It's funny the things you learn when listening to a quarterly financial earnings call. Naturally, the vast majority of what is discussed is irrelevant to gamers. How much a developer earned (or failed to earn) has little direct impact on our day to day gaming.
More interesting are the tidbits of information companies are obliged to divulge to their shareholders regarding their products, and Activision-Blizzard's recent financial report certainly over-delivered in this respect. News that Guitar Hero and DJ Hero were no longer in production rattled headlines and dominated editorial speculation in the week following.
Pushed down the page by this news was another interesting item: when the call was turned over to the deliberately understated and emphatically polite CEO and co-founder of Blizzard Entertainment, Mike Morhaime, he began - with perhaps the faintest trace of pride - by announcing that the company had celebrated its twentieth anniversary just the day before.
That's an achievement for many reasons, and not the least because this industry sees developers rise and fall on a daily basis. Twenty years qualifies Blizzard as a veritable village elder of videogame development, one able to dispense sage advice accumulated over the course of several digital lifetimes. Moreover, the company remains extremely nimble, indeed, often leads the pack.
In light of that, we sat down with Mike Morhaime on Friday to discuss the company's past, present and future, and to attempt to learn the secret of its success.
Gameplanet: What influenced you to become a game developer?
Mike Morhaime: I kind of came at it from the technical side of things, I've always been interested in gadgets. As a kid growing up, I had an arcade console, and I spent hours and hours on that thing. It had a BASIC cartridge - that's how I learned how to program BASIC. It had 1.5K of RAM, you really couldn't do a lot with it! (laughs) but I just thought it was so fascinating, just getting it to do anything. I subscribed to a newsletter, every month they would publish different programmes you could type in. Most of them were games. And then I'd store them on my cassette tapes at 300 baud.
I was a normal kid, real into console games. I got an IBM PC when I was in High School, and was very interested in that as well. When I went to college I studied Electrical Engineering, and focused on trying to understand how computers work. Digital circuit design, computer architecture, low-level programming classes, assembly and micro-coding, those types of things. Just talking to the hardware, and understanding how the hardware made stuff happen.
While I was at UCLA, I became very good friends with Allen Adham, who had plans to start up a game company when he graduated. He'd already been published a few times with his own original computer game software, he'd written some games for the Apple II and Commodore 64.
So that's kind of how I got into it, out of my friendship with Allen. We spent a lot of time together talking about really everything, and he convinced me to quit my job at Western Digital and start up this new company making games.
I didn't know very much about game development at the time, and I learned what I know from doing ports and conversions of other companies' games. The first couple of years, Interplay and some other companies would hire us to take their PC games and make them run on Macintosh, or the Amiga. We took an old Commodore 64 title, and that formed the basis for RPM Racing, our first Super Nintendo game. It just kind of grew from there. Games back then, you could literally have a team of three to five people, and within four to six months have a game that you could release to the market. Very similar to what you could do now on the iPhone or the iPad or Facebook, it really doesn't take a lot of people. That's how it was back then, and gradually we built up our teams and our expertise to make more and more complicated and sophisticated games, so now we're making games that take anywhere from four to six years, and hundreds of people.
Gameplanet: What are some of the memories you have from the early days, when you were Silicon & Synapse?
Morhaime: You know, we used to spend a lot of time at the office, after hours, playing Magic: The Gathering. Some of the fighting games were also really popular, every day at lunch we'd play Samurai Showdown, and Street Fighter. Actually, it was Street Fighter first, then when Samurai Showdown came out - that pretty much took over and everybody played that.
We used to take the company to the Consumer Electronics Show every year in Vegas, and we'd basically just do a big road trip. We didn't have a lot of money back then, so we'd rent a few rooms at Motel 6, which is off-strip and really cheap, and we'd just pile a bunch of guys into all these rooms - some people were sleeping on the floors or whatever - and we'd all go to the Consumer Electronics Show and watch what was going on in the games industry, and then come back home and talk about it, and figure out what we wanted to do next.
Gameplanet: When you released Lost Vikings and Rock n' Roll Racing, was that the point you realised you were going to make it in this industry?
Morhaime: Well, we were very proud of those games, we worked really hard on them. We got some awards for both of those games, but they weren't top sellers. So it really wasn't until Warcraft II, I think that was the game that really put Blizzard on the map. I think it was our first number one selling game, and it was the culmination of a lot of things. We had released Warcraft: Orcs and Humans the year before, but we still had a lot of ideas on how to make it better, and we got to apply a lot of those to Warcraft II. So I would say Warcraft II was the first turning point - followed by several other turning points! (laughs) but that was probably the first one.
Gameplanet: Were there any disappointments back then?