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Blizzard’s Blitz: Classic Games, Movie, Xbox

Blizzard Entertainment Inc.’s evolving strategy is mixing a dose of the past with a dash of the future in the pending launch of a classic games division, more free content, new distribution channels, and a big push into Hollywood.

The latest shift comes as the video game maker has lost millions of online subscribers of its flagship World of Warcraft franchise over the past few years.

The classic games division at its Irvine headquarters might make a nice pairing with the recently announced movie studio established by its Santa Monica parent, Activision Blizzard Inc.

The local unit has job postings on its site for a senior software engineer and art supervisor “to help revitalize StarCraft, Warcraft III, Diablo II, and our catalogue of other classics” in an effort to “restoring them to glory.”

“StarCraft” was released in 1998, “Diablo II” in 2000, and “Warcraft III” in 2002. The games remain popular among fans, and it appears Blizzard wants to modernize them in some way.

“We need engineers to help maintain our legacy games,” the company told the Business Journal in an emailed statement without elaboration. “Our earlier games are still played and enjoyed today, so we want to continue to maintain them for those communities.”

Keep It Fresh

Meanwhile, Blizzard will release at least two games next year, including its first title geared for Xbox One. First-person shooter “Overwatch” will be distributed in the spring for Microsoft Corp.’s console, as well as for PlayStation 4 and PCs.

“We know how many Blizzard gamers love playing games on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4,” game director Jeff Kaplan said this month at the company’s annual BlizzCon fanfest at the Anaheim Convention Center.

The console game will cost $60, and a collector’s edition will be priced at $130 in a package that includes a full-color art book, soundtrack, and collectible statue.

A base digital version can be downloaded for $40.

“Overwatch” is the first new franchise in 18 years for Blizzard, the biggest Orange County-based software maker. The company took in $1.7 billion in revenue last year and employs an estimated 2,000 in Irvine.

The game, which allows players to team up and choose from an ever-growing cast of characters set in the not-too-distant future, was demoed at last year’s BlizzCon.

New features include a map of Hollywood, where gamers battle players on a dangerous movie studio tour, and three new characters: a ninja assassin, a pro gamer turned military “mech” expert, and a climate-manipulating scientist.

“Overwatch” will be Blizzard’s second game tailored for the PlayStation console. It released “Diablo III” in 2013 for the gaming system developed by Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

The online version of “Diablo III,” released in May 2012, sold 3.5 million copies in its first 24 hours on the market, breaking the record for the fastest-selling PC game.

The previous record of 3.3 million was held by another Blizzard title: “World of Warcraft: Cataclysm.”

The game maker will try to reverse a trend of declining online subscriptions when it releases “World of Warcraft: Legion,” the sixth WoW expansion pack, next summer. Those who prepurchase the game gain a character boost and early access to a new hero class, Demon Hunter.

A standard version will cost $50, and a deluxe edition, which includes in-game bonuses for WoW and other Blizzard titles, will cost $70. Players pay $15 a month for updated online content.

Subscribers

Blizzard has lost more than 4.5 million subscribers since the end of last year, with anecdotal evidence suggesting the fifth expansion pack, “Warlords of Draenor”—released last November to sizzling sales numbers—didn’t hold the attention of its loyal-but-critical fan base.

The company lost another 100,000 subscribers in the third quarter and is down to about 5.5 million, the lowest in years. The drop came as a bit of a surprise, considering the June release of added content “Fury of Hellfire.” That means players either already consumed it or simply moved on to other forms of entertainment.

The company has made up for some of the revenue loss with the release of two free-to-play titles.

The collectible card game “Hearthstone” is a hit with the Blizzard faithful, topping more than 30 million users since its March 2014 release. The game is estimated to bring in more than $40 million per quarter through gamers’ purchases of special card sets and accessories to boost performance.

The company this month released a new Hearthstone adventure, “The League of Explorers,” which allows players to purchase four new game locations in one bundle for $20, one location at a time for 700 in-game gold tokens, or $7 apiece. One location will be unveiled per week, with a one-week break over Thanksgiving.

Its other free title, the online brawler “Heroes of the Storm,” is also played by millions, who choose characters from the Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo franchises.

The game was the centerpiece of Blizzard’s first major gaming competition targeting college students.

The Heroes of the Dorm finals was broadcast in April on ESPN2. Winners received free tuition for the remainder of their schooling.

Silver Screen Blockbusters?

Blizzard’s franchise blockbusters could provide more compelling storylines for the big screen and television with Activision Blizzard’s newly established in-house film and television studio devoted to creating original content from its extensive library of iconic characters and video games, which include “Call of Duty,” “Skylanders,” “Diablo,” “Hearthstone” and “StarCraft.”

The company will get an early gauge of the studio’s potential in June when “Warcraft” hits movie theaters. The local unit developed the full-length movie adaptation with Burbank-based Legendary Pictures LLC. Universal Pictures is the distributor.

“2016 is going to be a really amazing year for Blizzard Entertainment,” Chris Metzen, senior vice president of story and franchise development, said to thousands of cheers during BlizzCon’s opening ceremony.

Metzen, who’s been with Blizzard for more than two decades, has created many of the fictional universes and characters in the company’s three franchise hits: WoW, Diablo and StarCraft.

Activision has already picked “Skylanders” for its first production and plans to develop a cinematic feature based on the “Call of Duty” franchise.

Blizzard’s iron-gated campus in the Irvine Spectrum could double as a Hollywood studio and its games employ as much talent as any box office release, from writers, lighting directors and sketch artists to composers and voice actors.

A game’s release often includes a cast of hundreds. Plot lines, dialogue and scene settings run thousands of pages long—all key components to winding narratives and character development.

The cinematics department, one of the largest at Blizzard with more than 150 people, is considered the tops in the industry and is divided into modeling, animation, lighting and effects.

Process

Their work, all done in Irvine, begins with a storyboard detailing a scene or segue in the game that begs for dramatic effect.

The mock-ups, or “animatics,” are then handed off to preproduction, a group consisting of modelers, concept artists, animators and other personnel who devise quick 3-D renderings.

Animations are delivered to the lighting department, which takes the digital artwork and adds interactive effects for real-time applications.

The effects department adds bells and whistles, like explosions, magical spells, cosmic trails or laser beams.

The lighting department takes all the compilations and brings them together in the final frames.

The creative side is made up of sound designers and engineers, composers, directors, musicians and others. The production side handles planning, scheduling and logistics.

The voice-over team is charged with casting actors, preparing character summaries for them, and sending inquiries to casting agents—a delicate dance, since Blizzard keeps games under wraps until they’re near release.

It’s all part of Blizzard’s game-release strategy that’s been honed in dozens of launches over the past two decades.

“When Blizzard releases a game, it’s only the beginning,” Chief Executive Michael Morhaime said at BlizzCon. “We want them to be the best they can be.”

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