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DICE 2008: A Flurry of Ideas, Team Blizzard

Julianne Capps | 8 Feb 2008 15:00
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Gore Verbinski hit the ground running with his keynote the first night of DICE 2008, discussing the creative process and the pitfalls therein. This talk was just the beginning of a meeting of the best and brightest minds of the gaming industry, and either set the tone for further conversation, official and not, on the subject of design philosophy, or acted as further proof of the collective consciousness.

The themes of talks and conversations in the conference center are focusing on distilling the “exponential factor”; how to bring together the creatives, throwing them together to see what happens; and protecting that all-important think-tank atmosphere where one idea flows so seamlessly into the next even better idea that it’s hard to tell from whom it originated.

Thursday morning began with a group session of speakers versed in the creative process: Team Blizzard. Team Blizzard consisted of Mike Mohaime, CEO and co-founder of Blizzard (who is to be inducted into the AIAS Hall of Fame at tonight’s award ceremony), Frank Pearce, Executive VP of Product Development and co-founder of Blizzard and Rob Pardo, Senior VP of Game Design.

Morhaime and Pearce started in 1991, at the birth of Blizzard, which was originally called Silicone & Synapse and claimed a staff of three. None of the three had any game experience, but believed experience was only part of the equation for success.

“We believed if we put smart, creative people in a room together ... great things are possible,” said Morhaime. “We were taking a leap of faith and believing we could do it.”

This sounded strikingly similar to much of the sentiments shared by Verbinski the night before. And looking at the huge success both Verbinski had with Pirates of the Caribbean and Blizzard has had with, well, several titles, there just might be something to this creative incubator notion.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Blizzard has taken a long path to get where they are, and has changed hands a number of times, only the latest of which being the merger with Activision. Blizzard has a formula, it seems to work, so the new People in Charge must be … taught.

“We sometimes say Mike has to train his new bosses – he’s had eight bosses over the years,” joked Pearce.

But things seem to be moving as well as can be expected when two huge players in the industry merge. Morhaime added to Pearce’s comment that “things are going well with Bobby – he’s from the industry.”

Indeed.

But what is the Blizzard formula and where did it come from? Pearce and Morhaime explained the “layered approach,” taking us on a quick trip through the history of Blizzard titles, showing how each project, or layer, took on more depth and more scope. Each step, they stretched just a bit more, just a bit further. The massively successful World of Warcraft is just the latest layer in the Blizzard … onion? Parfait. Yes, parfait.

”We’ve taken steps; we didn’t come right out and make World of Warcraft,” said Pardo. “We don’t try to do too many things at one time – making an MMOG of WoW’s size is a monumental undertaking.”

It’s not all about the layers and taking ever-lengthening strides, however. Mixed in the layers is the mantra “Gameplay First.” But what does that mean, exactly?

“We use more stylized art, for example,” said Pardo. “Also, some people suggest our tech is not as good as others. Not true, we have great tech people. We use the best tech to hit a certain set of system requirements.”

Nowhere is this more clear than in World of Warcraft. The powerhouse MMOG was noted for coming out with, well, less than demanding system requirements. And now, three and change years after launch, it’s hugely popular around the world (not an easy feat) – and many ascribe the popularity in no small part to Blizzard’s drive for great tech on accessible hardware.

The presentation ended with a quick Q&A session from the audience. The question that grabbed my attention was how does Blizzard come up with new ideas, either new IP or within franchises? Pardo hopped in and said the dev teams decide.

“When the Warcraft 3 team became available, we asked what they wanted to do,” he said. “There were a bunch of huge fans in the group who wanted to revisit the StarCraft universe. And so, we started StarCraft 2.”

And so, another installment of StarCraft will be delivered to the masses, created by people nearly as excited about the game as the players itching to get their hands on it. Sounds like a pretty good plan to me.

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