Commentary > Game Over
Of Orcs and millionaires
Blizzard Entertainment unleashes another monster
July 18, 2002: 10:50 AM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - It's not every day you get the chance to chat with an Orc much less one whose clan has set a Guinness world record.

Bill Roper's business card says vice president of Blizzard Entertainment. But millions of people worldwide know him as the voice of the green-skinned warriors in the enormously successful "Warcraft" games. And if you've somehow missed the distinctive Yoda-meets-Fozzie Bear voice before, it's a pretty safe bet you'll hear it soon. "Warcraft III," Blizzard's latest title, is on track to be the best selling game in the company's history. In an industry where selling 1 million copies of a title is a rare feat, Blizzard shipped 4.5 million copies of "Warcraft III" to retailers for its launch date of July 3 each with a retail price of $59.99 or $74.99 (for the collector's edition).

The company's last effort, "Diablo 2," holds the world record for the quickest game to sell 1 million copies 14 days. Roper expects "Warcraft III" to supplant that.

Blizzard's Bill Roper  
Blizzard's Bill Roper

Even if you're not an avid gamer, you've probably heard of Blizzard. The company is among the few who hit the gaming sweet spot, luring both hardcore and casual gamers. Since the mid-90s, every title it has put out has topped the sales charts.

"The idea that Blizzard has always had is that games don't just have to be for the core gamers," said Roper. "Any game that cracks the public consciousness is one that ... is really easy to get into."

If that sounds a lot like the console philosophy, it's intentional yet Blizzard has not made a console game since the mid-1980s. And, at present, there are no plans to do so.

Instead, the company is focusing on its next project: A massively multiplayer online game called "World of Warcraft." Like "The Sims Online," this is a title that has the potential to bring in a wider audience than existing online games. "EverQuest," the most popular of the current crop, has more than 420,000 subscribers (each paying $12.95 per month). "World of Warcraft" hopes to have millions.

Fighting the undead in  
Fighting the undead in "Warcraft III"

Here's the catch: Blizzard doesn't rush its games along. The span between the time "Warcraft III" was announced and released was nearly three years. And while Blizzard's catalog offers the seemingly specific tease "The portal opens...2003" on the "World of Warcraft" page, it's a date that was seemingly pulled from thin air.

"Yeah, we were all a little surprised by that," sighed Roper.

While you can probably expect a beta test of the game to be up and running next year, there's little hope the game will be released before 2004. Blizzard is taking extra care to ensure that its online game doesn't have the start-up problems that so many others have encountered.

"We feel one of the areas these types of games have had challenges is trying to get out to market too soon," said Roper. "The beta test is critical. ... You have to be sure that on day one the game is absolutely as solid as it can be."

Blizzard learned that lesson when it shipped "Diablo 2" two years ago. While everyone expected the game's multiplayer component to be popular, no one expected as many players to immediately jump online. Servers were overloaded and few were able to play initially. ("We were caught a little flatfooted," admits Roper.)

Cinema-quality interludes are a trademark in Blizzard games.  
Cinema-quality interludes are a trademark in Blizzard games.

Of course, while some eagerly await "World of Warcraft," others are already clamoring for other titles. At a midnight launch sale of "Warcraft III" on July 3, Roper was already being asked when the game's expansion pack would be out. (The short answer is no time soon. Roper hints that an expansion is still 12- to 18 months away.) And the company is constantly peppered with the question of when it plans to create a sequel to "Starcraft," its previous entry in the strategy genre. (Eventually, they hope. But not now.)

Then there are the folks who would like to see Blizzard branch into new fields. "World of Warcraft" is certainly a step in that direction, but hardcore gamers love to ponder "what if... Blizzard made an action game." Roper concedes it's a question that's often discussed around the office, too.

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"We sit around and ask what would Blizzard do if we did a (first person shooter)," he said. "If someone came up with a fantastic, cool, new idea for a first person shooter, then we'd do it. We're not closed off to anything."  Top of page

Morris is director of content development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an e-mail.

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