GDC '08: Pardo navigates WOW Blizzard

VP of game design and WOW lead designer lays out his company's approach to tailoring the perfect competitive multiplayer game.

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It seems like it was only a week or two ago that Blizzard VP of game design and World of Warcraft lead designer Rob Pardo was joining Mike Morhaime and Frank Pearce under the lights to provide a history of how Blizzard ascended to the top of the gaming industry food chain. As it turns out, Blizzard's success can be attributed to a number of different factors and the developer isn't short on people looking for tips and advice on how they can re-create the success.

Rob Pardo.

In a session titled "Rules of Engagement: Blizzard's Approach to Multiplayer Game Design," a solo Pardo laid out for raptly attentive Game Developers Conference attendees the process of a making successful multiplayer game. Blizzard's first secret, the designer said to the standing-room-only crowd, was that it actually creates the multiplayer game before shifting focus to single-player.

"We do the multiplayer game first," said Pardo. "With multiplayer games, there are lots of constraints. If you aren't really thinking about things like game balance or what's going to happen once the game is released, and just concentrate on the single-player, you're going to find yourself in a position that you're going to have to work out all kinds of game systems."

PVP versus co-op

To that end, Pardo launched into the meat of his presentation, saying first that game design for player-versus-play and co-op play is drastically different and require a separate set of considerations. Dwelling primarily on competitive gaming, Pardo first noted that PVP doesn't necessarily require combat. Drawing many examples from WOW, Pardo said that PVP also be political and economical--namely, the auction houses and guild interactions in WOW. PVP can also involve racing in the sense that players compete to be the first to attain a given achievement or dating.

Hitting the right notes for a successful competitive multiplayer game requires a number of elements. One of the most important of these, Pardo notes, is skill differentiation, but it is easy to leave out. "For a competitive PVP environment, you need things that differentiate players' skill levels." Two of the best ways to do this, Pardo says, are twitch-style mechanics and multitasking. Pardo believes developers shouldn't leave out these mechanics--even though they admittedly are off-putting to novice players--because they provide an excellent differentiator between rookies and experienced gamers.

Shifting gears, Pardo then launched into an extensive discussion on game balance. One of the most important aspects of game balance, the Blizzard exec said, was to first and foremost define the criteria by which a game is balanced. Using Blizzard's two most hot-topic games as examples, Pardo noted that game balance for WOW and Starcraft II are drastically different. With WOW, of primary importance are that every character class can fight solo to max level, have an important role in raid encounters, and be viable in competitive group PVP.

Starcraft II's criteria, on the other hand, is completely different. Here, the top priorities are that each race be completely different from one another and that more skilled players can win games faster. Also important are the favoring of offense over defense ("We don't want players playing a version of SimCity"), as well as the emphasis on creative strategies for different units and that each unit should have an appropriate counter.

Balance isn't just a numbers game

Addressing the nitty-gritty of design balance, Pardo said that math and spreadsheets are the obvious foundation for balance. However, less obvious yet equally important is the philosophy behind balance design, and the only way to really get the "nuances" right is to actually play the game. This is because there are a lot of elements that the spreadsheets don't account for; for instance, including how acceleration or path-finding algorithms really affect one unit or another.

"Don't use the math to balance the game into mediocrity," warned Pardo, saying that it's important to make everything feel overpowered and that he tells his designers that every class should feel "unbeatable." However, all classes or sides must be beatable, so Pardo strongly objects to "super weapons." This is tricky though, he notes, because "punching the 'I win' button is fun" for the puncher, but not the punchee. "If you present a situation where the other player feels there was nothing they could have done, people are going to stop playing your game competitively."

Another important aspect of game balance is a game's user interface, Pardo said. Addressing primarily Starcraft II, a good deal of consideration was spent on whether to allow for unlimited unit and building selection. With WOW, Pardo said that Blizzard is very proud of the fact that users are able to create their own UIs, but it is occasionally necessary to intentionally break these mods when "they start playing the game for you."

Pardo also stressed the importance of game balance even after a game has launched, noting that Warcraft 3 will be getting a balance patch soon, more than four years after it released in 2003. However, this presents myriad challenges because to players, "change is always bad." Pardo also insisted on the fact that banning cheaters is important, nothing that once hackers overran Diablo, people stopped playing it. "If you don't develop tech to find the cheaters, they will corrupt and destroy your game." In this vein, patching is an important of aspect of updating the game, but it is important not to be too reactive with balance tweaks. Given time, Pardo said, players often will find a way to defeat what may seem to be an overpowering strategy.

Player philosophy

The players are an important element to perception, specifically player psychology. "You can have the best balance spreadsheets and testers in the world, but if the players don't believe things are fair, all that doesn't matter." Running at odds with scientific and sterile game design balance is the fact that players hate losing, Pardo says. To compensate, he says that it's important to give even the losers a reason to come back because if they lose too consistently, they might stop playing the game.

Referencing the battleground map Alterac Valley in WOW, Pardo said that providing incentives is what drives behavior. He noted that the original vision for the map factored in player-controlled bases, NPC support, quests, and capture points, but instead of the exploiting the epic nature of the map, players just wanted to run straight to the other side to complete their mission and gain as much honor as possible. Pardo went on to mention a few miscellaneous player psychology design choices, including removing notifications that a player is being inspected in WOW because it led to players feeling like they were being stalked.

With his session time approaching its limit, Pardo briefly touched upon a few more design choices involved in successful multiplayer design. Visual clarity is extremely important to communicating how the game works to players, saying that it's important for designer to ask themselves whether the look of a unit or weapon suggests its function and power. Visualization is also important for differentiating teams, and that hidden modifiers impede players from really learning the game.

Pardo also briefly addressed maps and matchmaking, essentially advocating the need for moderation with both. Giving players too much choice with either of these realms often leads to alienating players. With maps, players are better off learning a handful of maps well than having a massive selection, Pardo said. Likewise, players who are able to customize their preferred gaming choice down to the smallest minutia will find themselves with no one to play with.

Almost in passing, Pardo noted the importance of deciding up front whether a title is appropriate for e-sports. With Starcraft being one of the premier competitive gaming titles around the world, Pardo said that the importance of making the game a spectator activity can't be stressed enough. Adding in replays, spectator modes, and referee controls are all important game design choices, he said. It's equally important to foster a community around games by way of Web support.

Discussion

33 comments
sdozer
sdozer

Twitchiness isn't the end-all be-all of multiplayer fun. Multitasking is annoying. It's based on one's body and not always on one's skill. if you think it enhances multiplayer...then maybe it does by reducing the crowd to just dedicated people lmao But other than that, people unable to perform the many simultaneous tasks required are more likely to throw away the game. As I said enhancing multiplayer for the dedicated people. This is versus twitch games where it's in human DNA for those few simple tasks to be fun. Some people just get more pissed than others when the challenger is too tough for them. Those people, if they are unable to multitask, are certainly the ones way more likely to outright throw away the multitasker's game.

madmenno
madmenno

Ehhh could you tell that to the other developers? They realy don't seem to get it :D. Your wish is my command living legends of blizzard. And treifia, the balance is very good with every class totally different, tell me of a more balanced game. The PvP isn't as good as some mmorpg's though.... And letsgetacid, Your talking about real life... If you don't go to school a lot you won't get better. If you don't please your girlfriend enough you won't get better, If you don't play counterstrike, civilization, warcraft 3 and yes also WoW...... you just.... won't get better? Is there something odd about that? Do what you like, and get better with it.....

Peaches1347
Peaches1347

SC2 sounds great! but i hope they don't forget about the classic units and don't ruin the game

Treifla
Treifla

was it just me? or was the editor on crack with this article; so many mistakes. on the note of multiplayer first, to bad Blizz doesn't operate with PVP first, if anybody remembers WoW in it's earlier stages they they would remember that pulling teath would be easier then getting a good balenced game of PVP going on. (sometimes i feel that it still is) Edit: so aparently people are whining about customer service? i have had a few problems with WoW over the year and a half i have played it, i have never seen service so pleasent before. people need to remember that customer service is a two way road, if your an ass to them, then dont' expect the greatest service

Nikalai_88
Nikalai_88

This is why I like Blizzard, its not always about some great innovative and marketable feature but all the tiny reitirations and nuances that they get right. Companies like Relic should take note, one of the reasons I quit Company of Heroes online despite it being very fun were listed here, like how some of the modifiers are purley stat based with no real visual indicators and the fact that the game gets patched and rebalanced what seems like every month and a half. Despite never really getting a feeling that it was becoming better balanced.

Tremere1
Tremere1

Go Blizzard go. I can't wait for SC2. It is going to be great. And for those posts that say bad about Blizzard's customer support... just ignore that. It is like with almost every other game company. They are business company, after all.

letsgetacid
letsgetacid

WoW can be a blast in a PvE environ, but PvP is wildly imbalanced and favors pockets of players rather than being accessible to a broader audience. While that isn't exactly a bad thing given that it has the possibility to divide players so that the inexperienced and under-geared can face fairer challenges while vets and players with better gear can face other players with similar advantages, the problem becomes that there are elitist players that can stomp anyone that is either new or incapable of keeping up into the ground, and the players they can do this to can do nothing about it. This is ultimately why I don't play MMO's anymore. It's not so much the "deep pockets" of the hardcore. It's the fact that anyone who literally has less of a social life (work, school, girlfriend, etc.) has a distinct advantage, as they can spend much more time on getting the best gear. I'm not complaining and saying this should be different. It's just a reality I've accepted with MMO's, and thusly I don't play them. For that reason, I play Guild Wars because winning a fight in there depends more on having a good build and teamwork, rather than having the top raid armor. Plus the lack of a monthly fee is great. I can't devote large chunks of time to a game, so being able to jump back in and out without little consequence is a huge boon.

RockySquirrel
RockySquirrel

Rob filled the first WoW expansion with tons of sexual inuendo... It has tarnished the game and the fan base. He has no appreciation for a roleplay on-line environment, WoW lore, his art team, or his tech team. Rob's style of development is turning WoW into trash. His "South Park" way of thinking is a pitiful shame.

Killingspree303
Killingspree303

Can't wait for Starcraft 2! SC2 Multiplayer is going to be even better than Warcraft 3 Multiplayer was, so it's going to be great.

living_wmd_888
living_wmd_888

They need to get rid of the point-and-click system and work on a true action-based interface, where the player's physical skill will decide the outcome.

HK-Ghost
HK-Ghost

@DFTricks: I wouldnt say its "nothing" without it. SC had a very good campaign. The multiplayer is as good, and adds longevity as well.

Nexrad
Nexrad

actually im pretty sure starcraft had one of the best campiagns so i dunno how it is nothing without multiplayer not to mention the new layout for the campaign this time around

DFTricks
DFTricks

Starcraft is nothing witout it's multiplayer. I cant wait to beat down people online :P

Sins-of-Mosin
Sins-of-Mosin

You can be a casual player and still raid, the key thing is to make friends. If your a jerk then nobody will invite you to go. Then again, why do you have to raid? There is plenty of stuff to do solo or in a 5 person group. If your limiting yourself to just raiding at 70 then your missing out on half the game.

Kniterait
Kniterait

How comes nobody mentions anywhere, that you have to play WoW for 12 hours a day to accomplish anything, when you are casual, you will NEVER EVER going to see current end-game. Even when the next expansion comes out you still need a over-average group to do the old Raid instances.

Destroyeron13
Destroyeron13

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Mephistroth
Mephistroth

"they just get their bad reputation from their customer service" - apparently people have not played many mmo's I have played 7 in total and blizz has had the fastest customer service yet. especially for the size of their subscription base. Its a known fact that people are too needy and ask for too much and when you need to serve 9 million people... lets see you do better 8)

Icehearted
Icehearted

WoW can be a blast in a PvE environ, but PvP is wildly imbalanced and favors pockets of players rather than being accessible to a broader audience. While that isn't exactly a bad thing given that it has the possibility to divide players so that the inexperienced and under-geared can face fairer challenges while vets and players with better gear can face other players with similar advantages, the problem becomes that there are elitist players that can stomp anyone that is either new or incapable of keeping up into the ground, and the players they can do this to can do nothing about it. The only other issue I take is that it's more about math than skill. If your numbers/percentages are better you will fare better. Sensible, but if you take two players of two classes and pit them against one another at the same level with the same level gear (lets say tier 4) one of the players will almost certainly win every time simply because in a PvP environment they are favored by the system as it's been set up by the devs.

xgalacticax
xgalacticax

I suddenly remember the south park where they play WOW and try to kill everyone

jangojay
jangojay

@morgonstjarna Pardo crafts out multiplayer design not single player...

morgonstjarnan
morgonstjarnan

It's interesting.. he's not said a single word about the need for a story in the entire article, and in the next article we have Ken Levine talking about the need to dumb down the plots for the "average" gamer. Sad.

RaiKageRyu
RaiKageRyu

Blizzard has a an excellent software process.

Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest

you see, this is what all game developers should be like

infect999
infect999

@Merl57: Blizz makes awesome games, they just get their bad reputation from their customer service, which is quite lacking. dont let bad things you hear keep you from playing their games though

shadyelf
shadyelf

"however, as to players, "change is always bad." " So true...

Merl57
Merl57

they have a good idea. But most of the rep I hear is terrible about blizzard,. I am however impressed by Arena net providing even better support with no monthly fees.

Killer_Pickle
Killer_Pickle

2nd, didnt really answer much about the game, but good nonetheless

nivkithkani
nivkithkani

First paragraph of Player Philosophy: loose = not tight lose = not win Come on gamespot! I expect it from the aolers, but not you guys.

ebolosan
ebolosan

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]