Things We Can Learn from Blizzard
Sep 26th, 2009 by worldblee

With World of Warcraft, Diablo, Starcraft, and the original Warcraft franchise, Blizzard is not only one of the most successful developers ever; they have a track record for quality that’s hard to match. Why are they so good? Using a recent Gamasutra interview with two development leads as a jumping off point, we’ll look at how Blizzard design principles can be extended—or not—to other games and creative endeavors.

In the interview, six themes useful to developers emerged, and we’ll look at these in turn. From Concepticate’s point of view, these themes can be applied to many creative projects, not just games. (Note: The bulk of this post first appeared over two columns I wrote for the – David.)

1. Endless iteration

“Here’s the secret to Blizzard games, and this is a secret that won’t help any of our competitors: endless iteration. We’ll take something, we’ll put it in the game. Maybe we’ll like it when we put it in, maybe we won’t. We’ll leave it in there for a while, we’ll let it percolate. We’ll play it and play it and play it, and then we’ll come back. We might throw it all out, or we’ll throw half of that out and redo it.

“It can be a long time, but it is fun to work on as well. That’s the thing that keeps you going. Multiplayer always works, and the builds are always playable. We’ve played them constantly, and it’s fun. You actually look forward to the weekly play session even though the game is still in progress. That’s what keeps us going, and that’s also why it takes so long. We’ll do it over and over again until it’s just right.”

– Kevin Martens, lead content designer

Analysis: Blizzard gets forever to make their games, right? While most of us are stuck with a constrained development schedule, ship dates that can’t move because of quarterly revenue goals, we need to ask ourselves just how Blizzard can afford that extra development time. Why? Because it works and their games have been successful enough to bankroll the additional months (and years) of development.

No matter how much experience designers have, there’s no better way to prove a point than trying out a feature to see how it works in the game. The proof is in the playing. And this appears to be what Blizzard does—put it in, tweak it, take it out, put it back. It’s not the most efficient way to develop, but if you really want to hone your design, exploration and experimentation are two great tools.

There are certain things you can try out at a low level, using simpler geometry in pure gameplay tests. This is a practice I’ve always encouraged, but for some things—visual design elements, characters, etc.—you need to see them in context. No shortcuts there other than building your 3D elements out of modular re-usable pieces. But in general, the earlier you concentrate on experimentation, the less costly it will be to the development process

What Blizzard does is essentially re-investing their royalty revenue back into game development. Rather than building a whole bunch of different games and hoping one of them takes off, they focus on multiple elements for a single game. If you have a strong concept, this is great. It goes without saying that you want to start with a good concept before you invest heavily in iterating on it…

2. Find the line by crossing it

“[A] Blizzard philosophy that may have been there but may have not been disseminated across the entire company, which is, ‘You find the line by crossing it.’

“I think we’ve gotten really good at that now, allowing ourselves to push things to a point where they go too far, and then you look at them and you say, ‘Oh, okay. Now we know where the line is.’ But if you’re trying to just edge up to the line, you might never find it.

“That’s the goal here, to push things as far as they can possibly go.”

– Julian Love, lead technical artist

Analysis: In today’s clone world where games are sold based on their association with existing titles (it’s GTA . . . in space!), there’s little incentive to dial things up and down, tinkering to see just how far you can push technology, weapon powers, outrageousness, or whatever. It’s safer to take an assumed safe point, perhaps doing some tweaking around it but never straying far from your comfort zone. But let’s face it; with so many games out there, it’s harder to get noticed while playing it safe. Go big, and see what happens. If it works, go even bigger. You’ll see the point where it gets ridiculous and you can reel it back in.

This goes hand in hand with the iteration discussed above, but here we’re talking less about discrete elements and more about the properties of elements—not necessarily trying out a different character or item but seeing how far you can push an existing character or item.

3. Build games you can play for years

Diablo II is still on the PC sales charts every week. Over and over again, you have a big Christmas rush, and it bumps off, but then it’s back on in early January again.

“I think Diablo II is the standard for this kind of game, so largely what we’re thinking about is making sure that we do the series justice—which we feel that we are—and making sure we’re trying to expand the market. Personally speaking, I hunger for a game like this, one that’s going to last for a long time—something we can play for ten years, like Diablo II.”

– Kevin Martens

Analysis: Too often, we focus on providing a game that pays off in the first ten minutes of play to the exclusion of long-term satisfaction. In a corporate world fixated on instant results, this is natural. But even from a strictly financial perspective, Blizzard’s strategy has paid off. Diablo II, as Kevin says above, is still selling nine years after its release date. That one heck of a long tail.

Crafting your game with care and eye to the long term means you will take fewer cheap shortcuts. You will take the effort to fix a weak level rather than figuring most players won’t make it that far into the game anyway.

Games that players keep playing yield not only continuing sales of the core product, but opportunities for add-ons, compilations, special editions, etc. Make one game really well, and your long-term prospects will be better than if you make four average games.

4. Everyone can play

“[E]veryone has a PC, and we try to keep our system requirements down as low as possible. That’s one of the ways that we can make sure to appeal to enough people. Some of the really cutting edge games that come out for PC require a brand new video card and probably more RAM at least, if not a new CPU as well. That’s really rare with Blizzard games. I think that’s one of the reasons we still keep doing well.”

– Kevin Martens, lead content designer

Analysis: Blizzard’s emphasis on low barriers to entry goes beyond the hardware requirements for their PC games. While Blizzard games appeal to hardcore players, they’re not difficult to get in and play. Seriously, who can’t play Diablo? There are strategic elements to the game, but the basics of clicking on the map to move or clicking on a character to attack it could not be simpler. World of Warcraft is the same way: there’s plenty to do in the game, but the basics are idiot-proof.

This philosophy is not going to shock anyone with its originality, but it bears repeating: the more players you invite into your game experience, the more will be able to enjoy it. The more you shut out, the more you limit your audience.

5. Make everything as awesome as the most awesome parts

“One of the reasons we keep retooling the Barbarian stuff—some of the Barbarian skills were done a long time ago—is because as we added a new class or added higher level skills in, we did something else that was more awesome. And part of the Blizzard design is that if something is too awesome, we generally try to make everything else as awesome as opposed to pulling that one back.

“That’s one of the reasons that the iteration takes a while, but it’s also one of the reasons why everything is over the top. The example about art—you find the line by crossing it—applies to the design as well. You make things way cool, smashy, explodey—everything. Then you pull it back a little bit, for balance reasons more than anything.”

– Kevin Martens

Analysis: The efficient way toward getting your game noticed is to have a few really cool or innovative features—a new cover mechanic, a new way to use the controller, or a great story premise, for example. Raising the rest of the game to match the high points? That takes a lot of dedication and work. This tip is not for the faint of heart.

But if you can get your team focused on a kind of friendly competition, you can raise the stakes of the development. When engineering does a great job, challenge the art team to do the same. When one character looks great, challenge the other character artists to match the level of quality. The only thing to watch is overemphasizing things that don’t matter—objects that do not matter to the player should not get as much attention as ‘foreground’ issues that are central to the game’s premise and gameplay.

6. Every voice matters

“It doesn’t even have to be within your area of expertise. If I have an idea for a spell effect, I can go right to Julian and say, “Hey, what if the guy did this and ice went out his spine and blah blah blah?” and vice versa. Anyone. QA guys come in and offer brand new class ideas. It’s very open-ended. It’s the good ideas that come to the top. It doesn’t really matter where they come from.”

– Kevin Martens

“Even in QA, we have a core value that says every voice matters. Literally, every voice. Anybody, even sometimes outside the company—you listen to what they’ve got to say and consider it, which is exactly how we got to a new form of [the Barbarian’s skill] Whirlwind. Even though it wasn’t the message we wanted to hear, there’s something to it.”

– Julian Love

Analysis: Every developer says they do this. The question is whether or not they take it seriously. Not having worked with Blizzard, I don’t know if they do this as well as they used to, but it’s a critical component of company culture to encourage.

Without naming names, I used to work at a large publisher. It wasn’t like every game we made was great, but feedback could move across channels and come from anywhere. QA people were encouraged to criticize products and share ideas, and eventually the QA guys would become assistant producers or product managers and move up from there. They had started where they heard directly from customers (QA guys worked on customer support as well), and they carried that forward into their careers. When the company got so large and successful that people at the bottom couldn’t contribute anymore, the company started to go downhill.

Listen to what everyone says—a person’s title doesn’t mean they can’t have good ideas about things not in their job description. It doesn’t mean that everyone has great ideas, just that you should listen to the ideas themselves without worrying where they come from.

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