"World of Warcraft transformed everything."
It’s a statement that’s tough to argue regardless of your position. If you play games, it’s almost a guarantee that something you’ve played in the last few years has elements borrowed from World of Warcraft. If you create games, there’s a good chance that you or someone you work with has played and been inspired by Blizzard’s enormously successful massively multiplayer game. Even if you don’t care about games, it’s become a cultural touchstone, with everything from celebrity and sports star endorsements to reports from The Onion. There’s even a movie in the works.
So it’s an obvious statement, something few people would disagree with. But it takes on extra weight coming from the mouth of Chris Metzen, Blizzard’s senior vice president of story and franchise development. Metzen has been with the studio for 21 years, very nearly since the beginning. He’s seen Blizzard morph and grow from humble beginnings into a giant company with over 3,900 employees around the world.
In Metzen’s mind, Blizzard history is currently split into two eras: before World of Warcraft and after World of Warcraft. Now he’s ready for the company’s third era to begin, and he’s taking a surprising approach to get it there.
To understand Blizzard's more recent changes, it helps to go all the way back to the company's first era, long before World of Warcraft was even a thought.
Blizzard CEO and co-founder Mike Morhaime hired Chris Metzen in 1994, just over two years after the studio had started. It had originally been named Silicon & Synapse and was briefly operating under the name Chaos Studios. Metzen was only 19 years old. He describes himself at the time as "a stupid-ass kid with some potential" who "loved drawing and making stuff up."
"I’ll be very candid," Metzen says. "When I was a young man and got hired here, I never anticipated working in the video game industry."
As an energetic, creatively driven, rebellious youth, Metzen expected to bounce between jobs, to go wherever his heart took him, whether that was film or comics or, sure, maybe games for a little while. What originally drew him to games was what he describes as "unbounded creativity" on display in the medium at the time.
"Back in the early to mid-90s, if you can remember that time," Metzen says, "there was all sorts of stuff. There was no broad categories of what types of games would be successful. It was just madness. ... LucasArts was my favorite thing going on. They had adventure games and Dark Forces and all this stuff."
In its earliest years, Blizzard itself showcased this same kind of willingness to jump between ideas and not stick to a single style of game. It made racing games. It made a side-scrolling puzzle game called The Lost Vikings. There was the action-platformer named Blackthorne, the company’s first real-time strategy efforts with Warcraft and, in 1996, the move into role-playing games with Diablo.
This freedom to explore ideas across genres of gaming and storytelling created a stronger pull for Metzen than he expected. And whatever type of game was being created, Blizzard focused on a core set of eight values that became a defining feature for the company — values such as "gameplay first" and "every voice matters."
Metzen also grew attached to the tight-knit group of around 25 people that made up the much smaller Blizzard of this period. He calls them his family and fondly describes memories of the 20 years he spent "growing up" with the developer — the rush of releasing each new game, the struggles and the victories, but also the day-to-day bonds he formed. He talks about late nights where team members locked themselves in the office not because they were on a tight deadline, but because they were playing Magic: The Gathering together and didn’t want to stop.
The Blizzard of this era struggled with its small size in comparison to the huge success it was experiencing. In 1998, it released StarCraft. This sci-fi real-time strategy game spinning off from the Warcraft series sold astoundingly well, which Blizzard was prepared for. What the developer didn’t expect was how quickly the game’s popularity would grow in South Korea. The company had to begin opening itself up to a larger audience around the world.
"If you go back to the ‘90s, our audience was primarily United States and English," Mike Morhaime says. "Now [in 2014] over half of our players are in Asia. We have a global business."
Starcraft was the first game to push Blizzard in that global direction. With that game, as with Warcraft, Warcraft 2, and Diablo before it, the company expanded, and it became a little more difficult for Metzen and Morhaime (and others) to hold onto the culture they had built, a little harder to know the names of everyone working there and have a one-on-one relationship with them.
Little did they know, the company was about to explode in size to a degree they had never even imagined.
By the end of 2002, Blizzard was riding high off the release of its latest hit, Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos. Metzen remembers worrying that the developer may have reached its pinnacle.
"Just in terms of the tightness of the game, the execution of the game," he says. "It was a really good game, it did really well, and people seemed to love it. I thought we’d done it. We’d climbed the mountain. 'We can do this. We’re a really good game developer.' We were infinitely proud of that product, and I wondered if that was the top of the rocket."
"We had no idea," he adds.
By that point, Blizzard was already hard at work on a new direction for the Warcraft series. Inspired by games like Ultima Online and EverQuest, Blizzard wanted to create a massive online virtual world built off of the characters and lore of the Warcraft games.
This was a huge investment of resources for a risky proposition, especially considering that even EverQuest, the most popular massively multiplayer game of the time, had never hit over 500,000 subscribers. That was a far cry from the million-plus sales Blizzard had grown used to for its games, and although a monthly subscription required by the game would change the metrics for success, there was a lot of anxiety in the company over whether World of Warcraft would be as well-received as its previous games.
"I remember what we were expecting over the first year," Metzen says. "I remember saying, you know, dare to dream: 'Imagine if we had a million people running around in this game at the end of the first year.' That was crazy talk then."
World of Warcraft released in late 2004. By the end of 2005, it had over five million paying subscribers flooding its servers. That number would continue growing until it peaked at over 12 million subscribers in 2010.
"We had no idea," Metzen repeats. "The explosiveness of the game and the demand for it and the demand to support it made us from this reasonably sized development house into a global service provider. It felt like it was overnight. Suddenly the scale of this place, the encumbrance of needing to administrate a much larger organization here, was terrifically challenging.
"All the instinct we’d had about the simplicity of building a game product such that we would want to play it, which has always been the core, our most sacred value — suddenly, sure, we’ve got to do that, but we’ve also got to do 200 other things that we hope will also be at a very high level of specificity and competency. Learning how to be a giant service provider all over the world all of a sudden — tech support, customer support, community management. We had to scramble to figure out how to do all that well and grow and bring great people in."
Metzen refers to this growth as "the high-class problem of World of Warcraft’s success." He admits that it was a struggle to hold Blizzard’s culture together as the company transformed into something bigger than had ever been planned. He describes himself as "holding the line" and focusing on "exercising the values of who we are."
"Maybe this is too harsh, but World of Warcraft’s success was one of the biggest challenges we ever faced," he says. "It challenged our character. It challenged our culture, the growth and the complexity, for a team that had been very tight.
"And suddenly a lot of that core team is running different groups. When organizations grow that fast, suddenly you have all these lights to keep on and all these mouths to feed and these really talented developers that we’ve brought in to help us do this. Your thinking can begin to become a little institutionalized. You start to think a little more systemically, like, 'Oh god, don’t break it, keep all the plates spinning, we’ve got to keep this up.'"
Metzen believes the changes Blizzard faced at this time were changes across the culture of games that would have happened with or without World of Warcraft, and regardless of whether or not the studio was running a massively multiplayer game.
"It’s more than just the sale of a product," he says. "It only begins at the point where you have it on your computer. We’ve got a lifetime to live together and build it and mold it and change it as it goes. If we don’t continue to iterate on our games as they live, [they're] going to wither and die. It’s entropy. It’s going to be this stale, old thing."
World of Warcraft has continued to live on as its own, constantly changing experience. It’s taken on loads of new content over the course of four expansion packs and countless patches and updates. In November, Blizzard will celebrate World of Warcraft’s 10th anniversary as well as the release of its fifth expansion. And while subscriber numbers have dropped, there are still nearly seven million players, well above the wildest hopes and dreams of the Blizzard staff when it launched the now unrecognizable core game in 2004.
While much of Blizzard enjoyed World of Warcraft’s continued success and Metzen worked to keep the company true to its ideals, the developer moved forward with new entries in the Diablo and StarCraft franchises. But somewhere in the heart of Blizzard, a secretive new project was spinning out of control and threatening to send the company in exactly the direction Metzen was trying to avoid.
As Blizzard grew into a studio with multiple teams working on multiple projects at any one time, it developed a system for differentiating those teams. The system was numerical.
Team 1 was hard at work on the future of StarCraft. Team 2 was to focus on the continued life of World of Warcraft, especially the creation of content patches and expansion packs. Team 3 was handling the Diablo franchise.
And at some point in the mid-2000s, after the launch of World of Warcraft, Blizzard formed Team 4 to develop the company’s first new IP since 1998.
"The idea was to take all of the lessons that we learned from World of Warcraft [and start over] ... It turns out it’s still really complicated."
"I’m not saying us, but the industry in general is really locked in to certain categories," Metzen says. "World of Warcraft had a bump that way. People said, 'Well, hey, apparently you can really make a lot of money doing a game like this.' And even us, to maintain the scale of the organization, we got locked into that thinking. It was like, 'Geez, we should do another one, but do it totally different.'"
Team 4’s project — Titan, as it later became known — was to be a next-generation MMO. Though little information about it leaked to the public and it was, in fact, never officially announced, Morhaime describes it as "the most ambitious thing you could possibly imagine."
"The idea was to take all of the lessons that we learned from World of Warcraft [and start over]," he says. "'Because we’re so smart now, we’re going to do it all right this time.' It turns out it’s still really complicated."
"You kind of forget how hard a project was after it’s out," Metzen says. "There was maybe a little sliver of pride in there, that maybe it would be easy the next time."
The Titan team swelled in its first years of existence, bringing in new hires to Blizzard as well as sucking up members from other teams, such as World of Warcraft director Jeffrey Kaplan. The studio poured a ton of resources into the project.
Though Blizzard had split into multiple teams working on different games, part of Metzen's approach to keep the culture together was to ensure that those teams still worked together in some ways. To accomplish this, the developer came up with the idea of "strike teams."
One thing regarding Titan became clear: It wasn’t shaping up.
"A bunch of people who are specifically not on the team for a game, who don’t have any sort of connection to the game, come in and look at your game," says StarCraft 2 director Dustin Browder. "They go, ‘Wow, that’s dumb! I hate it!’ They’re not nice. We don’t want them to be nice. At some point, these games are going to go into the wild, and you’re going to ask people for real money for them. Strike teams are supposed to come in and go, ‘This is really good! This is really bad! I’m not going to tell you how to fix it, but you’ve got to do something.’ And then they walk off."
In addition to strike teams, games frequently appear before Blizzard’s "design council," a gathering of all of the game directors and lead designers throughout the company. Between strike teams and appearances before the design council, one thing regarding Titan became clear: It wasn’t shaping up.
In the summer of 2013, Blizzard reset development on Titan. During the interview for this feature, Morhaime reveals that the project has been officially canceled.
For Metzen and many others, trying for years to make Titan work was a draining experience and a reminder of the culture that the company held so close — a focus on those core values that they say would not have been lived up to if Titan had been released in the form it existed in internally.
"We had to start looking at the now and at the future of games without that sense of encumbrance to what we 'should' do," Metzen says. "We needed to start talking again as a culture about what would be bitchin'. Not what’s expected, maybe not even what is safe, but what do we want to play?
"And can we be really honest? This is candid as it gets: Were we asking that first every time?"
In Metzen’s words, the company needed "a shot in the arm" to allow it to move past Titan. And it would come from one of the least expected places.
Blizzard formed Team 5 in 2008 while Titan was still in development, but this team would be working on something different from anything Blizzard had done before, though tied to the same values of quality. To help accomplish this, Blizzard brought in a new hire, Jason Chayes, as a production director.
"There were all these new platforms emerging that people were playing on," Chayes says. "We loved those platforms as well. We wanted to figure out if we could make a team who could jump in and do those type of games. That was the impetus for starting up this group called Team 5."
Though smaller than any other team at Blizzard — it started with 15 people and grew to a mere 30 — Team 5 included a mix of long-time veterans of the company and new blood brought in specifically to help them create a type of game the developer had never done before: a card collecting game. Once more, Morhaime and Metzen point to their long nights playing Magic: The Gathering as an inspiration. Morhaime calls the long-running card game "brilliantly designed."
"We were really excited about trying to figure out how to take this idea of the collectible card game and make it digital," he says. "We wanted to take advantage of all of the things computers can do well to really make it an accessible but still deep experience."
Early in its life, Team 5 decided that the card game would be a spin-off of Warcraft, borrowing creatures, powers and heroes from the franchise. It would be titled Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. While Metzen and Morhaime were excited for the new project, other people internally felt uncertain.
"When we were first working on the game, I can't say that everybody at the company thought it was really awesome," Morhaime recalls. "Some people were like, 'Why are we making this? What in the hell are you guys doing?’"
"Honestly, selling the game internally was one of our biggest challenges," Chayes says. "It felt very different to a lot of the people here. And rightly so! It just feels different. That evangelizing effort was always a big challenge for us."
In the end, Chayes says the Hearthstone team never discovered the perfect way to convince people of Hearthstone’s values with words alone — it wasn’t until people from around Blizzard started actually playing early versions of the game that they came around. Chayes describes a process where Blizzard rolls out playable versions of games in development to people across the company layer by layer — first the dev team working on the game itself, then other development teams, then the wider company as a whole.
"I think probably the first time there was a broad exposure to Hearthstone across our company was in December of 2012," he says. "That started getting people really excited for the game. That was really what did it — that chance to play and get excited about their paladin class deck and what happens when you throw Deathwing on the table. That really helped our cause."
Blizzard moved through a similar process with its fanbase. Many devoted Warcraft players were skeptical at the news when Blizzard announced the game. "So this is what Blizzard has been wasting their time doing," wrote one commenter in Polygon’s story about the Hearthstone announcement. Another called the company "greedy bastards" for employing a free-to-play, microtransaction-based model with the new game.
When Hearthstone entered closed beta in June 2013, it began to win over those who had doubted it. Over the nine months of a slowly-expanding beta, the game exploded on Twitch and YouTube. At any random hour on Twitch, tens of thousands of viewers could be found watching Hearthstone streams. Critics embraced the game as well.
Hearthstone wasn’t the only project pushing Blizzard’s boundaries in the late 2000s. In the summer of 2010, Blizzard released StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, just months before BlizzCon — Blizzard's annual fan convention, and a place where the company often announces new games or features.
Having just shipped a game, the StarCraft team had nothing new to show fans. Execs at Blizzard asked them to come up with something to make fans who were paying to attend the show happy. Led by Dustin Browder, the team decided to show off a series of mods for StarCraft 2, including a MOBA (or multiplayer online battle arena).
This complex genre spins out of the real-time strategy games Blizzard initially became known for, tasking players with controlling a single hero and teaming up against other real players running their own heroes. It was popularized by games like Dota 2 and League of Legends, but it actually originated as a series of mods for StarCraft and Warcraft 3. Players had built off of Blizzard's tools to make the earliest MOBA games, and now Blizzard was borrowing that shell for itself.
The StarCraft 2 MOBA mod proved incredibly popular at BlizzCon and eventually made the transition into its own standalone game: Heroes of the Storm. Morhaime proudly refers to this project as "Blizzard: The Game," referencing how it pulls together characters from all of the studio’s popular franchises.
"We got such a good response for it at BlizzCon," he says. "We were like, ‘We can’t just release this as a map.’ We were putting all this work into it."
"It was one of those moves, like calling an audible on the field," Metzen says. "We went, ‘Wait, this should be its own game.’ I don’t know if we would’ve allowed for that years ago. The thought might have occurred, but in the mode we had been in keeping up with the scale of World of Warcraft, I don’t know if we would have."
Metzen views Hearthstone as a risk by Blizzard, because "it wasn’t exactly the right thing. It wasn’t predictable." But against all odds, it worked, while the more obvious move of another, better MMO failed to materialize. Heroes of the Storm was another move in the direction of going with what the studio wanted rather than what it believed would be a surefire hit.
"There’s been a sort of recalibration in terms of what we think about when we think about a Blizzard game and what it takes to be an epic game," Morhaime says. "It doesn’t necessarily have to be epic in scale to be a really awesome experience."
Though Metzen and Morhaime speak of it as a smaller game and a passion project, Hearthstone has been incredibly successful. Recently Blizzard reported that the free-to-play game had topped 20 million players worldwide.
"We didn’t anticipate planet-cracking success with Hearthstone," says Metzen. "It wasn’t this giant thing. It was just this small thing made out of love. And holy shit, it worked."
Hearthstone also allowed Blizzard to reexamine its approach to platforms other than PC. Blizzard had mostly avoided non-keyboard-and-mouse platforms following a bad port of StarCraft to the Nintendo 64 in 2000.
"It was clearly a port," Morhaime says. "It wasn’t designed for that interface. From that point on, [we said] we’re not just going to put out ports to console anymore. If we’re going to do a console version, we’re going to make sure that we think the game’s suited for consoles."
"It’s the era we’re in," Metzen says. "In my house, most of the gaming is all tablets now. I can barely get the tablets out of my kids’ hands. We’re very confident PC developers. But I think given the way the world has changed, we need to be receptive to the idea that we need to follow what’s right for the products."
This new attitude is what allowed for a much-loved iPad version of Hearthstone. It also led to Diablo 3 making its way to consoles; Metzen sheepishly admits that he actually prefers playing that game with a controller.
"Those are the lessons we’re learning," he says. "We’re not quite as regimented in our thinking as we might have been 10 years ago.
"The way you fight the systemic, institutional onset that I think any company would have at this scale is by remembering the truth of who we are from 23-and-a-half years ago: Have a blast and build something you care about. Be part of something that you can believe in."
As Blizzard moves forward in a post-Titan world with a new lease on life, Metzen has spent a lot of time looking back and wondering at the amazing community of fans the company has built.
"I’m not a business guy, so this is just what I observe with the way that I engage with entertainment and brands these days in my civilian life," he says. "Building excellent products, putting them in a box or downloading them, and getting it to consumers or gamers, that’s the core of what we’re talking about. But increasingly over the years, it’s become utterly clear to us that that’s not it. There’s a high level of complexity in doing that, but that’s not it.
"It’s the relationships. It’s the community. You have players for 20 years. Somehow, someway, they see that little blue Blizzard logo, and there’s a point of connection."
Metzen’s hope is that people who love Blizzard’s games will use that point of connection as a springboard to try things they may not have. He wants people who have never played a card game to give Hearthstone a try. He wants people who are scared off by the intimidating MOBA genre to take a chance on Heroes of the Storm.
"Even if it’s a game type they’re not necessarily interested in, I hope they give us the benefit of the doubt," Metzen says. "I want them to look at the games listed on our Blizzard launcher and think, 'You know, I would never try this type of game before, but I know these guys. I’ve been through it with them before. I’ve played two or three other things they’ve done, and I get them. I think I know what I’m in for.'"
Metzen and Morhaime explain that Blizzard will move forward with an eye toward more small, experimental projects like Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm, latching onto them and expanding them when they seem like they fit the company’s vision.
The core projects long-time fans love will continue being supported as well. A second StarCraft 2 expansion, Legacy of the Void, is in the works. Diablo 3 has a new season mode that promises constant online support and a steady stream of new content. And despite falling subscription numbers, World of Warcraft executive producer J Allen Brack says Blizzard is more committed to its now sole MMO than ever before.
"The World of Warcraft team is 50 percent larger today than it was when we shipped Mists of Pandaria," Brack says. "We’re already working on the next expansion. We already have ideas for the expansion after that. We’ve never been larger. We’ve never been more forward-thinking about the types of things that we can do with World of Warcraft."
But even with its older projects still being supported, in many ways Metzen seems to view this shift as a new beginning for Blizzard, a move back to that "unbounded creativity" that he was pulled in by in the ‘90s.
"In some ways it’s very sobering, but it feels like we’re just getting started," he says. "That’s a weird tickle in the back of my brain, but I still feel it’s true. I’m really curious where it goes from here."Images: Blizzard Entertainment