Game design, game programming and more

The making of Warcraft part 2

In my previous article about Warcraft I talked about the beginnings of a series that would come to define Blizzard Entertainment and lead it to being one of the best-known and most-loved game companies in the world.

But how did Warcraft go from an idea to a full-fledged game? Let me tell you, it was not a straight-line path from conception to launch. As with many games the design evolved over time, with ideas being argued, tested, argued, changed, argued, retested and some eventually killed.

You probably gathered that there was a lot of arguing along the way, but that’s not always a bad thing. While sometimes they devolved into ad hominem attacks, hard feelings and apologies, the debates ensured that ideas were likely to be well forged.

And even through the disagreements, there was a sense of camaraderie that pervaded our efforts. We worked together, played together, partied together, slept 10 to a hotel room for trade shows together, and in cases even lived together: I shared a house with three other Blizzard-folks which was the first of many similar dorm rooms scattered throughout Orange County, California.

Initial proposal

Blizzard was working on at least four other games when I started on the Warcraft project, and as the company numbered only 20 everyone was mega-busy keeping those projects on track. It wasn’t uncommon for artists, programmers and designers to be working on two or sometimes three projects at a time, and of course our sole musician/sound-engineer, Glenn Stafford, worked on everything.

But we regularly found time to meet in large groups to brainstorm and discuss company strategy, so much that we called our efforts the “business plan du jour“.

I already discussed our motivation to create a Real Time Strategy (RTS) game modeled after Dune II in a previous article, but one other key idea propelled us forward.

The other impetus for the game started with a proposal that Allen Adham — president and company co-founder — made during one of our brainstorming sessions. He wanted to build a series of war games that would be released in near identical white boxes under the banner “Warcraft”, with subheadings announcing the historical context for each game: The Roman Empire, The Vietnam War, and so forth.

The goal with the identical boxes was to control a large section of shelf-space that would be easy for players to spot in a crowded retail environment, similar to the Gold Box series of Dungeons & Dragons games from SSI, which enjoyed great success during the late 1980’s. New players would be drawn to the section of games by its dominating shelf-presence, and veteran players who enjoyed one game they would know where to find the next. I know; retail: so archaic compared to app stores and Amazon, right?!?

Ron Millar and Sam Didier, two of the early artists to work at the company, weren’t excited about the idea of working on historical simulations, they enjoyed fantasy games like Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons. One glance at Sam’s artwork is enough to demonstrate his passion for the fantasy milieu. So at a later meeting they proposed the idea that the first game should be set in a high-fantasy world of Orcs and humans, where they’d have more opportunity to create innovative game artwork instead of being required to conform to the tenets of historical accuracy. The idea took hold, with the first game in the series becoming Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.

Initial game design

Many people believe that a game designer is solely responsible for all idea conception and actually “creates the game design”, and this may be true for some development teams. Designers do need to be highly creative and bring to life many of the elements of the game personally.

But equally important is for designers to be receptive to the ideas of others: without some involvement in the game’s design the rest of the team has less motivation to do their best work. And beyond that, it’s never possible to know where the next great design idea is going to come from. It’s critical for designers to listen so that the best ideas of others aren’t stifled.

Our informal design process during the early period of Warcraft’s development worked effectively in that regard. Many brainstorming sessions occurred during hallway meetings, lunches, smoke-breaks, and after late evenings of game playing. Everyone in the company contributed their thoughts. With little formal process and no single design document, the game design evolved with each passing month.

Ron, who had started his career in the game industry as an artist, was at that time our go-to guy for design on Blizzard games. Though he was finishing up the development of Blackthorne, a side-scrolling shooter for Super Nintendo, he devoted time to generating ideas for the game.

Stu Rose was another artist who became one of Blizzard’s early staffers. From a personality standpoint he was the polar opposite of Ron in most respects, and his efforts as part of the design group occasioned conflicts of opinion with Ron, though during the times they did agree they were an unassailable force.

These two ended up as the book-ends for the entire design process, each working independently to develop the world’s culture and plot overview, define the game’s units, specify the play mechanics, envision how magic spells worked, develop the game’s missions, choose place-names, and finalize other minutiae that are nevertheless important to make games comes to life.

At this late date it’s not possible to document who developed exactly which idea without canvassing the entire team and sorting out arguments over events that happened so long ago. Even back then we had difficulties determining how game-design credit should be shared, and ultimately decided the fairest, most egalitarian solution was to credit everyone, and thus the Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans box credits include “Game design by Blizzard Entertainment”. Incidentally the Moby Games credits for Warcraft 1 are completely borked because they mix the much later Macintosh and 1998 releases of the game with the original 1994 DOS release, so many folks are mis-credited.

While my recollection of the exact timing of events is dim, I’ve recently seen an early design document dated 1994 and labeled “Chaos Studios”, which means it was generated in early 1994 before the company had been renamed Blizzard. By February 1994 we had a set of (still very rough) design documents that had been through several iterations and contained the key concepts for the game.

Admittedly, it would probably have been better to have a design in place before I started programming in September 1993, but with the amount of “substrate” that I needed to build before the actual fun-n-game parts could be developed, the lack of a design wasn’t a show-stopper at that stage, particularly since we already pulled many of the game’s elements from Dune 2.

What got chopped

While it’s still (barely) possible to play Warcraft 1 today, it’s not much fun compared to later RTS games. The difficulty of getting the game running on modern computers leads one to high expectations that are then crushed when viewing a game with a screen resolution of only 320×200 pixels — one twentieth of the resolution of a modern high res monitor — and with user interface and play balance that are markedly inferior to our later efforts.

But by playing Warcraft 1 it is possible to see the ideas that survived through the design winnowing process into the game’s final release. In many ways Warcraft 1 isn’t so much different from later games in the series.

Today gamers are familiar with classic Warcraft units like Barracks, Town Halls, Lumber Mills and Gold Mines, all of which survived into future releases of Warcraft games. Those iconic units persist because their names and functions are easily comprehensible to those of us who live in the real world instead of Azeroth.

But many of the ideas that our early design documents contained didn’t come to fruition. Some of this was related to the brutal timeline — the game had to launch for Christmas, 1994 and we barely made it. Ideas died because better alternatives existed, or didn’t have strong advocates, or were too time-consuming to implement, or would have required too much memory, or weren’t fun.

I thought folks might like to know about ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor, like the Mason’s Hall [required for stone buildings], Dwarven Inn [greater production of stone], Elven Fletcher [upgrades for archers], Tax House and Ale House.

These buildings all served secondary functions, some of which could be combined elsewhere. We instead added their functionality to existing buildings instead of creating buildings solely dedicated to one function, as for example the Dwarven Inn and Elven Fletcher buildings.

The Mason’s Hall was dropped because we considered using stone as a third resource (in addition to gold and lumber) an unnecessary complexity. We revisited the idea again for Warcraft 2, and dropped it again after actually implementing (programming) the idea.

The Ale Stand was designed to increase the rate at which soldiers and gold would be produced. I’m not sure how we can rectify that design idea with the amount of work that actually gets done after a night of heavy drinking in our world, but I imagine there are special rules of magic at work in Azeroth. Or maybe that’s why we cut the Ale Stand.

And NPC races like lizard men, hobgoblins and Halflings were also on the drawing board but were ultimately rejected, almost certainly due to the effort of drawing and animating the figures in DPaint.

Game development is about trade-offs — great games don’t have to do everything, they have to do a limited number of things well.


A design idea much discussed but never implemented was “formations”, where units would stick together on the battlefield. Formations are difficult to implement so the feature was chopped from the spec.

Some of the complexities that prevented implementation: units in formation all move at the same speed so slow units don’t get left behind — this created programming complexity. Formations need the ability to rotate — or “wheel” in military parlance — so that a formation heading north comprised of infantry carrying pikes with archers following behind can turn as a group to face an enemy detachment approaching from the east, with the archers still lined up behind the protective wall of infantry — this created user interface complexity. Given enough time we could have completed the feature, but we needed the development time for more basic features.

As a stand-in, I did implement “numbered group selection”. A user would select a group of units and press the Ctrl (control) key plus a number key (1-4). Those unit-groupings would be remembered so it would be possible to later re-select those units by pressing the number key (1-4) by itself. But those units would move independently even though selected as a group.

A player-character on the battlefield

Another idea much discussed but never implemented was that of having a unit that represented the player on the game map: an avatar that would progress from mission to mission during the game.

For a game-avatar to represent the player, it should morph from a weak unit into a mighty hero over the course of several missions to create a sense of progression. To do this properly would require that the character would only become more powerful if utilized. An underutilized avatar would remain weak, while an avatar constantly at work on the front lines would become stronger.

Carrying a unit over from one mission to the next adds to the difficulty of play-balancing missions. A great player will graduate a strong avatar from each mission, and that avatar’s strength will make succeeding missions seem easy, while a less-skilled player’s avatar could be so weak as to make winning later missions impossible. These two problems would lead players to drop out of the game — in the first instance for lack of challenge, and in the second due to frustration, as few players want to go backwards and redo previous missions in order to survive a mission later in the game.

A competitor’s product named War Wind released several years after Warcraft allowed units to be carried over from mission to mission; the game’s designers allowed up to four units to be transferred, but finessed the play-balance problem by ensuring that these units weren’t powerful enough to affect gameplay, somewhat the antithesis of what a heroic player-avatar is supposed to represent.

Heroes — in Warcraft 1?!?

We also considered including hero-units in Warcraft 1; they had names like the Illusion Thief, Barbarian, Huntress, and Juggernaut, each with specialized skills. Ultimately we trimmed the list of game units substantially; probably due to design and art-animation time constraints.

As someone with limited involvement in Warcraft III, it was interesting to see the idea of heroes finally implemented in the series, though the design genesis of heroes in Warcraft III comes from a different source — that is, not from ideas re-hashed from Warcraft 1 design documents.

Briefly, Warcraft III started out as a game called Heroes of Warcraft, which departed from the type of traditional RTS we had already launched five times before (W1, W2:ToD, W2:BtDP, SC, SC:BW) and was instead a squad-based tactical combat game set in the Warcraft universe. This game morphed into a more traditional RTS — but retained the element of heroes — after a change of team-leads halfway through the development.

Warcraft’s bright color palette

If you consider the artwork of the Warcraft series, you’ll see that the colors are shockingly loud in comparison to, say, Diablo, where only in a dim room is it truly possible to see the beauty of the art. The bright, cartoony art-style was different from the style of many other PC war games of the era, which hewed to more realistic color palette.

Part of that difference can be explained by the past experiences of our artists, who had worked on several Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis console titles, where games required more dynamic colors since televisions of that era were so much worse at displaying colors than PC monitors. Console games on TVs, which had lower pixel resolution and color bleed, needed high-contrast artwork to show well.

Another reason was at the behest of Allen, who charged all the artists with drawing artwork in bright conditions. He’d regularly stalk the halls of Blizzard turning on lights and opening window-blinds.

His view was that most folks play games in bright rooms, so our artists should be authoring our games to play well in that environment. He argued that it’s easy to draw artwork that reads well when viewed in a dark room with no outside light can distract from the monitor. But when computer art is competing with bright lights it’s much more difficult to see. And fluorescent bulbs are the worst form of light available — the cold, flickering glow of their tubes tires the eyes and washes out colors.

So the lights were always on in the art rooms to force artists to compensate for terrible lighting by creating art that accounted for those conditions. These working conditions chafed on some (all?) of the art team, but ultimately led to artwork that stood out compared to products of the day.

Now you know why Warcraft artwork looks like it has been candy-coated!

What about …

In the first article of this series I promised to address a bunch of topics in this article, but I’ve written another long post and didn’t quite make it to those points; I’ll continue to press forward in future articles. But give me a wee bit because I’ve become addicted to DayZ and need more play-time!

About Patrick Wyatt

As a game developer with more than 22 years in the industry I have helped build small companies into big ones (VP of Blizzard, Founder of ArenaNet, COO of En Masse Entertainment); lead the design and development efforts for best-selling game series (Warcraft, Diablo, Starcraft, Guild Wars); written code for virtually every aspect of game development (networking, graphics, AI, pathing, sound, tools, installers, servers, databases, ecommerce, analytics, crypto, dev-ops, etc.); designed many aspects of the games I've shipped; run platform services teams (datacenter operations, customer support, billing/accounts, security, analytics); and developed state-of-the-art technologies required to compete in the AAA+ game publishing business.

  • I love seeing insights into the process of developing a game and how some of the design issues were solved. For example, the tidbit about the issue with development time for unit formations and using control groups as a minimally-viable version of formations (and then realizing that control groups is pretty much the RTS standard). Neat stuff!

  • Yuuyake

    Well what can I say besides it sure is cool to be you. Thanks for the read it was really pretty cool.

    I don’t really want to hop on the “haters gonna hate” bandwagon but I wonder what’s happened between then and now. As I said I don’t want to diss anyone but comparing the old games (starting from the first “Blizzard” game I’ve ever played The Lost Vikings, then WC, SC, Diablo etc.) with the newest titles (D3 and soon to be released WoW: Mists of Pandaria) you can clearly see that good old Blizz ain’t the same company. I know that there are only few veterans left and it’s Activision Blizzard now but the difference is simply astonishing. Good thing that at least SC2 is maintaining the level of awesomeness you’d expect from such a company.

    Or maybe it’s just that my standards are much higher when I’m 25 compared to when I was 5 or 8 years old?

  • VaanTidus

    Another great article thank you su much for all this informations!

  • I’m really enjoying these. The old Warcraft games really inspired me to dive into game development.

    • PatrickWyatt

      The best compliment for the development team is when someone plays the game and gets inspired to do something positive, so on behalf of the whole team, thank you.

      • Vincent

        I don’t know if you still see replies when the comment is a few months old, but your blog made a positive impact on my life so far. I’m really thankful for the articles you write.

      • Thank you :)

  • Wait, what? You could save control groups in WarCraft I? I clearly remember that you could NOT save control groups in WarCraft II (this was added much later with edition) and I always assumed that you could not do it in WarCraft I.

    Oh and BTW you, sir, created the universe I live in. Since the mid 90s I lived with WarCraft II and StarCraft and I still play competitive RTS games to this day. Sadly I played very little WarCraft I because I was kind of late to the party. And now so many years later I am in fact a professional software developer (although not game developer) and I enjoy reading not only about the game design but also about the technical side. Thank you, and I hope you will find the motivation to write more articles and even move into WarCraft II and StarCraft.

  • Thomas

    Whose idea was it to have the units say funny things when you click on them a bunch of times?

    • PatrickWyatt

      That’s one of the questions I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to, but have been asking around as I talk to Blizzard folks from back in the day. There were so many ideas that came out of the brainstorming meetings, and we didn’t track who proposed what — it would have politicized the meetings if we started keeping track, and that doesn’t make for good design. Still, I’ll try to find out.

  • Fran

    Do you still have videos of Heroes of Warcraft? Would you mind to upload to Youtube? I remebered to read about that game, the article has some pictures with a dragon, but I would like to know if it was real or only a fantasy.


    • PatrickWyatt

      I don’t have the videos, but some folks at Blizzard might be willing to release them if they’re still kicking around on a network drive somewhere.

  • Harry

    Thanks for going into these – they’re really interesting! I was 6 or 7 years old when I first got the demo of Warcraft – I can’t remember from where I got it (PC Gamer demo disc maybe??); I do remember getting to the 3rd level of the demo and being massacred by unlimited footmen/grunts though. At the time I thought there was a way to win, so I spent countless hours playing it. Then I got the full game and realised it was just to end the demo.

    The Warcraft series has – and may always will be – my favourite series of all time. The mix of fantasy storytelling, classic Blizzard humour (“yes, milord”), and extremely well made RTS make it an incredibly difficult combination to beat.

    • PatrickWyatt

      I’m glad you enjoyed the series so much. We enjoyed making them too!

  • Great read Patt! Glad you’re finding the time to blog. FYI, my dad still plays WC1. My mom and I still laugh about it and say things like, “Yes my lord” or “Your will sire?” to him.

    • PatrickWyatt

      Great to hear from you Byron! Looking forward to *your* game coming up soon.

  • I’m really loving these articles, I’ve been holding my breath for part 2, now I can’t wait for the next!

  • war2 fan

    was a fun game, demon was a bit OP tho :P

  • Davis Centis

    Love the new article!
    How did the team handle marketing back in those old days? I can’t credit the Windows 95 demo disk enough for stimulating my first passion for gaming.

  • Alex Mann Hunter

    “These two problems would lead players to drop out of the game — in the first instance for lack of challenge, and in the second due to frustration, as few players want to go backwards and redo previous missions in order to survive a mission later in the game.”

    Seriously, Goog Guy Old School Dev.. these days, games make this compulsory just so the game has a longer lifespan.

  • Passafist

    Awesome! I hearing about all the behind the scene stuff on game design for my favourite franchises.I shall patiently wait while you play DayZ :)
    I think it’s awesome that a technical limitation such as formations led to control groups as an alternate solution. Because control groups ended up being such a valuable thing for a game like Starcraft BW (mutalisk stacking for amazing control results for the pros) where unit formation would probably not allowed this option at all.

  • Pat, as a ridiculously huge WC3 fan these articles are a blast to read. Thanks for sharing, looking forward to more!

  • Evilhog

    Thanks for this great article, Patrick. I’ve learned some really interesting things about one of my favourite games.

    By the way, you forgot to mention one thing which really made Warcraft 1 stand out from being a Dune 2 “clone”. There actually *were* Heroes in this game! In certain missions of the campaign, player encounters special NPC units, and the objective is either to kill the NPC, or to rescue them. For example, the goal of the fourth level of Orc campaign is to find and kill the treacherous daughter of warchief Blackhand and put her to death for hobnobbing with renegade Ogres. In the Human campaign you have to rescue Sir Anduin Lothar, who became one of the most known and legendary Heroes of the entire series!

    P.S. I still play Warcraft 1 and the game is still as fun, as it was back in the days when SVGA graphics was not even a standard. Thank you again, Patrick, and thanks to all the guys at Blizzard for making games that don’t age!

    • You’re right that we did have hero units for “dungeon” levels; we added those levels to break up the flow of the regular missions which amounted to “build base, then attack”.

  • Justin

    I see a mirror between Ron and Stu, and myself and a friend. We are both designing a game and often clash (almost always?) about ideas and how the game should be created. Thanks for posting this article, I really love reading things like this. I absolutely can’t wait for you to do an article about Starcraft (please make it as detailed and long as possible!). I’ll try and to my best to take some of your design philosophies and put them to work.

    Oh, and please come back and make another RTS some day!

  • Hello, Patrick!

    Could you tell more about 1998 release (and major differences in it)?

    • Warcraft 1 — and all Blizzard products — have long shelf-lives because they continue to sell well over time. We periodically “refreshed” game boxes so that later releases of the game would include all previous patches and bug-fixes. Sometimes this occasioned changes in the packaging as well — game boxes are very much smaller these days than when Warcraft was first released. And Warcraft games were also rebundled in alternate packages, like “War1 + War2”, “Warcraft + Starcraft”, “Game of the Year”, etc.

      So while the game didn’t change substantially, there were enough changes in later versions that the credits were altered and updated along the way to include the folks who did marketing, testing, production, and all the other myriad tasks required to release those new versions.

      The only substantial change we made in Warcraft 1, apart from fixing several cosmetic and crash bugs, was a change to fix the low-level IPX “packet driver” code which was responsible for sending network messages for LAN games.

      The low-level packet driver code, which was about 1000 lines of code, was responsible for sending and receiving network messages over IPX. That driver and the modem-driver, which does the same job for sending/receiving messages over modems and serial cables, were the only parts of the multiplayer network stack I didn’t write.

      The IPX driver code didn’t properly initialize the number of bytes to be sent through the network, which meant that even if a four-byte message was being sent, the driver code would send the full-sized buffer (1024 bytes? 2048 bytes? I don’t remember).

      This wasn’t a big deal for LAN games, but when players used programs like “Kali”, which “pretended” to be LAN games but were actually sending messages over the Internet, sending 1024 bytes over a modem would *kill* latency, making the game very unplayable.

      A one-line fix to correct the buffer send size made the game much more playable for Internet games.

      • Thank you for
        detailed answer. I have more questions but I’ll wait for the next part of this beautiful
        story. By the way, can I hope to read something
        like this about Starcraft development in future? “Orcs in space” from 1996 is
        the most interesting and unknown subject for me.

      • Yes, eventually. I still have a long way to go to get there!

  • Korean translation of Part 2 is available now.

  • great work! but i would be glad to see more illustrations next time!)

    а чо без картинок-то?!

  • Evrt

    Great read. Been a Warcraft fan for a long time (especially W1 and W2); so it’s great to hear a bit of this background :)

  • Wow, this blog post was incredibly interesting, really looking forward to more! Warcraft 2 was one of the first games I played that I enjoyed immensely, the others were just “games”. I didn’t play WC1 as much, it felt sort of outdated when I did, after playing wc2 first, but I’m sure I would have loved it if I had started with it a few years earlier! Thanks!

  • M

    This article and the others in the series are fascinating, and have really made my day. Thank you :)

  • Sung won Lim

    Thanks for the article. I spent so much time with WC1 when I was a kid… Starting with seeing if clicking on shield while being attacked would help with defense!

    Hopefully you’ll have enough time in the future to recount the rest of the development tales as well.

  • Thanks for putting this out here: I grew up with Warcraft, Warcraft 2 and Starcraft – I’ve always been curious about how these games were made! I think I caught the RTS bug from Orcs & Humans, and while I’ve mostly made other kinds of games so far I do want to have a crack at making a strategy game some time soon :)

  • Joshua

    I stumbled upon your blog today, and I’m glad I did. I remember watching my dad play Warcraft when I was 4 years old and grew up with all of the Blizzard games. Thanks for sharing all of these cool facts!

  • Tu Nong

    We are beginners in game industry – founding a small game studio and creating our own game together. This article inspired us so much. Especially the section about how did you argue and form the game ideas. I though that we are doing like Blizzard in early days and it encouraged us so much. Thank you for this great article

  • I’m working on AI software and I wanted to develop it so it can be linked to games

  • itti

    Good that you mentioned Warcraft’s color palette. Can you comment on the art style of newer additions to the franchise? I know you left Blizzard some time after shipping Starcraft but maybe you still had insight into the early development of Warcraft 3?

    Blizzards art style has always appeared to be somewhat cartoon-y to me. I could still take it serious though. With the transition to 3D graphics in Warcraft III this was no longer the case. I would be interested in why such low polygon count models were chosen and whether this was out of necessity. I would further be interested in why they went along with this “style” in the creation of WoW et. al.

  • war2combat

    Warcraft 2 Festival V is coming up July 26th-28th we are having the reunion of the players! If you want to download the game then please visit click the big war2combat banner > install > connect > multiplayer > enhanched > serverwar2ru and create new username!