For over two decades, Chris Metzen was a cherished mascot for Blizzard, where he was the senior Vice President of Story and Franchise development. When he retired in September, at 42, fans wondered why he’d abandon a company he’d been at since he was 19.
Today, in an interview with podcaster Scott Johnson, Metzen explained how his dogged dedication to the games publishing company led him down a dark path of panic attacks, self-doubt and imposter syndrome.
Metzen’s hands have touched StarCraft, World of Warcraft, Warcraft III, Diablo and several other blockbuster titles from Blizzard. He was recruited at the ripe age of 19, with his only “real training” a long-running Dungeons & Dragons game. Scaling the ranks, Metzen contributed artwork, design, plot and other crucial material to several games, finally co-creating Diablo’s universe in 1996 and acting as StarCraft’s Lead Designer in 1998. After a variety of other roles, including being the Creative Director on Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, Metzer’s position expanded to the role of Senior Vice President of Story and Franchise Development.
When he retired in September, Metzen wrote on the Battle.net forums that he’d be moving on to raise his new baby. He wrote, “I’ll be focusing on the one thing that matters most to me in all the world—my family. They’re the core of my life and the source of my deepest joy and inspiration.”
Today, Scott Johnson published an hour-long interview with the Blizzard veteran about why he burnt out on what is essentially the dreamiest job in games. It’s uncommonly intimate. Acknowledging that the job allowed him to realize all his childhood fantasies, Metzen told Johnson that it was “all-consuming.” Metzen’s struggle with self-doubt, and especially against the background of his successes makes him remarkably human.
After the failure of Blizzard’s MMORPG Project Titan, which was cancelled in 2014 following disagreements between developers, Metzen said that morale at Blizzard was low. The team had spent several years on it and the disappointment was crushing, and especially for him. Metzen confided that one of his greatest fears was letting down Blizzard and its fans.
“What if the next game isn’t perfect? What if people hate it? What if, through the course of action, I dishonor the company or dishonor myself through not performing well enough?” Metzen asked. “Looking back now, I see I had kind of fallen into a trap, which is this cycle of performance. . . At some level, i just had this desperate need for validation.” A “vicious loop” of needing validation, performing, exceeding expectations, raising the bar and needing to perform beyond expectations again, he said, fostered new anxieties in him over the last three years.
“You’re never safe. You have to out-do it the next time. It’s kind of this train you can never get off,” Metzen said.
After Titan’s cancellation, Metzen fell in with the Overwatch project. It was, in his words, “one last charge at the wall.” He helped rally morale and push the game through to completion. And it is a god damned excellent game.
In the process, though, Metzen suffered from nonstop anxiety. During movies with his wife, he’d experience what he’d later learn were panic attacks. He felt like his lungs would stop, but when he consulted doctors, nothing was wrong with him. It was the beginning of 2016, and with the upcoming release of World of Warcraft’s Legion, Overwatch, its animated shorts, the Blizzard movies and, also, a new baby, Metzen was crushed under the pressure to do it all.
“I need a change in my life,” Metzen said. Blizzard was his family too, but he chose to leave and help nourish his real one. Over the last few months, he’s been meditating on his time at Blizzard. He says that leisure agrees with him.
“I spent so many years running real hot and real fast and chasing this dream that I had and also being a good soldier, a good officer, for this company I was with,” Metzer said. Now, he’s just thankful.