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Geek Savant - Picking the Mighty Brain of Blizzard's Chris Metzen
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 05:26pm 19/11/13 | Comments
AusGamers was given a very special opportunity to chat with Blizzard's Chris Metzen, whose official title is Senior Vice President, Story and Franchise Development, but he's oh-so-much more in the Blizzard creative realm (if that's even possible). Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: You’re head of franchise development and your job is to basically build out these Universes in constructive and conducive ways for millions of people and to make sure that these things are all rolling along properly. It’s unfathomable to me that somebody would actually have that as their job. Surely that’s always there, do you ever switch it off?

Chris Metzen: I kind of trip on it from time to time myself; it’s hard to explain. The job kind of shaped itself over time. Maybe it just goes back to when I was a little kid: all I did was just pour through Dungeons and Dragons books, just memorising stuff like that. I wasn’t a very good student and I don’t hold data very well, but when it’s geeky stuff I’ve had an emotional connection with for one reason or another, I can store infinite amounts; it’s really weird.

I’m not good with faces, I’m not good with names, but I can remember what gun goes in Greedo’s hand, from the ‘77 action figure. I think it’s because I imprint on sets of ideas if there’s an emotional throughline; if there’s different stories. If there’s a story about all of these different characters, I’ll remember every detail when the flow is clear.

Maybe in a way, when I got this job, or as the job shaped itself over time, I think contextualising sort of macro sets of ideas is something that just really thrills me.

Now I’m about to turn 40, so in my ripe old age, my ability to keep them all super distinct may be what it is, but I still really love this work. I think it would drive me after all of these years, to just work on one thing at a time. In a weird way, I love kind of bouncing around. In a way, it kind of keeps the knife… or whatever edge I’ve got left, it keeps the knife-edge sharp.

I like interacting with lots of different people throughout the day; I like setting my head around lots of different types of tasks throughout the day. I like talking about the movie for a little bit, I like talking about a specific zone for a little bit, I like talking about some little art thing for a little bit. It’s a crazy job, and I don’t know that you could hire for it. I think it’s one of those roles that’s kind of a unique fit to my very weird…

AusGamers: Geek savant?

Chris: Yeah maybe. It’s kind of a trip, but I love it. I love it, I love it. I’m coming up on 20 years at this point of this, and I can’t imagine what I would be doing otherwise. There’s things in life that you want to do. Like, it would be fun to write the great American geek novel or something like that, but the job is so uniquely suited to this culture and just my shape. Maybe because I’ve been there for so long, but it is a trip.

AusGamers: What’s the most satisfying thing to you: the broad image that you approach individual projects with, or the really intricate details that go right down to lore that is so embedded that…

Chris: We were talking about this exact thing the other day. I work closely with a dude name Nick Carpenter, who runs all of our film department. Nick and I came up together and were both 20-something years old when we got hired at Blizzard and we’re good pals; we lived with each other for a number of years. Nick is one of those guys that thrives on the details, just noodles down into a piece of art and is just textural reality. He just loves detail, and just loves excellence -- just beating an idea until it is perfectly, perfectly formed.

Whereas I tend toward the other extreme, which isn’t to say that I don’t love detail work, but what really compels me is the overall impression. How do you sell a big expansion set of this giant, runaway train that is WoW, and kind of keep people invested. I love that macro idea; like, what’s the thing to take our emotionality and our imaginations into that next realm.

I like the big idea; I like the emotion inherent in the big idea, which is another trip because our team has so many just excellent, world-class craftsmen -- designers, and writers, and technologists -- and it’s kind of been a trip over the years. I’ve had some roles that were much closer to the ground, I was an artist for a number of years, and then specifically writing game scripts and things like that. These days, a lot of what I do is really at the macro level, because these guys that have come up, they draw a lot better than I do, and write certainly a lot better than I do. So it’s kind of been a trip to become that elder statesman and find a way to emotionally take that step back, and try and invest in some of these younger guys that are coming up and deserve a chance to rock and roll on their own.

So I’ve really become more of that macro level idea dude I guess, and I’m enjoying that a lot. Maybe that goes back to that first thing that we were talking about, which is: I love processing and balancing these big kinds of meta-ideas.

So as I was saying: Nick and I were having this conversation the other day, and he’s chasing down some design -- it might have even been for the [Warcraft] movie, we were talking about some work that our cinematics group has been doing for the feature film, so we’re talking about some character and noodling down on some design -- and I’m like, “I dunno man, I think it’s killer”, because when I look at a picture, I’m kind of emotionally imprinting it “Ohh, it’s taking me there; look at that stance; look at those tattoos, it’s killer, right?”, and Nick is like, “what are you talking about? This thing is like a third baked. We’ve got to dig down into here, and these textures suck”, and I’m like, “Man, I don’t even see what you’re seeing”; and we [both] started as artists.

To me, if I get that impression: mission accomplished. So what’s been really fun over the years, is with guys like Nick, or Sam Didier, or Chris Roberts and all of the art directors that we have at Blizzard, is that I’ve had these really bitchin’ relationships with these guys, where I can kind of get achieved what I want to achieve -- which is the vibe; the thing. It’s been very harmonic with these art directors that love to take it to that next level, and it’s been a really interesting, kind of symbiotic relationship with a lot of these over dev leads over the years, where we all ultimately get what we want to get out of a thing, with that fusion of our talents.

AusGamers: Is it difficult being the guy that creates and maintains cohesion at that macro level as you mentioned, but you also said throughout the opening ceremony that it’s about the fans and without them, none of it is possible. The fans drive it, basically empowering you guys to push forward and maintain, but they also have really high expectations. These guys live in these worlds that you create.

Do you ever worry that you’re betraying them? Does it ever get to you personally when somebody’s really upset with some direction that you guys have taken, from a lore perspective or a narrative perspective. A lot of times these things transcend gameplay, and it’s like you’ve stabbed one of their best friends in the back.

Chris: In the meta, it is a constant push and pull -- and this is my opinion, I don’t know if everyone at Blizzard would say this, but this is my opinion: that it’s a long term push and pull between the artist you are, and the thing that your instinct is telling you that you are right and to go and get it and express it, whatever it is, through a zone or a story hook or whatever. There’s the person you are, and the artist that wants to express itself, and there’s the very real accountability to a community that may not see the things you see, but nonetheless, are the people that you’re aiming at.

Maybe rock bands have it a little bit easier, and they can put out the album they want -- do the creative sophomore album and just let it fly -- and if it sells it sells, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. But we are indebted to a community. It’s not as much about it selling, as it is about: there’s millions of people that like to play World of Warcraft all the time, and they’re real, and they’re here, and they’re plugged into this thing 24 hours a day around the world. It ain't just [about] putting a project on a shelf.

In our jobs and the greater push of our company, your responsibility is to service all of these players and it’s important. It borders on the sacred. We take it really, really seriously.

AusGamers: You’re providing sustenance to a degree.

Chris: It’s kind of weird. There’s a lot of weird analogies you might use, and man, even after all of these years I don’t exactly get it, other than just this sense that: I’m still that geek, there’s still the comics I buy and the movies I go to -- it’s all the same stuff we’re all into. I have the same honest fan reactions to things when I don’t like it, like, “woah, woah, what? What were they thinking? That’s so lame”. So we’re still pretty plugged in to the flow of pop geekiness, and we want to be vital; we want to be part of the flow and we want to be connected with these players.

We want to stay on top of our own instincts of what’s cool and what’s not, and when the players speak out and go “that sucked” or “you nerfed my shaman” or “I hate this new sequence of gameplay”, we want to be responsive to that, because we’re also playing. A lot of us still have to play a lot; play videogames so that we have the same frame of reference.

Sometimes we’re going to know a little more than the player-base knows -- because we know what we’re trying to build and how hard it’s going to be. We know that it will break in three steps, or it’s going to be wonderful in six steps, but you might not see it in five; but that sixth step, you’re going to love it. Sometimes we know a lot more than the player-base, and in the great, glorious age of the anonymous Internet, people can get really upset and be very vocal. Sometimes it can be a little frustrating, because they don’t know what you know, or they don’t know how much you believe in an idea, and when it just comes off a little flat and they go “oh, it’s just shitty and flat”, and you’re like, “man, I gave it all in that; I guess we just didn’t do it well enough”.

It can be frustrating, but after doing this for 20 years or whatever -- as I’m sure it’s the same in any creative medium -- you just have to have a thick skin, and remember that even when the hardcore fans vent and roll you out and just think you’re the worst thing in the world, at the times when that happens, you’ve got to remember: well, they’re venting for a reason; they’re venting because they’re passionate, and they’re venting because there’s something about it that they truly do love. When they’re disappointed, they’re very disappointed -- that’s just an aspect of how deeply they do love it -- so it behooves us to constantly remember that, and not get too put off.

I think we all get it. We’re all pros, and we’ve been doing this for a while. You kind of take it with a grain of salt, and you look for the points of discourse that hold water. When people are complaining about things, ok there’s a reasonable argument in it; they may not have said it all that nice, but if there’s something to be learnt, and if there’s something that can be fixed, then certainly, let’s do what we can do. But ultimately, all of this really speaks to that really interesting kind of… I always look at it more like it’s maintaining this really big, almost unknowable relationship, as much as it is about putting a product on a shelf.

That day is done, that kind of mass commercial ‘whatever’. These days it’s about engaging with people, and almost this weird element of belief and trust. We were stepping up there on a stage yesterday and they’re going “Warlords of Draenor, wooo”, and there’s laser beams going off and it’s all all very heightened. The trick is Monday morning, when everyone gets back to their computers and they’re really looking at that idea, that vibe, that thing, that adventure that we’re trying to take them on; that pied piper thing. It’s Monday morning when it’s quiet, with a coffee, and looking at it now going “wow, do I trust these guys to take me on an adventure? Do I trust these guys with my hard earned 15 bucks a month? Do I trust these guys with another nine years?” or whatever it’s been. That’s where it lives.

We can’t afford to go “am I going too crazy on this man?”. Yeah, sure we put Warlords of Draenor in a box and we ship it to Best Buy or wherever it goes and it sells X amount of copies or whatever, but it ain’t about that. Sure we’ve got lights to keep on, and it’s a business and all that stuff, but we can’t miss, because what happens when you miss now? Maybe in the corporate world you lose money, but in this day and age, you lose faith, and has that become the new currency in this massively connected world?

The trust that we’re as geeky as these kids are, and we want to play what they want to play. We’re getting a little long in the tooth I guess, but we’re still living it and we’re still feeling it; we still build these games for each other. It’s as much about the guys down the hall and what they think is cool, like, “check this out; check out this new thing”. It’s about this level of cohesion with our fanbase, and we don’t want anything to sabotage that. But I think it’s a good, strong bet at this point; I’m feeling really good about it actually.

AusGamers: Is it coincidence, or like a conscious, organic approach that while WoW subscriptions are dipping -- and you guys have had quite an ebb and flow for some time -- that there’s all of these peripheral things happening around the brand again, sort of leading back into it? You’ve got Hearthstone,and Heroes, and the movie...

Chris: Interesting observation. I would jump right in and say we didn’t plan it this way; it’s a pleasant coincidence. Because Hearthstone is… we’ve been working on that for a while. The TCG had been out for years and years, and we’d been talking about hopefully digitising it and offering it to a much larger community, just because we love the TCG. It just happens that it’s ready to go, or very close to being ready to go.

And the movie, man I was young and happy when we started this movie a lifetime ago. I’m just kidding there, but we had developed our relationship with Legendary years ago, and how crazy it just happens to be now that we’ve found the director that worked and they’re kicking ass and we’re going forward. It’s kind of weird, it feels like these ancient, giant gears that we’ve been trying to get to move are finally starting to break through and it’s all moving.

I certainly feel it this weekend, because I was out there talking about Warlords, and the movie has some degree of continuity with that era. Holy cow, you know? It wasn’t like this super genius… maybe I shouldn’t say that out loud because we’ll kind of kid about that later, but it wasn’t this super genius marketing overdrive thing. We don’t necessarily operate that way, we just try and chase what we think is cool when we can substantiate resources to chase it.

But it’s kind of bitchin’ that these things are kind of lining up. It’s definitely struck me this weekend while up there talking about Warlords. Holy cow, these characters I’m rolling out, man I made them up when I was like 20 [laughs], and we’re finally actually plugging them into a product where we can render them really well. And then today, talking about this movie panel, where a lot of these characters may be on the big screen too, and it’s really amazing, but it wasn’t necessarily, you know...

AusGamers: Planned that way?

Chris: Yeah.

AusGamers: It seems like -- and this is a cheeky way to get to this point -- but it seems like it might be the best time to finally placate all of those fans waiting for a Warcraft IV. If you’ve got all of these little feelers out…

Chris: But it also feels like just total overkill right? Obviously from a game standpoint -- apart from this, like Hearthstone, which are much smaller productions -- most of our Warcraft guns are going to be aimed squarely at WoW. Right now, the RTS thing is really covered by StarCraft II, and Heroes even to some newer degree could really have feet of its own. But Warcraft IV, I think I got that question earlier today and it’s, like, “oh God… maybe one day, but phew, right now [Warcraft] is a WoW thing right now.”

AusGamers: How close do you guys have your ear to the wire in terms of this transition period that the industry itself is going through? You’ve got Diablo making its way back to consoles (and Reaper of Souls looks awesome on PS4), and you’ve got things like SteamOS which are really exciting, and there are a lot of movements that are up in the air with things like tablets and mobile and stuff like that too. Where are you guys positioned in all of that?

Chris: I’m not technologist and not necessarily the great Blizzard rep to talk about that, but obviously we’re using all of these products too. I’m an iPad addict, I barely buy comics anymore, it’s all digital. I feel so bad saying that out loud, because the guys in my comic store haven’t seen my in, like, a year and a half and I feel very guilty about that. But we’re all kind of plugged into the cusp of this new frontier, and we think about it a lot.

So things like Hearthstone going to iPad feels like a very organic way to do it. Sure we’ve talked about ways to kind of engage people through tablets or whatever with something like World of Warcraft, but some of these things are a lot harder to do than others. So amidst all of the other projects we have in development, we just have to kind of choose when are where to strike.

But certainly, we’re watching the world change just like everybody else is and wondering how we fit into it, and it’s kind of crazy, this brave new world. I guess I’ll just say that we’re watching with everybody else and we’ll see how we handle the transition; handle the chop!

AusGamers: Thanks Chris, that was really cool.

Chris: Thanks.

Latest Comments
Posted 08:54pm 19/11/13
Good interview shame about Warcraft 4 although he makes a valid point I couldn't handle 2 RTS's to play
Posted 09:07pm 19/11/13
Would have been good to Discuss LOCAL Servers for Blizzard Games
Posted 09:07pm 19/11/13
I had no idea he was so hands on (until recently)

I don't know how many times I've stared at his concept and sketch work from the Warcraft II manuals(and menus) over the years.

GG Steve Farrelly, Gee Gee.
Steve Farrelly
Posted 09:42pm 19/11/13
Would have been good to Discuss LOCAL Servers for Blizzard Games
dte51 it's not really Metzen's area, nor something I wanted to talk to him about with the time allotted, however, I think you/we might here info regarding this sometime in the future
Reverend Evil
Posted 09:52pm 19/11/13
I'm jealous you got to meet him. He seems like a cool guy to have a chat with.
Posted 11:33am 20/11/13
I may have a bit of a geek mancrush on Chris Metzen
Posted 12:55pm 20/11/13
Yeah he seems like a pretty colourful dude to chat with, would've been cool to have a video interview.
Posted 11:07am 21/11/13
What do you mean by, they have steamOS? Have they lined up already to develop for Valves new console?
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