Sitting in an office in the memorabilia-filled halls of Blizzard's nerve-centre in southern California, Rob Pardo is unassuming, chirpy and sincere - a manner which belies the fact that this is unquestionably one of the most influential men in the games business.
In fact, Time Magazine reckoned that Rob Pardo was one of the 100 most influential people in the entire world back in 2006. His listing in the magazine's annual (and usually contentious) countdown placed him in hallowed company - Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto and GTA producers Dan and Sam Houser are the only other gaming names Time has ever placed on the list, as far as I can gather.
The Time listing is probably a good ice-breaker at parties, but as gamers, you're likely to be more impressed by the rest of his CV. Time featured him for his role as lead designer on World of Warcraft, and he also headed up the design team on first expansion The Burning Crusade, but prior to that he was a designer on StarCraft and Diablo II, and lead designer of StarCraft: Brood War, Warcraft III and its Frozen Throne expansion.
The man knows his game design, it's fair to say. After all, he cut his teeth on one of the toughest tasks in gaming - balancing the races in the original StarCraft - and if there's one piece of game design which has been tested to the point of destruction over the years, it's StarCraft's balance.
Nowadays he's Blizzard's executive vice president of game design, but he's also come full circle. StarCraft was the first game that he worked on after joining Blizzard, and today we're here to talk about the forthcoming StarCraft II, previewed earlier this week. But, given Pardo's involvement in all of Blizzard's major franchises, we'd also like to pick his brains about how a company that has produced nothing but solid-gold hits in recent years goes about making its games.
One of the first things we discuss is the balance between hardcore and casual players - especially relevant to StarCraft, I propose, given the obvious difference between the average gamer mucking about with friends and the Korean pro-gamer scene.
"It's not really any different for StarCraft than it is for World of Warcraft, Warcraft III or Diablo, to be honest," Pardo says. "We really try to serve both audiences.
"One of the ways we do that is that we build for the depth first - for the hardcore first. When we're first prototyping and working on the game, we're very meticulous. The game speed has to be fast, the units have to be perfect, we have to be thinking about balance. We don't balance it early on, but we have to be thinking about whether each unit is balanceable, whether we have all the right hooks in the game to be able to do it.
"Then, what we do gradually once we have that basic game - which is really fun to all of us, because a lot of the people here are pretty hardcore - then we really start trying to make the game more and more accessible. We certainly really try to keep both audiences in mind, and there are things that we do for both audiences to ensure that.
"The reason we build the game in that order is because you can easily come up with game design concepts or ideas or mechanics that are shallow and designed for a more casual, broad-market gamer - they're not going to put fifty-five hundred hours into a game, right? But we really want to make sure that we build in those features that have a lot of depth and a lot of replayability first, because we can always make that stuff much more accessible for someone that's not going to put in the same amount of hours."
In order to achieve that aim, Blizzard flies in the face of some conventional thinking on game design. Rather than pinning down exactly what the team wants to achieve before starting development - the ideal-world scenario many designers aim for - the company believes in building a rough version of the game as early as possible, and then experimenting and polishing as they go along.
"We very much believe in not making a mammoth design document and then just having a team make that to spec and shipping the game," Pardo confirms. "We try to make sure that we're building the game as we go along and adding to it, so that at every step - be it prototyping a gameplay style or a new unit - we have the opportunity to play it as soon as possible.
"That way we can start iterating on that gameplay before we've invested too much time or energy into the programming or the art, or what have you. Then we just keep on playing it, and keep on polishing it, and keep on playing it, and keep on balancing it - until we get to a point where we feel like it's really reached that Blizzard quality mark."
This is not necessarily a fast process. StarCraft II was built with a new engine, so it took a while to get the game up and running and start iterating on the design - but even at that, Pardo reckons that they had a playable version ready by the end of 2005, or early 2006. The intervening years, then, have been spent fixing, tweaking, polishing and building on the design of that first playable build - not to mention adding single-player into the mix.
Single-player didn't appear until "halfway through the development process", Pardo says. It's not that the team was neglecting the campaign game - they know that many players loved StarCraft for the single-player aspect. (Speaking to the game's lead producer, Chris Sigaty, in a later interview, I get a rough estimate that 50 per cent of the game's players play for the single-player experience.) Rather, it's another Blizzard philosophy in play - build multiplayer first, then build great single-player around it.
"[Building a great multiplayer experience] is the harder thing to do, and it's also the thing that allows you to play the game the fastest," Pardo argues. "If we can just play against each other PvP, we don't need to develop some complex AI system. We can start playing the game right away and seeing if it's fun.
"It's a quicker way to get the game going - and it also goes back to that depth comment. You can make a single-player game that delivers X hours of play, maybe it has replayability, maybe it doesn't - but if you want to deliver a deep, replayable PvP experience, that's a lot harder in my opinion.
"You have to work a lot longer on making sure that..." Pardo pauses for a moment, then launches into an explanation of one of the key challenges of building great multiplayer.
"In a lot of games, you learn the dominant strategy, then everyone knows it and the game loses its replayability," he explains. "So you're trying to make sure that you have a game that doesn't have dominant strategies, and that everything has a counter - and that as you continue to learn and explore the game, you get better at it and you just learn different techniques.
"It gets to that level where, hopefully, the game is as deep and strategic as something like chess, where there isn't a dominant strategy. That takes a lot longer, and to be honest, it's also a lot more fun for the developers to get that going first!"
Blizzard's approach of building multiplayer first and then building the single-player around it flies in the face of how many developers work, especially on console games. If you had a pound for every time you've read the phrase "tacked-on" in relation to multiplayer in a game review in recent years, how many pounds would you have? Some pounds. Definitely some.
Pardo nods in recognition when I mention the idea of tacked-on multiplayer modes. "I think that if you want to have a great multiplayer game and have a great single-player game, you should build the multiplayer first," he replies, "or at least be thinking about it at the same time.
"The challenge a lot of console games have is that they think about the single-player, they build that game, and then they try to tack the multiplayer on at the end - which I don't think is ever going to be very successful.
"Whatever multiplayer pieces you come up with, you can turn that into a great single-player experience. That's your toolkit. You can't necessarily go the other direction. If you end up with a character that's a godlike character, then you have to work out what other characters can battle that character - perhaps you have them, perhaps you don't. Maybe now you have to create new things, but you don't have production time to do it..." Pardo shrugs.
The focus on multiplayer makes sense - after all, Blizzard makes some of the most successful multiplayer games in the world, including the world's most profitable game, World of Warcraft. However, this is also a company that's well-known for its great stories and characters. Many players attribute some of WOW's success to its "lore" and storytelling, while games like Diablo and StarCraft have their own unique mythologies. Doesn't Pardo ever get tempted to ditch the multiplayer and cut loose on building a linear, straightforward game that just tells a great story?
My suggestion earns me the closest thing to a withering look that the cheerful Pardo has in his arsenal. "I don't think you have to pick," he explains. "That's one of the things that I think is great about what we get to do here at Blizzard - we can deliver a deep single-player experience on top of a really really strong multiplayer game.
"Certainly, there are trade-offs here and there. Diablo is always a good example, because the Diablo philosophy is to ensure that every quest is playable either co-op or single-player. So certainly, there are things you can't do there. World of Warcraft is another good example.
"But if you look at Warcraft III, that had a single-player experience that didn't assume co-op at all. We could do a lot of things in the single-player, including this idea of having sub-races like the demons or the naga. They had their own buildings and their own AI around them, but they weren't in multiplayer at all and were special cases in the single-player. We have the opportunity to do things like that if we want to, where and when we want to. It doesn't mean that you have to give up the multiplayer game to do it."
Just before I leave, I ask Pardo a final question - isn't there a sense that Blizzard, despite the success of its RTS games, is really now the house that WOW built? Doesn't the MMO rather overshadow a project like StarCraft II at the company?
On the contrary, apparently. "One of the reasons why I think we're a little bit different to a lot of developers out there is that we are across different genres, and we're able to have excellence in all of them," Pardo says. "I think one of the things that's great about that is that it gives us a really creative culture and it allows us to say to people who get tired of working on, say, RTS games, that we have other opportunities available to them."
He goes on to describe how StarCraft's designers were pulled into the WOW team to help with building the map editor and working out the class balance - something which did, admittedly, delay StarCraft II significantly - and how the Diablo III team invites WOW's designers to meetings to discuss monster encounters. "There's a lot of cultural sharing of knowledge," he explains.
"We keep high-level talent, and we have talent within the company that gets to contribute to different projects outside of their genre. It makes the company better and it makes the games better."
While expectations are running incredibly high for everything that Blizzard does these days - would any other game developer have faced the bizarre outcry over Diablo III's colour palette, for example? - the pressure doesn't show in the company's headquarters. Pardo himself knows plenty about handling pressure.
"StarCraft II has huge expectations, WOW had huge expectations, Diablo II did, Warcraft III... We have a pretty big track record now that we want to live up to, so we just have to keep on trying to top ourselves and doing the best we can - and not being scared to do it." With Diablo III and StarCraft II both on the horizon, gamers around the world will be hoping that Blizzard's nerve holds for a while longer.