Sunday, March 29, 2009

Barnett and Kaplan at GDC 2009

I find it kind of telling that at the Game Developers Conference this year in San Francisco, the lead designers for both Warhammer:AoR and WoW gave extremely different lectures. Paul Barnett, famous for his showmanship, gave a typically flashy speech with off-the-wall jokes ("we need more elephants") and non sequiturs ("draw a Q on your forehead") that didn't have anything to do with the advertised topic of his lecture. Some people find his manic and seemingly aimless energy inspiring I guess, because his speeches seemed to be the bulk of the early marketing Mythic used for WAR during development. People gathered around his grand ideas of what was wrong with MMO gaming in general and what he was going to do to fix it. About his biggest specific point at the conference seemed to be that mobile devices were the future of gaming. Oh that's a nice thought, Mr. Barnett. So how exactly do you see that breaking down? Any examples? Will you personally be cashing in on this great insight?

Jeff Kaplan (Tigole) on the other hand, stuck to his topic, had an agenda, and broke his topic down into quantifiable specifics. Some examples:
  • Combat should be about a minute long
  • Stranglethorn pages questline is a bad idea due to inventory limitations
  • Random drop quests should use incremental probabilities to even out streaks
People have talked ad nauseum about the "polish" that sets Blizzard games apart. And sometimes I fear that in the minds of the average person, game "polish" is like literal polish where the product is done and then if you spend just a few more minutes on it at the end you can make it much better. Polish in software design is nothing like that. Most of the "polish" in large software projects takes place in the design stage, before the coders touch pen to paper. Once you're into development it becomes increasingly difficult to look at the product as it's shaping up and say, "this feature isn't quite working for us. Let's try something else." That's what causes over-budget projects, blown deadlines, and producers that rush to ship something that doesn't quite work. It's not that the development team failed to spend enough time at the end. It's that they failed to make good design decisions up front when they're supposed to be made. It takes a lot of brilliant people to do that. It takes a good nuts-and-bolts understanding of game design issues and the ability to make hard, specific decisions about all sorts of nitty gritty things that seem like unimportant details. It's not about glamorous, sweeping statements about "making the game fun" like I associate with Barnett. It's the ability to intelligently lay out specific pros and cons of design details like I associate with Kaplan.

Kaplan is now working on Blizzard's next-generation MMO, funded no doubt by the astronomical profits of WoW. Barnett, I'm sure pretty is fighting to keep WAR in the black. Kaplan's next game I will no doubt be spending money to play. Barnett's next game I'll be downloading his marketing speeches on for entertainment value.


  1. Hm... Interesting. I actually enjoyed reading it. Now I want to know more about how the process is like in the gaming industry. Cool..

  2. Really neat post. It's fun to read what the devs at Blizz have to say about their own game.

    Thanks for the write up!