The Austin Game Developers Conference this year is highly focused on the MMO industry, so what better way to kick it off than with a keynote speech from Michael Morhaime, the president and a co-founder of Blizzard, makers of the most popular massively multiplayer online roleplaying game on the planet? The keynote is entitled "How to Rule the World (of Warcraft): Ten Lessons", and I fully expect to be able to create my own MMO competitive if not better than WoW by the time the speech lets up. Morhaime launches into the keynote with a look back at the 20th century - my favourite so far. It's the first century with video games. The world is smaller. Technological process continuously increases exponentially. How much has changed in the past 100 years? Morhaime is going to tell us.
1907: Like WoW before you had a mount with no flight paths. That pretty much sums it up. Well that's all well and good, but what is Morhaime here to talk about? Oh.
Blizzard started in 1991 with $US20,000 and two PC's. Back then games were simpler. No CD drives, no big cinematics. Blizzard got started creating PC ports, then moved on to creating SNES and Genesis games. When the 16-bit console market started to decline they shifted focus to PC gaming, creating Warcraft. Blizzard was bought by an educational software company called Davidson Associates in 1994, after which a series of mergers and takeovers ensued, culminating in their being a division of Vivendi today.
Throughout all the changes, the core philosophies have stayed the same:
1. Gameplay first. The most important aspect. If this doesn't get taken care of, nothing else matters. By the way, gaming is a donut. I myself have long struggled with mastering the donut. I pick them up all the time, but never really feel like I have done it justice when my time is done. I am not sure I understand this analogy. I think what he is saying is the core market is a hole.
2. Build and Protect the Brand
Morhaime says that the Blizzard name is their most important property. People see the Blizzard name and will buy a game based on their name alone.
3. Resist the Pressure to Ship Early
*cough* Vanguard *cough* His message here is don't give into the myriad forces urging you to put your game out early. I suppose this is all fine and good if you are Blizzard, but otherwise that could be a problem. He uses the example The Burning Crusade expansion missing Christmas yet still selling amazing numbers. Well sure - they could have shipped TBC with a requirement that you undergo a full cavity search delivered via angry midget before you could take the game home and they'd have sold millions. Possibly more!
4. Resist the Pressure to do everything at Once
Build up your business slowly. Don't try to make the next World of Warcraft immediately, because if you do they will find you and they will kill you.
Morhaime is now talking about Blizzard's evolution as a global company. It features a chart that explains how their increasingly global focus has affected sales, which I will present here instead of trying to explain. The more places you sell the game, the more games you sell.
He stresses the importance of being sensitive to local cultures. For instance, don't dress a Chinese panda up in traditional Japanese samurai armour, as Blizzard did with Warcraft III. You don't want the Chinese mad at you. There are a lot more of them than there are of you.
Here Morhaime details the biggest challenges bringing WoW to the world presented.
5. Estimating Demand
Yeah, they were a bit off on this one. Who knew?
6. HR is Really Important
When WoW took off, Blizzard had to scale up the entire business overnight. "We were not prepared." Suddenly the support team they had in place was woefully inadequate. Be prepared for explosive growth, just in case.
7. Running a MMOPRG is not just game development
It's not just creating a game. It's becoming a global service company, with IT, customer service, and community management.
8 Communicate (or people will make stuff up)
Having a community team is important. With a steady stream of information fed to the customers from people who know what is going on. This keeps the customers happy, and keeps rumours from being spreading.
9.Avoid Financial Incentives
Try to keep your game from presenting money-making opportunities for third parties, like gold farmers, account stealing and reselling, and credit card fraud. Thanks to this philosophy, World of Warcraft is completely free from the scourge of gold farmers. *weeps*
Blizzard tests the hell out of their games. You should too. Internal testing, public betas, test servers, etc.
Putting all of these philosophies into effect led to the Burning Crusade launch. Blizzard upgraded their infrastructure, added extra capacity, and as a result it was one of the smoothest major expansion launches ever, despite midnight launches around the world.
Morhaime closes the keynote with a video of the European BC launch, showing crowds of fans in costume and out, with the WoW theme playing in the background. It is painful to watch. If you are tempted to dress up for a game launch, avoid video cameras at all cost. Seriously.
And there you have it. Straight from Morhaime's mouth. Now go create a WoW killer. We'll wait here.