Maestro of 'Warcraft' on 'directing' players

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Gamers are a jaded bunch, and it takes a lot for them to say "WoW." But almost eight million of them worldwide have ponied up $49.95 plus $15 a month to make "World of Warcraft" -- commonly known as "WoW" -- the best-selling massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) ever. At any one time, over a half million gamers in North America might be playing concurrently, more globally.

In "World of Warcraft" you as the player control a character/avatar within the persistent fantasy game world, exploring the landscape, fighting monsters, battling other players' avatars and performing quests on behalf of computer-controller characters. "WoW" rewards success through money, items, and experience points which allow your character to improve in skill and power.

What makes the online game's success even sweeter is that it was Irvine, Ca.-based Blizzard Entertainment's first MMO (for short). Not that the developer, a subsidiary of Vivendi Games, hadn't had previous best-sellers with various iterations of its "Warcraft" real-time strategy games, like "Warcraft: Orcs & Humans." But this was the company's first online venture and, like all first attempts, the company went about it with less than complete confidence. Certainly it had none of the experience of competitors such as NCSoft, the Austin-based publisher of such hit MMOs as "Lineage," "Lineage II" and "City Of Heroes," or San Diego-based Sony Online Entertainment with its "Everquest," "Everquest II," "Star Wars Galaxies" and "Ultima Online."

In the two years since "WoW" was released in November, 2004, the game has managed to nab a 53% world market share, which translates to well over $1 billion in revenue. As Blizzard's vp of game design, Rob Pardo is the man ultimately responsible for making it happen. Which is why, this year, "Time" magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

The Hollywood Reporter: One of the 100 most influential people in the world? That's quite an honor! How does creating a game like "World of Warcraft" entitle you to ...
Rob Pardo: [Laughing] I have no idea. I'm just a nerdy game designer who really enjoys making games. But I guess video games are getting more and more attention as the population ages and as games become a viable entertainment medium for a large number of people, especially for those in their 30s who may have grown up with games. People are very invested in entertainment, especially in something like "WoW," which is very social and where you can meet friends and folks from all around the world. I mean, I've seen people who have met their future wives online. When something becomes that popular, I think that's the main reason why a publication like "Time" would be interested in us.

THR: The typical video game takes about two years to build. Was that your experience with "WoW"?
Pardo: Not even close. This was a five-year marathon for us. We were used to creating real-time strategy games, which are like digital versions of games with little army men; you look down at and control a huge amount of units. Taking that sort of game to another genre was a big ordeal. A lot of learning went on throughout the project -- how to construct it, how to build our development tools, and so forth. We also took our time at the end of the project to properly beta test it, which meant having gamers from outside the company play it. That came after what we called our "friends and family" alpha test where we had a live server and people could log on and try it out. The testing began over a year before we shipped, so there was a long period in which we were fully live and playable and we were getting feedback and making adjustments.

THR: What would you estimate it cost you to build the game?
Pardo: We definitely don't go into those sorts of figures, which are proprietary. But I can tell you that, at the time we shipped the game -- after five years of effort -- we had over 60 full-time developers working on it.

THR: You currently have over 1.5 million subscribers in North America. Did you ever expect that sort of success?
Pardo: No, sir. We knew it would be successful. We played the game, we were very excited about it, and we had a great reputation in the gaming community. But we thought we were reaching for the stars by hoping we'd hit a million subscribers; that was the benchmark we were aiming for. We've clearly gone way beyond that now with almost eight million worldwide.

THR: Other game publishers have you guys under the microscope and would love dearly to duplicate that success. What is there about "WoW" that has enabled you to attract the number of gamers that you have?
Pardo: It's really not easy to pin down because it's such a large, complicated game. But I'd say primarily that, because we've spent a lot of time on the look and feel of the "WoW" world -- which is a very immersive one -- it's very inviting. We use very stylized art, like Disney or Pixar would. And we've made the game very accessible to all levels of gamers.

THR: How so?
Pardo: For example, in many MMOs, when you first start playing, you find yourself in the middle of a huge city not knowing what to do. It's left up to you to meet up with other people and learn how to play the game. We handcrafted what we call our newbie zones to be very small and we only expose a little bit of the content to you at a time so you're not overwhelmed. The first thing you meet in the game is a non-player character with an exclamation point over his head which draws you to him. By clicking on him, you get him to tell you your first quest, which means that you immediately have something to do. When you accomplish that quest -- which is a very easy one, very intuitive and very simple to understand -- you get an experience reward; sometimes you get an item, you get another quest. From that point on, you're kind of sucked into the game.

THR: And at that point you're on your own.
Pardo: No, not at all. We like to call our quest designers the cruise directors of "World of Warcraft." Because, like on a cruise, you always have a menu of things to do. We give you a little itinerary of activities, and you can choose to do all of them or just wander off the beaten track and explore and do none of them. That's totally up to you. But we never want you to feel like you don't have something you can do.

THR: Valve Software keeps a close eye on the online players of its games. And based on where the players go and when they die and where they fail, they're constantly tweaking the game. Are you making similar efforts behind the scenes?
Pardo: Absolutely. We use some metrics like that, but we prefer a little more of the old-school model, meaning that our developers inside the company play our own games a lot. We try to be as close to the game as we can, and we make tweaks constantly. One of our design philosophies is iterative development, which means we're always trying to perfect a system, a quest, a piece of artwork. Our art director used to joke that when we were building "Warcraft III," we made enough art for three games. That comes from this constant iteration and polish on the game.

THR: Which means that you are always updating the game?
Pardo: We typically do a minor patch every four to six weeks, and then major patches maybe every three months or so. We'll do everything from just a whole bunch of tweaks or bug fixes to an entire new dungeon or adventure.

THR: You'd mentioned that because "WoW' was your first MMOG, you sort of stumbled into it a bit. If you were to launch another MMOG tomorrow, what would you do differently?
Pardo: Tons of things. We have a whole laundry list entitled "We'll never make these mistakes again."

THR: For instance?
Pardo: Well, anytime we're going to make a major change to the game, we want to take that patch and put it on what we call a "public test realm," a place where the public can stress-test it out for four or six weeks and discover whether it has any real problems. When we first shipped "WoW" in 2004, we didn't have that public test realm, and so our early patches in the first three months of the game were quite the rollercoaster ride of problems. We'd make changes and there'd be all these horrible bugs that we hadn't noticed. It was a huge mistake on our part and, I assure you, it will never happen again. When you build a massively multiplayer game, you really need thousands of testers to stress-test certain types of things. Our servers hold up to 2,000, 3,000, sometimes 4,000 players, and not even our great 100-person quality-assurance department can stress-test something that big.

THR: Let's talk about business models. MMOG publishers are trying all sorts, like free-to-play, ad-supported, product placement, and so forth. What do you think of these models and would you consider any of them if you were coming out with another MMOG?
Pardo: I'm one of those guys who believes that the business model needs to depend on the game design. One of the big buzzwords these days is "microtransactions" [that permit gamers to pay for certain inexpensive items within the game] and a lot of games are trying different versions of that. But, to be honest, I don't think they work very well for many games.

THR: But they serve as a source of income for the publishers who may choose not to charge for subscriptions as you do.
Pardo: Yes, but I believe that if we actually sold items online, it would really cheapen the game. What's fun about "WoW' is going into a dungeon and completing a particular quest and then being rewarded with a really cool item that your character can wear to show the other players that you've accomplished something. If you could suddenly buy that item, it would really cheapen that idea of accomplishment. Where microtransactions do work is in a game like "Guitar Hero." One of the ideas its designers have talked about is selling songs for microtransaction payments so that, if you want more songs for your guitar, you can just buy them. In that case, microtransactions work just fine. It's sort of like the iTunes model, which is an awesome microtransactions model that is totally appropriate for that business.

THR: It sounds like you would stick to the subscription model -- the gamer buys a game like "WoW" at retail and then pays you $15 a month to play.
Pardo: If we did a different kind of MMO -- other than a fantasy-based one like "WoW" -- then perhaps a different business model would work. For example, I think including advertising in the game would be great if we did a driving game because then ads would be very appropriate to that world. If you're driving on a NASCAR track, for instance, all the cars and the billboards have ads on them. So that would be very realistic.

THR: You mentioned that you never expected to be in "Time" magazine. But which was more exciting -- being in "Time" or having "World of Warcraft" featured in a "South Park" episode?
Pardo: No contest. That was really cool. [Laughing.] Being in "Time" was cool. And being in "The Hollywood Reporter" is cool. But nothing is on the level of being in a "South Park" episode. I mean, what could be cooler than that? (Click to watch clips from the episode.)

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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