Gordon Walton, the co-studio director at BioWare Austin, gave a packed beyond capacity speech at GDC Austin. The interest is unsurprising given the topic of the talk, Walton's job working on a new MMO, and the stature of BioWare as a company. And Walton's jocular but insightful speech did not betray the expectations set by the eager crowd.
As everyone now recognizes, World of Warcraft is a towering titan above the MMO industry; its success seems unassailable, but at the same time its success is forcing a lot of developers and publishers to jump onto the MMO bandwagon. Clear lessons can be taken from the game's development, and with the help of quotes from Blizzard's own staff, Walton delineated what he felt were the 12 most crucial... though he ruefully noted there could easily be 60 lessons to learn.
His first point was that although Blizzard were not experts in the genre -- in fact, the company had never shipped an MMO before -- Blizzard learned well from the genre's past. Essentially, Walton posited that taking a critical look at your genre rather than being a fan or having experience developing it is of utmost importance.
According to Walton, another success of WOW was Blizzard's insistence on keeping system specs low. He railed against developers' addiction to high-powered gaming PCs -- asking the crowd how many replace their rigs every year, every two years, every three. He noted that regular people simply don't replace their boxes that often, and that "there's a lot more real humans than there are us."
As he'd asked for questions during the speech rather than after, someone piped up to ask if the fact that reviewers don't have time to fully appreciate an MMO means that concentrating on graphics -- implying that good press would result -- is the answer. Walton didn't think so.
"This is not about getting some more customers -- this the opportunity to get lots more. Like 4-10x more. There is maybe one game a year that drives hardware sales... they get a lot of hype, but look at their numbers. How much do they sell?" He also expressed surprise that Blizzard did a Mac version of the game, seeming unsure if the ROI was there. On that front, no conclusions were drawn.
"Quality counts." This one was interesting because it sounds so obvious, but as Walton pointed out, in the MMO world... it's not quite the case. "What was consistent about every MMO pre-WoW is that they were buggy as sh*t. They were rough. Even if they were fun, they were rough. They all launched with hundreds, if not thousands, of known bugs. Everyone basically ran out of money and launched their games."
He continued, "I think that quality was a true innovation on Blizzard's part. Nobody had done that before at that level of play. Because they did that, their game stood out night and day above everybody else's games. What's the biggest mistake? What everybody did without exception -- shoving it out the door." He admitted that he was guilty of doing the same thing in the past (we can thus infer that BioWare will not in the future.)
A audience member asked if publishers or venture capitalists new to MMOs would recognize the quality factor. Musing on the question, he talked about human nature: "We fool ourselves into doing things that we know are not right because of the current circumstances... human beings tend to think short-term... the future value of the MMO is immense if you don't blow the launch. [If you launch a bad game] you can look at something and go 'I flushed hundreds of millions.'
With "one chance to make a first impression", he posited, "the brand value of an MMO is created within the first week of launch. End of story. You're done the first week... I say a week, but it might even be a day." The implication was clear: get the moneymen on board with the quality equation or suffer. He offered this simple warning: "It's a post-World Of Warcraft world. You better do that."
One thing that WoW is frequently recognized for is its solo play. Walton's fourth lesson was: support this, because gamers want it. According to Walton, older games that forced players into groups missed the point: "[the] truth is that people soloed every game to the best they could and when they couldn't anymore, they quit. Embracing solo play that was a true innovation for WoW."
It was pointed out that players who hit the level cap are pretty much forced to group in WOW; Walton still felt like the game "feels like it's a level playing field for all people at that level" and thus isn't quite as sinful as it could be. He offered a Blizzard quote on the solo issue -- "We look at soloing as our casual game." Given the weight of the phrase "casual game" in 2007, you can bet the audience was scribbling that one down.
The next point was another design tip, and became mildly convoluted (like the issue it tackled, ironically.) "Simplify the damn GUI!" Walton exhorted. "MMOs have the worst and most complex GUIs because we have so much sh*t you can do in the game. We want to give players all that stuff!" He judged WoW's interface to be "as simple as it can possibly be and as fun as it can possibly be." An audience member correctly added "...but no simpler." Walton suggested that as hardcore gamers, we forget the painful process of learning interfaces since we did it so long ago -- and to be mindful that gamers come to games much fresher than we do.
At the same time, Walton maintained that a new GUI "had better be 50% better than the current stuff" or players will hate it. An audience member asked about the massive customization and complexity powergamers perpetrate on the WoWinterface. Walton described customization as "a steam release valve" for an audience that can't be satisfied within the bounds of the basic interface. Bringing up another example, Walton cited City of Heroes, another MMO with a strong casual audience. "Conventional wisdom said that their game was missing all these features, but it worked."
Moving on, Walton wryly noted, "Content sucks. Content takes people to build. You can build systems, but systems suck because we pattern match 'em real quick. Content is custom-crafted things for people to do." He described the concept of the "player horizon" -- a player should not perceive all that she can do from the beginning of the game: something tantalizing has to hang out of reach. "If I can visualize everything that will happen to me by the end by level 3, the game's over." When asked about procedurally generated content, Walton thought it "doesn't work because it's generic and obvious." He thinks gamers will quickly perceive the pattern of how it's generated: "Somebody just changed the names of the NPC and the names of the places I go to get stuff."
Another sticking point for many designers (and gamers) is PVP content. Walton thinks strong PVP is essential. He also offered up this thought: besides the core PVP gamers, "a certain percentage of people [exist who] don't know that they want to compete once they have some mastery." But from a developer standpoint, "it's hard to balance PVP and PVE together."
Also, "if [developers] don't like PVP it's hard to get behind it" but "the nice thing about having bigger teams is that we have enough diversity [to pursue different tracks]." According to Blizzard's Rob Pardo, in a quote Walton presented, PVP was made easier to develop in WOW by the fact that monsters and player characters have very similar damage and HP capacities.
"Don't tune for the hardcore." Turning to the audience, Walton asked for a show of hands: "How many of you have shipped an MMO? How many of you remember a discussion about making the game harder to keep people in the game longer?" He dismissed those who had but didn't, and suggested that this stems from "forgetting our object is not to keep people as long as humanly possible, but to provide entertainment." When it comes to grinding, "they will do it, but they will hate you."
When he first encountered WoW, he admits thinking that the game would be over in 50 days -- because it's so fast paced. But when its success became apparent, Walton realized something. "I was thinking about crazy people! Crazy people can finish the game in 50 days, but crazy people are not who we should be thinking about.... where's the real market, our real customers? If anything, I think people should make games that level faster than WoW -- that have the right content to hold up."
He then suggested something even more controversial -- "Let 'em quit." He warned of making promises for features in patches that would never come to fruition (or do so far down the line the promises don't matter anymore.) "City Of Heroes taught me this before WoW -- a game that you finished and felt good and you'd re-up." But with other games "they quit because they'd stayed too long... the only way for them to escape was to demonize the game."
His personal experience is that he'll drop in and out of WoW at a whim with no ill feeling. However, he didn't think it was relevant that WoW doesn't delete inactive characters -- the "namespace" freed by deleting characters makes them worth deleting. He warned gamers get dissatisfied "if it takes more than three tries before they can have a name that they want."
Moving on, Walton discussed an issue that comes up in many games -- and one that generated a little debate in the audience. Suggesting you should direct your players' experience of the game, he asked, "Are you Disneyland or are you a sandbox?" Noting "the interesting thing about sandbox games is that they tend to have a ton more griefing" he suggested "an accessible game is directed. You never leave them in a place where they go 'what do I do next?' The vast majority of customers -- particularly when you get out of the hardcore -- need the signposts."
He suggested that too many choices are paralyzing. If a player sees 10, he thinks, "I can make nine bad choices!" According to studies Walton has read about the human mind, "If you want people to do well, give them two, no more than four choices."
Here someone pointed out that it makes it easier for a developer to make the choices better. But according to Walton "a common developer mistake is to give people good choice, bad choice, medium choice. They need to all be good choices. People want to feel like things are complex, but they don't really want them complex. You have to give them the illusion of complexity but keep it super-simple."
Someone else pointed out that this is at odds with the idea of a virtual world, but it doesn't seem that Walton is interested in the virtual world aspect of MMOs so much as providing an enjoyable experience for gamers. He advised the audience to "think about your quest chains in WOW. Think about how they drug you through stuff, but you didn't feel like you were being drug through stuff. If you make it feel natural, most people will never notice that you're doing it."
Taking a page from 1980s ads for the board game Othello, Walton suggested that an MMO should be "easy to learn, difficult to master." Warning that again "it's hard to get inside a newbie's shoes... if you overwhelm them with stuff, people will not learn it all. It's not about how deep it is -- it's about how steep that learning curve is. A shallow learning curve lets people move through it at their own speed." He suggested "Nobody's entertained by feeling incompetent. Feeling competent and gaining mastery is a huge part of game fun for people."
The 12th and final point was perhaps the least immediately practical. Walton praised Blizzard's reputation for consistent quality products -- "brands matter." He asked the crowd "who believes that there's more than three companies who you'll buy their games sight unseen?" Nobody raised their hands. His slightly depressing (if pragmatic) analysis? "You're not going to kick WoW's ass because you don't have a brand that's good enough to do it. Can you be competitive? Maybe."
Questions and Answers
Here, the formal question and answer time began. The first question was: what was the biggest error Blizzard made with World Of Warcraft? After pondering for a few moments, Walton suggested it might be "not getting experience in database and backend server was their biggest error. The launch was not that nice... backend can kick your butt, can kill your game."
Regarding innovation, which Walton thinks is crucial -- though he was understandably coy about his specific thoughts on where MMOs can or should go -- he suggested that "the places to innovate are endless, but what do players want? Innovations have to be substantially better to be noticeable." Small leaps? Forget it: "Their game has eight classes, my game has 16. Who cares about classes? Do something I've never done before. If nine out of 10 people can't tell it's an innovation, it's not an innovation."
The thread that tied the talk together was changing the mindset of the developers: it's about understanding that a general audience is not the power gamers. If a game is to be successful with a broader audience, it has to be more fun, more directed, more accessible, and faster-paced.
All of these things have been anathema to MMOs thus far, but Walton suggested that World Of Warcraft threw them into stark relief. In a genre in desperate need of innovation, these words offer hope for a way forward.