Mike Morhaime was quite enjoying not having a job, for a while. Almost three decades after co-founding the company that would become Blizzard Entertainment – steering it through multi-billion dollar acquisitions, and releasing some of the best-loved games of all time – he finally had time to focus on other things for a while.
After he and his wife Amy (who was vice president of Blizzard eSports) left the company, they’ve been able to travel, to relax, to consider projects they simply didn’t have time to complete before. Morhaime talks at length about how much he’s been enjoying playing Marvel’s Avengers with his five year-old daughter, watching her get the same excitement out of meeting her heroes as Kamala Khan does onscreen. Perhaps more than anything else, disconnecting was what he felt he needed:
“In the 28 years at Blizzard, I mean, it was just heads-down, focusing on what Blizzard was doing. And so people would always reach out and want to chat about this or that. But unless it was related to what we were doing, I rarely had time to do that. […] At first we tried just to not make any decisions, not decide what we wanted to do. We actually didn’t know if we wanted to go back into gaming.”
What finally changed his mind was hearing that some of his old colleagues, Jason Chayes and Dustin Browder, had also left Blizzard after the collapse of a project, and were looking to start a studio of their own. The idea of a Blizzard executive producer and the game director of StarCraft 2 working on something new of their own excited him – but Morhaime’s interest wasn’t so much an impetus to get involved in making it with them, as to remove some of the burden he knew they’d run into in the early days of starting a new company.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=We%20actually%20didn’t%20know%20if%20we%20wanted%20to%20go%20back%20into%20gaming.”]“You have these really awesome game developers and they go off and they start up a new company. What’s the first thing they have to do? They have to think about incorporation and trademarks and all this stuff that’s not actually making games. And then you have a whole funding question, which is a huge distraction and source of anxiety. So we felt like we were in a position – maybe we could remove a lot of these barriers. [Amy and I] have a lot of experience on the operational and organizational and go-to-market side of gaming that maybe we could try to structure what we think is the ideal gaming corporate environment to house a small number of wholly-owned, but independent feeling studios.”
“We knew others that were going to go off and do this, people that we have a ton of respect for and a ton of talent. We could either wait and watch these guys do it in little pods and scatter in the wind, or we could try to create a home for some of that and actually be ready in the future when opportunity presents itself.”
Dreamhaven was born out of that line of thought – Morhaime’s new company is less a developer itself than a support network for new studios. It feels closer to something like old-fashioned patronage than a traditional developer/publisher deal (not least because everyone who becomes a part of Dreamhaven gets equity in the company). It feels very new amid an industry that so often reverts to decades-old business structures to get by. After a dinner where Morhaime laid out his vision, Chayes and Browder came aboard and formed Moonshot, Dreamhaven’s first internal studio. The second wasn’t far behind.
“We were slightly later to the party”, explains Chris Sigaty, newly minted studio head for Secret Door, Dreamhaven’s second internal developer. Sigaty was drawn in not just by the stability Dreamhaven could offer a brand new venture, but by the very fact that the likes of Morhaime and Chayes were involved – people he already knew shared his ideals for development, and had guided him through his career, which, over 23 years at Blizzard, included producing Hearthstone, StarCraft 2, and the original Warcraft 3.
“It was very exciting to think about the idea of forming something specifically to make a game with our own studio, with our own sort of vision for that studio; but knowing it’s built on these core shared values that we’d built up over many, many years working together. [There was] already excitement before we even knew the name of the studio or what sorts of games we might do, just the idea of getting together to work with this stellar group of people.”
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That group of people comes with some incredible pedigree. Apart from Chayes, Browder, and Sigaty, Moonshot and Secret Door have attracted the likes of Eric Dodds (director of Hearthstone, game designer on World of WarCraft and StarCraft), Alan Dabiri (game director on Heroes of the Storm), Ben Thompson (creative director of Hearthstone), and many others who have worked on Blizzard titles and beyond. Dreamhaven aims to take full advantage of the experience it has behind its doors from day one.
The idea is to offer not just a stable place to work for new studios, but an enriching one, and that’s key to how Morhaime thinks about Dreamhaven, even in its earliest days. Both Moonshot and Secret Door will have autonomy over the games they create, and will work without any team overlap, but will be encouraged to swap feedback between themselves. Morhaime, and Dreamhaven as a whole, will advise where necessary, but the CEO is prizing agency above almost everything else – he wants his new studios to feel as creative as possible, not to mention responsible for fixing problems they might come across along the way.
With that idea of quality and responsibility in mind, I ask Morhaime if he wants Dreamhaven to apply the same stringent, some might say brutal, standards he oversaw at Blizzard. Famously, Morhaime once explained that Blizzard canceled almost half of the game projects it began while he was at the company because of its commitment to releasing a high-quality product. Is Dreamhaven going to be as forceful with its smaller teams?
“I don’t think anybody aspires to a 50% ship rate,” laughs Morhaime. “I think the more impressive number is that a hundred percent of those that actually were released were great. That’s what we aspire to and hopefully, we can do better. It’s hard to hope that we’ll do better than what Blizzard was able to do, but we’re going to try, and I think you always set out to try. You try to make the choices every step of the way, trying to increase your odds of having what you’re working on be the thing that ends up achieving greatness. It’s certainly a lot more fun if it’s a hundred percent along the way.”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%E2%80%9CI%20don’t%20think%20anybody%20aspires%20to%20a%2050%25%20ship%20rate.%20I%20think%20the%20more%20impressive%20number%20is%20that%20a%20hundred%20percent%20of%20those%20that%20actually%20were%20released%20were%20great.”]There are other areas where Dreamhaven aspires to work differently to Blizzard, too. Fairly obviously, Morhaime points to the fact that, when he co-founded the company that would become Blizzard, the team was forced to work out its own way forward, writing its own tools and creating its own place in the gaming market – which naturally limited what they could make in the beginning. With the benefit of decades of experience, and a far more welcoming development landscape, Dreamhaven’s studios can “hit the ground being a bit more ambitious”.
Morhaime also makes clear that he wants Dreamhaven to feel like a very different kind of developer to the early Blizzard, simply by dint of those working there: “We are paying a lot more attention to the makeup of our studio in terms of diversity, which is not something that we really spent much time thinking about or talking about back in the early days. But I think we’ve all come to believe that we want to build a place that is inclusive and welcoming to people of all backgrounds and we want to make our games for the world. We think we can be stronger if we have a lot of diverse voices at the company.”
That commitment to doing things differently should only strengthen over time. While Moonshot and Secret Door are all the studios Dreamhaven wants right now, Morhaime envisages it growing to accommodate more: “We’re not actively searching and frankly, I think we have bitten off a lot right now, so we need to be able to start digesting what we’ve bitten off and start building our central services to be able to scale up to accommodate these two studios. But eventually, we do anticipate growing beyond the two studios. We just don’t really have a time frame or target for when that might happen.”
So what of those existing studios – what are Moonshot and Secret Door actually making? Morhaime makes clear that every part of Dreamhaven is “very early”, and neither he nor his studio heads will be drawn on specifics about their games right now. That’s as much down to the creative philosophy of the company as it is the free-form ideas themselves – while both studios are now actively working on a game idea each, they’re thinking without platforms in mind right now, trying to come up with game ideas that work for them, rather than ones that work for specific hardware.
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What we can draw on, however, is the philosophy – or maybe personality – of Moonshot and Secret Door themselves. “I think if you go and look at their pages on the website, you’ll see a pretty different feel between the two”, explains Morhaime. “They already do have a different personality and the types of games that they’ve chosen to focus on for their first game is also quite different and complementary.”
For Sigaty and Secret Door, that philosophy revolves as much around board gaming as it does video gaming. “The individuals I’m working with, there’s a number of seasoned veterans within the studio itself, and we really came together around this idea of ‘social’, and bringing people together in positive ways and really exploring that space. […] We are consummate board gamers, Dungeons & Dragons players, video game players, of course, as well. And we get great joy about getting together with our friends and playing. What could that mean for a game that we create? So we spent a lot of time in the early days discussing what each of us were passionate about in that space, and eventually aligned around a singular idea pretty recently at this point and are in the beginning points of exploring this specific idea that we’re very excited about.”
For Chayes and Moonshot, he too is thinking in terms of the ways players come together, but with a different end goal in mind. “This idea of ‘wonder’, enthuses Chayes. “We remember times back when we were kids growing up, and you see things for the first time and really have this feeling when you see it for the first time of, ‘Wow, I didn’t imagine that kind of a thing was possible in the world.’ The very first time you ever saw an elephant, it’s this sense of how incredible this thing, this creature is. And as you get older, you kind of lose that connection to seeing things with fresh eyes for the very first time. So one of our major goals at Moonshot is to try and evoke this sense of wonder, which can be wonder for beautiful and incredible things, or wonder for sometimes things that can be quite scary, and finding ways to kind of create that emotional resonance with the games we’re pursuing.”
While both studios are aiming to make different kinds of games, their scope should be relatively similar. Secret Door is currently made up of 7 developers, with Moonshot boasting 10 – both are hiring, but both studio heads are keen not to expand too soon. “We’re somewhat designing the size of the studio based around our ambitions and what the game requires,” explains Chayes. “What I can say certainly is we’re not shooting for hundreds of people for our game. And at the same time, I think that there is a point where it’s difficult to hit the sense of wonder and the sense of big feel to the titles we’re thinking about with the team that’s a little too small.”
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Sigaty and Chayes both avoid terms like ‘AAA’ or ‘indie’ to describe what they’re doing, with Sigaty preferring different qualifiers: “Quality is going to be something that comes out of our backgrounds, I think, and the games that we’ve worked on in the past. I think it’s somewhat subjective on what thing you call ‘indie’ or not, but we definitely want [the game] to have high fidelity and be super high-quality.”
As for when we’ll get more concrete details, that remains up in the air, with Morhaime cautioning that, “I think that they’re actually able to create things that they can interact with much quicker than they were able to do that in the old days, but it’s going to be quite a while before we’re ready to start talking about what we’re doing.”
But even at such an early stage, Morhaime’s confident about what his new studios can create, and what Dreamhaven – this experiment in making games differently – could mean as a result.
“We want to make a positive impact on the industry. We also want to do things that make the world a better place. […] We talk about trying to have this independent studio model where you have these studios that feel like they’re in control of their destiny, that they’re making decisions for themselves about their work environment and their games. And then they can pivot when those things aren’t working with access to central support, central services and enough resources to enable them to do what they want. I think that if we’re going to have a positive impact on the industry, it’s through showing that this can be a successful model and giving encouragement and inspiration to others that share our values and beliefs so that maybe we can help turn the tide in the industry and show that there’s a better way of approaching game making and business.”
He sounds excited – everyone I speak to at Dreamhaven does – and it occurs to me that this is surely Morhaime’s main motivation. If you can afford not to need a job, what’s going to get you to start a brand new company, amid a pandemic no less? Well, something exciting enough not to feel like much of a job in the first place. I ask Morhaime what excites him about the industry as a whole and he reels off a string of thoughts: VR (specifically the Oculus Quest), Discord, real competition on the PC platform, and a wider interest in smaller gaming companies from the perspective of big business. And then he sums up what that means for Dreamhaven: “I think that we just see opportunity everywhere.”
Yes, Mike Morhaime was quite enjoying not having a job, for a while. But then having this one suddenly seemed far more exciting. If the philosophy pays off, with the calibre of developers at its disposal, Dreamhaven feels very much worth being excited by.
Source: IGN Video Games All