The Hard-Won Wisdom of Bill Roper

Gamasutra managed to corner industry veteran Bill Roper for a five-page conversation about the projects he's worked on, the companies he's worked for, and what he's learned from it all over the years.
Was there anything specific as you got into World of Warcraft -- after the plenty years you'd been there at that point -- about MMO development? Were there specific lessons there that are different than the stuff you've been talking about? Because that's a longer process, and that's very different, creating a world...

BR: I didn't work a lot directly on WoW. By that point, I had moved up to Blizzard North and was working on Diablo II, D2X, and then working on projects before we left. World of Warcraft was never... I don't think any game at Blizzard, we never sat around and said, "Oh, we're going to sell six million copies of the game."

I remember with World of Warcraft distinctly at one point, sitting around at a strike team meeting, a director's team meeting, looking at how long the game had been in development, and everything was saying, "You know, we're going to have to get a million users. We're never going to make our money back."

It was a huge investment. And I think the reason why, to be honest, was that we were building an MMO the same way we built the multiplayer games. It was a game in every way on a completely different scale, but we approached it the same way we approached it the same way we approached everything else. So, that meant that we didn't have the best tools.

The key was oftentimes a lot of dedication brute force as opposed to automated testing sweeps. "Yeah, okay, we need to have 140 testers that would commune 24/7 in shifts." The development team size ended up being over 100 guys. Especially at the beginning of Warcraft, there was no transition to "Oh, we're making an MMO, and this is how you make those," because there really wasn't "the way you made those."

There was really two or three that had any level of success in the U.S. It's kind of crazy to think back to it, but when WoW was getting ready to come out, the biggest American-made -- or probably Western-made, even -- MMO was EverQuest.

And I think their top at one point was like 345,000 subscribers. And here we were talking about -- because of the way development had flowed, doing it like we'd done everything else -- we were like, "God, we've gotta have like triple."


Do you look at the Flagship experience as something that was really good and kind of went awry and "that's really sad"? Do you look at it as something that never really came together?

BR: That was some of my biggest highs and biggest lows in the industry. Things definitely were exciting and were really good about it, things that were ultimately big disappointments. Having to shut down a company was something I never had to do before.

It was a really dark time. It cost me a lot more than just the money we'd put into the company and things like that. It cost me a lot on a personal level with friends and loved ones that I wasn't able to keep in the process.

Since it was the first company that I'd run, I took it extremely personally. Now that I'm on the other side of it, I can look back at it and say, "Well, that's business; it happens. I'm not happy about it." I learned an amazing amount from the process. Those are things that I use everyday.