Blizzard's Pardo serves up game design secret sauce

GDC 2010: Studio game design chief Rob Pardo lays out company's core game-making philosophies that drive high-quality hits.

Who was there: Blizzard Entertainment has a way of drawing crowds. As such, it came as no surprise that senior vice president of game design Rob Pardo drew more than a few spectators to his session at the 2010 Game Developers Conference. The gaming executive offered attendees a taste of Blizzard's secret sauce in his session, titled "Making a Standard (and Trying to Stick to It!): Blizzard Design Philosophies."

Rob Pardo

What he talked about: Pardo began his session by noting that designers can have many different values and still make high-quality games. However, considering Blizzard's history of creating some of the most highly regarded games in the industry, those on hand were more than eager to find out just what the studio finds particularly important. And of course, Pardo obliged.

Blizzard's first value is to put gameplay first. Pardo said that it never made sense to him when a game company would push its technology over gameplay. For Blizzard, all of the different disciplines within the company, from art and design to programming, focus on gameplay. He also cautioned that game design isn't more important than other disciplines, saying that a designer could come up with a really cool idea but the player experience could come out flawed.

Providing one example of how design can get in the way of gameplay, he brought up how in Warcraft III, druids could only be male night elves. However, when it came to World of Warcraft, it didn't make sense to exclude the profession to just one gender and race, so the lore had to be changed.

The second design philosophy was the concept of "easy to learn, difficult to master." Pardo said that Blizzard riffs a bit off of this maxim, changing it to "easy to learn, almost impossible to master." Since nearly all of Blizzard's games focus on multiplayer, he said that it is important to have extraordinary level of depth to accommodate hundreds of hours of gameplay.

The gaming executive went on to note that he couldn't grasp why many developers spend the bulk of their time crafting a 10-hour single-player campaign and then choose to tack on a multiplayer mode near the end of development. This makes no sense, he contended, considering a solid multiplayer mode could potentially last hundreds of hours.

As such, he said that the Starcraft II team had the game's multiplayer mode up and running two years before it started in on single-player content. Plus, it is far easier to balance single-player content after the multiplayer tuning had already been completed, he said.

The next design philosophy he addressed was called "What Is the Fantasy?" Here, Pardo said that it's important to match up the gameplay experience with what gamers expect, giving the example of the expectation of playing guitar with Guitar Hero or being a god-slayer as God of War's Kratos.

Blizzard is working on capturing the fantasy in Starcraft II.

Pardo feels that Blizzard failed in this task with the original Starcraft, specifically when it came to hero units. By their nature, heroes should be the character that is the most powerful unit on the field who leads armies and can turn the tide of battle. In Starcraft, though, the hero units were fragile, especially in battles involving 50-plus units, so players ended up sheltering their heroes back at their base. He said this problem was fixed in Warcraft III, though, where the hero actually was the most powerful unit, and since battle sizes were smaller and the legendary fighters could resurrect, players used them as intended.

Moving on, Pardo brought up the point of making everything overpowered. He said that every unit and class should feel unstoppable, but the game should remain balanced if everything is done correctly. One way to do this, he said, is to celebrate the big differences between units, so that if you heavily ramp up one units attack, then you should do the same for another's defense.

Pardo contended that this concept extends to story as well as gameplay, saying that it doesn't take anything away from a game by making something "epic." He then gave the example of dragons in WOW, saying the original models were only about five times the size of characters. He had a developer make special in-game spells that could grow and shrink items by 10 percent and then spawned one of WOW's dragons on a secluded island. Pardo said he hit the grow spell about 20 times before he was happy, noting that to this day he's never actually used the shrink spell.

He then moved onto the idea of concentrated coolness. This concept, he said, involved distilling game elements to the most essential, best parts, rather than adding tons of features that complicate the issue. He said Blizzard failed at this with vehicles in WOW but succeeded in units for Starcraft.

Pardo's next design philosophy was a one-off of the old writer's adage "show don't tell," calling it "play don't tell." He said that gamers should play as much of the story as possible and the use of text, voice-overs, and movies should not be the primary vehicle for storytelling.

Pardo hopes that Diablo III will avoid some of the pitfalls of Diablo II.

One of Blizzard's failures here, he said, came by way of quests in Diablo II. In that game, a quest giver would ramble on at length about what a player needed to do, when that task essentially was "go here and kill this thing." He said Blizzard got it right in Warcraft III with the Culling of Stratholme quest. Here, players were challenged to kill zombified villagers before Mal'Ganis could recruit them to his army.

Next, Pardo brought up the notion of "make it a bonus." He said that players respond far better to incentives than they do punishments, but game designers all too often go the punishment route first. Saying this concept ties heavily into player psychology, he brought up the example of how in its beta phase, WOW docked players experience gain once they had been online too long.

After vociferous objections, Pardo said that instead of reducing experience gain by 50 percent, he doubled the total experience measurement, upped normal gain to 200 percent, and made the drop off go to 100 percent. So while the aggregate gain was the same, the rebranding hit at the heart of player psychology, and they didn't have any problem with the system thereafter.

Pardo then shifted to the design philosophy of "control is king." Here, he said that designers will sometimes have to sacrifice a "cool" feature to make the game control better. He gave the example of how designers initially wanted a player's mount to enter the game Zelda-style, running in from the horizon. However, the team ultimately settled on a "poof" effect, as players demanded that when they summoned their mount, they wanted it then and there.

Under the design philosophy "tune it up," Pardo said that it's important to have a good grasp of who the game is being tuned for and why. He said that tuning a game fails the most when it designers fail to figure out who they are tuning for in advance.

Next, Pardo said that it's important to "avoid the grand reveal." Namely, he said that it's important for designers to check in often and early when showing their work to others so that they can receive vital feedback. Otherwise, if something is worked on in seclusion for too long, a developer will become too emotionally invested. Once they do finally show it, they are looking more for affirmation than constructive feedback.

Lastly, Pardo addressed what the company is perhaps best known for: its "culture of polish." The design executive said that Blizzard approaches the polish from the very beginning, as opposed to waiting until the game is basically done. He noted that even before a game is playable, Blizzard will polish what they have--even if it is just a layout on a white board.

He also brought up Blizzard's "strike teams," which comprise members of the company that aren't directly working on a project, as well as other outside sources. These teams are given play assignments to offer feedback, which breathes fresh air into what may be problematic with a certain component of the game. And, of course, Pardo concluded by saying that the polish process dictates that Blizzard doesn't ship a game "until it's done."

Quote: "If something happened in the past, it happened 10,000 years ago. What's the point of having someone 8 feet tall? Just go for it."--Rob Pardo, on how making everything overpowered extends to story, as well as gameplay.

Takeaway: Pardo was quick to note that while Blizzard's design philosophies work well for the company, they are by no means the only way to make a standout game. Instead, he said that it's important for all studios to take a long look at their own design philosophies so that they can have a good sense of how to make a cohesive game that is true to their own visions.

Written By

Want the latest news about Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal?

Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal

Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal

Discussion

79 comments
unDeny
unDeny

Its pretty much standard. I expect "Blizzard Quality" from most games now.. And boy do they fail. Damn you Blizzard. Damn you to the Void!!

Lurkzilla
Lurkzilla

Blizzard hasn't released a bad game... ever, its good to see how they've accomplished that feat

Davo-C
Davo-C

@Epicurus-Reborn They shouldn't fix what's not broken dude, they are making great games, and lots of $$$$$ I'm sure they want to keep it that way.

Epicurus-Reborn
Epicurus-Reborn

and i feel like that "culture of polish" is why blizzard games take forever to be released. Most developers dont polish a game until the end of developement simply because it takes so much time to create art assets and polish them. and to do it over and over again just seems silly. Im glad blizzard puts as much care as they do into their games but maybe they should worry about polishing the finished products instead of worry about things that may or may not even make it into the game... we may have had this game two years sooner if they had done that, with the same quality.

Epicurus-Reborn
Epicurus-Reborn

@ greek5 well i do know from my experience playing warcraft 3 that i put in well over a 100 hours of gameplay just from online matches. I never once touched a lan party. And i dont think im alone in that. I mean i know its a blow to not have lan play for those who preffer it but online match making is still a pretty valid option of enjoyment for any one with an internet conection. And you can always host private matches online when you wanna play just with friends. Its not much different than playing games in steam.

Sirbobislost
Sirbobislost

@ endocrine its not a blindhate of consoles i own them all (well i gave the wii to my little brother after i finished zelda) its a blindhate of stratergy games being nerfed to make them console friendly

greek5
greek5

I dont call that lanning do you? the point of a lan is not to use the internet.

dude102
dude102

You can still lan as long as you have internet to log in to bnet.

greek5
greek5

I love how he says "considering a solid multiplayer mode could potentially last hundreds of hours" yet they're removing LAN play from the game. Yeah that makes a lot of sense.

Arksa
Arksa

I think the secret in secret sauce is "make it suck".

vernholio
vernholio

@nevryn While it didn't address a specific question I asked about a semi-related topic in this forum, your response to rockstar_88 definitely expanded my understanding of the whole Activision/Blizzard relationship. Thanks a lot for posting it!

vernholio
vernholio

@wiozan... Why do so many people INSTANTLY get on the defensive in the forums and take absolutely EVERYTHING as negative criticism? Dude, calm down -- I'm sorry if I hurt your delicate sensibilities by not remembering the true time-line of Blizzard's ownership (and reading your "polite" list, I did know all of that. I just thought maybe I'd missed something about Activision acquiring Blizzard or something -- because it was called out by the guy I originally responded to). That's just semantics, anyway: Activision own Blizzard, EA own Blizzard, hell... Donald Trump own Blizzard. Not the point. I was just trying to get some honest feedback on why people get angry when a larger game company acquires a smaller one. If it impacts the game quality, I get it... s'all good... that makes sense. But, if a larger company buys a smaller one, infuses cash, and at the same time allows them to stick to their principles (e.g., Blizzard's ideals), then I just wonder why the issue. Again... I AM NOT DEFENDING the large game companies, I honestly don't know what all the reasons could possibly be against this, and I just wanted to know. Crap man, ask a simple question and get your head bitten off. (Which wiozan, you didn't even answer). Sheesh...

Ladiesman17
Ladiesman17

@Ultizer yeah,,, I know if Warhammer 40.000 released in 1998 (even though they're made by different developer) but how can you copy-cat same exact game with "tightly" released schedules, around 7 / 8 months, now tell who's idiot...

MNeuwahl
MNeuwahl

@Punkz7 I think he may be referring to the pen and paper and model based games that were created long before Blizzard's works of art. However, I still disagree with Ultizer since Warcraft only slighty resembles the warhammer universe by implementing undead, elves, dwarves, orcs and humans. And if you want to be completely technical about it they are all creations from the wonderful mind of JRR. Tolkien and further built upon by the creators of D&D. If you think about it objectively, then does it really matter who came up with the concept of something like races, weapons, styles etc? I would say it doesn't, as long as the resulting game, book or movie is a work of art and everything works well it doesn't matter.

MNeuwahl
MNeuwahl

If it did, then you should criticize everything from cars, to phones to anything really. After all, someone came up with the mobile phone, so are all mobile phones a rip-off from the original mobile? Are all cars a rip off from the original car? No they're not. You cannot blame any company or individual for taking a concept that is already a standard and seems to be appealing and improving it so that future generations can enjoy it even more and use said things with more ease and so on. Plus the lore behind the Warcraft universe and the Warhammer universe or the Middle earth universe are completely different. Stop trying to find games that look similar and then trying to figure out which game came first, and look at the quality of the game and just enjoy the games instead!

Punkz7
Punkz7

Ultizer Quote : heres a tip for blizzard, stop stealing from other games, warcraft = warhammer, starcraft = warhammer 40k, WOW = everquest with a warcraft skin. Ummmmm..... Warhammer was made after WoW, Starcraft was made before Warhammer 40k and WoW isnt even close to Everquest... All these games were made before these games you mentioned sooo yeah. Blizzard didnt copy anybody, they have their own idea's. Give us more info on Cataclysm, we already know whats happening with it and whats being released but you've taken 3 1/2 years on making Cataclysm and I think you should just release it already!! =D

danielgreen81
danielgreen81

Pretty good philosophy IMO. Put the players first. It must have been disappointing for them to not be able to have the mounts run in from the horizon Lone Ranger style, rather just go with a 'summon' style. Imagine the other sacrifices made for the sake of the player?

Ladiesman17
Ladiesman17

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Ultizer
Ultizer

heres a tip for blizzard, stop stealing from other games, warcraft = warhammer, starcraft = warhammer 40k, WOW = everquest with a warcraft skin.

wiozan
wiozan

@vernholio Its funny that you make agruments about things that you dont have a clue. For the dumb ass ppl like you heres what happened. Blizzard is Owned by Vivendi Activision wasnt owned by anyone Vivendi Bought Activision Now Activision is owned by Vivendi And thats it. Activision isnt in a role where he could give orders or something, they just the property of the same company as Blizzard. End of Story

Ladiesman17
Ladiesman17

@Trogeton Hey! don't downgrade PCs, don't you remember about Crysis, your pathetic Consoles can't do something like that!! I remember games like F.E.A.R. / FarCry / Dragon Age Origins / The Last Remnant / Supreme Commander / etc. they become "flop" & "ugly". they ((downgrade)) their quality when creating a version for the consoles! Consoles even can't catch up "The Sims 3" because using alot of memory & even "Heavy Rain" become laggy at PS3 LoL Consoles already at their limit :) :D :) :D tschh...broken thing!! over-head view still at their best.. Dragon Age Origins using this scheme & works well, Consoles become weird when they put this scheme... but PCs extremely dynamic.. you can put everything on it...

guitarist1980
guitarist1980

I love Blizzard and I love how they polish there games but I wish they wouldnt announce projects that are 4 or 5 years from being released.

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

@vernholio Activision doesn't own Blizzard, they're both just owned by the same company.

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

"" I believe that is what many people (myself included) think is at least somewhat disconcerting about SC2's direction. I don't think anyone ever wanted that from Starcraft. Hell, he claims that they failed the "fantasy" part of SC1, and it was better for it.

endocrine
endocrine

Technology and gameplay are not mutually exclusive. Supreme commander was a prefect example of this. @Sirbobislost CnC4 was not made console friendly, as it is not going to be released for consoles. This blind hate of consoles makes me laugh.

Sirbobislost
Sirbobislost

@ wolfyrabbit maybe so developers would learn? Take cnc4 for example EA have rushed it out to make some cash which could of been done by adding some new units, but no instead they remove base building, make it console friendly and basicly kill Cnc in process. The guy at EA who let the game be made should read this article and then he might learn how to actually make a quality game instead of destroying it all

wolfyrabbit
wolfyrabbit

nice insights, but i wonder y he would want to share the secrets with everyone...

Trogeton
Trogeton

@ vernholio well I figured after all this time maybe something would change.. I was looking to see if MAYBE they would stop with the same old thing and try something new with these pc exclusives but I guess not this time

Shawn45
Shawn45

This is why Blizzard is one of my favorite gaming companys. Now I just wish I got a Starcraft 2 beta key...

vernholio
vernholio

@Trogeton ...and yet, you feel the need to read an article on a PC exclusive game, and comment on it. If you're out on PC games, all I have to say is, "Why did you bother?"

SauhlGood
SauhlGood

Blizzard should be a shining example to even money grubbing companies like EA...that you can make helluv alot more money by putting out quality games...instead of rushed movie tie-ins and lackluster games which only seem to get graphics upgrades instead of a gameplay innovation.

vernholio
vernholio

@metalhead0004: Not bashing what-so-ever, and I'm not pro-big game company (I don't work for Activision or EA, or anything), I'm just curious: What impact does Activision owning Blizzard have on us as gamers? Are you just frustrated with DRM? (Because as far as I can remember, Blizzard has always had DRM on their products). And, Blizzard is DEFINITELY sticking to their guns with their, "We ain't releasing it until it's COMPLETELY ready" attitude (which is why their games are always of such good quality, imho). So, it's not about rushed delivery of a poor product, right? Again, read this as an attempt to understand why folks are so against larger companies buying out the smaller game houses, Activision owning Blizzard in this instance. I DO understand the issues with EA -- they're just getting TOO damn big. Is it just a "fight the power (mega-corporations)!" ideal? If so... I get it, that's cool. Thanks for the feedback

Quietpower09
Quietpower09

By the year 2016, that is when Blizzard will finally release Diablo f*** III.

Trogeton
Trogeton

overhead view game usually never change in the game engine, that is why I quit pc gaming too many games like this

metalhead004
metalhead004

This is why I still like Blizzard. I just wish they weren't tied to Activision.

Warshock
Warshock

WELL...I actually like the fact of the quest givers rambling on about what the quest is all about. THAT'S CALLED TELLING A STORY!! If I wanted some npc to just say, "Hey, kill this for me." It wouldn't be as fun and intriguing. SO PLEASE, for D3, just keep the nice rich characters with their ramblings. It's interesting. And also, why haven't you announced the last character yet!!! Are you banking on the fact that the world is going to end in 2012, so you don't have to actually finish the game?

RolielStarfire
RolielStarfire

Oh, and I loved the multiplayer point. I'm thrilled to hear that they built the multi-player first. Good multiplayer can indeed last decades beyond the rest of the game, if Starcraft is any indication.

RolielStarfire
RolielStarfire

I think that the continual polish here is what is really special. That Blizzard is over-and-over making sure that the game is great, how they intended, every step of the way really shines through. It is hard to spend the time and energy to do something right, but when you do, it shines! Polish should be a mini-phase in every stage of the development life-cycle.

BornGamer
BornGamer

It's always amazed me how little attention most companies devote to multiplayer. Not only is playing with/against other people far more entertaining than playing single player, but it's the single most effective way to reduce piracy.

2bitSmOkEy
2bitSmOkEy

All the stuff he is talking about is why this company leaves everyone else in the dust when it comes to making incredible games. \ \ \ "Since nearly all of Blizzard's games focus on multiplayer, he said that it is important to have extraordinary level of depth to accommodate hundreds of hours of gameplay. " That is honestly all that was needed to be said though, that is the REAL secret to their success. Multiplayer in war3 or sc 1/2 is incredibly addictive because of how deep the games are. Can't wait for sc2!

penumbra13
penumbra13

He is correct in saying that graphics/technology should not be the developer's main focus. What really makes games appealing visually is good art design. Blizzard has some of the best which is why games like WOW can last for such a long time. Pretty water effects and lighting can only take a game so far.

Exia2004
Exia2004

Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3 this 2 im gonna buy for sure!!

Sirbobislost
Sirbobislost

@ pedram007 weak story? Have you played Warcraft3? The rise of the horde? The corruption of arthas? These in turn all tie into wow, but your right on the graphics they weren't ever cutting edge but that was to make them more low spec pc friendly (which is what GPG have just done with supcom 2 it runs like a dream but supcom1 looks better) even on my brand new rig it still has a bit of a brain fart loading dalaran for the first time, awesome graphics aren't everything I still play warcraft3 cause the gameplay is great look at borderlands cellshaded but fantastic gameplay beats the pants off fallout3 anyday wow could use a nice graphics upgrade I wouldn't expect it to be far off

Shadow_Fax
Shadow_Fax

Excuse me, Warcraft III's story was swallow? And Arthas' further decent in TFT? Err, lol?

pedram007
pedram007

Well Mr. Pardo gives some very good insights into Blizzards design philosophy, lots of brilliant ideas. But it also reveals his EQ roots, and highlights the weakness in Blizzard. 1- That he didnt understand why developers spent "time crafting a 10-hour single-player campaign", well that is IMHO the biggest weakness of blizzard, their games are shallow story wise, and the narrative resembles a teen essay compared to BioWare or Bethesda. 2- That he did not understand why graphics was important. Well that is the the second weakness of blizzard, their games are never cutting edge graphic wise. WoW is a good example, it was not even "cutting edge" in 2005. And the reason its important is that now in 2010 its looks are irritating, the the UI for example is flawless.

pedram007
pedram007

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

bahamat0
bahamat0

Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3 are the images of blizz's awesomeness :D

slowmanrunning
slowmanrunning

blizzard, bungie, and ubisoft all have similar ideals (take a long time to make it, then beta test the crap out of it) about making games, which is why they are my favorite three developers. Valve got knocked off the top three list by what they did with left 4 dead 2, but they might redeem themselves with portal 2. (though because ubisoft is large they have slip ups, but they produce lots of good game series)