In a lecture Thursday at GDC, Blizzard EVP of game design Rob Pardo shared Blizzard's core design concepts, offering examples of places where the World of Warcraft developer succeeded and failed in creating compelling multiplayer experiences.
Pardo offered a plethora of advice to the designers present, stressing that these lessons may not necessarily gel with other studios and suggesting that everybody go through this same exercise to set down their individual design team's rules.
Below are a few of Blizzard's rules that we found particularly helpful. Some may seem obvious, but often it is the obvious advice that we tend to forget about first.
Blizzard's core design philosophy is to design around the core fun gameplay concepts, rather than working around other aspects such as tech. By way of example, significant changes had to be made in the world's lore between Warcraft III and World of Warcraft in order to make a more fun and balanced game, despite pushback from some who felt the lore was sacred.
Pardo was quick to point out that he doesn't mean design comes first, as it is easy to fall into a trap where designers come up with things they like that don't work so well for the players.
Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master
More specifically, Pardo says the objective he pushes at Blizzard is more akin to "Easy to learn and almost impossible to master." Because almost all Blizzard games are primarily multiplayer, the company must focus a significant amount of depth to the multiplayer.
"When we shipped WoW, people say we dumbed everything down," said Pardo. "Actually, WoW is a really hardcore game, it just happens to be more accessible than a lot of other games."
Pardo says that the Blizzard design pipeline is to design the games depth first, because it's the hardest part of design. He suggested that rather than worrying about the multiplayer component of a game last, Blizzard tweaks that component first and feeds what they learn into the single-player campaign.
Make Everything Overpowered
"We want to take everything to 11," said Pardo. "Every unit and class has to feel like this unit and class can not be stopped. That's the feeling we want to give."
The ultimate goal of balancing classes, said Pardo, is to make players feel like every new class they play with is better than the last one. This applies not only to gameplay, but to characters and lore as well.
"All of our main characters are fifty feet tall," said Pardo. "And if it happened in the past, it happened ten thousand years ago."
Play Don't Tell
This is of course a gameplay-tweaked version of the "show don't tell" writer's mantra. Blizzard makes a point to make sure story is told through gameplay, rather than just being told through text.
"Use things like text and voiceovers to enhance the story, but not tell it," said Pardo.
Make It A Bonus
As designers, say Pardo, there is a natural tendency to worry about punishing the player rather than rewarding them, but a clever designer can play with a player's psychology and turn it into a bonus.
Pardo related an example of World of Warcraft's rest system: when the game launched, players were punished for playing too long by having their experience gain percentage drop from 100 to 50 percent after a couple hours of play.
"Beta players universally hated this idea and were screaming bloody murder," said Pardo.
The fix? Turning this into a bonus scenario instead. Players now start at 200 percent experience and drop down to 100 percent. It's the exact same mechanic, but now it's a bonus instead of a punishment.