Fun First: Blizzard’s Bulletproof Game Design Rule

Blizzard is a company I’ve been a fan of since my youth spent playing hours and hours of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. I’ve played most of their games, and I’ve always been impressed by them in one aspect or another. They’ve always had something of a classic approach to game design in that they tend to make something fun first and worry about the rest later. It shows through in the primary aspects of their games from gameplay to storyline.  It’s a flawless rule to follow in game design, and though there are reasons not to follow it at times, Blizzard is a company that constantly exemplifies why it works so well.

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A Rule That Works Everywhere

For a time in August and September I found myself playing exclusively Blizzard titles and I was kind of amazed. I didn’t open Steam at all for a few weeks as I flipped between World of Warcraft, Overwatch, Diablo III, and even the occasional Hearthstone game. Blizzard had me covered in terms of fun games regardless of what I felt like playing. What Blizzard games lack in substance a lot of the time, they make up for in just purely good game design.

The world of Overwatch is not a particularly deep one, it’s characters are the most interesting part of a relatively drab world, and the characters themselves aren’t exactly paragons of superb writing. Yet none of that matters because the game is fun beyond fun. I’ve played it almost every day since release and it’s always a good time. The game handles so well, and feels rewarding to play just by virtue of sticking these characters in your hands and letting you go hog wild for a little while.

Legion, the most recent outing for World of Warcraft, is no different. In what is likely the best expansion that Blizzard has put out for WoW to date, the game reworked several classes all in the name of making them more fun to play. WoW is a more rapid-fire experience than I remember it being the last time I played, and it works well in the sense of modern game design which often demands a slightly faster pace than the MMOs of old. That’s really the key: Blizzard is willing to let their games evolve organically to suit whatever the gaming climate is when they update their games.

 

The Nitty Gritty ‘Gamefeel’

It’s not just the broader strokes of game design but the small things that I think really tune in that feeling of a perfectly fun game. Things, for example, like Overwatch match timers. It’s  not something that a lot of players consider when they’re playing because Blizzard doesn’t give you a reason to think about it. Despite that, the match timers are exceptionally well tuned so that you don’t ever spend too much time in a single game. A fast paced first-person shooter like Overwatch wouldn’t benefit from having players get caught in what they feel like is a slog. Not only that, but shorter match timers means that the players are experiencing the feeling of victory more often. If they’re not experiencing the feeling of victory, they’re experiencing that determination to earn a victory which often comes out of a loss.

Sticking with Overwatch for a bit longer, the feeling of loss is another thing. Of course, in a game where winning and losing is a core component, you are going to have players that lose and feel that loss. However, Blizzard does a good job of negating that feeling as much as possible. Play of the Game can go to either team, and end of match voting is not weighted by who won or lost but who played best. You might lose, but if you get a fun Play of the Game, or if you end the game with a card that shows everyone how well you did, it still feels good.

And that’s where Blizzard really capitalizes on fun. Their broad strokes are usually well played, but they catch you in the corners with making you feel good about playing. Usually.

 

Everyone Loses Their Way Sometimes

It’s not that Blizzard has always put out 100% flawless titles. In fact, I don’t think they’ve ever put out a flawless 10/10 game. I do think, however, that almost all of their currently operating titles are easily solid nines. They’re never perfect, they always leave room for improvement. Sometimes they leave a lot of room for improvement and those are usually where the development team has seemed to forget that design philosophy of ‘Fun First’.

A lot of people like to point to Warlords of Draenor as an expansion which Blizzard stumbled a bit with. With a leveling experience that was handled well and introduced some good concepts that would be further perfected in Legion, their endgame left a lot to be desired and left players in content droughts for months on end. For me though, the big misstep that Blizzard made was with the Diablo III launch. The game launched with a real money auction house which did it no favours, and was simply the storyline and a few difficulty options which you could unlock through continuously playing through the story again and again on higher modes. For me, it was kind of a ‘one and done’ experience. I played through the story and started on a higher difficulty and found that I quickly lost interest.

I tried different classes but despite the pretty fun romp that I had my first time through, I couldn’t really get into the game beyond that. So it sat on the shelf of my Blizzard library for a long time, even for quite awhile after Reaper of Souls came out. I hadn’t followed the development of the expansion at all because I was so disinterested in the game after my first outing with it. Little did I know, they had fixed everything that was wrong about the game initially and made it into what is now one of my favourite games. And that’s just the thing with Blizzard.

 

Fixing Mistakes

Blizzard tends to go back and fix their mistakes, or at least try to rectify them the best they can. Sometimes they take their time with it, but in the games that I actively play they’ve always tended to work to make a game fun if it becomes unfun. It takes a lot for a developer, especially a large developer, to actually go back and fix their mistakes if they exist. That willingness (even if it’s sometimes reluctant) to remain committed to keeping their games fun first is what I think makes Blizzard a great developer, and one of my all time favourites.

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