A week ago, Ryan Winzell was a college student with another year and half until completing his degree. Today, he's the mod community's Cinderella story, with a foot in the door at one games studio and a pat on the back from another.
"It's pretty much flipped my life upside down," Winzell, 25, told Kotaku this afternoon. The creator of the "World of StarCraft" mod, Winzell navigated a tense five days involving talks with an Activision Blizzard lawyer, a flood of email from well wishers and modders wanting to help, and also an invitation to apply for a job at Riot Games, makers of the League of Legends MMO.
"I really wasn't prepared for all of this," he said. "I don't even have a resumé typed up. I'm working on that to send one in to them.
"I feel like, I don't know, like I'm still in a dream," Winzell said.
"World of Starcraft" set off a bomb in the mod community when a video showing an MMO-style mod using the StarCraft II toolset hit YouTube. Though a modder in Germany had begun work on a similar project before Winzell, it's safe to say Winzell's came to light only because of the name, and the reaction by Activision Blizzard, makers of World of Warcraft and the StarCraft franchises.
"Obviously, Blizzard did not have this problem with ‘StarCraft Universe,'" Winzell said, the MMO project by the modder mille25 that preceded Winzell's. "If they never would have taken the video down, this never would have happened. The story wouldn't have gotten this big."
It evolved as many stories do about fans working with big games publishers' trademarked content. The video went out, went viral, and stoked enthusiasm for a spinoff many would want to see happen. Activision Blizzard noticed, but "World of StarCraft" cut too close to trademarks it already owns on two of PC gaming's biggest franchises.
Naturally, the YouTube takedown was excoriated as a hostile action trampling creativity and insulting the earnest efforts of devoted fan. Especially as the mod was built with a toolset released publicly, ostensibly for the purpose of what Winzell was doing. But this was an issue of trademark protection - in the name of the mod - and not necessarily copyright law - its content. The distinction between the two often is misunderstood.
"I tried to keep my cool when people started flaming Blizzard and Activision," said Winzell, uncomfortable with the outrage on his behalf. "If I was in their position, I'd feel the same way. That's their baby and I probably would have done the same thing. Not by any means was I mad.
"I did want a response to them as to why the video was taken down, though, and what I could do to fix the problem," Winzell said. "I wanted to fix the problem, put this behind us and move on."
He got one, in a cordial conversation with an Activision lawyer. The company's biggest concern wasn't necessarily the name, but the idea that Winzell might be building something with tools and content outside what Blizzard has made available to the public. And that's because the project was somewhat misrepresented in reports as a full-scale MMO.
The StarCraft II toolkit is powerful, Winzell said, but not to that degree. "It's an MMO-style mod," he said, because of the limitations of the tools.
"The rabbit hole goes pretty deep, man," Winzell said. "You can do anything you imagine, but there are issues and there are limitations. You can save character data, variables, heroes, the only problem is the bank files can be easily hacked, even with the new signature in place."
That exploit is what led mille25 to suspend his operations on StarCraft Universe. Winzell said that project is further developed than even his.
In the aftermath, Winzell got an email from Riot Games, who make the League of Legends MMO, inviting him to apply for a position there. "When I see a modder with a lot of drive that has done something cool, I tend to contact them," the studio's creative director wrote on their official forums.
And the conversation with Activision Blizzard went well, too. "They were very cool with me," he said. "They were helpful, they just wanted to get the issue resolved and ensure I wasn't trying to produce an MMO outside of StarCraft II."
As a gesture of appreciation, the company offered Winzell a tour of its campus in Santa Monica, Calif., with the chance of meeting with the StarCraft development team. As Winzell is in St. Louis, that means the company will pay for his travel and his stay there. They just have to work out the dates.
Winzell's mod will go forward, under a different name. StarCraft Universe is most likely, as a collaboration with mille25. That name was given a thumbs up by Activision Blizzard in its talks with Winzell.
Assuming his contact with Riot Games doesn't lead to a job, Winzell said a playable demo of the mod will be available within the year. He still isn't sure if he'd leave school for a gig in the games industry. Pursuing a design communications degree, Winzell began his studies not expecting to crack games design, a notoriously competitive field.
"An MMO is never complete," he said. "But I will try to get a playable demo out within the year."
Above all, Winzell understands that his fortune is happenstance, and his opportunity is the hope of many who've cheered him on. He called out the site sc2mapsters.com as a special source of inspiration and help for his mod. "The people there are 100 times more technically skilled than I am," Winzell said. "I owe a lot of the credit for this to the guys there.
"This fell in my lap," he said. "I just did this for fun, because I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed hearing people's reactions. I really want to thank everyone on the forums for their overwhelming support, and their compliments."