World of Warcraft-maker Blizzard: FarmVille is 'not evil' [Interview]

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blizzard celebrates 20 years

Blizzard, the company responsible for what some might call the most popular social games of all time (long before FarmVille was a twinkle in Mark Pincus' eye), is celebrating 20 years in existence. World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game that launched in '04, boasts 12 million subscribers and Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, released last year, sold 2.5 million copies in 48 hours.

Right now, the company is hard at work on a third Diablo game and a new mystery MMO codenamed 'Project Titan.' Recently and was in New York City recently to ring the closing bell at the NASDAQ. caught up with Blizzard President/CEO Mark Morehaime and EVP Product Development of Frank Pearce in Times Square to talk about the company's history and see what these two industry vets think about games like FarmVille and the brave new world of social gaming.

So, you guys are celebrating.

Mark: It's our 20th year being in business, making video games. When we first started, actually, Frank and I were just six months out of UCLA. We just graduated. We had a mutual friend, Allen, and it was just three of us in the beginning. Now, we're over forty-six hundred around the world. Games were much, actually, the games we were working on were much smaller back then. And now, it takes us multiple years, over a hundred people...working on a game.

Do you ever just pinch yourself?

M: Yeah, like a thousand times for me over the past 10 years. It's been pretty crazy. We hold an annual convention called BlizzCon, for players. We sold about, this last year, about 20,000 tickets. Sold out in literally a couple of seconds. You go out there and it's just a bunch of Blizzard players. People who play all of our different games and who are really just really passionate about gaming. And really excited to be there. And the fact that we sell out so fast, means you're only getting people who really, really want to be there.

How would you say, the social elements in WoW and your other games, have evolved over the past 20 years?

M: We started out just very simple with Diablo, where was really a match-making service. There was no concept of persistent friendship across games. You really had to, if you were going to play with a friend, you had to schedule time outside the game. To now, we've introduced the concept of real ID friendships, so every time I log in, I can see which of my friends are online. It's pretty common for me to log in with Starcraft II and find that some of my friends are playing World of Warcraft. And we'll just be able to jump out and have a quick Starcraft team match together.

Speaking of social -- social gaming is a hot topic these days. Do you consider WoW a social game in that context or is that not really your scene?

Frank: I wouldn't say we're one of those, but I definitely think that WoW is a very, very social experience and that the social element is very important to that.

M: Yeah, I'd say absolutely. I think people ask how World of Warcraft has stayed so popular for so long, that I think it really comes down to the social connections that people make inside the game. Most of our players end up joining guilds. They make real, lasting friendships inside the game.

What's the official company line on a game like FarmVille?

M: I think part of that story is just how popular Facebook is. They talked about Facebook as sort of the directory, the white pages for the entire world. Which I think, it's real close to being, if it's not already. And I think for a long time, I think people are really looking for something fun to do. People are spending a lot of time on the network, so I think things like CityVille and FarmVille are filling that niche for now.

F: I think it also brings a lot of people to gaming that might not have otherwise experienced gaming. Potentially bridges the gap between someone not having gamed at all, and someone playing games that are more intense and hardcore like World of Warcraft and Starcraft 2. So I think it really helps grow the market.

M: Yeah, I don't really think there's a big jump necessarily from some of these more casual experiences to some of the hardcore experiences. Because honestly, I mean, Starcraft 2 and World of Warcraft are real easy to get into once you decide to try them.

There's a big debate in the gaming community over whether or not games like FarmVille are "evil." What's your take on that?

M: They're not evil. It's a natural evolution of things. And I think that, even from a, we're kind of coming from the other end. I think that adding deeper, social connections to any form of gaming is very important. Lowering the barriers to entry, increasing accessibility. I think these, what people call social gaming aren't really deep gaming experiences, so the natural evolution is to add depth to the more casual, social games. And the natural evolution of more hardcore gaming experiences is to add more accessibility and more social interactions.

People talk about how these social games are designed to be addictive. There's a lot of compulsion loops built and and they're designed to get people to open up their wallets and spend money.

M: Sounds to me like they're saying the people that make them are evil. I think there's definitely... it's a question of values and entertainment value. I think the entertainment value really needs to be there to have long-term success. Because some point people wake up and say, 'Is this really fun or not?'

Then there's people who overspend on freemium games. Recently there was a report about a girl who spend $14,000 on Smurf Village for iPad. Do you think companies should, at least, give lip service to this kind of compulsive behavior?

M: One of the things we try to do at Blizzard is make sure that the value equation works. We like people to, when they buy stuff from us, to feel that they got their money's worth in entertainment value. So after $14,000, it's kind of questionable that anybody got $14,000 worth of entertainment value.

Does Blizzard have any interest in Facebook?

M. Yeah, we're very interested in what's going on, on Facebook. And what kind of opportunities for increased social connection it might help us provide to our players. One of the first things that we do when you install Starcraft and set up your account is allow players the opportunity to make friendships with their Facebook friends.

I mean, it's more fun to play with people that you know. (Pauses.)Especially when you win.

world of warcraft cataclysmDo you guys see any further Facebook integration in the future? Is that something you're looking at?

M. It's definitely talked about, but we don't have anything to announce today.

What about other platforms? I know the PC has been good to you guys, but consoles... mobile?

M: PC has been very good to us. We still think the PC is a great gaming platform. You know, we are currently doing an investigation whether it makes sense to do a console version of Diablo 3. But that's just in progress, we haven't made any decisions on it. A lot of us have consoles at home, we have iPhones, iPads, we love gaming on all sorts of different devices. We always, whenever we start work on a project we always look at the available platforms and see which platforms make the most sense for the games. We've been focusing on the PC. PC, online. But we really view ourselves as platform-agnostic in our willing to choose the best platform, which is, so happens that we've chosen the PC.

F: [PC is the] best platform for the game we're making. Yes. Most appropriate platform for the game we're making.

Can you see adopting a free-to-play model in the future?

M: We have free trial for all of our games. I think free-to-play is really just an extension of how much you give away with the free trial. You can go to right now and try out World of Warcraft for free.

Speaking of, we have a single player demo of Starcraft II out. I think the next step for that is free trial for multiplayer. Somebody who hasn't played Starcraft II before, we'd like them to be able to try out that experience before they make that purchase decision.

When do you expect that to be available?
M: We don't have a time frame right now.

What's to look forward to for the next 20 years, for Blizzard?

M: Hopefully, we can continue being a leader in online gaming. It's really difficult to see that far end into the future. But I think the world is becoming a more connected place. I think more and more people are going online and are going to be interested in online games with their friends. And I think we want to continue to develop our games to be more social, more accessible, and more portable -- just being able to game anywhere with your friends.

Photo credits: Libe Goad/AOL, Jason DeCrow/AP Images for Blizzard Entertainment
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