Sometimes I feel like I spend all my time grumbling about badly-designed games. The reason for this is the unfortunately inevitable unavoidable Sturgeon's Law: 90% of anything is crap. And it's true. 90% of all games are crap, just like 90% of all movies are crap or 90% of all books are crap.

That's not to say all games are crap, of course. There are always gems, and there are companies which are absolutely brilliant at putting out consistent gems.

The two companies that impress me the most, that consistently release high-quality and polished products, are Blizzard and Valve. It's worth comparing them, because their design styles are very, very different.

Valve is one of the more interesting game companies out right now. They're possibly the youngest of the known-by-name game studio behemoths, as they date back merely to 1998. They also had a truly astonishing start, releasing Half-Life as their very first game to incredible reviews. From 2002 to 2005 they were involved in a complex legal battle over publishing, which they won, and much of Valve's games are now distributed over the Steam Network – an online distribution system, designed, written, and run by Valve, with over 200 games now available (the vast majority of which were not developed by Valve).

Blizzard is one of, if not the, most well-known game company in the world. It dates back as far as 1991, and its first hit (and its fifth release) was Warcraft. Blizzard, along with the ill-fated Westwood, is credited with essentially inventing the realtime strategy genre. Warcraft was turned into a franchise thanks to the rapid release of Warcraft II. Within a few years Blizzard had released Diablo and Starcraft, spawning another pair of successful franchises. Today they are undoubtably known best for World of Warcraft, the MMORPG with the most subscribers by a huge margin (an estimated factor of four over the second-largest, and approximately the same subscriber count as the entire rest of the MMORPG market added together.)

It's worth noting that Valve is actually the same age as Blizzard's youngest franchise, Starcraft – and is two years younger, if you count Starcraft as a Warcraft spinoff. Every single game released by Blizzard since 1998 has been a sequel, expansion pack, or spinoff. While Valve is best known and most concerned with their Half-Life series, they now also produce the Counter-Strike and Team Fortress serieses, as well as the standalone Day of Defeat. While all of these started as Half-Life mods, none of them are related to Half-Life in any way beyond the engine.

Blizzard succeeds for two major, extremely important reasons. Their games are carefully balanced, and they polish more than any other studio on the planet. While no modern games are bugfree on the day of release, Blizzard succeeds far better than any others do – their games are invariably smooth-running, functional, and fun, even version 1.0. World of Warcraft's original launch was probably the rockiest launch Blizzard has had in a decade, and despite being Blizzard's first MMORPG, with astronomically more success than Blizzard had ever expected, it was still the smoothest MMORPG launch in history up to that date. Think about what that says – despite abnormal stressful circumstances, they still did better than anyone else ever had.

On top of that, World of Warcraft is simply a well-built game. The interface, while not perfect, certainly takes long strides towards that state. Quests are easy to find, combat is simple to understand, leveling is not too difficult but also not too easy, both mistakes that other games have made. Blizzard has been very careful to ensure that there's always something for you to do – it learned many lessons with Diablo and Diablo II, which could be considered single-player MMORPGs, and those lessons have been well-applied. No matter where you are in the game, there's always one more quest, one more equipment upgrade, and for the majority of players there's also one more level.

Valve is a grittier company in some ways. They are often not as polished as Blizzard – while they're making great strides, they've had extremely rocky game launches. Half-Life 2, in many ways their flagship game, had quite a few curious bugs on release – to say nothing of the total repeated collapse of Steam under the load, making Half-Life 2 impossible to play and antagonizing a large number of gamers. (While World of Warcraft had similar issues, it's worth noting that WoW is actually an online game, while Half-Life 2 largely isn't. Despite this, Half-Life 2 required that Steam be running.) Their gameplay tends to be somewhat esoteric – it's quite possible in Half-Life games to get "stuck" and have to consult a walkthrough.

Valve does make truly beautiful games. They don't always push the bounds of technology too far, but their games always compare to the state-of-the-art favorably, at the very least. They are always pushing the bounds of what AI can achieve and pushing the bounds of plot and character development in video games. And those are bounds that aren't easy to push – they're stealing pages from movies, stealing pages from improvisation and theatre, and still ending up writing a good chunk of the book themselves. They're probably making the single biggest, most resource-intensive push towards Games As Interactive Fiction in the entire gaming world at the moment.

Most of what I've said here, with both companies, could be applied in reverse to the other company. Blizzard's games are always intuitive. Valve's games are not as polished. Blizzard does not make state-of-the-art beautiful games. Valve sometimes has interface issues. These are simple things.

But the most important, biggest difference, is that Blizzard fundamentally does not innovate. World of Warcraft does not have a single major original gameplay concept in it. Everything has been done before, often many times. Warcraft III has some mildly original gimmicks, but fundamentally Warcraft III is a clear successor to Warcraft II which is a clear successor to Warcraft I which, itself, is pretty much a direct knockoff of Dune 2, with obviously a lot of scenery changed. Blizzard polishes, and Blizzard balances, but if you go to the forefront of modern game research you won't find Blizzard anywhere near it.

(I want to make very clear that this is not an insult to Blizzard. Blizzard makes extremely, extremely good games. Saying that Blizzard does not innovate is a comment on the same level as saying that the Wii is, in terms of sheer performance and graphics quality, a rather anemic console. It's true, but it doesn't mean it's ineffective – it just means they've chosen a different development tactic.)

Meanwhile, Valve . . . well, Valve has just released Portal.

Portal is a curious, curious beast. It originated as a student project named Narbacular Drop (screenshot). You played as a princess who has been captured by a demon and placed within a sentient dungeon, who has the power to make connecting portals open on his walls. The dungeon joins forces with you to defeat the demon and escape.

I don't know the exact details on this, but I've heard that Narbacular Drop was demoed at an event that Gabe Newell attended. Gabe Newell is the co-founder and director of Valve. Apparently, he hired the Narbacular Drop team on the spot, and set them to work on a game titled simply Portal.

Portal is, needless to say, slightly more polished (screenshot). It is also probably one of the most novel and fun games in quite some time. Its gameplay, while absolutely headache-inducing (and motion-sickness-inducing), is extremely fun, and the plot development is nothing short of extraordinary for a game with such a minimal amount of character interaction. On top of that, it feels like more than just a portal puzzle game – many people are already declaring it one of the most satisfying game endings in years, and I'm one of them. The end of the game practically screams "we did this because it was awesome" – they were certainly under no requirement to, and nobody ever would have faulted them for providing a less perfect ending (or, in fact, even realized one was missing.) And yet, they went to the not-insignificant trouble to provide it. (I'm being intentionally vague in order to avoid giving away spoilers. Suffice to say, if you enjoy games, play this one.)

It's also worth mentioning that Portal – this bizarre half-sequel to a student game project – is not only placed in the Half-Life 2 universe, but is integrated with it to an extent where it seems it will have a lasting impact on that universe. This isn't just a standalone tech demo, this is being sold as a complete, albeit short, game – and a truly strange one.

And this is the other fundamental difference beween Blizzard and Valve. Blizzard polishes. Blizzard shines, and buffs, and makes sure every single surface is as smooth and friendly as humanly possible.

Valve sharpens. And then it goes back and draws graffiti.

I've been thinking deeply about ways to classify game studios (there's another entry on this in the future, I imagine) and one of the basic classifications I like is rather simple. "Are the people at this company writing games they want to play?"

I don't honestly know if Blizzard is. They make very good games, but they make lowest-common-denominator games. There are many, many people there, and it would not surprise me if many of them find WoW quite dull. Valve, though? I have absolutely no doubt that everyone on the Portal team was excited about finishing the game. The entire game absolutely exudes dedication and care, in a very different sense from World of Warcraft.

They're both great companies. They both make great games. And Blizzard gets more sales, and makes a truly frightening amount of profit. But I have to say, as someone who wants to see the newest and greatest in game design and concept, I'm always far more interested in whatever Valve is working on.

  • WesWilson

    2007, October 20th 9:28 AM

    Your claim that Blizzard is not an innovator is a bit weak, especially when you look at the Valve work released in the Orange Box. If we were to look at Half-Life 2, we would see a tremendous similarity to other shooters and to Half-Life one. It was prettier, had more plot (unsatisfactory ending and all), and felt suitably epic… but the main innovations were from complexity, not concept. Prey played with the portal concept in a manner that shook the foundations of geometry, making Portal seem a bit too polished and straight-forward in comparison. Team Fortress 2 was in development for eight years, and most innovation was purged from the project in favor of polish and balance. Watch the developer notes to hear what was pulled out of the game…. seriously.

    Blizzard, on the other hand, reversed the ingrained methodology that was thriving in the MMO market. They removed the need to group, they created character classes that were esoteric and obtuse, and they departed from realistic modeling in favor of cartoony fancy. Your claim that Warcraft 3 had MILD gimmicks is almost insulting. The hero classes were novel for the genre, and ability to create and play unique maps like DOTA and Tower Defense was unheard of in the RTS market. Toss in the one player story expansions about Thrall, and you see a multiplayer RTS pushing the "Interactive Fiction" angle that you credit Valve for. Warcraft 2 was one of the first non-shooters that kept that people sitting on their work network till one in the morning with it's unique naval units and long development chains. Warcraft was the original multi-player RTS… the single game that started a genre. Dune 2 was a great game, but it took innovators to see how far that style of play could go…. and they did. With Starcraft we saw the attempt to balance VASTLY different game factions, making the change from race to race more than just a change in unit type, it was a change in gameplay paradigm… the list goes on and on.

    I respect where you are coming from, and this is an interesting point of view… but it's not solid. The quick stereotypes you have attached to these game companies don't reflect reality, and this comes off as punditry. It's too quick and dirty, with too many holes and suppositions.

  • Zorba

    2007, October 20th 10:19 AM

    Well, I disagree with some of that :)

    As I see it, Half-Life 2 was more of an experiment in seeing how far scripted scenes could go than anything else. It's got a lot of scripted scenes that simply don't feel scripted – scripted scenes that are interwoven with your non-scripted actions quite nicely, frequently in a way that you don't even realize until you've played the game through two or three times. I haven't played Prey yet, but I do find it interesting that you're saying Team Fortress 2 is low on innovation when you're claiming one of WoW's innovations is "departing from realistic modeling in favor of cartoony fancy". I personally wouldn't consider either that or TF2's equivalent particularly innovative (although TF2's look certainly took more people by surprise) but they're within the same ballpark.

    As I see it, WoW's cartoony modeling is due to Blizzard's consistent desire for low system requirements. With how modern systems work, you can make cartoony 3d art look a lot than realistic art if you have limited computer power to work with. I also see that as part of the "lowest common denominator" techniques that WoW used – cartoony is simply friendlier, and that's one of the things that got WoW its huge playerbase (although I'm not sure if that was an intentional effect or not. I do remember reading that the cartoony style was chosen due to the low sysreq requirement.)

    Powerful single heroes weren't really an innovation in Warcraft 3 – they'd shown up in Starcraft earlier, for one thing, but they'd also shown up in a more limited fashion in both Command and Conquer and Total Annihilation. The leveling system was new, but only if you ignore similar techniques in non-RTS games – similar things had been done for years in turn-based strategy games, going back at least to Warlords II and probably farther. On top of that, I have a hard time considering that as a major innovation. Perhaps I just didn't play enough multiplayer, but it was never a huge factor in the campaign. You just had a single unit that got stronger as the campaign went on.

    A lot of what you're saying is that Blizzard is good at incremental improvements, and I agree with that. Their editors got gradually better until suddenly crazy user-made maps sprung up all over the place, in much the same way as Quake was the first massively moddable first-person-shooter (without doing binary hacks, obviously – people have been doing insane stuff with Doom for a while, but if you have to hack assembly it's a bit different.) The attempt at balancing vastly different races was new also, but I honestly find it tough to call that a really revolutionary idea, I think it's just that nobody had tried it before. Plus, the races aren't that different – they all play in largely the same way, at least until you hit the high levels of play.

    Amusingly, in doing some research for this reply, I ran across the fact that many reviews for Warcraft 3 essentially said "there's not much new here, but it's done solidly". (Wikipedia link, since we all know Wikipedia is 100% reliable) I do think Starcraft was a lot more innovative however, as a lot of the race distinction for Warcraft 3 was copied from Starcraft.

    I'm considering "difficulty of coming up with the idea" far more important than "difficulty of implementing it". Most of the things Blizzard does are very, very simple to come up with, and that's why I find it hard to call them serious innovators. They solidify common gameplay mechanics enormously, and in that way they do a lot to progress the field, but they rarely experiment with the foundations of their games and they're never on the bleeding edge of "let's see what we can do with this crazy new video game thing".

    I'm seriously not trying to insult Blizzard here, though – both techniques are crucial, and Blizzard does make good games. My main point is that Valve frequently does things which are completely unexpected (like, for example, most of Portal's design and plot, a huge amount of which came completely out of nowhere) or risky (like the extensive use of physics in Half-Life 2), whereas Blizzard doesn't – they take the things that are expected and well-known, and polish the hell out of them.

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