As far as interviewees go, Frank Pearce is a challenge. As co-founder and executive vice president of Blizzard, he's one of the most influential, high ranking people in the video games industry. And as executive producer on World of Warcraft and StarCraft II, he's in charge of two of the biggest PC games on the planet. Marry that with jetlag, overwhelming tiredness and the exhaustion that comes from countless interviews to press, and you have a recipe for interview disaster. Thankfully, we laugh in the face of interview disaster. And, actually, Frank's a really nice bloke.
Q: Apart from doing press stuff like this, what's a typical day in the life of Frank Pearce?
Frank Pearce: [Laughs] I start my day, every day, with a one on one meeting with J Brack, who is the production director on World of Warcraft. I'm the executive producer on StarCraft II, but I'm also the executive producer on World of Warcraft. I'm interacting with the leadership for the World of Warcraft team daily. I'm interacting with the leadership for the StarCraft team daily. I start my afternoon, every afternoon after lunch, with a one on one meeting with Chris Sigaty, the production director on StarCraft II. And then I'm also interacting with the executive leadership for the organisation and working a set strategic direction for the company as a whole. So, I guess you would summarise it as a lot of meetings and a lot of email.
Q: You have direct influence over the development of two of the biggest games on the planet.
FP: Yeah, but I'm not trying to directly influence it too much at all, because realistically we have such awesome and talented developers on these teams, they don't need me telling them what to do. The end result's going to be much better if they're making the decisions and implementing and executing on them. The leadership at the company, we try to make ourselves available as a resource to the teams. But these are great development teams. They're very capable of operating autonomously.
Q: The approach you've taken with the design of StarCraft II is very interesting, at a time when other RTS developers are trying to do different things. Relic, for example, has scrapped resource gathering and base building and shrunk the unit caps. The impression I get from StarCraft II is it's very much stuck to the roots of the series and traditional RTS mechanics. Were you tempted to take a similar approach to other RTS developers, to try to get more people who haven't played RTS games before in on the act?
FP: No. I wouldn't say there was any temptation there for us at all. We really felt like it was critically important that anyone that sits down to play StarCraft II feels a certain familiarity if they've played the original StarCraft. All the components that made StarCraft what it was included resource gathering and base building and managing the balance between all of them.
Q: Why did you feel it was critical to retain those components?
FP: Because the original StarCraft sold over eleven million copies. There are a lot of really devoted fans that love the game. We wanted to make a product that services that commitment to that experience, you know what I mean?
Q: Yeah. The playable races we have this time are the same as we had last time. Was there ever any chance of a new fourth race?
FP: It's something we talked about. You know it's a really difficult challenge to come up with great ideas for units and make them all work together on a race. It was something we were talking about early on. Pretty early on we felt like if we want to make sure that we've got really great units and really great races the best thing we can do is stay focused on the three races that everyone's familiar with.
Q: Was that decision in part to do with StarCraft's famous balance?
FP: I think we could balance it if it was four races or however many races we felt was appropriate. I don't think finding a balance between the races would be the challenge as much as having enough distinction between the units, between the races that they felt unique and really cool.
Q: The new features of Battle.net suggest to me that in bringing all players of all Blizzard games together the service has significantly evolved. Do you now look at your fanbase not like they're StarCraft players, or Warcraft players, or Diablo players, but Blizzard players?
FP: Yeah, definitely. Instead of having a World of Warcraft community and then having a separate and distinct StarCraft II community and then a Diablo III community, we want to have a Blizzard community that's comprised of the players of all of our games, whether they play one or all three.
Q: Some people who play World of Warcraft will stop to play StarCraft II when it comes out. Is it your view that if people are going to stop playing WoW, they may as well stop it for a Blizzard game?
FP: Yeah, definitely. If anyone's going to make a game that cannibalises the player base for one of our games it may as well be us. Even if the business model isn't the same, even if the business model isn't as favourable, still rather have them as our customers than someone else's customer, you know what I mean? It doesn't go on any of the bullet points on the back of the boxes for our games, but one of the huge features for our games that sort of goes unspoken and unnoticed is that thriving, vibrant community. If you go online onto Battle.net you know you'll be able to find people to play StarCraft II with. You know that you'll be able to find people to play WoW with. You know you'll be able to find people to interact with that are passionate about Blizzard games.
Q: Do you need to be connected to Battle.net while you're playing StarCraft II's single-player campaign?
[PR interjection] You don't need to be. There is an offline mode. You will need an initial activation. But there is still an offline mode.
FP: If we've done our job right and implemented Battle.net in a great way people will want to be connected while they're playing the single-player campaign so they can stay connected to their friends on Battle.net and earn the achievements on Battle.net and all that sort of stuff.
Q: Is that the best approach in terms of anti-piracy when it comes to PC gaming?
FP: Absolutely. The best approach from our perspective is to make sure that you've got a full-featured platform that people want to play on, where their friends are, where the community is.
Q: We've seen some aggressive reaction to some other publishers' policies that force players to be connected to the internet while they're playing predominantly single-player games. Your approach, however, seems based on players being attracted to the Battle.net feature set as a reason not to pirate the game.
FP: That's a battle that we have a chance in. If you start talking about DRM and different technologies to try to manage it, it's really a losing battle for us, because the community is always so much larger, and the number of people out there that want to try to counteract that technology, whether it's because they want to pirate the game or just because it's a curiosity for them, is much larger than our development teams. We need our development teams focused on content and cool features, not anti-piracy technology.
Q: I understand new games happen at Blizzard because the development teams want to create them. You mentioned the development team behind StarCraft II wanted to make the game after they finished work on Warcraft III. Now StarCraft II is coming to the end of its development, has the team expressed any ideas about what it wants to work on next?
FP: Yeah. This team in particular definitely has ideas about what they want to do when they're done with the StarCraft II series of products. But they're going to be busy for a while. After Wings of Liberty is Heart of the Swarm, and then the protoss campaign after that. It's going to be a few years before they really have to start thinking about that in earnest.
Q: Is another Warcraft RTS game, perhaps Warcraft IV, a game that won't ever happen because World of Warcraft exists, or is it a game the StarCraft II team may one day decide it would like to make?
FP: I don't think World of Warcraft precludes us from doing another Warcraft real-time strategy game if that's what the development team wants to do.
Q: Blizzard is a PC game developer. Is console development something your development teams are not interested in? Or is console development just not right for Blizzard?
FP: I wouldn't say that either of those are true. There are definitely people on the development teams interested in console development. At Blizzard we're interested in delivering great gaming experiences to our fans. If the platform that makes the most sense is a console then that's where you would see the game.
Q: The RTS is quite difficult to make work on a console.
Q: And again, World of Warcraft, and MMOs in general, are difficult on consoles. Would you suggest a Blizzard console game would have to be something completely different to what you've previously created?
FP: I would say that it would just have to be a game that was developed from the ground up with that in mind. In the same way that, if you like to get the best eSport experience in StarCraft II we developed StarCraft II with that in mind from the beginning.
Q: StarCraft: Ghost is a game that I understand is on hold indefinitely. Is that game completely dead, or is there a chance it could be returned to in the future?
FP: Anything's possible.
Q: Was it a third-person shooter?
FP: Yeah, third-person shooter.
[PR interjection] If you saw the BlizzCon panel last year we showed a third-person shooter using the map editor, where you're following a Ghost around. So maybe someone in the community will make StarCraft: Ghost.
Q: Blizzard isn't doing E3 this year. You're doing your own thing with BlizzCon instead. Firstly, why just do BlizzCon. Secondly, what can your fans expect from BlizzCon 2010?
FP: Our own trade show instead of the big united trade shows, for us it depends, right? We evaluate every trade show and determine if it makes sense for us to be there. Case by case, year by year. Last year we were at Gamescom, and the year before we were in Leipzig. It really just depends on the show and what we have to tell the community. But with BlizzCon in particular it gives us an opportunity to interact directly with our fans. It gives us an opportunity to get coverage in the media without having to compete with other companies for attention from the media because we bring the media there and the only thing they have to talk about and look at is Blizzard, which is really exciting.
[PR attention] We also have to balance it with the demands on each of the development teams' time. A trade show may be every year in May, but we may not necessarily have anything new to say at that time, so it doesn't make sense to burden the dev teams with creating something just for the sake of it.
FP: As far as BlizzCon this year, I think for the StarCraft franchise it's going to be a little bit of a challenge for us because July 27 is the street date for StarCraft II, and BlizzCon is in October. That's not a lot of time for that team to do much of anything. So definitely a big focus on eSport. And then...
[PR interjection] We'll have more to say when we get closer to it.
FP: I would say they should definitely expect to look at some Diablo III stuff because that'll still be in development. There is an opportunity on the development cycle with the work in progress on the eSports side to feature a few of our games and professional players.
Q: We know Blizzard is working on a new MMO, described as a "next-gen" MMO by some people at Blizzard. Is there a chance of that being shown at BlizzCon, or is that a long way off?
FP: It's going to be a long way off.
Q: I understand it'll be a game based on a new intellectual property. I've heard rumours that it'll be a science fiction first-person shooter. Any truth to those rumours?
FP: I would say that there are all sorts of details to be had internally. But nothing we can talk about today.
Q: I have to ask you about [Activision Blizzard boss] Bobby Kotick. What was your reaction to his now infamous statement about taking the fun out of games development?
FP: We had a leadership dinner where Bobby came and spoke. We asked him about that. I wasn't there so I don't know exactly what he said, but it sounds to me like he was quoted out of context, which would not be unusual for the media to do. Bobby was talking to investors and was trying to make a joke, and that's not how it came off. We're making games. Making games is innately fun. You wouldn't get great games if people weren't enjoying what they were doing.
Q: He's public enemy number one following the Infinity Ward dispute. You've had dealings with him. Does he get a bum rap?
FP: I like Bobby. Yeah, I don't have any issues with Bobby. Bobby and the leadership at Activision Blizzard level have a great amount of respect for what we're doing at Blizzard and understand the industry as well as anyone and recognise the value in what we're doing and how we've achieved it so far. We've got as much autonomy today as we ever had.
Q: Do you need to seek approval from anyone?
FP: There's budgeting and annual operating plans and all that stuff. It's not so much approval as much as it is a collaborative process with us and the Activision Blizzard umbrella. We have as much autonomy today as we ever did.
Q: Bringing it back to StarCraft II, do you get much chance to play it in a hardcore sense? What is your favourite race?
FP: No, I don't get enough time to play to be hardcore. I primarily play terran because that's what the campaign is focused around.
StarCraft II is due out on the PC on July 27.