GC 2008: Blizzard's 'Rings of Exposure'

I'll admit to a case of the nerves when taking my three Blizzard appointments yesterday here in Leipzig. I had a sneaking suspicion that the developer/publisher wouldn't be showing anything new on any of its trio of upcoming games--Diablo III , StarCraft II , or World of WarCraft: Wrath of...

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I'll admit to a case of the nerves when taking my three Blizzard appointments yesterday here in Leipzig. I had a sneaking suspicion that the developer/publisher wouldn't be showing anything new on any of its trio of upcoming games--Diablo III , StarCraft II , or World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King ; instead waiting for BlizzCon in October to spill the latest beans. My hunch turned out to be correct, as none of the trio of brief interview sessions featured any new gameplay to go by.

So, it required a change of plans. As I was heading to my first meeting with Jay Wilson, I was reminded of a panel held earlier this year at DICE by a trio of Blizzard execs , describing the iterative development and Q&A process the company goes through when completing any of its games. As it was described in the panel, at certain points in a game's development, it is gradually opened up and exposed to more and more Blizzard employees, who play it and offer feedback back to the development process. At crunch time, it's not unusually for developers to be pulled off their current projects in order to finish off a Blizzard game that's in the final push to retail.

But how does that "everyone in the pool" approach affect the development of the other projects in the pipeline? According to Jay Wilson, not that much. Wilson is the lead designer on Diablo III and is certainly one of the more enthusiastic proponents of Blizzard's development approach. While dev studios can tend to be jealous of one another and protective of their own projects, Wilson lauds the Blizzard approach of "being generous" with the other teams at the company.

In fact, it's by sharing that talent that great ideas often come. Consider the Witch Doctor, one of the two classes unveiled from Diablo III at the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational a few months back. According to Wilson, as it turns out, the team had initially planned on releasing another character class at the show--one that was further along in development. After showing off the Witch Doctor to internal employees, however, the character was such as big hit that the team changed plans in mid-stream.

Another anecdote: The Witch Doctor's "Sacrifice" spell, wherein he or she can cause the summoned demon dogs to explode on command, came from a member of the World of Warcraft team, who told Wilson simply, "You should be able to blow up your pet." Several dev and art cycles later, and the devil dogs go boom.

Blizzard vice president and co-founder Frank Pearce refers to the process as "concentric rings of exposure"; methodically getting the game out to more and more employees in order to consistently receive fresh and unbiased feedback on how a game is progressing. Like Wilson, Pearce also pointed out that ideas can come from anywhere in the company and at any time. Former GameSpotter (and current Blizzard PR man) Bob Colayco --who was also sitting in on my StarCraft II session--chimed in with an anecdote about the Death Knight in Wrath of the Lich King, which apparently started out as a series of doodles by StarCraft II art director Samwise Didier.

When it comes down to what features to add into a game, a lot of those ideas happen in casual conversation, according to Tom Chilton, lead game designer on Wrath of the Lich King. But, as production director Jay Allen Brack told me, ideas aren't the hard part. Rather, it's coming down those lofty heights of imagination down to the essential, implementable features that makes a successful WoW expansion.

It's that last point that struck me as particularly poignant--everyone's got ideas on how to improve a particular game, even if they've never so much as programmed a DVR. It's boiling down those ideas into the most essential parts and then acting on them that's the hard part. As Blizzard shows time and again, it's a time-consuming, collaborative, and not-always scientific process. But one that hasn't failed the company yet.
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As an aside, I did my best to pry away any details I could about what would be at this year's BlizzCon, to no avail, beyond the vague assertion that fans might see more on StarCraft II's single player storyline this time around. As Pearce told me, the multiplayer in SC II is in and functional and a lot of the current development time is going into the single player campaign right now. Hopefully we'll see the fruit of that labor in October.

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