Blizzard Entertainment took aim at team shooters last week with Overwatch, a game so popular that the Overwatch subreddit easily beat out Reddit's own home page for views on launch day.
Overwatch is just the latest implementation of a company-wide strategy – Blizzard built its success reinventing game genres for broader audiences. In 2004, it targeted MMOs, and World of Warcraft easily toppled EverQuest by an order of magnitude. A decade later, the publisher triumphed again with Hearthstone, a digital collectible card game that stomped that market, passing 50 million players this year.
That philosophy has taken Blizzard from a niche publisher of high-quality strategy games to a juggernaut across a half-dozen genres. But how is it done? Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime and five game leads discuss the answer with Glixel.
Step 1: Pick your genre
"We're not looking to remake great games. We're looking to find our own areas that may be underdeveloped," Morhaime says. "We look at the market and we try to make games in areas where we have something to add."
In World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, its MOBA Heroes of the Storm and now Overwatch, the company has historically tackled game markets where only the most-hardcore of players battled for supremacy.
Once a genre is selected, it's time to "Blizzardfy it,"as Diablo 3 game director Josh Mosqueira puts it. "Blow it up and reach the masses."
Step 2: Ditch everything that gets in the way of players, no matter how traditional
Jeffrey Kaplan spent a long time on the WoW team before transitioning to the company's aborted Project Titan, which was supposed to be Blizzard's next MMORPG. He's now game director on Overwatch and the company's vice president.
He says Blizzard doesn't focus on reducing game difficulty across the board. Instead, it preserves a game's "core fantasy" and gets rid of friction points: needlessly complex aspects where "normal human beings will step away from the computer in a moment of frustration, but the more-hardcore [fan] will stick around."
Warcraft put exclamation points over questgivers' heads, for example, so players could easily find them, instead of having to speak with every non-player character. Chris Sigaty, executive producer for Heroes of the Storm and StarCraft II, says Heroes took out aspects such as "last hitting" and items to simplify the MOBA experience.
"Heroes took a lot of the accepted norms of MOBA-style games and said, is this all really necessary? Or can we create a really fun experience by cutting a lot of that complexity out?" Sigaty explains. "However, the game has a ton of strategic depth, once you start to understand it."
Step 3: Entice new players with a sneaky, subtle learning curve
The notion of a long on-ramp for beginners is a core element of Blizzard's design philosophy. In most of its games, players start with a tutorial, then play against the A.I. Finally, they start to battle other players, but in a very shallow pool amongst other beginners. They join the main group only after they figure out what's going on.
Even then, the learning process continues. In Overwatch, the "Kill Cam" and "Play of the Game" features showcase short videos that might prove instructive to beginners.
Blizzard will even design pieces that "fail" just to teach players how to win. Consider the Magma Rager card in Hearthstone, for example: With its five attack and one health, it's a terrible choice. But it teaches players the value of attack power versus survivability. Once a beginner has seen a Rager or two annihilated the moment they hit the board, this core gameplay concept sinks in.
"Some of those cards draw consternation from the community," says Ben Brode, lead designer on Hearthstone. "We often hear people asking for buffs to certain cards. But the truth is, we want them to be weak intentionally, because they're good learning moments for brand-new players."
Once gamers become successful, the team shifts gears to keeping them.
Step 4: Try not to piss off the genre's core fan base
The Blizzard motto for game design is "easy to learn, difficult – or impossible – to master," and it's not always a simple balance. Changes to make the early game more beginner-friendly sometimes invite complaints by experienced players that a title is being "dumbed down," even if layers of difficulty are added to the deep end of the pool.
"One of the most important pieces is to make sure that the core audience who is really into the genre loves the mechanics that are in play," Kaplan says.
World of Warcraft game director Tom Chilton says beginners and hardcore players actually have a lot in common. "Even hardcore expert players hate learning curves," he admits. "They want to get in there, they want the game to be intuitive, they want it to be easy to ramp up quickly; and then, of course, hard to master so that they remain engaged and feel like the game has a lot of legs."
Step 5: Make them laugh
Nearly all teams use one tool to help keep players interested: Blizzard's trademark quirky sense of humor. Even the darkest Blizzard titles don't take themselves too seriously (see Diablo 3's "Cow Level").
That humor pops up in grand encounters and tiny details. In the newest Hearthstone expansion, there's Yogg-Saron, Hope's End. It casts a random spell, on a random target, for each time you've previously played a spell in the game. It could turn all your minions into sheep and kill you, or destroy all your opponents' minions – and then replace them with more powerful ones. It's almost always hilarious to watch.
Like players in that hopeless Hearthstone match, Blizzard earns some of its success by knowing just when to walk away.
Step 6: Blow up your games and start over (at least half of the time)
Blizzard's earned a reputation for dumping games midstream. I visited the studio years ago to play a reasonably polished alpha version of the console stealth-action game StarCraft: Ghost. It was scrapped a few months later.
Kaplan describes talking with Morhaime recently about the history of Overwatch and the stillborn Project Titan, which provided a few of its elements. "Mike mentioned to me, 'You realize at this point we've canceled as many games as we've shipped.' That's a really important part of our culture."
World of Warcraft exists because of one such failure. The team working on Nomad, which Morhaime calls "a post-apocalyptic squad-based… something," stopped to ask themselves, What game would we really be making today if we wanted to start over? The answer was a fantasy MMO, not the project they were developing. So Blizzard scrapped Nomad, and WoW was born.
"It's reassuring to all the developers here to know that the studio is not going to force something out the door that they would be personally embarrassed about," Kaplan said. "They know the studio has their back."
That commitment shows up in the company's notorious release-date slips. In the classic 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy, Michelangelo spends half the movie supported by scaffolding, painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. "When will you make an end?" Pope Julius II repeatedly demands. "When I am finished!" the artist cries.
Blizzard apparently took a lesson from the master. Because the company has (wisely) learned not to publicize its release dates too far in advance these days, it's difficult to tell exactly how many deadlines they've blown. It's safe to say that, at least internally, it's most of them.
"We have an amazing track record of not shipping games at Christmastime," Kaplan says.
"Never for lack of trying," Brode adds, with a laugh. The company's design process contributes to those delays.
Step 7: Polish and prune as you go
Blizzard's teams are smaller than some of their competitors, and they take an unusual path to producing a new game. Instead of blocking out the larger elements and leaving the fine tweaks for the last stages, they pour effort into polishing each step as they go. It makes their games' alphas surprisingly playable, and gives the team a real product to consider for those go/no go decisions.
"There are a lot of checks and balances that go on," Morhaime says. "Everyone at Blizzard plays our games and gives feedback during development. The key thing is having a process that allows for iteration, that allows us to change course along the way, and have everybody aligned around this commitment to very high quality games that are accessible to the widest possible audience."
Game systems are nailed down, bugs are stamped out as the team goes and tweaks are made based on in-house comments or player feedback from closed "friends and family" tests. Art teams provide assets early in the process.
Step 8: Make your players heroes
Blizzard's art teams provide the games with a characteristic, brightly-colored, dramatic look and feel. The soaring orchestral scores and sound design reach the production levels traditionally associated with epic Japanese franchises such as Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. The goal: Make the player truly feel like a hero.
Teams can spend months iterating on character designs, and the results are evident. Overwatch's characters are a master class on silhouette, action lines, posing and animation, for example. Daniel Floyd, an animator who's worked for Pixar and Undead Labs, commented on Overwatch character design in a fun "Extra Frames" instructional video.
"Overwatch is one of the best-animated games I have ever seen," Floyd says. "Even for Blizzard, this looks amazing."
Kaplan cited the character design as one of Overwatch's key points of distinction – specifically, its diversity. The goal was to support a wide variety of play-styles, and represent a multitude of nationalities, genders and ethnicities.
The character Mei, a Chinese climatologist adventurer who wields ice and robots to devastating effect, is a good example, he explains. "The team knew there was something magical about this character. The amount of tweets and posts and fan art have been absolutely overwhelming," he says. But Mei's reception, and Overwatch's in general, doesn't signal a job-well-done ending for Kaplan's team.
Step 9: Always be looking for what's next
Even now, the company is working on its next release. No Blizzard developers breathe a sigh of relief when a game is done, Morhaime says. "Now that Overwatch has launched, the work really starts."
"I don't think I've ever been more stressed," Kaplan agrees. "All I'm thinking about is that first patch and how great it has to be."