Tag Archives: Blizzard

On Strike Teams, Design Councils, and Braintrusts

Philip Kollar, Polygon:

Though Blizzard had split into multiple teams working on different games, part of Metzen’s approach to keep the culture together was to ensure that those teams still worked together in some ways. To accomplish this, the developer came up with the idea of “strike teams.”

“A bunch of people who are specifically not on the team for a game, who don’t have any sort of connection to the game, come in and look at your game,” says StarCraft 2 director Dustin Browder. “They go, ‘Wow, that’s dumb! I hate it!’ They’re not nice. We don’t want them to be nice. At some point, these games are going to go into the wild, and you’re going to ask people for real money for them. Strike teams are supposed to come in and go, ‘This is really good! This is really bad! I’m not going to tell you how to fix it, but you’ve got to do something.’ And then they walk off.”

In addition to strike teams, games frequently appear before Blizzard’s “design council,” a gathering of all of the game directors and lead designers throughout the company. Between strike teams and appearances before the design council, one thing regarding Titan became clear: It wasn’t shaping up.

If Blizzard’s cancellation of Titan reminded me of how Pixar handles things, “strike teams” and the “design council” certainly sound like a Pixar Braintrust.

Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.:

The Braintrust, which meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making, is our primary delivery system for straight talk. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with one another. People who would feel obligated to be honest somehow feel freer when asked for their candor; they have a choice about whether to give it, and thus, when they do give it, it tends to be genuine. The Braintrust is one of the most important traditions at Pixar. It’s not foolproof—sometimes its interactions only serve to highlight the difficulties of achieving candor—but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal. The Braintrust sets the tone for everything we do.

In many ways, it is no different than any other group of creative people—within it, you will find humility and ego, openness and generosity. It varies in size and purpose, depending on what it has been called upon to examine. But always, its most essential element is candor. This isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky idea—without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust. And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.

I’m sure most successful companies have strike teams/design councils/Braintrusts of their own. It’s just not every day you get to hear about it from the best of the best.

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Sacrifice in the name of quality: Blizzard cancels Titan

Blizzard co-founder and CEO Mike Morhaime, as quoted by Polygon:

It’s always really, really hard to make those kind of decisions. It was hard when we canceled Warcraft Adventures. It was hard when we canceled StarCraft Ghost. But it has always resulted in better-quality work.

I have a new found appreciation for calling it quits on high-stakes, heavily invested projects. Apple, Nintendo, Pixar — companies I deeply admire — share a singular characteristic: Sacrifice in the name of quality. The iPod OS came from Pixo, a company founded by two ex-Apple Newton developers. The history of the Animal Crossing franchise is rooted in the short-lived Nintendo 64DD. Even Pixar knows a thing or two about canceling huge investments.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc., on the cancellation of Newt:

There are some who will read this and conclude that putting this film into production in the first place was a mistake. An untested director, an unfinished script—it’s easy to look back, after the shutdown, and say that those factors alone should have dissuaded us at the outset. But I disagree. While it cost us time and money to pursue, to my mind it was worth the investment. We learned better how to balance new ideas with old ideas, and we learned that we had made a mistake in not getting very explicit buy-in from all of Pixar’s leaders about the nature of what we were trying to do. These are lessons that would serve us very well later as we adopted new software and changed some of our technical processes. While experimentation is scary to many, I would argue that we should be far more terrified of the opposite approach. Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance. Probably more companies hit the skids for this reason than because they dared to push boundaries and take risks—and, yes, to fail.

To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.

While Titan is (sadly) added to the list of cancelled Blizzard projects (it still pains me to think of StarCraft: Ghost), I commend the company for sacrificing in the name of quality. I have always deeply admired Blizzard.

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Braving Blizzard and inclusion in games

Todd Harper writing for Polygon:

Meanwhile, the mere presence of prominent and respectfully portrayed women characters, characters of color, and queer characters is viewed as inherently political and thus anti-fun. It’s another subtle, vicious knife in the side of us marginalized people who play games that says: you’re second class. You’re less valuable. If you show up, somehow you’re removing the fun for everyone else.

This construction where it’s impossible to have “fun” and “inclusion” side-by-side by reflecting diversity in your games is a total illusion, a mirage thrown up to distract us from the simple fact that they just don’t want to make that effort.

Harper quoting Rob Pardo of Blizzard Entertainment earlier in the opinion piece:

“We’re not trying to bring in serious stuff, or socially relevant stuff, or actively trying to preach for diversity or do things like that,” he said. His example of a place where Blizzard struggles is portrayal of women.

Pardo notes that “because most of our developers are guys who grew up reading comics books,” Blizzard games often present women characters as a sexualized comic book ideal that “is offensive to, I think, some women.”

I find Pardo’s comments about Blizzard’s portrayal of women interesting when looking at the Hearthstone tutorial, granted the HS team may be far removed from Pardo’s view.

A very brave piece. Well done.

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Welcoming to new players

Ben Kuchera, Polygon:

In most games of this genre you earn currency which is used to buy items, potions and buffs that make your character more powerful. Picking the right items at the right time for your character is a huge part of both League of Legends and Dota 2.

They were discussing the idea of removing the item shop altogether, and one of the game’s designers was becoming, as Browder put it “emotionally distressed” at the idea of removing an aspect of the game that’s a key part of the genre.

There were people on the team against the idea of an item shop and a gold system, as they just allowed those in the lead to remain in the lead and crush the other side. It added a layer of complexity that may not be welcoming to new players.

Worked well for Hearthstone.

I’ve been dreaming of a cross-over title since the original Warcraft III teaser, initially mistaking the rain of the Burning Legion as Zerg.

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Humanity in Hearthstone

Humanity in Hearthstone

How Blizzard is changing the diversity game.


 It is an understatement to say that diversity in gaming has become a hot topic as of late. Themes of sexuality, racial prominence, and gender depiction are now a hotbed for passionate discussion across developer, journalist, and player communities.

From 2012 to 2013, the number of games showcased at E3 featuring a playable female protagonist rose from 2% to 6%. Reluctance to include the theme of sexuality is being countered more frequently by games such as Gone HomeThe Last of Us, and Mass Effect. This is clear evidence that players are yearning for character dynamic and identity in their games. Video games are a medium that exudes immersion more than any other, and in turn becomes the perfect platform for sympathetic and relatable storytelling.

On April 16, 2014, Blizzard Entertainment released their latest foray Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft to the iPad. As a free-to-play (F2P) digital collectible card game (CCG) built by a AAA developer that prides itself on the promise of polish with a highly reputable back-catalog, it is an extremely inviting and sure to be incredibly popular download. From testing with a PC/Mac open-bata to trickling the iOS version out to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada prior to world-wide launch, Blizzard was sure this game would be a massive hit.

At the news of Hearthstone for iPad’s launch, I was extremely excited to see what the buzz was about. After rave reviews across the industry, I could not wait to invest in this new Blizzard title that seemed perfectly suited for the tablet platform. Upon launching the game, I assumed I would be given the opportunity to select/create a character and possibly build a deck. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Ultimately, Hearthstone does not include a single protagonist. From Orcs to Elves, Druids to Barbarians, players are eventually offered the chance to unlock a collection of Heroes to chose from. Many veteran CCG players will understand this at the onset. What they may not realize is that they will be forced to begin their Hearthstone experience in a tutorial as Human Mage, Jaina Proudmoore. A female.

This tutorial consists of six ‘missions,’ each introducing details about the game’s mechanics and subtleties. Each ‘mission’ sets the protagonist Jaina against an eccentric opponent, throwing out comical comments that unfold their caricature against a backdrop of the colorful and cartoony tones of the Warcraft universe. Jaina faces her six opponents in the following order:

Six males versus one female. This alone is a powerful statement that will likely slip into the unconscious if not willingly observed.

Sex aside, characters banter back and forth throughout matches. Each foe’s optimistic attitude is met with Jaina’s cautious yet powerful tone. The addition of voice-acting helps build a bond between player and protagonist. Like reading through Katniss Everdeen’s struggles in The Hunger Games, it is nearly impossible not to build a trusting connection with Jaina, rooting for her to defeat each of the tutorial’s quirky baddies.

The initial tutorial took me roughly one hour to complete. Once finished, I felt an attachment to Jaina. Not only had we defeated six opposing (male) Heroes without fail together, we had conquered the powerhouse that is Illidan Stormrage even though the game told us we couldn’t. (A comical, clever and original design choice)

While Jaina and I must spend more time together in order to unlock additional playable Heroes and decks, I am not racing to change protagonists. This tutorial has certainly bonded me to Jaina and is likely to do the same for most players: young and old, male and female.

As subtle and simple as it may appear, Blizzard has made a bold move as a AAA developer in building a tutorial showcasing a powerful female protagonist against six male rivals. Forcing hardcore veterans and casual novices to learn from, protect, and assist a female protagonist in what has the potential to become the largest cross-platform game is a great leap for the cause of diversity in gaming; however, the job is far from done.

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Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is currently available for PC, Mac and iPad.


Originally published on TheStarrList.com

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