All Your History: Blizzard Entertainment Part 1
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Once upon a time at the University of California, Los Angeles, a student played a prank on one of his classmates. Mike Morhaime saw Allen Adham step away from his computer for a minute, and decided to quickly change his password to “Joe.” Unsuspecting of this treachery, Adham came back, typed in his password — and logged back on! Morhaime was stunned. How had Adham gotten through? So Morhaime went to Adham, confessed his prank, and asked how he’d beaten him. But Adham was equally surprised: he’d just put in his password. And then, it hit Morhaime. By complete coincidence, “Joe” had been Adham’s password in the first place. From then on, the two classmates became close friends, so close that they ended up going into business together. Twenty years, dozens of titles, and one of the greatest legacies in gaming history later, their studio has emerged as one of the single most powerful forces in all of entertainment, a company so popular that they warrant their own convention. Whether or not they still use “Joe” as their password, there can be no doubt that there are few companies in the world that have the same reputation for flawless execution and consistent excellence as Blizzard Entertainment.
-Opening Build Order-
After he graduated, Allen Adham decided there was no better time to follow his dream. He loved playing games, so why not get paid to make them? But he didn’t want to be some low-level code monkey for a major corporation; he wanted to be his own boss, working on his own schedule. He wanted to start his own company. So he called up Mike Morhaime and asked him to join him on his venture, and he also called another classmate of his, Frank Pearce.
And so on February 8, 1991, they founded Silicon & Synapse in Costa Mesa, California. Adham would be president, Morhaime vice president, and Pearce would be their programmer. Their mission was to make great games and have fun while doing it.
And right there that first year, they made a name for themselves. In 1991, they released RPM Racing for the brand new Super Nintendo, a game influenced by the earlier Racing Destruction Set for the Commodor 64. In making it, Silicon & Synapse became the first American studio to put out a game for that system. Not too bad a start. 1992 was a little different: instead of making their own games, they ported a number of already released titles onto other platforms. They brought The Lord of the Rings to the Amiga, and Battlechess to Windows, among many others. It wasn’t exactly the most exciting work in the world, but it paid well.
But of course, their real passion was in making new games, and that same year they released The Lost Vikings for a variety of platforms. The Lost Vikings featured three Vikings who are — what else but? — sucked into a spaceship by the evil Tomator, and have to escape. It was an action-platformer, but with a unique twist: the player could cycle through each of the three Viking characters at will, which he’d have to do since each one had unique abilities necessary to solve the puzzles. It was a sort of single-multiplayer game. It also boasted a fantastic art design and wonderful sense of humor, and was an early indicator of the kind of personality and quality that would later define the company. The game went on to become an icon of the company’s early work, and was followed by a sequel in 1995.
With the release of Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in 1993, Silicon & Synapse was starting to make a name for itself. That year even saw them win their first award, for “Best Software Developer” from Videogames Magazine. The trouble was, the name itself wasn’t working. Silicon & Synapse was supposed to be a cute term for the combination of technology and creativity, but sadly, none of the business people they dealt with knew what a synapse was. It was just confusing people, and the young company didn’t need to be doing that. So they rebranded themselves as the name they wanted to be known by forevermore: Chaos Studios.
There were larger issues as well. For one, even with just a handful of guys doing what they loved, the atmosphere was hardly relaxed. Worse, even for all their success, the numbers weren’t adding up. They only had fifteen employees, and yet to make payroll, they founders were having to take advances on their credit cards, and even beg their parents for money. When even the allowance started to run dry, they knew something had to change.
So in 1994, Chaos Studios seriously considered a pair of acquisition offers. One was from major publisher Interplay; the other, from educational software maker Davidson & Associates. Initially, the choice seemed obvious: the young company wanted to join into one of gaming’s biggest stars. But after thinking about it some more, they realized that at Interplay, they’d be just another cog in the wheel, and wouldn’t have the freedom to do whatever they wanted. By contrast, Davidson & Associates didn’t know the first thing about the gaming world, and therefore, was willing to let the guys have absolute free reign over their products. It was a tough decision, but in the end, the guys took the gamble on the gaming newbies. Davidson acquired Chaos for $10 million.
The influx of cash was a desperately needed break for the studio. Finally, they wouldn’t have to take any odd job just to make payroll; they could take their time to make great games.
But just as things were finally getting stable, Chaos found that they could no longer be Chaos. Another software company owned the rights to that name, so once again, they had to change it. They almost went with Ogre Studios, but their bosses at Davidson weren’t happy with that choice. Finally, Adham grabbed seven words out of the dictionary. After a lengthy process, they settled on a name that was both cool and had the blessing of their owners: “Blizzard Entertainment.” Even at this early stage in their development, the newly-minted Blizzard chose the word “Entertainment,” as opposed to something like “Games,” because they didn’t want to limit themselves to one medium. Ambition was something the guys never lacked.
Later that year, the newly named Blizzard Entertainment was asked by publisher Sunsoft to adapt the biggest event in comic book history: the Death of Superman. The Death and Return of Superman for the Super Nintendo released in August as a basic beat-em-up game, but with Superman. And at the end of the game, you wouldn’t beat the final boss; rather, you’d kill each other! And then start the game all over again as one of the four other Supermen, and only if you played through as all five of them would you get the final ending. For Blizzard, it was a testament to the reputation they’d earned. In only three years, they had been entrusted with one of the biggest names in all of entertainment.
In September of that year they released another original game, the shooter-platformer Blackthorne for the SNES and DOS. To get the motions looking as realistic as possible, the crew recorded Frank Pearce’s movements, and then converted the video into the game’s graphics, a process called “rotoscoping.” The game once again featured a distinctive art direction and a quirky sense of humor, another step on the road to the emerging Blizzard style.
So, 1994 had been a big year. The company had been acquired, changed its name, released a game based on no less than Superman, and released another game of their own, Blackthorne. What more could one small developer possibly do in a year? Well, as it turned out, they had one more game to release for the holidays. They would close out ‘94 with a little game called Warcraft.
Two years earlier, Westwood Studios had released Dune II, a strategy game in which the player had to manage his resources in order to build new structures that would in turn produce units that could fight the enemy. This gamestyle was so different that it became its own genre, Real-Time Strategy, or RTS. The game had been a modest success, but by 1994, not a single new RTS had been released. Blizzard, however, had plans of its own.
Since the complex controls for an RTS didn’t map very well onto a controller, Warcraft would be Blizzard’s first game to be exclusive to the PC. It would also be the first game they published by themselves, making use of Davidson’s already-strong distribution arm. The game itself was almost perfectly-balanced between its two factions, because its two factions were practically identical. Each side’s units did the same damage and had the same health, with only a few exceptions. That being said, the art design was gorgeous and the fantasy setting provided for a fun story. Beyond that, it had multiplayer. This was limited to LAN or, if the player knew how, a direct connection to another IP address, but it still made for some heated head-to-head strategic combat that literally no other game had. It didn’t hurt at all that it was the first real-time strategy game since the first real-time strategy game, so the market was wide open.
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans was well-received and reached solid sales. Nothing mindblowing, but it was strong enough for Blizzard’s owners, Davidson & Associates, to greenlight a sequel. The guys were doing well now. They had enough money to grow the company, they were starting to obtain a fan base, and they had complete creative freedom, and they’d done it all in only four years. And with Warcraft already out the door, they thought the sequel might do even better.
They had no idea.
Tune in next time to see Blizzard explode.