When I think of the games and franchises that define Blizzard Entertainment as a development studio, the name that stands tallest amongst a formidable line-up of giants is Warcraft – Blizzard’s high-fantasy universe full of memorable characters and moments, epic battles, and lore that spans thousands of years.
In many ways the story of Warcraft is also the story of Blizzard, and the evolution of the accessible, fun, and cinematic approach it brings to many of its creations. It’s a story that takes us from a small studio looking to create something new and original to a larger and more experienced team delving into a broader online world. In the 25 years since Warcraft first hit retail shelves as a new strategy game, and in the 15 years since World of Warcraft created a community of millions, this franchise has evolved and grown, as has its popularity.
To celebrate the anniversary of Warcraft, the games and its history, I sat down with several key Blizzard devs to discuss Warcraft’s journey.
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994)
“I was actually at 3DO at the time, a company I helped found, and I had gone to Electronics Boutique to look at some new games that I could play,” John Hight, Executive Producer on World of Warcraft recalls. “And I see this game called Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. I picked it up and was completely enthralled, I played through the campaign and tried to convince anybody that would listen to me to go out and buy it. Partly so we could play together. It caused me to shift my career direction. After 3DO I went to work for Westwood Studios where eventually I worked on Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2. Warcraft was my first introduction to real-time strategy, and I loved it.”
By 1994 Blizzard Entertainment had already developed a few titles: licensed products like The Death and Return of Superman for the 16-bit Super Nintendo in addition to original efforts like The Lost Vikings. Under the guise of Silicon & Synapse, the studio was made up of a small team of passionate developers that, when not working on a project, could be found discussing what games they were playing at length.
The Lost Vikings, a strategy platformer of sorts where players were put in charge of a colourful group of Nordic warriors who had to work together to reach a goal, began as a riff on the popular hit Lemmings. Warcraft, which would go on to define almost a decade of real-time strategy excellence for Blizzard, began in a similarly unexpected way.
“At the time it wasn’t actually going to be Warcraft: Orcs & Humans the strategy game,” Technical Director at Blizzard Bob Fitch tells me. “We were playing games like Monkey Island, and point-and-clicks were really fun, so the next thing was going to be a graphic adventure game.” And that adventure game was set to star the Lost Vikings.
As a Blizzard veteran, Bob has been working on the underlying tech that has driven many of the company’s most iconic releases for decades. This flirtation with the graphic adventure genre wouldn’t last though, thanks mostly to the release of Westwood Studios’ Dune II – a game that many cite as the original real-time strategy or RTS game. Slowly but surely the team became fixated on this new way to experience interactive strategy, so the decision was made to rework the engine and to create something in this space.
“We were thinking that the obvious answer was to take the Vikings, shrink them down to be really small, and then have the player direct them where they wanted them to go,” Bob recalls, noting that the initial tests were simple scenarios that were very different to the puzzles found in The Lost Vikings. Looking to Dune II, the addition of opponents, the ability to attack, and PvP entered the picture. But when it came down to creating abilities or different types of Vikings, the team hit a wall.
“We realised that just telling our Vikings where to go and attack wasn’t as much fun as playing Dune II,” Bob continues, confirming that coming up with Viking powers was a struggle. “The next thing you know, artists were drawing pictures of orcs and goblins and elves and saying that if we weren’t coming up with interesting ideas for what Vikings could do, this might be the answer.”[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%22D%26D%20and%20Tolkien%20were%20all%20very%20traditional%20medieval-styled%20characters%20and%20places.%20We%20pushed%20our%20fantasy%20world%20into%20the%20realm%20of%20superhero%20comics%2C%20blockbuster%20movies%2C%20and%20heavy%20metal%20music.%22%20-%20Samwise%20Didier”]
“We all grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons, and reading Tolkien, so we all knew what an elf looked like, or what a paladin was,” Senior Art Director for Blizzard Entertainment, Samwise Didier, recalls. “Artistically, we really wanted to make our creations stand out. D&D and Tolkien were all very traditional medieval-styled characters and places. We pushed our fantasy world into the realm of superhero comics, blockbuster movies, and heavy metal music. Everything we created was ramped up. Anything ‘Level 1’ needed to look like it was ‘Level 5’. We didn’t go to ‘11’, we went to ‘111’!”
It was a defining moment for the studio. Although it had already created an original property with The Lost Vikings, the Warcraft universe would soon become something much more. Once the decision was made to tackle fantasy elements the project quickly evolved, with new mechanics and features added over time. Even the chess-like nature of the RTS genre would take literal form. “We had actual chess pieces, that was the black pieces and the white pieces,” Bob explains. “It was the Orcs & Humans. On one side you got the footman, on the other side you had the grunts, and they were kind of equal, and each side had its pieces in a particular slot.”
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Warcraft: Orcs & Humans released in 1994 to both critical and commercial success. Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness followed shortly after in 1995 and saw the series, franchise, and real-time strategy really deliver on its potential.
Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995)
“I was working on MechWarrior 2 at Activision and a colleague started playing Warcraft II,” Tim Morten, former Production Director on StarCraft II recalls. “I looked over his shoulder and it seemed like fun. There was a feature back then where with one disc you could have your friends play multiplayer with you. So, I got to join him in a multiplayer match and he immediately marched into my base and built towers. Of course, at this point I’m figuring out the tech tree. I hadn’t played an RTS so I had no idea how to counter that strategy and he couldn’t stop laughing at how my base was getting taken apart by these towers. That was my inspiration to learn how to get better at playing RTS games.”
“I think in a lot of ways we didn’t really feel like we were finished,” Bob Fitch tells me. The still relatively small team at Blizzard was ready to keep going the moment development wrapped on the original Warcraft. “We were finished in that it was the game we had set out to make, but there were things that got cut. Things like Naval battles. That and we just wanted to keep working on it. We had learned a lot about how to make an RTS, how they play, how to balance them, how to make artificial intelligence for them – and we knew we could do an even better job the second time around.”[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%22We%20had%20learned%20a%20lot%20about%20how%20to%20make%20an%20RTS%2C%20how%20they%20play%2C%20how%20to%20balance%20them%2C%20how%20to%20make%20artificial%20intelligence%20for%20them%20%E2%80%93%20and%20we%20knew%20we%20could%20do%20an%20even%20better%20job%20the%20second%20time%20around.%E2%80%9D%20-%20Bob%20Fitch”]
“Orcs & Humans was our first step into Azeroth,” Samwise adds. “And we basically just stuck to orcs and humans, with a little flavour added through water elementals and demons. With Warcraft II, we added elves and dwarves, as well as trolls, ogres and dragons. We were building our fantasy world with the standard tropes but were making our own versions of them – the Blizzard versions that we all know and love.”
“We realised that it would be more interesting if the sides were more diverse,” Bob continues. “And so, you can see that in Warcraft II, which had so much more variety in the way that each side played and what all the units were. And that evolution was then reflected in StarCraft where there’s three unique races.”
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In creating Warcraft II, the team at Blizzard also worked to evolve the tools that it had, with the goal being to create something so powerful that players would have the option to create anything they wanted. In Orcs & Humans, many of the maps and campaign missions were laid out using text files. This evolved into a proper editor for the completion of Warcraft II and later, its expansion, The Dark Portal.
“The campaigns went through evolutions where originally they were simplistic,” Bob explains. “Over time they grew to have more story and sub-quests, as we got better. And then that segues into another evolution, which was the editor. We began building the editors to have more and more functionality until our goal with Warcraft II and eventually StarCraft II was to create engines and editors so powerful that end users could create whatever they wanted.”
Jumping forward to the release of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos in 2004, this goal was met when user-created versions of genres we now know of as Tower Defence and MOBAs began to appear for the first time – all within the Warcraft universe. For the team at Blizzard it was a gradual evolution of the tools it had been honing internally finally making their way out into the world. And in a way getting to see the end results felt like mission complete.
In expanding the scope of Warcraft II, however, the characters and lore of the universe began to form alongside the art and strategy gameplay. Compelling characters began to emerge, and events took on more cinematic qualities. This storytelling would eventually take the series and franchise in new and exciting directions.
Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2003)
“When I started at Blizzard, it was 1996,” Chris Sigaty, former Executive Producer and Senior Vice President at Blizzard recalls. “I was in college at USC at the time, and I knew a friend who knew somebody at Blizzard, and they invited me to come in and help test Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal. I absolutely loved Tides of Darkness and strategy gaming. And immediately there was this feeling of having found my people. I was a total Dungeons & Dragons nerd, science fiction and fantasy reader growing up and I never imagined there was a career in it. But once I arrived, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Before Blizzard would return to Warcraft though there was – as the team lovingly puts it – many distractions along the way. From the dark action-RPG Diablo series to the science fiction space opera StarCraft. The latter took the RTS genre to its strategic limit by introducing three varied, asymmetrical, and involved races that engaged in grand battles involving large armies. It was StarCraft’s popularity and success in this space, bolstered by the earliest examples of competitive esports, that would inform the development of Warcraft III. That and the renewed focus on character and story.
“Warcraft III was where everything came together,” Samwise tells me. “The story, art, movies, hell – even the art in the manual, really pushed our game to 111. We came up with the franchise’s biggest characters in Warcraft III: Jaina, Illidan, Thrall and Arthas, and dozens more. Almost every character in World of Warcraft was based and modelled after something we created in Warcraft III and when World of Warcraft came out, it only got better.”
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“It was originally a hero-controlled game,” Chris says, talking about the earliest moments developing Warcraft III. “You could only control your hero, and the units you had around it were selected only if you had vision of them. It was a very different game. It wasn’t working out, but it gave this differentiator for Warcraft III that we wanted, which was something that played very differently than the units-swarming you got from StarCraft. Hero-centric, level up, have items, consume them, go into different buildings and then focus on a few smaller armies. We called it RPS (Role Playing Strategy).”
This new direction saw an explosion of lore and gameplay come together, from the introduction of 16 or so playable races, to the simplification of base building to incorporate more story and role-playing character progression. Warcraft III would ultimately see this vision move back towards more traditional RTS mechanics, with the playable races cut down to eight and then four, but its focus on hero abilities and a central character remained.
“It was a complete revamp at that point,” Chris confirms. “We basically went back to the drawing board, but the element of having this hero character was something the team was very fond of. That hero-centric play felt like the big innovation for us.”
“We were still working on StarCraft at that time,” Rob McNaughton, Lead Artist on StarCraft II recalls. “We really sat down and thought about how we are going to evolve the RTS. We wanted to take it to the next level. First, we made the decision to go with 3D graphics, which meant that Warcraft III became one of our most technically challenging games to make during those years. But we also quickly realised that it was going to be more than just a continuation of the RTSs we’ve made. With the heroes and levelling, the game could become more accessible to a lot more people. So, from our point of view internally, the Warcraft franchise went a little softer where StarCraft went hard esports.”
“By Warcraft III, we added dozens more races and places to Azeroth,” Samwise adds, “including some of our most recognisable races in the game; the night elves, tauren, and murlocs. Working with 3D models and environments at this time allowed us to really push the look of the game and add to the immersion with in-game cutscenes. All the while, our pre-rendered cinematics were improving with each game and by World of Warcraft, both gameplay art and cinematic art hit a whole new level.”
Warcraft 3 returns!
World of Warcraft (2004)
“I was working at BioWare in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on a game called Jade Empire,” Kevin Martins, Lead Designer on World of Warcraft recalls. “With World of Warcraft we had heard the buzz about it. We played a demo at E3, but as we only played about 20 minutes of it, we didn’t think much of the game. I’m an orc and I kill scorpions. I hope there’s more to it. Oh boy, was there more to it! When it was released it quickly took over the team at BioWare, where it single-handedly delayed Jade Empire because we were all playing it. I had my troll and female mage, my first characters and they’re still around to this day.”
Taken at face value, World of Warcraft presented a new direction not only for the franchise but Blizzard as a whole. But much like the origins of Warcraft, which was born from playing and loving a new type of game with the release of Dune II, World of Warcraft’s inception followed a similar trajectory.[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%22When%20it%20was%20released%20it%20quickly%20took%20over%20the%20team%20at%20BioWare%2C%20where%20it%20single-handedly%20delayed%20Jade%20Empire%20because%20we%20were%20all%20playing%20it.%22%20-%20Kevin%20Martins”]
“The team was playing EverQuest and Ultima Online and loving them,” Chris recalls. “So, immediately we began asking – what if. What if we brought our slant to it? There was another game in development at the time and it was not an MMO in any way. And we didn’t want to do that anymore. The big moment came when Allen Adham walked in and said, ‘I know we’ve been doing this thing, but we all really want to go and do this thing.’ And everybody was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ And that new thing became World of Warcraft.”
Having thousands of people log into a single server, with the goal being to create a seamless world without the zone-loading seen in EverQuest, was there from the beginning. This alone proved to be a huge technical challenge and undertaking for the team. “It’s hard to wrap your head around it,” Chris continues. “We started building this engine that needs to do all these things, and it was new territory. Blizzard had been through this many times where we’ll ask, ‘What do we know about that?’, and then realise we don’t know anything about it.”
The sheer scope of World of Warcraft’s, well, world was larger than anything Blizzard had developed to date, and it required both new technology and a different approach to design. But it wasn’t long before the first prototype build was put together and the team could see the Warcraft universe face-to-face for the first time.
“I remember being completely impressed by seeing the world at scale,” Chris tells me. “With the Warcraft RTS games, even though they showed some size differences between units, it’s not truly a scale. It does whatever it needs to do for the gameplay, so an ogre might be bigger than a footman as far as the number of pixels on the screen is concerned, but it wasn’t an accurate scale.”[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%22When%20you%20look%20at%20how%20big%20that%20initial%20world%20was%20and%20how%20ambitious%20it%20was%2C%20comparing%20it%20to%20all%20the%20MMORPGs%20that%20were%20released%20before%20that%20-%20I%20don’t%20think%20any%20of%20them%20came%20out%20with%20a%20world%20that%20huge.%22%20-%20John%20Hight”]
“When you see a treant in Warcraft III walking around, it’s big compared to your footman,” Chris continues. “But it’s not like when you walk around in World of Warcraft, look up, and see a treant. That was one of those moments where it was like holy crap that’s a treant! That’s how we knew we were on the right track, because it’s such an epic feeling. We knew Warcraft players were going to like this too.”
“Instead of viewing multiple characters from above, we had our first experience of looking up to see a sky and seeing just how terrifying some of our creatures and characters could be,” Samwise adds.
Although early builds would provide this new perspective, there were still many challenges facing the team. One was taking the art style seen in Warcraft III and translating that to a more traditional over the shoulder look. “Keeping the Warcraft style; we struggled with that for a while,” Samwise admits. “For some reason, with this new point of view, the art team had a tendency to go more realistic with the characters and environments. Our weapons and armour were more proportionate to normal-style weapons, and our colours were becoming dull and muted. Maybe it was the view we were working in.”
“At that time, most first-person style games were trying to be more realistic,” Samwise continues. “That is definitely not want we wanted. We wanted the immersion to feel realistic, but not kill the Warcraft art style that we all loved. We needed to get that superhero vibe back. We just applied our normal philosophy for creating art and tweaked it a bit to fit this new camera view. By pushing the proportions back to normal Warcraft levels, our characters became more dynamic and more heroic. We pushed the weapons and armour to be even bigger and bulkier, and juiced up our palette to keep our colours rich and vibrant. After that, we had the feel of Warcraft back in our art.”
“The game for me and I think for a lot of players, is that the world is the star first,” John Hight says. “There’s always something new and an interesting place to explore. When you look at how big that initial world was and how ambitious it was, comparing it to all the MMORPGs that were released before that – I don’t think any of them came out with a world that huge. And then each expansion added to the world with interesting storytelling and characters like Jaina or Sylvanas or Thrall. Characters that we’ve followed through many different stories over the years.”
“The moment to me that really stands out came on launch night,” Kaeo Milker, Production Director on Heroes of the Storm tells me. “We do launch events and we did one for WoW at Fry’s Electronics, which is this big warehouse electronics store. We’d done them before and usually a couple of hundred people show up, they’re all excited and they buy the game and we sign autographs and we all celebrate together. But that night when we arrived there was a line of people wrapped around and around this huge building multiple times. And then it went out into the parking lot and around the block. There were thousands of people there and it was the first moment where we realised that this was different. It felt like the beginning of everything, beyond all of our wildest expectations.”
A look back…
Warcraft: Legacy (2019)
It’s hard to overstate how the success of World of Warcraft not only impacted the industry but Blizzard as a studio. From a small team that created Warcraft: Orcs & Humans the studio would grow to measure in the hundreds, especially as work commenced on expansions for World of Warcraft. But behind this exponential rise in popularity and awareness, Warcraft has always remained the result of developers given the freedom to create. “We know what we like,” Bob summarises. “Sometimes that’s all it really takes, knowing what you like and a commitment to do it.”
“Warcraft came from passionate players creating the games they wanted to play,” Chris Sigaty confirms. “And it turns out that the people out there playing the games are basically brethren, people that feel the same way, and there’s this awesome camaraderie that comes out of that. You can feel that togetherness.”
“Friendships that people could make before ever meeting in real life, that’s always been a part of what the internet is,” Kevin Martins adds. “The power of relationship building was particularly strong in World of Warcraft and it’s a legacy that resonates to this day.”[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%E2%80%9CThe%20power%20of%20relationship%20building%20was%20particularly%20strong%20in%20World%20of%20Warcraft%20and%20it%E2%80%99s%20a%20legacy%20that%20resonates%20to%20this%20day.%E2%80%9D%20-%20Kevin%20Martin”]
“We love seeing people create costumes and artwork based on Warcraft,” Samwise says. “I remember explaining to the artists when they joined the team what the ‘Warcraft’ art style was. At the time, it was really different, and sometimes polarising for people. Now, everyone walks into Blizzard knowing what the style is. I have hired people as artists specifically from seeing their fan art.”
“You know, we do want World of Warcraft to live for another 15 years or 50 years or even a hundred years,” John Hight tells me. “And in order to do that, it has to remain relevant to the community out there. We’re also developing for the next two, four, six, eight years. We plan many expansions ahead. What’s exciting is that people coming to work on the game or play Warcraft for the first time probably have no idea about the games that had influenced the designers of the originals.”
With the release of World of Warcraft: Classic, which recreated the launch period of the game to great success, and the upcoming release of the remastered Warcraft III: Reforged, this is a sentiment that rings especially true for Blizzard. Both projects have artists, designers, and engineers who grew up playing Warcraft – either in its original real-time strategy form or the phenomenon that is the massively-multiplayer World of Warcraft.
“When I think about how those things influenced each other, it wasn’t this path that we set out on, knowing we’re going to get to this place,” Chris concludes. “But World of Warcraft became the giant exclamation point for Warcraft in that it created communities of people. It broke down barriers with people simply having a great time adventuring together. That for me, I want to share that with more people, and I look forward to 25 more years where we can broaden that feeling and bring that sense of togetherness to an even larger group.”
Kosta Andreadis is an Australian freelancer who also wrote IGN’s Diablo retrospective and StarCraft retrospective, as well as a look at the early days of Blizzard with its co-founder Allen Adham. Follow him on Twitter.