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AGC Keynote: Rob Pardo

Carolyn Koh Posted:
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AGC Keynote: "What Really Matters: How Blizzard game philosophy translates into World of Warcraft", Rob Pardo Keynote Report

Rob Pardo gave an interesting keynote speech, describing the Blizzard game design philosophy which seemed like a “no-brainer” to a business major like me. But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s hard to practice what you preach unless this philosophy is embraced by everyone in the company. The simplest plans always seem to be the hardest to pull through.

They set their core target. Not the hard core gamers with bleeding edge technology in their gaming machines, but a wider, more general audience. They then set the system specs and designed for those specs accordingly. Wonder why the art of WoW is so stylized? That’s why. They designed for a look which would look cool and yet would not date quickly. They designed the art for longevity rather than what’s hot now. Art that wouldn’t take a computer with cutting edge components to run.

“Think of a frosted donut,” said Pardo. “The donut represents the hard-core gamers. The frosting, the casual gamers. If both are addressed as a whole, you will have a success.”

Blizzard’s first mantra is “Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master.” They’ve kept to that mantra in all the games they’ve developed and World of Warcraft was no different. Instead of inundating the new player with a ton of information they needed to process immediately, Blizzard decided to lead the player through learning about the game by playing the game. All newbies spawn in a small starter area in front of an NPC with the Blizzard trademark exclamation point over their heads. Even the most noob of new players is likely to click on the NPC – and starts down the path of learning the game. A few NPCs, a few buildings, some mobs to kill to gain a few levels, before they are sent to the big City.

In designing the game for casual gamers, Blizzard not only kept the system requirements low, they also decided that the game would be quest driven.

“WoW is quest driven. We wanted players to be killing with a purpose. We wanted the quests and the story to have a meaning.”

They also designed the game in a way that all the information a player would need could be found in the game.

“No need to head off to Thottbott to find out where that NPC is to complete a quest. The Quest log will tell you.”

The way the quests were designed did several things. They sent players farther away from their starting points when they were of level, essentially teaching players about the world and what mobs there were out there; spread the population out and kept players from concentrating on specific spawn points; and rewarded players well enough that they would want to continue doing quests.

Their second mantra is “Concentrated Coolness” – and this permeates their entire game design philosophy.

Pardo spoke of learning from mistakes made by enthusiastic dev teams, the importance of communication and reigning in their artists. Basically… keeping to the basics and following their game design philosophy. Part of the “Concentrated Coolness” mantra was the need to design the Depth first and then the Accessibility. Build small and cool – fix problems, learn what’s fun, then build big and repeating the fun instead of building lots of content and areas, then having to fix problems in every area.

Part of the culture at Blizzard is bouncing ideas off each other. Despite the coolness and fun factor, one can see the thread of discipline running through the game philosophy. Pardo provided examples of their mistakes. He cautioned the audience to “Beware the Great Reveal” and how much development time could be lost as he described how a dev team kept a dungeon under wraps and ended up having to redo it because they forgot about the accessibility in designing the depth. The high level dungeon had passages too small for the large raid that would have to pass through and possibly fight through them.

He spoke of “Winged Dungeons” such as Scarlet Monastery which he considered to be one of their more successful dungeons as each wing could be completed in small bite sized chunks of time, unlike Black Rock Spire which was a 3-hour time sink. The Scarlet Monastery content demonstrated their donut concept perfectly. It catered to the hard-core gamers who could blitz every wing in one sitting, as well as to the casual gamers who may only wish to complete a wing a play session.

Game pacing was described as the bridge between Depth and Accessibility. Blizzard sought a well-paced leveling curve and re-playability in WoW.

As Pardo said, “in WoW you can Solo to Sixty if that’s what you want to. Then most of our players play another to sixty and then another.”

To that extent, they also “Concentrated Coolness” in their class design. They kept the class choices down in order for each class have its own unique look and game play mechanics. The decision to allow Paladins in the Horde and Shamans in the Alliance was to keep the Coolness factor for the two classes, as they found that in order to balance them for PvP, they were beginning to make the mechanics too similar.

The final Blizzard mantra Pardo shared with his audience was “Release when Ready.”

“What we found in every review of WoW was the word polish. How well polished the game is. That polish has to permeate every aspect of a game. You may not notice the one polished aspect of the game, but you sure notice it when 1,000 polished aspects come together.”

He reminded us that in today’s crowded marketplace, you only have so long to capture the attention of a gamer. If he leaves the game, what chances are there that he or she will come back? Virtually nil. Looking out towards the audience, Pardo called out.

“You publishers out there. Listen up. You don’t get a second chance.”

That seems to a simple business plan, no? Determine your objective, determine your target audience, lay down the philosophy, perfect the small, then build the big, release when ready.

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Carolyn Koh

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn Koh has been writing for MMORPG.com since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.