The Hero Factory

From the archive: Conversations with Chris Metzen, Blizzard's head writer.

Every Sunday, we pick out an article from the Eurogamer archive that you might have missed at the time it was published or enjoy with fresh eyes if you read it originally. With Hearthstone earning plaudits at the moment, here's Oli Welsh's interview with Blizzard's head writer, Chris Metzen, which we first posted on 20th October 2011.

Chris Metzen's spacious office at Blizzard's Orange County headquarters is full of heroes.

From where I sit across a low coffee table from him, I face a monument to this man's love of superheroes, particularly from Marvel comics, and particularly Captain America. In posters and at least half a dozen statues - some of them look to be over two feet tall - the patriotic super-soldier stands in a number of different costumes and guises, but always robust and determined with his iconic shield to hand.

He's surrounded by dozens more, a colourful cast of every comic-book icon - the purer of heart, the better. Thor and Captain Marvel take the pride-of-place positions flanking Cap, not Batman and Wolverine.

To my left, a slightly more modest (but still impressive) display chronicles Metzen's own creative life. Here, shelves hold a huge range of figurines from Blizzard's games; proud elven sorcerers, vengeful demons, hard-bitten space cowboys. The idiom is subtly different, the style is more extravagant and detailed and sometimes darker. But the impact is the same. A riot of colour and frozen action; a legion of characters competing with each other to be larger than life, but between them forming a coherent ecosystem of fantasy fulfilment. A gallery of heroes.

Chris Metzen doesn't look out of place amid his collection. He's tanned, in shape, shirt open, with swept-back hair and a purposeful goatee beard. With his gleaming jewellery and tinted specs he has a bit of confident Californian bling about him - you'd think him a movie exec or successful country singer - but talk to him for a minute and you realise he's no Hollywood snake oil salesman. He certainly likes to talk and is prone to following tangents, but he's also frank, passionate and intensely thoughtful. He speaks with the vocabulary, grammatical precision and love of swearing of all writers.

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Chris Metzen, who bears a passing resemblance to the hero of the StarCraft games, Jim Raynor.

That's because he is one. Metzen is Blizzard's senior vice president of creative development. You could also call him the head writer, the story executive, the world-builder-in-chief. He oversees the lore, characters and stories of the Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo universes; he concentrates on script work but also contributes to game design, voice direction and concept art. He's worked on virtually all of the company's games since he joined in 1994.

I meet him on a trip to Blizzard's offices to check out Diablo 3; I've spoken to him on the phone a few weeks previously about the forthcoming StarCraft 2 expansion, Heart of the Swarm. (Both will appear at this week's BlizzCon fan convention, alongside a likely reveal for a fourth World of Warcraft expansion.) On both occasions, our conversation ranges over the whole of the company's output and his philosophy of storytelling.

Boiled down, that philosophy is surprisingly moral and heartfelt, and it's echoed in all those proud figures ranged behind him. "Our job is to give people experiences that sing to their hearts," he tells me. "I want Blizzard as a publishing house and I want our franchises specifically - clumsy as they may be, from time to time - I just want us all to remember that we're a hero factory."

Game versus story

The term "hero factory" could most literally be applied to World of Warcraft, the phenomenal online world that stands as Blizzard's breakout hit, even though it's had nothing but hits for the best part of 20 years. Attracting players in eight figures worldwide and raking in millions monthly in subscription dollars, it's a game that's succeeded, in part, by letting players stamp out their own characterful heroes and flood servers with them on an industrial scale.

While it's true that many of those players never read a scrap of quest text, it's equally true that they wouldn't be so attracted to WOW if they weren't somehow compelled by its world of squabbling races. But learning to write for a permanently engaged online audience -"developing fiction in real time", as Metzen puts it - hasn't been easy, he says.

How can you tell meaningful personal stories when each player is merrily carving out their own? How can you direct the development of a world that has to be democratic? How can you provide fan service for 11 million fans in markedly different cultures?

"It is a little weird these days," he admits. "It's hard at this scale, with that many eyes on your product, that many different skews of humanity, kids from all over the world... A story beat that works well in North America may not translate all that well, and I don't mean that facetiously, to China. And as a dumbass kid from California, I certainly am not cosmopolitan enough to know what all these paradigms are."

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