Blizzard goes big at GamesCom, and this year was no exception. Gargantuan queues wrapped around its Diablo 3 booth on the show floor, and its 20th anniversary press conference was packed to the rafters. With Diablo 3, StarCraft 2 expansion Heart of the Swarm, an unnamed World of Warcraft expansion and Project Titan all in the works, these are exciting times for the company.
But Blizzard is not beyond controversy. In recent months fans have reacted strongly to the fact that you cannot play Diablo 3 offline. The always online debate has raged, with gamers polarised on the issue. It was with this in mind that we sat down with co-founder Frank Pearce and StarCraft 2 lead designer Jonny Ebbert to get Blizzard's take.
Eurogamer: Congratulations on 20 years of Blizzard. What is Blizzard's greatest achievement?
Frank Pearce: It's difficult to point to one specific thing, because we've had a lot of success over the last 20 years and we've created a lot of great games. Definitely, World of Warcraft is one of the things you have to point to. 12 million active players at one point is a lot of really passionate fans sharing a common experience. That's probably the biggest impact we've had on the industry in the last 20 years.
Eurogamer: Is it your favourite Blizzard game?
Frank Pearce: It's definitely near the top of the list. I've probably devoted more hours to World of Warcraft than any of the other games we've done.
Eurogamer: How many?
Frank Pearce: It's totally measured in days. But I haven't checked it recently. It's probably in the neighbourhood of 100 days played. I only have one main, so I don't have to add it up across multiple avatars.
We offer a great value proposition. $15 a month and the number of hours you can devote to it in a given month, it's a pretty good deal. It's cheaper than drinking. It's cheaper than the movies.
Eurogamer: What about you Jonny?
Jonny Ebbert: I've only been at Blizzard for two years, but shipping Wings of Liberty was big.
Eurogamer: Now you've had a year to reflect on StarCraft 2, how successful has it been?
Jonny Ebbert: We keep a close eye on the eSports community and how much the eSports is thriving. Also, how much the mod community is thriving, and concurrency on Battle.net. When we're watching MLG matches or other league matches, it's just how exciting the games are and how creative people are able to be with our game and how much entertainment it can provide to the viewers is really our version of Blizzard Bucks. It's like, yeah! We're really rolling in Blizzard Bucks.
Eurogamer: From a commercial perspective, how successful has it been?
Frank Pearce: I don't think we want to look at sales. Certainly we had good sales out the gate and set some records for that genre. But we still have a lot of work left to do. It's only been a year. If you look at the original StarCraft, that's been around for 12 years, and it's still passionately played and used and leveraged by the eSport community.
We've got a couple of expansions planned, including Heart of the Swarm. We've started asking team leadership to take more of an ownership of product line P&L, but honestly, I don't want them to stress too much about that right now because StarCraft 2 was a long time in development, but we still have more things that we want to achieve with it. They all know that.
For me and for the other leadership at Blizzard it's more about an active, thriving community around that game, and putting us in a position to take advantage of that in the future. So it's a very long-term view. A year might seem like a long time in most products' life cycles, but for us, a game that's only been around for a year is still in its infancy, and we still have a lot of things to do.
Eurogamer: You hope this game will have a similar life span to StarCraft?
Frank Pearce: Yeah. And with that in mind it's really hard to say whether or not we've achieved the success we want to with that product. StarCraft, 12 years later, people are still playing it passionately. Warcraft 3, there are still millions of people passionately playing maps and mods around the world. You can look at Warcarft 3 and say that was the beginnings of the idea for creating a game client like that as a platform for the community to do more than just experience the game the dev team creates. We've certainly carried that further with StarCraft 2.
Eurogamer: You've talked about Heart of the Swarm gameplay details. It seems you're focusing on one central character this time.
Jonny Ebbert: That's exactly the direction we're trying to go with this campaign. The fantasy we're trying to fulfil is, you're Kerrigan. A lot of people, when they picture what Kerrigan does, is, she manipulates the Swarm. She always has these god-like powers. Those are the two main tracks we're trying to explore.
Eurogamer: How will Heart of the Swarm impact on the eSports scene?
Jonny Ebbert: We have a lot of plans for eSports. I can't get into the details of what we're planning for Battle.net or multiplayer, but what I can tell you is, we're thrilled with the meta-game we have now. When we watch the eSports scene and the bets replays, we're just stupefied, really, by the creativity of the players.
We want to preserve and enhance that meta-game. That's probably been the most agonising part of this. It's trying to make changes to the multiplayer meta-game and preserving everything that's awesome about it, and maybe shoring up any of the weaknesses and adding something new. Players are going to be really excited about what they see at BlizzCon and when they finally get their hands on it.
Eurogamer: It sounds like a design nightmare.
Jonny Ebbert: Well, the good kind, right?
Frank Pearce: That's what they get paid to do, though. They don't get paid to do this stuff because it's easy.
Eurogamer: You have to keep existing players happy while adding new things. It sounds like a tricky juggling act.
Jonny Ebbert: It's the best kind of problem to have. You have something that's incredibly successful, and you want to try to make it even more successful. It's hard to picture a better position to be in as a designer.
Eurogamer: Frank, what's your personal take on the always-on internet debate? Are gamers overreacting?
Frank Pearce: The opinions of the people who feel like they don't want to be online when they're playing is valid. But for us, our goal is to have an always-connected community, and not just necessarily a community around World of Warcraft, and not necessarily a community around StarCraft or StarCraft 2, but an overarching Blizzard community. To create that community and provide everyone who's part of that community the benefits of that community, we want them to be connected and playing online.
Eurogamer: Does piracy have anything to do with your decision to make Diablo 3 always-on?
Frank Pearce: I would never say it's not a factor, but it's definitely not the driving factor. Ultimately, if people want to pirate the game, they're going to find ways to pirate the game whether we require an online connection or not. Our focus is not on preventing piracy, but rather on creating an online experience that's so compelling for people that they aren't thinking about pirating the game because they want to be part of this community and they see value in having this community, almost as if this vibrant community is a bullet point you would put on the back of the box as a feature.
Eurogamer: Are current internet connections stable enough to facilitate always-on video games?
Frank Pearce: It depends on the region. It depends on the hardware. It depends on the location of the person. Certainly the technology is getting better and better every day. You can see evidence with World of Warcraft of the fact a lot of people have the connectivity that's required for that.
Eurogamer: We won't be able to play Diablo 3 on a commute. Does that matter?
Frank Pearce: It's a valid request. For us, the server software is going to be running on our hardware infrastructure and not on the client hardware. To allow the server software to run on the client hardware is additional effort on our part, and we want to get Diablo 3 into the hands of our players as quickly as possible. It's already going to be a challenge for us to do that this year.
Part of the decision as it relates to that is, is it more important we give the people who are on occasion going to want to play offline the ability to do that? Or is it more important we get this game into the hands of our players as quickly as we can? We decided we wanted to get it into the hands of our fans as quickly as possible.
Eurogamer: I'm sure they will appreciate that.
Frank Pearce: Some of them will. Some of them will have complaints about the fact they can't play offline.
Eurogamer: It's better people care than they don't care at all.
Frank Pearce: This is a very high-class problem. To have a community that's so passionate about our games and what we're doing that they have strong opinions about this is a really nice position to be in. We definitely listen to the feedback from all the fans. Hopefully they trust us to make the right decisions for the games and for the community, not just for the short term but for the long term.
Eurogamer: Most people who are upset about your decision will buy your games.
Frank Pearce: Yeah. It's true that sometimes people's actions are different than their words.
Jonny Ebbert: I don't think they would be posting that vigorously if they weren't invested enough to buy it. You would almost expect it. If they're an online activist lobbying for something in a game, it's like, you're so invested at that point you'd almost have to buy it.
Frank Pearce: People are online all the time with their social networks and grabbing information off the internet. Potentially, some of these people are WOW players, that are online gaming for WOW. An always connected experience is something that at some point soon, I don't know if it's months or years, but soon, everyone is going to have the expectation that they are connected when they are gaming.
Eurogamer: It's just the way things are going?
Frank Pearce: Yeah. And the exception will be the games that aren't connected.