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The Hero Factory: Conversations with Chris Metzen

As he retires from his position as Blizzard's head writer.

Blizzard's head writer and lore guru - or senior vice president of story and franchise development to his friends - Chris Metzen has just announced his retirement. To mark the moment, here's a profile of the man we originally published 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.

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."

Inevitably, Blizzard ends up surrendering a degree of control to players who think they own the game world (they certainly rent it), or facing a backlash when they don't. "It's hard to not let that sometimes steer you in a way: well, I guess my instinct as an artist is that we go left, but the community sure seems to want this idea to go right. And that's a very strange space to be in," Metzen says.

"Sometimes you go right for the community, and sometimes you draw a line in the sand and go, f**k it, we're going left. You just have to hope that people stick with you, even through patches of content that they're not entirely thrilled with." And the feedback can be brutal. "The smaller per cent of truly vocal fans on the internet that just rip everything you do to pieces... Sometimes it hurts, and you're left to conclude, like any artist in any medium, boy, I guess they really didn't get it."

Happily, WOW's fiction works with its design; it's a social game, and Warcraft's concerns are societal and political. Metzen calls it "a study - clumsy or not - a study of societal breakdown and why do we keep clobbering each other, why does hatred persist generationally?" (Metzen describes Blizzard's fiction as "clumsy" more than once; he's being modest, but perhaps also aware that their populist creations deal in broad brushstrokes.)

Nonetheless, he admits that, after years of working primarily on WOW, he was "desperate for" the personal focus and writerly freedom offered by StarCraft's linear narrative.

"WOW is so macro," he says. "One race can't really lead another in terms of how deep you go with the characters, or what world leader is rocking at any given time. I was excited to get into StarCraft because it is so much more linear, and it is about just a couple of people, and it is something goofy like a love story."

That love story is between hard-drinking space captain Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan, a super-agent who ends up corrupted by the insectoid Zerg race. Trying to implement such a tale within what is essentially a war game is a different kind of challenge, which creates a different kind of friction - not between developer and players, but between writers and designers.

"To be honest with you, if I had a nickel for every time I heard, 'Really? You want to tell Gone With the Wind in the context of an RTS? Are you an idiot? That doesn't make it easy on us!'" he laughs. "And sometimes I wonder if we bit off maybe too much story for what you can actually build in the context of an RTS campaign."

Along with many colleagues, Metzen regrets the 'visually and thematically challenging' direction of The Burning Crusade expansion to WOW.

So does story lead design, or does design lead story at Blizzard? "It's as collaborative as we can make it," he says. "Sometimes story and design are not always best friends - and I don't mean that in terms of our people and our teams, I just mean that purely thematically." But "we're not BioWare," he adds, and ultimately gameplay comes first.

"I think all things being equal, it's easier to manoeuvre story around design than it is the other way. At the end of the day, it's got to be fun and it's got to play, and it's got to be ideas that the design team can actually execute against. Whereas story, I believe inherently that there's ten ways to solve any problem with story. Or at least, of the two sciences, it's the one that's more adaptable."

Does it frustrate him sometimes, not having free creative rein in this "corporate art", as he calls it? "I guess I don't mind saying from a total, personal level that sure, that kind of thing to me personally is frustrating all the time. In my heart of hearts, I wonder did I just want to be a f**king comic book writer... So sure, I get frustrated all the time, not with the boys, but with the science.

"But sometimes I think it's in the clash of those sciences, and in the fact that we have to deal with each other and find that sweet spot in the middle without compromising the idea, that we have our moments of greatness. Through clashes of ideology, we stumble into moments that neither science would have conjured on their own.

"You're feeling the story, you're driving it, you're living it, you're tactilely interacting with it, and that's something that only games can provide. And I respect that. So if I ever get frustrated, I take a step back and I remember that we can achieve more than any classic narrative media can. And I'm honoured to be a part of it."

Good versus evil

Diablo III's art team has been hounded for moving away from the series' relentlessly dark and grimy dark fantasy aesthetic and giving it a more lush, colourful look. Although the game's story is still largely under wraps, I wonder if Metzen and his writers have been faced with a similar dilemma. Somehow I can't picture the man sat across from me steering Blizzard into something so bleak again.

To begin with, he's circumspect. "I think the darkness of it, certainly the way it balances against our other two franchises, is its strength," he says. But it turns out that it's the human content of Diablo that he loves, not the inhuman horror of a world overrun with demons.

"I've always held that Diablo was by far the most interesting universe we were sitting on top of. I've always believed this. 'Cause you know, Warcraft and StarCraft have their roots in the fundamental zeitgeist of pop fantasy and science fiction. In many ways their worlds are built to substantiate almost any wacky idea. Especially Warcraft, you know, goblins with jet bikes and all that kind of s**t.

"Whereas Diablo's been so specific all these years - I think it has just the most thematic potential of any of our universes to be... I don't know, a bit more personally engaging. Diablo's more about your ticker. Why should I choose to be good or evil today? That's why I think it's potentially - potentially - a far more satisfying fiction."

It soon becomes clear that total hopelessness, or a bleak outlook on human nature, hold no interest to Metzen as a storyteller, though he admits some responsibility for introducing the theme to Diablo. "I think at the end of the first game I had written that the hero takes Diablo through the stone into himself. It was a riff on the ending of the Exorcist movie. It's so bleak and bittersweet at the end of that game. But I think the dev team had gotten this impression that Diablo stories by definition have to be bleak, always, every time, there is no hope, there is no light. And I've always contended with that. I think that that is a ridiculous conclusion."

StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm: 'There's a lot of personal truth embedded in this thing.'

For games to offer satisfying escapism, he argues - and he never seems to consider that games, Blizzard's games at any rate, should do anything else - completely dark stories are counter-productive. "I think if you start to lose that innate, contractual understanding that you will be achieving something and feeling good about something, we've totally lost... Not to call it out, but playing Doom 3, it was just so bleak. It was a wonderful game, it was perfectly designed and I had a blast. But I didn't get any nutrients as it ended."

He also mentions how he loved watching Band of Brothers but found the brutality of The Pacific hard to sit through; how he's watched Ken Burns' documentary TV series about the American Civil War eight times, but can't stomach his work on World War II. Chris Metzen wants to see goodness in the world, and he wants you to, too.

"There's a threshold there for the darkness that people want, and think they want. But there are subtle degrees of heroism and fighting the good fight that I think they also want, but aren't as in tune with. This whole theme is something that's very near and dear to me."

It doesn't have to be cut-and-dried - "I like deeply flawed characters, we tried to really push the Jim Raynor character in StarCraft, I almost had him as a full-blown alcoholic" - but there does have to be hope and sacrifice and an attempt to make the world a better place, even if it's for just one other person.

Blizzard is one of the most widely loved entertainment companies in the world. With so many fans, does he regard this dedication to selfless heroism as a moral imperative? "That's a weird one, I guess I'd want to be careful how I said that. But you know, we reach a lot of people around the world. Kids in China are playing. A lot. These ideas do go out and have the potential to shape young minds and young imaginations. I want to be thoughtful about that."

Man versus world

Ultimately, however, the heroic theme in Blizzard's games is a question of taste and education - and personality. Blizzard's corporate culture outwardly emphasises the team over the individual, but inwardly reveres its chief creatives. Metzen wields more influence over the feel of Blizzard games than almost anyone else. So where does he, personally, come from?

"I'm a weird creature," he says, although it's a common enough story. "My first love is comic books, and I imprinted on these big, giant comic book universes that are about superheroes. And they're all totally heroic. Whatever the problem is, there's always this innate contract with the viewer or reader or fan that good's going to come back. It's about the fight, it's about selflessness and heroism. And I think those things are so ingrained in me since I was a little kid, it's maybe impossible for me to get out of those pants. I don't much want to. I like those kinds of stories."

Diablo 3: 'This one's been built from the ground up to be what I hope is a thunderous expression of the franchise. At last.'

It wasn't always the way. When Metzen started work at Blizzard he was more angsty. "The kid I was, working on the first Diablo, I must have been 23, an angry young kid. A lot of those ideas that went into the DNA of the world, you're cathartically exorcising whatever bulls**t you're feeling at that phase of your life."

But there was, and remains, a common thread: enormous worlds. Huge conflicts. Epic canvases. Casts of thousands. Big storytelling. Although Blizzard's name has become inextricably linked with this kind of cosmic ambition, a mellowing Metzen wants to get more personal.

"As a younger man, it was an exercise in clever, right? I wanted to build big, giant worlds, I wanted to hook ideas that no-one else was thinking about, or more to the point, spin ideas that we've all grown up with in ways that no-one had spun before.

"At this phase of my life I find myself - and maybe this is totally normal for 38 years old - I'm far less fascinated with these big, grinding worlds and their levels of complexity. I want to get a lot more personal... I just want to be part of projects that have soul and resonance and are not the same old video game bulls**t."

He even hints that Kerrigan and Raynor's story in Heart of the Swarm - a story of a good man struggling with his demons while trying to save a girl from the darkness within her - draws from his own experience. "Let's just say that there's some continuity between my life these past many years and what this story is. And in some way, cathartically, I've been working out my own demons."

"I wonder sometimes that we feel a little weighted down by these big, giant movements, and couldn't we be doing things simpler?"

But you'll never find Metzen, or by extension Blizzard, making a wordless two-hander like Ico, or a psychological drama like Heavy Rain. The stories may get personal, but they still have to be about heroes. And for its manufacturing processes to work, the hero factory needs the stakes to be high and the canvas to be big.

Metzen comes back to his love of Marvel and DC superhero comics, as well as role-playing games, as a kid. "I just love big settings that are engines for infinite stories that are personal," he says. "So as an artist, how funny, these are the types of things I just want to build.

"Maybe sometimes it's been suggested that my instinct is... that I'm reaching too far for what the gameplay can actually facilitate. But I feel compelled, and it seems to me that my creative cohorts around here are on the same bucket.

"It's kinda funny, we had this discussion lately. You play something like Portal or Portal 2, where the gameplay is just so genius and the storyline, the ambient story and even the directed dialogue is, I guess you would say, minimalist? But it leaves a very satisfying taste. Sometimes that's used as the other polarity of really excellent storytelling in games. I wonder sometimes that we feel a little weighted down by these big, giant movements, and couldn't we be doing things simpler?

"But this is all I know."

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