World of Warcraft: The Next Episode
Earlier this year, Burning Crusade was released to critical acclaim and commercial oomph. So we began by talking about that and forthcoming expansions. We moved onto the nitty-gritty of creating games, how new game designers are learning their trade and the potential for extending WoW to new platforms.
He says, “I’m very happy with Burning Crusade. It’s a very, very good expansion and it’s delivered on the fans expectations. Obviously, I’d likes to have tweaked some more or spent six more months to deliver even more.”
So he’s happy, and why shouldn’t he be? WoW is one of those amazing products where all consumers want to know is ‘when is the next episode due?’ Blizzard is holding onto its secrets, but we talk in general terms. “We have other PC projects in development and we’re already working on new stuff for World of Warcraft, like another expansion. We’ve mentioned in the past that we’d love to get a boxed expansion out every year but it’s more important to deliver really high quality content to our fans. If we can do that every year that’d be great but we’re not going to do that at the expense of the experience.”
WoW is as close to a cash-generating machine as you’re likely to find, so it’s easy to imagine pressure being applied to take advantage of this audience. He says the reason why WoW is successful is because it delivers a lot of content; not just a grind; and that content takes time and creative effort to produce.
He says, “With World of Warcraft we chose a model that requires a lot of content. We chose the type of game that only entertains for as long as we continue to generate new and interesting content for them. It’s a big challenge for us to develop content of the quality level that people can really enjoy.”
To a certain extent, it’s a matter of limited raw materials – the imagination and willingness of top-level developers. He explains, “Someone might say ‘hey Blizzard why don’t you just hire 500 developers and do expansions every three months?’ Well, great developers don’t grow on trees. It’s also a content challenge for us [internally]. As a creative person, how long can you make WoW content when you’re ready for something else? So not only do we have to find a lot of people who are really talented and who are willing to do this, we have to take some time to think about the team so that they’re always challenged.”
I ask him if getting these expansions out on a regular basis is a matter of survival. After all, if gamers aren’t getting fresh content, they’ll start looking elsewhere and WoW’s subscriber base will dwindle. “Calling it a matter of survival makes it sound grim,” he says, “It’s more a matter of entertainment. Of course we want our gamers to stay in the world for as long as we can. But I look at this from the positive angle of us trying to entertain them. We’re trying to give them new experiences. One of my favorite analogies is how much an MMO is like a TV series. We’re developing episodes just like Lost or Seinfeld. We’re always trying to come up with something that’s true to the theory; that’s true to the content that people love; but that is new. From the moment that the series starts re-treading the same ground over and over again… well, that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
We talk about the creative process, the push and pull of deadlines and commercial imperatives and office politics against the pure, unsullied desire to create. His job is to come up with new ideas, and also to sort out the ideas of others into something that works and operates effectively. It’s a job he says has little downtime.
“I work a regular nine-hour day on average but even when I go home I don’t know if I’d call myself completely off work. I play a lot of games and for me games are still fun.
It’s a problem for a lot of designers in the industry that they sometimes stop having fun. At the same time games are research so even then I’m still kind of working and I’m always thinking about what I can do. Even on the way to work today I was thinking about the content for a new game that I want to do in the future and I had to come right into work and jot a bunch of stuff up on my white board so I remember it. So I guess in some ways I’m always working.”
The white board (would we all like to get a look at that?) is an important place in Blizzard. “When we start a project we have lots of big ideas. We’ll throw them up on the white board and we’ll slowly take the ones that we think would be the best blend for this product or this expansion. As we iterate we’ll find some things that looked really good on the white board or really good in the design document that aren’t as much fun as we thought. So we either go back to the drawing board or we tweak that and do another iteration.”
This process is part of the conflict between a flexible creative process and one that abides by The Plan, usually as expressed in a design document. The advantages of being flexible are obvious, but there’s always a price.
“By the time we kind of get through that process we’re behind schedule. It’s really hard to schedule that iteration. Sometimes it takes longer than we plan. So I tell the producers ‘hey, we need a little bit more time’, they’re like ‘What?!’ But I try to be good. I try to do my best and be the producers’ friend.”
As most veteran developers will agree, that trade off between getting things right and getting them out in time comes with experience. “Over the years I’ve become more conscious of smart ways to implement things. Any feature or design can be tried ten different ways and some of those ways work better within the technology or art that you already have. The more experience you have trying things out the easier it becomes. You are looking at tools in your toolbox and learning what works and what doesn’t work.
But he says there is always room to try new things. “We’re always trying to push things and a lot of times it’s a combination of new and old that works best. Something that may have worked well in one situation doesn’t work as well in an entirely different situation. If we were content to churn out the same content all of time then we probably could do everything the same way. But if you look at Burning Crusade, we tried a lot more new types of quests, we added things like flying mounts and all kinds of features that ripple through the complexity of WoW. As we created these, we uncovered things that we didn’t see initially.”
What role does he play as VP of design? How does a structure his people around him? He explains, “With the teams as big as they are I don’t get as much time to write design documents myself. There’s a lot more meetings, a lot more collaborative stuff that happens. Let’s take one small component of WoW, let’s say quests. We have a team of quest designers and we all sit in a room everyday and jam up ideas. I’ll follow up with each individual quest designer. I’ll play their quests and iterate through it. But there’s some stuff I get to design too. I also try to fill gaps that need filling. I’m trying to provide the big picture vision and philosophy and also helping out where it’s needed.”
These days, any large development team is going to have a fair share of rookies and Blizzard is no exception. “We have maybe 50 or 60 game designers now at the company. I enjoy mentoring the younger designers; trying to coach and help them become better designers.”
But finding that talent in the first place is still a challenge. “It’s really hard to find game designers because as an industry we haven’t defined what a game designer is. I find them in a lot of places like the mod community, through some game design schools and internally in development or QA or support. The number one thing I look for is an ability to deconstruct a game and look past the emotions that the game evokes and really see the mechanics behind the emotion.
“There’s a lot of people who might look at something like WoW and they’ll critique the game by saying they like this quest or they don’t like that quest. I might ask the question ‘why do you think we put those in the game?’ and if they can’t really answer that question then they’re not really a game designer. They need to be able to look at the details of the game design and the mechanics and really analyze those things. How well they do on that test really tells me a lot of can they do this job?”
So we get back to the future of WoW. I wonder, as many have before, if the franchise couldn’t be extended to other platforms such as handhelds or mobiles? He doesn’t rule it out, “It’s always possible. Whenever we come up with game concepts we really try to come up with a game and a universe at the same time and it’s really whatever makes sense to the game. It’s something we always talk about and always think about exploring.”