The History of StarCraft
If you were a PC Gamer in the mid to late 90s, chances are you spent some time playing a Real-Time Strategy game. Otherwise known as an RTS, the Real-Time Strategy genre had a broad selection of games in that era. There was Command and Conquer, Dune 2, Total Annihilation, to name a few.
Yet, there was one that dominated them all: StarCraft. Today on Arcadology, we will discuss StarCraft’s rise to the top. And, by extension, the history of Blizzard and the RTS. Welcome to Arcadology, a History of StarCraft.
The Founding of Blizzard: Silicon and Synapse
In 1990, Frank Pearce, Mike Morhaime and Allen Adham graduated from UCLA. They were college friends and alums of the engineering program. Upon graduating college, Adham received a gift of $10,000 from his parents, meant for a trek across Europe. Instead of a European vacation though, Adham had grand plans for the cash.
He spent the next year trying to convince Morhaime to join in. Mike, at the time, was working for Western Digital on chip design. As the months passed, Adham’s pitch finally convinced Morhaime. Mike would receive $10,000 from his parents to invest in the company. Frank Pearce would round out the trio with matching investment. Silicon and Synapse was born. Despite the three being listed together as co-founders, Pearce firmly stated in an interview with Polygon that Adham is “the founder” of Blizzard.
The earliest contract work came from Interplay. Company President Brian Fargo had known Allen Adham for over a decade. Adham had experience in high-school and college doing contract work for game studios. The Interplay contract gave Silicon and Synapse the momentum every early studio needs.
The name, “Silicon and Synapse” graced the cover of their earliest work. This included titles such as the puzzle-platformer The Lost Vikings and Rock ‘n Roll Racing.
Sale to Davidson and Associates
In early 1994, the name of the company changed to Chaos Studios, Inc. Allen Adham said in a video celebrating Blizzard’s 20th Anniversary the name change was because “[Silicon and Synapse] was kind of confusing, nobody really knew what it meant, people misspelled it all the time.” In March of 1994, Morhaime, Adham, and Pearce sold the company to Davidson and Associates for the sum of $6.75 Million. The deal gave Chaos the autonomy they needed to continue their creative streak.
A few months later, in May, the studio would change its name once again. The reasons for the final change were two-fold. First, to better align with Davidson. Second, a holding company in New York already had the name, and licensing it would be too expensive.
The company moved forward under the banner of Blizzard Entertainment. Meanwhile, development had begun on the what would be the studios first big hit.
WarCraft: Orcs & Humans
In 1992, Westwood Studios released a game called Dune 2 as an RTS. Dune 2 was a video game sequel to epic Sci-Fi story written by Frank Herbert, and adapted for film by David Lynch. The game laid much of the foundation of the RTS’s that followed and had many fans in the Blizzard office.
“Along with the other folks at Blizzard I exhaustively played Dune 2
during lunch breaks and after work, playing each of the three competing
races to determine their strengths and weaknesses; and afterward
comparing play-styles, strategies and tactics with others in the office.
While the game was great fun, it suffered from several obvious defects
that called out (nay, screamed) to be fixed.” -Patrick Wyatt, Lead Programmer and Producer of WarCraft: Orcs and Humans
“Along with the other folks at Blizzard I exhaustively played Dune 2
during lunch breaks and after work, playing each of the three competing
races to determine their st
“Dune 2 only allowed you to select one unit at a time. That felt like a
crippling limitation when you were trying to manage tactical combat
for a bunch of units. Maneuvering them one at a time was a real drag.”
“We started out trying to make things more realistic. But in the game, the
realistic stuff was thin and tall and just didn’t look powerful. So we started
squashing the characters so they looked better from the camera angle, and
it turned out they looked cool and mighty. So we just stuck with that look on
all our games.”
-Samwise Didier, Artist, WarCraft: Orcs and Humans
-Patrick Wyatt, Lead Programmer and Producer of WarCraft: Orcs and Humans
There was a lull in the RTS market in 1993, and inspired by Dune 2, Blizzard took to creating one. The initial concept behind the title WarCraft came from Allen Adham. He wanted to create a series of RTS games that had a variety of settings, such as Ancient Rome and Vietnam. They wanted to be able to control shelf space with this idea. Patrick Wyatt mentions on his blog Code of Honor, that SSI’s Dungeons and Dragons Goldbox games inspired the idea.
Wyatt tackled the early effort himself. He used graphics from Dune 2 to stand-in until the programming had progressed enough. During this time he worked on control improvements, such as multi-unit selection. Dune 2 only allowed for selecting a single unit at a time.
A team soon joined Wyatt in creating the game. According to the book about the development of Diablo titled, “Stay Awhile and Listen,” Bob Fitch joined the team to help Wyatt with programming. Mike Morhaime and Jesse McReynolds wrote the networking code for multiplayer. Stu Rose was the first artist to join the project. He was responsible for creating a design document for the team. Sam Didier joined the team and it was his fantasy art style that influenced the look of the humans and the orcs
“We started out trying to make things more realistic. But in the game, the realistic stuff was thin and tall and just didn’t look powerful. So we started squashing the characters so they looked better from the camera angle, and it turned out they looked cool and mighty. So we just stuck with that look on all our games.” -Samwise Didier, Artist, WarCraft: Orcs and Humans
The art of Warcraft is bright and colorful compared to the games released in the same era. The reason for this was two fold. First, the Blizzard artists previous experience was with console games. And second, Allen Adham wanted the art to read well in bright environments. He felt this was where most people would be playing the game.
Development started in September of 1993 and continued until November of 1994. The game’s self-financed nature was the biggest cause of delay. Ports and contract work that kept the lights on at Blizzard took priority over Warcraft. Many team members rotated in and out on the project over that time frame. When the game shipped though, it received solid review scores. And of greater importance, the game’s sales secured the company’s finances for the time being.
WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness
Chris Metzen was a fresh hire during production of the first WarCraft game. According to the book, “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” Metzen spent a night at the office writing a backstory for the WarCraft universe. One of his colleagues took the backstory and sent it around the office. The result: leadership gave Metzen the role of writing the story for WarCraft II. The sequel would go into development soon after the release of the first game.
WarCraft II was an improvement to the original game in every way. It had improved AI, and a more immersive story. The game received more critical acclaim than the original. Ultimately it would sell over 2 million copies. The engine, updated from WarCraft seemed primed to be used again and again. Yet, by late 1995, a shift was happening in Zeitgeist of PC Gaming. One that would take hold and prove difficult for the development of the next game in the “Craft” series.
StarCraft was a huge success. But getting there was no certain feat. Chris Metzen and James Phinney led the design of the game. The core of the team came from a cancelled project called Shattered Nations.
Blizzard rushed the development of the game to have a demo ready for E3 1996. This was not long after the release of WarCraft 2. Using the same engine as the WarCraft games and a new art style the team created a game that people derided as Orcs In Space. The press and attendess considered the version of StarCraft shown at that E3 to be “more of the same.” The top down perspective looked tired and the competitors were joining the RTS fray. Westwood, developers of Dune II, had released Command & Conquer, and many other RTSes were in development. Blizzard could not rest on their laurels.
Happenstance put the game on hold for several months. Condor Studios, a recent Blizzard Acquisition, needed help putting the finishing touches on Diablo. For a very detailed story of Condor and their road to Diablo, I recommend the book, “Stay Awhile and Listen.”
Most of the StarCraft team would end up working on Diablo for the rest of 1996. Diablo delayed WarCraft lead Patrick Wyatt from returning to the StarCraft team. Bob Fitch took on the duty of rewriting the engine by himself.
The rewrite, was beneficial in providing the features that would make the game successful. But it was painful in the short term. Wyatt outlined on his blog that the decision to write it in C++ was problematic. The reason being: the dev team did not have much experience with it. This led to constant efforts to bug fix. It also explains why StarCraft was more prone to crashing than either WarCraft I and II were.
On the art side of the team, things were a bit fast and loose.
“When we made these races, we just threw a bunch of crap at the
wall and saw what stuck. We knew that our Terrans were going to
be rough and dirty. We knew we wanted the Protoss to be—not
savage, exactly, but primal, and powerful. And we knew we wanted
the Zerg to swarm.”
–Sam Didier, Blizzard Art Director
Blizzard intended the protoss to be a ‘roided out version of the stereotypical gray alien. They wanted the terrans to be a cross between mafia, rednecks, and mad scientists. And the Zerg were all over the map. Each design team, the concept artists, the game artists, and the cinematic artists, had different takes on what the zerg looked like. Blizzard completed the cinematics well in advance of the rest of the game.
In the game itself the art style took on a very “chunky” appearance. Now known as a hallmark of Blizzard’s style, this was initially done due to hardware limitations. The initial models were photorealistic, but they did not look good on screen. By making them thicker, they read easier to the eye.
The game coalesced over time, although a bit slower than many would like. A project manager would most likely blanche at the way it came together. But despite the rock and roll dev cycle, as well as a missed ship date, critics and fans loved the game. And THEN, things started to take off.
StarCraft and Korea
In 1997, a massive economic downturn hit Asia. A crisis which began in Thailand would go on to eventually effect Indonesia and South Korea, and several other countries as well. In South Korea There were many workers that had lost their jobs and needed to find new ways to create income. For some, the solution was to invest in opening Internet Cafes known in Korea as a PC Bang. (pronounced Pi Shi B-ah-ng).
There were two main reasons for this. First, a PC Bang was not a restaurant, and thus did not need to follow a stringent health code policy. The second reason was because of infrastructure. Several laws passed between the late 80s, and the late 90s, and the de-monopolization of Korea Telecom, allowed South Korea to develop an internet system that would become the envy of the world. The result was that South Korea benefitted from terrific internet speeds. PC Bangs would grow in popularity. As they grew from single storefronts into chains, the chains began to merge. One of the side effects of this would be standardized offerings across all locations.
To be honest, calling PC Bangs Internet Cafe’s is not quite accurate. According NCSoft analyst and PC Bang expert Jun-Sok Huhh, PC Bangs are more akin to Arcades of the late 70s and early 80s than internet cafes. They are popular because they provide kids and gamers a third place to be other than home or school. They also create the camaraderie and physical connection that arcades created. A unique sensation that is really only felt when gaming with others in a public space as opposed to in the privacy of your own home.
So why StarCraft?
From post-World War II to June 2000, the South Korean government had banned Japanese media. This included video games. In the 80s there were bootleg arcades in South Korea where people could play pirated versions of Japanese arcade games, but gaming was far from entering the mainstream. This means in South Korea, most of the foreign games for sale would be from the United States or Europe. This put StarCraft in prime position to end up on many PC Bang computers.
After StarCraft’s release, the quality of the game was enough to catch the attention of PC Bang owners who installed it on their computers. This was the spark that started a craze. As I mentioned a moment ago, large chains would standardize their service across all locations which often included StarCraft being installed on the computers across all locations.
This led to the game being seen as “extremely popular” by enterprising television executives. Basing a network around a game was not a new concept in Korea. The traditional game, “Go” had a large televised following in the country. Televised StarCraft matches only increased the broad appeal of the game. Ultimately, of the nearly 10 million copies of StarCraft that had been sold around the world, almost half of that was in South Korea alone!
Mike Morhaime ended up taking a trip to Korea during the surge and popularity.
“I hadn’t really seen anything like that until I took a trip out there.
When we hit two million copies sold they held this big celebration,
and this auditorium was completely packed. That was the first live
esports event I ever went to…The other thing that was surprising
was that everyone there knew StarCraft. You could talk to people
at the hotel or even people on the street, and StarCraft was a
-Mike Morhaime, Co-Founder, Blizzard Enterntainment
StarCraft took a long time to get a sequel. Blizzard released the original game in 1998 and the sequel was not announced until 9 years later, in 2007. Blizzard had grown in the intervening years. They were no longer the small upstart founded by three UCLA alums. The company had been acquired by Vivendi after a series of mergers and acquisitions. Allen Adham had left feeling burnt out and wanting to focus on family. World of Warcraft, the MMO based on the WarCraft series, had taken the world by storm. StarCraft and WarCraft III had become massive draws in the esport scene. Especially a WarCraft III mod called Defence of the Ancients.
In 2007, Blizzard rented out the Olympic Park in Korea to host a WorldWide invitational event. It was at this event that they announced StarCraft II. At the time of its announcement, rumors had been swirling what the next game from Blizzard would be. According to a contemporary article from Gamasutra, many were speculating that it would be either StarCraft or Diablo. And those that thought StarCraft were not sure if it would be an RTS or an MMO like WarCraft.
Unfortunately, it would take another three years from the announcement for the game to be produced.
“I think with StarCraft II we were a little bit late, coming 12 years after the original. If we were a little earlier, it would’ve been better for the game. But I think [it] has a permanent place in the history of esports because StarCraft II, at least in the very early years of Twitch, was the game of choice, and a key reason they decided to start the company in the first place.” – Mike Morhaime, Cofounder, Blizzard Entertainment
In a Gamasutra interview Project Lead Chris Sigaty suggested several reasons for delay. One was the continuing development of content for World of WarCraft. Another was the creation of WarCraft III expansion ‘The Frozen Throne’. Another was a lack of clarity about the direction of the single player campaign.
Additionally, it was difficult to balance the game so it could appeal to both hardcore gamers as well as newcomers. World of WarCraft had attracted a large amount of casual gamers to Blizzard products. They wanted to make sure that someone who played WoW could hop into StarCraft II and not be scared away.
“…It’s a really tough tightrope walk, a balancing act, to get both parties. I think we’ve got the hardcore pro gamer side better accounted for. We just need to be aware of the new player, because we definitely anticipate having a group of people who come from World of Warcraft, who have played World of Warcraft and are gamers now, and want to try this new Blizzard game… we’re trying to be conscious of both groups and make sure we cater to both.” -Chris Sigaty, Project Lead, StarCraft II.
StarCraft 2, when it was released in 2010 had widespread critical acclaim. Much like its predecessor, it had high popularity in the esports. But there was also a shift in what it meant to be a professional gamer happening around that time. SC2 contributed to the launch of Twitch, which at the time was a gaming dedicated spin-off of the Justin.Tv platform. In an interview with Forbes in September of 2011, only six months after the creation of Twtich.tv, StarCraft II player, Steven “Destiny” Bonell had this to say:
“Before streaming, the only reliable source of income was a salary from a sponsored team. Tournament winnings are nice, but they aren’t very reliable to count on if you’re trying to pay a mortgage.”
-Steven “Destiny” Bonell
StarCraft II unfortunately did not rise to the same relative highs as its predecessor. I say relative because in the 8 years since its launch, the prize pool for StarCraft II tournaments has reached a total of $26 Million. StarCraft in its entire lifespan, only ever reached $7 Million. Yet, StarCraft reigned supreme for such a long time, whereas StarCraft IIs popularity was eroded by League of Legends and DOTA 2. To give a sense of scale, the 2017 International tournament for Dota 2 had a prize pool of 24.6 Million Dollars, almost as much as StarCraft II in its entire run.
In 2017, Blizzard returned to the well. Starcraft Remastered was released to update the classic, and simultaneously attract new players to the game. According to Pete Stillwell, the game’s producer, the goal was to remain committed to the original gameplay style. The worked with the original artists to update the graphics to a 4K resolution.
The Remastered edition of StarCraft unfortunately launched with bugs. A PC Gamer article from the time noted that there were those in Korea who felt the controls were not exactly the same as the original. The article also noted that despite the launch, StarCraft’s share of time in PC Bang’s did not rise noticeably. The game would go on to receive solid critical reception, with an 85 overall rating on metacritic.
Legacy and Closing
In the early years of Silicon and Synapse there were constant releases of finished product. There was an internalized thought process that the longest a game can and should take is about a year. One of the most important lessons learned from the long development process on StarCraft, and something that can be seen on Blizzard’s products afterwards, was a focus on letting a game take as long as it takes, rather than crunching until the end.
“Sacrifices are necessary, we had all been roped into this idea that we just had to get it done. We were kind of powerless to be more reasonable about the whole process … We felt passionately about building this game. We wanted it to be awesome, but at the same time there was just an enormous amount of pressure that was coming down. It really wasn’t until getting our butts kicked for StarCraft that I think we really internalized that lesson across the whole company…” -Patrick Wyatt, Former Vice President of Research and Development, Blizzard
Starcraft’s impact on the video game industry has been nothing short of legendary, it’s visible every time there is an esports event, or you take a glance on Twitch. Now, I’m not saying these things would not have happened by some other measure, but it’s very difficult to avoid talking about either without giving proper credit to StarCraft.
Anyway, that’s all I have for you today. As always, accuracy matters. If I messed up on anything, please mention it to me pinned fact check comment below the video. All my sources and additional credits are listed in the YouTube description of this video. If you enjoyed, please consider subscribing to my channel with notifications. For the latest news on what I am working on, follow me on twitter @thearcadologist.
Take Care Everyone.