Insights: Interview with Patrick Wyatt, co-founder of ArenaNet, former VP of R and D at Blizzard
As a "rookie" developer, I love to read about software development. I'm always interested in seeing what it takes to ship products I love to use everyday (hopefully be able to be part of shipping one too!). Of course, I also like learning about game development wherein software, art and entertainment are combined together . A group of very talented people take on a 3+ year journey to ship quality entertainment that delivers excellent narrative and fun gameplay.
Anyway, while reading one of the articles on software development, I saw an inspirational quote from one of the developers of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and I wanted to post it. I was reading a separate article about the development of StarCraft and I got the two people mixed up. That misattribution gave me a chance to talk to one of the people who created StarCraft, Patrick Wyatt. Patrick is the co-founder of ArenaNet (GuildWars) and was a former employee at Blizzard who was part of the team that shipped some of the most iconic games like the WarCraft I and II, StarCraft and Diablo.
I got to ask him a couple of questions about the game industry and more. You can find the "small" interview below.
[caption id="attachment_1034" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Image from http://images4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20080516134224/starcraft/images/2/2c/Starcraft_SC1_Cover1.jpg[/caption]
** Q: You're part of a lot of critically acclaimed games. From all the games that you have worked on, what game are you most proud of and why?**
** Pat**: I'm proud of each game I've helped to create so it's a tough choice to choose just one. That being said, I think Guild Wars makes me most proud because of what our small team managed to accomplish.
We set out to build a company from nothing and develop an innovative game, and to do so without killing ourselves with a crushing development process. And we were successful!
At ArenaNet we hired a lot of folks just out of school so some of them were not aware of how much different the development process for Guild Wars was compared to "traditional" game development. I'm glad they didn't have to suffer the awfulness of years-long crunching that seems to be so common in the industry.
Trivia: When Guild Wars first came out, they we're one of the only commercially developed Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) to ditch the subscription model (paying $/month to play). Buying the game allowed you to play without a limit.
Q: What are some of your favorite games for the last 2-3 years?
Pat: I've enjoyed playing DayZ (video below), a zombie survival game. I'm actually surprised I like it because the game is so hard core. Crawling across a field for ten minutes doesn't sound like fun, but in the context of the game it can be! I've played some League of Legends and enjoyed the competitive aspect. Kingdom Rush (iPhone/iPad), which is very clearly inspired by Warcraft and StarCraft, is a lot of fun to play, and my kids dig it too. And recently I discovered AirMech, which is a blast.
**Q: What do you think are the biggest innovations in gaming in the last 5 years? **
Pat: Without a doubt the adoption of the free-to-play business model in Western markets is huge -- it's changing the way that games are created. It has focused designers on creating experiences that are immediately engaging and long-term sticky. The down side is that some designers have focused on creating manipulative products that make money more for their inventiveness in using addictive or shady "dark patterns" than for their fun. My feeling is that the majority of players will develop greater resistance to these dark patterns over time, so I hope we'll see fewer games where psychological manipulation is the norm.
The other major innovation is mobile gaming. The ability to create fun, small-budget games is great! I find that I play mobile games much more these days than I play traditional sit-down (PC/console) games. I look forward to more and better games as designers become better at utilizing the strengths of these small form-factor devices.
Q: As part of my thesis in university, I did some research on the progress of AI in games. I noticed AI hasn't improved as fast as graphics and game engines have. What do you think is an area in games that has not progressed rapidly?
Pat: AI is still a hard problem to get right, and will likely continue to be so for a long time. In Guild Wars 1 we actually had to detune the computer-controlled
NPC "hero" characters that join the player's party. They were so good at fighting that, when the human player died, they'd go right on fighting, win the battle, and resurrect the player, making the human player feel unnecessary!
There are "middleware" offerings for rendering graphics, playing sound/music, creating artwork, controlling physics, performing analytics, and many more. I think the area that's seen the least growth is the development of server backends that can be used as the basis for large-scale online worlds. They're expensive to build so few companies can afford to create them. It would be awesome if there were more choices. As much as I like writing code, it would be nice to use someone else's fully-debugged, highly-scalable MMO game-engine for a change!
Q: GuildWars has an interesting business model for a massively multiplayer RPG, where you don't need to pay a monthly subscription. In regards to business models, what is your opinion on Free-to-Play?
Pat: Looking back, I wish we had forseen the rise of the free-to-play business model and shipped Guild Wars using that method. The pay-once model we used for Guild Wars, along with extending the game by releasing multiple campaigns, turned out not to be as successful as we hoped. Guild Wars 1 did well but I don't think the design decisions we were forced into making due to the "release a campaign every year" business model were ideal.
Free-to-play is great for gamers because they can try a game before paying for it. This immediately separates out quality games from games that are crapware like most movie-license games. While other business models aren't dead, game developers need a compelling reason to utilize other business models than free-to-play.
[caption id="attachment_1037" align="aligncenter" width="470"] One of the many great loading screens from Dota, one of the most famous MOBA games.[/caption]
Q: It seemed like back then great RTS games came one after the other from Blizzard games to Westwood's Command and Conquer, etc. What do you think of the current state of RTS games?
Pat: I think that the RTS genre has been eclipsed by MOBA and tower-defense games, many of which -- like League of Legends, Kingdom Rush and AirMech, for example -- are RTS game engines in disguise. There's still a big market for RTS games, as evidenced by the success of StarCraft 2, but I think the offshoots are more fun. For my part I'm really tired of RTS base-building -- too much energy directed towards economics and not enough on combat!
Q: Now that gaming as a hobby is more mainstream, how much has this affected game development?
Pat: For starters the game market is bigger and more diverse. Because there are so many more game-players the industry can support PC, web-browser, facebook, console, mobile, and tablet as platforms, and each of those platforms can support many game developers. And further, games get more attention in the media (both positive and negative), which means that more folks are getting clued in to the opportunities for enjoyment and employment. As the industry grows I hope we'll see more ideas around making creative games where players dictate how the game should be played. Minecraft is a great example, in that it allows players to decide what the game's objectives should be.
Trivia: Besides mobile gaming, this year also seems to be a big one for the evolution of the game industry. Several "game" hardware will be released such as the [Oculus Rift,](http://www.oculusvr.com/) a virtual-reality headset, [Ouya](http://www.ouya.tv/), an Android-based $99 console and the "Steambox", Valve's initiative to bring the PC to the living room. Very exciting stuff!
Q: Our team is called Leadership Development Program (LDP). We're batches of new IT graduates being trained both in technical and leadership skills. Do you have any tips in terms of general software development?
Pat: The biggest challenge in software development is getting a project done when the project scope is larger than what a person can keep in their head. When a project large the communication overhead goes up exponentially with team size due to interconnectedness between components being built. Decoupling the components is a great place to start, but only goes so far.
Some leaders try to conquer the problem by writing massive design documents in the hope that they can specify every aspect of the design and answer every question. With such a solution it would seem that outsourcing the development ought to be easy!
I think a great solution to the problem is to delegate responsibility, and more importantly, authority, among the team members so that it's possible for them to define and achieve goals on their own. It takes more training, and certainly more trust in the team, but motivates the developers because their destiny is in their own hands.
Kris: I would like to thank Patrick for his time in sharing his insights into the industry. It was a great read!