Blizzard occupies a unique position within the realm of videogames, both for gamers and for the industry. Even if it has been used so frequently as to teeter on the precipice of cliché, there's a reason Blizzard is often referred to as a "golden goose", a developer that, if it lays its eggs but once every few years, always delivers a blockbuster.
To that end, the standard to which Blizzard games are held by critics and gamers alike appears to be much higher than that afforded to other developers. Make no mistake, if the company ever delivered a game that was anything short of spectacular, a horde of secateur-wielding Tall Poppy advocates would scramble to straddle the corpse of a giant.
But if Blizzard's success occasionally raises the ire of spectators who champion underdogs, or stokes the envy of onlookers within the industry, it's not at all reflected in the company itself. Talking to the employees of Blizzard is a lesson in practiced humility, in the art of under-selling and over-delivering. "We're excited," they'll say, or, "We really hope people like it." It's worlds apart from the bevy of baseless blustering that clutters our inboxes on a daily basis, and no-one better personifies this corporate modesty than Blizzard's quiet-spoken co-founder and CEO, Mike Morhaime.
Founded in 1991 as Silicon & Synapse Inc, the California-based company initially made a living by porting games software to Amiga and Macintosh systems, providing them with the requisite knowledge and code base to eventually release their own titles. An old Commodore 64 title, explains Morhaime, "formed the basis for RPM Racing, our first Super Nintendo game, and it just kind of grew from there."
Morhaime, Pearce and Adham were quickly joined by Sam Didier, Joeyray Hall and Bob Fitch, together forming the bulk of the artistic and coding talent required to work on Rock n' Roll Racing, an evolution of their previously released RPM Racing title. With a Game of the Year award for both Rock n' Roll Racing and The Lost Vikings, Silicon & Synapse were making a mark, but Morhaime freely admits they weren't top sellers. "It really wasn't until Warcraft II, I think that was the game that really put Blizzard on the map."
Prior to the success with Warcraft, the company primarily existed on royalty payments, and often found it difficult to make payroll. Although there was little money to go around, Blizzard fostered a strong sense of camaraderie, frequently holding gaming sessions in the office with titles such as Magic: The Gathering, Samurai Showdown and Street Fighter being particularly popular. "Actually, it was Street Fighter first, then when Samurai Showdown came out that pretty much took over and everybody played that", explains Morhaime.
Despite the lack of funds, Blizzard continued to invest in industry research, frequently attending the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to garner new information on the direction gaming was taking in the mid '90s. "We'd rent a few rooms at Motel 6, which was off-strip and really cheap, and we'd just pile a bunch of guys into all these rooms - some people were sleeping on the floors or whatever." Morhaime is quick to point out though that "we were extremely focused on making games. I was actually programming on every single one of our Real Time Strategy games, up through to Warcraft III. There was a lot to do."
After a successful 1994 acquisition by Davidson & Associates, an educational software company, Silicon & Synapse renamed itself as Blizzard Entertainment, after a brief foray with the title "Chaos Studios". Davidson allowed Blizzard to retain its creative autonomy by providing the development team free reign, a decision instrumental in not only allowing the acquisition to take place, but in safeguarding the fledgeling company from overzealous manipulation by its financial backers.
It's clear Morhaime considers this autonomy crucial in the success experienced by Blizzard. "I think a lot of time, what happens is you get to a particular point in a project, and sometimes companies will say, 'well, you know, we didn't hit the bar this time, but it's too late, we've worked on this thing too long, let's just go ahead and put it out and next time we'll hit that bar. From now on, we're not going to ship any more [unfinished] games, but this one we're going to ship.'
"There's that sort of mentality, and I just think it always starts with today. It doesn't start with tomorrow."
Following the success of Warcraft, Blizzard purchased Condor Games, which was deep in the development process for a title called Diablo. Initially intended to be a turn-based claymation role-playing game, Blizzard recognised the base potential and quickly converted the production to an isometric 3D perspective, and dropped the turn-based requirement. Blizzard also recognised the need for internet connectivity, and went live with the immensely successful Battle.Net service upon Diablo's release.
Recognising the potential for another RTS title using the basic gameplay attributes of Warcraft, StarCraft went into production and saw release in 1999.