After Blizzard: The Big New AAA-to-Indie Exodus Is in Full Swing
At this year’s Summer Game Fest a new indie developer called Frost Giant Studios revealed its debut game, Stormgate, to the world. If you saw the cinematic trailer and thought, ‘Hey, that looks a bit like StarCraft’, then it will come as no surprise that Frost Giant is a studio largely made up of ex-Blizzard developers; a collection of people who stepped away from one of the most prolific studios in history to forge their own path.
On its own, that story of AAA-to-indie is somewhat commonplace in the games industry today. But Frost Giant is just one part of a bigger, separate picture. Over the past few years, dozens of people have departed Blizzard in pursuit of new dreams. Hearthstone director Ben Brode set up Second Dinner, and has just released superhero card game Marvel Snap. Warcraft, Hearthstone, and Diablo artist Glenn Rane stepped away to become a co-founder of Lightforge Games. Even Blizzard’s ex-president himself, Mike Morhaime, left the company he helped create to start Dreamhaven, a developer made up of two studios – Moonshot and Secret Door – and staffed by Blizzard alumni. It’s clear that, within the next few years, we’re going to see an explosion of games developed by Blizzard veterans who aren’t at Blizzard anymore.
We first explored these talent departures last year. Blizzard is at a crossroads; a multi-year dry period has seen its franchises slow down or become stagnant, and development teams have struggled in their pursuit of innovation. The ongoing nature of the developer’s games also means staff may work on the same project for over a decade, which can understandably lead to burnout. The result of this combination of factors was perhaps inevitably always going to be an exodus, but rarely does such an exodus result in the creation of quite so many new studios.
Of the many new ‘post-Blizzard’ studios, I’ve spoken to leaders from three; Frost Giant, Uncapped Games, and Notorious Studios. Each is approaching life after Blizzard in very different ways, but all seem united by their ability to thrive after being released from the enormously heavy shackles of Blizzard’s gargantuan IPs.
“We believe, fundamentally, that the RTS’ brightest days are still ahead,” says Tim Campbell, president of Frost Giant and Stormgate’s game director. A former Warcraft 3 developer, he’s teamed up with ex-StarCraft 2 production director, Tim Morten, to fulfil an ambition of creating something that doesn’t have to adhere to any existing lineage.
“There [were] certain expectations around what would come next,” says Morten, Frost Giant’s CEO, about life at Blizzard. “I think the ability to clean the slate is something that would’ve been very difficult to have if I was still at Blizzard.”
On paper, Stormgate shares much in common with StarCraft; it will have a campaign as well as a PvP mode, and support co-op play across the board. But Campbell sees Stormgate as an opportunity to not just introduce new design ideas, but to create a whole new universe, something Blizzard has famously been reticent to do.
“If you look at the big games that are released in the RTS space, they tend to be derivative games, sequels, licence-based, or things like that,” Campbell says. “And for us to have a chance to build something original, something new in this genre, is incredibly special.”
Chris Kaleiki, an ex-World of Warcraft developer and co-founder of Notorious Studios, also found the idea of working on something not already in Blizzard’s stable of established worlds alluring. “Our team are really people who love world-building,” he says. “Just having the chance to create our own game, our own IP, is an experience that not many people get in their lives.”
Notorious’ own game, currently known as Project Honor, is a class-based RPG that blends PvP and PvE together. Visually it’s classic fantasy – all D&D-style warriors and wizards – but Kaleiki has ambitions to refine what those roles mean. “We’re aspiring, almost, to make a new genre,” he explains.
That wish to create something that looks beyond what is available today is shared by David Kim, lead designer at Uncapped Games. He and his team are working on a “gameplay first” PvP real-time strategy game, something he tells me grew out of his wish to “[take] a shot at designing the next generation RTS.” But he wasn’t sure the opportunity to create such a thing was there while working on StarCraft 2, and later, Diablo 4.
“Do Blizzard see me as someone who can take on that responsibility?” Kim asked himself. “Does Blizzard have a desire to make a game such as this one that is led by my game design ambition?” Unsure that his bosses could offer him that chance, Kim left to find somewhere that would.
That place would end up being his own studio, Uncapped Games, and the project would be something counter to Kim’s experience on building Blizzard’s once-king of esports. “StarCraft 2 was, I think, made to be more fun to watch than fun to play,” he explains. “We want to make the opposite of that, where anyone can play. It’s just the most fun to play, and watching it is secondary.”
We require more minerals
Joined by numerous other former Blizzard developers, Morten, Campbell, Kim, and Kaleiki set up their studios to follow their dreams. Also interested in those dreams are investors; each of the three studios are receiving varying levels of financial support from parties interested in what Blizzard veterans can do when set free from the worlds of Warcraft and StarCraft.
“I didn’t realise what an amazing ecosystem had sprung up to enable new studios,” says Morten. “I came to discover that things had changed radically in the years that I had been at Blizzard, where previously it was very difficult for new studios to raise capital. And I think it was a very fortuitous alignment that where I was on my professional journey and this ecosystem of funding springing up enabled Frost Giant to begin.”
According to Ed Fries, a partner at gaming investment firm 1up Ventures, as of last year there were around 80 game-orientated venture funds, up from between 10 or 20 just a couple of years prior. 1up Ventures itself has invested in both Frost Giant and Lightforge, and so has clearly identified the value in Blizzard alumni. As our previous reporting discovered, investors are looking for experienced developers who understand how to establish and run a successful studio, and the Blizzard exodus is a goldmine for such talents.
Frost Giant recently received $25 million in funding, something that enables the team to “live up to the expectations that RTS players have coming out of what we’ve worked on before.” Notorious, meanwhile, is working on a smaller initial investment of $5 million, but also has support from Riot Games, 1up Ventures, and online content-creation company, OTK.
Uncapped, for its part, is in a very different position. Rather than remain an indie, the company is part of Tencent’s LightSpeed Studios.
“What’s cool about that is LightSpeed has support studios and teams who we can collaborate with,” explains Kim. “So this way we can keep the team much smaller than if we were to do a completely brand new start up.”
Kim notes that this situation has freed them of many financial concerns. He says LightSpeed’s CEO, Jerry Chen, tells Uncapped not to worry about money or resources, and just focus on development.
“Even if the game doesn’t make a lot of money, that’s secondary,” says Kim. It sounds like a utopian situation for a developer, and suggests that Tencent’s colossal profit margins barely stumble even if one of its studios struggles.
For Kaleiki, moving away from any kind of restrictive AAA structure was one of the key reasons for setting up Notorious.
“I always thought, at Blizzard, you have all these amazing creative people, but then they were being underutilised,” Kaleiki says. He tells me that, on the World of Warcraft team, roles were increasingly specialised, to the point where a designer may end up working solely on just the abilities of a specific class. “That’s something we hope not to import here,” he says, noting that keeping the Notorious team small will allow each staff member to creatively flourish across their multiple areas of interest.
That ties into Kaleiki’s ambitions for his studio’s hierarchy, or lack thereof. “We’re trying to aspire to do something with a flatter structure,” he explains. “Maybe the closest comparison is Valve. And so we are looking for employees who can self-manage their schedule. They can decide what to work on, what not to work on. They don’t need somebody sitting next to them, planning out what they’re doing day to day.”
But Kaleiki’s wish to follow Valve’s lead isn’t just about allowing creative freedom among staff. “A challenge with the traditional model of the studio, with the hierarchy and reporting to this person and whatnot, it’s all power structures, right? And so if we can try to aspire to have this flatter structure, we can dampen that. Perhaps [we can] reduce the occurrences of harassment and power dynamics like that.”
At Uncapped, Kim also fears toxicity in the workplace, so much so that “reasoning over ego” is one of the three team values the studio was founded upon. While Kim doesn’t explicitly mention the harassment allegations that rocked Activision Blizzard, the spectre of last year’s events hover above all of the studios with connections to the publisher.
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“Of course we want a completely different point of view than what we have currently within the team,” Kim says of Uncapped’s search for new talent. “But say that person is super toxic and it’s all high ego and no one can have a reasonable discussion with that person. That’s unacceptable. So we kind of draw the most clear line with [this] value.”
More than anyone I’ve spoken to, Kim is concerned about creating an environment free of office politics. “I just want [Uncapped] to be a place where [a member of staff] doesn’t need to make a personal sacrifice in order to chase after their dreams,” he says. “Where each team member is free to just focus on their area of expertise without having to worry about other factors such as internal politics, which exec is friends with which other person on the team – all this non necessary stuff – and just focus on the game.”
Frost Giant is adapting to modern workplace demands in a different way. It currently maintains a fairly traditional studio set-up in southern California, where all ten of its core leadership team are Blizzard veterans in one form or another. But it has also “embraced” remote work, and has an uncapped time-off plan with minimum vacation quotas. And as the studio recruits new members, the hope is to bolster diversity of both thought and culture.
“We’re building [Stormgate] in a way that we really want to develop an RTS for all,” says Campbell. “We really want this game to be something that, not just on the team side but on the content within our game, is inclusive, [with] in-house representation for different underrepresented groups.”
Notorious is similarly enthusiastic about bringing non-Blizzard staff into the fold. “We’re really excited to bring in people who didn’t come from Blizzard or that we never worked with, just because we just want to learn from new people, learn different skill sets… and really diversify our sort of way of thinking,” says Kaleiki.
Kaleiki recognises that he still has plenty to learn now that he’s shifted away from AAA. “Indie developers had almost kind of teased me,” he laughs. “‘Blizzard takes 10 years to make anything, how are you going to do that in a startup?’”
One of his current concerns is “noodling on something that isn’t going to work”, and so Notorious has opted to begin with mostly engineering work in order to ensure the mechanics of Project Honor are solid before duties on things like art and music ramp up. The simultaneous pipelines possible at Blizzard simply don’t work when the team is smaller and the risks higher.
Frost Giant also recognises the challenges of starting from scratch as an indie. “Yes, we get more creative freedom and yes, we get to follow our vision for what is going to be the most fun,” says Campbell. “But at the same time, it definitely brings that trade off of, ‘Hey, you don’t have a mature engine to rely on.’ So now you’re having to build more fundamental things first.”
Lessons from the frozen throne
But those challenges can be overcome, in part, thanks to something all three studios have in common: experience from Blizzard.
“I appreciated the emphasis that was put on really strong development tools [at Blizzard], not just for the team, but ultimately for being released to the community,” explains Campbell. “And so that’s something that we definitely have adopted and taken with us. We have invested [in tools] really early on in our development cycle.”
Unsurprisingly, Frost Giant also places a lot of value in the level of polish that Blizzard, for the most part, encouraged its staff to deliver. “Blizzard has a culture around playing the game that we’re working on as soon as and as often as we can,” says Morten. “That helps lead to that polish and quality and helps us see through player eyes. So that’s something that we’re also trying to adopt.”
Uncapped also hopes to deliver on the kind of mechanical quality that Blizzard is known for. “I would say StarCraft 2 is the most refined traditional RTS,” Kim says. “Where it stands out the most is things like the combat feel, the unit responsiveness when you’re controlling even hundreds of units in your army. It’s so top-notch. So I would say in terms of what we want to bring to our games, [it’s] those kinds of things.”
For Kaleiki, it’s the wealth of player understanding gained while working on World of Warcraft that’s one of the most valuable things he and his ex-Blizzard colleagues have brought to Notorious. “Our team is so plugged in to what the players want,” he says. “I think one thing that Blizzard has really been good at […] is understanding what the market wants. And so I like to think that we have some good sensibilities there.”
In each of these new studios, the impact of Blizzard looms large. Frost Giant Studios and Uncapped Games are both working on games that, on paper at least, bear the hallmarks of StarCraft 2’s greatest achievements. And in Project Honor, Notorious Studios may be attempting to create a new genre, but World of Warcraft’s MMO-defining class system is clearly the spark that lit the fire.
But while it’s tempting to think of these three studios as off-shoots of Blizzard, making Blizzard games under a different name, it’s clear that being free of the strict definitions of what Warcraft and StarCraft are – and how the teams behind them are structured – has allowed the creativity of these groups to flourish. It’s hard to imagine Blizzard freely greenlighting another universe, or radically changing its approach to RTS design, or allowing an entire team to shave away at its own hierarchy system.
In part, that’s because changing a gargantuan, shareholder-beholden machine is difficult. But by learning from the past and embracing the possibilities of indie-style development, these three studios — as well as the many others set up in the post-Blizzard exodus era — could well usher in an era of familiar creativity from beyond the walls of Activision-Blizzard.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.