No self-respecting video game fan needs to be explained who Blizzard Entertainment are, so the introductions will be kept to a minimum; let us focus on the essence of the article you are about to read – the music.
Once the release date is set, though.
Blizzard is known for it’s internal, mantra-like rule to only release products once they are fully completed – “We’ll release it when it’s ready” the heads tell us when we ask about the upcoming games. The employees among themselves or in a more informal environment like to shorten it to a sweet and concise “soon”; a saying that has even been graced with an entry on the WoWWiki. Once the release date is set, though, we can only do so much to contain our excitement of next polished and top-notch product coming from the team. Sure, sometimes there are bugs, glitches, or balancing issues but the team has always responded quickly, and the gamers have not been left long with a problematic title.
The best and most recent example of this behavior from Blizzard in the newest expansion pack for World of Warcraft, called Warlords of Dreanor – a release that has broken the company’s servers for five full days during which gamers could not log into the game. Once that has been fixed, the players suffered from game-breaking lags on the servers. Almost through tears the players joked that the Orc leaders are completely fine with just getting out of the laggy Kingdom and the Azeroth-conquering plan has been put on hold, or that they are so wanton because no other faction is able to log-in in order to stop them.
Coming back to the profile of Blizzard as a company; the most interesting fact that makes them standout from most of the other teams is that they have a key, company-based composer group. They are at the core of each music-related project that is conceived and ran within the company. Although that in itself might seem like a red flag concerning a problematic lack of originality that might appear in the projects, it furthermost means that the experienced, well-known artists who work on them are not only a guarantee of a top-notch product that will be created as a result, but also that it will respectful of the roots of the series that they might be working on at the moment. Let us be honest here– Blizzard games are well known for their astounding and musically catchy themes and motives. A crime would surely be committed if a new person would be joining a project each time and some compromises either in quality or in positive-nostalgia would be made.
To keep things fresh, though, each project has a group of external musicians; some being brought in as temporary employees and others that are tasked with creating additional, non-core music tracks for a game. Going by the history of the company, the former would include musicians such as David Arkenstone and Jeremy Soule, the latter consisting of Inon Zur among many. To clarify the musician’s hierarchy in the company even further, it is important to mention that there is always one key composer serving the role of a producer with the others following suite and adhering to his guidelines and according to their expertise. Neal Acree, for example, is primarily concerned with creating music for cinematics, but not only.
Blizzard is known for it’s internal, mantra-like rule (…) – We’ll release it when it’s ready (…).
Another aspect of Blizzard’s approach to scoring their games is innovating upon the tradition of their games. Looking back at their history and experimenting, it varies from series to series, but can generally be diverged into four main categories.
The first one is sticking with one orchestra (along some experts) throughout the evolution of a series; World of Warcraft (from The Burning Crusade and beyond) is recorded with the help of The Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra & Chorus and Starcraft (from the second installment of the series) is in the hands of The Skywalker Symphony Orchestra. Diablo III is an exception of this rule as it was scored by Pacific Symphony orchestra with two choirs – all-female ANÚNA and the male part of London Voices. Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, however, marks a return of The Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra & Chorus. The experts that worked on these series were Eimear Noone (conducting and composing), Penka Kouneva (orchestration), Edo Guidotti (orchestration and composing) and John Kurlander (orchestration, mix engineer), to mention a few.
The second class of Blizzard’s approach to scoring, seen lately in Diablo III and its expansion pack Reaper of Souls, is using the latest advancements in technology while, at the same time, keeping in touch with the more traditional methods of composing. The music for the game was recorded not in a studio but in a concert hall ditching digital reverb effects in favor of a natural, large ambience of the enormous room; the same as in its predecessor, Diablo II: Lord of Destruction. In Reaper of Souls Blizzard went even further and applied techniques normally used when performing classical music by an orchestra. This means that the musicians constituting the orchestra were grouped in accordance of their roles in the ensemble. Furthermore, all instruments heard in the game as well as the parts performed by a choir were recorded in a church, achieving a sound not possible to replicate in a studio.
The third category is using a mixture of live instruments alongside samples, leading to an incredible palette of sounds available at hand. The composers working for Blizzard are known for possessing a knack for experimenting in the field of mixing and synthesizing new sounds. The best example would be in Neal Acree’s approach to scoring Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm’s soundtrack, something I’ve asked him some time ago on Twitter. You can read his answer regarding using samples and synthesizers during his work under this link, simply search for questions asked by ZawiszaTheBlack.
The fourth and arguably the most important category would constitute the immense amount of respect with which Blizzard’s composers approach the themes, no matter how old, of its series. From Diablo through Starcraft up to Warcraft III the composers re-record the themes with immaculate detail using new arrangements or adding new details all the time maintain the core, the tradition, of a composition. Fans of World of Warcraft experience this right at the start of the game, in its menu, with some players being mesmerized by its music for a good ten minutes, which, knowing the addictiveness of the game itself, is a small miracle. Keeping in touch with the tradition does not mean a lack of progress, as each rendition of a theme builds on the familiar core and brings something new to the table.
No company is without a sin though, and the greatest one that Blizzard is often guilty of releasing the soundtracks of its games lacking some of the best compositions. Take for instance an incredible track created by Neal Acree for the outro of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm called Vengeance, or the lackluster Diablo II and Lord of Destruction soundtracks. While we have indeed received most of the compositions from the game itself, tracks from the cutscenes are almost always missing in the official releases such as with Destruction’s End from the outro of the expansion pack. An amazing composition expertly conveying the player’s eerie thirst to continue the journey into the Sanctuary.
As a big fan of music from Blizzard Entertainment I hope, for yours and mine sake, that the company will see its mistakes and finally, one day, release full soundtracks from its games. All of you interested in further exploring Blizzard’s music releases are invited to study its discography in full.