In my previous article about StarCraft I talked about why we rebooted the project and changed it from a follow-on to Warcraft — derisively called “Orcs in space” in 1996 — into the award-winning game that we were finally able to deliver after two more years of hardship. But one noteworthy source of inspiration didn’t make it into my previous article, and that’s what I’m going to write about today.
Blizzard first brought StarCraft to the attention of the gaming public at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in June of 1996. At that point the game had only been in development for a few months so it was no surprise to the development team and other staff members that it wasn’t markedly different from its immediate antecedent, Warcraft II.
With the success of previous Warcraft titles and of Command and Conquer from Westwood Studios, the RTS genre attracted competitors. The race to build the next great RTS was on, and consequently Blizzard was about to be publicly embarrassed by its choice to show so early in the development lifecycle. Just a short walk away from the Blizzard booth was that of another game which appeared to be better than StarCraft in every respect: Dominion: Storm over Gift 3, from Ion Storm.
“Maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events, but we just got our asses kicked” — Private Hudson from Aliens
It’s 1996 and you want to buy an RTS game. Would you pay money for this?
Trade show espionage
During the early years of Blizzard — back before the company was even called that — the entire development team would attend trade shows like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and E3. We’d spread out over the show floor and “research” (that is, play) products at our competitors’ booths, getting an early look at what other game studios would be launching over the next year. It was an opportunity to analyze gaming trends, learn about technological advances, evaluate new user interface techniques, and review gameplay. Even better, our competitors would facilitate this learning by demoing the games and answering our questions, and of course we’d do the same for them back at our booth. This is one reason game publishers have a love/hate relationship with trade shows, along with high costs (tens of thousands of dollars for a few feet of floor space) and excessive distractions for the dev teams, is that other studios are like hungry wolves looking for prey to devour.
In the early years, when our games were programmed for 16-bit game consoles, our programming staff would review soon-to-be-launched Super Nintendo (SNES) titles, and would crowd around games trying to puzzle out how their developers had accomplished some feat of technical magic and derring-do. The SNES was an odd combination of a glacially slow 2.58 megahertz (not gigahertz) processor with a tiny 64 kilobytes (not megabytes or gigabytes) of memory coupled with exotic microchips designed to rapidly blast bits onto the screen — if you could figure out the right incantations to make it all work.
We’d stand staring at a game talking in phrases that only a few thousand folks in the whole world — most of them working for Nintendo — knew anything about. Someone would toss off an idea like “perhaps they’re using the hblank interrupt to set the scroll register to adjust the view distance in mode 7”, and we’d all do our best to wrap our heads around that idea, learning a great deal in the process. Our artists and designers would be similarly wowed by their own show-floor discoveries.
It was an exciting experience to see so many new ideas in just a few days, and we’d come back from the shows both energized by our findings and exhausted by the brilliance and audacity of our competitors.
Better yet, these trade shows were held in exotic venues like Las Vegas where we’d get to stay out late drinking and gambling before dragging our hung-over selves back to the trade-show floor. Staffing the booth during the early mornings was always challenging, and required a careful evaluation of who would be the best advocates for the game after nights of excess — would it be the hardy-partiers, with their higher alcohol tolerance, or the more abstemious members of the team — the lightweights? While it might seem that the lightweights (myself included) were a better bet, just a few drinks more than usual might cause us to miss a morning event due to a catastrophic hangover.
For the privilege of getting access to the insights to be found on the show floor our dev team staff would be stacked like cordwood in cheap motel rooms far from the convention centers to save the company money. We stayed in a hotel so far into the rotting core of Chicago that several on the team felt the necessity to carry steak-knives as protection against the perceived threat of muggers. And who could forget when one of the two elevators caught fire and was put out of service, necessitating fourteen-floor hikes morning and evening.
Back on the show floor after these escapades, Blizzard staff members would discover great games on the show floor and would — like honeybees returning to the nest — communicate their findings so other devs could seek them out to harvest insights.
As the Ion Storm booth was next but one over from our booth it was no surprise that we quickly discovered in Dominion Storm a stunningly better entrant into the real-time strategy (RTS) genre than our company’s paltry efforts, which was all the more humiliating given that StarCraft represented our third foray into the genre.
Like the Battle of Hoth, only interactive
While we didn’t have the opportunity to play Dominion Storm because it was a hands-off affair, it didn’t seem necessary. The Ion Storm staff members who demonstrated the game had a remarkable event that showed great-looking game units, including a signature unit that moved like the AT-AT walkers first seen in “The Empire Strikes Back” during the Battle of Hoth. With other impressive units of all sizes and forms, electric fences that could be chained together to create impenetrable barriers, and isometric-perspective artwork that showed the game units from a more compelling angle than did our nearly top-down perspective, Ion Storm’s game was kicking our ass in every regard.
It was a glum crew that made the drive back to Orange County to lick our wounds and plan for the future. The fundamental problem was that StarCraft wasn’t envisioned as a triple-A game; it was intended to fill a hole in Blizzard’s development schedule so that the company would ship a game in 1996 and thereby continue to generate revenues.
In retrospect that decision was a mistake of the first order, and it behooves me try to explain why we, and by that I mean Blizzard’s leadership team, could have allowed that to happen. But first some caveats: these events occurred in 1996 so reasoning about that events is clouded by time. I haven’t talked about these issues with Blizzard folks since before 2000, when I split off with a couple of buddies to start ArenaNet. Moreover, I doubt that the Blizzard folks would talk to me about these issues if I did ask. In the intervening years we became competitors, and in any event they’re notoriously close-mouthed about their business for good reason — they’d prefer to avoid talking about any missteps and put their efforts towards more positive news. But I have no such compunctions, so you’re getting my assuredly biased views, which I’m sharing as a form of therapy, I guess. Perhaps some of the other folks who participated in these events will step forward to share their thoughts about these long-ago happenings.
Wherefore Orcs in Space?
Blizzard’s business strategy was driven by Allen Adham, the company’s president. Allen was a student of both gaming and business, and under the tutelage of Bob Davidson (CEO of Davidson & Associates, the educational software company that first acquired Blizzard), they planned the company’s development pipeline with a keen eye towards maximizing the revenue and profit of our studio, as would any corporate leader. Whereas the development team was driven by a desire to make awesome games, Allen endeavored to build a pipeline with predictable game releases, and that included projects that didn’t engender excitement on the part of the devs.
Some projects were pushed onto unwilling dev team members, including projects like Games People Play (a crossword puzzle game that died because the team lead was so unmotivated), Warcraft Adventures (a Sierra-style point-n-click adventure that — no matter how good an adventure it might be — would never be a capital-B Blizzard game), Diablo Hellfire (an expansion to Diablo developed by an external team selected for their availability rather than expertise), and Crixa (an updated clone of Virgin Games’ SubSpace that would have been too shallow and arcade-like to meet with the approval of most of Blizzard’s fans). When there was greater consensus against an idea by the dev team, Allen’s strategies would be ruthlessly shot down, as when the team revolted against creating a mini-golf game franchise.
In the period immediately after the launch of Warcraft II, Allen’s goal was to ensure another product launch in 1996. Since the Shattered Nations project (a turn-based game in the style of XCOM) had failed, there was a gap in the schedule, and putting together a project to fill that void was a top priority. Seen in that light, Allen’s choice to make a moderately scoped game might be considered reasonable in foresight, though it was rapidly overtaken by events.
During that period, the game industry was undergoing a massive sea-change. With the advent of CDROM-based distribution in place of floppy disks and game cartridges, studios competed to build massive games to fill the available space and team-sizes shot upwards meet the demands; consequently development budgets skyrocketed.
State of the art projects conceived in an earlier time would drag on for years as the projects lagged behind ever more advanced competitors’ products, necessitating scope creep, redesigns, reboots and ever larger expenditures to play catch-up. StarCraft was to be Blizzard’s poster-child for this type of development process.
For many on the team, myself included, the efforts of building two RTS games back to back in just two years was exhausting. The crunch-time we endured to ship these titles was physically wearing and, immediately following the game launches, many would become fall sick due to the fatigue.
I later learned that sleep deprivation leads to other ill effects like memory loss because sleep is required for “memory consolidation”. And extensive sleep loss can also lead to depression, which is less about being “sad”, as I first thought as a naive youth, and more about changes in brain-chemistry that lead to an inability to function.
While I don’t believe that anyone on the dev team was clinically depressed, during the post-launch period for our games we were notably lacking in energy for weeks or months depending upon the duration of the crunch effort. Work output suffered, but more relevant to this article is the changes in attitude the fatigue caused. Disagreements in direction and strategy that might have occasioned fierce arguments in earlier times would get more apathetic treatment after a product launch.
For my own part, I very much remember being disagreeable to the idea of rushing StarCraft out the door with a one year development effort. I had been similarly disagreeable at the beginning of the Warcraft II project, which was another one-year project right on the heels of the initial launch. In retrospect, getting Warcraft II done in one year, even at great personal cost for myself and many of the team members, was what kept Blizzard at the head of the pack, so perhaps it was worth the effort.
But when disagreeing about the short schedule for StarCraft, I wasn’t as vocal. I was moving on to other duties, and — in my profound exhaustion — absolved myself of the responsibility for the project because I wasn’t going to have to work on its development. In reality, I didn’t accomplish much for several months after the end of Warcraft II; I was just too burned out. My failure to push for a different course turned out to be a poor personal choice because it was eventually necessary for me to take over a StarCraft rescue effort, but only after taking on a similar effort to rescue Diablo.
Another issue which arose that we didn’t fully take into account was the pain of developing more than one game at a time. Blizzard was attempting to grow from being a one-game studio to a multi-game studio. We’d started an effort to build more than one game internally, and the immediate problem that cropped up was the necessity to split a strong team to create two middling-strong teams. A team which was able to develop a great game, even when augmented with experienced new staff members, is going to have to take chances on promoting many staff members into positions they’ve not done before, and that’s a risky proposition.
Given the complexity of bringing one game to market, it’s not surprising that the team failed to perform adequately when trying to bring multiple games to market without increasing time, training and budget — options we weren’t given. So obvious in retrospect, but at the time the pressure to ship games was ever-present. Ultimately the event that changed the equation was less that the studio changed directly than that our later games sold so many copies that we could afford to spend more time on each new game.
When my new partners and I headed off to start ArenaNet, you can bet that many of these lessons echoed in our heads, and we endeavored to do a better job building a company having experienced these travails.
What became of Dominion Storm
Blizzard — after an arduous development process and fourteen months of crunch time (more details here) — eventually released StarCraft in May, 1998. Dominion Storm released shortly afterwards in June, according to Wikipedia.
But why did Dominion Storm, a game that showed so well that it necessitated a reboot of the StarCraft development effort, take longer to develop? And why did the game do so poorly when it eventually released? If you haven’t read the Dallas Observer’s story about the internal chaos of Ion Storm you will be amazed; it is the most appalling story about game development I’ve ever read, and its author deserves kudos. If you read it I expect you’ll have a pretty clear idea why the development team struggled. To give you a taste of the article here is my favorite quote: “You better be fucking glad we wrote off your car and house, you fucking rat-faced bitch”.
As bad as Ion Storm was internally, there was a dark secret that eventually unraveled. It wasn’t until years later, well after the 1996 E3 demo of Dominion Storm, and after StarCraft launched, that we discovered that the Dominion Storm demo was a fake.
As Ion Storm started to disintegrate due to financial and political problems, members of its development teams left to pursue other opportunities. From this crew Blizzard managed to hire Mark Skelton and Patrick Thomas for the burgeoning cinematics team, where they worked to produce some of Blizzard’s epic cut-scenes. I spent a lot of time with the cinematics team members (who sat not far from me) and hung out with Mark and Patrick, including during numerous surfing outings to Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach.
At some point I talked with Mark and Patrick about how Dominion Storm knocked us on our heels, and they let us in on Ion Storm’s dirty little secret: the entire demo was a pre-rendered movie, and the people who showed the “demo” were just pretending to play the game! It would be an understatement to say that we were gobsmacked; we had been duped into a rebooting StarCraft, which ultimately led it to be considered “the defining game of its genre. It is the standard by which all real-time strategy games are judged” (GameSpot).
It’s hard not to look back at those events now without being thankful for the kick in the ass that Dominion Storm gave us. While I and many others worked on what was the longest and most arduous development efforts of our careers, the end result was nothing short of miraculous.
But wait, there’s more! (every TV infomercial ever)
I could probably end the story here, but can’t resist mentioning another faked demo story that I learned recently. It occurred after I left Blizzard so I can only relate it second-hand.
As every game developer knows, release dates are slippery, but the dates of trade shows are set in stone. If a game studio has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare booth space, purchase long-lead print advertising and arrange press appointments, the development team is going to have to demo something or heads will roll.
And so it came to pass that Warcraft III needed a bit of extra help one year at a trade show. The Warcraft III game engine, written from the ground up with no code shared from previous “craft” titles, was complicated and unintuitive enough that it was disparagingly called “brainfuck” by many on the team, and so the programmers were forced to struggle against these issues to get terrain collision and path-finding working in the run-up to E3.
Given the timing they didn’t manage to get those features stabilized prior to the show, so fans and press weren’t allowed to get their hands on a playable demo. Instead the demonstration was carefully orchestrated by the game’s producers to hide their lack, which necessitated carefully steering game units around terrain features while pitching the product. To its credit Blizzard didn’t release the game until the problems were addressed and Warcraft III was an excellent game.
Making games, and especially making games while creating enough visibility so that there is a ready audience, is enormously complicated. I wish every one of you who aspires to make games the best of luck in your endeavors, and hope that you’ll never find yourself on the heels of a similar dilemma about what to show.