Mike Morhaime is the chief executive of Blizzard Entertainment, co-founded with his college buddies Allen Adham and Frank Pearce under the name Silicon & Synapse in 1991. Over the next 17 years it built a formidable name for itself in real-time strategy (Warcraft and StarCraft), action RPG (Diablo), and more recently massively multiplayer gaming, with World of Warcraft, the proverbial golden egg that has brought in 10 million subscribers. Blizzard is known for its perfectionism, its lengthy, iterative development process, its early embrace of online multiplayer gaming, and its staunch support of the PC and even Mac as gaming platforms.
Morhaime - small, quiet, thoughtful, cautious - is the man who has held Blizzard together through multiple changes of ownership (culminating in the current merger between Vivendi and Activision) : according to his operations chief Paul Sams, Morhaime has had eight bosses, but Blizzard's internal culture has remained unchanged throughout. We sat down with him at last weekend's Worldwide Invitational convention in Paris to talk about WOW, StarCraft II, the just-announced Diablo III, where the company stands on consoles, and what, if anything, gets him worried.
Eurogamer: World of Warcraft expanded Blizzard's audience hugely by moving into a new area for the company - MMOs. But with StarCraft II and Diablo III you've got games that seem made very much for your core fans. Do you see yourselves experimenting with other genres again?
Mike Morhaime: You mean taking a franchise into a new genre, kind of like we were going to do with StarCraft Ghost?
I think with each game that we create, we try to figure out what type of game we want to make, and then we think about what's the most appropriate franchise, the most appropriate setting for that game. We do it on a case by case basis.
For instance, World of Warcraft - I think the foundation for that idea probably dates back to after we released Warcraft II. We thought, wow, this would be such a great game to create a virtual world around, where you're a character inside the game and you can explore this fantastic universe. Technology finally advanced to the point where it was feasible to make the game. So, genre first, then franchise.
Eurogamer: You continually support your games, you're famous for it, as long as there are still people out there playing them - Diablo II and StarCraft are still getting patched. But World of Warcraft demands another level of support.
Mike Morhaime: It does.
Eurogamer: Do you think you can sustain it the same way, or do you think there comes a point where you'll have to draw a line and shut it down?
Mike Morhaime: Well, I think we have a tremendous amount of players out there that we need to support. As long as people are wanting to play the game, I think we need to continue to support the game and evolve it.
Eurogamer: How long do you think it can last like that?
Mike Morhaime: I don't know. I don't know if anybody knows. But we look around, and we see that the gaming market is continuing to grow, the number of people that have broadband access and PCs capable of playing 3D games around the world is growing, and I don't see that slowing down any time soon.
Eurogamer: It's an odd thing to ask, considering how big a success World of Warcraft is, but are there any decisions you made about it that you regret, or things you wish you'd done differently?
Mike Morhaime: Initially when we launched the game, there were certain bottlenecks in the server infrastructure that we did not recognise at first. It's very difficult to test for this sort of thing without getting the entire population that's going to play. Some things just don't appear until you have enough people on the system. It would have been great had we used our current platform back at launch.
Eurogamer: With World of Warcraft, you've had the luxury of a captive audience with little strong competition, and you've been able to develop the expansions and patches at your own pace. Now that you're coming under more external pressure, from the release of games with big budgets and licences like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, do you feel you're going to need to speed up the delivery of fresh content to keep players in WOW?
Mike Morhaime: I think the thing that's changed more than anything is just that the games have gotten bigger, so it takes more people, more time, more resources to generate content. There's always been pressure to release things quickly, it just takes more people to do that now. The other thing that's changed is - one of our goals at Blizzard is to be a global company, to be thinking about our player base around the world, and so when you add in all these other languages that we're trying to support, that also increases the amount of time that it takes to put out content.
Eurogamer: Many people thought, if there was to be a Diablo III, it might appear on consoles too. What is it that's keeping you on PC and off consoles?
Mike Morhaime: Well, PC is the gaming platform with the largest installed base around the world. It's also the platform with the best margins. I think it's a great gaming platform.
Eurogamer: Valve's Gabe Newell said much the same things to us recently.
Mike Morhaime: Yeah, and I agree with a lot of Gabe's comments. I think that it is just completely dead wrong to think about the PC gaming market and conclude that it's a declining market. It is far from declining. If you look at the numbers, there are probably more people playing games on the PC than any other platform. More than there ever have been before. If you look at the revenue, it's also growing. It's only not growing if all you're looking at is PC retail, and even then, I think it's just flat, I don't think it's declining very much.
Eurogamer: But those retail sales are what gives the impression that it's in decline...
Mike Morhaime: Yes, absolutely. Because historically that's how the PC games market has been judged, by looking at retail sales. And so we haven't evolved our metrics yet to look at the entire market for PC games, but if you include online subscriptions and microtransactions and advertising revenue and things like that, and just look at the volume of people, people are playing a lot of games on the PC.
You also asked about console. There a lot of people at Blizzard that love playing consoles games, a lot of us have consoles at home, a lot of people love Guitar Hero, the Wii is becoming very popular. When Blizzard goes to make a game we look at what is the appropriate platform for each of our games. Our primary focus is on the PC, but I wouldn't rule out us continuing to look at console in the future if it was appropriate for the game.
Eurogamer: Now you've announced Diablo III, it's clear you're going to be sustaining three big online franchises. That is a major task.
Mike Morhaime: Yeah.
Eurogamer: Nervous at all?
Mike Morhaime: Does anything make me nervous? We get nervous with every one of our games. During the process of developing it always comes to a point where you have the game getting over a hurdle, where it goes from being almost there to: okay, now this is really going great. They all go through this, I think it's a necessary thing - where for a game to get to that next level, you have to have a point where everybody's really focused and really playing the game and finding out what the problems are. And when you're at that point, you get concerned. Every single Blizzard game has gone through that, and I think Diablo III hasn't gone through that point yet.
Eurogamer: I was going to ask, if that point happens before you make a game public, or after...
Mike Morhaime: Honestly, I think StarCraft II hasn't gone through that point enough yet. Sometimes games go through the point multiple times, where you think you've gone to the other side, and then you look at it with heavier scrutiny, and you find that it's still not there. And then you push through, and you fix those things, maybe even come up with some breakthrough ideas that address those issues, things that maybe weren't in the original design spec, and then once you address those, you're really onto something.
Eurogamer: Presumably that's why you're so cautious about announcing release dates, because you're waiting for that moment to happen?
Mike Morhaime: Sure. And it takes time. Polishing takes time. And it's very difficult to predict.
Mike Morhaime is chief executive and co-founder of Blizzard Entertainment. Photography by Morten Skovgaard.