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World of Warcraft Maker Turns 20, Looks Ahead

StarCraft 2
Courtesy of Activision
StarCraft 2

You might think that after creating a title that has over 12 million customers happily paying a monthly subscription fee, Blizzard Entertainment would be immune to some of the fears circling the video game industry.

But Frank Pearce, co-founder of the development giant, says he’s just as worried about the impact of Facebook and iPhone games as everyone else.

“It’s really tough to compete against free,” he says. “No matter what level of quality you hit, there are a lot of people who are willing to sacrifice that for a cheaper version...The industry is changing in terms of the business model.”

That’s a thought that has been on a lot of people’s minds at this week’s Game Developers Conference, but it’s still jarring to hear from Blizzard. The company is virtually video game royalty, with a passionately devoted fan base and a string of tremendously successful titles that is unmatched.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary in the business, the company (a division of Activision-Blizzard) is preparing for its next big push. Up first is “Diablo 3,” which investors hope to see this year – though the developer isn’t willing to commit to that yet. Another installment in the “StarCraft” series is underway as well. And lurking in the background is a new franchise, another massively multiplayer online game.

The company’s not saying much about that game at present, though Pearce does note that some development teams are already playing a build internally, adding refinements. The company generally exposes new games to concentric circles of team members to gather feedback before it hits a beta phase. He won’t say, however, how many of those internal circles have seen the game yet.

"It’s really tough to compete against free...No matter what level of quality you hit, there are a lot of people who are willing to sacrifice that for a cheaper version." -Co-Founder, Blizzard Entertainment, Frank Pearce

About the only hint he’ll give is that the game is meant to be as accessible as possible to a wide audience.

Blizzard, historically, has been a company that has focused heavily on the PC as a gaming platform. Many have expected that, given the strength of the console market, it will begin making games for either Microsoft’s Xbox 360 or Sony’s PlayStation 3 at some point, but Pearce (who, besides being a co-founder, is the company’s executive vice president of product development) says Blizzard isn’t in a rush to do so.

“It’s not a huge priority,” he says. “If we were working on a game that it made sense for, we would consider it. … For us, at this point, we are so accustomed to having the flexibility to deliver content patches to our players whenever we want. We wouldn’t have that flexibility on a console – and we really take advantage of that on a regular basis. We like that we don’t need anyone’s approval to do so.”

As social networks become more a part of the gaming landscape, Blizzard is hoping to create one of its own. Battle.net, the company’s hub for its games, is viewed as a potential growth area – and Pearce says the company hopes to make it an online destination for players.

He adds that Blizzard missed an opportunity to help grow the hub last year by releasing “Starcraft II” without a marketplace component, which would have allowed users to share self-made add-ons and modifications. It’s something he would still like to add, but with the teams tied up working on new titles, it’s not going to happen soon, he concedes.

“One of the things about gamers is they’re really passionate and they consume content so quickly,” he says. “[World of Warcraft] Cataclysm took us two years to make - and many of them burned through that in two weeks...You can leverage the community to create awesome content for others to consume. All of a sudden there’s the possibility to have all of this that awesome content available... I regret not launching ‘Starcraft II’ with a marketplace.”

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