Real-Time Gaming: An Interview with the Maker of "World of Warcraft"

Frank Pearce is one of the founders of the company that created the video game "World of Warcraft," the world's largest online game. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Pearce discusses frowned upon hobbys, the power of geeks and the responsibility of governments in the virtual realm.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Pearce, are you a geek?

Frank Pearce: Well … yes. I would say I am. The "Lord of the Rings" movies I thought were spectacular, I play "World of Warcraft" (WoW), depending on my schedule, between 6 and 10 hours a week, I love fantasy and science fiction in all forms of media -- so, I'd say I'm a geek. Sure.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Fifteen or 20 years ago, playing role playing games wasn't exactly a hip thing to do …

Pearce: … yes, that was a time when the geeks were really frowned upon!

SPIEGEL ONLINE: ... and today you have around 6.5 million people worldwide playing WoW. Are the geeks inheriting the world?

Pearce: It certainly seems like the geeks are inheriting the online space, and that's where online games take place. At the same time, 10 years ago technology and games were foreign to a lot of people. We owe a lot to the Internet, for introducing people to technology and virtual space and what not, so maybe it's not that the geeks are inheriting the world, but that everyone else is coming around and is starting to appreciate the things that the geeks have always known were cool!

SPIEGEL ONLINE: To WoW, as well as to other Blizzard Games like Starcraft, the community, the interaction between players has always been essential. Does the whole "Web 2.0"-hype, everybody "discovering" the communities' power, make you smile sometimes?

Pearce: Web 2.0? Web two-point-what?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Web-communities, blogs, phenomena like digg, MySpace or Flickr …

Pearce: Ah, ok, the whole community-aspect of the web, yes.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you feel like you foresaw that somehow?

Pearce: No! (Laughs) No way. A lot of the success of WoW ist based on the success of previous games like the whole "Warcraft"-Universe. We've shipped three real-time strategy games and two expansion sets, that franchise was built up over the course of 10 years, leading up to the launch of WoW. WoW actually launched around the 10th anniversary of the first "Warcraft" game. So there's that -- the Blizzard label is a factor. But in many ways it was a "right place, right time" --thing for us, in terms of being online, and the growth of broadband Internet access. If you go to MySpace -- someone actually set up MySpace-pages for WoW-non-player-characters. That's amazing.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: WoW is also one of the biggest timesinks in history -- you yourself say you play 6-10 hours a week, and you're a busy man. Some people play up to eight hours a day or even more. Do you feel guilty sometimes about all the time that your games destroy, in terms of productivity?

Pearce: Computer games are like any other form of media and entertainment -- you have to exercise some moderation. In the same way you can invest a lot of time in a computer game, you can invest a lot of time in watching TV or browsing the Web. So it's an issue of recognizing that this is something you should consume in moderation. WoW has parental controls, so you can set up specific times when you want your child to play a game. And for the adults that are enjoying WoW -- we would encourage them to consume in moderation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the same time the game does have features that encourage heavy usage, like the so-called honor system, where your rank can drop when you don't play for a while …

Pearce: There are certain features that people would describe as a grind, and we're aware of these features. Aside from the fact that it's time consuming, at the end of the day some of that stuff -- it's just not fun. We're re-evaluating any of the systems in the game that are perceived as a grind, to make them more fun. Not from a time-consumption, but from a compelling gameplay perspective.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is that something you have to think about for the future? Your players are getting older, and will probably have less time eventually, have families and jobs. Do you have to compress the gaming experience, to make it less time consuming?

Pearce: We're introducing stuff like winged Dungeons, where you can play one part at a time, in less time. We want to provide content that players can consume in smaller quantities of time because -- most people don't have four hours a night to devote to the game. But there are hardcore players who devote more time per night than other people to it, so we'd like to deliver an experience that you can choose to consume in whichever chunks of time it is convenient for you.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Blizzard titles, more than many other types of computer games, are for many people turning into more than just a game. In Korea, professional "Starcraft"-players make a lot of money, in China people play WoW for a living, accumulating virtual wealth and selling it for real money -- which of course you don't condone officially. How do you feel about this seriousness becoming attached to your games?

Pearce: Certainly the e-sports stuff is something we're excited about, as geeks, e-sports stuff is cool. I attended the Worldwide Invitational tournament in February in Seoul, and it's exciting to see players that are so skilled at the game, and see a community that appreciates that level of skill so much that they come out in the thousands to watch these players participate in this competition live. We want to make games that are compelling, and with "Starcraft" and "Warcraft 3", in Korea, that's something we've achieved. People enjoy media and games in different ways -- some people enjoy something that they can take seriously and invest themselves in. That's something we're comfortable with.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: WoW and other online games are in some way mini-societies -- you have between-group conflicts and endless debates about the balance of the different races, and even events like the heated debate about advertising a "gay and lesbian friendly" guild in the game. Do you sometimes feel like you're running a country, not managing a game?

Pearce: In our case, running a small country and managing a game is almost synonymous. A community of 6.5 million players worldwide is certainly a challenge in some respects. One of the things that is very exciting about this very vocal community online is that the reason they're so vocal is because they care so much about this virtual environment and the society that's grown out of it. Sometimes it's hard to read through the forums and see these debates, you know, because it is 6.5 millions hobby game designers, everyone thinks they know better … but it's healthy, because it means they care about what WoW is.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How long will you keep going with the game?

Pearce: Other online role-playing games have enjoyed pretty long lifespans, so we hope to enjoy a long lifespan as well with WoW. As long as people are playing the game, we'll continue to support it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In terms of years?

Pearce: Ideally? From our perspective, we'd like to see a lifespan of a decade. Whether or not we'll be able to achieve that, we'll have to see. Anything beyond that would be a bonus.

Interview conducted by Christian Stöcker.

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