A Solid Foundation - Excerpt from The WoW Diary by John Staats
Last year, John Staats published The WoW Diary, a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of vanilla Warcraft. With Classic WoW now launched, we thought it was the perfect time to check back in with Staats and highlight the book again!
We're excited to announce that every week or so, we'll be publishing an essay about vanilla WoW by John Staats. This week's essay is
A Solid Foundation
, discussing Blizzard's work environment leading up to the launch of vanilla.
If you find this essay interesting, consider purchasing The WoW Diary on Amazon:
WoW Diary Book on Amazon - $39.99
Special Boxed Edition on Amazon - $149.99
Have any questions on the essay or vanilla WoW development in general? He'll be checking out the comments section and answering them, so you may learn something new!
A million years ago, I designed and built half of the dungeons in vanilla WoW. If you have any questions about making the game, I’m happy to answer, here on Wowhead. - John Staats
The company’s founders had instilled the philosophy, “If it doesn’t work, fix it.” At its heart, this ideology was Blizzard’s iterative approach to game development, where nothing was written in stone and everyone was collectively in charge of the game’s success or failure. In all areas—design, art, and code—work was redone until it was as flawless as possible.
There was nothing magic about Blizzard; it was simply one of the only companies in the industry not forced into Faustian bargains with “dumb money” publishers. Because we financed our own games, we could afford to maintain high standards; this was extremely rare and it gave us an important advantage in that we weren’t tethered to short-sighted partners with their own agenda. Publishers, distributors, and retailers can take 80–90 percent of sales revenue, leaving little return for the studio to reinvest into its own people (with bonuses) or funding future projects. Studios working with publishers rarely have control over their games, especially the shipping dates, which means polishing is never guaranteed. Blizzard didn’t have investors, marketing people, or other non-gamers dictating what to make or when to ship it, or even how it should look. There were no suits. Everyone in the company played games, from the CEO down to our receptionist. We even turned away qualified programmers who didn’t play games.
Without constantly answering to impatient investors, Blizzard executives had more autonomy. This freedom meant they could delay or cancel their own projects and turn over more control to the employees building the games. And the fact that management frequently solicited opinions demonstrated their genuine interest in our input. If the worker bees resisted a decision, management put on the brakes and listened. It was still management’s call, but the fact that employees had a say in the matter made all the difference. If the executives did something we didn’t like or understand, they gave us the reasons for their decisions—usually by giving us pieces to the puzzle we weren’t previously aware of, and it usually made us feel better knowing the “bigger picture.”
As an example, when Warcraft III got closer to its shipping date, the Team 2 artists and designers took days or weeks off from developing WoW to play-test the single-player campaigns. Toph Gorham and I played against each other during dinner one night. Toph was a concept artist who had joined Blizzard on the same day I did, and we sometimes played multiplayer games together after dinner. While he was a great StarCraft player, I wasn’t. I didn’t particularly enjoy the aspect of mass production in real-time strategy (RTS) games and I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of options the game offered, so he and I tested to see whether limiting our army size to a small squadron would level the playing field between us. I thought the fun part of RTS games was micromanaging a battle and using hero abilities, not minding the economy and production, so we played a game with a food cap at 20 to see what would happen. We had a blast! I had more fun than I’d ever had in an RTS multiplayer match. The gameplay was all combat, and the experience was very much like Defense of the Ancients, an early predecessor to League of Legends. We excitedly ran to the Team 1 area to tell the company’s founder and design guru, Allen Adham, and Team 1’s lead designer, Rob Pardo, about our experience. These were the same designers responsible for StarCraft.
I emphasize here that two fairly new artists felt comfortable approaching the top two designers in the company with an idea to radically change the unit count of another team’s game. Allen and Rob not only listened to us but came over to our desks to see how much of the map we used. They asked questions about how many resources we used and how long our game lasted. Allen and Rob discussed whether gameplay was diminished by lowering the food cap and what else would be affected, and although they didn’t reduce the food limit to 20, they lowered it a lot, all based on our feedback.
By repeatedly inviting employees to give comments and suggestions, Blizzard’s leadership created an atmosphere where people felt comfortable giving opinions—which wasn’t always easy to do because many in the company were introverted and reticent by nature. It took a proactive effort by management to foster a collaborative environment. Comparing this to the bulk of computer game publishers, where projects can be rushed and second-guessed by suits whose visions were limited to what’s already been successful, it was no wonder Blizzard games stood out. Since employees were comfortable pointing out each other’s oversights (especially those made by the bosses), the pool of talent contributing to products was larger. By keeping everyone in the loop, management maintained a cycle of mutual support. We had monthly company meetings in the QA area, announced birthdays, and disseminated company updates, announcements, or new policies. Without mutual trust, employees don’t speak up, and opportunities to improve products are lost. When people aren’t personally invested in their work, the result is a soulless product. At Blizzard, most of a title’s character came from the peanut gallery.
I noticed this peculiarity on my first day after hearing employees talk about the executives with reverence. I thought they were joking at first, but no one rolled their eyes with sarcasm. They were actually proud of the company’s founders, Allen Adham, Mike Morhaime, and Frank Pearce. I was told they were very smart, thorough, and patient. When someone pranked Allen Adham by kidnapping one of his office toys, he went to HR and compared writing samples to the ransom note to unmask the culprit. Allen then darkened the doorway of Team 2’s database programmer, Twain Martin, with a sinister grin. “So…Twain. Is there…something you want to tell me?” Nobody fooled those guys.
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