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Former Blizzard exec Rob Pardo on the evolving game industry

Hollywood and Games Conference - Day 2Hollywood and Games Conference - Day 2
Rob PardoCharley Gallay—Getty Images

Activision Blizzard (ATVI) remains a powerhouse in the global video game business. While Activision Publishing focuses on annual mainstream hits like Call of Duty and Skylanders, Blizzard Entertainment has managed to retain millions of subscribers for its World of Warcraft massively multiplayer online (MMO) game despite the influx of free-to-play games and helped usher in the eSports phenomenon with its StarCraft real-time strategy (RTS) franchise.

For the past 17 years, Blizzard Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Rob Pardo was one of the key faces of the company. Although Blizzard—and Pardo—embraced the team development concept, to millions of gamers Pardo and a small team revolutionized the RTS genre with StarCraft and was the lead designer who helped turn World of Warcraft into the fantasy experience that lives on to this day across media (Legendary is working on a Warcraft feature film). Pardo is featured in the documentary, Video Games: The Movie, which is playing in theaters and on demand and explores the evolution of the gaming industry.

While Pardo isn’t yet talking about what his next endeavor will be, he did take a short break from enjoying time with his family to look back at his game career and look forward to how gaming is evolving.

What’s your favorite memory from your video game career thus far?

It isn’t really possible to pick one memory as my favorite. But one of my favorite aspects to game design is the beta process. This is where your game is truly tested by a mass audience for the first time. It is during the beta where you truly feel the closest to your players since you are playing the game, watching other players play the game and reacting in real time to feedback. I love the fast-paced aspect of beta iteration and being able to quickly tune and perfect the game. There isn’t another entertainment medium that enables creators to iterate and polish their final product like this.

How did you get involved in Video Games: The Movie?

Jeremy (Snead) reached out to Blizzard Entertainment. I was personally interested in getting involved since there haven’t been too many documentaries about the game industry and I think it’s important that we support opportunities to tell the history of our sector. Future game developers will be very interested in hearing about the stories and philosophies behind the games and companies that made the industry great.

What do you feel the video game industry can learn from its past?

Learning from our history will give game developers a head start on creating the games of the future. Increasingly you are starting to see a shared vocabulary for game design, and designers can learn from the past as well as from each other.

How do the opportunities mobile games and digital distribution have opened up compare to the opportunities in the early game development days of the ’90s?

We are really entering a new golden age of game development. The barriers between a game designer and the player have dropped to practically zero. Much like the early days of game development, you are once again able to create a game with a very small team and distribute it directly to players. This allows for a much greater diversity of game ideas and content.

How many times have you been told PC gaming was dead over the years, and what are your thoughts on the future of PC gaming?

Honestly, I’ve lost count long ago. The thing about games is that people will create and play games on any device that has the capability. As long as we continue to have PCs, there will be games on them and people will want to buy and play them. The very exciting trend we are seeing now is the walls between the developer and player are disappearing since developers can directly distribute to players. There are alternative business models to having to sell or buy a box at a retail store.

What are your thoughts on the new open development process developers like Sony Online Entertainment, Epic Games and Cloud Imperium games are using where gamers have an active role in the development of the games?

It is very smart to build your community during the development of the game. Since it is so much easier to distribute your game, it has become much harder to be noticed in the midst of all the other games. If you already have a community involved, then they will be that initial critical mass to try your game and tell their friends. However, there’s the downside of the risk that the community might not like or agree with your design decisions during development. It is already so hard to gain consensus within the development team, now you are including a much greater number of people in the decision making process.

What impact has the free-to-play business model had on the video game business?

Free-to-play has been a very polarizing force on game development and publishing. When properly designed within a game it opens up the potential player base for a game. It allows for players to decide how much time versus money they wish to spend on a game. However if free-to-play well integrated into the design of games it can have a very negative backlash on game products as well as the games industry.

What are the challenges of adapting a video game like Warcraft to a feature film?

The biggest challenge with adapting Warcraft into a movie is that there is no central story or group of characters to follow. In World of Warcraft the main character is the world itself. The players form the central plot. The Warcraft franchise is so deep and has so many heroes and villains that the biggest question was: where do you shine the spotlight? Which story out of thousands do you make into a two-hour feature film?

When did you realize StarCraft had eSports potential and how did that impact the development of new content?

When the original StarCraft was released, “eSport” wasn’t yet a term. There were certainly some competitive events especially, around first-person shooter style games, but it was still pretty niche. The big turning point was the explosion of popularity in South Korea around StarCraft, where it became a huge phenomenon in a few years. The number of people who either plays StarCraft or watches StarCraft on TV is staggering.

What are your thoughts, as a game creator, on how quickly pro gamers computate strategies in the midst of StarCraft II matches?

Real-time strategy games have always been about how well can you manage all aspects of your armies, economy and reconnaissance without having enough time to do everything perfectly. The best player is able to keep a perfect mental picture in his/her head of the entire map, calculate and re-calculate strategies while executing them. The amazing thing about watching professional players is how blindingly fast they are able to execute maneuvers.

What do you feel are the challenges of developing games to be successful game experiences as well as eSport experiences?

When designing a game to be a successful eSport there is an extremely high bar for the depth and balance of the game.There are several pitfalls for the game designer. By trying to make the game perfectly balanced, you can sometimes end up with a game that feels generic and doesn’t have big exciting moments, since they can get “balanced out” of the game for being too powerful. You also have to beware of chasing the top players and creating so much complexity that the novice players can no longer learn the game.

What do you think of eSports competitions now being played in soccer and basketball arenas around the globe for millions of dollars?

I think eSports are still only in their infancy. While it is awesome to see how far games have come, there is much more to be achieved still. Spectating is a key aspect of what makes the experience of professional sports so great. It has taken decades for the various sports to tweak their rules, learn how to announce and broadcast their sports proficiently. Most video games were not created to be a great spectator experience, but rather to be a great player experience.