What Start-Ups Can Learn From Blizzard Entertainment

I spent a good part of my weekend playing Blizzards Heroes of the Storm Alpha. It is a great game, I really enjoy it and it proves, once again, that Blizzard is really good in bringing new concepts, improvements and innovation to an already existing genre. And they are successful with it. So what can a start-up learn from Blizzard?

If you are a fan of a game I am not talking nicely about please just ignore it and do not fall into a nerd-rage. There is certainly a huge discrepancy how people see certain games and I can only talk about my experience with them. You may certainly disagree and that is totally fine, but this will not change how I and many others, too, experienced those games. So please just ignore the things that make you mad and concentrate on the actual idea behind the article. :)

First of all let me make a bold statement: Blizzard is so incredibly successful because they are managing to take a genre and make it fun for everyone, not just people who enjoy it so much that they have the urge to become top players. They do not invent, they improve.

Ultima Online was nice. It certainly destroyed grades in school, relationships and many lives, but hey, it was a nice game. And then came World of Warcraft. You could just create an account and play. You run around a bit, do some quests, maybe party with other players. You were not as free as in Ultima Online, you could not learn every profession possible and many things just looked easy, but in exchange you got a lot better story. And people liked it. Not being forced to learn everything about a character and professions for example allowed you to focus more on the game and the gameplay. Compared to today Classic World of Warcraft was garbage, but still a lot better than all the competitors.

Real-time strategy games existed before Blizzard released Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans and Dune certainly helped the genre gaining traction, but Warcraft and later on StarCraft were hit titles. They got most of the pathfinding right, which is extremely valuable when it comes to a fun gameplay, the characters, the story - they just did an amazing job to pull the players into their world (as with WoW). And players stayed. There were surely other successful RTS games, but as far as I know none that came close to the fan base of Warcraft and Starcraft. Maybe Command and Conquer had a good shot.

Fast forward - Hearthstone. A trading card game you play on your computer or iPad. I played Magic, I was skeptical and I was right, it is not for me. Too trivial, no depth and not many ways that actual skill determines if you win a match or not. But I have seen my significant other starting to play a genre she never cared about, just because it looked fun, was easy to get in and provided enough longterm motivation to stay and come back when expansions are released. Hearthstone is the most watered down, trivial kind of trading card game I am aware of and at the same time the one with one of the biggest player bases.

I predict that the same thing will happen with Heroes of the Storm. It is slower, you have more abilities from the beginning and the gameplay is easier than in Leagues of Legend and DOTA2. But is is fun. You do not have such a big penalty when you mess up a little and have to fall back to your base. You can actually do something the first few levels but pressing one button to harass your opponent and farm. The small side games you play are funny and add to the gameplay and you do not have to consult guides and read all your abilities twice to find a good combination of hero skills, summoner skills and build orders. Confused by all the different things I just mentioned? Many people who do not know the genre would be just as confused as you are. Know what? You do not have to care about all this stuff when playing HotS. Just play. The tutorial will explain everything you need to know and you will be fine after some matches.

Execution Is Everything

There were other phones and other smartphones before the iPhone. There were other car manufacturers before Mercedes and BMW. There were other publishers in the game genres I just talked about. Facebook and Twitter were not the first social networks. And still, companies who were not the first defined the field.

I often hear people complaining that an idea, a start-up or a project sucks because someone else did it already. You know what? Nearly every publisher would sell their whole executive team including families to some ancient demon only to get half of the player base Blizzard got. It does not matter if the idea is new. It does not matter if you are late to the game, if others did it and failed, the only thing that matters is your execution. And a certain amount of luck, but that is always true, even if you are the first one.

So instead of trying to come up with the best of all ideas to disrupt a market you will first have to define since it does not exist - just do something people really want, but done right. Your chances are far better to succeed and build a successful business with a great product people enjoy than with a product no one knew they needed.

I am not saying you should not follow you not-existing-market-disrupting idea. If it is a good idea and you are the first one to execute it right you just win. But if someone asks you what you think of an idea and you hear one that was done so many times - do not shoot it down just because it is not new. It does not need to be new to make it to the top of the market segment it is in.

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>> posted on Dec. 10, 2014, midnight in business