The winning ways of 'Warcraft'

In a rare public appearance, Blizzard Entertainment's head designer explains what made the online game a hit.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
5 min read
AUSTIN, Texas--If there was one piece of noteworthy news that came out of the first day of the annual Austin Game Conference here Wednesday, it was that "World of Warcraft" publisher Blizzard Entertainment provided keynote entertainment.

Since the 2004 launch of the smash hit--which is now approaching 7 million paying subscribers and $1 billion in annual sales--Blizzard has been hard to find at the plethora of video game industry events, a rarity among major publishers.

And while Rob Pardo, vice president of game design, didn't reveal any news in his morning speech, he did pull back the curtain on what Blizzard sees as the keys to the company's runaway success with "WoW."

"What we thought would be cooler for most people is to give them a reason for killing other than that experience bar."
--Rob Pardo, Blizzard VP of game design

Around 2,500 video game industry professionals are gathering here for AGC, a conference focusing mainly on online games. During the course of the three-day event, attendees will choose from panels discussing things like "the future of virtual worlds," "moving beyond men in tights" and "the future of player interaction," as well as keynotes by Pardo, Academy Award-winning producer Jon Landau and Hugo award-winning author Vernor Vinge.

"Wow" sales have dwarfed those of competitors like Sony Online's "EverQuest" and "EverQuest II," NCSoft's "City of Heroes" and "City of Villains," and old massively multiplayer online (MMO) games like Origin's "Ultima Online." According to Pardo, the popularity of "WoW" is due in part to easier game play, a more intuitive interface and the broad appeal of millions of potential playmates.

"The first mantra of Blizzard is definitely 'easy to learn, difficult to master,'" Pardo said. "Depth comes first and accessibility later."

Blizzard had been developing well-received games like "Warcraft" and "Diablo" for years before "WoW" launched in late 2004. According to Pardo, one key to the company's approach is that developers first figure out how to make the game play fun and then they work on completing the many levels of play.

He said some other game companies make the mistake of trying to build all their games' levels at once, and in the process, they forget that a game must have a deep sense of fun or players won't stick around.

He also said that while "WoW" is a multiplayer game, Blizzard is aware that many users want to play solo, at least for a while. Thus, the company puts a lot of effort into designing experiences for players to enjoy alone.

For example, he said, "WoW" dungeons are built to appeal to the game's core players, but they are also a place where single players can have fun slaying beasts and accumulating loot. Further, he added, such experiences can help solo players see the benefits of playing alongside others.

"It becomes kind of a bridge for casual players to become a little more hard core," he said.

Once the depth of the game design is out of the way, Pardo said, Blizzard then works on accessibility, and that begins with usability.

He said that a common pitfall for MMO game publishers is trying to make too many things accessible from the user interface.

Instead, he said, Blizzard focuses on making the user interface easy to work with and giving players a way to find what they need immediately. But they have to dig a little deeper for more complex features and items.

The next step, he said, was ensuring that "WoW" was scalable, from the first level to the 60th. That includes ensuring the gear, activities and tools at each level are appropriate to the players there.

"We really wanted it to be available to everyone," Pardo said. "As you level up, you see a lot more content. You might see players in really elite gear (at lower levels--if the same goods were available at every level), but none of that happens if you get to level 20 and stop."

Meanwhile, the company puts a lot of effort into making sure there are plenty of quests--but not too many--for players to undertake, and that those quests are easy to find.

"In a lot of MMOs, people had to go (onto Web-based game-related sites) to find the quests. We found that even the most casual players go, 'Wow, I need to go over there,' and right away you have a quest," Pardo said.

Also, a major part of questing is killing. And for Blizzard, the slaying of enemies is an integral part of "WoW." But rather than overload players with innumerable beasts to kill, under the guise of seeing an "experience" bar rise, designers of "WoW" try to make the violence integral to the larger game.

"What we thought would be cooler for most people is to give them a reason for killing other than that experience bar," Pardo said, explaining how some of the game's quests will task players with killing beasts in order to accumulate various kinds of loot.

And to be sure, this is not an entirely novel approach to MMOs. But by putting an emphasis on "killing with a purpose," Blizzard is setting in stone some of the key reasoning behind its formulas.

Another element of "WoW" and other Blizzard games is what Pardo called "polish," which he said starts in the design process when designers consider questions like whether game play will be fun; whether there are solid mechanics; and how cool the art will be.

Also, he said, Blizzard places importance on regular communication among everyone involved in the process. Development teams, for instance, don't go off to work on a project as part of a larger game without staying in touch with other teams. The idea, Pardo said, is to avoid "the grand reveal," in which a team returns with a great piece of work that doesn't go well with the rest of a project.

All of these steps--each of which are no doubt practiced by many publishers of other MMOs--helped give Blizzard the means to create "WoW" and to take the online game industry by storm.

And for Pardo to appear onstage at the Austin Game Conference and explain Blizzard's keys to building a successful game was a bold move, especially as many people are wondering what it will take for another company to come along and take Blizzard's crown.