It used to be the stuff of blues legend: Sign a contract at the Crossroads, lose a little bit of your soul, and get wealth and success until Ol’ Scratch called in the contract at the end of time. Blizzard Entertainment may not have much in common with a poor man out of Mississippi, but both attained the stature of legend, and both may have lost a little piece of their souls. Blizzard made games so incredibly popular (World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo), their success transformed the company culture and managed to burn out the creative team that made them a household name.

Stieg Hedlund was a former lead designer at Blizzard North, as well as one of the minds behind Diablo II. He describes his arrival at Blizzard as a “total culture shock. I had been working in games for over nine years, mainly with Japanese companies, and they had pretty rigorous atmospheres, particularly where design was concerned. These places dictated that a lot of stuff be on paper before anyone started any actual work. At Blizzard, they wanted the broad strokes, and then wanted to just ‘explore’ within those parameters.

“The great thing was that I had a lot of autonomy,” he said, describing a free-wheeling culture of creativity that just about anyone would envy. “There was no corporate layer as there is in most other companies, and even at the studio level, I didn’t need approval for any idea I wanted to pursue, I just made it happen. The downside was that there was a whole lot resting on my shoulders alone. I drew heavily on my experience in more disciplined environments to be self-directed and coordinate the many tasks that I was responsible for.

“Blizzard was very collaborative; I could go directly to the programmer or whoever I’d need help from to get something implemented, and talk about the best approaches,” and he himself got immersed into this culture of openness. “Similarly, my door was always open to anyone who had a design idea – and I guess I was a lot more open to ideas than a lot of designers they’d worked with as well: One guy thought I was ignoring him because I was typing while he was talking, until I told him I was writing down what he was saying!”

Another Blizzard alum, Stefan Scandizzo, gives a similar assessment of Blizzard North’s work environment, “I was hired when Blizzard North was about 30 people. This had a significant impact on both the work environment and the game development process. Everyone from the president to the IT technician was on a first name basis. We could almost all eat lunch around the same table and discuss games in a very open manner. Everyone was able to participate in various aspects of the game, even if it wasn’t their specialty or department.”

This small company culture was hard to sustain, as Blizzard grew on the strength of its previous titles and went through the rocket-powered launch of World of Warcraft. Up in San Mateo, Blizzard North headed toward its demise and subsequent shuttering, the departures began en masse. Some employees declined generous relocation packages in the Irvine Mothership to head off on their own, or to join already-established companies like NCsoft. As Blizzard North disappeared into fond memories, her alumni scattered to the winds, starting or taking prominent positions with companies like ArenaNet, Red 5 Studios, Flagship Studios, Perpetual Entertainment and Hyboreal Games. Some devoted themselves to single-player games, while others stepped up to challenge their former employer in the realm of MMOGs. Stieg worked with Ubisoft for a while, before joining Perpetual Entertainment in 2004 to help craft Gods and Heroes. Stefan and a band of former Blizzard North employees started Castaway Entertainment, where they’re working on a number of projects. ArenaNet went on to release Guild Wars; the guys who went to NCsoft are working on Dungeon Runners; and Flagship Studios came up with Hellgate: London.

They went to many different companies with many different goals, but when discussing their reasons for leaving, there is a single common thread that can be summed up as “We wanted to do something that wasn’t Diablo or World of Warcraft.” If Robert Johnson is stuck playing the blues in Hell for all eternity, the after-game facing the Blizzard team was constantly churning out World of Warcraft expansions and enhancements to feed a ravenous mass of players that’ll pounce on whatever they create, analyze it, chop it to shreds, exploit it, camp it, and then insult them by name for not churning out more content. And that’s just on the first day it’s out. So, what’s a designer to do? Sign at the Crossroads and ride the wave of success, or turn around and start their own company?

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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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