What’s the most addictive MMORPG you can think of? Of course it’s World of Warcraft (apologies if you thought of something else!) This week we present to you veteran WoW designer and Blizzard legend Craig Morrison! We do like our British exports and Craig’s no different being a Scot tearing things up in sunny California. Hopefully we’ve done enough so he’ll invite us over, ha ha! Here are his answers to our questions in a lot of depth, unfiltered. Enjoy!
What were both your earliest and fondest memories of playing video games while growing up?
One of the first times I got to travel abroad I was pretty young, just six years old, and we went from my home in Scotland to Florida. They had these alien things called ‘arcades’! I had never seen anything like it. I spend many of my parent’s quarters playing Centipede. My first experiences at home were on an old BBC Micro, and I remember games like Ravenskull fondly. I also started making games pretty early. My parents always encouraged our creativity so I remember them buying us this magazine in the mid-80s that gave you parts of the program in BASIC each issue, so you could learn to code yourself. It was called Input, I still remember some of the games it had you make!
How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first ever game you worked on?
I worked on mods well before I got to make games professionally. The first game I got into seriously in terms of the mod scene for was the original MechCommander. I then got really hooked in by Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights. It was after that exposure to the Aurora Engine that they shipped for player mods and content, that I really started to understand that I might be able to make games for a living. At the same time, I was writing about games for IGN as an Associate Editor, after doing some fan site work in the early days of MMOs. That opened up opportunities to meet developers, go to things like E3 (and ECTS back in the day for those UK folk with long enough memories!), which lead to the opportunity to join Funcom in Oslo, Norway, where I started as a community manager.
The first games I got to work on there were Dreamfall, and Anarchy Online. The first retail boxed game I shipped was the PC and Xbox versions of Dreamfall. The first game I graduated onto design for was on Anarchy Online.
Dreamfall was a hugely respected and groundbreaking game at the time. What was your exact role on this title?
I can’t take much credit there. I started at Funcom with about a year to go on Dreamfall. I was responsible for the community site, helping with marketing, and I worked on the game manual, because in those days you still had actual manuals with games!
It was a fantastic learning experience though, as I got to dive straight into the closing stages of a project. I got to see exactly what it takes to get a game project over the finish line.
Do you think there is now room for a brand new Dreamfall title, and if so, which direction do you think the game should in?
I love the characters and world that the team created for The Longest Journey universe, and that they extended with Dreamfall, and later Dreamfall Chapters from Red Thread Games. (which was founded by the original creative director Ragnar Tornquist.)
I really hope we get to see more of that universe from the folks at Red Thread. I think what they do with it next, will depend on what type of story they want to tell. Those games have always been about the characters first and foremost, so whatever format of game they choose would have to remain true to that.
Age of Conan was another successful game you worked on. Are you a fan of the Conan films and what was it like to work on this great series?
It was an honor for me. I’d always been fascinated by the character. My first exposure to Conan was actually the Roy Thomas Marvel comics, and I didn’t see the movies until much later. My experience on Age of Conan was a great one personally, albeit a challenging one. For me it was an opportunity to step up into a creative leadership role for the post launch releases, and work with a large team of fantastic developers. On Anarchy Online our team had been relatively small, twenty people or so. On Conan I had to step up to fronting a team of over two hundred and fifty developers.
I have always been drawn to the MMO genre because of two things, the community inherent in online games, and the world building that goes into creating these massive virtual worlds. To get to try to craft areas of Hyboria only hinted at, or described vaguely in text, and bring them to a fully realized life is quite something.
The franchise team that own the Conan license are also great folk. They care deeply about that world, and we had a wonderfully collaborative relationship with them which I treasured.
How did you get the opportunity to work at Blizzard and were you a fan of their games before you applied?
I think it would be hard to have been a fan of the MMO genre and not have been a fan of World of Warcraft at some stage! My relationship with Blizzard games went far further back. I first played Orcs and Humans when it came out and was a massive fan of the early RTS games. I also had a huge soft spot for the Lost Vikings!
Then I played a lot of World of Warcraft. Honestly, I didn’t even see them as ‘competition’ for our MMOs as it was such a massive thing, that ‘beating it’ was a silly notion. I saw their success as an amazing thing for the genre, as it brough so many more people into it.
So I had always respected Blizzard as a studio whose games merged great game-play with wonderful storytelling.
In terms of my personal path to Blizzard. One of their recruiters met me at PAX back in 2012 I think, where I had been speaking about MMOs on a stage panel. They had a project in the works back then that they thought I might be a fit for. That was the project called ‘Titan’. After a lengthy and deep interview process, which was all kinds of weird for me because it was hard to contain the fanboy in me. Interviewing with the folks that made some of my favorite games down the years! I distinctly recall the surreal experience of part of my interview evolving (devolving?) into a discussion of which Warhammer 40k armies we were currently painting with Dustin Browder and Jay Wilson.
I was hired to be the Design Manager on Titan, but then the project was cancelled prior to me starting (I was waiting for my work visa). That then prompted one of the experiences that really sold me on Blizzard as a company I wanted to work for. Technically I hadn’t started yet. They had no legal responsibility to me. They could have just said ‘sorry, the job is no longer there’, but they didn’t. They flew me down to California again, and asked if I was interested in doing the same job, but for this other game called ‘ World of Warcraft’. I didn’t hesitate.
That experience has always stuck with me, and I think speaks to Blizzard’s character. They put people first wherever possible, even in a challenging moment.
What is your exact role at this iconic company?
For my first six years at Blizzard I served as the Design Manager for World of Warcraft. This entails running the design department on what is a large team. I worked with the creative leads and the producers to ensure our designers were happy and had everything they need to succeed. I was the hiring manager for the team, and generally tasked with helping to keep things running smoothly.
It’s a role not many studios have, and I genuinely believe should be embraced more. It is someone whose sole focus is the people rather than the specifics of the design. They are there to prevent issues from becoming critical ones and can keep a long-term view. That is important in game development because often our challenges are often immediate and screaming in our faces, but the best long-term solution is not always the easiest immediate one. Think of it as almost an internal Devil’s Advocate for the team, whose job is all about asking the right questions to the other leads on the team.
Now I’m working as a Principal Designer on the World of Warcraft team. That means I’m responsible for one of the new features for the next World of Warcraft expansion, Shadowlands, which is due out later this year! After six years in a purely management role, it was time to refresh the design muscles.
I firmly believe that you should keep as many of your skills as relevant as possible. After too long in one role you risk that being the only thing people ever ask you to do. I prefer to flex and challenge myself to avoid ever getting stuck in a rut. Working in MMOs is often different to the rest of the industry in terms of time scales! I’m over fifteen years in now and have only worked at two studios, so you must be a little more proactive about finding the opportunities to keep growing as a developer since you’re not on the same release cadence as other developers.
Besides, to get to do some of the world building I love so much again was impossible to resist! It also helps getting to work with such a talented group of developers. The team on World of Warcraft here at Blizzard is packed with exceptional developers, so it makes the collaboration required on these massive games genuinely fun.
Why do you think World of Warcraft is still so loved today?
The two things I mentioned above about MMOs really. The community around the game, and in the case of Azeroth, some of the most amazing world building in our industry.
We often like to say that Azeroth is the most important character in the game, and that really hits at the essence of it. It is such a compelling place to explore, all hand crafted by some ridiculously talented artists, and filled with wonderful stories and characters.
It is a home as well. A home for all our players, and a place they hold dear. It is this place that has been the backdrop for the forging of so many lasting relationships among our community that it can’t help but maintain a certain magnetism.
From a design perspective I also think it is vital that we have continued to evolve the design and innovate with the MMO systems. We don’t just churn out ‘more of the same’ every expansion. We try to craft something that is both familiar and new. Many games lapse into the ‘just deliver more content’ mode after a while, whereas we think of it more as evolving the entire experience. The audience changes over time, and their wants and desires shift as they do, so we must account for that with our design.
It remains distinctly ‘wow’, but at the same time provides a different experience for our players than they got out of the previous expansion. It is an interesting design challenge, as you must maintain a certain amount of familiarity and ‘feel’, while also pushing boundaries and doing new things.
What do you believe are the key ingredients in making a successful and memorable video game and what are your main influences?
For me games are all about fulfilling a fantasy for the players in an interactive way. Finding ways to infuse an experience with agency, so that the player gets drawn into the world or story you are creating.
The beauty of games is that you can achieve this in a myriad of different ways, through systems, through narrative, through art and sound design, through any number of mediums or platforms. So the challenge for me is always distilling your intention down to specific design philosophies so that you know what your end goal is. I see way too many projects flounder because they don’t have a set vision for what their game truly is.
So whenever you set out to make a game, you have to a vision for the experience you want the player to have. Any number of systems, pieces of content, or characters, are pointless if you don’t know what you want the player to experience or feel.
Influences? Far too many to list here or it would be an entire article in itself! I think though it is important to state clearly that your inspirations and influences should not just begin and end with video games. (Let alone a single genre!)
If you want to be a designer, you should be a consumer of as wide a variety of creative and design mediums as possible. Literature, theatre, cinema, architecture, music, art or photography, all of these things can, and should, influence you. They can all teach you something about design or provide creative inspiration.
If I had to list a quick personal shortlist of ‘Most Influential’ creative folks, it would probably include Neil Gaiman, Satoshi Kon, Haruki Murakami, Hitchcock, Syd Mead, Rodney Matthews, and David Bowie.
Why do you feel Blizzard has been so successful and loved across the globe for so many years?
Staying true to our values.
Blizzard was founded by a group of folks who just wanted to create games they wanted to play. While the company has obviously grown massively, it still manages to hold those ideals to heart. We work hard on maintaining those elements of our culture. I think that passion then comes through, and is reflected in the games, in large ways and small, and that is picked up on by the fans.
Our games are created with a genuine passion, and a desire to entertain and excite first and foremost, and I think that shows through in the finished games.
Anyone who has been in games long enough knows what it is like to work on a team where a certain percentage of the team might not be especially passionate about the game they are making. Professional sure, but they don’t care in the same way. At Blizzard I find that almost everyone has a genuine love of the games we make, so we all hold each other to high standards because we care about the results both as players as well as developers.
Alongside making a huge mark in the video game industry, you also teach Game Design at the University of California. How did this amazing opportunity arise and has teaching always been a big motivation for you?
It wasn’t something I had planned on at all. In all honesty I wasn’t the best of students in my day, so teaching wasn’t something that I had even thought about. Turns out I really enjoy it!
It came about because Blizzard already had a mentor program running with the University of California here in Irvine (UCI) and I got involved with that first. After chatting with the professors as they built up their game program, we were asking about how they were teaching design fundamentals (as opposed to the comp-sci side of things, which was well covered). It turned out that was an area they were looking to add to their program. Initially they asked if we could advise on what kind of class to run and what kind of instructor to look for. After a short while they came back and asked if I would be willing to do it.
It was indeed a fantastic opportunity, so I was eager to take the chance. Blizzard were also great about supporting me in the endeavor and gave me permission to do this little bit of moonlighting!
Can you run us through a few key areas you teach in your course and how does this job compare to your work at Blizzard?
We’re about to head into the fifth year of the class I teach, so I’ve been able to evolve the class each year as I learned more about what works well and what doesn’t.
What I want to impart to students most of all surrounds the importance of developing good creative collaboration skills. Therefore, much of my class is built around workshops that are designed to get folks moving beyond simple, functional co-operation, and into genuine creative collaboration.
Aside from the rarest of auteurs, games these days are a collaborative process, and the skills required to collaborate well are often something that academia don’t always cover. Given the focus at university is often on learning technical skills, it is an area that can get neglected.
So, in my class I try to put a focus on developing those collaboration skills. We don’t use computers at all for my specific class. It is all practical, paper prototyping, work. I prefer to focus on design fundamentals and get students thinking about creativity and how that interacts with collaboration.
The class is workshop based, so I run ten three-hour sessions that are a mix of practical, hands on work, with discussion and interactive lessons. The students also create a card game in groups over the span of the ten-week class. We go through the process from pitch, to prototype, to creating a final playable form for evaluation in the final week.
The students get more than enough practice at the technical, computer science skills, in their other classes, so I want to focus them more on a holistic, creative, and collaborative, learning experience.
How do you successfully balance both roles?
The folks at UCI have been fantastic about scheduling the class in a way that can be balanced with my responsibilities at Blizzard. As I mentioned above, my class is workshop based, so given it’s one block, rather than a series of hour-long lectures, that means I can run it once a week after I’m done with my day at Blizzard.
The two roles compliment each other, so I think I’d be poorer for choosing one over the other. I certainly couldn’t teach for long the way that I do without maintaining a first-hand knowledge of the industry. Likewise, getting to teach is a great way to give back. The students have such a passion for getting into games, that it serves as a great reminder for old fogies like me!
Could you share any key advice to anyone looking to enter the video game industry?
I can! In fact, I get asked that question so much I created a website for just that purpose!
Over the years of answering that question many hundreds, if not thousands of times, I started to compile helpful links and advice on my personal blog.
As more people reached out and asked, and I collected more links, I eventually decided to create the website. The intention is that it is a simple, one-stop, shop for some sound advice for starting out making games. It’s just a way to help you explore whether you want to try making games for a living.
It is not intended as any kind of a commercial venture, or training program. It’s just some advice, and a collection of helpful links to materials that already exist, scattered across the winds of the wonderful world wide web.
It’s honestly never been easier to start making games, and the site is just designed to help nudge you in the right direction!
There are so many cool tools available to folks starting out now that I would have loved to have had twenty-five years ago when I started making games!
What are your views on the video game industry today compared to when you first started?
I love the games industry because change is constant.
I love that all the attempts to predict ‘The Next Big Thing’ are usually totally wrong, and the massive, industry defining, titles and changes often catch people off guard.
In terms of cultural reach, No one saw World of Warcraft coming, no one saw Minecraft coming, no one saw Fortnite coming, even though they were there out in the open. Players decide what the ‘Next Big Thing’ is, and it is usually a surprise. I love that!
I think one of the other massive shifts is the scale of the industry, the number of studios, large and small, and how getting into the industry has changed. When I started, I don’t think any schools or universities taught game design or game development.
No one studied to make games in those days, we just ended up doing it somehow, through a variety of different paths. Now people set out with a career goal of becoming a game developer. It’s not better or worse, but it is different. It is also a lot more competitive!
I think I’m kind of an optimistic idealist at heart, so I like to see what the future brings, and I love seeing what the next generation of developers are coming up with.
Can you share with our readers any future games and projects you are working on?
I’m currently hard at work on the next expansion for World of Warcraft, called Shadowlands, which is due later this year.
I’m also working on expanding https://www.startmakinggames.com/ a little with more resources. As the site has started to get a little more known, more folks offer links and things that helped them, so I try to go through them all, and then add in the best ones. It is something I hope to continue to develop as a resource for folks who want to give Game Development a try!
Out of all the games you have worked on, which game are you most proud of and why?
Honestly, I’m proud of them all in different ways. Each teaches you something. I’m even really proud of some of the work that went into games that didn’t even end up being made (and that I can’t even talk about due to pesky NDAs and such)
Making games is hard. So any finished, shipped, game, is worth being proud of in some way, shape, or form.
What are your personal top 3 video games of all time and can explain why?
I always refuse to list games I worked on when asked this question, so I’ll park my love for all the MMOs I have contributed to. My favourites often change, as I have a hard time evaluating games across platforms and time. That said three that stick with me would be…
Captive on the Amiga. This game blew my mind when I first played it. An old dungeon crawler where you played four robots that travelled around procedural dungeons trying to rescue yourself (the idea was you were remotely controlling these robots to break yourself out of prison). It’s dated now, but at the time it ignited all kinds of thoughts about what games could be!
The Civilization games (all of ‘em down the years really). It is such a great, understandable, fantasy that is executed so well. If I had to pick one of the series though it might not be from the main Civ games, but rather Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. That was peak Civ for me.
The Final Fantasy series. I love the way this series evolves and constantly offers something different, but philosophically and thematically familiar. No, I’m not going to rank them, but my personal favorites would probably be XII and X2.
If you could step inside any of the games you have worked on and live there for a day, which game would you choose and why?
If the last question was hard. This one is damn near impossible for me having worked on some absolutely amazing worlds.
Let’s see … Hyboria is a bit dangerous, so I’d probably skip that one. Creative types didn’t seem to last long in the world of Conan.
My first love in terms of virtual worlds will always be the planet Rubi-Ka from Anarchy Online, but if push came to shove, I would have to choose Azeroth. That has been my home away from home for over fifteen years now both as a player, and a developer.
Did you ever start work on any games that were never released and if you could release any of these game today, which would you choose and why?
I did, and I would. I really, really, would in a couple of cases, but I’m not allowed to talk about any of them for various reasons! Pesky NDAs again.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character, who would you choose and why?
Knowing me it would totally be an obscure side character from an RPG because I would want to quiz them about the world they inhabit. It’s not all about slaying the dragon or saving the princess.