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.
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.

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