The Art of Blizzard: Chris Metzen Discusses Blizzard's Past and Future Games

The Art of Blizzard: Chris Metzen Discusses Blizzard's Past and Future GamesBlizzard veteran Chris Metzen

So you've been involved with all of these franchises for a long time. What are we celebrating with this book?

That us knuckleheads have survived for twenty years. Actually that's kind of it. Let me unpack that. So the book's killer. It's a long time coming, and we're very, very happy with it. And ultimately, you know, everybody puts out art books. And it's chock full of crazy, hundreds of images. It's a cool art book. They did a great job. But, like, when we thumb through this thing I think the real purpose of it was—if we never sold a copy—is just doing that memory lane thing and looking at the kind of unique tradition, in our shop, of illustration, and just kind of the kooky kids we were back in the 90s as we kind of started all this.

It actually really hit me when we were going through—we had decided to do an art book and we were sitting around this big table. It was Sam Didier, Nick Carpenter and myself, and we were just trying to vet the images, right? Like which ones do we pull, which ones are cool, or, you know, this one's expected, this one, you know, "Hey man, you did that on a cocktail napkin. We can't put that in there." And we just started talking about the book. We started talking about the images. And suddenly we're laughing and we're talking smack and we're like, "Oh man, I can't believe you—you know, look at that pose! What were you thinking?" You know? And we just started laughing, and suddenly—with all the complexities of our day jobs these days—it's 20 years on, and Nick's now running the cinematics department, I'm working on the world teams, Sammy's doing two games at once right now—you know, the All-Stars and Starcraft 2—you know, we don't get together and hack it up all that much, as much as we used to. And it was funny just looking at these old drawings, and we fell right back into it [snaps] like it's 20 years ago. And for me, flipping through this book, like, it's about that. It's about, like, "How the hell did all this happen?" And the joy of just being illustrators and being artists and coming up in the 90s and working on, you know, the original Warcraft games and Starcraft and all sorts of games, as a matter of fact, that never came out. We were actually pretty productive in the 90s. It was just so joyous.

And I think all three of us really felt a unique kind of like "Wow." You know, like, just kind of remembering how much you loved it back then. How much we still love it now, but appreciating how it's all changed. Now these worlds have grown, and all these new kids have come in and just really taken the ball and just run. It's that perspective too. I think the three of us felt a particularly kind of, like, paternal pride in looking at this collection of work. You know, one way or another we all got to be part of the, you know, the initial big bang of all these things. And just this whole new generation of artists is just defining these worlds and these ideas that we didn't have the balls to go as far as they have gone in the worlds. It's really staggering. The art book to us is very, very special. It's like this weird time capsule.

So there's a lot of nostalgia to it.

Oh, dude, massive. We're probably all very touchy-feely [laughing]. Big saps, anyway. But it's really amazing to look at.

How recent does the art in the book get?

It gets pretty recent. All the way up through—there's plenty of pieces from Pandaria, from—I don't think any recent recent Diablo, but Diablo 3 certainly, and plenty of Starcraft concepts.

Over those two decades and all those games do you see a big shift in the art?

Oh yeah. I mean, you can tell there's values there. You know, Sammy's style was always just hyper-proportionate, hyper-colorful, you know, kind of those first few Warcraft games—big giant red spiky shoulderpads. To some degree a lot of that aesthetic is still there, but it's just been taken through the roof. Warcraft's an interesting franchise, where you've had a number of art directors, you know—Bill Petras, Justin Thavirat—Chris Robinson has been driving for a while—and to watch each of these guys really interpret World of Warcraft, in the kind of character-defining ideas and the world-defining ideas and the palettes and the architecture and all of these layerings of visual world design, and interpret them, you know, on their own, such that they can lead a team of, you know, 50 to 100 guys at any given time but still find a way to hold that continuity down through the center, you know, almost echoing back to the 1994 or whatever it was—93, 94—when Sam kind of shaped that first Warcraft game. I still see it. There's a lot more detail, there's a lot more nuance, but there's still those roots in the water.

Do you think things were better back then or do things just keep getting better and evolving?

I think it's absolutely better now. I think it's better now because it's informed by more super-passionate voices. Actually, I don't know if I'd say it's better. I appreciate it a lot more now. I didn't appreciate it as a kid, because we were moving at 600 miles an hour making VIDEO GAMES MAN! You know, running down the halls with Nerf guns and just chasing our dream. But now that I see with all these kids, you know, piling in and really shaping it with their instincts. A lot of the artists we have in the shop now—it's even crazy to say—came up playing Warcraft games, right? So they internalize things in a way that—we were just expressing ourselves. It wasn't institutional religion to us back in the day. It was—the craftsmanship of it was—but we didn't understand what we were building at the time. Not at any level of deep nuance. But a lot of our staff now, like, a lot of these are really leading artists, like, really internalize this art. It made them feel a certain way and so it kind of shaped the way that they would illustrate and define worlds. And so that fresher blood I think produces a really interesting texture ultimately to all three of these franchises. The perspective on that is very staggering and very humbling.

You never imagined it would get to that point?

Well, it's like we never really had time to just sit and imagine, you know? We always go back to World of Warcraft. There's some commercial component to all this, you know, the scale of your game, and the number of people that are playing, that the amount of passion and energy and mindshare that goes into that. You know, back in the day in the games industry, you'd sell X amount of copies of a game, and like, we didn't care necessarily how much it sold. I mean, it sounded great, and it sounded like we'd have a job next week, but we were just chasing the ideas. We were chasing the vibe. Just geeking out. Ultimately, effectively no different from playing D&D campaigns with our friends, right? We'd still be drawing the same pictures, of your character, of this guy's character, doing "Oh, this is when you got your head stuck in the wall using the teleport spell!" We'd be drawing the same pictures. But suddenly these guys are paying us to do that, right? But in our hearts it was still the same process of just relating and jamming and being artists. And so I remember very specifically when, I think, World of Warcraft started just blowing up and just, you know, millions of people—I couldn't believe it! Couldn't believe it.

Even after the success of Diablo and everything else?

Even after the success—I mean still, I look back and it's been something like eight years—still can't believe it. But there was a turn in the road where now we kind of look at it like, "Wow, there's millions of people playing, we should really—like, are we paying attention enough? Are we being responsible? Are we really thoughtfully—" And so there's a balance there of remembering that you have an audience to serve, and they have their own instincts and expectations and wants and desires. But we're still artists, right? We're still trying to say something through all this goofy stuff.

And it's not just pay-to-play—well, sorry, the game mechanic is, but in terms of the creative process—"Hey, son, I need you to draw four green dudes with spears," and that's your assignment—like no, we're still kind of seeking that specter of expression. We still gotta believe it. We still have to love it. We still—because ultimately if that passion isn't coming through, if it doesn't come through the textures, the modeling, or the environment, or the whatever—if it doesn't come through, if you don't believe in what you're doing, you don't feel some level of ownership of what you're doing, the end user is going to feel that. And I think we've done really well over the years to kind of hold onto that and somehow maintain that. That I think even in our most recent games—I mean, you can't argue that there's a bunch of very passionate people slugging it out, you know? We don't put out perfect products, and we never try. But we try to put out products that we're super passionate about. And when I apply that to art, that's why I say—was it better back in the day, is it better now?—like, man, I don't know, I see all that passion still today, you know? There's just newer faces.

Tell me about a few pieces in the art book that have a good story behind them, that you're particularly proud of or happy to show off.

Well, I'll tell you in general, there's a number of singular ones, but what geeks me up about this book in particular is that the last chapter—and I got a couple zingers in there that I'm very, very pleased about—there is photographic evidence that I used to draw for this company, which I'm very pleased about—but the last chapter is a lot of illustrations from games we never published, that we've never talked about, never, you know, had never kind of rolled them out to the public. And when we were putting this book together I'm like, I'd really like the opportunity for us to, you know, get some of these images out. We'll never chase these ideas down. You know, it's highly unlikely that we'll ever chase these games again, but I love this testament. We were a pretty productive little art group in the 90s. You know, we were hooking ideas and worlds and stories like left and right.

So since the book is out you can tell me about some of that.

So one of them was really fun, was a game called Bloodlines.

And this has never been talked about?

Never been talked about. And Nick Carpenter and I were—we were the team. We had all sorts of story docs, we're going at, like, terrible pencil-and-paper level design, you know, levels laid out, whole missions of the game and weapons systems. Nick was in there, it was just when everyone started jumping on 3D Studio—it wasn't even 3ds Max yet—it was just 3D Studio, the crudest 3D program we had. But he's over there building robots and building cyborgs, and it was kind of like a world of, like, space vampires, you know? And like different clans of them fighting for contention. And it was just—it was just kick-ass. It was just a purely unadulterated 90s franchise idea, right? And it never really—what happened was Starcraft came out, like a heart attack, and it was all hands on deck. We jumped on Starcraft and I think I translated a lot of those ideas onto Starcraft. But it just—looking at those pictures just takes me straight back to that time where everything just felt so limitless. We were just free to just chase ideas, you know, before these three prime franchises really became, you know, what the company is.

Do you think Blizzard can still branch out into something completely different?

I certainly think we could if we wanted. I think this place represents, I mean, just the top of the rocket in terms of talent. I mean, forget art, right? Just technologists and design and just, our musicians, engineers, you know, we have some of the most talented people in the world, and if we wanted to shake it up we could go crazy, right? Right now our docket's a little full, but it'll be interesting to see in the next couple years what ideas start to pop and what vectors we might choose. Because it really did—the story really did become about these three franchises, you know? Certainly for the past decade or so. But you know, you never know with this group. You never know what we might chase next, and I think there's a lot of highways still.

So what do you guys have planned for tonight? There's a shitload of people lined up outside.

Really? It's freezing outside. That's terrible.

So they really want to be here. What do you think they're going to enjoy the most tonight?

Oh man, I don't know. I think—some of these images we chose are very famous, you know, so a lot of the players that showed up, they'll see images that they resonate with, that they've seen a lot. but the thing I get a kick out of is a lot of our concept art that they might not have seen—you know, a lot of those kinds of sketches that might have been hidden in the back of a manual somewhere 15 years ago. I get a kick out of that, kind of the less-seen visions or whatever. And just seeing, just to talk to people, and see, like, does that resonate, you know? Like, "Oh, I never saw it before but I totally get it," right? "That reminds me of this idea in the game," and like, "Oh! Totally! That's where that came from!" I love that. I love the process of just identifying with a picture and what it says to you, where it takes you, what it reminds you of, what do you associate it with? I love that part of art and talking about art. And I love that part of this book. I like that it's chock full of things that weren't necessarily widely distributed or whatever. Some of our art these days, you know, if it's a very key piece, like, you know, it'll be all over internet banners and we'll maximize the use of this and that at a commercial level. But it's always the art that's just under the surface that doesn't get all that much play, and I guarantee you it's those pieces that just resonate, right? Because they're just pure idea. They're not necessarily the best pieces, but it's just pure idea.

So you're going to be hanging around talking to fans?

Oh yeah, totally, talking to people and just, you know, engage. We don't get all that many opportunities to. We missed BlizzCon this year, so, you know.

And you have such a ridiculously massive fan base. Is it weird getting to interact with people face-to-face?

I wouldn't call it weird at all. It's killer. I mean, even in a way, even things like BlizzCon that are really big in scale, I mean, ultimately it's just small points of interaction. If you walk around, it's like, "Hey, you know, how's it going?" You know, we're all the same geeks. Guaranteed, on Wednesday night, you know, we're all watching potentially the same stuff, reading the same books, so it's always killer just meeting the people one on one, and I think we're the type of company that really, like, we need that connectivity with our player base. Ultimately we're all gamers too and it is huge being able to talk to people, like, on the real, you know, about what they really thought about this or that, what they really thought about the product, how they're feeling about it, if they're having fun, what they thought about, you know, a piece of art or a design choice.

So you like getting that feedback?

Have to have that feedback. Have to have that feedback. We're a really tight company. We work on these big three franchises, and we're all down there in Irvine, and in some ways you run the danger of feeling like a closed bubble sometimes. We all jam with each other. We all grew up with each other, you know. So getting out and really having that engagement and that discourse with the people that are really, really playing the game and really paying 15 bucks a month and really, really live it, we have to have that lifeline to understand how it ultimately is coming off. And we are accountable. I mean, more than accountable. I think we want that engagement and we want to jam. We're all geeks, right? So I love stuff like this. I love nights like tonight. It's just very real and very cool and very casual. I just want to see people geek out, you know? Like "What do you think of this?" "Well, actually I thought its shading was terrible," like, "Ah, damn, that's mine!" You know? But that's classic, you know? I love it.

Thanks so much, Chris!

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Tags: blizzard, the-art-of-blizzard-entertainment, world-of-warcraft, starcraft, diablo
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