In All Your Base Are Belong to Us, Harold Goldberg’s comprehensive, new history of videogames, the author details the humble origins of what would become a multibillion dollar company, Blizzard Studios. Just after graduating college, Allen Adham, Mike Morhaime and Frank Pearce got together to make games their way. They eventually hired Chris Metzen, who brought some tight, savvy storytelling to the company. But their early success was complicated by the ups and downs of making what would become the uber popular MMO, World of Warcraft. Here’s an excerpt…
Shortly after Blizzard was sold once again — this time to the French- based Vivendi/Universal — EverQuest began demanding hours upon hours from the lives of hard-core gamers everywhere. The staff at Blizzard in Irvine was not immune to its many enticements, and Adham, now back in the fold, was completely fascinated. So was one of his newer hires, Rob Pardo. Pardo originally had dreams of becoming a movie director, but he ended up managing a local Software Etc. store. After becoming a game tester, he worked his way up to producer at Interplay and was slowly moving into game design. Pardo looked at the smart but soft-spoken Adham as a game design mentor. They began to have intense, constructive discussions; but the two really began to bond when playing EverQuest together. Pardo was so fascinated by EverQuest that he became the Guild Master of Legacy of Steel, one of the gangs of guys who became über-experts at the vagaries of the game.Meanwhile, Blizzard was bogged down in creating a role playing game called Nomad, which had a post-apocalyptic theme and dinosaurlike monsters that were outfitted with tanklike weapons. The wow element would be that you controlled not just one person, but a complete squad of characters. Yet few were satisfied with the direction of Nomad, because none of the Nomad team was able to explain satisfactorily to the top dogs why people would want to play the game and what was special about it. It also had a new game engine, the software that made the game work, which wasn’t quite perfected.
In mid-1999 Adham began to consider making an MMO at Blizzard. With the team, he tossed around the idea of using one of their established series as a springboard into the worlds of massively multiplayer games instead of creating a new universe from scratch. Adham and Pardo began retreating to the food court of the Fashion Island Mall in Irvine to have intense discussions.
“Should we do StarCraft, Warcraft, or Diablo?” wondered Adham. The latter, a game based on epic throw-downs between the forces of heaven and hell, was being made at a separate office entirely, in northern California. Whatever the game would be, it would be centered in the Irvine headquarters, where it could be easily overseen. Diablo, while alluring and popular, didn’t seem to have the great depth of a StarCraft or Warcraft. And as they looked at EverQuest, which they admired to the point of drooling, they saw that that world could be improved upon.
“There are a lot of questions to answer,” said Pardo. “What would the classes be comprised of? What about the healers; how powerful should they be? When a player dies, what is the penalty; how much of his experience does he lose? Or shouldn’t he lose any?”
The challenges Blizzard needed to deal with seemed endless. In addition, Metzen thought the non-playable fantasy characters could be fashioned to have short but appealing tales to tell when a player engaged them. For story, he gravitated toward the mythology of Warcraft, which was not completely unlike that of his favorite comic books, like Simonson’s Thor.
In meetings, Metzen noted that while EverQuest was really cool, its pantheon of gods wasn’t in the foreground. He felt that Blizzard could better weave the fabric of story in this world of sword and sorcery. Tales would be the lure that would lead the gamer through this endless world full of social engagement. It was story that would constantly intrigue the gamer during the otherwise often banal game process of leveling up to make your avatar stronger.
Pearce, gruff on the outside but a sweet guy on the inside, didn’t object to a rich story by any means. But he wondered aloud if building such a massive world was the right path on which to tread. “I know everyone here likes EverQuest. But the gaming experience I’m accustomed to and have enjoyed is playing something that has a beginning and an end. I like to play something and have a goal to finish the game. An MMO doesn’t have an end. Why do I want to play this game in perpetuity?”
But the passion for EverQuest won out quickly, and even Pearce came on board after getting sucked into playing SOE’s game. Within a month, Morhaime was on the first of a muckle of trips to Havas Interactive, the videogames arm of Vivendi, at the Universal lot. During lunch, he tried to convince members of the board to sign on to an expensive MMO based on the Warcraft franchise. While Vivendi had questions about the high budget, Morhaime came armed with projections showing that a million players would subscribe in the United States within the first year. During the presentation, he also made a good case for four million players around the world, including Europe, South Korea, and China. The Frenchmen were supportive, but dubious of those numbers. There were logical questions: Why would a company that was so successful with its strategy games move into a completely new genre? Morhaime said that MMOs were the way of the future, and the future was now. It didn’t hurt Morhaime’s cause that EverQuest had been a runaway success. And other megacorporations wanted to get on the bandwagon. Warner Bros. was spending a small fortune to publish The Matrix Online, an MMO version of the Wachowski brothers’ cryptic films. So was Sony with its LucasArts collaboration for Star Wars Galaxies. No one wanted to get left behind, including Vivendi.
Blizzard’s goal with World of Warcraft had been the grail of game makers since the beginning of the videogame revolution. They wanted to make a game that was a challenge to master but also easy to play. Pulling that off was like the ultimate leveling up for a videogame executive. The task they faced, if they looked at it in the long run, was terrifying.