As one of the final lectures of this year's Paris GDC, Blizzard SVP of game design Rob Pardo sat down for a detailed Q&A on World Of Warcraft, StarCraft II and the future of online games.
Talking to Game Developers Conference executive director Jamil Moledina, and rather gauchely drinking wine on stage, the discussion started with a look at Pardo's background.
How did he come to head up the design team for a ten-million subscriber MMO like World Of Warcraft. Moledina noted that Pardo's university work was in criminology, and asked if it figured into what he does now.
Pardo grinned: "I used to joke about my educational degree being criminology, and how it had no relevance to designing games."
But one of his co-directors at Blizzard said that wasn't necessarily true, Pardo mused: "A lot of what you do as a game designer is think through problems, and be able to argue both sides, and both of these things really work with a pre-law program."
Pardo's path to his position today came through being a game tester for Interplay, then a line producer, and he came in to Blizzard as a contractor, adding feedback in StarCraft, and doing game balance work.
According to the Blizzard exec, he became one of the best players of the game internally, if not the best player: "The running joke was that the AI plays like me."
Moving To Multiple Franchises?
But how about the movement into multiple franchises at Blizzard, from Warcraft to Starcraft? Pardo explained: "With Blizzard, we found the ability to put an IP on hold. We wanted to do another RTS, but we were tired of green-skinned orcs, so we moved into that Starcraft world."
Indeed, pausing successful franchises for some time is a tactic that not many other companies take, but Pardo says it comes with some benefits:
"What was interesting is that when we were away from [Warcraft] for a while, when we came back to it four or so years later, we had all these ideas for it. There was Warcraft III, and then halfway through that the idea for World of Warcraft came up."
But how did the firm power forward into the MMO genre? Pardo quipped: "Very naively, or else we might not have done it." Early inspirations were Ultima Online, and then Everquest - but Blizzard felt they could see the elements that made those games less accessible.
Balancing Feedback In Starcraft 2
Next, the discussion moved on to the upcoming RTS Starcraft 2, which, according to Pardo, "...is at a fun stage. There's lots of stuff happening. The game is playable, and it's quite fun. We're now really starting to make ground on the single player."
But how, Moledina, asked, do you balance input from the community, versus the team, versus marketing team focus group data on a tremendously datarich game such as Starcraft 2?
Pardo mused: "The first thing is that everyone playing the game has an opinion. And you can't take opinions as right or wrong, because for that person it's true. And you can't take it personally."
He then mentioned that someone sent him a 16 page diatribe on a balance change he made in one of Blizzard's titles, and said that he actually hired the guy.
"He was wrong, but he was passionate, and he had a lot of good opinions, and now he's making items for World of Warcraft."
Making Community For Games
So, how about community? World Of Warcraft has created a massive, vibrant one. How do you do it? Pardo noted: "The first step is to really have a great game, which isn't necessarily what anybody wants to hear. There's been a lot of talks at GDC about using web tools, and Facebook and MySpace and all these things."
"All those things are great, but ultimately you have to make a great game. I think that if you hire all these people, and try to do all these marketing things to draw people in, ultimately that will draw time away from making that game. But if you make a great game, there are things you can do afterwards to support a community."
But how about the move to free-to-play worldwide when it comes to online games? Pardo explained of the knock-on effect: "It affects us quite a bit. We've been successful in Asia for 10 or 11 years now, so we're more savvy with the Asian business models than most. But what's difficult for us is that what's acceptable and popular in Asia is so different from the rest. We're a global company. And it works very well over in Asia, but not so well over here. And subscriptions work great here, but not so well in Asia. It's really hard to make something that works in both places."
He elaborated: "If you make it subscription here, and free to play in Korea, that doesn't work, because it's a global community, and the other regions wouldn't like it, because everyone knows what everyone's doing. And the game design might not support it."
Interestingly, Pardo commented on this subject: "When were first going to make World of Warcraft, we wanted to make it free and advertising supported."
However, the Blizzard exec noted: "We didn't want to charge a subscription, but as we researched market conditions, we realized that wouldn't support us."
Activision Blizzard, User Content, Web Interfaces
Finishing up, Moledina asked Pardo a variety of questions on a wide-ranging set of subjects. One of particular interest was the discussion of the upcoming Activision and Vivendi Games merger, to create an entity called Activision Blizzard.
When asked how it affected Blizzard's design, budgeting, or hiring, Pardo explained: "It really doesn't affect us at all. One thing that was great about this particular merger is that Bobby Kotick and all the great people at Activision didn't want to do this deal unless everyone at Blizzard bought into it."
He explained: "They really wanted to get to know us, and that's never happened before... they wanted to merge with us because ultimately it would make us a stronger company."
On a completely different subject, Pardo was asked what kept MMOs from consoles. His answer was simple: "Lack of hard drive space, and difficulty in certifying patches. Basically just that.... another problem is that they want a piece of the subscriptions (laughs)."
User-created content was another key question put to the Blizzard SVP, and he explained on his and Blizzard's thoughts on it:
"I think user generated content is amazingly awesome. But I dop think it's not the magic bullet that's going to 'make' your content. I think sometimes people think about making games by saying: 'We're just going to take this editor, and the fans are going to make everything for us!' I don't think that's the right approach."
He concluded on this front: "I think if you make a great game and put in the tools to let the fans manipulate that game, that will be a great model."
Finally, Jamil asked an extremely relevant question, given the state of the web game market - is it possible to get an 'AAA game experience' through the web interface?
Pardo was blunt: "I dunno, not until Microsoft, Intel, and Apple get their shit together. There's such a dichotomy with hardware these days. With Microsoft, I think they have a bit of lip service with PC gaming. They have their own game system now, so I don't think it's really in their best interest to support [PC]."
However, he noted: "There's been some Apple resurgence, so maybe Dell and Apple will get together and make a consumer box that has a decent graphics card in it, who knows? I do think it's going to happen, but I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't happen with Microsoft."