Can Blizzard rush art?
23rd Aug 2012 | 08:30
Slow and steady won the race. World of Warcraft is the most critically and commercially successful MMO of all time and Blizzard has achieved the feat with a merciless and measured quality control philosophy. Content is either excellent or not fit for release.
But the games industry is slowly deserting the subscription business and the attempt to win customers through undeniable quality. Blizzard may be king, but the tribe is going elsewhere. At an increasing rate, MMOs are being published unfinished, often playable at no charge, and rapidly updated and improved based on fan feedback.
Particularly in Asia, the established MMOs are updated on a weekly basis with new rules, items and challenges available. The value of this model is that player retention tends to be far greater when updates occur so rapidly.
World of Warcraft, which once had more than 12 million subscribers, is gradually declining in popularity. Players surge back into servers when the yearly expansion comes around; they gobble up the content, but then they leave again.
Blizzard's best chance to retain players is to create content much faster, but with its peerless standards for quality, can it even achieve this? Can Blizzard rush art?
We speak to John Lagrave, Blizzard's lead game producer, and lead encounter designer Ion Hazzikostas, to debate this issue.
CVG:You're raising the cap in World of Warcraft to level 90, though people are consuming your content faster than you are creating it. What sort of design challenges does this present?
LAGRAVE: Oh lots. We have both ends of it; on one hand the majority of our population is on Level 85 and they are going to race through to 90, and you want that to be a meaningful experience for them. On the other hand, you have to look at the person that's never played World of Warcraft before, and they have to climb up ninety levels; that's days and days and days of work, so what do we need to do to make content from level one to 85 that's reasonable for them?
So you still focus on developing content for potential new customers?
LAGRAVE: Oh absolutely. In this expansion we have introduced the Pandaren who have their own new starting zone, and we want to tell their story, but we also recognise the fact that some people may have never played this game, so we have to factor that in too. In fact we have tweaked a lot of the tutorial for new players to understand the basics better.
There are obviously a lot of MMO studios, particularly across Asia, that take a completely different approach and provide weekly, sometimes even daily, updates to their games. Do you think this is ever going to be a route that Blizzard will go down?
HAZZIKOSTAS: We are committed to trying to release updates more frequently than we have, though I feel that it's possible for content to come too frequently. First and foremost, content has to be of the high quality that we set for ourselves and the players. That requires time, iteration, testing, refinement and polish. That's not something you can short-cut.
Also, the model for our game is generally progression-based; you are upgrading your character and you're improving your gear. If you release content too quickly you make your older stuff obsolete before players really have the chance to fully experience it.
Not that we ever could update quickly, but supposing hypothetically that we did update content every week, I don't think that would be best for players. I don't think that's something to get the most enjoyment out of.
That's a really interesting response, and it reminds me that Blizzard will take years if needed to release something to a standard it is happy with. Considering that is in your studio's DNA, do you think you'll ever be equipped to take on a faster approach to content updates? Is there an internal, philosophical resistance to rapid updates?
LAGRAVE: It's a great question. We... I mean, I don't know. That really is the question. Will we one day be so malleable that one day we can sit there and say 'hey this is interesting, let's do it right away'?
We can respond to certain events quickly. But would Blizzard hypothetically create a game where we give you a chunk of content very rapidly? Possibly. We are all about playing new games. It certainly would be a challenge for us, but we're gamers, we like new things.
But historically Blizzard has sacrificed everything for the sake of quality.
HAZZIKOSTAS: When we feel that content is not living up to the standard that we set for ourselves, there will be things that we shelve completely and rework extensively before it's released.
To give you an example, the first zone in Mists of Pandaria is called Jade Forest and I remember when we thought work on it was 'completed' months ago. But we found from a lot of feedback that some players didn't get a sense of what they were doing. So we looked over everything, and we ultimately agreed with the feedback, so we completely redesigned the first third of the zone.
This was a decision we made late in the beta process. We closed the beta down, reworked it, and a few months later opened the beta again. We added in new quests, new design and an entirely different storyline.
The results were great, people seemed to be far happier with the product, but that's an example of the hard decisions that we make for the sake of quality.
Don't hate me for asking, but can you not do that? Can you not take the more straightforward route and just pump the content out?
LAGRAVE: You know, yes of course we could. We could look at the content and say yeah, that's good, it's not great, but let's just leave it. Here's the thing, we have pride in our work and we don't want to be embarrassed by our work. We owe ourselves - and I know this sounds like bullshit but it's true - we owe ourselves to a very high standard. We want to be proud of our work.
Don't get me wrong, we have released content where I thought we could have added a bit more to it, but we have to draw the line somewhere.
HAZZIKOSTAS: And that's John's job. If he left it just to the designers we'd just polish and polish and polish on it forever. He makes sure we are on a schedule. And if it's above the high standard that we set for ourselves then it can go out the door.
I wanted to discuss free-to-play too. World of Warcraft is at level 20 right now. Are you going to raise it?
LAGRAVE: You know, we looked at it lots, we looked at whether Level 20 would give you a good sense of what our game is, and we think it does. We've definitely slid some of the pay-for features into the first 20 Levels.
But there's also a lot of things in the game that are special that we want to reserve for our paying customers.
Finally, what elements of Mists of Pandaria do you think your community is looking forward to the most?
I don't think there's one specific answer, because it varies on what type of player and what kind of content they enjoy. One of our goals is to deliver a very broad range of content for different players, whether you are a hardcore raider or if you're someone with a limited amount of time. All those different kinds of players will have a chunk of content for them.
Mists of Pandaria is scheduled for release on PC and Mac from September 25th
Image credit: Zam