World of Warcraft's Chris Metzen talks 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.
Welcome to the second part of this interview with Blizzard VP of Creative Development Chris Metzen. If you haven't already read Part One be sure to check it out to hear about the power of spinning ideas, and how Metzen got his big break on a bar napkin.
What do you think are the ingredients of good storytelling in computer games?
You definitely want "show -- don't tell." And it's difficult in interactive spaces because "showing" usually means it's very keyed into specific art resources or the way your game engine works. Also, more often than not, you don't want to stick the player with minutes worth of exposition. Ultimately, it's a video game and people are conditioned to want push buttons or click their mouse. Whether they're playing Pac-Man or Half Life 2 or World of Warcraft, they want to feel like they're in the driver's seat -- that's the difference between the interactive medium and film, for instance. In film you're pretty much a captive audience. You're going to sit there for two hours and experience what the writer and the director and the actors want you to experience. You have very little say in the matter other than how you process it after the fact, right?.... [So] even if we take control away from you for a couple of minutes to show a pre-rendered cinematic, or a cinematic sequence that shows the next story note unfolding, we want to get people back into the action as soon as possible. And that determines the way your story unfolds. You have to tell it in bite-sized chunks because you know that control must resume for the player pretty soon.
How do you typically kick ideas off?
CM: I just get geeked up walking into a room where we all sit down and jam. (I use the term "geeked up" a lot -- like you're just out of your mind for an idea.) I'll throw out an outline of, "Here's where I'd like to go" or "Here's a rough painting." And then we'll all sit around and absolutely sculpt a grander vision. My ideas are usually kind of the initial spark, but I'm surrounded by a really good team. We've been doing this for a long time together. Instincts are honed and there's a great chemistry, so these guys wind up taking ideas and just running all the way down the field with them.
...for interactive storytelling specifically, whatever I thought of my abilities or whatever I thought of my gumption or my need to achieve and be recognized, as I look back now, it's all about tribe.
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
It sounds a little like the classic sitcom writers' room.
CM: Actually I think there's a lot of correlation to TV writing.... You jam really fast. And you might track one route of the story and then turn on a dime and start tracking another way. That's really the way we design. We're shooting shots across the bow and responding with a lot of energy. It's very iterative and group-based.
What's it take to make that approach work?
CM: If we're talking about a new zone or a new kingdom or a new race, and my cells are aflame with anticipation, and I just can't wait to get the idea out, and my partners are flinging ideas back: "Wow! Have you considered this?" or "Whoa, dude! What you're describing is straight-up Klingon. Why would we wanna do that?" or whatever it is -- everyone's poking holes in things -- you've got to try and keep it together, take a step back, try not to let the ego engage. Because that's what we are as artists, right? We're called upon to have passionate opinions and fling ideas out, and go, go, go!...
With games, you've got a team of upwards of one hundred people who all have passionate viewpoints, who are all experienced. Ultimately we're all gamers, right? So if I'm just convinced of an idea, and six out of eight people come back and go, "I don't know, dude. I respect your passion, but this is a bad way to go," or "Actually, this was done three years ago -- didn't you see that?" or whatever their reservation might be, you have to remember that, at least in our neck of the woods, that's really important. Because they're all the target market. And despite the fact that I may have a burning vision for something, we're all in it together, and we all police the content....
I don't know how similar that is to movies. [With movies] you've got your director, sometimes you have a mega-writer, and these people are very powerful and very recognized, and it's really their show. So, if they want to put rubber nipples on Batman's suit, they get to put rubber nipples on Batman's suit.
Do you have any particular patterns or techniques you've found that help you tap your creative side?
CM: One of the goofy things I do is when they come at me with map ideas, let's say there are fourteen maps in a specific campaign, I'll start with titles -- fourteen zippy lines, titles for each mission strung together into the flow of a story idea. It helps me get my thoughts together as I start to break down each idea, each mission concept, relative to the characters involved and the dialog, unfolding the information in a linear order. Having really hot titles up front helps me focus my ideas and wrap the story around the mechanical skeleton of the actual mission.
Are those the equivalent of story names or chapter titles?
CM: Exactly -- it's very much like having chapter titles even before you know how it's all going to unfold. So it's kind of an ass-backwards way of going about it, but I always find having the right title or heading or tagline helps me keep the energy of the concept in mind.
Do you ever think about trying a different kind of writing?
CM: Oh for sure. I did an e-book Warcraft story a few years ago [Warcraft: Of Blood and Honor]. And I have an ongoing comic series that I'm working on.
Are you writing and drawing that?
CM: Just writing.
Is it a Blizzard project?
CM: This one is just on my own steam. It's kind of about the second American Civil War, very near future. An old soldier comes home seeking his identity as the nation is seeking its identity. It's just a totally different kind of trip than the super-fantasy or super-sci-fi stuff we've been doing at Blizzard. Every once in a while you need that pressure-release to just do something on your own.
What's your plan with the comic?
CM: Well, I want to get all the art done first. It's a twelve-issue gig, and we're still pushing through on that. I think [the artist is] drawing issue ten as we speak, and I've got the first few scripted.... I'd like to get it out before I have grandchildren one day. That would be stunning.
How does that kind of writing compare to your Blizzard work?
So with the comic, you're kind of naked?
CM: Yeah, you're totally exposed. I mean you're either very good or you're not.... Doing this comic, it's not checked and balanced by the guys closest to me here that are so good and will think of things that I'm not necessarily thinking about or serve as really good sounding boards when I've got these wild ideas pinging out of left field.
It's pretty weird to step out of that tribal space and have a voice, just heard cleanly. So yeah, I'm petrified. I'm petrified to put this comic out. But I know it's something I need to do, you know? I just get a kick out of it. I think it's cool. And people will either think it's cool or they won't.
Is there anything else you've learned in your years at Blizzard that you'd like to pass along?
CM: The thing that's striking as I look back over time, back at the kid who wanted to be the next George Lucas, the kid at nineteen who walked into Blizzard and wanted to be this story guy, the one thing I've learned overall is that I'm still that naive and I still want to be that George Lucas kind of dude, but more than anything else I've learned that it's not always about you. It may be in other mediums. But for interactive storytelling specifically, whatever I thought of my abilities or whatever I thought of my gumption or my need to achieve and be recognized, as I look back now, it's all about tribe.
Whatever ideas I'm trying to sell or themes that I think are just going to be brilliant or little story hooks or the way a certain character comes off, all that stuff is important. It's really important, and more often than not on these games, I've gotten in just about what I've wanted to get in. But what I've had to learn is you have to route it through the crew. You have to route it through your buddies. It makes for a better game. It makes for a better story. It makes for a better virtual experience. And I found that my ideas are ten times more refined having gone through the design process, as opposed to me just pushing them through to the detriment of the design process.
And I didn't expect that. I expected, when I was young and full of beans, that it was all about force of will or salesmanship. Or, if I'm being totally honest, "If I achieve a higher rank in the organization, then I'll be able to get my ideas through easier." And in truth it's never been about that. All of that's illusory....
It's frustrating up front every time. As a matter of fact, we're doing StarCraft 2 right now and yeah, my shoulders are tensing every few days just going, "Grrrrrr -- I've been working on this thing for ten months, and here come the designers weighing in." It gets tense. But I know because I've been through this many times over the past with every product, that when it comes out the other side it's going to be far better than I had ever imagined because all these people that I really respect are weighing in. And you get a product at the end of the day beyond your initial vision -- it's grown into this amazing thing. And that's the key I think to Blizzard's creative process and by extension my own because I learned it here.
So it takes a village?
CM: It does in our instance.... I don't know if I'd agree with it in terms of raising a kid, but I can tell you in terms of raising a video game, it does take a village. And maybe specifically it takes the right village.
We've all been doing this a long time and we get it and we have great chemistry and we share the same inside jokes. We all grew up together, this core team at Blizzard. And that's a big part of it. Could you do this process without that chemistry? I don't know. Is it something that's unique to Blizzard? Again, I don't know. I don't think so. I know that other companies have very large creative teams. By virtue of not having worked anywhere else, I can only speculate. But I know that that's absolutely part of our magic.
And as I've matured just as a dude and as a writer and as a world designer, I'm so happy that I came up in this environment where the free flow of ideas is as important as the ideas themselves. And that creates a very different story at the end of the day. So, you know, I'll never be Stephen King. And that's okay -- I get to be me. And by extension we get to be part of Blizzard.
Are there any semi-explicit rules or guidelines that Blizzard uses to foster that kind of environment?
CM: I don't know if there are rules explicitly, but there's kind of a code of conduct and it's kind of unspoken but it's really felt by everybody. "Don't be a dick," at the end of the day.... If you're a bull in a china shop, stepping on toes, bruising people with backhanded comments, and super aggressive with ideas without being sensitive to how this creative group is shaping and forming over time, you're going to be in trouble. I think our culture is built to not allow that kind of stuff....
At first you might think, "Oh well that sounds terrible." But I think when you work in a group like this and work as a creative team like this and you get over yourself as the center of the universe, the ideas sometimes come even easier -- coming to consensus about how to apply certain ideas comes even easier because you're all geeked up together. If you're forthright and earnest about an idea and you're not trying to crush people -- it's not about you, it's about the idea itself -- I think people respond to that, the purity of idea and the excitement behind it.
And more often than not, if you thought you would have to sell an idea through exercising ego or shutting people down or just being the loudest guy in the room, just your raw energy about an idea will geek them up. You don't have to sell as hard. You don't have to be this mega personality in the room, because it's about the thing itself, not about you. And I think that's part of that purifying fire. Not only is the idea purified, but your whole read behind the idea is too.
It's gets back into the whole artist thing, the creative process. How much is you, yearning to get out in these ideas or in this painting or in this dance move or whatever the creative expression is? How much is you? And how much is purely the joy of the idea? And that's a sliding scale. All the little eccentricities or funky ideas we throw out all day long, some of them are personality quirks. But some of them are just beyond you. And when you have a group that's firing and owning the creative process like we have here, those are the things that come to the surface. And you're all just sitting around slapping your heads going, "Oh my God, this idea has momentum beyond us -- beyond our will to see it made." It just becomes this ball of energy -- these different ideas just start singing. And everyone's nodding their heads going, "Wow, we're writing something here that's beyond even who had the idea in the first place."
It starts to sound almost spiritual -- the death of ego.
CM: Totally. I think the times that I look back on in my career that have been absolutely the most rewarding are not the times where my own personal ideas went through and were handled cleverly. That's wonderful. It makes me feel like a million bucks. Hey that scene worked, or that character really worked. I love that stuff. It just makes you feel really good that it seems to be working. But more often than not, the times or the themes or the ideas that I look back on and they just send a thrill through me -- like an actual chemical rush through my body - are when we're all jamming an idea, and we're looking around the table and everyone's just kind of smiling and just going "Dude, we can't hit the ground running fast enough on this idea." Because we own it as a group. We're just coming out of our chairs because it's so pure and it's so right and it's not just about the appeasement of ego, it's about, "Wow, this is going to make these kids flip out, right? The end-user is going to flip out."
[With interactive storytelling] the idea is bigger than just story. It's when story translates to stunning gameplay, and there's the visceral power of it, the hand-eye coordination part of it where it's not just you watching a movie -- you're moving through it, and it's peaking emotional reactions as you're clicking the friggin' mouse. That's where you know you've tapped into something beyond the individual. And it's off to the races.