Blizzard outline their tactics for developing multiplayer games in a presentation at GDC.
The room was packed to overflowing when Rob Pardo, VP of game design at Blizzard Entertainment (you may have heard of them) started his presentation.
Titled "Blizzard's Approach to Multiplayer Game Design", everyone in the room was keen to get some insight into how the company that built World of Warcraft, StarCraft, and the Warcraft RTS titles do their thing. What followed was a fascinating lecture that - hopefully - will begin a bit of a renaissance in the way games companies build multiplayer games.
Pardo began by pointing out that the first part of any Blizzard game development process is to work out the multiplayer. The first half of StarCraft 2 development was mostly multiplayer - in Warcraft 3, only the last 9 months of development was on the single player experience!
Blizzard look at each aspect of the multiplayer gaming experience, making sure they understand the intricacies at all times. Pardo pointed out the different issues faced when working on PVP and co-op - making sure the balance between units and teams is right in PVP, for example - but making sure units and characters balance each other out in co-operative play.
Skill differentiation was also raised as a big deal in PVP - making sure that the game caters for people that want to excel at it. This is evident in the success of games like StarCraft and Warcraft 3 in the competitive gaming arena.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in multiplayer games - especially RTS games with a wide variety on unit types between teams - is making sure the units are balanced. Blizzard are famous for being one of the few companies that not only support their games years after their release, fixing bugs and patching holes, but also for constantly tweaking the game mechanics.
This sort of tweaking results in a constantly evolving game that provides the best experience possible - but more importantly from a gamer's point of view, provides the best value for money. Pardo pointed out that you don't want to have a kneejerk reaction to patching though - if someone finds a new move that people are sure
is unbeatable, it's better to wait a little bit and let the players evolve techniques themselves before just churning out a patch to hackily fix it.
Some StarCraft 2 challenges were raised - making sure the races were hugely different, ensuring that good players can win quickly over lesser players (by a display of skill), making sure every unit has a counter, and allowing for creative strategies. It is pretty clear that they are shaping StarCraft 2 to be the
next competitive RTS game.
Something hugely interesting to me - and something that really shows the depth to which multiplayer is considered in their game design - was the issue of balance as it relates to the user interface. Issues such as the ability to select all the units on the screen (as opposed to only being able to select a small group of units) aren't decided lightly - it can take a lot of debate before this is decided due to the balance issues that arise.
For example, selecting all the units means you can quickly and easily dispatch a horde of troops in a single move - which can have significant effects. However, limiting the number of troops that can be selected means gamers can only move their units about in small groups, making the skill of micro-management much more of a big deal - and widening that skill differentiation distance.
Another issue relating to maintenance that Blizzard are famed for is their zero tolerance stance on cheating - and their active anti-cheating programmes that results in tens of thousands of miscreants. Take a lesson, FPS developers. It's a big deal.
Pardo covered a lot of ground in his speech; discussing the impact that player psychology, visual clarity and art direction and matchmaking can have on a game's multiplayer experience. It is clear that Blizzard have invested super-heavily into multiplayer gaming - not just cramming things into games and reactively patching them into some sort of working order, but watching everything
, writing it all down for future reference, and making sure everyone in the company is aware of the issues and keeps them at the forefront of their minds at all times.
Of course, this is all obvious from the end result - a series of the most successful multiplayer titles ever made.