Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

How to sell 7 million copies

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 12, 2006

There’s an interesting post up on Raph Koster’s blog where he publishes his notes from Rob Pardo’s keynote speech at last week’s Austin Game Conference. Rob Pardo was a lead designer for WoW, and there’s some more coverage of his speech over at Joystiq. Rob talks about the design of WoW, and the speech transcript is definitely worth reading. There are a few particularly quote-worthy paragraphs:

Exclamation point design: a game completely driven by quests. We wanted you to always have a reason for existing, a story. The exclamation point design is something we first did in Diablo II. Even the most casual players click on the guy with the exclamation point that is right in front of them, get a quest, and are off and running.

This is one of my favorite parts of WoW. You never have to wonder if an NPC is going to say something interesting to you: if they are at all relevant, it is blindingly obvious. The more hardcore players (and designers) may dislike the break in immersion, but too bad. There’s nothing fun about talking to several hundred useless NPCs in a vain attempt to locate content. With exclamation points, you can put NPCs in interesting, out of the way places and be assured that players who stumble on the area will find the content.

Pacing: the bridge between depth and accessibility. Once you have all those deep features, then you have to figure out how you get from the newbie experience to that core experience. For WoW, that’s done through the leveling curve… We had some hardcore testers who would level to 60 in a week. There was much concern within the company. But I would tell them that we cannot design to that guy. You have to let him go. He probably won’t unsubscribe, he’s going to hit your endgame content or he’ll have multiple level 60s. In games with tough leveling curves, it discourages you from starting over.

Pacing is one of WoW’s greatest successes. You shouldn’t design an MMO (at least an American one) for the pace of the power leveler. If you do, you get FFXI. When you design the game for the player who gets to 60 in a week, the casual players will get frustrated by the lack of advancement and leave. One interesting bit is that when City of Heroes first came out, it probably had the fastest leveling of any major MMO. Now, the leveling pace of CoH is considered to be kind of slow.

An example of Tradeoffs: system requirements of Wow versus Crysis, for example. Crysis looks awesome. But we would rather have the broader market. So that forced us to the stylized art style that is resistant to looking dated. It did generate lots of negative press, and our graphics programmers always wanted to push farther too. You just have to be prepared. But every game we’ve released, we have gotten the comment that our screenshots were not up to par.

The combined will of graphics programmers, hardcore gamers, and game reviewers is a force to be reckoned with. Based on sales, it’s clear that Blizzard’s lack of graphical flash has not hurt them. If you have a consistent and well-executed art style that fits with your theme, players just don’t care how many polygons something has. Of course, doing Crysis in the art style of WoW just wouldn’t work, and players in all genres have a certain set of expectations. Meeting expectations without preventing those players from being able to run your game is a constant struggle, and we may be losing it.


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