Game Industry Legends: Rob Pardo
World of Warcraft's lead designer on innovative indies, changing genres and why the big budget single-player game is an endangered species
Rob Pardo has been producing and designing games since 1994, when he worked at Interplay Productions. His most well-known work dates from 1997 and beyond, when he began working at Blizzard Entertainment. Pardo was also lead designer of World of Warcraft expansions Wrath of the Lich King and Burning Crusade, as well as Starcraft: Brood War. He's also worked on Diablo II and Diablo III, and Warcraft III. He's now Chief Creative Officer at Blizzard Entertainment.
Pardo's work has had a huge impact on Blizzard's revenues, and therefore Activision's revenues. World of Warcraft contributes, according to analyst estimates, about 25 per cent of Activision's revenues every year and about 50 per cent of its profits - that's over $1 billion in annual revenue since 2008 (with a very high profit margin). The game is also a cultural phenomenon, with nearly 10 million players forming a very active community, with toys and other licensed gear, mentions on TV shows, and a long-planned feature film.
GamesIndustry International caught up with Rob Pardo after the introduction of the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria.
Q: What was the first game you worked on?
Rob Pardo: The first game I worked on at Blizzard was Starcraft. I originally started in the industry at Interplay Productions a few years before that, as a junior producer. Technically I started as a game tester. I did that for about three or four months, then became a producer at Interplay, working on a variety of titles there.
I was there during the era of Descent, Stonekeep and Fallout. I don't feel like I worked on anything much of note during my Interplay days; I was working on Wild 9 with Shiny, but left before that completed, and they'd just finished MDK. I was also working with Parallax on Freespace; I was producer on that, but then I left and went to a startup, Point of View Software. I was there for about a year, and then I came here [Blizzard] during Starcraft development.
Q: When you were producing games back then, producing often included a hefty dose of design work. Were you doing game design as well as producing?
Rob Pardo: Definitely. It was a little bit different, because I was producing third-parties. I eventually ended up developing, which is what I always wanted to do. Part of your job as a third-party producer is to contribute to the design, sometimes guide the design depending on you as a publisher and what you want to achieve with the title. But I didn't know anything, really, and I was making it up as I went along.
"I didn't know anything, really, and I was making it up as I went along"
Q: I think that's a pretty good description of the game industry for much of its history. When you first came to Blizzard, were you producing or designing?
Rob Pardo: Designing. When I came to Blizzard, it's kind of funny, because I was somewhat infamous at Interplay for playing RTS games. When we were over there, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was actually being published by Blizzard overseas, because Davidson had just purchased the company but they didn't have overseas distribution, so that's what Interplay was producing. It was in the studio, and we were all big fans of Blizzard, and there was a lot of cross-friends. I was one of the best RTS players in the studio, so I ended up knowing some of the Blizzard people through that.
Then when I ended leaving Point of View, I talked to Alan Adham [one of Blizzard's co-founders] who I'd met previously, and he wanted me to come in and just play Starcraft and give a bunch of qualitative feedback, because he knew I was really into RTS games. 'Hey, why don't you come in, I'll pay you by the hour, and you can give me qualitative feedback.' That's really how it all started at Blizzard.
Q: They must have liked your feedback.
Rob Pardo: A lot of my feedback ended up being around game balance, because that was the first asymmetrical RTS game; the races were totally different. It was pretty challenging to balance, so a lot of my feedback was along those lines. I also gave a lot of feedback to the AI programmer around what the AI should be doing to be able to beat other players. Back then, people really didn't think in the land of build orders yet, so it was funny because the lead programmer was like 'Oh, I'm trying to come up with the AI' and sent emails to the company asking for feedback. I sent him back what was a build order, even though it wasn't called that back then. He said, 'This is great, I can just put this into the script!' He basically just scripted my build order and put it into the AI.
Q: Has it gotten more difficult to create the AI, or is it easier because you have people whose job is focused on that?
Rob Pardo: I think it probably gets harder. The projects themselves get bigger, Blizzard gets bigger and we have more projects. I think it's difficult to keep the quality as high as we want to keep it; there are just so many moving parts now. Back when I was primarily doing game balance, that wasn't the only thing I did. I did that quite a bit on Starcraft, but then I was the lead designer on Brood Wars, doing the design on the units. I was leading the design on the campaign, and I was doing the game balance. I think it really helps games a lot when you have people who can focus across all the different systems, because they all really work together so well. Now, with projects being as big as they are, we do have multiple dedicated designers whose entire job is just to try and balance the game.
Q: In general, games have gotten deeper and more complex. Is there a danger that we're perhaps closing out the people who aren't familiar with the game, with brand-new players?
Rob Pardo: I think that's always a danger with existing genres; it's always a challenge you have to try to deal with. Oftentimes the fans of a particular genre do want more complexity, they want innovation, or they want something new to their genre because they've already played the five previous games. You really have to be on the lookout for complexity.
One of the rules we had during Starcraft II development was that you couldn't add a unit to any of the races until you got rid of one of the old units. Brood War had a complexity level that we felt was good, from a game design point of view, so we really didn't want to make the game more complex. We just wanted to re-imagine it, have some new units, new experiences, but we tried to be as disciplined as we could to make sure we eliminated some of the old complexity for every new complexity we added.
Q: Is one of the dangers that you might change the game so much that players don't recognize it?
"The last several titles now I think we've announced our titles too early"
Rob Pardo: Sid Meier has a pretty good ratio, which I like, for how he looks at sequels. It's one-third proven, one-third improved, and one-third new. I think that's a pretty good ratio to look at your game and go, 'Have we drifted so far from it that we shouldn't even call it a sequel any more.'
Q: As a designer, isn't it tempting to tread completely new ground? You've lived with some designs for years, wouldn't you love to do something different and take a clean sheet of paper and start over?
Rob Pardo: Always. I think there's fun in creating a new game and I think there's also a lot of fun in creating a sequel. You just have to be honest with yourself about which one you're on and dedicate to it. With Starcraft II, it was a big challenge because it had been ten plus years since the first one had come out, and the team was really excited to work on a sequel to the game. We had just come off Warcraft III, and in Warcraft III we had done some different things by bringing a lot of RPG elements into the game. We de-emphasized a lot of the economic gameplay. The team was actually real excited to go back to some of the paradigms of Starcraft.
I see us having the biggest challenge with that in World of Warcraft expansions. How much do we just add content, how much do we re-imagine? There's certainly always people on World of Warcraft either on the development team or in the community who really want a new game; but then doing too much of that actually betrays people who just want more World of Warcraft.
Q: One of the interesting trends that's been occurring, particularly with mobile and social games, is that much of the development of the game actually occurs after it ships. These games are really a service, and changes, often major changes, occur after it's been played for a while. Some of the new games that are being put on Kickstarter are being designed with immediate feedback from future customers. This is a reversal of the standard industry practice of creating games in secret, turning that on its head and inviting the community in. Do you see this as a model that may impact the more traditional development, or do you see the way you've done it in the past as just fine?
Rob Pardo: I think it's always great to involve the community to some extent. At various key stages it can be really valuable because the teams get too close to the product. I think we have enough development teams and we're large enough now we mimic that community within Blizzard. It's really great for the development teams at various stages to show other development teams who are not as close to the product. They're all big Blizzard fans as well as being Blizzard developers so they give really great feedback.
At a higher level, most of the successful entertainment products - and I'm not just talking about games here - are successful because there's a vision for that entertainment product and a creative direction for it. I don't know if you can get that from a community. For us there can be a really big distraction element. The last several titles now I think we've announced our titles too early. It's not that I want to keep it a secret, it's just that we have so many fans now they really are voracious about wanting to know more. It becomes a very big distraction to the development team. I don't really put that on the fans, I actually put that on us as developers. It's because we want to know and we read the forums and we read all the different blogs out there.
If there's something announced out there people are going to be talking about. Rather than really focusing on what we have to do next people start doubting themselves and start reading all the different objections or what they like and dislike. The community is really a mob; it's not like there's a singular voice. You can certainly get themes if the community is mostly against something or for something. Most of the time it's pretty split, and you have people on both sides of an issue. It's confusing to know how to pull that feedback out, and make a better product from it.
Q: Do you think the design process has changed all that much from the early days of your career? Aside from being increased in scale...
Rob Pardo: I think the design process has changed a lot, and I also think it varies quite a lot from studio to studio. I think the design process within Blizzard, as an example, is probably very different from what you might see at Maxis or Valve, since I know a lot of people at those studios. What I think is really great about games and game design is that you don't need one process to get there.
Q: There is no one true way?
Rob Pardo: Yeah, I think what's important is having a design culture that is really healthy and works for your studio, and ends up producing very different types of games. As far as changing over time, that's also certainly happened just through the size and scale of these games. A lot more people are involved with the design. Back in the day one person could design and program a game, which is inherently a very different process than the games we make now, which are much bigger and more collaborative. You don't have the singular game designers that make all the decisions any more. Maybe in the indie game scene, of course, but when you're looking at the sort of games that we create there's a lot of people involved. It's not even just all the game designers. Here at Blizzard we really try to involve as many people in the game design as we can. There's a challenge just from the scale of the teams; it's not like everyone can be involved in every design meeting, but we really try hard to make sure every voice is heard.
"Subscription-based business models can still work, but you can't over-value your game"
Q: We've seen team sizes and budgets for games get much bigger. Do you see this trend continuing? How do you see design and the games changing in five or ten years?
Rob Pardo: You certainly see trends. One of the bigger trends is there's a lot of smaller games able to be created, so you are seeing a lot more innovation that isn't possible in the AAA space because of the money and the risk involved. You'll see a lot of these really innovative indie games, mobile games, social games, that people can try out and test new and innovative ideas. I think that a lot of those ideas will eventually turn into AAA games. They'll end up being this experimental hotbed of game design.
Another big trend is connecting everyone in their games, be it a full online experience like World of Warcraft, or just being able to have a social experience with other people playing single-player games. You're seeing all these sorts of elements being explored. I think it's really interesting because it's not just about connecting someone so I can play with them. It's about how I can have a social experience around the games that I play even if it's inherently a single-player game.
Q: Do you think that the big-budget single-player game is an endangered species at this point?
Rob Pardo: I do. I don't see there being a great business model for it these days. It's really sad, there's just a lot of elements out there that conspire to make those games difficult to make now. Between pirating or the ability for people to rent games, it's hard for publishers to pour millions and millions of dollars into a game and not necessarily see the return they need to make those budgets realistic.
Q: One of the things that's been changing in the industry is the business model. In addition to classic retail sales and subscriptions we now see free-to-play, ad-supported and other variants. Do you think these new business models will affect the game designs and the design process?
"I'm personally a big fan of game designers being involved in the monetization design, because that's what will ultimately make for the best game"
Rob Pardo: Definitely. I'm personally a big fan of game designers being involved in the monetization design, because that's what will ultimately make for the best game. A lot of times I think those become very disconnected in the industry. Someone that's more business-oriented or production-oriented will graft a business model onto a game because that's what they think is going to drive the most revenue, but the game doesn't really support it. That's one of the things you've seen a lot with the subscription-based business model. I personally think subscription-based business models can still work, but you can't over-value your game. There's been some games in the past where they've put the subscription model on it because they thought they could get away with it. The reality is if you're going to do a subscription model you need to deliver an immense amount of premium content over time, because people are going to be looking at as 'If I'm going to be $10 or $15 per month, what am I getting month after month?' If I'm not spending enough hours in your product, it's just not going to make sense as a value proposition.
Free-to-play is a much more friendly business model for a lot of people to try out. People can try these games with no risk, and then only decide to pay for games that they really see the value in or want to spend on. I think that is a really strong model. Free-to-play is almost like a genre of business models, there are so many different ways you can apply it. I think for free-to-play to work really well it has to be deeply integrated with the game design itself. What is it that people are going to buy, and how much are you going to pay for this versus the other thing? One of the biggest issues with free-to-play models these days is the feeling that a lot of games give me: That for me to progress in this game, or to really have a deep game experience, you have to pay. That's where free-to-play gets a bad rap. But that's more the game design than the model.
Q: If the game is free-to-play but I have to download 10 gigabytes to try it out, that can keep me from trying it. That's part of what cloud gaming is trying to overcome; do you think cloud gaming is going to make some inroads because of those technical issues?
Rob Pardo: I certainly think there's a lot of potential in cloud gaming, it's just picking the right games. There's a lot of hurdles for cloud gaming to overcome, one of which is having to have all these servers to be able to host all these games, since it's not like you need any less computing power to play these games. First of all you need someone with the infrastructure that can have all those games up there. Another issue the latency of the games themselves. I think certain types of games have the potential to be fun cloud gaming experiences, but there's a lot of games I'm not sure we'll ever see in the cloud. Take first-person-shooters; there's just a basic physics problem with how long it takes for you to get instructions into the cloud and back to the client again. I don't know how you'll ever be able to deal with those sorts of latency problems with cloud gaming.
Q: Parts of the games like cinematics could be easily streamed without concern for latency, couldn't they?
Rob Pardo: Totally. That's where the real power of the cloud comes in, is trying to enhance the experience, rather than trying to play entirely in the cloud. You could stream certain elements, you can hold people's save profiles, there's a lot of things you could put in the cloud. At least it could make you computer-agnostic, help with how much space you take on your hard drive, how long it takes you to get up and running, or download patches and things like that.
Q: Looking forward five or ten years, how do you think gaming is going to change? Is it just going to differ in degree, or will there be different experiences?
"I wouldn't be surprised if this is the last traditional console generation and it evolves into something new after that"
Rob Pardo: We're certainly on the cusp of a lot of change; it's just a matter of how and when it all changes. I don't view myself as a prophet; my guess is as good as anyone else's out there. The big question is: Is this upcoming console generation going to be as successful as the last one? Tablets are getting more and more popular, mobile's getting popular. The computing and graphics power in those systems are really going to catch up rapidly.
Are people going to go out and pay $300 plus for a gaming system that plugs into their TV the way the last generation did? I personally think the answer is yes for one more generation. I still think that the console systems will have enough of an advantage, and people are still used to buying them as a consumer product. They'll be able to deliver really good games that I don't think you can experience yet on tablets. I wouldn't be surprised if this is the last traditional console generation and it evolves into something new after that.
Q: Perhaps people won't know or care so much about the hardware and how the entertainment is delivered to them, they'll just want the experience.
Rob Pardo: When you look at tablets and what they're trying to do with them - where I can just very freely play anything on my iPad and my TV back and forth - you can start seeing how that might affect gaming in the future. The thing that will be really interesting about that is you can overcome the computing power, but what about the input device? The idea of using a gamepad or a plastic guitar or any of those sort of input devices... I really worry when those don't exist any more.
The input device, more than anything, is what drives the different types of games that are out there. If you think about back in the day when flight simulators were really popular, fifteen or twenty years ago, when people stopped wanting to buy $100 joysticks you saw that whole genre disappear. I think it would be really sad if the only kind of games we could interact with in the future will be touch-based games. I love touch-based games, I also love other types of games too.
Q: Will Bluetooth controllers be the solution?
Rob Pardo: There will be a way to do it, the question is can you get the consumers to buy it? You can still buy joysticks and gamepads for the PC, there's just not enough people to do it. It becomes this chicken and egg problem. If you're a publisher or a game maker, do you want to make a game that requires this peripheral that consumers don't already have as an installed base? Unless you have a game or software that gets people to buy it, like something on the level of Guitar Hero, then you can get people to go out and buy the peripherals.
Tablets are are clearly here to stay. I almost look at them as the Tron identity disk. You can carry everything about you around with you - your likes, your social network, your email, your music, your games, and you can bring it anywhere - you become display screen agnostic.
Q: Do you think the genres of games that people like will change, or that people like our current genres and the games will just evolve?
"I remember when I was first working here at Blizzard there was doubts on a lot of the teams whether or not they really needed a game designer"
Rob Pardo: I totally believe that genres are going to change. It's hard to predict how they're going to change, there's a lot of factors that cause genres to die out or explode. Some are technological, some are business, and a lot of it's just the creativity of their creators. Within existing genres, are the people that are working within them able to evolve and innovate with the genres and keep them really exciting and alive?
You've seen that with the shooter genre; it's done really well and people continue to find ways to innovate within it. I think you see other genres where they start lacking innovation and slowly die out. There are genres that you can't imagine yet that are going to suddenly appear, it's just that you need that great game maker that's going to come up with it.
Q: Do you think that Minecraft has any lessons for us?
Rob Pardo: Minecraft's a good example of what I'm talking about. It came from a game creator that did something that really appealed to people. Obviously the biggest thing about Minecraft is leveraging procedural content and player creativity to make a really awesome gaming experience. I do think that graphics are often a red herring for developers. We hire a lot of super-smart, talented artists and programmers that really want to drive the cutting edge, it's something they're really passionate about. But it's not always something that game players are looking for. Something we try really hard at Blizzard to keep in mind is that gameplay is first; it's our first value for the company. If the technology and the art of the game design isn't driving better gameplay, then we're making a mistake.
Graphic fidelity is amazing, it's great when it makes the game more immersive. It makes it more believable, it delivers an experience you might not be able to get otherwise. But it only works well if it actually makes the game better. There's been plenty of games in the past that had really pretty graphics that didn't have a really fun experience. I think there's a strong parallel with the movie industry and special effects. Special effects allow filmmakers to tell stories they couldn't tell fifty years ago. That's great, but sometimes the special effects aren't necessarily making the story better, it's just about the special effects, and those end up being really hollow movies that don't do very well.
Q: This global shift in gaming, with millions of gamers in China and other places like Brazil, is that going to impact game design and what games are popular?
Rob Pardo: I don't see how it couldn't. It's something that over time we've paid a lot more attention to; we used to be a very US-centric game company. I wouldn't say that we design for a specific market, now we just don't design for a specific market. We definitely keep in mind what the other markets are doing and try to make sure that the games we make don't do anything that would upset a market, or especially from a business model standpoint pay attention to how consumers like to pay in various markets. Korea and China are great examples of that, because so many people are playing in game rooms. There's a lot of things you can do with the game design that makes it not very conducive to game room play.
Q: You spend a lot of time managing; do you get to do any design work any more? Do you wish you could do more?
Rob Pardo: I always wish I could do more. I do miss the days of actually cracking open a level design tool and making pieces of content from beginning to end, or sitting in the balance spreadsheets and actually tuning the various units and going in and out of the game... That was a pretty fun time period. At the same time there's tradeoffs; there's other things I get to do now. I get to really invest a lot more in the people that work here and try to make the team successful, which is very fulfilling in different ways. I still get to do some design here and there. On the new MMO there's some systems I get to do high-level design on, help to lead the direction on, so that's cool.
I'm usually pretty involved in the beginning design of a lot of our games - what the feature set is, the high level goals. I usually get very involved at key milestones and give it direction. I'm still pretty involved, it's more the swoop-in involvement where I try to help the teams when they need things. A lot of times one of the game directors will call me up or drop me an email and I'll spend some time helping them on a feature. It's like company design firefighter. During World of Warcraft there were various features like the guild advancement feature, the pet battles feature, where they asked me to come in and look at some stuff and give them some qualitative feedback.
The tricky thing is that I can't put myself in the critical path, because I can get swooped away into something else within the studio, which just might have higher priority. I don't want the team to ever be in a situation where they can't advance. The last time we had to do that was during Starcraft II development. We were working on Starcraft II and World of Warcraft wasn't done yet, and I needed to stop all of my design work on Starcraft II and focus entirely on WoW. That put the project in design hiatus for almost a year, and hurt the project from the standpoint of being able to get it out as soon as we wanted to. It was the right thing for the studio, obviously, WoW ended up being very successful, but I don't ever want to be in a situation like that.
"Between pirating or the ability for people to rent, it's hard for publishers to pour millions of dollars into a game and not necessarily see the return they need to make those budgets realistic"
I've really focused a lot on making sure we have a great design culture. We have a lot of very talented game directors, designers, and designers throughout the studio which is very different then I think we had back in the early WoW days when we were still trying to split the two teams and figure out what a game designer was. I think we've come pretty far since then.
Q: It's still hard to create a game designer, isn't it? It's not an easy process.
Rob Pardo: Not, it's not. I think even if you ask game designers 'What does a good game designer look like?' you're going to get a lot of different answers. I have a pretty good idea of what a good game designer at Blizzard looks like; a good designer at another studio might not be a good designer here and vice versa. I don't know if that will change as the years go on; I'm guessing not though.
Q: At least game design is its own discipline now, it's not just something the programmer does in their off hours, or the producer does in their spare time.
Rob Pardo: Yes, thankfully that is true. I remember when I was first working here at Blizzard there was doubts on a lot of the teams whether or not they really needed a game designer. "We can all get together and do the game design, we don't really need someone that that's their primary job.'
Q: No one says that any more, I hope.
Rob Pardo: Not around here! (laughs)
Q: Any other thoughts on the future of games?
Rob Pardo: Some of the future is just defined by the games we make. If you look at which consoles are the most successful, it's driven as much by the games that are on it as by what the console had in it. Which is why console creators usually spend so much time either themselves creating great games, like Nintendo I think does. Sony and Microsoft really try to get great first-party developers because the software is ultimately what drives the industry. Everyone's always looking at what's the next technological innovation that's going to allow for the next games, but most of the times it's games that drive the technological innovation. For years and years, people would buy stronger graphics cards because of the games that were coming out. That's what drove it.
That's where I think the game designers come in, because they're going to make some great game experience, some new genre we hadn't thought of before. That's going to drive some technological innovation and and suddenly everyone's going to make those types of games. You've seen it with MMO's, you've seen it with shooters. That's why it's impossible to predict, because I don't know which of the great game makers out there or some kid I've never heard of is going to make the next big thing that's going to drive a bunch of new ideas.