Initial concept plan for Lake Wintergrasp. Basic... Blizzard Entertainment have a reputation for being "tight lipped", and not announcing details about the games they develop. And since Blizzard have a lot more freedom than the developers that are closely regulated by their publishers, they should be able to talk openly.

But having listened to many of their senior developers talk during the recent Paris "WorldWide Invitational", I suspect actually, they just don't know yet.

Increasingly publisher-driven games tend to be heavily pre-produced, then implemented by programmers who work for hire: The details are known a long time before release, and the only reason not to talk about them is competitive. But if you don't have such a precise battle-plan, you can't release information with any real certainty. So you either get a reputation for saying little, or get a reputation for producing games that ultimately exclude many "expected" features.

Blizzard are one of the most successful game developers, so they must be doing something right. It is interesting to try and understand how they develop games. On this page:

Box: Art Basics in Starcraft 2
A prelude - some key themes behind in-game artwork:

Redoing Half of It

Start with Samwise Didier's (art director) comments:

"Art isn't finished until the game ships. [...] Every time we have a finished race, we end up redoing half of it [...] and even then we'll patch it for 10 years."

Why redo "half" of all your game assets, when you could save time and money by getting them right first time?

Art is first completed to match the original design intention, but then the purpose of the thing may be changed radically by the design team. That requires new art or animations. Redesign of art or animations typically occurs when the design team are "80-90% sure" they have the design right. For example, Starcraft 2's "Thor" unit has evolved radically over the game's development, such that many of the original animations are now used for the "wrong thing". Once the design purpose of the unit settles down, those animations will be redone.

Design generally leads art. This creates "a better game" (Samwise again). But sometimes artists can create "something cool", which designers then make work.

The design teams are continually evolving content. In this Gamasutra interview (which is an excellent companion read to this article), Rob Pardo denies Blizzard use an entirely iterative approach:

"You can’t really iterate until you have some stuff built. Unless you have enough art and gameplay infrastructure in the game, you can’t tell if you’re going in the right direction."

Evolving Design

While there is some evidence of quite detailed initial prototyping (from the first demonstration of Diablo 3), there is considerable scope for change as a new part of a game world is developed. The box below provides some examples.

Box: Designing a New World of Warcraft Zone
Examples were given of how World of Warcraft's (WoW) Northrend dungeons (for example, The Oculus), "outdoor" PvP areas (Lake Wintergrasp), and PvP arenas (for example, Dalaran Arena) were designed. They all follow a similar approach:
  1. Concept art: What's the generally look and feel. (In one case this was cited as coming after the next stage, so the first 2 stages may inter-play.)
  2. Design layout: A simple 2D plan with dimensions. Is there enough space to hold all the enemy creatures? How much travel is required between encounters?
  3. Block-out: A simple 3D model, with no artwork. This allows people to actually play the game within the new environment, using a game client and normal game abilities. They get a feel for what works, and what does not. Can all tactics be used? Does the camera (player's viewpoint) allow a clear view of the action?
  4. Full artwork: More detailed models and textures. Even at this stage, balancing changes can still be accommodated. For example, Lake Wintergrasp is built on an ice-covered lake. Siege vehicles have to use bridges to cross water, but those on foot can swim. The balance of play between those 2 groups can be altered simply by changing the amount of ice-covered water. That does not require dramatic changes to the artwork or environment design.

The third stage is critical, because it allows the playability of the zone to be tested, without (potentially) wasting time perfecting the zone visually. The very rough nature of the 3D model allows quick changes to be made, tested, changed again, and so on, until the result feels right. There's a very strong parallel to David Law's paper mock-ups - the most basic level of prototype that allows designers and potential users to get a feel for whether the design is right.

What the box above does not state is the time-line: Lake Wintergrasp, for example, was announced last year. But it is not yet close to finished: The art and environment is partial, with certain mechanics and balancing within the zone still unknown. Yet this is content that we can expect to see by the end of 2008. If the entire game were built like this, almost nothing would be known for sure until quite close to the game's release.

In practice, some phasing of development is evident. In the first 2 WoW expansions the early (lower-level) content tended to be completed before the later content. So in Wrath of the Lich King, the Howling Fjord was somewhat playable by Summer 2007, when it was first previewed, while areas like Lake Wintergrasp were still a hole in the map. By Summer 2008, the Howling Fjord was almost complete, and Lake Wintergrasp had developed into a semi-textured zone, with the design summarised, but not detailed.

Even Death Knights Evolve

The box below describes the design process behind the new class in WoW's Wrath of the Lich King expansion, the Death Knight.

Box: Designing a Class - The Death Knight
Key steps, in order:
  1. Inspiration: Inspiration for the class comes from concepts and lore (story) in all the Warcraft games. For example, the Arthas Storyline in Warcraft 3, with natural links to Northrend (the continent added with the same expansion that introduces the class).
  2. Philosophy: What does the class do? The Death Knight has both "tanking" (acting as a focus for an enemy's attacks, while other players kill it) and melee "DPS" (dealing damage to an enemy). Every class should feel different to play. The Death Knight is primarily differentiated from other classes by its "rune" system.
  3. Core Mechanic: Runes.
  4. Class-defining abilities: For example, Death Grip, the only ability in the game that allows a player to pull an enemy towards them.
  5. Abilities for core roles: For example, switching between Blood and Frost Presence, depending on whether a DPS or tanking role is being undertaken.
  6. Abilities that reflect the class's inspiration: For example, Death and Decay.
  7. Talents: These give players the ability to bias their strategies. For example, the Blood tree focuses on physical damage and "life", the Frost tree focuses on frost damage and control, while the Unholy tree focuses on the "evil stuff" and minions. Talent trees are not intended to reflect specific roles [which is not the case for all classes].

Yet even the WoW Death Knight class example, which appears to be quite linear and structured, evolved considerably during development.

For example, the Death Knight's runes were originally conceived as pretty free-floating icons within the User Interface. But they transpired to be hard to see. What really matters to players is "when does the ability become available", so any button or icon has to clearly show "on" or "off" states. The second iteration, a class-specific blade-style border round the character's portrait solved the first problem. However, then a new rune power mechanic was added (which charges up as the player uses other abilities), the redesigned blade-style border forced the runic power bar to appear where players were not expecting to see it. So players tended not to see it at all, forcing a third design to be developed.

Limiting Evolution

Core concepts within the game are unlikely to change, but specific details that are not yet "right" will continue to evolve, as this example from Tom Chilton (WoW's lead designer) shows:

"We don't plan to change the core role of classes. Instead we keep working on those [classes] that don't work well enough."

The semi-iterative design approach still has limits.

Sometimes design ideas evolve many times. Rob Pardo (vice president of game design) on Starcraft 2's "Merc Haven": "We love the look of the building, but haven't figured out how to use it yet." They have tried to figure it out 4 or 5 times.

The overall approach also starts to explain why Blizzard develops new games quite extensively before announcing or cancelling them (Gamasutra's information suggests they cancel more than they release). Jay Wilson, lead designer of Diablo 3, responding to a question about why Blizzard had been silent on Diablo since 2001, thus:

"Development of Blizzard products is a long affair. [...] It has to play and look awesome."

Scale

Does this approach scale?

In a relatively few years, Blizzard have expanded from around 50 people, to over 2000 employees. They have 600 employees in their Paris offices alone. The human resource implications of that are terrifying, given the highly specialised knowledge and skill-set required: No surprise that Blizzard actively try and recruit the game's players, who already have considerable background knowledge and enthusiasm.

While most of these people are customer-facing (community or support), and not developers, it still raises the question, who is in control of development?

Using WoWWiki's figures for US WoW patch release dates, we can see that the typical time gap between patches for has gradually increased from earlier to more recent (higher numbered) patches. The dotted line shows the rough trend. Crudely, it is now taking at least twice as long to get a patch out than it did when WoW was first released:

World of Warcraft Patch Waits
Graph: World of Warcraft Patch Waits.

While each patch is unique, so cannot be compared directly, recent patches tend to contain a similar volume of content to older patches.

One possibility is that Blizzard have a "Man Month" problem. This concept was popularised by Fred Brooks' book, The Mythical Man Month. It suggests that adding team members to a software project over time actually slows down the project, because the new hires spend so much time learning existing code, and everyone spends more time communicating. Logically MMOGs add a whole new dimension to the problem, because they are continually developed for many years: Inevitably developers will leave, and be replaced, even if the team size remains the same.

A related possibility is that managing or communicating through the "chaos" of continually evolving game design, simply takes longer as the project becomes bigger. Or at the extreme, most of the individual developers have no clue how their work fits into the rest of the game, because maintaining an overview becomes a job in itself.

Or it could reflect other unseen factors.

Shortly after WoW's release, considerable effort was put into the "back-end", to make game servers more stable. This work wasn't clearly visible to players as new content, but probably sucked up a lot of development time. It is possible that now a lot (perhaps even most) development time is spent dealing with hacks, exploits and other cheats. Blizzard stated that dealing with cheats was a key priority (the comment related to Battle.Net, but we can assume applies generally). This work would also be largely unseen, but will slow down development of other content. (I can only assume that the decision to take legal action against the makers of Glider (a 'bot that automates mundane aspects of play) was a rational long-term financial decision, where legal action is cheaper than developing coded solutions.)

Intriguing.

Transferability

Nobody can remember the last bad game Blizzard released. In fact, nobody can remember the last game that wasn't released to popular acclaim followed by huge sales.

I suspect it is this legacy that dictates Blizzard's design approach. Financial backers are prepared to risk pumping millions of dollars into the void, because the odds of producing a top-selling game are exceptionally good.

But if almost any other developer were to attempt the same approach, they'd be viewed a little like Derek Smart (who took almost 10 years to write a game that was essentially unplayable when released) - far too much risk, spread over far too many years. Which is why almost nobody except Blizzard can do what Blizzard do.

The big exceptions are in neighbouring markets, notably casual games, where the costs of producing games are relatively small. Perhaps it is another reason why the "next WoW" is more likely to come out of the casual gaming or social networking arena, than from the traditional "boxed" video game market.

Unless Blizzard do decide to go ahead with World of Starcraft, which Samwise Didier "announced" and then immediately cancelled during L70ETC L80ETC's closing concert on Sunday evening (the band "levelled-up" during the show, from 70 to 80).

Technology and Casual Markets

Blizzard are already known for not always following prevailing industry trends in their use of technology. Almost 10 years after most of their peers moved from isometric style [edited - see comment by Itsnoteasy below] to full 3D environments, Blizzard's latest game, Diablo 3, is still using an isometric style. Curiously, many of the most popular "games" use relatively primitive graphics - particularly those played heavily by children (from Habbo Hotel to many of the games for hand-helds/portables). Probably not the news the manufacturers of graphics cards want to hear.

Rob Pardo noted that, "Development on Mac' historically was a great strategy for keeping system requirements low." For World of Warcraft, they are expecting a lot of future growth to come from more casual audiences, simply because more people will have access to computers meeting the specifications for the game.

WoW was designed around the philosophy of "easy to learn, hard to master" from the start: Content becomes progressively harder, until only a tiny proportion of players can complete the final stages. Blizzard are aware that there is already a barrier to entry into the easiest dungeon content - it is simply too hard for some players. Themes of accessibility and approachability were constantly reiterated.

It remains unclear whether there will be any change of focus away from the high-end content, towards much more casual content. There is a clear desire to promote competitive e-sports, which require extremely challenging content or play styles.

It was revealed that WoW currently has "a very small team" that works on non-loot generating [I think those were the words used] aspects of gameplay, such as holiday events. So they "haven't been able to do as much as they would like". I presume "very small" is a euphemism for "we have someone who does that, sometimes".

It will be interesting to see if they can broaden the player-base for their games, without loosing their e-sport stars to other games.

Questions, Questions

This article has tried to explain the semi-iterative approach Blizzard appear to use when designing their games. It shows how this approaches makes it almost impossible for them to release precise preview information until a game is about to be released. It also helps explain why a lot of answers read like this (with apologies to Bioware):

"[Question] What resources will Inscription (the new profession in WoW's Wrath of the Lich King) use? [Statement] Well, we had this idea that it should use herbs [Conjecture] because ever since we eased the complexity of Alchemy last year, herbs aren't being used so much; [Exploration] but we've only written 3 lines of code so far, [Contradiction] and the last one reads like the first two, so: [Weary resignation] I don't know for sure, ask me again in December..."

Makes me wonder why they provide any pre-release detail at all. Do they really need the publicity?

As Tobold neatly illustrated (while I was preparing to post this article), understanding how and why Blizzard's developers see their worlds is far more revealing that being told about detailed features.

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Similiar writings: Blizzard, Death Knight, Design, Diablo 3, Game Design, game development, Innovation, Rob Pardo, Samwise Didier, Starcraft 2, Video Games, WorldWide Invitational 2008, WoW, WoW design, Games.

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