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Re-engineering Microsoft's culture: 2 veterans work together to break down old barriers

December 1, 2014 


Blizzard's upcoming "Overwatch" video game offers players more vivid colors than many other shooting games.

Fans at Blizzard Entertainment Inc.’s annual convention kept slipping up and calling the company’s big new video game "Overlord" — which sounds like an obvious, even cliché, name for the kind of dark, lurid shooter game everyone’s grown used to.

"Overwatch" is something different: a bit more gentle, a more inviting world, a concept that may be hard for shooter fans to get their heads — and tongues — around.

Breaking from the shooting genre’s tradition, the Irvine, Calif., game developer takes players into fights amid cherry blossom trees in Kyoto, on the vibrant streets of London and among gleaming edifices in Egypt. There are still freakish weapons and awesome explosions, but they come with bright scenery and charming heroes who watch over Earth to protect humanity.

The fun and almost cartoonish atmosphere of "Overwatch" reflects Blizzard’s broader attempt to remain a force at a time when more people than ever play video games but when the number of strong competitors has grown just as fast. Its highly regarded brand is no longer enough, on its own, to drive mega-sales.

Blizzard, which announced plans for "Overwatch" this month, has deep roots in the computer game market, but gaming is fragmenting as it grows. Developers are having to make their would-be blockbusters as easy to jump on and play as the smartphone games that have become so wildly popular.

Blizzard is releasing updates faster to keep players hooked, accepting that a series of small hits might be a more effective use of resources than one masterpiece. It’s even making the iconic "World of Warcraft" game franchise easier to play, and plans to release a movie based on it in March 2016.

Sales of Blizzard content represent about half of the revenue and a larger share of operating income for its corporate parent, Activision Blizzard Inc. in Santa Monica. The larger company expects to make $4.8 billion this year, up from $4.3 billion in 2013.

"Overwatch" will be crucial to growth. Nationwide, the crowded shooter game market accounts for about 20 percent of video game sales. The question is whether the potentially wide appeal for "Overwatch" pushes that number up.

As the enthusiasm over the new game at Blizzard’s annual fan convention in Anaheim showed, may fans and analysts think the developer is on the right path.

"What we know is Blizzard has the best content track record of any gaming company on the planet," said Doug Creutz, a Cowen & Co. gaming industry analyst. "This is their first new intellectual property in 17 years, and it’s so different from what they’ve done, so people are excited."

Blizzard introduced "Overwatch" through a trailer that struck many viewers as if it were something developed by animated film studio Pixar. The characters, including a glasses-wearing gorilla and a young woman with a British accent, could have been pulled from a Marvel comic book. The game is set about 50 years in the future.

"You think about a shooter game, you think about militaristic, hyper-realistic, intimidating," said Paul Sams, Blizzard’s chief operating officer. "Because it’s not so hard in look and feel, ‘Overwatch’ feels more accessible: ‘I can do this.’"

The hope is that gamers increasingly feel that about all of Blizzard’s games.

The recently released new installment of "World of Warcraft," for instance, allows customers who haven’t played the multiplayer online battle game in a while to automatically boost the abilities of a character to a level where they can take advantage of new features.

At the Blizzcon fan event, the company also announced that the next edition of "StarCraft II" would ship as a stand-alone product — another new approach.

Unlike many Xbox or Playstation series, "Starcraft II" and the decade-old "Warcraft" franchise hadn’t been games where anyone could launch a new version having never played the prior one.

"Having 10 years of content is a blessing and curse," said Ion Hazzikostas, lead game designer for "Warcraft."

The wealth of information became an obstacle, he said, as new or suddenly returning players would stare at the new box and ask, "I have to do how many levels and have to play for how long" to get up to speed?

Partially as a result, "World of Warcraft" lost more than 1 in 4 paid subscribers during the last two years. The college students "hungry to devour every inch" of the game in 2004 now may have an hour to play after putting their children to bed, Hazzikostas noted.

His team modified gameplay to allow players to explore the virtual world in bite-sized chunks, and the bet is that the changes and the "World of Warcraft" film will ensure the game is around another decade.

"We realize (for children today) that it’s almost your parent’s game, but it’s a world that appeals to anyone," Hazzikostas said.

The movie from Universal Pictures and Legendary Entertainment is seen as an opportunity to make "Warcraft" a part of pop culture as "Lord of the Rings" has become. Putting more emotion behind the fantasy characters should help non-gamers appreciate the content, Sams said.

"All of us are moviegoers," Sams said. "We feel like the movie makes what we do more relatable to a much broader audience."

He’s kept avid fans antsy about the release by involving them in the creation. Blizzcon attendees saw a work-in-progress trailer that won’t be shown anywhere else, and they recorded battle cries that are to be used in the final product.

Creutz, the analyst, said a possible mobile version of "Warcraft" would also bolster its prospects. After about a decade of mostly building games for computers, Blizzard has returned to Xbox and PlayStation with its "Diablo III" fantasy action game and started to venture into tablets and soon smartphones with its free-to-play "Hearthstone" digital card game.

"Hearthstone," which analysts say is making an estimated $40 million a quarter from selling optional card packs, has 20 million players on computers and iPads since its release in March. The game was developed by a small team, a break from Blizzard’s traditionally massive undertakings.

"Overwatch" should be available to early testers in 2015. Executives declined to discuss device compatibility or pricing.

After braving intimidating lines to try out a demo, Alan Galle described "Over — ," um, "Overwatch" as "a breath of fresh air." The fifth-time Blizzcon attendee from Fort Mohave, Ariz., has avoided first-person shooter games because they can be "too big or too difficult to learn."

His friend Robert Hussey said he had been waiting for something like this.

"The bright, vibrant color to it," Hussey said. "You’re not just staring at different shades of brown."


Associated Press