Last night I went to the second session of Warren Spector’s series of lectures on game design. The speaker was Mike Morhaime, co-founder and current president of Blizzard Entertainment.

Mike’s kind of a nervous type. Frankly I just wanted to go up there and shake him and say, “Mike! Come on, man! You’re a millionaire! You run the premiere PC game development studio in the world! You were on South Park! What could you possibly have left to be nervous about?” But I get the feeling that it’s just his temperament. Unfortunately it does impact his public speaking ability…as does the fact that he’s got to be very, very careful about how he answers questions.

Since Mike started as a programmer and is now a business guy, his talk wasn’t about game design per se, but more about running a successful game studio. And his main thrust was, “Don’t ever betray your principles. Ever. For any reason. If it’s not great, don’t ship it.” He talked about “brand withdrawals”, which is when a company effectively betrays its user base in some way to make some quick cash. Needless to say, he was against doing so for any reason ever.

He also talked a lot about “opportunity cost” and the projects Blizzard canceled over the years. In every case, the game in question could have been brought up to Blizzard’s standards and shipped, but the amount of work to do so could have been applied more effectively to another game Blizzard was already working on. Shipping Warcraft Adventures would have been a double disaster not only because nobody was buying adventure games at the time, but also because all the work put into finishing it would have been much better applied to Starcraft.

He talked about the South Park/Warcraft episode. South Park episodes are developed very quickly and in a fairly haphazard fashion, which is diametrically opposed to how Blizzard does things. So they basically had to dispatch a team to help Matt and Trey get the in-game footage they wanted and then just trust that the episode would come out okay. Which it did 🙂

He talked about the movie. They want the movie bad, and they think it can be done right. They are teamed with Legendary Pictures, the same people who did Lord of the Rings, Batman Begins, Superman Returns and 300. Now, I’m going to interject something here. Carmack famously once said that story in a game is like story in a porn movie – you expect it to be there, but it’s not very important. Most game developers have relied upon the interactivity of their medium to gloss over deficiencies in their storytelling, and that’s why most video game movies suck. The movies suck because the stories suck. Warcraft’s story doesn’t suck. It’s big, it’s complete and it’s incredibly detailed. Frankly, they could make a trilogy of movies out of it. If the Warcraft movie sucks, it won’t be because of the story.

He also talked about Blizzard’s popularity in Korea, and it became clear to me that they didn’t just luck out there. Gaming is huge in Korea. How huge? Well, there are about 20,000 “game rooms” in Korea. To put that in perspective, there are about 30,000 McDonald’s in the whole world. When people first started creating game rooms, they didn’t have the best hardware. They needed a game that was easy to start up, easy to get into, had network play, was very fun, and ran on older hardware. Starcraft fit that bill perfectly. If Blizzard had cut any corners on that game – if they had betrayed their principles in any way – it wouldn’t have been chosen as the standard “game room” game and Blizzard would have missed out on that huge market. Oddly enough, the original Starcraft was never localized into Korean; the Koreans just play the English version.

Of course, as Mike talked about the history of Blizzard, it became clear that at no point has Blizzard ever had to put up with publisher pressure. After Warcraft II shipped they were basically untouchable even though they are publicly owned (by Vivendi, at this point). And since Blizzard is the only gaming company Mike has ever worked at, he didn’t really have anything useful to say when asked how to prevent publishers from forcing you to betray your core values.

That aside, it was still a very interesting evening. Next week’s guest will be some guy named Richard Garriott. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of him before…