LAS VEGAS — Late last week, employees of the Red Rock Casino Resort Spa were taking down the signs and stands from the three-day DICE video game summit. They were packing up the framed art from the Into the Pixel exhibition. They were dismantling the show.
But sitting in one of the hallways amid this activity, Frank Pearce, co-founder of Blizzard Entertainment, was revealing hopes and plans for things his company might build. One of those plans would, in a manner of speaking, put “World of Warcraft” on cell phones. There were other bold notions too.
Pearce has a deep voice, shaved head and goatee, a video game developer not unlike “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in look, if not in as surly a demeanor. He’s the executive vice president of product development at Blizzard, where work has begun on some major things, such as a “World of Warcraft” expansion; “StarCraft II,” a sequel to a game that has become a national pastime in South Korea; and some new massively multiplayer games, which the world first learned about when a job post for work on a next-gen MMO was posted on Blizzard’s Web site last year. About that job post: “That was not by accident,” Pearce told MTV News. “We have to figure out what’s next for Blizzard after ‘World of Warcraft,’ and we have to get the best people in the industry that we can get helping us figure that out.”
In the biggest surprise of his conversation with MTV News, mentioned right before the banging and clanging of the conference’s tear-down overwhelmed the interview and forced a relocation outside, Pearce confirmed that a very small team in Blizzard just might be creating a slice of “World of Warcraft” for cell phones.
The Blizzard mobile team is new and not something Pearce had discussed publicly before. “They just started that endeavor,” he said. “We’ve only got a couple of people right now. I don’t think we’re looking at it as something like, ‘We’re going to make mobile games.’ We want to look at the mobile devices as something we can use to enhance the experience of our existing games. So we’re going to have to look at ways to use the mobile device to enhance their ‘World of Warcraft’ experience. We’ll see what kind of applications we can come up with.”
Pearce said he was excited — and then cut himself off. Maybe it was too soon to say more? But he couldn’t resist and reached into his pocket for his BlackBerry. He produced it, looked at the screen and started dreaming out loud: “I have an application on my BlackBerry. It’s a Google app called Google Chat. It’s an IM client, and it’s really cool. So as an example, one thing I think would be really cool — and whether we’re going to be able to do this, I don’t know, but it would be really cool — is if we could have a client on your mobile device like that that hooks you into your guild chat in the game. That would be really cool. Or the ability to view your in-game mail or view your in-game auctions. We probably wouldn’t allow you to actually buy or sell via the mobile device, but you could certainly monitor.”
So he didn’t mean the current 10 million subscribers to “WoW” would be able to play their favorite game on their cell phones. But why couldn’t they buy and sell items through it? “We would want you to be logged in for that,” Pearce replied. “We would have to look at our infrastructure and see if that would have a notable impact on the experience. There’s a lot of considerations we’d have to look at.”
Dreaming up things and building things and then maybe releasing them — that’s what every game developer does, or at least wants to do. Few studios can spend the money and take the time that Blizzard can. Blizzard has cachet and leverage. When games publisher Activision announced plans last year to merge with Blizzard parent company Vivendi Games, the new company name was declared to be not Activision-Vivendi, but Activision Blizzard. That’s sway.
Blizzard can make what it wants when it wants, and will spend its time even working on less glamorous goals, like better customer service, as Pearce and Blizzard co-founder Mike Morhaime had articulated the day before at their DICE panel. Pearce elaborated the point to MTV News. They want to squash more bugs, give people fewer reasons to submit the “hundreds of thousands of tickets” Blizzard receives from fans each week for complaints, concerns, requests to change guild names and all sorts of stuff. They want to lower wait times for requests sent to customer service (though that hasn’t helped “WoW” fans in Taiwan grumble less about them, even though Pearce said their waits are easily the shortest worldwide).
Also targeted at Blizzard is the goal to stream a trial version of “World of Warcraft” to prospective new users so efficiently that they can start playing in just 10 minutes. And also under construction is the “World of Warcraft” expansion “Wrath of the Lich King,” which Pearce said should feel at least as substantial as “Burning Crusade,” the game’s previous expansion. “We set the bar really high for ourselves, so when we do an expansion set, we put everything we can into it. The same development team that created the original product is on the expansion sets.”
By the time the half-hour interview with Pearce was relocated outside to a sunny patio, Pearce was engaging in more conceptual matters. He talked about the virtues of music in “WoW” and mentioned that the sound team is always advocating for more involvement in the games. He was getting excited talking about the “timeless look” of the “WoW” graphics, something he thinks helps sustain its popularity. He even tackled the subject of single-player gaming and whether it is meaningful to a development studio that has gotten rich off communal experiences: “For us, it’s very important to include a single-player experience in our games,” he said. “And even ‘WoW’ — even though it’s a massively multiplayer game — you can very much play it from a single-player perspective. … We hang our hats on the multiplayer experience and the online experience. The first ‘Warcraft’ had head-to-head play. [But the single-player experience is] where we do a lot of our lore and where we do a lot of our storytelling.”
At the end of his chat, now under a bright sun, Pearce was talking movies. He said the writers’ strike had slowed progress on the “World of Warcraft” movie but that the studio behind it, Legendary Pictures, is seeking directors. The movie needs to at least be decent, MTV News suggested. “Our standards are higher than that,” he answered. “When we talk about the quality of our movie and the quality of the movie we want to see delivered, we’re talking about the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. That’s what we want to deliver, that kind of epic experience.”
And with that, a man who helps run one of the most powerful video game studios on the planet called it a day, free to make just about anything in games that he and his team desire.
For more of MTV News’ interview with Pearce, focusing on games Blizzard never finished making, check out our Multiplayer blog.