At the turn of the epochs, dark times have come in the world. The knights of Stormwind and the priests of the Abbey of Northshire have maintained order and justice in the kingdom for centuries, faithfully and honestly serving their overlord. But unrest and turmoil disrupted the usual life, and militant orcs poured out of the opened portal into peaceful Azeroth, sowing destruction and death everywhere. Only the king’s son and ruler Llane was able to lead the fight against the invasion and achieve a turning point in the war. But soon rumors spread throughout the kingdom that an orc named Blackhand managed to unite the scattered clans of his fellow tribesmen and was preparing to conquer Azeroth with renewed vigor …
The project was born just over twelve months before its official debut – in September 1993, Patrick Wyatt, a programmer from Silicon & Synapse, began creating a new strategy for MS-DOS, inspired by the popular Dune II game from Westwood Studios, which he sat for hours. But the source of inspiration for the setting and characters, according to the memoirs of Wyatt himself, was the Warhammer universe. Based on a screenshot from Dune II, Patrick drew the first map of the future Warcraft, then created several units and “animated” them so that the movements of the characters could be controlled with the mouse. Soon other developers from Silicon & Synapse joined the project, and the strategy began to gradually acquire details: buildings, resources and the possibility of their extraction appeared, the contours and outlines of future missions began to clear up.
Initially, there was no plot in the game – all the details were invented right on the go. The world called Azeroth, in the vastness of which the action of the future RTS unfolded, did not yet have a deep thought-out history – the background of the bloody battles between humans and orcs was described in detail much later, closer to release. Wyatt did not bother designing mechanics, game balance or strategy: everything was done on a whim and, in fact, only on enthusiasm. Later, in their memoirs, the developers described the Warcraft design process with the phrase “a one-day business plan” – no one thought about budget calculations or project development prospects, the game was written based on short-term plans adopted “here and now”, actually implementing a list of features and tasks that need to be implemented right today.
The creators wrote two main campaigns – for people and for orcs, and, as it turned out over time, the orc storyline became the main one in the game: the campaign for people was invented a little later. The name for the strategy was proposed by one of the developers – Sam Didier, who created a unique visual style, as well as the main characters of Warcraft, and subsequently took the post of artistic director of the studio. However, at first it did not inspire his colleagues too much, since it did not carry any meaning. Nevertheless, the word “Warcraft” soon caught on, because according to the co-founder of the studio, Allen Adham, it “sounded cool”.
Due to budget constraints, all the characters in the first game of the future saga were voiced by one actor: Bill Roper, who also came up with the plot, composed a short history of Azeroth and prepared scenarios for several missions. Hired outsourced composer Gregory Alper wrote the title theme, somewhat reminiscent of the suite “Planets” by the English composer Gustav Holst.
I mentioned the “saga” for a reason: when the work on the project was in full swing, the creators decided that the engine of this RTS could be used as the basis for a series of other strategies united by a common name. Future games were to take place in real or fictional worlds. There was even talk for a while about the launch of Warcraft: Vietnam, a game that exploits the theme of the American war in Vietnam and a strategy game that would take place during the time of the Roman Empire. In general, the fact that the world of Azeroth, filled with magic and inhabited by fearless heroes, will appeal to users and linger in their memory for a long time, no one seriously expected.
In the meantime, things at the Silicon & Synapse studio were, frankly, not very good. Founded in 1991 by Michael Morhaime with $15,000 from his grandmother, the company has already made its mark on the market with the puzzle platformer The Lost Vikings and the arcade game Rock N’ Roll Racing, backed by publisher Interplay. Nevertheless, the income from their sale barely covered the current expenses of the team. In early 1993, the company was renamed Chaos Studios, but, firstly, the change of the signboard did not improve its woeful financial situation, and secondly, it soon became clear that a studio with that name already exists on the market. As a result, the office, along with its debts, employees and ongoing projects, was bought out for $ 10 million by Davidson & Associates, an educational software developer from Torrance, California. This company has long dreamed of entering the turbulent ocean of the gaming industry with some mind-blowing gaming project. The new company was given a sonorous and incomprehensible name: Blizzard Entertainment. At that time, its staff list consisted of only 20 employees.
One of the important differences between Warcraft and its competitors, primarily from Dune II, which did not have a multiplayer mode, was to be the support for online play for several players. However, on the way to achieving this lofty goal, two problems arose. The first was that the Blizzard office did not have a local network, instead, the company’s employees used “floppinet” – programmers, designers and testers ran from computer to computer with a pack of floppy disks, due to which actual copies of files were lost from time to time, and already fixed bugs reappeared due to confusion with versions. In the end, the network was extended, and a kind of production server was organized on Wyatt’s machine with a log in a text file, which played the role of a primitive version control system. The second difficulty was the banal lack of time: quickly organizing network support under DOS turned out to be a non-trivial task, since there was simply no ready-made protocol implementation, no libraries, no suitable API in this operating system. The problem was solved in the same way, by reversing the network engine of the DOOM game from ID Software and borrowing code from there for low-level support for the IPX protocol, on which the multiplayer for Warcraft was implemented.
The year 1994 came and the real-time strategy market went quiet. The popularity of the legendary Dune II gradually began to decline, and the new strategy from Westwood called Command & Conquer was not yet ready. Taking advantage of this pause, Blizzard released its own brainchild. Warcraft: Orcs & Humans required a 386 machine to run with 4 MB of RAM, a VGA-compatible video card, and at least MS-DOS version 5. A year later, a version for the Apple Macintosh was released.
The new game was a bombshell, quickly becoming a bestseller. Unlike Dune II, in which you had to control each unit individually, Warcraft allowed you to select several characters at once with the mouse and drive them around the screen in a crowd, which made the gameplay much less tedious. In general, initially the developers were not going to limit the number of simultaneously allocated units, but in practice it turned out that characters in the amount of several dozen units begin to interfere with each other, disperse around the map and generally react inadequately to the player’s commands. Therefore, in the release, the maximum number of the group was reduced to four units. But even this was a serious plus at that time, reducing the time and effort of the player on micromanagement. And, of course, the multiplayer became the main competitive advantage of the new game – the artificial intelligence performed by Blizzard turned out to be a little stupid, and the battles with a live opponent came out much more interesting and exciting. Even despite the fact that, knowing about the limited capabilities of AI, the developers initially made the balance in the game asymmetric: the “computer player” had a large amount of resources and could freely follow the enemy through the “fog of war”. Since Blizzard itself published its own products, using the available resources of Davidson & Associates for this, it no longer needed to share profits with third-party market participants, and Warcraft sales immediately began to bring serious income to the company.
I have Warcraft: Orcs & Humans appeared in 1995 and became the most favorite game along with UFO: Enemy Unknown. Unfortunately, I could not fully enjoy all the delights of this legendary strategy: the VGA monitor on my home “three-ruble note” was black and white, and the sound card appeared at my disposal only a year later, along with the new 486th computer, so play was in ringing silence. But the buildings of the orcs, similar to funny plump donuts, I still remember very well. Warcraft was captivating and addictive, causing many sleepless nights spent behind a computer screen.
The idea that Warcraft: Orcs & Humans spawned an entire universe with its own mythology and rich history sounds trite, but it’s true. It was this RTS that brought Blizzard to the ranks of the flagships of the gaming industry, and also became the foundation for the further development and prosperity of the company. Now the Warcraft universe is a multi-million dollar business and a whole fantasy world with a huge army of loyal fans. But it all started 28 years ago with an enthusiastic programmer who played Dune II and decided to make an improved version of this strategy. One small step that changed the history of the gaming industry forever.