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Dear Chris Metzen: Thank you

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One of Blizzard’s biggest developers is leaving; a look back on the impact of his work

Metzen

I could point to a number of different individual video games that had a monumental impact on me over my 30 years of gaming. There’s Super Mario Bros. 3, which is the first game I ever fell in love with, or Final Fantasy 6, which is the game that made me realize I would be playing games for the rest of my life.

And then there’s Blizzard. It’s about the only developer that I can point to and just say, "Uh, yeah … everything after 1994. All of it."

From Warcraft to Diablo to StarCraft and beyond, basically every major Blizzard game has been a part of my gaming life, with many of them taking hold of my attention for months or even years at a time. There is no single developer that I’ve willingly given away as much of my life to as Blizzard.

Video games — especially from huge studios like Blizzard — are, of course, a team effort, and no one developer deserves all of the applause. But with Blizzard, some notably major chunk of the credit for everything the developer has given me (and everything I’ve given it in return) is owed to one man: Chris Metzen.

Chris Metzen adores cool, nerdy stuff

Metzen has been a designer, writer and storyteller at Blizzard for over 20 years. He’s determined the narrative direction of Blizzard’s growing list of titles. He’s been at the helm, creating a Blizzard style of storytelling and gameplay design that remains remarkably consistent across a wide variety of genres.

This week, Metzen announced that he is leaving Blizzard and retiring from active game development. The game industry is a place where people move around and come in and out of active development often. I’m used to covering these stories and normally they don’t affect me too strongly. Metzen’s news has felt different, though.

I’m across the world right now, covering the Tokyo Game Show in Japan; maybe the news just hit me so hard because of jetlag. Or maybe it’s just that Blizzard has long been so different an entity than most other game developers, and much of that is due to how Metzen helped shape the company.

Before Metzen gets some well-deserved rest, I wanted to take a moment to talk about what he did for me and for Blizzard, and why I’ll miss him.

Metzen’s legacy

When Chris Metzen first joined Blizzard in the early ’90s, he helped the company finish up work on its upcoming strategy game Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. However, it was in the two sequels to this title that Metzen really stepped up and became a guiding hand, shaping the universe of Warcraft and the stories that would be told in it over the next couple of decades.

Metzen came into his own during the development of Warcraft 3, where he stepped into the role of creative director. It’s in this title that we met Arthas Menethil, the privileged human prince cursed to step into the role of Lich King. We met Sylvanas Windrunner, a fallen elf ranger who helped us realize that the undead could be cheered. We met a dozen or more other characters who felt whole, unique and interesting — elements that are unusual, to say the least, in strategy games.

Warcraft: Orcs and Humans Blizzard Entertainment

Over in the StarCraft universe, Metzen wrote stories that helped to flesh out fan-favorite characters like Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan. He led the charge on StarCraft 2 in 2010, pulling players back into the conflict between terran, protoss and zerg with an intriguing (if sometimes corny) plot.

He also helped pilot Blizzard’s incredibly successful hack-n-slash RPG franchise, Diablo. That’s one where the plot never really appealed to me, but there’s no denying that it has a fully-formed identity. When I look at a screenshot or concept art from a Diablo game, I can identify it in a split second from its style alone; that’s not true of most games, much less loot grinding dungeon crawlers.

It’s not that Metzen has crafted wildly original universes. As with Blizzard itself, Metzen has always worn his inspirations on his sleeve. He’s made no effort to hide his love of epic fantasy and sci-fi, and his obsession with redemption stories. He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a big nerd that got lucky enough to write big, nerdy stories.

And yet for all the ways that Blizzard’s output should feel derivative, these games come across as completely singular. I would never try to convince you that Warcraft 3’s plot is high art — and I doubt Metzen would either — but I will gush for hours about how it is fun and memorable and lively, about how it carries the perfect mix of lore and backstory and tightly-paced dialogue and character development. Metzen’s Blizzard has been a Blizzard that, whatever its failings, has mastered tightly-spun genre storytelling, and continues to raise the bar for itself.

Most recently, Metzen helped create the only new Blizzard intellectual property in over a decade: Overwatch. It’s a fitting end to his lengthy career with the company, a lasting reminder of his strengths as a storyteller. Here is a game that is multiplayer only, that has no traditional vehicle for plot… and yet it has pulled in a massive, eager fan base completely devoted to the world and characters introduced therein. There are whole Tumblr fan communities dedicated to characters with a small handful of spoken lines and minimal overt backstory.

Who else could pull that off with the seeming ease of Blizzard under Metzen’s guidance? No one.

Fatal flaws

I’m spending a lot of time discussing the huge, largely positive impact Metzen had on a wildly successful company, but I don’t want to look past the less rosy elements. In the characters has written, Metzen often embraces flaws, so let’s pay him the same respect in looking back at his career.

Metzen is far from a perfect writer. The dialogue and scenes credited to him can come across as wooden or too trite in their eagerness. His stories have repeated the same structures, and they often fell back on being epic or badass rather than emotionally resonant.

From both playing his games and talking to him numerous times, I believe many of Metzen’s "weaknesses" originate from being too passionate, too stoked on his latest story beat or new pet project. Metzen doesn’t believe things are cool; he believes they are fucking awesome, and he wants you to understand why. It’s a passion that many players find endearing or engaging, but I can also see where it turns some people off, and why it doesn’t always lead to the best stories.

starcraft 2 Blizzard Entertainment

The classic example long-time Blizzard fans always go back to is Thrall. Introduced properly in Warcraft 3, Thrall is often called "Orc Jesus" by fans. He’s a powerful, resilient character, one who has changed Warcraft’s world of Azeroth perhaps more than any other character in the timeline of the games. He’s been a staple of World of Warcraft since its launch in 2004, and Metzen has never been shy about just loving Thrall and always wanting the best for him. Many fans, on the other hand, grew tired years ago of the orc leader taking center stage.

Other Blizzard fans have done a far better job than I could explaining some of the places where Metzen fell short. But what sets Metzen apart is that, even in his worst work, I have always had the strong sense that it comes from an honest, enthusiastic place.

Chris Metzen adores cool, nerdy stuff. Whether you love or hate each individual work, pass or fail, he made a career out of creating lots of cool, nerdy stuff for lots of people.

What does Blizzard do next?

Reacting to the news of Metzen retiring on Twitter, I wrote: "It’s rare that any one person leaving is a world changer for a company of Blizzard’s size, but I can’t help but feel this is an instance of that."

Shortly after sending that tweet, I started worrying that I had overstated the case. After all, I don’t know how things work behind the scenes at Blizzard. Maybe Metzen hasn’t actually had a major presence in the company’s game design for years?

Since then, however, I’ve seen an outpouring of comments from both current and former Blizzard employees expressing the same general thought. I feel confident saying this now: Blizzard after Metzen is and must be a different company, at least to some degree.

Metzen doesn't believe things are cool, he believes they are fucking awesome

That doesn’t need to be a bad thing, however. I hope that Blizzard’s higher-ups view this as an opportunity. After decades as a company, this is a huge chance to both bring up existing artists who may not have had an opportunity to shine and to bring in new blood who could take the developer in unforeseen directions.

Blizzard is clearly in all likelihood always going to be a company about creating that aforementioned cool, nerdy stuff. But now is the time to look for people who can do so in ways that are different from Metzen while maintaining the company’s standard of quality. It’s time for Blizzard to do some soul-searching and figure out what it is as a company in 2016, 2017 and beyond.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Chris Metzen and Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime, the man who had hired him 20 years previous. Still full of energy, excitement and a certain kind of disbelief at his own life story, Metzen explained to me how he had never expected to work in video games. 20 years later, he’s been an integral part in turning Blizzard into one of the biggest and best game developers in our industry.

Near the end of my interview with Metzen two years ago, he said that increasingly he didn’t believe Blizzard’s focus should be on making games alone.

"It’s the relationships," he said. "It’s the community."

Blizzard is going to be a different company without Chris Metzen. But wherever it goes, whatever it becomes, it would do well to remember that revelation.

And to Chris: Thank you, and I hope you enjoy a long, peaceful retirement. You’ve earned it.