Blizzard on the future

Is a cold wind gonna come and blow us all away?

Downstairs there's a massed crowd of Blizzard acolytes. Upstairs, it's different. Quieter. With more tea.

Behind elderly security guards is the press room. It's here over the weekend Eurogamer gets the chance to chat extensively with some of the higher members of the Blizzard hierarchy. We talk about what it feels like to stand in front of a huge crowd, who are here just because of your games, and to speak to them. We ask how you keep a straight face while someone has just said, "I play a Rogue, and you said that my damage rate would drop by three-per cent - and for me, it's nearer six per cent". And we asked them and anyone where we could get more tapes for our dictaphone, as we chatted so much we ran out.

None of which is here. Here we talk to Blizzard about the future. It's currently on top of the world, with a breakthrough massively-multiplayer game under its already powerful belt, with a string of nine number-one games-of-the-year hits behind it and probably the ability to lay golden eggs. Where is it going next? Because wherever it decides that is, it's sure that the industry will follow.

Obviously, the question everyone wants to know is about its next game. And it's equally obvious that the developer is not going to talk about it until it's good and ready. However, avoiding specifics, it is certainly happy to talk about generalities. For example, with three developed universes under its belt - Diablo, Warcraft and Starcraft - is it interested in creating another? "We do want to expand and create additional universes... but at the same time, we want to support our current universes," answers Mike Morhaime, Blizzard's President, "Generally that happens is that we have ideas for the next game, and think about what would be the best setting for the game. If we have a universe which fits the game, our first instinct would be to use that. But if we have a new universe which would be a better fit, we would go with that".

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"Want to Party?" "I thought you'd never ask" "Oh, my heart's a flutter"

It's worth noting that a new franchise doesn't necessarily imply an entirely new genre. When approaching its updated nethack game, it had already created a perfectly serviceable fantasy world in the shape of Warcraft. There was no need to conceive of a new one for Diablo - except that it served the game better. There are lots of different sorts of fantasy worlds, after all. So is it possible that a new theoretical franchise wouldn't be a complete change of genre? "Absolutely. If we do, it's going to be what speaks to us," Paul Sams, senior VP of business development argues, "And we're a fantasy and science-fiction based company, and it's those types of offerings which speak to us. I absolutely envision it happening. I would envisage us bringing it off in a way which hasn't necessarily been shown before, but in a way that's accessible. We've introduced a variety of things in our current games. If you look at the races in Warcraft, and some of them have similarities to other fantasy stuff and some are entirely new. And you'll see that in the new stuff we bring out, but we try to keep that accessible. If we were ever to make a new franchise, we'd work hard to include a lot of the things people are accustomed to - whether it's science-fiction or fantasy - and things they're comfortable with, but also weave in new cool and fresh stuff which make it very Blizzard-esque".

The next-generation consoles are also looming on the company's plans. What excites Blizzard about it?

"Well - it's substantially better technology," Mike answers, "There's a lot of limitations on what we can do. We spend a lot of time working and iterating and trying to make it look good. With next-gen graphics hardware and the power of the system, there's a lot more we can do visually. There's a lot more you can do from a processing standpoint, in terms of game-logic. And of course connectivity, as what you can do from a multiplayer standpoint is going to be better to. We're going to have to look at how those things will translate"

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A day-night cycle. Yesterday (At night).

However, there are still plenty of reasons why it's planning on supporting the PC. "First of all, everyone has one. That's really good," Mike grins. "It's a continuingly evolving platform, which is also good from a gamer's standpoint. The business model is great, as we don't have to pay fees to Microsoft or Sony. Piracy is an issue, but it's not an issue for World of Warcraft. It is an issue for our other boxed games, and we're always looking at other ways to minimalise piracy, but it's certainly not an issue enough to make us consider not developing for the platform"

Obviously with the 4.5 million and counting subscribers, World of Warcraft features prominently in Blizzard's plans, for the foreseeable future. "We've seen with previous MMOs that they've had a very long lifespan, and while at some point they start powering down in terms of subscribers, they're still a viable business for a very long time," notes WoW's lead designer Tom Chilton, "It could be a year from now. It could be five years from now. Your guess is as good as mine." In terms of the areas Blizzard wants to push in its continuing development, Tom's got a host of desires, outside of the context of the Burning Crusade expansion. "We still have a lot of work to do on the PvP honour system so it incentivises team-play rather than individual play," Tom notes, "We want to not necessarily reward people for time-investment instead of skill. In terms of ongoing material, we want to provide more content for players who aren't necessarily getting into the raid game, and make the raid game more attractive to people who aren't currently raiding. We feel as if there's a lot of value in terms of how heavily-scripted the encounters are. It's very fun once you overcome the barriers to entry."

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These sort of structures full of monsters on main maps are called mini-dungeons. Apparently.

With Blizzcon a seeming success, thoughts would turn to other possibilities. A Blizzcon Europe, however, would seem to be relatively unlikely - at least in a form similar to the Blizzcon event itself.

"The challenge is we have several hundred developers which are working in the Irvine office, 20 minutes from here," Senior vice-president Frank Pearce explains, "Part of what makes this experience enjoyable for the community is the ability to interact with all these employees, and it's difficult to host an event like this remotely and bring the same experience to the community there."

And looking to the far future? Blizzard has existed for fifteen years already. What would the next - say - ten bring them? "One of the things I'd like to see is to expand and broaden the player base further, so gaming becomes more mainstream, so that more people outside of the core audience are familiar with our gaming world," Mike states, before turning onto something. "I would love for us to release feature-length films in each of the worlds. I think that the universes are rich and strong enough to support that kind of thing, and it'd enhance the connection that players have with the game. I think World of Warcraft has opened a lot of doors for us, being so popular and having such a large community. And I hope that we'll able to see something happen in the next five years."

Eurogamer agrees, with the obvious proviso: no Uwe Boll's World of Warcraft, thankyouverymuch.

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