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Rob Pardo is the Director of Game Design at Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine, CA. Blizzard makes some of the most respected and best-selling games in the industry including the WarCraft, Diablo, and Star- Craft series, among other games. Below Rob shares some details about the game balancing process he's developed with the team at Blizzard and also some of his views on being a professional game designer today.
Game Design Workshop: Can you tell us about your role at Blizzard?
Rob Pardo: My title here is 'Director of Game Design.' I am the lead designer on games with our Team One development team, which is the group that did WarCraft III. Now we're working on an allnew secret game. Along with that I also pinch-hit on some of our other projects. For instance right now I'm assisting on World of WarCraft and StarCraft: Ghost.
GDW:One of the things we're interested in for this conversation is the process that goes into balancing a Blizzard game. Is a lot of what you do involved with game balancing?
RP:Well, I do that, but game design includes lots of things. For example on World of WarCraft right now I'm doing a fair amount of balancing and I'm helping out on the different classes for the game. So I'm trying to hone the skills for each class and put in the right balance numbers and work with the designers to make each class stand on its own.
On WarCraft III, as lead designer, I had broader responsibilities. It went to unit design; it involved working with Chris Metzen, our storywriter; it went to working with our level designers and determining the gimmicks and play features for each level and how they all fit together. It went to, you know, 'how does the mini-map work?' spec'ing out the design documentation and giving it to programmers and artists where appropriate. It's basically all areas of the game that the player sees and interacts with.
Game balance is just one small, but important, part of what we do.
GDW: Can you tell us about the process of designing WarCraft III?
RP: Sure. WarCraft III was interesting because it went in a couple of different directions. First of all, it was our first 3D game. So that presented some challenges. Also we wanted to do something different from StarCraft. We had just rolled off StarCraft and we felt that we'd nailed that form of gameplay-you know: macromanagement, action, RTS-whatever you want to call it. When we rolled onto War III we thought about the fantasy elements of the game and we wanted to take a new tack. So we decided to add a lot of RPG elements.
With 3D we decided to bring the camera down quite a bit and try out some things. The problem was with the camera pulled all the way down it became a pseudo-third-person experience. It was disorienting when you went around the map and it was difficult to select units in battle because your camera frustum was pointed in one direction so you didn't have a good view of the battlefield. It was a challenge because we still wanted a fun strategy game. Eventually we pulled the camera into a more traditional isometric view and that's when we really started making progress.
GDW: That's great. What were the first things that you built for WarCraft III? Did you make a prototype?
RP: Yes. Since it was our first 3D game it was really important to get the 3D engine up and running.
And we had to get the art path ready so the artists could start testing art files with the new engine. Something we did for the first time on War III (and now we've been doing on all our projects) is we committed to making a build that ran every day. So, when we finally got the engine running we could immediately put art in it. From that point forward every day the team could come in and boot up the newest version of WarCraft III and it would work. Obviously not every day did the new build work-there would be bugs sometimes-but that was a commitment and it really helped us see where we were. On StarCraft it wasn't until right before beta that we started getting stable builds on a regular basis. So that was a big step for us. So we spent a lot of time prototyping the look of the world and what we wanted to do with the camera and what elements we wanted to go with.
GDW: It sounds like figuring out where to put the camera was a part of the prototyping process.
RP: Yes, for sure. Something we believe in strongly here at Blizzard is iterative design. You know, prototype can mean a lot of different things. We didn't really have a prototype that was made of blocks that we could test gameplay on like are often made at other companies. In this case we did more of a technology and art prototype rather than a gameplay prototype. So once we had the art and the actual 3D engine in there that's when we actually started messing with the camera; messing with the units; trying to figure out exactly what kind of game we wanted to make for War III.
GDW: Can you tell us about the process for developing the races and units?
RP: We knew we didn't want to do StarCraft. We knew we wanted to add role-playing elements to the game and we knew we were going the 3D route. Some people on the team wanted a lot of units. Some people wanted to do a few units. That was a contentious topic in the early days.
One of the first things we came up was the concept of 'heroes.' In the old days we called them 'legends.' We actually referred to the game itself as 'Legends.' We didn't want to refer to it as WarCraft III because we felt we might end up making just a sequel to WarCraft II. So we referred to the game entirely as 'Legends' with the thought that we might release it with that name.
Early on we designed a lot of legend/hero units. We designed many heroes including the Archmage, and Warlord. We built them in prototype form and started playing around with different spell kits and tried to figure out how they should work. We asked: 'Should they work like Diablo heroes?' We tried to figure out what a hero was; what that meant in a strategy game versus a pure role-playing game. We experimented with stuff like 'Well maybe you can only have units when they are following their heroes.'
Those concepts formed a lot of the core gameplay early on. But it was a baseless sort of gameplay at that point. Then on the art side we were trying to figure out what we could do with 3D: what was possible, what wasn't. At the same time we were also experimenting with different network models and technological concepts that were going to dictate certain game play elements. So there was inter-linking between gameplay, art, and technology.
GDW: So the idea of hero units was an early concept that you built on. What about the four races in the game? How were they developed?
RP: Early on we had lots of discussions about races. We talked about different cool abilities and play styles they might have and quickly decided that Undead should be a race. It was interesting: in the early days we sketched ideas for nine totally different races. That was never really reasonable though-it was more like nine core concepts from which we could draw the coolest ideas. Nine races went down to six and then that later went down to five. We really thought we were going to release with five for a long time. So in the beginning we had lots of races and units designed on paper.
We started implementing Humans and Orcs first and then the Undead. The fourth race, the Night Elves, was next. They were a compromise between early race concepts we had for Dark Elves and High Elves. We wanted to get elves in the game in a way that hadn't been done before. The fifth race was Demons. We didn't cut them until probably right before alpha. The problem was: we wanted Demons to be the ultimate bad guys in the story line but we also wanted to be able to balance them into multiplayer play. We were having a lot of kit issues with how they should work and how they should interact with the other races. Ultimately we decided to keep them as bad guys in the story but drop them as a full-blown playable race.
GDW: Interesting. You said you had 'kit' issues?
RP: Yes. When we look at a race we think: 'What's this race about? Is it a sneaky race? Is it a micromanagement race? Is it a heavy ground race? Is this race supposed to be really versatile? Is it magic?' When we looked at Demons we said, you know: 'Really powerful. Good at Fire Magic. Lots of incredibly tough units.' It seemed weird to come up with say a Peon or Footman unit for the Demons. They just didn't lend themselves to that. We decided we'd make Demons less cool by filling out all the roles that races need to fight each other on Battle.net.
GDW: Game balancing always seems to involve tuning system variables numbers up and down.
Sounds like with WarCraft III you guys thought really big early in the project and then tuned some numbers downward as you went along.
RP: That's right. Early on we brainstorm tons of cool ideas. We have lots of sharp, creative people here so we come up with way more ideas than we could ever put in a game. Then the designer's job over the next year or two years (however long the dev cycle is before the beta) is to hone all those ideas. Some we have to get rid of, some we have to modify, and some become a cornerstone of the gameplay.
One of our mantras-we have lots of mantras around here-is 'concentrating the coolness.' With War III, for example, we could've blown out to 20 or 30 units per race if we wanted to but we wanted each unit to be meaningful. And we wanted to make sure each race had a unique feel. So even though every race has flying units and worker units they still all do things in different ways.
We wanted that idea to carry through to heroes too. Each race should have a little set of heroes that made it unique. When we started detailing out the heroes' spell kits we originally had four heroes per race. But the spell kits were muddled with overlap so we cut down to three heroes. That decision created a big controversy with our fan base because it lead to us cutting the Human's Ranger hero. The Ranger ended up on the cutting room floor and there were petitions and all kinds of stuff like that online. So it was quite a contentious cut.
GDW: Wow. Talk about a rabid fan base. They were petitioning the loss of a character before they'd even played the game.
RP:Yeah. Crazy isn't it (laughs)? We like to have a big fan community going even before we go beta. It's great to have fans that are really into it. The downside is you can't just blackbox a game and bring it to market. Lots of people are watching.
The day the Ranger was cut was big. People knew about her because we'd shown her on our web site. When she disappeared one day it caused quite a ruckus. Again it was that kit argument I was talking about. Humans already had a ranged magic hero with the Archmage and they had a cool tank-like hero with the Mountain King and they had the Paladin hero as well. I was a little heartbroken to see the Ranger go too. But I looked at the Night Elves and they had lots of archer units. Even looks-wise the Ranger looked like an Elven archer. We had to differentiate the races so she got cut. It was still really tough.
GDW: That's interesting. The heroes have really affected the game play dramatically. One thing I notice in WarCraft III is that I end up playing with smallish parties of units and not the huge armies that I play with in StarCraft.
RP: That's right. When we started developing War III a lot people wanted another game with Star- Craft-style gameplay. You know macro-management and that. But we wanted to branch out a bit. We wanted a game with units that were tougher and more meaningful. In StarCraft you can just throw lots of units into the battlefield and not care whether they live or die. You can get an army of 50 to 100 units going and it's no big deal.
For War III we wanted to get rid of what we call the 'fodder' unit. We want you to care about every grunt and every footman. Part of the reasoning for that was the increased focus on heroes. We wanted a hero to be a dominant force in the battlefield because, well, that's what you think of as a hero. So if we know there's going to be 50 units on the battlefield then we'd have to make the hero ridiculously powerful for him to have a meaningful impact. If you have a battlefield with say 10 or 20 units then the hero could be more realistically balanced. For War III to work the way we'd envisioned the hero had to be balanced proportionally to the number of units that could be in a battle. Right? If the game was designed for 50 unit battles and then a hero gets into a fight with say only 10 units around then he'd just mop them up. In War III it's normal to see people running around with maybe 12 to 15 units. That's like an army in War III. 24 units is almost the max.
Trying to enforce that mechanic though was a challenge. It was like 'How do we do that?' We had the mechanic in the game, 'food', which kind of limited the number of units you have. We also had gold and lumber intakes for resources. But what was happening early on was that with just those mechanics in place players would build up to the cap in the game and just play there. Then if they lost their units they'd have this big gold and lumber surplus that they'd just spend to rebuild their army and max out again. It just didn't play very fun.
GDW: This sounds like how you came up with the system for 'upkeep.'
RP: Right, that's where upkeep came from. Upkeep was a concept that was pretty controversial and we tried a bunch of different ideas beforehand. But that's what we eventually settled on.
The concept of upkeep is: the bigger your army is the more it saps your gold income. If you build up a big army then upkeep siphons off your excess gold income so you can't get these huge gold surpluses. The idea was to encourage you to fight more when you have fewer units.
Originally we tried to encourage small armies just through tweaking unit numbers and costs. But as we watched people play around here-with giant armies-we realized we'd have to go back to the drawing board. We sat down and said 'We want a game that plays with fewer units where heroes feel important. How do we make that happen?'
Everyone brainstormed up a bunch of ideas and we talked through each one. We just kept picking at it and testing ideas for a couple of weeks until we had a system that worked. Actually lots of people hated upkeep at first so getting it implemented was controversial. Part of the problem was we originally called it 'Tax.' I guess it gave people, I don't know, like April 15 flashbacks or something (laughs). They couldn't accept the game dynamic just because of the name. Once we came up with the name 'upkeep' though the last people opposing it said 'Okay, let's try it.'
Upkeep was a game mechanic that got developed to encourage the hero-based game play we had set as a goal. As a game designer figuring stuff like that out is series of big conversations to little ones to mini-battles to see which elements work, which don't, which need to be changed, and which need to be yanked. You know, it's an ongoing process every day.
GDW: So it sounds like iterative design is a key component for how this gets done.
RP: Absolutely. We hone system variables over and over as we play and test a game. We're not afraid to pull a unit, pull a major design system, or put in a new one all the way up until beta. In fact with War III, we actually introduced a couple of spells post beta. We had designed them ahead of time knowing we might need them. I figured we should go into beta with about 90% of the racial units and spells in the game. I'd learned from previous betas that, no matter how great we think the units play, once pro gamer-types-who're going to play much more than we'll ever play and at a much higher skill level-get a hold of it that we're going to have to change things.
So I went ahead and left some holes in each race so we could fill them with different things if we needed to. And sure enough we did that.
GDW: Interesting, so you were still balancing things after beta. The game's been out for a year now. Is it still being balanced?
RP: Yep. We did patches to the StarCraft balance for two years after we released it. It definitely evolves. You could probably do a sociology class on the evolution of a game community.
There are two things that I see that happen once a game's been released. First of all imbalances are discovered that just were never discovered before. This is because a million people playing a game is a lot different than a thousand people playing from the beta. Somebody out there will come up with a creative play technique that no one else has thought of. Then once that he starts using it on Battle.net every person he plays sees the imbalance and it spreads across the community like a virus. That forces our hand into doing something.
The other thing that happens is just evolution of gameplay. Sometimes I see things that I want to patch slowly. Like, suddenly one race might be winning a larger proportion of games on Battle.net for a couple of weeks and it seems like a dominant strategy has emerged. And we could certainly go in and 'fix' it. But usually what's happening is just an evolution of how people play. You see spikes and valleys. What happens is-let's say the Humans become dominant for a couple of weeks. Well, you've got to give the community a chance to see the new strategy and develop a counter strategy. You see the same thing happen in professional sports sometimes. You know in NFL football the 3-4 defense dominated for a few years. It wasn't an imbalance that they had to go to the rules committee and say, 'We need to outlaw the 3-4 defense because it's too bad-ass.' The offensive coordinators just had to scheme and develop their playbooks to attack it. I see the same thing sometimes in our game community. It can be really challenging sometimes post-release to decide what to patch and what not to patch. So it's a process.
GDW: Tell me a about the software tools you use to do this. You can track what players are doing pretty closely via Battle.net?
RP: Yes. For War III we hired a web programmer to make a system that could track all kinds of data. We found someone who had created a really amazing fan site that tracked statistics from our other games and gave him a job. Like we'll say, 'We want to see how races play against each other on a map by map basis.' And he can make a report of that. We do that pretty often. So they'll be times when my game balance designer wants to make an adjustment to the Orcs or something. And I'll say, 'Okay, that sounds reasonable but let's look at the stats too.' And we'll look at the stats and we'll go 'Hey, actually Orcs aren't really having that problem so let's hold off for a while.'
GDW: So you use the data to determine whether the imbalances are perceived or real.
RP: Yeah. We're not slaves to it though. It's just one of many tools we use. You have to have an intuitive sense of it also. Luckily the game balance guy on War III is a really good player.
We also we have a group of top-level players that send us feedback directly. Like if we see something like the Undead hammering the Humans in a peculiar way then we might gather replays from top-level players and look at exactly what they're doing.
GDW: Sounds like there's a symbiotic thing going on between the fan community and the development team. For example you hired the web programmer from the fan base.
RP: Yes, our webmaster had one of the top WarCraft II web sites back in the day. He got hired as a
QA tester and then moved himself up on the web side. Even if you're the best programmer in the world we're not going to hire you unless you're a game enthusiast. If someone's a fan of our games and they have development skills too then that's perfect.
GDW: It must be a dream job for them.
RP: Yeah. They tend to be pretty happy employees (laughs).
GDW: Okay, this is a good segue way to the next point: I'm curious about your process for playtesting early versions internally.
RP: Sure. Before we go beta we're-as a development team-playing on a fairly regular basis. We don't have structured play sessions like where we say 'Friday is playtest day' or something because, like I said, we're all a bunch of gamers. Everyone here loves to play these games. So once the game gets playable everyone on the team is playing it. They'll be lunchtime sessions where all the artists play together. They work in a bullpen so they're really close. And the designers will be playing together and the programmers will be mixing and matching. One way we know when a game is fun is when we have to say to some people 'Hey you're playing too much of the game. Start working some more.' (laughs).
GDW: Tell us something you've learned about the craft of being a game designer.
RP: One thing I've learned from starting young to where I am now is: yes you need to have all the game design skills, and you need to know about different development disciplines so you can design smart. A designer needs to wear a lot of different hats. But the other side of it that I don't see talked about much is the skill of working with your team.
The game designer, at least here, is not the primary idea generation guy. He's the primary vision holder for the game. I struggled early on when I used to really fight for my ideas versus other people's ideas. What I learned was 'Hey, I'm in a position where I can put in a lot of the game design elements and it's really important for me to be a conduit for everyone else's ideas.' When I made that mental shift it was a pretty big day.
Now I look at my job and see that it's really important to listen to everyone else on the team and try to get their ideas in when they are good for the game. Sometimes a team member will have great idea but not know how to package it within the overall framework of the game. So that's where I come in. I might work with them and try to get it into the game in a way that works from a game system perspective. Once you do that then you're job becomes a lot easier. Everyone trusts you more. And it's just this domino process: you're not fighting your ideas versus their ideas; you're not explaining to them why their ideas suck. You're working with them and you're their tool for getting good ideas into the game. Then everything just flows better.
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