Blizzard’s CCO talks moving to tablets and consoles, and how the company stays fresh
Last weekend at PAX East 2013, the Report was able to speak with Rob Pardo, Chief Creative Officer of Blizzard. While the focus of our chat was the company's upcoming free-to-play digital card game, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, our conversation also revealed how Blizzard manages its project teams and why the PC powerhouse sees a future in tablets and consoles.
Blizzard sells out
I began by asking Pardo how Hearthstone fit into the company's legacy as a home for the hardcore PC player. After all, switching from PC to tablet is a big change. He reminded me that the company's next MMO, Titan, is a new intellectual property, but also spoke to the company's desire to branch out and experiment, something Pardo said they have a long history of.
“Even though, yes, we've done PC games for a pretty long string of games now, Blizzard got its start doing console games. So it was really a console game house that turned into a PC game house, and I think it's large part coincidental we haven't done other platforms,” he said. Pardo said that Hearthstone, the company's upcoming digital collectible card game, allowed Blizzard to continue that tradition. Specifically, it allows the company to tread the previously-unexplored waters of tablets and a free-to-play business model.
I asked Pardo if this meant the company was going to progress away from its hardcore roots and start to pursue the business of free-to-play, with microtransactions. Were they selling out to chase the cash cow? “I don't really look at putting games on different platforms or making games more accessible as [selling out], it's really… how many people can get to play, because that's really what we want to do. World of Warcraft had a lot of the same criticisms,” he told me.
Pardo also said that simply isn't how the company orients itself. They make the games they would like to make, and the platform of choice comes up as a secondary discussion. The fact that Blizzard has become so ingrained with the PC is largely coincidental, he said. Even Hearthstone began life as a PC game, not a tablet game – it just so happened, Pardo said, that it translated extremely well.
The would-be single-player card master campaign
Speaking of Hearthstone: although Blizzard's games are perhaps best known for their online communities and the legacies they leave – Warcraft 3 was the genesis for DOTA, which practically created the MOBA genre, StarCraft is a sport unto itself, complete with star athletes who make six-figure salaries, and World of Warcraft still dominates the MMORPG market – the company is not one to neglect their single-player campaigns.
Pardo told the Report that there once was such a mode planned for Hearthstone, but the development team was forced to work within “harsh constraints,” which meant making equally harsh choices. “Single-player's a really good example of where a team can get really big, because you ought to do a story so now you have writers, and now you have to develop all these custom AIs, and now you have to have a bunch of scripters that are doing all these custom campaign things,” Pardo said.
“Bigger games, we feature-creep a lot: 'Oh, wouldn't this idea be great, and that idea be great,' ideas are just coming at you from all elements. Teams always push more features into the game,” he said. “I think what's been interesting about Team 5 is going, 'No, you're not going to get more developers, and you're not going to get a lot more time, so you better harshly prioritize and make sure that you're picking the right features that set the quality bar that's going to be the maximum fun for the people you have.'”
Comfortable on the throne
When I asked Pardo if he ever got caught thinking, 'We have World of Warcraft, we're set,' he told me that Blizzard doesn't force its employees into projects they don't want to do; no forced sequels, no churning out sub-par products they weren't proud of.
“I think one of the things we've done in the past is we very rarely do a sequel right after we finish the previous game,” Pardo said. “So take something like StarCraft that launched in 1998, we didn't do the next StarCraft until 10 years later, and it was really because the team wasn't ready to do another StarCraft, they wanted to go back to Warcraft and do a different sort of RTS strategy game.”
“I think as much as possible, we try to follow where the creative people in the studio want to take it, rather than just saying, 'okay, you guys did a good formula, so now let's just rinse and repeat for 10 years.'”
“We are a business,” Pardo said. That means game development isn't totally freeform, and teams still keep several core tenets in mind. Pardo said the company seeks to create games that are accessible from both a game play and hardware standpoint, and they tend to focus on games that can deliver a robust online experience, to add longevity to a title.
“As long as we do that, and we're not afraid to cancel games that are not up to that standard, I think we'll continue our success.”