It's been almost a year since Rob Pardo left the role of chief creative officer at Blizzard, with the developer telling GamesIndustry.biz he spent much of that time "catching up on life." What began as a sabbatical from Blizzard turned into a chance to spend time with friends and family, and to reconsider his goals for the next act of his career.
"It's only been this year that I've started to think seriously about what's next," Pardo said. "So I've been spending a lot of time talking to people I know in the industry and trying to figure out what it is I'm most excited about. That's really what led me to having dinner with [Unity Technologies CEO] John Riccitiello and this whole concept coming up."
"I feel like I'm almost in danger of becoming an old-timer in the industry, so I'm excited to go visit some studios that are a little bit younger in the pipeline."
That concept is the Rob Pardo World Tour, which, sadly, has nothing to do with filling stadiums while using Elite Tauren Chieftain as his opening act. Instead, Pardo will serve as a creative advisor to an assortment of creators using Unity, meeting with developers of all sizes in North America, Europe, and Asia to talk shop and share his insights after a couple decades in the industry. It will be a chance for Pardo to not just pass on his hard-earned wisdom, but to add to it.
"If I can help out the game dev community, then that's awesome," Pardo said. "I'm going to be trying to learn as much as I can and just see where everyone else thinks things are going. I feel like I'm almost in danger of becoming an old-timer in the industry, so I'm excited to go visit some studios that are a little bit younger in the pipeline and maybe don't have as many games behind them and are looking at the industry and where it's going in a different way than I do."
It's sure to be a very different experience from his time at Blizzard. After so long at the company, Pardo said he'd begun to see things primarily in terms of the PC AAA space. And while there's been plenty of evolution on that front, he's excited to get different perspectives on the rest of the industry.
"What's exciting being a little bit further removed now is looking at the scope of the industry, how much it's grown, and how many different pockets there are," Pardo said. "If you rewind 15 years, you're either in the AAA space or you're doing really, really small games. Now I feel like you can do mobile games, you can do indie PC games, console's still thriving. It's really an exciting time period and being able to engage and see all the different areas of the games industry is what I'm excited about right now."
Heading into the tour, Pardo sees two big trends shaping the future of game development. The first one is a constant in the games industry: a push toward new technology. At the moment, that seems to be mostly defined as augmented reality and virtual reality.
"What Unity and a lot of these trends in game development are doing is allowing more people like me when I was a kid to make games before they even get to the game industry."
"Everyone seems to agree that the technology is finally getting there where you can imagine real experiences," Pardo said, "and the question then becomes 'Just how far away until it's a really commercial experience?'"
The second trend is in some ways the opposite. While pursuing new tech is often the domain of the wealthy and the established, the lowering of barriers to entry for game developers is opening up the field to people who are neither. Pardo said it's a trend Unity has been focused on (the company recently announced the free and full-featured personal version of Unity 5), and one he sees as a boon for the industry as a whole.
"If I look back on my career, I don't have a software engineering background like a lot of people did 20 years ago when they were getting into the industry as game designers," Pardo said. "So I really had to rely on my other programmers to build tools so that I could be effective and be able to exercise my game design career within games. What Unity and a lot of these trends in game development are doing is allowing more people like me when I was a kid to make games before they even get to the game industry. And I think that's going to lead to lots of really talented people in the game industry who may not have been able to get in 20 years ago and a lot of really innovative, interesting games."
Tools like Unity may make it easier for developers to become generalists, but Pardo said the industry will still need specialists. However, the need for each role will be determined by the project. If you're making a more complicated game with a larger team, that tends to force specialization. But if you're making a smaller game with a smaller team, you need more general skillsets, something Pardo saw at Blizzard when the company made Hearthstone.
"Since the team was so small, we really couldn't afford to have a lot of high-end specialists on it. We really needed people that were better at cross-functions rather than really specialized in one area," Pardo said, adding, "Everything's very relative. The size of the Heartstone team was 15 or less throughout most of its development. I believe they're probably larger now. That's still a larger team for an indie team, and what we were always trying to do with that product was just make a Blizzard game that's smaller in scope."
Obviously, Hearthstone succeeded at that. And there are other instances where small teams have produced revenues at AAA scales or beyond (Minecraft comes to mind), but Pardo suggested those are anomalies.
"There are lots of other games out there that can be done with small teams as long as you're on the right platform and you have the right game idea," Pardo said, "but I think it'd be very hard to compete in the AAA space with a small team. You just need too many art assets at too high of a fidelity level to be able to compete with a small team."
The lowered barrier to entry may be enabling breakout successes and fostering innovation across the industry, but Pardo said it comes with its own drawbacks.
"The easier it is for people to make these things, the harder it is to get discovered," Pardo said. "It feels to me that it's really going to be up to the different stores, the app stores or Steam, to find a way to curate that content and get it to the people. And it's a really hard problem. It's not something that's easy, but both those companies have a lot of smart people and hopefully they'll continue to work on it."
"If [discoverability] continues to be such a big problem and doesn't get solved by the bigger companies, I'm sure there will be disruption from somebody else. I'm sure somebody will come up with a way to solve the problem."
But if Steam and Apple are already making plenty of money on their storefronts in their current form, how incentivized are they to fix the discoverability problem?
"I don't really know any of the folks at Apple who are working on the App Store, so I don't know how important it is for them to work on the curation side," Pardo said. "I know the guys at Valve a little better and I know it's something they're pretty passionate about. Even though they're successful, I know they continue to want to try to make the store experience better and better, not just for the developers but the end users... If it continues to be such a big problem and doesn't get solved by the bigger companies, I'm sure there will be disruption from somebody else. I'm sure somebody will come up with a way to solve the problem."
In the meantime, developers confronted with an abundance of competition need to get better at marketing their games.
"A lot of the successful indie stories are because they don't just put it up on Steam or the App Store and expect it to be successful," Pardo said. "They come up with ways to build a community even before the game has come out. It's one of the benefits of Kickstarter. Obviously, a lot of independent games are getting funded that way, but I think a lot of the value is actually being able to build an invested audience of players that are waiting to play your game. And if it's successful, they're going to go out and spread the word about how awesome the game is."
One thing that Pardo wasn't ready to talk about is what's next for him. He's not signing up with Unity full-time, and this tour is expected to wrap up in roughly a year. And while he has an idea about the next step, he's hoping the tour will help shape whatever it is he ultimately chooses to do.
"I definitely am getting behind-the-scenes a little more serious about what I want to do next," Pardo said. "I've been starting to work on some ideas and having meetings in the background. But I am hopeful that this tour might inform me and give me some ideas that might steer me in a direction. Those two things are happening at the same time."