Interview: Blizzard's Chris Metzen, Pt. 1

Nathan Grayson at

Metzen

Image credit: Lorehound

Whether you know him for his signature sunglasses and booming BlizzCon presence or a trio of obscure series by the names of Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo, you've almost certainly crossed paths with Chris Metzen. While he's definitely not a one-man show, Metzen's gained a reputation as the story guy at Blizzard. Let's put it this way: Without him, there'd be no “World.” The absurdly popular MMO would just be “Of Warcraft.” And it probably wouldn't be anywhere near as popular.

Without a doubt, Metzen's left an incredibly iconic mark over the course of his 17-year career. That said, a lot can change in nearly two decades, and you don't have to tell Metzen twice. And so, after Blizzard's GDC Online summit, I sat down with Metzen for an interview so mighty that one post cannot even hope to contain it. So, in the first of two installments, we discuss Metzen's evolution as a writer, Blizzard's approach to storytelling, inspiration, Star Wars, Avatar: The Last Airbender (seriously!), and more.

PCG: During your GDC Online panel, you briefly discussed the idea of creating stories that last. However, Flint Dille noted that – during his time writing for Transformers – he was hardly trying to create Shakespeare with giant car robots. Yet it endured. So is the very idea of trying to create a tale for the ages counterproductive? Does it just end up coming off as forced?

Chris Metzen: I think that's an interesting drawback. I think, increasingly, I'm feeling that just trying to chase the big new clever hook or a way of looking at some new sci-fi or fantasy archetype no one's ever thought of before... you can't just get caught up in chasing that over and over.

You know, JJ Abrams' Star Trek movie made us look at what mattered about Star Trek. But ultimately, all the contrivances and goofy gimmicks are really not the point. The characters are the point. And you can get into all sorts of worlds and all sorts of world hooks, but even when Star Trek is the example, it was re-looking at all those relationships – and why we care about those people. That was the goal of that movie. It wasn't necessarily the plot of the big space ship breaking planets. We've seen all that shit before. But we hadn't seen these characters that are beloved in that new light. It was a genius re-telling.

In that way, I feel more and more that we have to start drawing on our own personal experience – things that occur in our lives and create an emotional hook within us. We really need to apply that in a clever way to these characters and places. Over the arc of Cataclysm, I really tried to push this character of Thrall as a main new thing and really have this character that was one of our cooler characters [examined in a new light].

Without getting too deep into it, I had a gnarly couple years. A lot of life-changing events went on. And I was just really feeling all that shit. It's kind of like a musician; you want to pour your heart into the craft, and that's how you get the world's greatest love songs or ballads. In a lot of ways, it was maybe mistaken to do so. You know, time will tell.

I just put a lot of my emotional and angst into this character that I've built up over time. Because you can argue that Thrall got into this space where he was just incorruptible. He was Superman, right? And at that level, his context is interesting, but his personal walk is not all that interesting. He never lies, he's always upright, he always does the right thing. Somehow, he pulls it together against impossible odds. We needed that in the Warcraft III era.

But as I started thinking more about the character and my own life experience, it was like, you know, how interesting would it be if we really dig this guy out and find that he's just totally hollowed out. Everything he's fought for and everything he's done – while everyone else looks and goes 'Wow, that's really admirable' – in effect, a gnawing insecurity has pushed him through all these things. That's just a really interesting hook. In that way, the idea that we would engage these characters a really personal level and look at what makes them tick spins back out into the franchise.

Ultimately, in patch 4.3, Thrall has this moment where he becomes this great superhero for the world. But it's so much more poignant for me because he's had to come through this personal siege and rediscover who he is and why he does what he does. I use that as an example of really reaching deep into life experience and letting your own trials affect the fiction. And whether it's really clever or not, you hope that's the kind of thing people walk away from and go “Damn. I felt that.”

It's about as clever as any other fantasy hook. There are plenty of fantasy worlds – books and games – to get into. But I just felt like we needed to start reaching deeper. Same kind of thing with StarCraft. When you have that well of emotionality to pull from, you find deeper gears within these characters. And that's where it starts to become art again. You're not just chasing these contrivances to keep up with every other developer out there with their great characters. I feel there's a truth in that.

PCG: What about Blizzard as a whole? Is that now the company's main priority with story?

CM: I've been in this racket about 17 years, and you tire out. How do you keep your ideas fresh? Well, the one thing that never stops is living. We have experiences. We grow as people. And really letting those experiences come forward – kind of being naked with them – that's the kind of thing people can't compete against. Everyone can come up with a new Trilithium Crystal Warp Drive, but what you can't argue with is a person's experience and the truth of it.

So the trick from a leadership standpoint at Blizzard is to make it OK for these writers to really bring themselves out to affect these quests and characters. Ultimately, that's what sings forward. The clever shit will get trounced in no time. It's like gameplay mechanics. You can put out an RTS with the best mission ever. Well, another company will put out something even better, because we're all learning from each other.