World of Warcraft's Chris Metzen talks about the power of spinning ideas, and how he got his big break on a bar napkin.
This is the first part of a two-part interview. Be sure to also check out Part Two to hear about the ingredients of good interactive story-telling, the power of tribal creativity, and why Blizzard's game makers will never put rubber nipples on Batman's suit.
How do you explain to nongamers what you do for a living?
My core responsibility is coming up with the worlds our games take place in. And over time, the worlds are becoming the game, strangely enough.
When I started out in this racket about fourteen years ago, we were making war games. Essentially, you're playing through a sequence of maps with this virtual army you build over time. It was my job not only to create the single-player component of the game -- the storyline that you ultimately track through in these ongoing wars -- but also to just kind of create the universe behind the game so that when you weren't actually playing, you might still be chewing on these concepts or characters or places that you'd experienced.
What were some of your big influences growing up?
Well, figure that everyone in the industry just loved Star Wars. Star Wars created a monster. But I think what shaped the monster [for me] ultimately was a mix between Dungeons & Dragons and comic books. Those were my absolute loves, as most geeks around here will probably repeat. I'm more a comic geek than anything else, honestly. I still have about a thirty-dollar habit per week. It's gotten bad; I need a twelve-step program. I even still buy Marvel. So I just grew up with serial storytelling. Every week you could go to the store and see somebody's latest adventure. That template -- the way comics unfold over time -- had a really big impact on me.
I loved D&D -- I loved the big worlds, the big spanning themes, the big epic quests, the unfolding settings with ancient civilizations and ancient secrets coming back to haunt the present. I loved all that. I love mythology. And somehow, as a little kid, comics was the conveyance system -- the media that really captured my imagination.... There was continuity, high drama, threads from beyond space and time. There were threads from the past. There were gods walking the earth. Everything I wanted to have my head in was right there.
Did you create your own comics?
…spinning ideas back out with our own spin on it is really where the magic comes from. It's not necessarily from the innovation, although that's very striking as well. But I bet if you tracked a lot of innovative ideas, they're born from two or three other things that that person had seen already. We all stand on the shoulders of titans.
Chris Metzen is the Vice President of Creative Development at Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the beloved Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo series of PC games. These are the blockbusters of the PC gaming world, famous for their rich worlds, near flawless gameplay, and graphics and audio that pull the player in and don't let go. World of Warcraft, the company's popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), and its expansion packs, have been the best-selling PC games for 2005, 2006, and 2007. WoW currently has 10 million subscribers worldwide.
On the Web: Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft: Of Blood and Honor, Sons of the Storm
I was building my own little comic worlds and my little stapled-together cheesy colored-pencil comic books from age twelve on. Since about age six, I always drew. I really enjoyed drawing whatever -- cyborgs, alien warlords.... When I was around twelve I had the fictitious Capital Comics Company. I had a stable of characters, and it was all pretty loosely based off of whatever I was reading at the time.
Around sixth grade, I found Dungeons & Dragons. Buddies of mine had moved in from another town and said, "Hey, have you ever played this before?" "No, I haven't. What's that?" And I was immediately swept away.
Was Tolkien an influence too?
It wasn't actually Lord of the Rings that did it. I wouldn't read Lord of the Rings until late in high school. But [D&D's] Dragonlance and the other worlds that TSR [the company behind D&D] had put out -- I just couldn't get enough of them, whether I was reading the books or dissecting their campaign settings in my own D&D campaign with my buddies.
We'd usually just make up our own stuff. I remember thinking pretty early on that that's all I ever really wanted to do with my life was just make stuff. It wasn't necessarily film. It wasn't the media you would first think of. I wanted to work at TSR. I wanted to make the next Dragonlance. I just wanted to get in on the ground floor of a company like that, building a world like that, and just make stuff up.
So how did you get your start at Blizzard?
It was totally random. The path of destiny took a detour for a couple of years. I was singing in a few bands and just having a blast at that. I thought that's what I wanted to do for a few years out of school.
We were playing a gig at a club one night, and I guess I had drawn a little dragon on a cocktail napkin, just screwing around. And this guy walked by who knew a friend of a friend of a friend and went, "Hey, that's pretty good! Have you ever thought about drawing? I know this one place that's hiring artists." "Really?" And he handed me a card that said "Chaos Studios" (that was our name before we became "Blizzard"). I didn't even know what the company did. I thought it was a graphics company -- graphic design or something like that. "Seriously? They pay people to draw? Really? Stuff like this?"
I went down one weekend or Friday afternoon and walked in the door with my life, with all these worlds and characters that I had created since I was a kid, and just tossed them all over the boss's desk. Within about fifteen minutes he's like, "Hey, man, you want a job?" "Dude, I'll sweep your floors." I walk in the door and there's radio-controlled cars and superhero posters and Iron Maiden posters all over the walls. I didn't even know what they did. All I knew is that whatever this is, I want a piece of this.
What was your original job at Chaos Studios?
I was actually an animator. At the time, we were making a fighter game like Street Fighter, based on the Justice League. They wanted me to animate Batman. "Okay. I've never animated anything in my life, but I'll give it the college try!" And it just took off from there....
By the time we began Warcraft II, I stayed late and wrote up a few paragraphs of what might have happened between the games that would set up a sequel, or begin to set up the scope or anticipation of the sequel. I didn't plan to show it to anybody, and I guess one of the other designers showed it to the boss one night, unbeknownst to me. A couple days of later we're at a meeting, and the boss says, "Oh, and, by the way, Chris is our new designer on Warcraft II." I'm like, "Holy crap! Really?! Why?" But he knew. He knew that while I loved drawing...ultimately he knew I just wanted to make stuff up.
How would you describe your approach to the creative process?
It's all about spin, right? We're essentially sponges -- especially artist types. If you're a songwriter, a dancer, whatever -- we're sponges. We take in data. We take in things that we dig. In my case it's likely comics or Star Wars or Dragonlance. I absolutely devour the stuff. Strangely enough, I devour the same stuff over and over. It's really weird. I'm not very experimental. I keep grilling things deeper and deeper if I have an initial reaction to it creatively.
I think we soak in content. We chew on it. We digest it. What are the bits of these themes or these characters or these places that strike the chords within us emotionally? And our job is to spew back into the world. Spin the archetypes, right? Sometimes it's a matter of mixing and matching different archetypes. Sometimes it's a matter of just paring an idea down to its most naked truth. I think spinning ideas back out with our own spin on it is really where the magic comes from. It's not necessarily from the innovation, although that's very striking as well. But I bet if you tracked a lot of innovative ideas, they're born from two or three other things that that person had seen already. We all stand on the shoulders of titans.
As it relates to my craft, or specifically, Blizzard's craft, I think we've done pretty well by that. We don't necessarily try and come out with the craziest new concept you've ever heard of. We actually base the games we do on whatever we happen to be playing. If we're having fun with a game like Everquest [a 3D, massively multiplayer, role-playing game that predates World of Warcraft] -- and we were -- we were all sitting around pretty much going, "Dude, how much fun would it be to build one of these? We think we could do X, Y, and Z a little cleaner, a little better. We think we could simplify this, but we think we can blow all these other ideas out and really have some fun with it." That's the way we typically approach our projects....
You know, the name "Gandalf" was not unique to John Tolkien, right? He pulled that from Icelandic myth. "Orcs," means what? "Devil" in some language no one speaks anymore. Ultimately what Tolkien did was take these elements that were really disparate -- they didn't necessarily have a lot of [potency] anymore in the great membrane of pop culture -- no one really cared about these ideas -- and he brought them together in a way that reinvigorated what they were. He blew it out by a thousand times the magnitude they had had for hundreds of years. And he clothed it in a world, and he molded this world with older ideas, but in such a way that it was absolutely fresh and it was absolutely true.
How does that approach show up in your own work?
We put out a game called Warcraft III a few years ago, and one of the things I really wanted to do was take orcs, who are the perennial bad-guy race -- the dark, subhuman, barbarous race in most fantasy -- and I wanted to take our orcs and spin 'em. They're still green and tusked and very brutal -- the visual of them plays to the archetype, so it's very familiar for someone coming to the setting. But we started to take them on a route where, what if they weren't innately evil? They're looking for identity. They've been roughed up, and now they're trying to become this noble thing again. That was a decided spin on a pretty classic archetype that, well, time will tell whether it worked well. But that's the trick, right? Keeping the archetypes in the foreground -- because that's ultimately what people want. It's part of the magic of the escapism of these fantasies.
What did we do with the latest one? You know, we've got elves, right? Everybody gets [the character] Legolas from the Lord of the Rings film. Ultimately what we decided to do with our elves in the Warcraft setting was make them addicted to magic. They're like an entire race of crack addicts; they just can't get enough magic. And they're just on the brink of losing everything they've ever been, to this almost genetic addiction to something that may or may not be very dangerous to play with.
Looking at them, the visual archetype holds very strong. From Tolkien to D&D to where we are today, current fantasy -- "I get it! The long ears, and they're graceful, these other-worldly creatures." But inside there's a reflection of something that might be relevant to today. How often do we see stories of addiction in our extended families? None of this is stunning; none of it's super innovative. But again, it's not coming up with a new race -- it's finding a way to make the older archetypes sing again.
Is the art in finding the balance between the archetype and the spin?
Totally. And could there be a more subjective science? I don't think anyone's really hammered it yet. But for me, that's the fun part.... Being the geek I am, given my wiring, that's all I ever wanted to do.
The interview continues in Part Two.