It Ain’t the Recipe – It’s the Chef

Over the past couple weeks the recaps from AGDC have been pouring in, covering many excellent panels which discussed a myriad of topics relevant to the creation of MMOs. You can read all kinds of neat theories and advice concerning just about any aspect of game design you can think of.

As ever, World of Warcraft got a lot of attention (being the cash printing machine it is). For a while now Blizzard has been giving you their recipe for how they made WoW so successful, and they gave it away again at AGDC. In fact, there were even other people interpreting Blizzard’s formula and adding their own spin. And hell, if you want to see all the theories in action, just play the frakkin game for yourself.

So we should ask the question: If Blizzard is telling everyone how to make a game on par with WoW, and other industry vets offer commentary on how to make a game on par with WoW, and we all have the game of WoW itself to use as an example of how to make a game on par with WoW, why the hell aren’t there games on par with WoW coming out of the woodwork?

Because none of the secrets or strategies or philosophies mean a damn without the ability to execute on them with the same quality that Blizzard does.

Let me restate for emphasis: It’s all about the execution.

Hell, at BlizzCon, Blizzard pretty much explained in detail how they build an expansion. And why not? They know that even if some other company came along and stole all their secret ideas for future projects, it wouldn’t matter because there are so few companies that would be able to deliver the quality of execution that Blizzard does.

This is what separates theory from implementation. There is certainly no shortage of very smart people in and around the MMO space who have sound insight and theories on what it takes to make compelling products. So, why aren’t their names on World of Warcraft, or on games that have achieved a similar degree of success?

Because theory is different from execution.

I’m not oblivious to the irony of someone like me questioning the value of MMO theory discussion, because I’ve done more than my share of preaching from the pulpit. But blogging is the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it, and the same can be said for game development panels. Both forums serve as great places to raise questions and vet ideas, helping to lead us down the path of better decision making.

At the end of the day, it’s putting those theories to the test that matters. The margin between a mediocre game and a great one is razor thin, and often comes down to a lot of small details that add up and tip the scale one way or the other. This is partly why MMOs are so daunting to build, because they contain more small details (and hence, more opportunities to screw them up) than pretty much any other type of game.

Blizzard’s achievement with WoW, as they’d done so often in the past, was identifying those details and showering them with attention. That’s not something any developer can do on a whim; it requires a studio culture dedicated to this principle, along with a team of people who believe that mantra in their hearts, and enough cash to sustain that process through every aspect of development and the live game.

It can be done, because Blizzard’s proved it in execution. It just ain’t easy, or everyone would be doing it.

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