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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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

17 thoughts on “It Ain’t the Recipe – It’s the Chef”

  1. Dead on. One of my favorite topics, too. :)

    On top of “It’s one thing for a couple guys to be able to talk a good game; it’s another entirely to have 100+ people back it up in execution…”

    …the other thing that can’t be emphasized enough is that even if you had 150 perfect people operating on a tactical level, and had some level of applicable tech to begin with as Blizzard did, talking someone into spending $100m+ over 5 years on that kind of gamble would be more than a little difficult.

    If you have the money yourself, that’s one thing. I don’t know many who do, though. Most of the money types I’ve interacted with through my last few jobs have all thought of the internet as a place to start realizing their return a lot faster than 5+ years down the road.

    I suspect the average developer in need would instead hear, “5 years? What can you make in 2 or 3?” And we get smaller, systems-heavier, content-lighter games as a result.

    – Scott

  2. While certainly some of it is just theory, some of it is fact that few people go by.

    For example, at some point in their development in both EQ2 and Vanguard advanced graphics became a priority, a key selling point in the game. While it is hard to predict what the average machine will be like when a game is done, both of these games appeared to be shooting for the high end upon release, and were widely looked down upon for simply not having the performance of say WoW, regardless of how many bump-maps existed.

    A case could be made that EQ2 had to have good graphics to seperate it from EQ1, but a better case would be made that targetting the average machine would have made the game more successful. Additionally, advanced graphics like that tend to require more artists, and art resources, and I don’t know if it’s directly related but WoWs art is generally superior, probably because it simply had to be because they had less fancy crap to work with.

    Launch quality is a project management thing. You talk about enough cash to sustain things but this is the problem, people don’t plan appropriately and assess things as they work towards release so that they release a good product on time. During design people write up dozens of things that would be good to have but then they never evaluate the project as it’s progressing to see if those 100 features are going to make it or be buggy garbage. Then they just keep developing those features and content up until the day they run out of money and then they ship it.

    Basically it’s better to not shoot too high and hit the mark than shoot way high and miss, it’s better to have 50 solid fun features or content areas than 100 broken buggy features.

    In essence, a MMOG fails in the design/planning phase, and people including the developers only realize it when it launches.

  3. Good project management is indeed key. And yeah, sometimes it is a case of a developer putting what ends up to be the wrong priority on certain features. (Given their shared heritage, it should surprise no one that EQ2 and Vanguard had some of the same priorities.)

    But you’d have to be a really blind developer, or just in total denial, not to be aware of your weaknesses well before launch. The thing is, by the time they reach that point, most development houses simply aren’t in a position to do much about it. When the alternatives are to delay the game and burn a bunch of money or launch broken and hope for the best, many companies up to this point have chosen the latter.

    While companies having the courage to do the former is great, even better would be not to get into that position in the first place. Project management is the driving force behind that.

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  5. Excellent commentary and responses, with which I thoroughly agree. Here’s the first question I ask VCs and investors that come to me for advice on proposals:

    Ideas like this proposal are a dime a dozen; execution is everything. What has this group executed on before?

    As Scott noted, most VCs don’t have the patience for MMOs; generally, they want to spend less than 24 months, preferably no more than 12, before starting to see an ROI. Or as one VC put it to me, “I really don’t understand why it takes more than 18 months and a couple million dollars to make one of these things.” He wasn’t being stupid; he just didn’t know.

    What Coray and Moorgard say is so true: In 21 years, I’ve seen few MMO projects with an actual project manager, meaning someone with PM training and the tools to make it work. A trained PM is rare; more common is the untrained “associate producer” or “line producer” told to just keep the damn MS Project Gant chart up to date. This is somewhat silly; a trained PM is your DEW line, giving early warning to major risks. In a talk I gave to the Shanghai branch of the China Game Developer’s Association earlier this year, I named the 5 things I wish I’d known when I first started in the industry; the value of a good project manager was #2 on the list.

    Yeah, “execution is everything” was number 1.

  6. I work for a software company ( ) that has made adopting the CMMI methodology as a top priority. We are only one of 25 companies in the US that are currently at CMMI Level 5.

    I can not stress high enough what an advantage this gives us!

    Anyone truly interested in being able to repeat their success over and over and able to quickly learn from their mistakes and not make them again should investigate this.

  7. Don’t even get me preaching on the values of project management again. ;)

    Absolutely great article, Steve. After reading dozens, if not hundreds of articles and blog entries trying to tap into the World of Warcraft “sekret sause”, it’s great to see someone finally give an alternate and insightful perspective on what really makes the difference.

    It’s the same basic idea behind sports nuts discussing the players they’d have on their perfect dream teams…rosters which almost always seem to neglect listing a coach.

  8. Since I have done project management for a living, I am all about everyone saying it is terribly important and that more professional project managers need to be hired. :)

  9. Project Management is the most undervalued and under-funded department in many companies from my experience.

    In 2002, we took on a $5 million contract to recall, rebuild and instate a desktop management system for an international bank. The PM was so busy with the top brass that he forgot to talk to the CS team who would be the key to making the whole process work.

    He seemed so surprised when I told him that we didn’t do Asset Management, never had done, never would do unless he updated our whole Incident tracking system – for $5 million.

    Good PM saves millions. But then, bad PM costs the same, and that’s another wall of text to come later ;)

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