Snow Day

Snow Day

Shannon Drake | 6 Jun 2006 12:01
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Stieg put it to me like this: "Internally, Blizzard runs like an indie studio: Each individual can do a lot to affect the outcome of each game and people step up and do some pretty heroic things to make games turn out as well as they do. The timeframes run long and there's a lot of crunch time. It's a draining experience and it's hard to feel like you could do it again right away working in the same franchise." The other option for the former Diablo developer was the never-ending creative hamster wheel of World of Warcraft.

While the company was moving to new heights and shaking up the MMOG industry, the culture itself was changing. The small team atmosphere, where everyone could sit around a table and talk about games, was fading away as the company grew larger and larger.

"I believe very strongly that both leaving Blizzard and starting a new company are very much related," said Stefan, though he emphasized he was speaking only for himself. "I enjoy the small assertive team with which I work. Decisions are made quickly and with confidence because everyone here not only respects one another but also depends on each other. This is the way Blizzard North was in its younger years. So many games that are currently being developed are based solely on their potential marketability by being tied to films or other established franchises. As a designer, I enjoy the challenge of working on new worlds, concepts and characters. An independent developer is far more agile in terms adapting to new ideas and trends. I'd rather lead than follow."

In creating one of the most successful MMOGs ever - as well as some of the most enduring franchises - Blizzard created an all-consuming monster and faced the classic blues-man's dilemma: You will be incredibly successful and wealthy, but you will never be able to do anything else again. No matter how cool the idea you might have, there is a gaping maw of content waiting to be filled. Dare to mention working on other projects, and six million very angry people will instantly write in, demanding to know why you can't keep a f---ing server online.

One of my sources from the World of Warcraft team said, "WoW was such a marathon that it took quite a bit out of me. Five years is a long time on a project, and this one spanned the entire company. After WoW, I wanted to focus on content, especially original content. There were many people, like myself, who had been there eight or 10 years and really wanted a change." Therein lies the problem. The business logic is easy to see: With a game providing millions of dollars a month in revenues, and with assured sales in the millions for any expansions, why divert the attention of the content team anywhere else, especially on a project that may not be successful? If you want to spread your creative wings a bit, the logical place to turn is to StarCraft and Diablo, not a new, untested game or genre with risk involved.

In creating three of the most well-recognized franchises in the history of PC gaming, Blizzard turned itself into a fantastically successful company, and simultaneously burned out or drove away the very people who contributed to its ascent. They're standing at the crossroads, in other words, and it remains to be seen if, like the blues man, they'll start sinking down.

Shannon Drake likes commas and standing out in the rain.

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