Blizzard North

January 21, 2004

In June 2003, the gaming community was shocked to hear that four of Blizzard North’s founding fathers- Bill Roper, David Brevik, and Erich and Max Schaefer- decided to leave the company they helped make great after relations with their publisher, Vivendi Universal, did not meet the company’s needs. I recently got a chance to sit down with Bill, David, and the older half of the Schaefer Bros. for a chat about their plans and how they’re getting along with the new company.

Since everyone else has done the how’s and why’s of your split from Blizzard North to death, I’ll skip all that and just ask you guys if you’ve any last words or shout-outs to your old co-workers?

(David) We just wish them the very best of luck. We hired all of those guys because we believe in their talent and think they are a great group of people to work with. Our departure never had anything to do with them. We loved working with them and we know that they will all have bright futures at Blizzard.

(Max) Our old co-workers were really like family. Many of them worked with us for many, many years, and some of them have been friends from childhood. We felt like we had the best team in the world there. We wish them nothing but the best, and are sure that they will succeed in whatever they do. We harbor no bad feelings for anyone at Blizzard, North or HQ.

(Bill) The hardest thing I have ever had to do was to say goodbye to all the people at Blizzard. We each put in close to a decade with the company, and leaving the close relationships you naturally build up over that time was something that was tough for us all. If there is one thing I can say to everyone I worked with at Blizzard and Blizzard North, it is THANK YOU for all the work we did over the years on some amazing games.

Looking at the roster of the new company, you’ve got producers, designers, coders, and artists just between the four of you. Who else are you planning on bringing on for a permanent basis, or are you guys just going to all be “Leads” of your respective departments and rely on outsourcing to keep the company nimble?

(Max) We’ll definitely pick up new people, and we have others that we’re bringing aboard as we speak. Actually, we think we already have a core group that is unbelievable. We’re all very excited!

(David) We will be developing a hardcore team of experts at the start that will be our nucleus going forward. We will be keeping the company small for a while until we better know how many people it will take to finish our vision.

(Bill) We like working in the office every day with the people who are making the game because they can contribute in so many more ways than just creating art or writing code. A lot of great design ideas come from informal bull sessions and you don’t get that by outsourcing everything.

It’s amazing that four talented and high profile employees managed to leave Blizzard North without heavy non-compete clauses or anything like that. How’d you manage to avoid getting shackled?

(Max) Not having employment contracts was a two-edged sword. On one hand, we weren’t shackled, but on the other hand, the shackles were usually in return for some sort of long-term compensation. We didn’t have that either. I think the reason is probably due to the unfocused, pre-occupied nature of the conglomerate that owned us.

(Bill) I think it was a matter of priorities for Vivendi-Universal, and opening a direct line of communication with almost anyone at a division they are looking to sell wasn’t up there. We just weren’t on their radar since they are trying to sell close to $14 billion in media assets right now. Even at a loss of $150 million in valuation to their games unit (based on what analysts have said) we represented only a small percentage of their overall concerns.

(David) We were all fairly shocked at how it all came out, but we are focusing on moving forward and working to ensure that our next partners have the same goals of making great games and creating compelling worlds as we do.

Have you started building relationships with manufacturers, distributors, and other such secondary production utilities? And are you guys being put lower on the totem because you’re no longer “Blizzard North” or do you still get a lot of sway because just about everyone knows who you are?

(Bill) Fortunately, our experience and previous successes, especially with the Diablo games, meant that we already knew most of these people, and they were in contact with us within the first day or two after our departure. I think the fact that we are no longer with Blizzard North means that they can actually talk with us about how we could work together in the future, so that has been a real positive in the process.

(David) Many people do know who we are. The industry is quite small and many of the people know each other. Most of the industry recognizes that it is the talented people that make the games, and not the label. So nearly every game publisher in the world has contacted us, thinking of a way that we can work together.

(Max) We’ve been thrilled with the reaction from publishers in the US, Europe and Asia. They certainly seem to know exactly who we are and what we’ve done. We’ve met with many of them, and are building what we anticipate are some great relationships.

The game industry has a long history of talented developers leaving the companies they helped make great to start their own development houses. Whether for better (Peter Molyneux and Lionhead) or for worse (John Romero and Ion Storm Dallas) can any of you speculate on what causes this kind of developer wanderlust?

(David) I think that most of the people have a spirit of adventure. They want to craft games in a non-corporate environment where they can be creative. Many of the great developers are also leaders and they want to create games without the distractions of big business coming into play.

(Bill) I think we all got into this business to create worlds where we can escape the stress and hassles of our everyday life and have fun! Sometimes, the goals and direction of the company (or their owners) where you started out just don’t line up down the road, and to regain the ability to make what they want – to have fun – they look to step back out on their own and go through the whole process again, usually learning from their past experiences to stay as true to themselves as possible.

(Max) I do think that some people got a little carried away with the lifestyle afforded by sudden wealth, however. In contrast, we’re very grounded, stable people. I don’t think our lives would change much if we became obscenely rich, although I’d like to put that to the test. Even then, we wouldn’t have opulent offices or extravagant expenditures at our company. Just desks, computers, games, free drinks and snacks and the occasional all company event like movie days or going to E3.

Have you had any luck finding a publisher yet? I’d imagine it wouldn’t be hard to at least get some meeting time with publishers given the new company’s collective pedigree…

(Bill) We’ve talked with a lot of people over the past month or so, and it has been a fantastic experience.

(Max) Everyone wants to do business. Our biggest concern isn’t on getting a deal, but on picking the right partner.

(David) We have not found a publisher as of yet, but we will announce it when we do, so stay tuned!

Have you given any thought to how you guys are going to target your market once your games get made? I mean, it’s common knowledge who Blizzard is, but unfortunately the game industry is one where great minds rarely get the recognition they deserve. Sure, it’s not as bad as the infamous “Overpaid prima donnas” mindset of the early 80’s, but the question still remains: How are you going to get the word out to the general public that Blizzard North’s founding fathers are no longer Blizzard North?

(David) I think the reason the Blizzard label is so great is because of the great games we made there. I truly believe that if we make a great game, the word of mouth will spread. We aren’t interested in putting out the word that this is an ex-Blizzard people game, we want the game to speak for itself.

(Max) Two words: Bill Roper.

(Bill) I had the great fortune to also be the key representative for Blizzard and have met with lots of gamers and press around the world. As Max said, this is going to be something that will also be on my plate for our new company, and I’m excited to go out and talk with the community and the press about our future plans as a company and the game we’re working on.

Finally, will you guys have a presence E3 2004, or will the legions of Diablo and Warcraft fans simply have to hope to run into you guys on the show floor?

(David) Whether we show the game depends on whom we have signed with as a publisher and what our overall strategy is in that regard.

(Max) Next year we most likely will be wandering the floor. The one after that you might see something, but we’ll have to see what develops.

(Bill) Regardless of whether we’re showing or not, we’ll be at E3. There are just too many great people we usually only get to see face to face there, and I don’t want to miss out on any of the stories and fun times. Plus, we get to look at a LOT of games, and that is always a good thing.

Well, it looks like great things are coming from this quartet of legends. Thanks again for the interview, and best of luck with the new company, though it looks like luck will hardly be a part of the equation!