Best of The Escapist

Best of The Escapist
Secret Sauce: The Rise of Blizzard

Russ Pitts | 19 Sep 2006 12:03
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In 1991, the internet didn't exist.

That is to say, it did exist (and had for some time), but to the majority of Americans it might as well have been a huffalump until the creation of the World Wide Web in (approximately) 1992, when the internet would begin to become both widely understood, and easy-to-use (therefore "of interest" to most people).

Yet in 1991, the internet (such as it was) was neither widely understood nor easy-to-use, which is why the prospect of playing games on the internet may have seemed like a good and bad idea simultaneously. On one hand, nobody was doing it yet - it was a virgin market; on the other, nobody was doing it yet - the risks were terrible.

In 1991, videogame industry leader Sierra launched the Sierra Network (later called the ImagiNation Network). It was geared more-or-less toward children, with cartoon-ish art and themes, but it allowed users to play a variety of games and chat with friends in online chat rooms - all for an hourly fee, of course. It was, in every way, ahead of its time.

Particularly in terms of what users were willing to pay. At one point, the hourly rate for access to Sierra's network had climbed as high as $6 per hour. This was in addition to the subscription fees users were already paying for dial-up access to the internet itself and (in some extreme cases) long distance telephone charges levied by the telephone company. By contrast, many telephone sex chat services charged less than half that amount.

The Sierra Network, not surprisingly, failed and was shut down in 1996 by AOL, who had acquired it from AT&T. Ironically, this was not too long after the internet had become both widely understood and easy-to-use, and right around the same time that several other online gaming services had begun to flourish. Among them, an exciting new service offered by a company called Blizzard.

The Sleeper Has Awakened
In 1992, a revolutionary videogame was released that captured the imaginations of gamers the world over, almost immediately selling half a million copies. One of the first "real- time strategy" games ever made, it tasked the player with building a virtual army by collecting resources and then constructing buildings that would produce their machines of war - all in "real time." While the player was at it, their "enemy" was doing the same, building up to an eventual showdown between the competing armies, after which one side would claim total victory. Whoever had the most machines or the best strategy would win the day. It was like chess combined with backgammon wrapped up in an erector set, and gamers loved it.

That game was not Warcraft.

Westwood Studios' Dune II, predating Warcraft by at least two years, was based on the science fiction books by Frank Herbert, and cast the player as one of three races bent on controlling the spice-infested planet of Arrakis. It has been described as among the best PC games ever made, and many still consider it the best example of its genre ever made. Yet, it was not without its share of problems.

As with any game based on a license, Dune II relied on the players' familiarity with the premise of the original works. The Dune series had sold millions of copies of books world-wide, and had been made into a feature-length film in 1984, but to many people, the story was simply too dense to get their heads around. Case in point: The resource Dune II players were tasked with mining, the spice "Melange," took Herbert an entire novel to attempt to explain. Called "the spice of spices" in his appendices, the fictional Melange has been attributed with prolonging life, allowing users to foresee the future, astrally project objects through time and space, turn people's eyes blue and make giant worms try to kill you. "Catchy" is not the first word which comes to mind here.

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