Mega-MMO World of Warcraft turns five this month, and to celebrate, our sister site The Escapist sat down with Blizzard’s VP of Game Design, WoW mastermind Rob Pardo to chat about the lessons they’ve learned, the mistakes they’ve made, and how they’d like to beat themselves at their own game.
The following is a full transcript of the interview – for a quick summary of the juiciest bits, head over to The Escapist:
Five years ago, where were you imagining that you’d – by that I mean Blizzard and the game – would be right now?
I don’t know if I was thinking five years in advance back then. We were really just focused on where WoW would go in the next year. We knew it would be really popular since we had such great feedback from the beta. Honestly, we just hoped it would be really successful – more successful than our previous games. Every game we’d done had in the past few years had beaten the one before it, and we hoped it’d be the case with WoW, too. We were figuring that WoW would be another blockbuster, and we’d just move on to StarCraft II. I certainly did not expect it to have such a transformational effect on our company and the industry as a whole.
Before we launched WoW, Blizzard had a staff of 700-800. Now, we’re north of 4000. Almost all of it is support for WoW. Our product development groups didn’t grow like that, the rest of the teams grew slowly, the way they’ve always grown, but not at the astronomical rate as the customer support group.
What’s the one thing that has surprised you the most about the past five years of WoW?
I guess… I was very surprised at how big this genre could get this soon. From the beginning, we always had a lot of faith in the MMO genre, and we thought that WoW would be able to expand it, but I figured that… if any game would ever pass the 10 million subscriber mark, it would be in many years, many generations of MMOs, many different evolutions of the genre.
You were originally the guild master of [renowned hardcore EverQuest raiding guild] Legacy of Steel, correct? What did your experience as a hardcore MMO raider make you want to bring to WoW, and what did it make you want to leave out?
As a hardcore guild leader, I realized the depth that there is to these games. Previous to that experience, there weren’t a lot of games out there that you wanted to continue, to be powerful with a large group of other players and constantly beating new content. I’d been hardcore in other games before it, like FPSes and RTSes, but in those games the joy of the game comes from the competition, and the only thing unique that changes is the competition. I think that when you look at EQ, the high-end guild game and the raiding, you realize: Wow, if you could be in a cooperative game, you get to know people, build up these bonds and teamwork, as you’re presented with challenge after challenge? It’s a very positive thing.
As far as things to leave behind? It’s something we’ve been working on since the beginning, and we’re still doing this with [Wrath of the Lich King]… we keep trying to think of ways to how to get the incredible experiences like that down to a larger group of players. We were doing 40-man raids at launch, things that were grounded in EQ motifs, but we keep trying to give more and more people that cooperative MMO experience. We’ve made it less hardcore, and it requires less people. We have Heroic dungeons and normal dungeons, we have 10-man raids. We wanted to introduce that fun and experience to as many people as possible.
If you weren’t a designer, but a hardcore WoW raider, do you think you would think the game was too “casual” these days?
Quite possibly. I have this theory that, when you’re a really elite hardcore gamer, what you really want – what drives you – is that sense of competition; really having that gap between you and the less skilled, and more casual. That’s what drives you, and that’s not different no matter what game you’re playing: WoW, Counterstrike, Warcraft III, games like that. You strive to make the gap as big as possible.
So I certainly think that there is that sense that “Hey, I remember back when I had to walk uphill to school in snow both ways, and other players don’t have to do it as hard as I did!” There’s naturally going to be some resentment, but in the bigger picture, it doesn’t diminish their accomplishment at all. They’re still better and more skilled – but the gap has changed.
Do you think that the massive success of WoW makes it harder for other games to succeed in the MMO space?
No, actually, I think it helps them. Well, it all depends on how you want to define success. I think there’s plenty of games out there that wouldn’t have been successful if WoW hadn’t blown up the market. For many people, their first MMO was WoW – maybe it was even their first game. They had written off MMOs as a genre, but they played WoW and liked it. And then when they were done, they decided to go, “Hey, I’ll give Lord of the Rings Online a chance, or Dungeons and Dragons Online a chance.” The genre benefitted from the growing of the market.
Where the challenge is, is for the people who want to take the throne from WoW. There’s a sense among gamers and even in the media that if you aren’t as big as WoW, and if you don’t have as many subscribers as WoW, you’ve failed. But if you do want to try to be that No.1 MMO, it’s hard, because not only are you going up against the five years of development we had, you’re up against five more years of development that we’ve had since the game launched. Players won’t think, “Oh, this game has as much content as WoW did at launch,” they think “Oh, this game doesn’t have as much content as WoW does now.” It’s a huge hill to climb.
Since Blizzard develops games almost solely for an online PC audience, are you worried that Diablo III – and especially the unannounced MMO – will cannibalize WoW‘s audience and leave the company with twice the work for essentially the same playerbase?
Well, those are two very different questions.
With Diablo III, I think there could be some worry, but I don’t think so. I think that there’s going to be a lot of WoW players who try playing D3, but I don’t know if they’ll leave WoW to play it exclusively, since it’s such a very different experience. It doesn’t have the same appeal, the same persistence, same guild and social structure as WoW does, so it’s going to feel more transitory similar to other games.
With other big games, RPGs and FPSes, we’ve seen that people will maybe become more casual in WoW for a few weeks while they go crush this other new game, and then they’ll come back. We’ve actually thought ahead, and that’s one of the reasons we’re putting WoW on the new Battle.net, so you can be connected to your WoW friends who are temporarily in StarCraft II or Diablo III so you don’t feel like they’re leaving the other community.
For the next MMO? Obviously, we want to compete with ourselves, and create something bigger than WoW. If there is some cannibalization of the WoW playerbase, that’s okay. We know that someone is going to beat WoW one day. Someone is going to make a bigger MMO, it’s going to be faster and better, and the WoW audience – some of them, anyway – is going to go to that game. If someone’s going to beat WoW, it might as well be us.
Another thought I have is that you have to also remember that the subscriber base of WoW today is not just the one we had when we launched. There’s a whole bunch of people who tuned out of WoW two years ago or four years ago, but who really enjoyed it, and when another MMO comes out that tickles their fancy, they’ll jump into it. I don’t know what the exact number is off-hand, but the total number of subscribers we’ve had is easily more than double – maybe closer to triple – the current subscriber base.
So looking at it logically, if we can get them interested, you could have the same subscriber base without cannibalizing WoW too badly.
What are you most proud of over the last five years? What was the biggest mistake you think you made?
What I’m most proud of? It’s just kind of the achievement of WoW itself, of having this goal – our goal was to look at the genre, and we saw what was super fun about it, but unfortunately in the previous MMOs you always had to be hardcore to get to that really “sticky” fun. But for the people that did it, we all saw how much fun there was in that genre that so many people couldn’t ever get to. Our No.1 goal with WoW was, “Lets make a game where people can get to that fun, see it, and get invested in this wonderful genre instead of scoffing, and passing over it because it was an MMO.”
We did it through a lot of methods; we had directed quest gameplay from beginning to end, you could solo all the way to the top – grouping was encouraged rather than required. The level curve actually matches the content. There were lots of little implementation details, but the idea was this: “Let’s just take this super fun genre that people don’t know really exists, and expand it out so that everyone can enjoy that.” We set that goal and achieved it, and I’m most proud of that. A lot of the time you try to achieve goals, and don’t quite make it all the way – you might make 70% of the goal – especially if it’s so lofty.
As for the biggest mistake? There’s a lot of them that I think, were … they just “fell out” of things. One example: I wish the servers were more stable when we launched, of course – there’s a lot of that sort of thing. We have a lot of excuses for that – we didn’t expect nearly the response – but we can’t say it wasn’t a mistake. If I was going to pick on a game design thing that I look back on and think was a mistake? We really never designed WoW to be a competitive e-sports game; it was something that we decided to start tackling because there was such a desire and demand to evolve it in that direction, to introduce competitive arenas. I’m not sure that that was the right thing to do with the game.
We didn’t engineer the game and classes and balance around it, we just added it on, so it continues to be very difficult to balance. Is WoW a PvE cooperative game, or a competitive PvP game? There’s constant pressure on the class balance team, there’s pressure on the game itself, and a lot of times players who don’t PvP don’t understand why their classes are changing. I don’t think we ever foresaw how much tuning and tweaking we’d have to do to balance it in that direction. Either I’d go back in time to before WoW ever shipped and change the rules to make the basic game more conductive for being an e-sport, or if not that, just say it doesn’t make sense. Right now, WoW has a bit of a schizophrenic philosophy behind it, and we’re trying to figure out how to guide it.
It’s tricky, now that we’ve gone down that road, because we have a passionate, large audience that enjoys it – the Arena, the e-sport – so we can’t just chop off that head. We can’t just say, “We fouled up and will go back to how it used to be before,” because we have a really passionate audience that wants it in the game.
If I could go back in time before we shipped WoW, I would have either made serious changes to basic class balance to facilitate that type of play, or if I went back to when we had the idea two years later, I would have said, “Maybe we shouldn’t go there.”
For years Blizzard had been saying “We won’t let you switch between factions, we won’t let you transfer from a PvP server to a PvE server,” why was the decision made to change that?
Honestly, there’s a whole bunch of changes like that, that we… well, part of it comes from the hardcore mentality we used to have, and the increasing changes we see in our playerbase. If we rerun all the way to previous we shipped WoW, [Former WoW Lead Designer Jeff “Tigole” Kaplan] and I and some other people – even though we were making the game much more accessible, we’d all lived the hardcore MMO life, so we held some things to be “truths self-evident.” Like, you had to have large raid sizes to make them feel epic, you needed to gate content by making players attune themselves to different tiers of content. On the PvP side, we said “Oh, you can never let people have a character on both sides of the PvP game.”
We had all these suppositions, and as the years went on and we had more and more experience living with WoW as a live game, we realized that they weren’t just truths. They might affect a hardcore minority, but the people we saw weren’t really as hardcore as we thought they were. If we reduced raids from 40 to 25, we saw, it makes it more fun. You might have some hardcore players who get upset, but keeping people out of content isn’t right for the game overall. We mellowed sometimes, and realized we were wrong.
The other piece is that the WoW playerbase is becoming more casual over time. People who were hardcore into MMOs, they joined us first, but the people we’re acquiring over the years are casual. They heard about the game from a friend of a friend, and maybe it’s their first MMO – maybe it’s their first game. The game has to evolve to match the current player.
We’re making really serious changes in the newbie game to help those players get into it. Our tutorial back in the day served core gamers pretty well, but now we need to redo it. There are lot of changes in 3.3, we’ll actually be posting some stuff soon. There are quest tracking changes that you’ll start seeing that will help new players, how to assist them from the map on the M button. Look on the website, we’ll be previewing it soon.
There are small features and medium features to help new players, there’s a whole organized approach. Some things we’ll do in [the upcoming patch 3.3] but others will have to wait until Cataclysm. One of these things that we’ve been featuring on the test realm is the new cross-server LFG tool – it’s that sort of thing.
That segues in nicely to this question: Cross-server gameplay. It’s convenient, but do you think that it runs the risk of destroying server communities?
To be completely honest, [the Looking For Group tool] is a feature I wanted in the game when we launched the game. I was really unhappy when we didn’t have it when we first shipped, so it’s been 5 years coming. Maybe it wasn’t the number one thing I wanted in, but it’s definitely one of the top 5 things that I wanted in the game. It’s actually our third try at a proper LFG tool, and this one gets it right. With the Meeting Stones, we didn’t put enough attention into it, we just tried to jam it in, and people didn’t use it. The second tool, it ended up being compromised feature – we tried to cater to too many different audiences.
As for the community question, I used to … I think that 5 years ago, I would have answered this question differently than I would today. I was all about preserving the small realm communities, but already… Well, look at Battlegrounds, it’s a good case in point, because it doesn’t diminish social relationships that matter on a realm. Sure, everyone can bring up “that one guy” that they know, the ninja looter who stole his stuff. But I think your real community isn’t the whole realm, but it’s your guild and the friends you group with, and the cross-server LFG won’t undermine that at all. The Dungeon Finder – by the way, I think we just renamed it the Dungeon Finder last night – We designed it in such a way that it serves the need for guilds and groups and friends. You don’t have to always [join a Pick-Up Group]. If there are four guildies in a group who just need a fifth, they can do that. You can also use it if even you have a full five-person party.
Or, you can do it if you’re on your own and just want to run something, so I don’t think it diminishes it at all
Planning on playing anything interesting over Thanksgiving break?
Oh, there’s so many games right now that I need to catch up with. I really need to tell everybody to stop making so many awesome games! There’s a copy of Modern Warfare 2 on my desk, I really want to play that. I’ve been playing lots of DJ Hero, I actually just finished Brutal Legend, I’ve been playing Borderlands. I still haven’t played Arkham Asylum or Uncharted 2. There’s way too many great-looking games that I want to play!
WoW has all types of people who play it – a politician in Guam, lawyers, teachers, etc. Who do you think was the most unusual person you’ve ever encountered playing WoW? A “I would have never pegged you as the type” moment?
I don’t know if I have a singular person, but the ones that always surprise me the most are the really elderly ones. The people who are not only new to games, but then here they are in Battlegrounds – 70-year-old ladies in BGs. They surprise me the most. We usually think that that generation doesn’t play games period, let alone something that’s on the PC, online.
Thanks, Rob! Stick around for an interview with WoW Production Director J. Allen Brack and Blizzard’s Art Director Samwise Didier!