Being Blizzard Entertainment: Bill Roper on Business, Fun and Everything Else
It's almost a microcosm of the state of gaming in our culture. Stuffed in between the narrow walls of Uncle Nick's, a Greek restaurant in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York, sits Bill Roper, Vice President of Blizzard Entertainment. At the next table over, mere inches away, sits a youngish couple. Once the couple sees that an interview is being conducted, they pause every so often to try to determine whether they're sitting next to someone famous. They are. But they never seem to realize it. Blizzard sold to retailers roughly $200 million worth of its latest game, Warcraft III. Two weeks after its release, more than 1 million copies had been sold to consumers. And not even Roper's logo-emblazoned Blizzard bowling shirt rings any bells for the neighboring couple. Gaming just still isn't mainstream.
Roper's prescription is simple: star power. "As we get more celebrities talking about games, that's going to be great for us," he says. He notes that Robin Williams is now an outed gamer, and that John Woo, Kid Rock, Pam Anderson, Trent Reznor and "that tall guy with the beard from ER who kind of looks like me" all showed up at this year's E3 trade show. As people hear "cool" celebrities talking about gaming, Roper figures the cool factor will start to attach to gaming, as well.
Maybe in some ways the lack of fame in America isn't so bad. At least Roper can enjoy his souvlaki in peace. In South Korea, things are quite different. According to Blizzard's numbers, the company has sold over 2 million copies of StarCraft in South Korea, roughly one copy for every 23 people. At one promotional event, over 5,000 people turned out just to watch a match played on several large monitors. There were even three tuxedoed commentators offering move-by-move analysis of the match in progress.
The popularity of StarCraft in South Korea was, according to Roper, as lucky as it was unexpected. At StarCraft's launch in 1998, South Korea was emerging from a disastrous financial collapse, PC salons were just starting to appear, and the Korean government began strictly enforcing intellectual property laws. The combined effect was to give Koreans more money to spend at ever more PC salons, which were required to buy many more game copies in order to comply with the law. A virtuous circle from Blizzard's point of view. There are now some 20,000 PC salons across South Korea, and, four years after its release, they still run StarCraft.
In fact, StarCraft has become something of a national pastime. Roper says, "It's almost to the point that a copy of StarCraft is like a 13-year-old's bar mitzvah gift: 'Today, my son, you are a Terran.'" The excitement in Roper's voice is palpable as he adds, "They are amazingly good at playing, and they are amazingly knowledgeable." Roper thinks StarCraft may even deserve a little credit for promoting interest in the technology industry now so important to South Korea's economy.
Even so, he says, "It's nothing we could have ever planned for." But now they do. Warcraft III was fully translated into six languages with documentary support in twenty languages. Designers now consider things like how different people will log-in, and how to police bad behavior and foul language in languages none of their staff speaks. Blizzard partners with local companies, such as Korea's Hanbit Soft, to seek advice on such matters. It turns out, for example, that the Japanese don't want their games fully translated. "They want Japanese subtitles but with English for the voice," Roper notes, "They say it helps them to learn English."
StarCraft is not, however, the only 500-pound gorilla in the South Korean market. Lineage, an MMORPG produced by South Korean-based NCSoft, has a firm grip on the minds and wallets of Korean gamers. Blizzard's own MMOG, World of Warcraft, is due out next year. Asked whether he believes World of Warcraft has a chance to dethrone Lineage, Roper smirks, "I think if anybody's in a position to do it, we are."
As tempting as it might be for Roper to spend all his time looking westward, he must also keep an eye to the east, to Blizzard's corporate parent, Vivendi Universal, based in France. Vivendi Universal is the glamour half of Vivendi, a company that began its life and still operates in the decidedly unglamorous business of water treatment and management. The media component was invented almost whole cloth by now ex-CEO Jean-Marie Messier. In the end, Messier's ventures proved a bit too sexy and not enough savvy to satisfy Vivendi's owners. Messier was replaced by the stolid Jean-Rene Fourtou, but left a mountain of corporate debt in his wake. The instant scuttle was that Vivendi would need to start selling off assets quickly . . . maybe assets like Blizzard.
While no such sale has taken place or been announced, worrisome business issues like this one can cause an edginess that is a natural enemy to the environment required to make entertainment products. That is why Roper tries to keep the game development team shielded as much as possible from tremors at the top. "It doesn't affect us much at an operational level," says Roper. "We have to be aware of it, but we try to keep the development team out of it." Roper adds, "Some of our people don't even know who works at Vivendi, who Messier and Fourtou are, and that's the way we like it."
Blizzard developers may not know their CEO, but they do know their customers. Contrary to the stereotype of the misanthropic programmer, Blizzard developers do a fair amount of field work meeting the fans. At the E3 trade show, Blizzard tends to eschew the use of "booth babes" in favor of simply putting their developers on the floor. Roper thinks it's important to do that since, ultimately, no one is in a better position to answer questions about the games. In addition, explains Roper, "We use it as part of the development process. We just watch the people play the games."
But you needn't travel to a trade show to find Blizzard. For the launch of Warcraft III, Blizzard sent its development team to various retail outlets to sign autographs. At one event, Blizzard sent 45 staffers to sign games and answer questions. These events are a rich source of anecdotes for Roper. He tells the story of a fellow who, after waiting in the long line, showed up with two copies of Warcraft III for Roper to sign. The first was for himself. The second was for a co-worker who said he didn't feel like standing in line and asked his colleague to do it for him. Roper laughs, "I signed it something like, 'To the lazy co-worker, you owe this guy.'"
Roper's favorite part of these events is meeting children. "I have fun answering questions from kids who you see and you know they want to ask you something but are too scared." Roper beams, "Then you hear their parents telling them, 'It's OK. Go ask your question." Roper is also gratified to see that the parents are in attendance. "We think it's vital for parents to be involved in what their kids are doing." Reflecting on his own childhood, Roper adds, "I tried to explain Dungeons & Dragons to my folks. They got it enough to know it wasn't going to hurt me so that was OK."
More than just meeting fans, Roper values playing the games with them. "The first twelve hours of [the Warcraft III] release was Blizzard playing with customers who had just come back from their midnight purchase," says Roper, "People would come on Battle.net and say, 'Is anyone here from Australia?'" For Roper, that sort of thing is just plain cool, and he can't stop grinning when he talks about it.
"We have a great community, and they are overwhelmingly helpful," says Roper. When he gets beat in a game, Roper likes to ask his opponent what he did wrong and what he might do differently. And, usually, they tell him. "Rather than saying, 'I'm not going to tell you so I can beat you again,' they say that I should have done this or built that," Roper says, "It's great."
Blizzard's relationship with its fans has not always been a smooth one. Its games are under constant pressure from hacks, cheats, exploits and plain old bad behavior by people who can't seem to enjoy the game unless spoiling it for someone else. Endless time and resources must be spent to fight these things. Fortunately, most of the community does not engage in or encourage cheating, and that's of comfort to Blizzard.
Unfortunately, not every situation so clearly casts Blizzard as the good guy. Recently, Blizzard found itself embroiled in controversy over the creation of a program innocuously titled "bnetd." The bnetd program was created by a group of individuals who wanted to set up their own servers to play multiplayer Blizzard games without using Blizzard's proprietary battle.net server system. One side effect of the program (or main goal, depending on whom you ask) was that it eliminated the need to enter the CD-key that Blizzard uses as a security device against pirated versions of its games.
Blizzard sent a cease and desist letter to the main bnetd web site operator demanding that the program be removed from the web site. Soon, the dispute became public. Very public. Internet forum boards sprang aflame with angry statements about big companies using their power to squash free speech, free commerce, free everything. Chiefly, some fans took Blizzard's attempt to ban a program of arguable utility as a sign that Blizzard held little regard for the people who buy their games.
"It really hit us hard," says Roper. He says that he and the whole team take fan commentary both seriously and personally. What frustrated Blizzard, he says, was that it couldn't seem to get its side of the story out clearly enough. "We just wanted to explain the need to keep a clean and well-policed environment so it's fun for everyone," says Roper, "We can't do customer service on bnetd servers."
In April, Blizzard filed a lawsuit against the web operators hosting the bnetd development site. The filing of the suit kicked up more antipathy, but, since then, the matter seems to have quieted. Although the lawsuit remains an open issue, Roper is optimistic about finding a solution other than a trial. "I don't think anyone wants to go to court."
Whatever the travails, Roper can't deny that working at Blizzard these days is fun. Making popular games, making money from popular games, being famous (in East Asia) – it's fun. Even so, there is a world outside the Irvine, California office of Blizzard and a world outside of Blizzard's games. Like other people's games, for example.
"I don't even really watch TV," says Roper, "I watch movies sometimes, but mostly I play games." Roper says that he and a number of Blizzard folks used to play EverQuest, an online role-playing game, and even had their own in-game guild. The problem was that word escaped about the identity of the "Blizzard guild," and soon Roper couldn't play without getting peppered with questions about Blizzard's next project. These days, he is playing Dark Age of Camelot. Batman-like, however, Roper now jealously guards his alternate identity.
Beyond MMORPGs, Roper says, "I'm still addicted to GTA 3 because it's so open." He's referring to Grand Theft Auto 3, the Congressional icon for all that is wrong with video games. And, oh-by-the-way, the worldwide best-selling game of 2001. "It's one of the best-designed games of recent times regardless of platform," he adds. In fact, Roper says the best thing is to play both Grand Theft Auto 3 and Dark Age of Camelot at the same time. "I like to drive around in GTA 3 while I'm riding a horse [in Dark Age of Camelot]." Looking ahead, Roper says that after seeing Nintendo's lineup at the E3 trade show, he's thinking about buying a GameCube.
With games by day and games by night, one could be forgiven for wondering about the state of Roper's marriage. As it turns out, however, Roper's wife is a gamer, too. He says that when they were dating, she asked if he wanted to see her high level Diablo character. He sat down in front of her computer, but she fired up her PlayStation. "I think she's the only person I know who bought Diablo for the PlayStation," chuckles Roper. He recalls thinking to himself that night, "Hmm. Cute girl. Gamer. I need to pursue this."
In other words, as if the Never Never Land of full-time gaming weren't grand enough, this Peter Pan gets the girl. Well, maybe not quite Peter Pan. "So I was at Sears looking at all these washing machines and thinking, 'I just want a washing machine with a good silk cycle.'" Roper looks up and adds, "What's happened to me?" It's OK, Bill. The games will keep you young at heart.