The first law of Blizzard's game design, we're told, is "easy to learn, difficult to master." The goal is to provide games that are easily accessible to a wide audience of players, but have the depth to keep people coming back. The design process starts by designing the in-depth experience - the unique and fun things that will attract players and keep them interested in the game. Once these underpinnings have been created, the development team can think about how to make the features they want accessible to a mass audience.
For World of Warcraft, the core, in-depth experience concepts included the following:
- The character classes, which were meant to be as unique and different in playstyle. This thought-process goes back to Starcraft, with its three very different races. In both games, it's a completely new experience to play a new class (in Warcraft) or race (in Starcraft). The desire to stick to this core concept eventually lead to the addition of paladins to the horde side and shamans to the alliance side - Blizzard felt that in order to maintain balance, they were being forced to make the two classes more and more similar.
- Small group dungeons. The designers wanted the opportunity to provide group challenges and scripted encounters. This appeals to a different type of playstyle than the soloer - however, even a casual soloer playing the game will eventually make the friends and connections to be able to get involved in this content if they wish.
- Player vs. Player content. This content had to be fun and had to focus on alliance vs. horde - after all, this is Warcraft.
- Raids & end-game content address yet another type of play-style. (And while we've seen a lot of development on this front recently, it's only a single aspect of their core design.)
From here, the development team focused on making the game as simple to play as possible, for gamers of every stripe. To do this, they focused on the following concepts:
- User interface. Blizzard specifically tried to streamline the game's interface so as not to overwhelm users.
- Low systems requirements. While some might complain about the lack of high-end graphics, Blizzard's stuck with a specific stylistic (and somewhat cartoonish) graphics that have low overhead without looking dated. By keeping the system requirements low, they've opened the gameplay experience to potential players who don't have the hardware to keep up with cutting-edge graphical experiences.
- A soloable experience. It may take a casual player hundreds of hours to hit level 60, but they can solo all the way there - having fun the entire way.
- The newbie experience avoids being overwhelming and throws the player right into the action, without any lengthy (and un-fun) tutorial process. Within five minutes of logging on to Warcraft for the first time, you've managed to pick up your first quest and be out killing monsters.
- Killing with purpose. This is the key philosophy behind Warcraft's quest system - providing a reason for players to explore the world and kill monsters besides how much experience each one gives. Quests are easy to find (exclamation point system) and give players clear, concise objectives to accomplish. The game's quest designers are really the cruise directors of World of Warcraft, guiding you through the game and its areas.
However, pacing is the real bridge between depth and accessibility. One of the things you may overlook while adventuring through Azeroth is the leveling curve - which is tuned to help you through the game. Following the game's quests from zone to zone, you should naturally advance through the levels and never hit a wall where it's impossible (or exceedingly time-consuming) for you to move forward.
But the biggest secret to World of Warcraft's success? Polish, polish, polish. Blizzard is known for not releasing games until they're done, but the stakes with an MMO are higher. If the initial release of an MMO doesn't impress, people often won't bother with a second look.