The Grouchy Gamer

Yeah, I'm cranky. That's kinda the point...

Blizzard: Game Development-Just Slow Down

All of us love our games (I assume you do too, and that is why you are here) and most of us want exciting new games to come along.  We want them fun, we want them nuanced, we want them polised.  Oh, and we want them right damn now.  Why does it take so long to develop a game anyway?  While I suspect that most of us have ideas why games take so long, I think that most of us don’t really think about some realities that govern whether a game is polished (seemingly a large yardstick for measuring the success of a game), fun, and attractive to us.  I don’t think most of us have any idea of the scope of these games or the resources required to develop or operate and manage them.

During AGDC this week during 2 separate events Blizzard Entertainment shared what they think makes them unique in this regard.

The first, a Gamasutra interview with Blizzard lead content designer Kevin Martens is relatively simple: Iteration.  Taking something and playing and testing it over and over.  Tweaking it and playing and testing it over and over again.  I suspect that many of us would expect that this is the essence of “polish”.  How can something be polished without lots of testing and lots of adjustments from what you found while testing?  Of course all of this iteration costs money, so that excludes some studios who may be operating on a shoestring or are under time-pressure to release a game.  It’s also clear that this is why Blizzard takes so bloodly long to get anything out.

In the second example, also on Gamasutra, you can see that great MMO development can’t be done on a highly limited budget.  It’s also harder to do if you don’t have years of back-story and multiple generations of games leading up to your project.  In WoW’s case, they already had so many of the elements of the MMO by the time they had finished Warcraft III.

World of Warcraft was launched on a foundation of 10 years of Warcraft RTS games. Brack noted the first appearance of the yellow exclamation point in the Warcraft III title, and the RPG-focused elements of the Orc Campaign in the Frozen Throne expansion.

You don’t just hit the ground running with an MMO of this scope either.  Those of us who were there for beta and launch remember the crowded servers, loot lag (I remember kneeling over a mob for 10 minutes, unable to stand), and the constant striving to catch up as the server populations exploded beyond their wildest expectations. Even then, the size of the overall team working on WoW was large.  Now, it’s huge.  From the Gamasutra article;

As an organization, World of Warcraft utilizes 20,000 computer systems, 1.3 petabytes of storage, and more than 4600 people. “Operating an online game is about more than just game development.” Pearce hopes that the importance of these non-development groups is obvious, especially given the explosive growth of the company over the last five years. “World of Warcrafthas completely changed the organization”, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the departments that they’d singled out.

Obviously, this is a huge undertaking.  You don’t just staff up to 4600 and launch an MMO.  It’s taken a total of almost 10 years to get to this point.

Blizzard’s iterative approach and “We’ll ship when it’s done” approach has served them well.  It’s pretty evident from their results in both the MMO arena and in their other games that taking time, going slow, and making sure it’s right (and more importantly, fun) is a big part of the success that Blizzard enjoys.  Now let’s see how the industry views this, and if other companies are able to adjust and work on a more Blizzard-like schedule.  It seems like the outcome makes the extra investment up front worth it.

5 Comments

  1. Believe me…as a server vendor selling to a lot of these companies, it is definitely an iterative effort. This is why Cloud Computing is such an enticing idea to many of these smaller companies. You can “rent” your hardware in the cloud and use the Cloud Company staff and not have the huge outlay for services or hardware. I believe it will open up some options for other companies. That is one benefit of social networking. It has opened the door to small “Indie” development companies to have a big impact. Let’s hope we see some of that in the MMO development community as well as the games for FB and MySpace.

  2. The problem with “ship it when it’s done” is that you have to have a lot of money to do that, so it’s only a viable strategy for developers supported by big publishers. I get the impression from interviews with the creators of Dead Space and The Saboteur that EA has moved toward that philosophy. The Borderlands team was offered surprisingly leeway from 2K. So some are taking notice.

    I’ve read interviews with some designers (can’t remember which) who stressed get things right on paper — before bringing programmers and artists in, while production is cheap. They acknowledged that things often look great on paper and don’t work out in practice, but it’s still a smart strategy. To some extent, you might even be able to plan room to pivot — plan alternatives in case your first ideas don’t work… though there are always issues that can’t be anticipated.

    That’s a great point about having most of the lore already defined. Perhaps the Secret World team will have a similar advantage, since they’re basing the game in the real world and drawing on pre-existing folklore.

    In any case, Blizzard is a phenomenal company. I didn’t play the first Starcraft, and I only enjoy a small handful of RTS games, but I’m looking forward to Starcraft 2 just because it’s Blizzard. And don’t get me started on Diablo 3!!!

  3. The concepts of iterative development processes is being taught to computer science students since way before 1996. If today that is seen as a unique attribute then a lot of companies still seem to be stuck in the stone age.
    Sorry couldn’t resist :P.

  4. @Rulez-

    Everyone iterates, I think the point is that no one does it quite as much as Blizzard does. Most other game development companies only seem to iterate so far as it doesn’t impact their milestones.

  5. Blizzard can afford that level of iteration though and has to do it. Their game is getting a bit long in the tooth and any fault is going to be blasted across the web. It is like the VIP table at a casino, Bliz has to put up the big bucks and know they are getting it right in order to pull that big profit in the end. This in depth iteration is going to keep the major bugs at bay.

    Other companies can’t afford that level of iteration, be it from their investors wondering when their money is going to turn around, to the media blitz about their game fading over time.

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