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Blizzard's Perfect Storm

The industry's top developer knows the merits of the confessional.

Published as part of our sister-site' widely-read weekly newsletter, the Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to newsletter subscribers.

Blizzard Entertainment is, by many measures, the world's most successful game developer. It's not only got a string of hits to its name, it has also consistently demonstrated an astonishing ability to deliver longevity. World of Warcraft's ongoing success is one clear example, but it's worth noting that Warcraft 3, StarCraft and even the truly venerable Diablo 2 are still widely played and highly rated by fans.

No other game developer could have put on an event like last weekend's Blizzard Worldwide Invitational in Paris. All the reporting from that event, however, makes it clear that not only was Blizzard's huge success on display - so, too, was the attitude and approach that has created that success. Cause and effect, together under one roof.

The effects are clear and easy to see. Thousands of devoted fans, travelling from around the world. Enormously skilled matches being played by professionals, using games up to a decade old. Long queues for memorabilia. Above all, 10.7 million people paying every single month to play WoW, making it into one of the most commercially successful entertainment products in history.

The causes, however, are a little more subtle - sufficiently so that many other developers and publishers consider Blizzard to be some kind of "special case", a company which lies outside the rules of the industry in some unique manner and whose success simply cannot be emulated.

This is patent nonsense. Blizzard is stuffed with stunningly talented people, from the management level right down to the most junior development positions, of that there can be no doubt - but there are many talented people working in the videogames sector. The only "magic" thing about Blizzard is how well they manage and focus that talent into creating some of the world's best games, time and time again.

For those who care to look, Blizzard actually put much of that mechanism on display in Paris last weekend. Look around the coverage of the event that's gone online in the past few days, and you see a company baring its development soul in front of thousands of its toughest critics - the fans who actually pay for its products.

That, in itself, is symptomatic of the firm's approach. It's astonishingly transparent, to an extent which would give most developers cold sweats. With WoW expansion Wrath of the Lich King and new RTS title StarCraft II still months away, the designers of both games took the stage in front of packed audiences to discuss intimate details of the creative process for both games - warts and all. Tricky questions about unit balancing and design changes were aired and discussed in a frank, honest way.

The Burning Crusade, the last WoW expansion, was meanwhile placed on the table for dissection. This product - which, it's worth remembering, is actually Blizzard's presently active product, and its current flag-bearer at retail - was given a post-mortem examination by its designers, and no punches were pulled as the team ripped it open and explored their mistakes, and what can be learned from them.

This does, of course, sometimes happen to other games - but generally only in developer-specific publications, for the consumption of the team's peers. Few developers have the bravery, or indeed the desire, to stand up in front of fans and the world's media and say, "here's where my game failed, and here's what I learned". Even if the designers and creative types wanted to, the idea would give most publishers fainting fits.