GDC Austin: An Inside Look At The Universe Of Warcraft
Thursday morning's GDC Austin keynote was met with a large crowd as Blizzard Entertainment's J. Allen Brack and Frank Pearce took the stage to offer a detailed look into the inner workings of the genre-dominating World of Warcraft.
Introduced by BioWare's Rich Vogel, the two men completed a three-part series run by GDCA on the inner workings of the gaming powerhouse.
Vogel introduced the two with word that they'd be focusing on the company's operations, and Brack began by separating the "universe" of World of Warcraft (its design, production, and implementation) from the in-game universe of barbarian shamanism and magical power. He admitted that the company tends to hold things fairly close to the vest, but today their intent was to share some of the 'behind the scenes' elements rarely considered by company outsiders.
World of Warcraft was launched on a foundation of 10 years of Warcraft RTS games. Brack noted the first appearance of the yellow exclamation point in the Warcraft III title, and the RPG-focused elements of the Orc Campaign in the Frozen Throne expansion.
The World of Warcraft team, which split from Warcraft III, was actually working on a squad-based RPG called Nomad prior to their shift in focus. The game featured haunting alien imagery, but it was something that they ultimately couldn't find a voice for. After months of pre-production struggle, they set aside Nomad and began work on WoW; "What would we do if we wanted to start a project today?" was the question they asked. The answer: an MMO.
Management, Programming, Art, and Production
Within the World of Warcraft team, there are some 30 department leads. There are three tiers of management, with France Pierce (Executive Producer) on top. Production Director Brack and Game Director Tom Chilton are below him, and below those two men are arrayed 8 lower-level managers. Brack notes that they try to structure the teams around the people, and not the other way around. They feel strongly that employee strengths should dictate organizational structure, and as a result all reporting structures within the company vary by team.
Each team on the game aims to be made up of 5-8 people. They break that regularly, Brack admits, but that is the goal. The programming department currently consists of 32 people, and envelopes systems, tools, gameplay, server technologies, and UI. Brack singled out the tools team as a critical component of this group. They make tools not only for the developers, but for customer service as well. Blizzard has an expectation of a long life for World of Warcraft, and so they see these tools as products to be fully-supported in-house. These tools go through their own proofing process, with certification dictated within the company. Their UI team is a cross-disciplinary team with artists, LUA programmers, and C++ developers all collaborating on the game's front end. In all, the programming team is responsible for some 5.5 million lines of code.
The art department is currently sitting at 51 people. Technical artists, character artists, environmental artists, dungeon artists, prop artists, animators, and concept artists are all lumped into this group. The prop team Brack calls out as a new group, a team dedicated entirely to creating wheels of cheese, torches, and other accoutrements to make a place within the game world feel 'alive'. Overall the art department is responsible for some 1.5 million assets.
Pearce moves on to the Production department, only 10 members strong. They're overseeing of all the other departments, and view themselves more as support than management per se. They aim for low ratio of employees to producers, to ensure that every Blizzard employee is getting somewhat individual attention. Creative teams to not report to producers, he pointed out. Team leads, instead, take up leadership roles within individual departments. The art lead, for example, still creates art. Creative employees report to the men and women that best understand their individual process. In turn, producers and leads collaborate to ensure that everyone understands their role. Leads are not forced into management/leadership roles they aren't comfortable with. Pearce notes the importance of what he called 'succession planning.' Producers help each team to understand who would be tapped in the future to take on a leadership role should the current lead step down, as well as plot out the future careers of individual employees. Overall production has managed 33,000 tasks in the last ten years.
Design, Cinematics, Sound, and Platform
The design department, some 37 members strong, came up next. Class designers, profession designers, itemization designers, level designers, event designers, encounter and lead designers are all grouped here. Brack points out the multi-disciplinary nature of the level creation team. They use WoWEdit to incorporate art assets and create the zones in the game. The events team is responsible for not only holidays like Hallow's End, but also static world components like the city of Dalaran and the new and popular Argent Tournament. Over the years, the team has created some 70,000 spells and some 40,000 NPCs.
The cinematics group was the next to be pointed out by Pearce. Machinima sequences, teasers, and the amazing pre-rendered cinemas that make Blizzard games kick off with a flash are all created in this group. As a talented group of artists, they also use this group to direct the creation of sword replicas, statues, and other physical objects. The group is 123 people strong, and Pearce notes that they could actually spend a whole talk just talking about how cinematics is organized.
The in-house sound department was next on the block for Brack. Handling sound effects, music, voice casting and recording are all partner projects with this team. The group's audio director is a talented composer, and has ended up composing a number of pieces for the game. There are over 27 hours of music in World of Warcraft currently, and Brack jokes that fully half of some patches for the game are audio files.
Platform services was the next group detailed, incorporating technologies for all of the games across the company, Macintosh development, QA, localization, and QA for in-house elements. There are some 245 people in this department, one of the largest in the company. Brack drilled down into the QA group, noting their sometimes inglorious role to test every patch and gold master. The size of their workload continually grows. World of Warcraft kicked off with some 2600 quests. They added 2700 quests in the Burning Crusade expansion and another 2350 quests in the Wrath of the Lich King drop. A total of 7650 quests in the game makes it very challenging to maintain and track all of the game's content. The QA group has tackled some 180,000 bugs since the game launched.
Localization, Technical Services, International Offices, and Online Services
Localization translates and culturalizes World of Warcraft into 10 different languages, and Pearce notes that there are actually more people playing WoW outside of the English language servers than inside. The capability to do all of this work in-house is incredibly important, and as a result they have no 'partial' localizations. It's not just translation and localization, they view a new language as an ongoing commitment to all the players on those servers. They actually have a dedicated producer working with this group to ensure that they have all the resources they need. Choosing to launch in a new language is a decision they don't make lightly, and Pearce points out that this group currently tracks 360,000 text strings and some 2 million words.
The technical services group is dedicated to getting every patch to the players. Patch 3.1 pushed some 4.7 petabytes of data to the players. Brack points out that they actually have to do some 10 patches for any given patch they do because of the numerous languages they support. QA has to test every patch they release, and there are actually 126 types of patches (streaming, universal, incremental) that all have to be updated and supported. A monumental task, Brack says.
The Blizzard Online Network services group is Pearce's next focus. A huge group, they have data centers from Texas to Seoul, and monitor over 13,250 server blades, 75,000 cpu cores, and 112.5 terabytes of blade RAM. He points out the picture of the GNOC in their slideshow, a data core that even has televisions tuned to the weather stations. They use those to ensure that conditions of the data center are up to their standards; with only a staff of 68 people they ensure connectivity across the globe for the numerous WoW servers.
International offices handle local market conditions, games that are released in other countries, and the occasional censorship issue prompted by a government. They also handle local marketing as well, ensuring it meets with regional sensibilities. There are hundreds of people in all these offices across the globe. Brack went on to talk about the customer support staff, a group with 2,056 game masters, 340 billing managers, and a host of other background staffers. These tireless staffers also work from locations around the world, ensuring that any local variations in culture (or the game) are respected.
Pearce then focused on the Online Services team, a group that includes the important gaming service Battle.net. Pearce gave a quick overview of the many new features coming to the service such as Battle.net-wide friends, integrated billing, and a number of other new features. Online Services specifically handle login technologies and billing elements for World of Warcraft. There are now 12,000,000 Battle.net accounts, and they look forward to the eventual seamless integration of that community and the WoW community.
Web, Community, PR, et al
The Web team was Brack's next group to discuss, a team responsible for managing a host of websites, online stores, the WoW Armory, and promotional materials. The mobile technologies team at Blizzard is grouped under this umbrella as well, and Brack calls out the mobile armory and the mobile authenticator as products they've previously released. They currently manage some 900,000 web files.
The corporate applications team is the company's internal tools team for activities "around" the game. They work to do fraud prevention, maintain bug tracking, keep a look out for upcoming trojans and spyware, maintain the internal wiki, and are responsible for the WoW team's internal data mining. This is the group that ensures the designers know exactly what is popular and what isn't in the game. Pearce jokes that the achievements system has been especially popular with WoW players and to date the players have unlocked some 4,449,680,399 rewards.
The PR and community teams were Brack's next focus, the groups responsible for public interaction. The PR team has helped to ensure some 10,000 articles have been written about World of Warcraft, while the community team acts as a liason between the players and the team itself. The 66 members of the community team ensures that civility is maintained on the game forums, and produce the always popular "blue posts".
The eSports group is responsible for all of the Tournament-related activities. Their budget includes prize money, travel arrangement money, and venue arrangements, and they ensure that professional gamers are tied directly into the WoW/Blizzard organization. To date they've hosted almost 1640 events. The events team proper is responsible for organizing BlizzCon, getting employees to events like GDCA, and coordinating with other consumer conferences.
Brack notes the new addition of streaming viewers via DirecTV this year, and the explosive acts of Jay Mohr and Ozzy Osborne. With streaming viewers, BlizzCon had 100,000 participants this year -- and although it loses money for the company as a standalone event, it's incredibly important for marketing reasons.
Marketing, the next group on the docket, handles box creation, web campaigns, TV commercials, partner promotions (such as WoW-themed Mountain Dew), and in-game promotions like refer-a-friend or the scroll of resurrection. They're obviously very successful, as their commercials have seen over 10,000,000 views since Blizzard's television advertising campaign began. Licensing, a related group within the company, handles novel publishing, comics, strategy guides, the upcoming WoW magazine, apparel, plushies, action figures, games, and endless other tie-ins. Their role is to pair the right products with the right brand, and to date they've helped to release 400 products with Blizzard properties.
The creative development team is the hub for the company's history. They have two full-time lore historians, keepers of blizzard's past. They are the liaisons with the novelists, work to create shared art resources, act as an archive for every piece of art that's been created for Blizzard Entertainment, and currently maintain 100,000 art assets. Pearce takes a moment to note that the World of Warcraft team also has the capability to tap into the resources of other development groups within the company. He singles out the StarCraft 2 team as helpful for getting the original game out the door. Strike teams from these other groups are also helpful in evaluating World of Warcraft content without the connection that the team members already have, impartial observers for new content.
Brack notes that WoW also taps all of the other 'background' departments in the company. Finance, Human Resources, Facilities groups, the legal team, and of course the IT team all support the massive undertaking that is World of Warcraft.
Making the World Work
As an organization, World of Warcraft utilizes 20,000 computer systems, 1.3 petabytes of storage, and more than 4600 people. "Operating an online game is about more than just game development." Pearce hopes that the importance of these non-development groups is obvious, especially given the explosive growth of the company over the last five years. "World of Warcraft has completely changed the organization", and it wouldn't have been possible without the departments that they'd singled out.