Why Aren’t There More Blizzards in the Video Game Industry?

I used to work for a big video game studio that specialized in making licensed hand-held games which were primarily directed towards kids and teens. We’d have regular company meetings and during one such meeting one of our top designers who was a Warcraft RTS fanatic (he played feverishly during his lunch and even after work) defiantly stood up and asked this emperor has no clothes type of question:

Why can’t we be like Blizzard?

The CEO of our company was slightly taken aback. He replied that he thought the strength of our company was in sticking to the current formula of making games that tie into various movie releases and that there was no possible way we could ever be like Blizzard. End of discussion.

Needless to say many of us in the audience were disappointed as we ambled back to our beige industrial cubicles.

At some point in the career of most everyone employed in the video game business the “Blizzard” question arises either consciously or sub-consciously. In an industry that produces a surplus of crappy, unforgettable games the towering success of Blizzard shines like a beacon of hope for wayward travelers.

Everyone in the industry wants to make great video games like Blizzard. But somehow despite the best of intentions, that rarely ever happens if ever.

The Blizzard Magic

So why is Blizzard so special? What do they do that is so different from the rest of the industry?

By now most people who are somewhat interested in MMOs know that part of the answer is that Blizzard has adopted some mantras that speak to their respect for the notion of quality. These two you probably know by now:

  • Polish the game experience
  • Don’t release it until it’s ready

By now, everyone in the industry is aware of the Blizzard success formula. Even SOE’s John Smedley spoke highly of them back in 2004 just before the impending release of WoW. (I would have given anything to see the “we’re screwed” looks on the faces of the EQ dev team who participated in the first WoW beta).

So why haven’t companies adopted this winning strategy?

The Publisher Developer Business Model

The answer may lie in the inherently flawed and unequal nature of the typical business model that is employed to produce the average video game. Scott Cuthbertson (industry veteran and formerly of 38 Studios) in the opening chapter of the book The Battle for Azeroth hits the nail on the head when he explains how the people who make video games — the developers are beholden to the people that finance video games — the publishers. Here he reveals the crux of the problem:

Publishers and developers are the main players in the modern game industry. Their relationship is a pretty simple formula at least on paper: Developers make the game; they design it, they program it, make the art and write the words. Publishers pay to have the game made, packaged, marketed and shipped to your local retail store. Depending on your point of view, Developers are poor souls desperately seeking funding to craft their creative vision, while Publishers are large corporations with money to fund said poor Developers. (I’ll leave it to you to figure out which fish gets eaten in this relationship, but here’s a hint: it isn’t the one with the big bank account.)

The bottom line here is that the party with the money makes the rules. Developers get partial amounts of money from the publishers at intervals called “milestones”. The key here is that the video game must meet certain requirements regarding completion of design, artwork and scripting at these milestones before the developers are paid. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that the publishers have all of the power in this relationship.

Blizzard is different. They don’t have to genuflect before the wishes of a publisher because they are owned by a publisher. The result is that they can take as long as they want (and usually do) to make the game as good as it can be. There are no corporate suits or marketing departments breathing down their neck urging them to hurry up the game before Christmas.

No other company has a stellar track record like Blizzard; their mind blowing financial success coupled with millions upon millions of loyal fans are proof of this.

Time, Cost and Quality

In the book, Scott goes on explain his observations about the time, cost and quality relationship with regard to how video games are produced. This is very important because it dictates how good the game will be in the end. From a player’s point of view all that matters is the “quality” — they don’t really care about how it got that way — they just care that the game is the best it can be.

Scott amplifies this further:

Using the standard T-C-Q triangle from business school (which asserts that Time, Cost and Quality are all interrelated and one cannot be maximized without detracting from the other two), Publishers will almost always pick Time or Cost at the expense of Quality, especially because a company’s quarterly forecasts tend to drive the creative process.

Here we can see why most video games end up in the bargain bin. To be blunt, they suck because quality always ends up suffering.

Blizzard’s Freedom

What is even more amazing is that Blizzard has the freedom to make the kind of game that they want to play. This is almost unheard of in the industry.

I recall a recent interview with a Blizzard producer where he explained how they actually ask their employees what kind of games they want to make. Unlike most games,  Blizzard games typically take many years to design and create, therefore it only makes sense that developers would rather work on something they are passionate about.

Scott sums it up well:

Time and again, Blizzard is allowed that rare freedom to work on a project until it is done to their internal quality standards and the results are consistently positive, both in terms of gamer satisfaction and the bottom line

I highly recommend anyone interested in Blizzard, WoW and MMOs both from an enthusiast or professional perspective to read The Battle for Azeroth. Scott Cuthbertson’s chapter alone is worth the price.

Conclusion

Blizzard’s success is no secret: they can take all the time they want to produce games of unsurpassed quality. They have turned the publisher developer relationship upside down and they dictate the rules.

But that still leaves us with some lingering questions: Why aren’t there more Blizzards? Why aren’t more developers pulling themselves out of the mud and transforming themselves into companies that will be bold enough to take the time to make a quality video game?

-Wolfshead

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