The making of Warcraft: Orcs & Humans – the groundbreaking strategy game that paved the way for World of Warcraft

Mention the name Warcraft today and most people will immediately think of World of Warcraft, the incredibly successful MMORPG that has dominated the genre since 2004 and was recently re-released as World of Warcraft Classic. Yet the story of Warcraft began over a decade earlier with an embryonic company named Silicon and Synapse, which would soon morph into the better-known Blizzard Entertainment. The company’s founders were Allen Adham and Michael Morhaime. “I knew Mike from an engineering fraternity at UCLA,” Patrick begins, “and he invited me to offer me a contract role converting the DOS/Amiga Battle Chess game to Windows 3.” Patrick worked on this conversion from February to June 1991 before graduating from college and starting full-time employment with Silicon and Synapse later that year. Patrick was soon busy with various SNES projects such as The Lost Vikings and Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing. However, despite good critical reception, they were not big sellers, leading to a focus on PC products.

“One day in September 1993, Allen came up to me and told me to take over a new project called Warcraft as producer and head of programming,” Patrick recalled and there was little doubt about the main source of inspiration for the game. Many of the Silicon team had become addicted to Westwood’s iconic game, Dune 2, discussing almost daily the different tactics and styles that could be used. “It wasn’t so much a gap in the market as an opportunity,” he smiles, “because it was obvious to us that Dune 2, despite our fondness for it, had weaknesses. We thought we could create something special if we improve the design. The first major change was the setting – “We all loved fantasy and Tolkien was a major inspiration” – and Patrick also confirms that a Warhammer license was being considered. “It has certainly been discussed. Allen was excited about trying to increase sales and gain brand recognition, but for me, I was thrilled when nothing came of it. We wanted to create and control our own universe, even though Warhammer became a big influence in the art style of Warcraft.

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“The process of creating Warcraft was very organic,” Patrick continues, “and to start with, I was writing code as fast as I could for several months.” When the game began to form, Blizzard brought in Ron Millar to lead the design, a small team of programmers to help Patrick with coding and graphics, and the storyline was designed. However, a divergence in the direction of the gameplay quickly appeared; Warcraft was turning into something very different from the series we know and love today.

A focus on simplicity

Patrick upholds one of Warcraft’s main design principles: simplicity. “Many games were just too difficult to play because they required detailed interaction with the user interface,” he explains, “so our goal was always to create a game where the interface deviated from the gameplay. .” One of the things the team learned quickly during development was the use of keyboard shortcuts; it was obvious that in a real-time battle, players had to give actions to the commands of their units quickly and easily, considering the control limit of the unit.

It seems strange looking back today that you can only select up to four units at a time in Warcraft, but this method avoids one of the criticisms of Westwood’s Command And Conquer series where no such restriction didn’t exist. “Allen Adham was the main proponent of the four-unit draft limit,” Patrick reveals, “and while we didn’t all agree on it, we realized it had merits.” The limit served several purposes, the most important being to make the game more tactical by eliminating “tank-rush” tactics and forcing the player to focus more on the meat and bones of the game: combat.

“If you had played Warcraft in 1993, you could have selected as many units as you wanted,” Patrick reveals, “and even though it was a very useful way to figure out my code for path finding and training d unit – select fifty units and tell them all to go to the other side of the map and watch the chaos unfold from a traffic jam – I thought the limit was the right decision at the time. So that Patrick’s later code tinkering and selection of four units solved the bottleneck issues, he retrospectively admits that maybe four units was too low; the limit was raised to nine for Warcraft 2.

Technical challenges

“We discovered a lot of sync bugs, and at one point it was so bad that Allen said we had to drop multiplayer, release a single-player game, and then add multiplayer later.” Still passionate about its inclusion, the team fought for it to be reinstated, and Patrick still strongly believes that if multiplayer had been removed from the original Warcraft, Blizzard wouldn’t be the company it is today. “There was a period of several months where I tracked a specific bug. The game was so close to shipping without multiplayer, but we finally got it and shipped it just two weeks late. Other issues were slowly resolved and relatively minor compared to the dreaded sync bugs.

By this point, Warcraft was already boasting its distinctive bright and cheerful graphics that belied the frequent bloody battles. “There were a lot of companies that were looking for the gritty look in their games, but I think our artists’ experience in making the characters ‘read well’ for the early console games we developed has really had a big impact here. Sam Didier led the art and had such an engaging style that everyone who saw it loved it,” says Patrick. Blizzard artists worked under a policy that all artworks were to be drawn under fluorescent lights rather than in darkened rooms, the theory being that since this was the worst light possible, the artwork would look better under any other light.

Bright and colorful

Towards the end of Warcraft’s development, an important member was added to the team. Bill Roper ostensibly joined in to fill out the Orcs vs. Humans storyline and ultimately lent his charismatic talents to one of the game’s most memorable features.” Along with the guys who laid the groundwork for the artwork, Bill made Fantastic job creating the Warcraft voice tracks,” proudly says Patrick, “and the many humorous one-liners that gave the game its personality.” With Bill also helping design the game manual, Warcraft was starting to take shape just fine with Patrick and team always seeming to ignore a notable rival that was also being developed at the same time. “It wasn’t until we met the people of Westwood at trade shows after the release of Warcraft that we started to find out what was going on with its follow-up to Dune 2 – Command And Conquer. I got the feeling they weren’t exactly happy about that; but I thought they should have been happy that we took their great game as the basis for ours.

Upon release, Warcraft was a big hit and a sleeper hit. Did this surprise Blizzard? “Well, yes and no,” says Patrick, “We knew it would be a hit because, damn it, it was addicting! When we shipped the gold master discs, everyone was still playing the game and no one was going home! But our idea of ​​success was to sell 200,000 units, so I guess we were surprised, because even though the game didn’t take off right away, it was a consistent seller; the Word of mouth got us selling 400,000 units in about a year, which we thought was great.

We conclude by asking Patrick how he sees the importance of Warcraft today. “Blizzard is the company it is today thanks to everything we did in 1992. We made mistakes, but we learned from them. We argued a lot internally, but we found the best solutions to difficult problems. And from those beginnings, we built a business where we knew all the right answers, answers that were right for gamers, which led to the huge popularity of our games over the next few years. And Warcraft was there, almost from the beginning.

This feature first appeared in retro gamer magazine issue 111. For more great articles, like the one you just read, be sure to subscribe to the print or digital edition at My favorite magazines.


More information about The making of Warcraft: Orcs & Humans – the groundbreaking strategy game that paved the way for World of Warcraft

Mention the name Warcraft today and most people will immediately think of World of Warcraft, the incredibly successful MMORPG that has dominated the genre since 2004 and has recently been re-released as World of Warcraft Classic. Yet the story of Warcraft began over ten years earlier with an embryonic company named Silicon and Synapse, who would soon transform into the more commonly-known Blizzard Entertainment. The company’s founders were Allen Adham and Michael Morhaime. “I knew Mike from an engineering fraternity at UCLA,” begins Patrick, “and he invited me down to offer me a contract role converting the DOS/Amiga game Battle Chess to Windows 3.” Patrick worked on this conversion from February until June 1991 before graduating from university and beginning full-time employment at Silicon and Synapse later that year. Patrick was soon busy on various SNES projects such as The Lost Vikings and Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing. However, despite good critical reception, they weren’t big sellers, resulting in a focus on PC products.
“One day in September 1993, Allen came up to me and told me to take over a new project called Warcraft as producer and programming lead,” recalls Patrick and there was little doubt of the main source of inspiration for the game. Many of the Silicon team had become addicted to the iconic Westwood game, Dune 2, discussing almost every day the various tactics and styles that could be used. “It wasn’t so much a gap in the market, as an opportunity,” he smiles, “as it was obvious to us that Dune 2, despite our fondness for it, had weaknesses. We thought we could create something special if we improved upon the design.” The first major change was the setting – “We all loved fantasy and Tolkien was a major inspiration” – and Patrick also confirms that a Warhammer licence was considered. “It was certainly discussed. Allen was keen on it to try and increase sales and gain brand recognition but as far as I was concerned, I was pleased when nothing came of it. We wanted to create and control our own universe, although Warhammer became a big influence in the art style of Warcraft.”
Read now

“The process of creating Warcraft was very organic,” continues Patrick, “and to start off with was mostly me writing code as fast as I could for several months.” When the game began to form, Blizzard brought in Ron Millar to head up the design, a small team of programmers to assist Patrick with coding and graphics and the storyline was devised. However, a divergence in the direction of the gameplay was soon appearing; Warcraft was turning into something quite different from the series we know and love today.
A focus on simplicity

Patrick confirms one of Warcraft’s principal design tenets: simplicity. “Many games were just too hard to play because they required detailed interaction with the user interface,” he explains, “so our goal was always to create a game where the interface just got out of the way of the gameplay.” One of the elements the team quickly learned during development was the use of hot-keys; it was evident that in a real-time battle, players needed to give actions to their units commands quickly and easily, given the unit control limit.
It seems odd looking back today that you can only select up to four units at once in Warcraft, yet this method sidesteps one of the criticisms of Westwood’s Command And Conquer series where no such restriction existed. “Allen Adham was the chief proponent of the four-unit selection limit,” reveals Patrick, “and whilst we didn’t all see eye to eye on it, we realised it had merits.” The limit served several purposes, most importantly making the game more tactical by eliminating “tank-rush” tactics and forcing the player to concentrate more on the meat and bones of the game: combat. 
“If you had played Warcraft back in 1993, you’d have been able to drag-select as many units as you like,” discloses Patrick, “and although it was a really useful way to determine my path-finding and unit formation code – select fifty units and tell them all to go to the other side of the map and watch the unfolding chaos of a traffic jam – I thought the limit was the correct decision at the time.” Whilst Patrick’s subsequent code tinkering and the four-unit selection solved the traffic jam issues, he concedes in retrospect that perhaps four units was too low; the limit was raised to nine for Warcraft 2.
Technical challenges

“We discovered many sync bugs, and at one point it was so bad that Allen said we had to drop multiplayer, release a single player game and then add the multiplayer later.” Still passionate about its inclusion, the team fought for it to be re-instated and Patrick still firmly believes that if multiplayer had been dropped from the original Warcraft, Blizzard would not be the company it is today. “There was a period of several months where I tracked one specific bug. The game was so close to shipping without multiplayer but we got it in the end and shipped just two weeks late.” he remembers. Other issues were slowly ironed out and relatively minor compared to the dreaded sync bugs.
By this stage, Warcraft already boasted its distinctive bright and cheerful graphics that belied the frequent bloody battles. “There were lots of companies that were going for the gritty look in their games, but I think our artists’ experience with making characters “read well” for the early console games we developed really had a big impact here. Sam Didier led the art and had a style that was so engaging, everyone who saw it loved it,” explains Patrick. Blizzard’s artists worked under a policy that all artwork had to be drawn under fluorescent lights rather than dark rooms, with the theory being that as it was the worst possible light, the artwork would look better in any other light.
Bright and colourful

Towards the end of the development of Warcraft, an important member was added to the team. Bill Roper joined ostensibly to back-fill the Orcs versus humans storyline and ultimately lent his charismatic talents to one of the most memorable features of the game. “Along with guys who laid down the foundation with the artwork, Bill did a fantastic job creating the voice-tracks to Warcraft,” says Patrick proudly, “and the many humorous one-liners that gave the game its personality.” With Bill also helping to design the game’s manual, Warcraft was beginning to take shape very nicely with Patrick and the team still seemingly unaware of a notable rival that was also being developed at the same time. “It wasn’t until we met up with the Westwood folks at trade shows after the release of Warcraft that we began to learn what it’d been up to with its follow up to Dune 2 – Command And Conquer. My impression was they weren’t exactly happy over it; but I reckoned they should have been pleased that we’d taken their great game as a base for ours.”
On release, Warcraft was a big success and a sleeper hit. Did this surprise Blizzard? “Well, yes and no,” says Patrick, “We knew it would be successful because, hell, it was addictive! When we shipped the gold master discs, everyone just kept playing the game and no-one would go home! But our idea of success was selling 200k units, so I guess we were surprised, as although the game didn’t take off straight away, it was a consistent seller; word of mouth meant we sold 400,000 units in around a year – which we thought was awesome.” 
We conclude by asking Patrick how he sees Warcraft’s significance today. “Blizzard is the company it is today because of the things we did all the way back in 1992. We made mistakes, but learned from them. We argued a lot internally, but came up with the best solutions to hard problems. And from those beginnings we built a company where we knew all the right answers, answers that were right for the players which led to the vast popularity of our games in later years. And Warcraft was there, practically from the start.”
This feature first appeared in Retro Gamer magazine issue 111. For more excellent features, like the one you’ve just read, don’t forget to subscribe to the print or digital edition at MyFavouriteMagazines.  

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