Our New Overlords
Davidson & Associates, started by Jan Davidson and later joined by her husband Bob, was a diversified educational software company whose growth was predicated on the success of a title named Math Blaster, in which a player answers math problems to blow up incoming asteroids before they destroy the player's ship. It was a clever conjunction of education and entertainment, and the company reaped massive rewards from its release.
As an educational title, Math Blaster may have had some value when used properly, but I had occasion to see it used in folly. My high school journalism class would write articles for our school newspaper in a computer room shared with the remedial education class; my fellow journalism students and I watched in horror as remedial 12th graders played Math Blaster using calculators.
As asteroids containing expressions like "3 + 5" and "2 x 3" approached, those students would rapidly punch the equations into calculators then enter the results to destroy those asteroids. Arguably they were learning something -- considering they outsmarted their teachers -- but I'm not sure it was the best use of their time given their rapidly approaching entry into the workforce.
With good stewardship and aggressive leadership Davidson & Associates expanded into game manufacturing (creating and packing the retail box), game distribution (shipping boxes to retailers and intermediate distributors), and direct-to-school learning materials distribution.
They saw an opportunity to expand into the entertainment business, but their early efforts at creating entertainment titles internally convinced them that it would make better sense to purchase an experienced game development studio rather than continuing to develop their own games with a staff more knowledgeable about early learning than swords and sorcery.
And so, at a stroke, the cash-flow problems that prevented the growth of the Warcraft development team were solved by the company's acquisition; with the deep pockets of Davidson backing the effort it was now possible for Silicon & Synapse (renamed Blizzard in the aftermath of the sale) to focus on its own titles instead of pursuing marginally-profitable deals with other game publishers. And they were very marginal -- even creating two top-rated games in 1993, which led to the company being named "Nintendo Developer of the Year", the company didn't receive any royalties.
With a stack of cash from the acquisition to hire new employees and enable existing staff to jump on board the project, the development of Warcraft accelerated dramatically.
The Design "Process"
The approach to designing and building games at Blizzard during its early years could best be described as "organic". It was a chaotic process that occurred during formal design meetings but more frequently during impromptu hallway gatherings or over meals.
Some features came from design documents, whereas others were added by individual programmers at whim. Some game art was planned, scheduled, and executed methodically, whereas other work was created late at night because an artist had a great idea or simply wanted to try something different. Other elements were similarly ad-libbed; the story and lore for Warcraft came together only in the last several months prior to launch.
While the process was unpredictable, the results were spectacular. Because the team was composed of computer game fanatics, our games evolved over the course of their development to become something that gamers would want to play and play and play. And Warcraft, our first original game for the IBM PC, exemplified the best (and sometimes the worst) of that process, ultimately resulting in a game that -- at least for its day -- was exemplary.
How the Warcraft Unit-Creation System Came About
As biologists know, the process of evolution has false starts where entire branches of the evolutionary tree are wiped out, and so it was with our development efforts. Because we didn't have a spec to measure against, we instead experimented and culled the things that didn't work. I'd like to say that this was a measured, conscious process in each case, but many times it arose from accidents, arguments, and personality conflicts.
One event I remember in particular was related to the creation of game units. During the early phase of development, units were conjured into existence using "cheat" commands typed into the console because there was no other user interface mechanism to build them. As we considered how best to create units, various ideas were proposed.
Ron Millar, an artist who did much of the ideation and design for early Blizzard games, proposed that players would build farmhouses, and -- as in the game Populous -- those farms would periodically spawn basic worker units, known as (Human) peasants and (Orc) peons. The player would be able to use those units directly for gold mining, lumber harvesting and building construction, but they wouldn't be much good as fighters.
Those "peons" not otherwise occupied could be directed by the player to attend military training in barracks, where they'd disappear from the map for a while and eventually emerge as skilled combatants. Other training areas would be used for the creation of more advanced military units like catapult teams and wizards.
The idea was not fully fleshed out" which was one of the common flaws of our design process: the end result of the design process lacked the formality to document how an idea should be implemented. So the idea was kicked around and argued back and forth through the informal design team (that is, most of the company) before we started coding (programming) the implementation.
Before we started working on the code, Ron left to attend a trade show (probably Winter CES -- the Consumer Electronics Show), along with Allen Adham, the company's president. And during their absence an event occurred which set the direction for the entire Warcraft series, an event that I call the "Warcraft design coup".
Stu Rose, another early artist/designer to join the company (employee number six, I believe), came late one afternoon to my office to make a case for a different approach. Stu felt that the unit creation mechanism Ron proposed had too many as-yet-unsolved implementation complexities, and moreover that it was antithetical to the type of control we should be giving players in a real-time strategy (RTS) game.
In this then-new RTS genre, the demands on players were much greater than in other genres and players' attention could not be focused in one place for long because of the many competing demands: plan the build/upgrade tree, drive economic activity, create units, place buildings, scout the map, oversee combat and micromanage individual unit skills. In an RTS, the most limited resource is player attention; so adding to the cognitive burden with an indirect unit creation mechanism would add to the attention deficit and increase the game's difficulty.
To build "grunts", the basic fighting unit, it would be necessary to corral idle peasants or those working on lower priority tasks to give them training, unnecessarily (in Stu's view) adding to the game's difficulty.
I was a ready audience for his proposal, as I had similar (though less well thought-out) concerns and didn't feel that unit creation was an area where we needed to make bold changes. Dune II, the game from which the design of Warcraft was derived, had a far simpler mechanism for unit creation: just click a button on the user-interface panel of a factory building and the unit would pop out a short time later. It wasn't novel -- the idea was copied from even earlier games -- but it just worked.
Stu argued that we should take this approach, and in lieu of more debate just get it done now. So over the next couple of days and late nights, I banged out the game and user interface code necessary to implement unit creation, and the design decision became a fait accompli. By the time Ron and Allen returned, the game was marginally playable in single player mode, excepting that the enemy/computer AI was still months away from being developed.
Warcraft was now an actual game that was simple to play and -- more importantly -- fun. We never looked back.