It’s late in the afternoon and it’s fitting to find the developer known as the Bourbon Cowboy – Chris Metzen – on horseback. Admittedly, it’s a virtual steed; we’ve just walked in on him playing World of Warcraft in his office at Blizzard’s Irvine, CA headquarters. It turns out even the mind behind some of the most distinctive (and lucrative) worlds known in gaming – StarCraft, Warcraft and Diablo – is an achievement junkie, with Metzen trying to nail in-game exploration accolades “between meetings”.
Or at least that’s his story.
Metzen’s title at Blizzard is “vice president of creative development”, which is corporate longhand for being the company’s de facto creative director. Play a Blizzard game published in the past decade-and-a-half, and chances are you’ll experience his stories and scripting, see his art or hear him, as Metzen also undertakes voice acting duties on the company’s games. When customers pick up StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty later this year, much of what they will experience bears his imprimatur. And when they or their friends venture into the next World of Warcraft expansion (Cataclysm) months later, the concept and new game world they will find is spawned from the same mind.
Metzen’s office – like those of many game developers – is a colourful ode to fantasy and science fiction’s creative influence. A scale model of Darth Vader’s head oversees a distracting array of figurines, art and publications. When Blizzard has to counsel staff at its sprawling Irvine HQ, this would be the last place it’d choose. It’s just too playful.
We’re ostensibly here to discuss StarCraft II, however Metzen’s influence ensured the discussion went beyond that. Blizzard’s first feature film adaptation (Warcraft), gaming’s assumption of narrative control in major franchises, and Activision’s recent corporate travails are all topics of frequent discussion outside of the company walls; we were curious to get impressions from within.
VG247: How far into mapping out the second instalment of StarCraft II are you now?
Chris Metzen: We meet on it all the time. We know what the arc is – we know how it starts and ends, we know what all the major characters are and most of the secondary characters, but we’re not quite at the point of having actual mission design, since most of the designers are still cranking away to get [first instalment] Wings of Liberty out. The story team’s well in advance of it, but the dev side is still obviously finishing up this one. Until they really activate, that’s when things really get moving. At this point we’re still largely talking story, theme, kind of roughing-out cinematic ideas and things like that.
The first instalment is told largely through a human protagonist. What differences are there in creating a storyline from an alien perspective – specifically the insect-like Zerg – in the next chapter, Heart of the Swarm?
Chris Metzen: We talk about it often. How do you take really grotesque alien characters and get people to empathize with them? How do you personify these creepy-creepies and make them endearing? We’re still really at the point of constructing these characters so we don’t exactly know. We’ll feel it out as we go – the one benefit is that the storyline is rooted in the character of [human/Zerg hybrid] Kerrigan. So through her, she’s kind of our sounding board – we can understand and empathize through her. She’s kind of the heart of the whole thing, pardon the pun. She’s the conceptual anchor or the lens through which we see the Zerg worlds and the Zerg mindset. [That said,] we’re still very much in the construction phase.
Are you spending a considerable amount of time on the Sam Raimi-directed Warcraft film?
Chris Metzen: I wouldn’t say “considerable” at all just yet. We’ve been through a number of story meetings, and we’re still kind of getting it together with Raimi and his team and jamming on themes that we want to chase. We’re kinda getting a lot of values together – what kind of story we want to tell, what do we want people to feel, what is the best way to look at this big franchise. We had had some script iterations previous to Raimi coming on board that were cool, that had some really good bits – sometimes a little too overcooked or a little too undercooked. We’re still trying to feel out that space, so as he came in he wanted to have fresh eyes and look at the content of Warcraft in such a way as to dig out what will <i>most</i> people feel: “Oh, I get it, that matches my expectations when I played.”
You can aim the camera in a hundred different directions in a place like Warcraft so it’s kind of finding that right one. But in terms of division of time, or whatever, it doesn’t take up a tremendous amount of time these days. It’s really just strategic phone calls or strategic meetings from time to time until things really get moving on the Hollywood side.
Some IP holders, such as LucasArts with Star Wars, have spoken of handing the destiny of their canon and lore from film to gaming. Could Warcraft have the potential to do the reverse?
Chris Metzen: The games are always going to be the core canon “franchise” or whatever, but looking at things like Spider-man or X-men or films we’ve seen over time, especially based on ideas that have been around a long time – since the 60s, or whatever – it’s kind of like a new expression. We’re still dealing with how “canon” will [the film] be. And I don’t have a great answer for that yet, but I think the game side will always be the core experience of what Warcraft is.
My intention with the feature is that it is as close as possible to what people have experienced and what they know of our canon, but we’ll have to see the way it plays out. And I don’t mean that facetiously – we’re still trying to figure it out.
Do you have concerns the film interpretation will disappoint fans?
Chris Metzen: I don’t have specific concerns that weigh at this moment. I have… from the day we decided it would be a good idea to have a movie in any shape… I worry about that stuff constantly. Hell, I worry about it on the games side. It’s all so complicated and fast moving – I have nightmares about screwing it up or just missing the mark. Even a movie that’s 85% good; that’s not 100% good, and our fans are very particular. But the point where we are today, with Sam and his crew – we’re still feeling it out and I think everyone shares that.
Nobody wants to screw it up: we all want to hit it hard and have it be something that is as resonant and canonical as it can be. But given what Warcraft is, with all these moving parts, we’re going to have to take some liberties here and there. I’m under no illusions about that fact, but it’s the spirit in which you do that. You know – organic web shooters versus [Spider-man] Peter Parker’s science lab mechanical web shooters. Sometimes you have to break with convention, and I’m sure that we will. I don’t know where or how, but we’re still feeling that out. I don’t have any cause for worry right now, but I can tell you I’m fundamentally worried about screwing it up – but we picked the best partners we could find.
How interested are you in creating points of cross-pollination across Blizzard’s gaming universes?
Chris Metzen: Zerg fossils in WoW, that kind of stuff?
Is that something you could see Blizzard moving more into?
Chris Metzen: To clarify: StarCraft in Warcraft and Warcraft in StarCraft?
Chris Metzen: And Diablo. I have very little interest in that canonically, but if we do a little funny… For instance, we recently did a little StarCraft in-game pet for your WoW character; it was kind of funny and schticky and stuff like that.
I’m getting looser about that kind of thing – as long as it’s cool or funny, it’s all gravy. But I like the idea these universes really existing apart. For instance I’m a big fan of 80s license – G.I Joe, Transformers – and every once in a while people do crossover: “G.I. Joe vs Transformers!” and I’m kind of “ugh”. It’s kind of cool, but I’m kind of a purist that way. I like things to be able to breathe and be their own thing so I’m not as hip in really chasing that down, but if we can find fun ways, [if] it’s more of a nod to the fans that really love these ideas, then that’s cool.
You would regard yourself as being pretty fiercely protective of what you’ve created?
Chris Metzen: Oh, I try to be. I try to be. I love these worlds and I’m very sensitive to just how passionate our fans are, because I’m that guy. When I look at Star Wars or the Marvel universe, or whatever things I’m particularly into, I get very geeked out and I don’t appreciate it when people – in terms of your perceptions – screw with what you love. So I’m very sensitive to that with Warcraft, especially since the rate of conceptual turnover is so high. We’re constantly putting out new content, we’re constantly having to retcon ideas to make older ideas work – or kinda seem like that work back in day.
It’s just a constant siege of new ideas and I’m always aware of that fine line between breaking it and making it work – and how that translates emotionally to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of fans. That’s a crazy thing – even having to compute that while you’re just really chasing art and creating. I don’t want to break it. I don’t want to be the guy that breaks it.
We’ve been doing a manga series with TOKYOPOP which is built to be short stories. Some of those aren’t entirely canon, they’re just fun little vignettes, but in the game product itself, I hate the idea of us totally screwing up or misreading what the fan base will respond to.
What about your other stakeholders? You’ve got Activision, who are seemingly moving out of the ‘sitting in the background’ approach. Do you worry about getting a knock on the door one day saying “We want you to do things a different way”?
Chris Metzen: I don’t know that we’re in any danger of the relationship changing. We’ve got a pretty good working vibe with them so I don’t worry about it too much. We’ve always been very fortunate to have been left to our devices regardless of what corporate situation we found ourselves in.
A few years ago you probably could have said the same thing about Infinity Ward and Activision.
Chris Metzen: Right.
I’m wondering when you see that kind of situation going down does it give you pause, or do you say “That’s a different studio, that’s a different dynamic – it won’t happen here”?
Chris Metzen: [Laughs] Is ‘no comment’ an appropriate response?
I guess I would say that we’ve spent a lot of years building up this brand. The Blizzard brand. ‘Cause tonally it is different – you look at Warcraft and there’s certain themes that pop to mind. You look at StarCraft, and there’s certain themes that pop to mind. And almost at a meta level our little blue logo feels like something. And we’ve spent a lot of time building that up – maybe clumsily sometimes over the years, but we’ve built this place into what it is and we’re all pretty fiercely proud of it and interested in preserving it. And preserving that sense that the community really can trust us to put out the best product we can put out, and that we’re listening to them and want to provide as bitchin’ a game experience to them as we can. That will not change. At the end of the day, that’s about all that matters.