Articles: Wisdom Collected from Interviews, Books, and More

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Daniel Scrivner

"Excellence is a Journey, Not a Destination" Lecture by Rob Pardo on Blizzard's Game Design Philosophy

Rob leads Bonfire Studios, a game studio focused on multiplayer games that bring players closer together, united in a sense of adventure, exploration and fellowship. Previous to Bonfire Studios, Rob was the Chief Creative Officer for Blizzard Entertainment. Rob is best known for his work as the lead designer on ‘StarCraft: Brood War’, ‘Warcraft III’ and ‘World of Warcraft’. Based on the achievements of Blizzard games under his direction, Pardo was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and The Wall Street Journal named him as one of the top 25 power players in the game industry. During Rob’s career, he has led many teams to create blockbuster games enjoyed globally. This talk will be a retrospective on his career and the lessons learned along the way.

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Speech Transcript

Wow, Maria, that was a pretty awesome introduction. Now I feel like I have a lot more expectations on my talk. Well, I'm very pleased to be here. Thank you all for having me. It's been very exciting being over in Italy. Such a beautiful country, and I also appreciate just having the opportunity to create the talks since I've been out of Blizzard now for I think almost three years, and I've never really had the opportunity before to really sit down and think through my time there and try to reflect for myself on the lessons from a Blizzard, let alone try to make those kind of consumable for an audience. But this will be my shot.

So I started my game design career at Blizzard 20 years ago. I've been in the industry a couple years before that, but my career as a game designer truly began at Blizzard, just some of my credits, I was the lead designer on StarCraft: Brood War on Warcraft III and World of Warcraft. And then it was really after that, that the company grew and scaled quite a bit, and I went in more of an executive role and I can put my executive producer credits on here too. But I feel like a lot of what I want to talk about is probably more from the time of when I was actively a creator rather than as an executive. And then last year, as Maria just mentioned, I was able to start a new studio, which is called Bonfire Studios. So the focus of the talk is more on the Blizzard days, but I do want to talk a little about the journey of Blizzard and how it got me to Bonfire.

So along with kind of the theme of the talk, we're going to kind of take a little bit of a journey and an adventure through some of the different projects that I worked on at Blizzard. So the first one we're going to talk about is StarCraft. But before I get into a little bit, I also want to have a bit of a disclaimer. As I was putting together the talk, I realized that there's probably no way in a one-hour talk I could cover all the games that I worked on. So we're only going to go through some of the highlights and there's going to be some noticeable missing exceptions. I didn't really feel like I could add in that StarCraft II and Diablo III and Overwatch, but I have a lot of the good ones in here.

So starting back in the old days with StarCraft, for those of you that don't know much about StarCraft, it came out in 1998 and it was a science fiction real-time strategy game. It really featured the idea of these three big science fiction futuristic races, the Terrans, which are basically the humans in space, and then the Alien Zerg and the enigmatic Protoss. And back in the day, most of the real-time strategy games that are out kind of featured different sides that were largely kind of mirrors one over maybe with some differences. And the big ambition with StarCraft was could we make three races that didn't mirror any units or abilities with one another? So it's really the first RTS that had totally asymmetrical balance or races. Working on StarCraft, I joined midway through, I wasn't there at the beginning, but I joined kind of in the middle of development. And it was kind of interesting for me because my job was very nebulous when I came in.

I was actually hired by the CEO Allen Adham and my job was to play the game all day long and give him qualitative feedback about the game, which really meant that I got to play the game all day long. I got to sit in the game testing departments because they were there to play all the time. So I always have eager players to play the game with me, and I would generally meet with Allen almost every day and kind of talk about my impressions in the game. And he also would use me as somebody that he could just ring up on the phone and we could just test unit interactions, which I think really kind of shows the level of detail and polish that Blizzard is known for, came straight really from the top in Allen and the fact that we had sit on the phone together and we would just test unit interactions like, "Hey, let's start with this unit and cast a spell on this other unit. And is the interaction, does it behave the way you would expect?" And that'd be something you would kind of expect maybe the testing department to do. But what I learned really at Blizzard was that this is something that you need to take seriously, even if you're in charge of the entire company.

But really because of the role that I had on StarCraft, I had a lot of freedom to really choose where I wanted to focus. So a lot of what I had to really decide was where could I add value to this game that was already midway through development and well on its way to release. So something I reflected on thinking about how is I going to add value? Well, as a kid I was pretty competitive. My dad was really into sports and really encouraged me to be into sports. So I played pretty much everything as a kid growing up. And I think his true ambition for me was to become a professional athlete of some sort or another. But this really wasn't meant to be because I was probably much more interested in games.

But I think really because of my time really being a competitive athlete, if you will, I really gravitated to the competitive games. These are some of my favorites and even before I worked at Blizzard, I was really into Blizzard games in particular like Warcraft II on here, which was also a real time strategy game. And I was kind of known at the company, at Interplay as being one of the best players there. So much so that the CEO of that company, Brian Fargo, actually would bet on me playing against the top other players at Interplay and win matches because I was able to win the matches for him, which actually became enough of a legend in Interplay, that's one of the reasons I got noticed at Blizzard was because I knew I was the best Warcraft II player over at Interplay.

So, what I ended up focusing on then was how to make StarCraft the best competitive game. So I focused on a game balance, and the tricky thing with StarCraft is that there's three totally different races that have totally different units and totally different spells and interactions, but the goal was could you make a game that is as balanced as chess? But the thing about chess, again, going back to that concept of balances, the two chess sides are exactly the same. The white pieces and the black pieces have all the same moves and there's no differences. So the idea of StarCraft would be, well imagine that the white side is the only side with bishops and the black side is the only side with the Queen, well how do you make those two sides completely equal so that it's the skill level of the player and not the differences between the two sides that matter?

So for me, I played the game really all day and all night as much younger, and I really had no issues with staying at work late and continuing to play the game because I was just driven to try to make this game as balanced as humanly possible. So a lot of my day was playing the game, and the other part of my day would be living in a spreadsheet that kind of looks like this, which is just tweaking the unit interactions and spells and how much damage does the Battle Cruiser do, or what's the cool down of the siege tank when it's a siege mode? And really kind of learning through that process how much you can change the feel of a game just based on tuning these different numbers.

So the things I really learned on StarCraft, if you boil it down, and I learned more than these, I'm definitely kind of keeping to some of the highlights, but the details really matter and making those changes in that spreadsheet and being on the phone with the CEO of the company, just testing interactions really shows you how much that can make a difference. And even more so with StarCraft, because when we were making StarCraft, the primary goal of the game was not to make the most balanced RTS, that was a goal, but it was not the most important goal. But when you fast-forward 10, 20 years in the future after the game's been out that long, that's what people remember about the game. And it's because I think we spent so much time getting all of that right. And then iteration is just, that's the way that Blizzard gets to excellence. And that's kind of what I know now is that the more times that you can iterate through things, the better chance that you're going to get to something that's really great.

For me, I found mastery of the game was really important. I feel like I wouldn't have been able to balance the game unless I was one of the top players in the game at that time period. And the hardcore players, the community itself is something you should really value because the hardcore players is also where the game had all its longevity. When we released the game, we just kind of figured it was going to be the typical box game model where we release this game and then after a year we'll do an expansion set, and after that we're going to have to release another box game to kind of keep on keeping Blizzard be profitable and successful. But what ended up happening in the aftermath of the StarCraft release is it became kind of phenomenon over in South Korea. And that's in a lot of ways where you kind of see the birth of eSports today was in those early games. I mean, there's other games too, like Quake and others, but StarCraft was really the one that started things in South Korea and you would end up with professional gamers over there making over a million dollars a year, and they would be treated like Michael Jordan over here, the top players, where they would have groupies and they would have sponsorships. And it was really started from StarCraft.

So now we're going to move on from StarCraft and move to the next part of our journey. So we're going to start talking about Warcraft III a bunch and some of the lessons I learned with that game. So Warcraft III was also a real-time strategy game. It was released in 2002. Some of the things that were very different about the game though is we really focused a lot more on the storyline with this. StarCraft and Brood War has storyline as well, but as a team though, one of the big differentiating factors of the Warcraft III was we wanted to have this concept of heroes and make it a little more like a role playing game and really focus on an epic storyline. This was also the first game that I got to lead the design from the beginning with StarCraft, I joined in the middle and then I led the expansion set. Well with Warcraft III, I finally got to see what is it like to build a game from a blank page.

The epic storyline, the challenge was when you have something like a role-playing game, or even with some of the first person shooters out there, you just have more of a capability to tell a story because of the tools that are available, especially when you're doing something that's in first person and more immersive. So for us, we have all these little tiny units on screen. So we had to figure out, well, how do we tell a really immersive, interesting storyline even though you're kind of up at this God angle with these tiny little units? So there's a lot of things about Warcraft III that was very ambitious, but we ended up with four races and we wanted to support each of those races with its full single player storyline.

And then to talk a little bit about the human story, so one of the main characters in the whole Warcraft universe is Prince Arthas. And with the beginning of the human storyline, it focused on him as a paladin and growing up under the king and then trying to defeat the undead menace. But ultimately what ends up happening is he gets turned by the Lich King and turns into an undead version of himself and ends up killing his own father and betraying his kingdom. So I don't know if that sounds familiar at all, but just in case it doesn't give you another hint, and that was kind of intentional, I think it was kind of fun for us at Blizzard because we kind of wanted to tell our own version of how that could go. And we learned that it actually is really hard to try to make you invest in the good version of the character and then also the evil one.

But I think what's important as a creator is that you're going to get inspirations from everywhere. And I think especially when you look at Blizzard games, you're going to see all these sorts of IPs appear in different ways. World of Warcraft was definitely built upon a lot of the things that were EverQuest. Star Wars was an inspiration for all of us. All these things really appear in a variety of different ways, even if it's just inspiration. And I think as creators, especially in the science fiction and fantasy areas, you should be inspired by this stuff and you should feel free to borrow freely from each other and build upon the other ideas that you've seen out there in pop culture.

So going a little bit further back in time of when we announced the game, so the game was very, very different when we announced it. So it was announced in 1999, and we had this whole concept, we didn't even call it an RTS, we called it an RPS because we thought we were going to be marketing geniuses and coin a whole new genre and this whole idea of we're merging a role playing game with a strategy game, we also announced it with six races rather than the four that finally launched. Matter of fact, even before the six when we were first brainstorming, we had this idea of doing nine races because we were crazy and a little bit overconfident with how much we could do. We also changed the camera angle because going back to the story stuff, we made it a much more immersive kind of camera that's closer in the battlefield.

And the goal was to release the game by 2002, but we actually did not ship, or we ended up shipping 2002, not in 2000. Instead, what happened somewhere in the middle of all of that is we actually got a bit lost. And one of the things that I kind of think about with a lot of developments and certainly almost everything I was involved in a Blizzard went through kind of their own version of Mirkwood. If all of you have read or seen The Hobbit, the Hobbits kind of end up in this dark evil forest and can't even figure out which direction to go, they don't even know what direction the sun is, and they just have to keep on plugging along with no knowledge whether or not they're ever going to get out of it or not. And that's kind of the analogy I would use for what happened to us when we're in the middle of the Warcraft III development.

So we ended up rebooting the project. We made a bunch of fairly drastic changes to what we announced when we announced in 1999, and we changed the camera to a more traditional top-down kind of RTS style camera. We decided to call it a real-time strategy game again and reduce the races down to four, which was a much more achievable number for what we were trying to do. But the thing that I think is the lesson that I really learned in this project is everyone on the team really pulled together. We didn't lose hope, and that's why I like the Hobbit in Mirkwood acknowledge you because if you just kind of stay together and you really rely on each other and you keep on chipping away, eventually you will find your way out and you'll find the treasure, hopefully no dragon though.

So the Warcraft III lessons, making games is hard. And it seemed easy to me coming through StarCraft and Brood War, but when we got to Warcraft III, it was a really long process and I always kind of feel like it doesn't get any easier when you're trying to do something that's truly creative, like the next project I actually think will be harder than the last one and it has nothing to do with the scope or the ambition of it's just that making new things is always hard and especially in games because the technology is always changing and the lessons that you learned last time or what the audience wanted with your last game may not be what they want next time. So if anything, any of the lessons that you did learn may not be viable anymore. So that's why I say the number one thing that I learned from making games is just have a great team and trust and iterate your way out of it and you will get lost in despair and if you trust your teammates and keep determined, you'll find the way out.

I think the other lesson that I learned in Warcraft III, it's probably one of the most fun teams I've been a part of, even though we did have those moments where everything was dark and despaired, I still, me and a lot of the people that are leads on that team, I think we still look back fondly about working on this project. And that was another lesson that I really learned is that you should also really care about who you work with and enjoy spending time with them, because making these sorts of products and it takes three years or four years or five years, you don't want to lose that time with people you don't enjoy spending time with and then most importantly, just don't ship until it's great, which is easy to say, but I think a lot of companies have a hard time doing this.I think a lot of companies would finally get to the place where they'd be like, well, this is good enough, or where we can't write off a $10 million project and just cancel it, but one of the things I've always admired about Blizzard is that they just won't, they won't do it. And that is easy to say now with all of Blizzard's success, but back in the days of Warcraft III, I mean, we are still betting the company on every game we made.

All right, so onwards we're going to move to World of Warcraft. So World of Warcraft, for those of you don't know, was a massively online role playing game set set in the Warcraft universe. Shockingly, we released it almost 13 years ago. It's 13th anniversary will actually be next month. And at peak had over 12 million subscribers across the world. So I kind of want, again, go back into the past and one of the things I thought was fun for me was thinking about, hey, what are those things that happened to me when I was younger that may have led to some of the decisions on the products that I was on? One of the things I thought a lot about with World of Warcraft was as a kid, I was always into games. And the funny thing was, it should have been obvious in retrospect that I should become a game designer, but honestly, up until the time I was an adult, my passion was, I thought it was going to be maybe a film director or getting into the film industry, but if you looked at my shelves, you looked at all the time that I spent doing things. It was a lot of these sorts of things.

And even when I think as a kid, the things I was doing, I didn't have a computer until a little bit later, but that wasn't going to stop me. I'm still going to play whatever games come out there and I would actually go and use my allowance and buy games. I'd buy Wizardry or I'd buy Ultima, but I didn't have a computer to play them on. So what I would do is I would go down to the local department store and I'd talk to salespeople into letting me install the games onto their computers and play there after school, which ended up being a win-win situation because I got to play games all afternoon and they had someone that could demo their computers that they were trying to sell.

But it really wasn't any of those games that had honestly the biggest influence on probably me as a game designer. It was really Dungeons and Dragons, which I didn't really think about it at the time, but really was my first job as a game designer because I was actually the Dungeon Master of my friends. And I don't know if anyone here has played D&D before, I'm guessing a few of you had, but when you're in the role of a Dungeon Master, I mean your job is to provide entertainment to your friends every night, which is really exactly what a game designer does, but it's much more personal and intimate because these are your friends.

And it really is a real-time beta test, because if you're not doing a good job, then everyone suddenly has something else they want to do that evening. And the next time that you get together and you want to play Dungeons and Dragons, they want to pick someone else to be the Dungeon Master. "Oh, why don't we give Bill a chance this week? Or maybe Chuck and be DM." So you really have this wonderful kind of real time feedback loop on how to get better as a game designer, even though again, I didn't really think about it that way at the time. And I actually, funny enough, would end up resenting it a little bit because they always wanted me to be the Dungeon Master. And I'm like, "But I want to play." But I think again, this should have been kind of a clue to my future career.

So another thing I kind of learned back in the day is it really is a shared entertainment experience. It's something that your players are part of the story. It's not like I'm sitting up there and I'm just telling some story like Homer's Odyssey and just relaying this wonderful story. It's something that really you have to be iterating and you have to be kind of improv-ing the whole time because the players are going to surprise you and they're going to do things that you don't expect. And for you to do a good job, you want to react to that and suddenly make a side adventure, if someone decides that they want to go down some side street and do something different, then now you're suddenly having to create on the fly this whole side adventure for them because you don't want to tell them, "Oh, well that's not where I expected you to go." You got to just continue to evolve the story as it goes along.

And then the other thing I think was a big learning was these sorts of activities really honestly made us better friends, just like any other activity that you might do with close friends, but with this one, you're actually co-creating this entertainment experience together. And I feel like when I look back on my high school group of friends, I mean, this is probably the thing that really kept us together as friends throughout high school.

And then the last thing I think I learned from D&D is that I really enjoyed creating games. And I think that's something that I often see with people that tell me they want to be a game designer and they play a lot of games. Lots of kids nowadays play tons of computer games or video games, and I'll actually have parents sometimes stop me and go, "How do I get my son or my daughter to a job to be as a game designer?" The first thing I always say is, "Well, do they actually want to create games or do they just want to play them?" Because it actually is a very different experience and I think a lot of people confuse the two things that, oh, I really love playing games, therefore I would love designing them. And it's a very different experience and I think it's a very different kind of joy that you get out of the two things and people oftentimes I think, confuse the two.

So getting back to World of Warcraft a little bit, so what is World of Warcraft? It is this huge world with endless adventures, and this is a picture of the map of, I think this is as of Mist of Pandaria of what the world looks like. And anytime we needed more land, we would just raise another continent out of the water. So it just kind of supports all these enlisted ventures and content and continents. So it's also always online and available for play. And then we also created lots of content for groups and guilds, which I think is really the power of World of Warcraft. So you can always log on anytime you want and progress by yourself, but I think the real staying power of the game is once you start interacting with groups and exploring dungeons and then joining a guild, and now you have a group of players that you're kind of comrades with for the next multiple years and you're defeating dragons and big molten giants. And that I really think is the whole staying power and why the game has lasted for as long as it has.

So when you really think about it, what is World of Warcraft? Well, it's the ultimate D&D experience and to further press that point a little bit, so there is this time at BlizzCon, so this is the BlizzCon audience, and BlizzCon is the big convention that Blizzard does now pretty much annually to bring fans from around the world to talk about their new games. And the last time that I was on stage at BlizzCon, I did a talk, I think it was the nine-year anniversary of WoW at the time.

And I wanted to kind of talk about some of the big experiences that had happened in World of Warcraft. So there's always kind of these big moments like back during the beta test, we had these two areas, Southshore and Tarren Mill, where anyone that played in that era would end up playing these gigantic player versus player battles between these two areas. And then there is a big time where we had a server wide event called Ahn'Qiraj where these gates opened up and again, if you were playing in that era, you for sure had been a part of that on your server and opening the gates.

And what I did was I really talked about some of those seminal moments throughout World of Warcraft history, and it was really powerful because the entire audience would cheer whenever I talked about one of these moments and I'd call out to who was a part of it and it was actually even shocking to me that almost the entire audience responded to almost every event that I brought up. And the thing again is that even though the players in the audience didn't necessarily play with each other because they played in different guilds on different servers, they all actually had the same shared experience of the same adventures, just maybe in different ways with their groups of friends.

So I had this kind of epiphany, which what I'd really done was I'd gone from a D&D group of five to seven players in high school to a D&D group over 12 million players. And what was really interesting too was my high school group of friends were all World of Warcraft players at that BlizzCon. So it's really true that we just expanded the group and I just became a Dungeon Master for more and more people.

All right, onwards on our journey, we are going to continue through and now we're going to go to a different sort of game, which is Hearthstone. So Hearthstone is actually, that was the last game I was able to complete and ship before I left Blizzard. So for those of you don't know, Hearthstone is actually a cross-platform PC and mobile collectible card game, which is also based in the Warcraft universe. It was released in 2016, actually I think that release date is wrong, I'm sorry, it's released in 2013. So that was a mistake and the game was actually made with 15 developers.

So talk a little bit about this time during Blizzards history when we started Hearthstone. So this was after Blizzard had hugely scaled from World of Warcraft. So we'd gone from a company of I think around 400 people to 4,000 people in about a two to three year time period. We also just from the scaling, we had four massive games that were in development simultaneously. One of those was just the ongoing support of World of Warcraft and then just talking a little about things that were happening in the world at the time, mobile was really starting to become a big thing in games, free-to-play as a kind of monetization business model was really becoming big, League of Legends was on the scene. And then for myself personally, by this point, I'd completely transitioned into more of an executive role. So as the chief creative officer and on Hearthstone, I was the executive producer, so I wasn't the lead designer on this project.

So for me as kind of the head over the entire project, it was a little bit of an experiment. I had a few questions, one was, could we make a Blizzard game with only 15 developers? The teams that I'd been a part of, I think the StarCraft team was around 25 developers, and then we went to a 35 to 40 developer team and 60. So kind of this trend of each team had gotten bigger and bigger and one of the things I was curious about is, hey, could we make something that we could call a Blizzard game, but do it with a much smaller group of players or group of developers?

And then there's also just a question about the collectible card game genre. It was a very kind of niche hardcore genre that was dominated by Magic: The Gathering and then Magic: The Gathering online, but it was kind of viewed as maybe a little bit too niche to have a Blizzard side success. And then going back to that thing about mobile and free-to-play, it really felt like it was one of these big shifts that was happening in the game industry and I felt like we were a little bit could end up being left behind unless we started experimenting in this area. But again, since we already had these other big massive games in development that are already years in, would there be an opportunity to start experimenting on another big game that was in this direction?

And then one of the big questions for me personally is could I truly be an executive producer without meddling as a designer, because even though I'd been executive producer on some other titles, there always was that moment where I had to get really involved on the game design side. And one of the things that was really important to me in Hearthstone was because I was working so much on many other games at the time, I really had to find a way to trust the team and support them in a different sort of role.

So like all Blizzard games and everything I've been a part of, it was a long road to success. It was not a short project and some of it was, there just wasn't a lot of belief in the studio for some of the reasons that I mentioned, but this ended up being a bit of a positive thing, it actually created an underdog culture because all the other games, if you imagine the StarCraft II team, they're under immense expectation since I had just mentioned how StarCraft was this huge cultural phenomenon in Korea, it was almost like a national sport in Korea and it'd almost be imagined that you're now put on the team to create baseball 2.0. So that's what the StarCraft II team was going through, but what the Hearthstone team had the exact opposite problem, which is no one in the studio really believed that they were going to successfully come out with a game that was high enough quality and enough success. So it actually ended up making that team not have really big expectations, which I think really worked to their advantage in the long run.

And then we had another thing that happened kind of midway through development where we had to take almost everyone off the team and put them on other projects, because we were trying to get StarCraft II out the door, but the two people that stayed on the team were actually the two game designers, and they got to work on the game almost by themselves for nine to ten months while the rest of the team was working on other projects. But again, it ended up being a bit of a blessing in disguise because they got to work on a flash prototype and figure out all the rules of the game without any of the production necessities of having to make sure, oh, the programmers and the artists need work to do, we need to give them features, we need to give them work. So they didn't have any pressure to kind of feed the rest of the team with tasks, instead they got to really just focus on making the right decisions for the game. And by the time the team came back, the designers had all kind of figured out where the fun was.

And then another thing we ended up having a problem with was, like all Blizzard projects, we created all original tech from scratch. Blizzard just was never really a studio that believed in using shared technology from the game engines. And that ended up being a problem halfway through development when we lost our rendering programmer, so we ended up deciding at that point to use an existing game engine. And after a lot of testing, we decided to go with Unity. And it again ended up being another one of those aha-moments for us because it allowed the team to very quickly start working on the game again. And it also allowed us to keep the team size much smaller.

So Hearthstone lessons, so I really got to see the value and the power of a small team because they were able to shift this game with 15 developers, being the underdog can actually be a lot easier. So it really made me think a lot about the expectations you put on a team and how much pressure can actually make you not want to take risks. And then team culture is really something I learned a lot again about the small team because with that small team, they really got to focus, everyone got to be involved in every game design decision and there was no communication overhead, there was no middle management. It really showed how tight a team could be if everyone could be in the same room making the game together.

And then also focus and scope was something that that team really had to learn lessons on because something at Blizzard, I would say we haven't typically been very good about focus and scope, usually we just want to make bigger, better, more features. And with Hearthstone, we just couldn't. And it was a matter of if we only have 15 developers, we had to make decisions like we had a whole idea of doing a full single player campaign, but if we only have 15 developers, that's something that gets put on the chopping block and then instead they get to focus on less features and just make those features the best you could. And then for me, I really got to learn how to be a true kind of executive producer and how to trust the team.

All right, so we're almost to the end of our journey and the last part of our journey is kind of where I'm going today, which is Bonfire. So what happened to me was I left Blizzard in I think it was 2013, and my intention at that time was not necessarily to start a new studio. I got to take a lot of time to do a lot of travel and reflection, got to spend more time with my family and my friends, got to see the world. Also spent a lot of time just kind of with friends in the game industry and the tech industry and the film industry and kind of figure out what I wanted to do next. Because even though I loved games and the games industry, by the time I left Blizzard, I was pretty honestly pretty burnt out just because there had never really been any breaks. And when you kind of think about what had happened during the arc of my career, I went from working on one game sequentially to then two games simultaneously and then three games simultaneously and then we're merged and part of a public company and it ended up going faster and faster and faster for me personally. So a lot of my couple years off was just kind of recuperating and then deciding what did I want to do next.

So I obviously eventually decided to do Bonfire, but I want bring all the things that I learned at Blizzard to Bonfire, but maybe do things in just a little bit of a different way and be a little more controlled about the studio, but I want to kind of go back through some of the lessons I learned from these projects and how they led to what Bonfire is becoming or trying to be. So a good example of StarCraft, I talked about how important details and polishes to the game and how you can get to excellence through iteration. So I don't want to leave those things behind. Those are things I think that are going to be critical to us to succeed at Bonfire as well as they're to Blizzard.

So the Warcraft III things that I would say I would call out the most is work with talented people you want to spend time with and that's probably been the number one thing that we focused on over our first year of Bonfire is getting the right team in place. And that starts with really great people, good humans that really align with our values and then trying to work on our own relationships with each other because even though we have a lot of ex-Blizzard people that I've worked with, a lot of the ex-Blizzard people haven't worked with each other at Bonfire, so we still have to learn how to be a team and how to trust each other. But I think it all starts with having people that you really enjoy spending time with and you're surprised by every day and want to work with every day. And then the other thing I think with Warcraft III was it really taught me that do not ship that game until it's ready. You just keep on working at it and you work your way out of Mirkwood.

And then World of Warcraft is really the power of shared player experiences and this idea of how to build friendships through online gameplay and just how powerful it can be even if you're meeting someone online and you're playing a game with somebody that you've never met in real life, but you end up having this daily online relationship with somebody and how it really becomes a real friendship. And I would see these moments where people would come to BlizzCon with their guild and they would plan ahead of time to go meet at BlizzCon and they would come from all over the country, if not all over the world, and then they would meet in real life for the first time at BlizzCon and really enjoy it because they're just seeing their friends. And even though they may have started that relationship online, that the relationship was real and the friendship was real and be able to meet each other at BlizzCon was just an icing on the cake. And I also can't even tell you about the number of people that I've met who have met their spouse through playing World of Warcraft or other online games.

So Hearthstone, I think Hearthstone the lessons, again, are a little more as an executive and as a leader, but it really showed me how much can be accomplished by small teams, especially nowadays when you're looking at the tools that are available like Unity and Unreal or be able to do online game services in the cloud or be able to digitally distribute your games directly or through things like Steam. It's really changed what is achievable by a smaller team. And also it taught me a lot about focus and scope since I would say that would be something I did not learn very well earlier in my career as probably the king of always adding features and wanting to add things at the 11th hour, but with Hearthstone, with that small team, you had to be laser focused on your scope. And then another one is just how to build trust with your team and then how that also translates to the community.

So Bonfire was born, and I think what will be interesting is kind of looking at things like our company purpose is we want to build friendships. And I think out of all the entertainment mediums, games is the one medium that really can allow for that. It's very hard to go to a movie theater and meet someone for the first time and actually build a friendship. But with games, with the right sort of games, it really is something where you can either meet new friends or have existing friends that you become closer and share these experiences and adventures with each other. And that's really the types of games that we want to create. And then I'm not going to go too deep into our cultural values, but what I think is interesting, if you look at these, you can kind of see where some of the lessons that I mentioned to you guys with the previous games and how they kind of show up in Bonfire's cultural values.

And then the other thing kind to wrap up the talk is just some of the things that I've learned personally through my journey through Blizzard and what are some of the things that I feel that I've learned. And I think it starts with really using your own experiences and inspirations for your own creative work. And that's why I talked about being a competitive jock as a kid or playing games and working at the arcade or begging the salespeople to let me to play PC games on their systems. It's like all these sorts of experiences, even things like Star Wars or movies that we see that we're inspired and I'm inspired by those things and I kind of want to give back and inspire others.

I think another thing is games are supposed to be fun, and I think making games is super, super hard. I think making any sort of entertainment is super hard, but I kind of have this thought that making games should be as fun as playing games. It doesn't mean it's not hard work, but I think if you have the right people on the right crew that it can actually be a really fun activity. And then do what you love with people you love. And that's something that I think you may only realize once you've had a much longer career like I have, but something I would really encourage people that are even at the beginning of their career is think about this. Obviously even at the beginning of your career, you want to learn and you have to work your way up, but really think about the people that you're working with and be with people that you want to be with, because at the end of the day, once you're done with your products, it's the relationships that last, the products happened, they're judged, there's nostalgia, but the things that you personally will remember are the relationships of the people that you built these amazing products with.

And then ultimately, your work is going to have a big impact, as an entertainer you're going to have an impact on your audience, but you're also going to have a big impact on the people you collaborate with. So really think about what is the impact you want to have and what are the creative things you want to put in the world and how that to be when people come up to you and do want to talk to you about the things that you made. And that's it. Thank you guys for the time.

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About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer and angel investor. He's led design work at Apple, Square, and now ClassDojo. He's an early investor in Notion,, and Anduril. He founded Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Dec 16, 2023

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