Interview: Blizzard's Chris Metzen, Pt. 2


Yesterday, we brought you the first meaty chunk of a rather sizable conversation I had with Blizzard lore lord Chris Metzen during GDC Online. And today, we're bringing you part two, because that's how counting works.

In this installment, Metzen and I discuss the incredibly prevalent theme of fatherhood in recent videogames, the role of professional writers in the modern world, so-called "rockstar" game developers, and Metzen's mythical glasses.

PCG: Fatherhood has become an incredibly pervasive theme in modern games (see: BioShock 2, every sidequest in Mass Effect 2, Gears of War 3, etc, etc). I mean, this started off as an industry of nerdy 20-somethings. Now everybody's all grown-up - physically, at least - so it makes sense. Do you think being a father has changed your approach to writing?

Chris Metzen: It certainly changes who you are and how you approach games. It certainly changes things. The immediate sphincter-tightner is “Are you softening?” Look at guys like George Lucas. The fact that he has kids growing up. Did it soften his punch? Did he start developing content for rugrats – like Jar-Jar Binks. He's obviously a character for kids. You can argue back-and-forth that a lot of us at Blizzard are getting a little longer-in-tooth. That core group that came up years ago, we're all daddies now. And I think it does affect the way you look at content.

But you've got to remember what we're doing. Let's say we're working on Diablo vs Warcraft. Warcraft's a little more innately comedic. It's lighter, though it has its very epic moments. Diablo, obviously, by definition is a grittier, darker experience. And you've got to respect that. It's part of the world that we've built. With StarCraft, I particularly want a gritty love story – at least, as much as we can get it. It may not end well for everyone involved. Sometimes you've got to stick to your guns and remember that that's what these things are and that's what people expect.

But I guess the part of me that's a dad – while I don't necessarily want my eight-year-old to play Diablo – my hope is that when we're developing anything we touch, our kids will one day grow up and play this kind of stuff. My hope is that – for the grit and darkness inherent in each of these franchises – that it's at least balanced by moments of sheer heroism, hope, and redemption. Ultimately, it's a balancing act. If you're just dialed to ten with every product and every storyline – just to be badass for the sake of being badass – you're not really going to compel anyone. You have to push for higher themes, and that's a definitely a place my head is at these days.

And I think it's part of our mission at Blizzard. We're not the guys down the street. For better or worse, we're a big summer blockbuster company, and I just want to make sure that all of our games have some soul – that they resonate in some way. For all the big dark, heavy moments – which are really fun, by the way – I want to make sure that all the heroes come through. There is a reason to wake up in these universes and put your boots on in the morning. There's a reason to be a hero and fight the good fight.

It's not some uber-bleak transaction, because that's not the kind of fiction people want to engage with. We're dealing with a clumsy, goofy media type. Videogames are still finding their voice and rhythm. There are groups out there doing incredible work. We're definitely finding our voice as an industry. But I feel increasingly that it's just important that we're putting ideas out that are compelling and resonate.

PCG: Especially at BlizzCon, you almost have this rockstar persona. I mean, you walk out in sunglasses and make the crowds go absolutely nuts. If they announced that you were somehow playing the closing ceremony at next year's show, I honestly wouldn't be surprised. So, is that something you intentionally play up? Or is it just who you are?

CM: My glasses are colored! They are not actually sunglasses!

PCG: Point taken. But, for instance, with the recent Infinity Ward mass exodus, barely anyone even knew who Jason West and Vince Zampella were until they started playing hardball. The industry's incredibly brand-focused; people don't seem to matter so much. Do you think we need more guys like you or, say, Cliff Bleszinski?

CM: Well, the world's increasingly going that way, right? Walk through the supermarket and everything's about celebrity. It's personal branding, like you said. That's a dangerous thing for our shop especially, because everything we do is so group-based and groupthink-oriented. Most of the old-school guard at Blizzard has been doing this for a long time, so we have that tribal knowledge. We can finish each others' sentences.

So we have a thing – we called it the “No Rockstar” policy. We didn't want anyone being too out in front of the crowd. It's just not fair. A lot of these guys crunch all year long on these games. They burn their time away and give everything they have to make these products what they are. So it's a really precarious balance.

But it's also a public company. You need good PR. Good marketing. You need to show your stuff to the world. It got a little weird with BlizzCon. It's just such a big show. And I guarantee you, every Blizzard employee feels like a rockstar at BlizzCon. Getting high-fives and hugs. It's wonderful for geeks like us to be able to really engage with community and feel that love. There's just crazy love in the air. It's hard to explain to people if they haven't been just how excited everyone is.

I'm one of those personality types. You know, I gab a lot and talk a lot. There's something familiar there. So to some degree, I make a decent frontman. But you've got to hedge that against the fact that it's a team effort. A lot of people in our organization work a lot harder than I do. You've gotta balance that and be respectful of it. It's a great honor to be a frontman from time-to-time, but that comes with a vast amount of responsibility. I wouldn't want anyone to outshine the truth, which is we are all in it together. We make each other better. Iron sharpens iron.

PCG: Speaking of fans, we live in an incredibly fan and consumer-driven age – especially thanks to tools like YouTube and the web in general. So I was watching an episode of 30 Rock last night, and the main thrust of the plot was – somewhat jokingly – that writers are now obsolete. But it kind of freaked me out! What's your take? Do you think writing for a living is still a viable thing? Or is creative content now completely caught up in the web's, er, web?

CM: I think the only distinction between somebody starting a blog tomorrow and professional writer of 17 years – the only real distinction – is time and experience.

When I got jumped into this racket, writing for videogames was like... people would giggle. Mario would jump over a mushroom and people would be like “What writing do you need?” That's about as intense as writing was back then. We're still an industry finding its feet. We're still trying to figure out how to tell stories. And that damn playing field changes so fast. Once you think you've got it dialed in, there's a totally new game paradigm. You have to relearn all your lessons.

What excites me is – with digital technology opening up to anyone on the Internet – everyone's creative. Everyone has hooks and their own way of observing the world. We're all storytellers. You can be riveting just talking about your day. So I love that it opens up to everybody. You don't have to be specially schooled. You don't have to go through rigorous training programs. So I love that the net is opening up to everyone with something to say.

So you go, “Oh, I'm a real writer. I've been doing this forever.” Someone happens to pay you, and you're in cahoots with other professionals. Maybe that sharpens you a little faster and you write for a particular game type. So you're more structured, but that's the only distinction, right?

Ultimately, everybody's creative. It's like the Wild West right now with all the iPad and iPhone games. You don't have to get the billion dollar funding. You just bring it. You build a game with your friends. The Angry Birds guys just killed it. I love that the mold is breaking, and the giant corporate structure can open up and allow people to really be creative. It's just an explosion of new creativity and new content. We need that, you know?