World of Warcraft

Control is king. And that matters, it’s important. People will leave over that, but you’ll never know that is the reason. -Rob Pardo on how Blizzard’s Game Philosophy translates into World of Warcraft, Austin Game Conference, 2006

Unless, of course, someone invents Reddit in which case you'll know that's exactly why they left. To be clear, the post's title and the text below are from Raph Koster's notes of Rob Pardo's keynote address not an exact quote; if someone is able to find a transcript or a video, I'll link it here.

Took me months to find this because I forgot who had said it and – as I know now – I read it over a decade ago. However, it did lead to a 3000 word overview of WoW's original design philosophy which I thought everyone might enjoy reading since many of today's current subscribers didn't play back in Vanilla. In doing so, I realize that I'm handing out clubs to everyone who wants to bludgeon Ion/Blizzard even more than they already have. While that would have been my intent when I started looking in September, I'm past Anger now so I'll restrict my criticism to the one inherent to the title.

From Raph Koster's live notes of Rob Pardo's keynote address at the Austin Game Conference, 2006:

Rich Vogel intro: WoW is now a global brand, approaching a billion dollars in revenue and at 7m paying users. Rob Pardo was lead designer of Starcraft and is now VP of Design at Blizzard.

What Really matters: how Blizzard Game philosophy translates into World of Warcraft

We have a set of core philosophies, and I will talk about how we apply them to WoW.

We have a lot of mantras: “concentrated coolness,” “easy to learn, hard to master,” etc. With many designers it’s important to have those shared values.

It all starts with a donut. Allan Adham (original designer & founder at Blizzard) would draw a donut to explain what Blizzard is about. The middle of the donut is the core market. The casual market is the rest. We see Blizzard as being about both, and that the casual market grows faster than the core.

A chief way of doing this is through system requirements.

Easy to Learn, difficult to master is the first Law. Design in the depth first, the accessibility later. A lot of folks seem to approach this the other way — when we first develop our games, we first try to come up with the really cool things that add year sof replayability. Then we start talking about accessibility afterwards.

In WoW, we early on talked about character classes. One of the most important things you can do in a class based MMO is the combat system. So we tried to make the combat classes as unique and different from one another as possible. Dungeons too, we wanted them to be a much more hardcore experience, we wanted only groups in there, and so on. The dungeons are there to serve more of the cor e market. It’s something to strive for, a bridge for the casual players to become a little more hardcore.

PvP was another big depth decision. All of our games have been online competitive games. Early on, we didn’t know how honor would work, whether we would have achievements, but we knew we needed PvP Alliance vs Horde.

Lastly, we knew that raids and end game had to be there. We all played UO, EQ, we led uberguilds. We wanted encounters more like you see in Zelda, scripted encounters.

After that, we started talking about accessibility. Which starts with the UI. One of the first pitfalls with UI is trying to make everything visible from the UI. We try to streamline the UI, present only the stuff that is important. This is why we made the auction house accessible via an NPC, rather than via the HUD.

System requirements is another huge component of accessibility.

Another thing we talked about very early on was the game being soloable to 60. We really wanted it to be available to everyone. If you just wanted to play like a single-player game, you could do that,but you’ll see dungeons, battlegrounds, people with cool gear, and so on. We saw this solo game as our casual game.

We also spent a lot of time on the newbie experience. First and foremost, it’s not overwhelming. We generally shy away from tutorials. I enjoy games like Prince of Persia and God of War, which ease you into the game. That’s the approach we take as well. We drop you right into a newbie zone, and it’s not overwhelming. You’re not in a huge confusing city. The newbie experience is not finding your way out of the starting town.

The newbie zone also gets you right into the action. Everywhere you look, there’s a building or two, a couple of NPCs, and monsters. Within five minutes of starting up, you can fight monsters.

Exclamation point design: a game completely driven by quests. We wanted you to always have a reason for existing, a story. The exclamation point design is something we first did in Diablo II. Even the most casual players click on the guy with the exclamation point that is right in front of them, get a quest, and are off and running.

“Killing with a purpose” is the quest philosophy for WoW. With other MMOs, quests were just go out and see that experience bar move. Getting another bubble of XP is really fun but no accessible. We thought that giving you a reason to kill things was more accessible. A lot of people criticize how many bounty or collection quests are in WoW, but it came out of “killing with a purpose.” This way you are always moving around the world, seeing different things in your combat.

Clear concise objectives: try to provide all info in the game, don’t drive players to websites. We try hard through our quests what you need to do, where to go, where the quest giver is so you know where to go back to. Every time we bring in a new quest designer, they want to do a ‘mystery quest” that has vague information, but the reality is that the player will just go to Thottbot, and the people who don’t do that are the casual players who are the ones you need to handhold!

Don’t make players talk to every NPC to find a quest. We try to make it easy to find the quests, a menu of options for things to do. There is a side effect, what we call the Christmas tree effect, which is too many exclamation points overwhelming the users. There’s a balance between too few and railroading, and too many.

Give players a menu of options, but with a limit of 20. Raising the cap on the number of quests is one of the most common requests. We do have technical reasons not to, but the real reason is that the bigger the quest log gets, the less you feel like you are on a mission to do something. If you vacuum up the quests, and then kill indiscriminately, you are probably doing one of them. So putting in a limit makes people make some decisions.

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Quest designers are “the cruise directors of WoW.” Their job is to show you the world. When we first do a zone we talk about POIs, points of interest, how many of each type of quest, and that’s the job of the quest designer. Different people like different kinds of quests. So we have to give you a list of possible entertainment to choose from.

Pacing: the bridge between depth and accessibility. Once you have all those deep features, then you have to figure out how you get from the newbie experience to that core experience. For WoW, that’s done through the levelling curve. When I hire designers for Blizzard, one of my pitfall questions that I ask is “why do you think WoW was successful?” One of the hidden answers is the levelling curve — if you extend the levelling curve too far, it becomes a barrier. You hit a levelling wall. Our walls are shorter and there are less of them.

The short levelling curve also encourages people to reroll and start over. We had some hardcore testers who would level to 60 in a week. There was much concern within the company. But I would tell them that we cannot design to that guy. You have to let him go. He probably won’t unsubscribe, he’s going to hit your endgame content or he’ll have multiple level 60s. In games with tough levelling curves, it discourages you from starting over.

Rest system also helps with the casual player who plays 4-5 hours a week. The hardcore player will keep the game in “no rest” state the whole time, whereas casual players will get rewarded for weekend binges followed by days off.

Bite-sized content: we try to tune our quests for accomplishment in chunks. We aim for a 30 minute session, lunchtime battlegrounds. We are doing more “winged dungeons” in the expansion, because we kinda stumbled upon it. We split up the dungeon into separate wings that can be done in 1/2 hour to an hour — like Scarlet Monastery. This was a lesson we learned during development, so we weren’t able to apply it everywhere in the original release. You want to avoid getting to a place where the content of your game doesn’t allow people to play unless they have X amount of time that night.

We aimed battlegrounds at the folks who over lunch would play Counterstrike, or Battlefield 1942.

Concentrated coolness. What this means is, rather than make variety and lots of things to do, make fewer things really cool. The best example in woW is the class system. Lots of games have more classes, multiclassing, etc. We consciously avoided that in order to make each class as cool and different from the others as possible. This allowed us to have unique spells, abilities and mechanics. No red fireball, white fireball, blue fireball, etc. Even the two pet classes, hunters and warlocks, use their pets completely differently. We consciously avoided sharing mechanics across classes. We recently announced that the paladins and the shamans are switching sides. One of the primary reasons why we undid that rule was that we found ourselves merging them into each other for PvP balance. So we decided that it was less important for each side to have its own class than it was to have concentrated coolness for each class.

More classes are not always better. Once you get enough different units or classes, players can only handle so much. When you see someone, you might not know what they can do, and this matters because when you want to form a group, you lose track of the strengths and weaknesses. In battlegrounds, you need to know instantly what the opponent can do to you. Even if you have 50 completely different ideas that are cool, it’s still important not to use them all.

Our class ideas originally came from Warcraft 3. What we chose to do was to take the heroes and combine them. Warrior got aspects of mountain king, blademaster, and Tauren chieftain from War3. We chose to concentrate the coolness.

Tradeoffs. Every decision comes with tradeoffs. designers are greedy by nature — we want everything, moms, dads, cats and dogs playing together. Nothing in game design is black and white, it’s all shades of gray. Whenever we can, we try not to compromise. It usually results in both sides being dissatisfied. If we had solo dungeons, then he group dungeon fans would feel their achievements would be cheapened. So we chose specifically not to have solo instances.

An example of Tradeoffs: system requirements of Wow versus Crysis, for example. Crysis looks awesome. But we would rather have the broader market. So that forced us to the stylized art style that is resistant to looking dated. It did generate lots of negative press, and our graphics programmers always wanted to push farther too. You just have to be prepared. But every game we’ve released, we have gotten the comment that our screenshots were not up to par.

There are benefits to the cutting edge side too. It’s easier to market, and developers want to make the best quality art. You’re fighting against developer psychology if you choose the other route.

World size vs teleportation is another. WoW vs Diablo. We wanted to the scale of the world to feel epic. But you get players getting frustrated and calling it “World of Walkcraft.” You use flight taxis to maintain integrity and having limited teleportation means you can have remote areas where you consciously do not provide a flight path to it.

But on the teleportation side, you get a lot more social connectivity, which is what MMOs are all about. There’s a barrier there if people have to travel and coordinate. We consciously decided to have that tradeoff. Players do want the convenience.

Another tradeoff is prestige gear versus customizable gear. Players ask for dyeing armor, all that. When I played Ultima Online I loved that. It was a great feature. But there’s only so much art time you have, and we chose instead to concentrate the coolness on armor from specific rewards instead. The whole point for a lot of hardcore players is to show off your advancement. So we chose the best gear to be from raids, so we can recognize someone’s achievements based on their gear. The tradeoffs is that you lose everyone looking different and users expressing creativity. And if you try to have both, you’ll end up muddled and somewhere int he between.

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The Blizzard polish. Polish is the word associated with us in reviews. There’s this big assumption that polish is something you do in the end. That we’re successful because we spend 6-12 months at the end polishing. We do get more time, but we do the polish right from the beginning. It’s a constant effort. You have to have a culture of polish. Everyone has to be bought into it and you have to constantly preach it. if you leave it to the end, it’ll be more difficult.

You’ll get a lot of “why does it matter that this feature is polished? It’s so small.” But people notice 1000s of polished features, not the single polished feature.

Polish starts in the design process. (pic of skeletons in a room, which he says is the designers in a room). We’re kind of in a new era at Blizzard, when i started we had very few people with the title game designer. That’s been changing over the last few years. It’s interesting bringing in an experienced designer from outside, because they want to make a unit week, add a mechanic constantly, work 100 miles and hour. We have to get them to slow down. You need to talk through things with everyone else, and you have 100 features and they all have flaws and don’t work with each other. So when we are in a design meeting, we try to consider everything. Will it work in this raid encounter, in PvP, as a newbie, for the art, solid mechanics, etc. Contrary to popular belie, we do consider production. Mounted combat is an example of something killed by production time. Bounce ideas off everyone. Let the beer goggles wear off.

When we develop maps, we do it on the whiteboard, so we can iterate, and there’s no cost to changing things.

Phase 2 is when we actually make something. The first thing we try to do is make it fun. Northshire valley, for example — we spent an inordinate amount of time on it. Where do we put the trainers, how does the combat feel, etc. We probably spent more time on it than any other area, by an order of magnitude. After we made it fun, then we made it big. We didn’t go out and build the entire world of WoW until we knew what we were building. It didn’t make sense to do that until we had figured out all the details of the fun. If you have to retrofit the fun into the content, you’re gonna be screwed. When we went into the friends and family alpha test, people were surprised that it was fun. It was a lot easier, once we knew what was fun, to do levels 10-20, and 20-30 and so on. The design at that point was creative design, not mechanics.

Control is king. Game control is taken for granted a lot of times. I remember on Warcraft 3 I could feel a little bit of lag on the mouse cursor, and I kept saying it to the programmer, but he kept saying he couldn’t see anything wrong. Finally he coded in a hardware cursor so we could run both cursors at the same time, and lo and behold there were three frames of lag. And that matters, it’s important. People will leave over that, but you’ll never know that is the reason.

“Beware of the Grand Reveal.” This is a pic of a dungeon that was supposed to be in the original release but is in the expansion, because the subteam went off to work on it in a vacuum, disconnected from the rest of the team. The grand reveal was when they came back and showed it. It was supposed to be a raid dungeon but the doors were too narrow. So back to the drawing board it went, three months of redo because we didn’t redo along the way.

Lastly, have fun with the game. Put in the little in-jokes. If developers are having fun making the game, chances are the players will have fun with it too.

Phase 3: the finish line. Feedback strike teams is something that we have used for a long time. We pull devs from all the teams and put together a diverse group with a mix of play styles — RTS guys who don’t like MMORPGs, etc.

Don’t take small decisions for granted, especially in that newbie experience. We had cases early on where people grouped up with 1 other person that they would get into the next area at 4th level, and that meant they had a bad experience. So we try to ask a lot of questions and don’t let things die on the feedback and striketeam list.

The beta test for us is not about finding bugs. It’s not really about getting a lot of game feedback. it’s about stress testing from a technological and gameplay level. We encourage our testers to exploit the hell out of the game. In our RTS beta tests, people always get upset that we run a ladder in the beta test, because the guys on top are exploiters. But that’s the point — we want to see who the top ten exploiters are so we can look at their games!

Don’t ship until it’s ready. This matters even more with MMOs. You might hear that it’s improved later, but no one actually goes back to try it. You will really cripple yourself, you put at risk the next five years of your product. So hopefully all you publishers will give the developers more time.

I hope we turn this genre into something special. The thing I think is really unique about MMO games — you look all the other genres, and the genre depicts a very specific type of gameplay. But massively multiplayer, this genre has the biggest frontier, it has the most we can achieve, and we should be pushing at all kinds of different directions.

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