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The heart of Blizzard has left...

Matthew Fusco Posted:
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In the cut-throat world of computer game publishing a company's entire future can ride on the outcome and popularity of a single game. Titles like Daikatana doomed ION Storm while Half-Life threw Valve's prospects into the stratosphere. Producing quality software isn't easy, and most every company has at least a couple of not-so-great titles under its belt. LucasArts might have backed the incredibly popular Jedi Knight series, but that doesn't mean Rebel Assault never existed. For the big companies a lousy title can be an embarrassment, but for shoestring operations it can doom the entire company.
In an industry more known for the constant stream of mediocre titles over the few gems that appear every year, Blizzard has remained a consistent source of incredibly popular games. Of their first few titles only BlackThorne was a major hit, but since their release of the first Warcraft the company has seen only slam dunk after slam dunk. Most companies are lucky to have one major cash-cow of a franchise—Blizzard has three in the form of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo, and while two of them are RTS worlds, the company has done a fine job of vastly distinguishing the look and feel of the two 'craft series.

Blizzard, it would seem, has the golden touch - which is why it's so puzzling that four of its senior members (Erich Schaefer, Max Schaefer, David Brevik, and Bill Roper) have chosen to leave the company. Roper, especially, was a major force behind both Diablo and Warcraft III, is well known in the gaming industry, and well on his way to achieving the fame of a Sid Meier or a Will Wright. The four state they wish Blizzard all the best and are wanting to pursue "other" opportunities, but it's hard to imagine what other opportunities they have access to where the weight and muscle of Blizzard couldn't have helped open doors.

On the other hand, it may be that Blizzard is finally being shackled to the constraints that've damaged game author's final product for years. Unfortunately for the industry, most companies that write games don't also publish them. This means that the creative side of the industry is ultimately held hostage to a marketing team that may or may not have any grasp of the difficulty and time required to produce a blockbuster product.

The cycle seems to go something like this: Low-level managers give enthusiastic, problem-minimizing reports on a product's progress to their immediate superiors, who then turn around and give even more enthusiastic reports to their superiors, and so on, and so forth. By the time the report gets into the upper levels of the company there are few mentions of problems left and the game is going to ship a year ahead of schedule.

So the PR wheels spin and all sorts of ridiculous hype is created, which only frustrates gamers when release date after release date slips. Truth is, the release dates should never have been made in the first place, but it’s the programmer's, not the marketers, who are held responsible for this more often then not. Management wants profit and they want it now, which often leads to half-finished games being kicked out the door long before they should've been. They sell a few thousand copies and sink like rocks, leaving everyone out in the cold and nobody happy.

Blizzard, to date, has dodged this trend. Blizzard games might have a reputation for great-ness, but their reputation for late-ness is just as huge. This is partially due to Blizzard's predilection for going back to a product that's half done and ripping it apart to start over again with a new engine a move that undoubtedly enhanced both Warcraft III and Starcraft, but also added tremendously to their development time.

After Blizzard was acquired by Vivendi, people have began watching for trends that the company would put pressure on Blizzard to release substandard product. Thankfully this has never been the case, but with the entire corporation's entertainment division on the auction block I wonder if the four Blizzard colleagues saw the writing on the wall and decided to bail when they could before they found themselves helming a flagship company descending into the hell of a "publish at any cost" mentality.

This does not bode well for Blizzard. While the vast majority of people who worked on Blizzard's classics remain, four of the people responsible for setting the vision of the company and of its respective gaming worlds are gone. Hopefully there's someone who can replace themor Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne may be the last great product to sail out of Blizzard's doors for a long time.


Matthew Fusco