Secret Sauce: The Rise of Blizzard

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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Still, the game was among the first of its kind, and as such is fondly remembered and universally considered the grandfather of the RTS genre. The criticism of its universe did not prevent Westwood from controlling RTS production for almost a decade, but combined with the soon-to-be glaring lack of multiplayer capability, did leave a hole large enough for rival Blizzard to drive an entire franchise through.

How the West Was Won
Officially founded in 1991 as Silicon & Synapse, Blizzard Entertainment had been making their bones producing console titles and second-rate DOS games like Battle Chess II (1990) and The Death and Return of Superman (1994). As with any business, their goal in the first few years was to simply survive. Condor Software co-founder Dave Brevik explains early corporate life by saying “console games were paying the bills.”

He would know – Condor was doing the same. Founded by Brevik in 1993 with Max and Erich Schaefer, Condor had been making ends meet by developing low-budget console titles. Then, they got a call from publisher Sunsoft to develop a comic book franchise title for the Sega Genesis.

Dave Brevik tells the story: “We were developing a fighting game (like Street Fighter) using [DC’s] Justice League characters … [Part-way] through development, we got approval to show the game off at CES. This was before E3 existed.”

What the designers at Condor didn’t know, however, was that another company, over 300 miles away, was developing the exact same game for a competing console. The two development teams met for the first time at the Consumer Electronics Show.

“Much to our surprise,” says Brevik, “[Blizzard] was making the same game for the Super Nintendo system. We had never talked or shared any assets or ideas, and it was supposed to be the same game! Anyhow this leads me to talking to Allen Adham, who was their President.”

It would be a fateful chance encounter for both men and their studios. In addition to the SNES version of Justice League, Blizzard’s Adham was working on the first installment of what would soon become one of the best-selling videogame franchises of all time. Adham showed his new game to Brevik behind closed doors. That game was Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.

“I loved it,” said Brevik, “and thought it was a great idea. A few months later, I called Allen and asked if they needed any beta testers.”

Warcraft, like Dune II, was a RTS game, in which the player mined resources in order to build an army. The difference, however, was in the details. Warcraft was set in the fictional world of Azeroth, a land which borrowed heavily from the fantasy universe created by J.R.R. Tolkien. In Warcraft, a horde of orcs have invaded the world of humans and must be pushed back (by the player) to the world from whence they’ve come. Or, alternately, the player must guide the invading orcs onward to victory against the hapless, medieval humans.

Naturally, the story was very familiar to an audience of young, computer- literate gamers. The same could be said of practically every other fantasy tale created since Mr. Tolkien’s epic trilogy was written, but the premise was simple enough for someone unfamiliar with the Tolkien books to appreciate. It didn’t hurt that Warcraft, in addition to a more compellingly familiar story, offered a handful of other gameplay improvements over Dune II, as well. The resulting product was a game that was at once familiar, accessible and addictive – in other words, a breakout hit.

Warcraft sold enough copies to justify a sequel, which in turn spawned an expansion. Blizzard then achieved the trifecta of game sales, a “Gold Edition” re-release of all three titles called The Warcraft Battlechest. Needless to say, the little company in Irvine was doing quite well for itself. Flush with cash, Blizzard then decided to do a little shopping – for third- party game studios.

First up: Dave Brevik’s Condor Software.

Days of the Condor
Condor’s first effort, Planet Soccer, was a less-than-stellar 2-D offering that nonetheless showed some promise. Enough, anyway, to earn them the Justice League Task Force contract from Sunsoft.

“We were making console games,” says Brevik, “in hopes of someday obtaining the clout to develop our own title. Turns out it happened much more quickly than we had anticipated.”

Having met Blizzard’s Allen Adham at CES, Brevik took advantage of the opportunity to plug his own idea for a PC game: “I came up with the idea for Diablo … when I was high-school,” says Brevik. “It was modified over and over until it solidified when I was in college and got hooked on an ASCII game called Moria/Angband. When we pitched Diablo to Blizzard, we pitched a turn-based, single-player DOS game.”

“[Diablo] was radically different then,” Says Mark Kern, former Team Lead for World of Warcraft (who joined Blizzard shortly before Diablo was released). “I’ve heard ‘turn-based Claymation,’ but I’m not sure.”

Whether it was the Claymation or something else, Adham’s company obviously saw something intriguing in Brevik’s high school dream-game. Blizzard green-lighted the project – with a few, small changes. At Blizzard’s urging, Condor changed both the genre and platform of Diablo, re-designing it as a real-time, Windows 95 game, and in the process created a game that would help Blizzard Entertainment take over the world.

“The interface was originally developed by Erich Schaefer and myself,” says Brevik, “when we tried to imitate the look and ‘camera’ view of our favorite game at the time, X-Com. The final interface had been iterated so many times, with so many suggestions from so many people, that it is impossible to attribute it to one person.”

That is, until veteran game designer Stieg Hedlund came along.

Hedlund had been working on games since the late 1980s, most-notably on a much-hyped Lord of the Rings game which was eventually canned by Electronic Arts. One day in the early ’90s, Hedlund walked into Condor’s Bay Area office for an interview.

“It was a small office in a B-grade complex,” says Hedlund. “I liked them at once, but it seemed pretty risky and the title they were working on at the time was Justice League, which wasn’t very appealing to me. I went to work at Sega instead.”

Three years and a few games later, Hedlund returned, “just to say ‘hi.'” He was intrigued by Condor’s latest project and decided to give them a second chance.

“They … showed me what they were working on,” says Hedlund, “which was Diablo, and that did impress me.”

Hedlund joined Condor almost immediately and set about streamlining the design process. “To that point, various people worked on the design, but no one person was responsible for it and they knew that had to change. We were able to work things out pretty quickly.” He would go on to serve as Lead Designer for Diablo 2 before leaving the company to work on a variety of Tom Clancy games.

“Even though it was rough and I’d never heard of it,” says Hedlund, “I could see the game that [Diablo] could become, and I was very interested in getting in on that … [it] instantly clicked with me.”

It apparently “instantly clicked” with a lot of other people, as well. Released in 1996, Diablo sold more than half a million copies in six months, with more than 2.5 million copies having sold to-date.

Quality Assurance
The partnership between Blizzard and Condor progressed swimmingly. So much so, that in 1996 – mere months before Diablo was ready to ship – Blizzard acquired Condor outright and renamed the company “Blizzard North.”

“I wasn’t with Blizzard at the time,” says Mark Kern, “but I recall that it seemed an exciting acquisition for both parties.”

Diablo‘s development was guided by visiting quality assurance teams called “Strike Teams,” explained by Dave Brevik as “a group of developers from the opposite development location that would filter the comments from all of the developers at that location and come up with lists of suggestions and changes. The teams would meet with these strike teams monthly and then more often (even every day) as the project approached completion. This would assure that everyone in each company had a voice and a hand in each game.”

“I led a few of these,” says Mark Kern, “and the duties are open ended: from helping balance levels and tweak UI to raising red flags that the dev teams might not be able to see because they are so close to the project.”

Kern attributes Blizzard’s uncanny ability to ensure quality control across an entire organization spanning two separate physical locations to the Strike Team concept. “They help carry that ‘Blizzard Vision’ through all projects,” he says. “It is but a humble instrument of The Will.”

Taking It Online was an idea that was proposed about 6 months before the end of [Diablo],” says Dave Brevik. “It spawned from the basic idea of taking the open LAN games for Warcraft 2 and giving [the players] a place where everyone could hook up and play together. This idea was so cool we went back and remade [Diablo] to be multi-player, though it was never coded to be. There were a few companies at the time … where they would do the same thing as, but would charge people $10 a month. We decided to make the same service but for free … “

Ironically, Blizzard’s free service would succeed where every other online gaming service had failed. As of 1999, was “the only profitable online gaming service in existence,” according to Greg Costikyan in an article for “How? Advertising. 30+ million ad impressions in one month alone.”

“Most people don’t realize it,” says Mark Kern, “but Blizzard has been running servers in datacenters since Diablo. Diablo 2 was also Blizzard’s first true client/server game. We learned a lot of lessons that I was eager to apply to WoW.”

Blizzard, having essentially turned the wave of the future into a tsunami, then set about using their momentum to wipe all competition from the face of the map. With a proven online service and no fewer than two successful fantasy franchises under their belts, the company decided that it was time to revisit the idea of subscription-based games.

“We had to build an entire company around [World of Warcraft],” says Kern. “This included tweaking everything from PR and QA to establishing entirely new departments like operations, customer service, GMs and billing – it literally transformed Blizzard.”

As well as the entire landscape of online gaming. It was the final move in a decade-long coup d’etat by Blizzard, against the entire gaming industry.

To date, WoW boasts more than 6 million total subscribers, bringing in an estimated $75 million dollars per month.

Secret Sauce
“Creation of a company or a game is a sheer act of will borne from an idea,” says Mark Kern, now President of Red 5 Studios, which is currently developing its own online game (with the help of several former members of Blizzard Entertainment). “But then, you add really creative, talented people to the mix and the vision changes, it becomes collective. It has to be to sweep everyone along.”

“It was a very cooperative and non- authoritarian relationship,” says Dave Brevik of his time at Blizzard North. Brevik is now the Chief Visionary Officer of Flagship Studios, developer of Hellgate: London (and employer of its own small army of former-Blizzard employees). “[Blizzard North] had complete autonomy from Blizzard in Irvine. We had all our own development people, set our own schedules, and made the game we wanted to make. There was and still exists a ton of mutual respect. I think it really worked.”

So, how does a maker of B-quality DOS and console games go on to become the single most successful videogame company in the history of the world? Even accounting for good luck and talented employees, there has to be some other key ingredient in Blizzard’s larder to account for their seemingly golden touch.

In 1994, Blizzard took the Chaim Klein Witz of RTS gaming, slapped some makeup on him, gave him a few blood capsules and turned him into Gene Simmons, the fire-breathing, spike- encrusted rock star game known as Warcraft. And then they did it again with Diablo.

Blizzard has succeeded largely by consistently identifying what it is that makes gamers want to play a game, and then amplifying that all the way to 11. But there has to be more to it than that. Millions of gamers around the world can point to a game that works and compare it to a game that doesn’t, identifying ways to tweak or refine the formula of either along the way. It happens every day, all over the internet.

I asked Mark Kern, one of the men most directly responsible for transforming the company into what it is today, to attempt to define what it is about Blizzard that gives it its “Star Power.” His reply? “Ah, now that’s the ‘Secret Sauce,’ isn’t it?”

Secret Sauce indeed.

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He likes deadlines and long walks on the beach.

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