:45 AM CST: Start by looking back and seeing what has changed in just the past 100 years. Just 100 years ago (1907):
  • Only 8000 cars in the US
  • No air force
  • Only 8% of US homes had a phone
To put this in perspective, it was like World of Warcraft before getting a mount and without any flight paths.

9:46 AM CST: Moore's law. Technology is getting faster and better -- we're limited by the technology on our users' desktops.

9:48 AM CST: A brief history of Blizzard.
  • In 1991, 3 UCLA grads founded Blizzard Entertainment with $20,000 in capitol and two 386s.
  • A simpler time... no CD drives
  • Started out by doing conversion projects (ports)
  • First project was a racing game for Nintendo
  • Started building up teams capable of creating their own original projects, which they'd pitch. Selected as best software developer of 1993 by Video Games Magazine.
  • The 16-bit console market was starting to decline at this point, and they decided to create their first PC game, Warcraft.
  • Also, the internet was beginning to get big, and they started considering how to use this in their games.
  • In 1994, the company was sold to an education software company called Davidson & Associates. Public company, but majority owned by the Davidson family. They recognized that Blizzard knew what they were doing and would leave Blizzard full creative control while giving them access to their distribution systems, marketing, PR, etc.
  • Even though, through various mergers, they're now part of Vivendi, the initial deal with the Davidsons leaves them some autonomy.
9:54 AM CST: Blizzard's core philosophies.
  • Our first priority is to make great games. Gameplay first -- if we don't get this part right, none of the rest of it matters.
  • It all starts with a donut....
    • The center of the donut is your core market
    • The donut itself is your casual market
    • Core markets + casual markets = success
    • Blizzard tries to make games that are accessible to both of these markets:
      • Low system requirements mean many people can play
      • Easy to learn, difficult to master. It's very easy to pick up the game and start playing, but there's more depth for people who want depth.
  • Building the brand
    • The Blizzard name is their most important property. Blizzard should mean high quality, fun, and polish. If users know nothing about the game except that it's made by Blizzard, that should be enough for them to buy the game.
  • Resist the pressure to ship early. There's pressure from many sources to ship games in a timely fashion, but shipping early is risky.
    • Game companies only have one chance to make a first impression. Once you lose that chance, you may have lost the player.
    • Think long term -- don't mortgage the future to meet the quarter. There's a financial mindset that the quarter is the most important thing... but releasing early can lose your players.
    • Diablo missed Christmas. They were working like crazy to get the game ready, but only managed to release on December 31st. But the game ended up selling great throughout the next year (1997). If they'd released it early for Christmas, it would have been a disaster -- people would have brought home a buggy game, not been happy about it, and not come back. Blizzard can point to their success with Diablo to indicate that hitting the holiday isn't more important than releasing a finished product.
    • WoW: The Burning Crusade also missed Christmas. But Blizzard wanted to release the most polished product possible, especially after WoW's initial rocky launch. They were rewarded with the fastest selling PC game of all time.
    • It's really in the interest of everyone, even the finance guys, to make sure a game is ready before it goes out!
10:04 AM CST:
  • Resist the pressure to do everything at once
    • Build on your successes, gain expertise -- don't try to do everything at once. If you try to do everything, you'll fail.
10:05 AM CST: Blizzard's evolution as a global company.
  • They create all games in English, and then translate them to other languages.
  • Adapting to Europe
    • Hardcore fans would immediately pick up gray-market translated copies of Blizzard games, meaning they wouldn't be buying official versions when released. So Blizzard had to release translations fast to be successful.
  • Adapting to Asia
    • Gaming rooms are incredibly common here, and having games that can work well in this type of environment is very important.
  • Blizzard's sales have gradually become more global. Starcraft was the first game with a large Asian market, even though it wasn't designed with Asian markets in mind and, though most of its Asian gamers are in Korea, it's still not translated into Korean. After seeing Starcraft's success, however, Blizzard pushed to launch games world-wide at the same time. (Though WoW's launch was done in stages.)

10:10 AM CST: The myth of "regional taste"
  • Different styles of play exist everywhere, just in different concentration. Some people like PvP, some people like PvE, etc....
  • Blizzard doesn't think they need 15 different versions to appeal to each region's "taste" -- instead it's different styles of gameplay. Don't second-guess themselves designing for other people, "We're our target market." Don't play guessing games with what
  • But you do have to be sensitive to other cultures... An example of where Blizzard messed this up.
    • Pandarens added to the Warcraft universe.
    • Dressed up in samaurai outfits -- but Chinese players were angry that their pandas were dressed up in Japanese garb.
    • Big wake-up call for Blizzard, who changed the Pandarens' gear to a more Chinese style.
10:15 AM CST: WoW Operations Overview
  • Direct operations in key territories: North America, Europe, South Korea
  • Full customer support and server infrastructure in each of these
  • In Asia, instead of creating facilities themselves, Blizzard has partnered with others
10:18 AM CST: Estimating global demand
  • There's a lot of infrastructure that needs to be setup and planned in advance for a launch.
  • For WoW, they underestimated demand. They do midnight launches at the local Fry's Electronics, go down and sign boxes, etc. They went over to the WoW midnight launch and the line wrapped around the building three times -- they started thinking maybe they needed more hardware.
  • They had looked at the record from their previous games to estimate how far World of Warcraft would go. They presumed it couldn't sell faster than Warcraft III -- it had a monthly subscription fee, which would slow down adoption, some people would wait to see how it went, ect... But they were wrong.
  • They immediately had to play catch-up! The entire business needed to be scaled up overnight. More development staff, more IT staff... A live team dealing with issues and fixes currently on the game a different team to develop future features. Community management, customer service, management teams for all of these groups, human resources... "When we launched World of Warcraft, we didn't have a recruiting department."
  • "We were not prepared."
10:22 AM CST: Running a MMORPG is not just game development. It's a number of things that impact the players' experience that may be just as important as the game itself. Blizzard wasn't just a game developer or game publisher -- they were now a service company.
  • Blizzard had been running, and felt they had some experience with online gaming, but this was a whole new game. (They thought they knew this!)
10:24 AM CST: Communicate (or people will make stuff up)
  • WoW's community team needed a process to keep the community form and keep staff (domestic and international) informed.
  • When a problem crops up, Blizzard may not yet know what the problem is or have any idea of how long it will take to fix while they're researching.
  • While you're not talking to your community, they're freaking out!
10:25 AM CST: Avoid financial incentives
  • If there's a financial incentive to do something, people will do it.
    • I.e. gold farming. People can make money at this, so they do it, and it has negative impact on the game itself.
      • So you have sweatshops farming gold
      • You have trojans designed to steal accounts and strip their gold
      • Credit card fraud -- to pay for their accounts, sweatshop farmers often use stolen credit card numbers, so shutting them down is limited financial impact on them.
10:29 AM CST: Testing -- never trust version 1.0!
  • Everyone at Blizzard does an internal alpha test
  • When they think things are good, they move on to a public beta
  • Since they're constantly releasing new content for World of Warcraft, they've found it very valuable to have a test site (the PTRs). The game was initially launched without this, and they feel it hurt them.

10:31 AM CST: Burning Crusade Launch -- Blizzard tried to learn lessons from the game's initial launch.
  • Upgraded their entire infrastructure to eliminate potential bottlenecks
  • Added extra capacity in case their demand estimates were off again
  • This time we were prepared! The launch went very smoothly. The community service team said it was like a patch launch.
  • Did a world-wide launch with the game going out in the US and Europe at the same time. Almost like a new years' celebration with a new launch site opening every hour.
10:33 AM CST: Showing video from the European Burning Crusade launch.

10:37 AM CST: Thanks for coming!

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