WOW designer kicks off Austin conference

Rob Pardo demystifies the Blizzard polish, addresses how a counterintuitive approach to game design is sometimes the best, and explains the secret of a "healthy donut."

AUSTIN, Texas--The Austin Game Conference (AGC) is all about online gaming, and right now, online gaming is all about Blizzard's massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft. So it's only fitting that this year's AGC, the fourth annual event and the first to span three days rather than two, would kick off with a keynote speech from World of Warcraft's lead designer, Rob Pardo.

Before a ballroom packed with hundreds of attendees, Pardo detailed the Blizzard design process that birthed hits like Starcraft, Diablo, Warcraft, and, of course, World of Warcraft.

"We have a lot of goofy mantras," Pardo said. "Things like 'purity of purpose,' 'concentrated coolness,' obvious ones like 'easy to learn, difficult to master.' When you have a large studio and a lot of designers, it's kind of important that everyone understands your values and when you're developing that design culture, if you don't have these shared values, it's very hard for all the designers and developers to understand what you're trying to achieve."

The first Blizzard value is a donut, with the inner ring representing the core market for a game and the outer ring being the casual crowd. While Pardo explained that it's important to appeal to both casual and core markets, he noted that as the group of people playing a game grows, the casual market tends to grow much faster than the core segment.

The healthy donut is achieved with decisions guided by a series of mantras, the first of which is "easy to learn, difficult to master."

"The first thing we always do is we design depth first and accessibility later," Pardo said. "And I think this is kind of unintuitive... We try to come up with [answers to] what are the really cool things, the things that are going to attract players to this game and get them to play the game for two to three years? Where's the depth coming from? And then we think about accessibility."

For World of Warcraft, there were four features Pardo said were key to giving the game depth. The team wanted to make the classes as distinct as possible; they then made the game's dungeons specifically to serve the core market and act as a bridge for more casual players to get further into the game. Other features that the team spent time tuning for added depth included player-versus-player action and more interesting raids and end games with encounters "that are much more like something you might see in Zelda."

After focusing on the depth, the team went back and made the game accessible, starting with the user interface. Pardo said the art of designing a good user interface was about what was left out as much as what was included. The team deliberately made some features of the interface a little bit harder to get to in order to keep the basic screen interface simple and accessible.

To further avoid intimidating or frustrating players, Pardo said the team wanted the game to be "soloable to 60," so that players who didn't want to get involved with parties could enjoy the game almost as a single-player affair. The developers also focused on the new player experience, first and foremost ensuring that it isn't overwhelming.

"There were a lot of other games we saw where your newbie experience was trying to find your way out of your starting town, and we wanted to avoid that," Pardo said.

The team's next mantra was "killing with a purpose," an idea that dictated the quest design philosophy.

"With a lot of the other MMOs, you would just go out and the whole reason for playing the game was just to see that little experience bar move," Pardo said, adding, "That's actually really fun gameplay, but it's not particularly accessible to people."

Instead, Pardo said Blizzard tried to give people a reason for the combat, and they used the quests as a way to show the players the game.

"Rather than going and finding the spot in your level range that has the most efficient monsters to kill for the most experience, we would actually get you to kill all the monsters in your level range and give you more experience through quest experience than just killing the monsters themselves," Pardo said. "So in that way you're always moving around the world--you're always seeing a new place, seeing a new monster, experiencing different things with your combat."

As much as it's a good start to have something to offer the core gamers and something to offer the casuals, Pardo said it was also important to turn the latter into the former.

"Once you have all those deep, interesting game features in your game and you've done the accessibility, you need to get people from that newbie experience to the core experience," Pardo said. "It really becomes all about pacing."

Going up to the game's launch, Pardo said some Blizzard staffers were panicking because certain testers were reaching level 60 within a week or so of starting their characters. A few people within the company advocated extending the content so that it would take longer for people to reach the game's upper echelons, but Pardo insisted that they couldn't design the game to cater exclusively to the heaviest users.

Rather than artificially extending character progression, Pardo said Blizzard relied on those players to choose to create other characters in new classes and level them up as well.

"We chose to make each of our classes as cool and different from each other as possible for a lot of reasons, but first and foremost so that players can recognize the classes and so that when you play them it's a new experience," Pardo said.

To direct the design of new classes, the team turned to another mantra, "concentrated coolness." Early in development of World of Warcraft, the thought was that they could carry over some of the basic hero characters from Warcraft 3 and use those as the basis of the MMO's classes. However, in order to keep the classes distinct, fun, and comparatively few in number, Pardo said they took the best parts of each and combined them into World of Warcraft's current lineup of class options. For instance, Pardo said the Mountain King, Blademaster, and Tauren Chieftain from Warcraft 3 were essentially combined into the Warrior class, which was given the thunder clap, critical strike, and shock-wave abilities of its predecessors.

While Pardo explained some of the choices made in the development of World of Warcraft, he didn't necessarily say they were the right ones. In fact, he described development as a series of trade-offs, more shades of gray than black-and-white issues of right and wrong. For instance, he talked about the decision to go with stylized art for the game to keep system requirements manageable. It meant the game would run on more computers and the stylized art style would likely age well, but it also meant the team was prepared for criticism from the press and public for not putting out something with cutting-edge visuals

Another trade-off Pardo mentioned was the decision to limit transportation options in the game. By preventing players from teleporting instantly to wherever their friends were adventuring or wherever their next quest was, the gameworld carries with it a sense of scale. However, it also risks irritating players who don't want to spend their time hoofing it to get where they need to be.

Finally Pardo discussed the famous Blizzard polish and dispelled a misconception about the way it works.

"There's this big assumption with polish that it's something you do at the end, that the reason Blizzard is successful is because we get 6 to 12 months more than everybody else and at the end of that process we just spend a whole lot of time polishing, polishing, polishing," Pardo said. "We do get more time, but that's not where we do all the polish. We do the polish right from the beginning. It's a constant effort. You really have to have a culture of polish. It's something that everyone has to be brought into; it's something you really have to preach."

Pardo said Blizzard emphasizes the polish every step of the way--from design through production and beta testing, the company strives to make everything just right. And while he admitted a lot of the tweaks made are things that would almost never get noticed on their own, the sum of thousands of such tweaks creates the very noticeable polish on the end product.

The final piece of advice Pardo gave to the assembled crowd was, "Don't ship until it's ready."

"I think every game has this, where if you ship before it's ready, you're really going to cripple the chances for the success of that game," Pardo said. "But with massively multiplayer games, the stakes are much higher... People generally don't take a second look at your game. There's been a whole lot of MMO games that shipped early, admittedly so by their companies, and in a lot of those cases, you hear these great stories about how much more fun their game is [now]. Yeah, that's great, but no one actually goes back. If you ship before you're ready, you're going to cripple yourself. You're putting at risk the next five years of your product."

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54 comments
fermented
fermented

This is rather insightful information about game development, I am rather pleased to see someone who can work both the business and the gaming side and still try to keep true to games. I have not played WoW but I understand just from reading this address why the game has done so well.

knurralarsson
knurralarsson

jjohnson3030: He probably used the donut analogy because it covers all kinds of players. The players that aren't very hardcore but aren't casual either are between the both rings, i.e. the donut itself. The rings are the inner and out edge of the donut.

Issachar
Issachar

I thought it was spelled doughnut

Bloodstaind
Bloodstaind

I seriously think this is a great game, I've been playing it for almost a year and I'm still hooked on it. This is the second MMORPG I've played in my life, and regretably the first one was Runescape. I honestly think this is about 2000x better than Runescape, and even if I get flammed for it...I know this because I played both. People who are hardcore Runescape or any othe MMO are going to ovbiously say this game sucks becase they just haven't tried it out yet, and hate it. Don't knock it till ya rock it is all I gotta say.

jjohnson3030
jjohnson3030

I don't like the donut approach. It leaves out the people who aren't very hardcore but aren't casual either. Or people who are hardcore for a while but aren't for long. I play more than most but am nowhere near hardcore. Also, I sometimes play a lot for a few weeks then experience spurts of inactivity for weeks. While it has gotten better since release, we still get screwed because of this donut approach; content is either casual or core, nothing in between. They need to make more content for the semi-hardcore!

SentientGames
SentientGames

I bought the game in November of 2004. I played it, got bored of it, played it some more, got bored of it, played it some more, got bored of it. I started playing again six months ago, and I'm still going strong. What's differant this time? I found an awesome group of people to play with. It's a great game. Find yourself a good group of people, get into a guild that suits your play style and your personality, and all of a sudden, you'll find that the game is just that much better. And, I know I'll get flamed for being a loser or something, but I met my girlfriend through WoW (this isn't some silly text based relationship either, we're moving in together in a month), so I have to give Blizz props on that. What I'm trying to say is: Just cause the game doesn't work for you, doesn't mean it sucks. I'd highly recommend at least giving the game a try if your interested in a fun, fulfilling, and well construction online game.

Ktok
Ktok

I’ve played EQ and EQ2 religiously for a long time. I’ve also tried UO, FFXI, Horizons and SWG. I tried WoW for about a month and only played it a few times way back at launch. I didn’t put much thought into it, and I didn’t like it. I canceled my account, and joined the tanks of the WoW haters, spewing out the company lines. It’s too easy. It’s for babies. There’s no lore. The graphics are cartoony. Etc… Then about a month ago, I felt the urge to try it again. I fired up the old account, and some of my guildies from EQ2 joined me, one of which had played it for a good while before coming to EQ2. I’m not sure what’s changed, but I’m having a blast. I “get” it now. Maybe it’s because I rolled up a Hunter and find the class to be the best pet class of any MMO I’ve ever played. Maybe it’s because I have a couple of buddies to adventure with. Maybe I just needed a break from EQ2 for a little while. I really can’t tell you why, but this time, it rocks very hard. Kudos to Blizzard. I hated on them and WoW for a long time, but I have to come clean and admit that I was wrong. I still love EQ2, and it will likely remain my primary gaming interest, but WoW is also a fantastic game in its own right, and one I look forward to playing along side EQ2 for a long time.

foreveraln1
foreveraln1

that picture is saying buy my game and continue your subscriptions cause your making me really rich lol idk i don't feel like reading this i just looked at it cause it said donut

Zalmoxex
Zalmoxex

Short : u like it play it u dont like it dont play it

Fascolik
Fascolik

When you have a good and friendly guild that run high end instance, you can have sooo much fun doing it. I'll always remember all the time we did MC laughting at lound the whole run because we were all kiding.

ekebratt
ekebratt

There are five kinds of people other than those who happily play WoW... 1) Those who never tried it but still say it sucks. Fanbois of another god, I call them 2) Those who never tried it (Or tried it, same people) and said "This just ain't for me". Intellectual beings I call those 3) Those who have played since release, still play, and still rant about how bad the game is. 4) Those who played it since release, for a year, stopped and now do something else. 5) Those who say "I played for over a year and I regret doing it" The last category is the most amazing one... You seriously play for a YEAR without noticing you're not having fun? I mean, come on, even a blind man can cross the road...

hammerfalls
hammerfalls

im blizzard fans.....and i like to play world of warcraft very very much....tat's fun game

VvWolverinevV
VvWolverinevV

I'm not convinced, randy915. I tried demos of Everquest, and D&D, and they were both terrible in comparison. Everquest is to WoW as UNIX is to Windows or Mac OS. You even have to type /hail to talk to NPC's... come on, that's not very user friendly. And then, there are the graphics and sound...

eiknarf05
eiknarf05

good comment ruttness! stu1515 just got pwnd by runstalker pewpewpew!1 oh yea, WoW rules. No matter how much you may "hate" it, at one point, you loved it. For got sakes you played it for a year! WTF does that tell you?

randy915
randy915

Let's be honest here... If this game was published by Atari and was called Lethal World of Magical Creatures of the Mighty Divinity, would 6 million players still play it? WoW isnt great because it's a great game, it's because of the brand and heritage of warcraft. Honestly it's not much better than anything else on the market. A different character here, a different graphics engine there, OOOOH talent tree. C'mon people...

carnedge
carnedge

Blizzard has let the cat out of the bag now lol

VvWolverinevV
VvWolverinevV

I definitely agree with the decision to make people walk around the World. I think the sense of scale is part of what makes this game great. And then when you get a mount, you feel incredibly more powerful. This is the first PC game I've played extensively since Diablo II, and I play it constantly. I've almost forgotten what GTA stands for :D

keinuveye
keinuveye

Hate it or love it, the underdog's on top...

jimmy-fly
jimmy-fly

i wonder how blizzard would manage with a starcraft MMO.. i mean if any MMO could compete with WoW it would be a starcraft MMO, i dont think blizzard would manage to compete with themselves :P

runstalker
runstalker

- explained: Many gamers are resentful towards WoW or to show for it. Only the memories of a repetitive and robotic grind you know far too well. All these things and more fill up that reserve of bitterness in the MMO player, and it freely--some would say involuntarily--manifests itself in text on video game message boards...as pure digital vitriol. 50% of said players/posters can be found playing WoW or [insert MMO they've played way too much here] that same night, having spent their reserve of bitterness and needing to re-stock their Upper Lewt Cortex like good little habitually-addicted, chemically-bonded slaves. But hey, if saying "I played WoW for a year d00d and it sux!!" makes the person feel better, even for a moment, by all means--proceed. Play that funky macro, white boy.

nintendorocks
nintendorocks

If World of Warcraft sucks why do all the developers in the industry praise it? Why is everyone trying to compete with World of Warcraft? If the game sucked so much, why would the lead designer by giving a keynote speech at the AGC? Oh, don't forget the little fact that almost 7 million people play it. I think you "WoW haters" just lost.

comthitnuong
comthitnuong

i want another starcraft not another wow

VegetaMaelstrom
VegetaMaelstrom

Blizzard why don't you guys get some people started on a Starcraft MMO? Everyone knows it takes years to get a good MMO up and running so if you start now then in 2 or 3 years when World of Warcraft is (maybe) winding down you can unleash the next life-sucking, time-draining game on us. You must get a ton of mail every day saying revive the Starcraft franchise. Time to start listening to us I figure.

Stu1515
Stu1515

Wow Sucks. I played it for just over 1 year, worst thing ive ever done.

gamerchikrpg
gamerchikrpg

i love wow!....but maybe he can suggest to blizzard some better servers. and a better race for horde. i mean seriously. BLOOD ELVES? wtf? ally gets drainei and we get elves? boo. but total respect for the guy tho.

Chainblast
Chainblast

"The healthy donut is achieved" LOL, is that even possible?

i_hate_pants
i_hate_pants

He looks so smug in his picture. I wonder how rich WoW has made him?

bigelf72
bigelf72

All you wow haters are just jealous because you cannot afford to play it. Go be emo somewhere else.

BounceDK
BounceDK

Why waste cash on WoW? It stinks. Same crap over & over & over .. & over again... They even re-use dungeons.... sigh..

Demonbob
Demonbob

I wish I had the cash to play WoW. Job time! >

Iadien
Iadien

I definately agree with him about MMOs shipping too early, and it hurting the game in the long run.

Fallout_red
Fallout_red

WoW has WarCraft 3 fanbase support and is a good game, these two made it mega popular.

BounceDK
BounceDK

He designed nothing, he just copied every other mmo .. sigh

ruttness
ruttness

WoW ROCKS! I LOVE IT! IN FACT I'LL GO PLAY IT RIGHT NOW!!

Chernnunos
Chernnunos

THat's all well and good, but isn't it about time you created NEW character classes instead of just giving other races the option to play the same classes? All that is is an aesthetic and cosmetic difference without much change or inventiveness. It's time for the Warden. It's time for the Necromancer. It's time for the Death Knight. It's time for the Tinker. It's time for the Monk. It's just time for newness. Not just recycled oldness.

wedgecorr
wedgecorr

Pretty only lasts so long it the gameplay sucks. I like the fact that Blizzard tries to cater to the casual player as well as the hardcore players. Keep up the good work blizzard and take this same mentallity to the future World of Starcraft *crosses fingers.

dukerav
dukerav

Yep what danol said, totally agree.

peeviness
peeviness

Blizzard has awesome direction.