From RPM Racing through to World of Warcraft.
It’s been an interesting time for Blizzard of late. 2018 was particularly turbulent, with a lot of changes within the company, from the departure of long-running president and co-founder Mike Morhaime, through to shake-ups on other teams, such as major turnover on Hearthstone’s Team 5. Even BlizzCon, usually a celebration of all things Blizzard, turned toxic after the ill-advised BlizzCon reveal of Diablo Immortal. And then, to close out the year, there was the announcement that development on Heroes of the Storm would be scaled back and its esports program axed.
Of course, the year held plenty of highlights for the company too. There was the inaugural season of the Overwatch League, which drew a wide range of viewers and fan support from across the globe, while World of Warcraft received a brand-new expansion in the form of Battle for Azeroth, among many other updates to the studio’s stable of titles.
But what does the future hold? And what can we expect from the many teams working on unannounced titles? We don’t know, but the good news is that Blizzard veteran Allen Adham is overseeing them. Yes, important figures like Mike Morhaime may have left after decades with the company, but Adham helps counterbalance those a little – he actually returned to Blizzard in 2016 after 12 years away.
To really understand why Allen Adham back at Blizzard is such a good thing, you need to understand his role in the early days of the company. So, with Allen’s help we’re going to dive back into the early days of Blizzard, starting out – where else, right back at the start, and the studio’s very first original game. A somewhat obscure racing title for the Super Nintendo called RPM Racing, released within the first year of the formation of Silicon & Synapse; a small development studio based in California founded by three college friends and graduates from UCLA; Mike Morhaime, Frank Pearce, and Allen Adham.
RPM Racing (1991) – SNES
“That was a joint development with Interplay,” Adham recalls. “Before that, we had done some conversions, ports. We would port games from one platform to another back in the day when there was Commodore 64s and Apple IIs and Amigas, things like that. But RPM was the first bit of development where we had some influence over the design.” Released towards the end of 1991, development on RPM Racing was completed in around six months and became the first Blizzard game to hit the market, as well as one of the first Western-developed titles for the brand-new Super Nintendo. “The documents that we used to develop RPM Racing were in Japanese,” he adds. “And without any Japanese speakers, we were somehow able to figure out what to do and how to do it working off of Japanese technical documents.”
“The documents that we used to develop RPM Racing were in Japanese… we were somehow able to figure out what to do and how to do it working off of Japanese technical documents.” – Allen Adham.
For Allen, the dream of becoming a game developer began long before graduating college. “In high school, I was creating my own games as an amateur,” he tells me. “Before I graduated, in probably 1983 or 1984, I had worked on a game called The Demon’s Fort and another called Mind Shatter.” This passion for development led to Adham’s first tastes of the industry at large, during high school, when he began working for a company headed by industry icon Brian Fargo that would eventually become Interplay. Testing titles for the developer and publisher, and even assisting in converting games from one platform to another, it’s this relationship with Interplay that led to those first few Silicon & Synapse games getting published.
“During my sophomore year in college, I decided I was going to design and code a game and then have friends do the art,” Adham continues. “That was a game called Gunslinger, and from then I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. And I knew, kind of, how to do it, because I had the benefit of watching Brian at Interplay and seeing exactly how they had evolved. Of course, I met Mike and Frank and was able to kind of convince them that this harebrained idea of some kids going off and starting a video game company might actually work. Our worse case was, ‘Hey, let’s go have some fun for a year and if it all flames out horribly we’ll go get jobs at IBM and Microsoft’. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Although simple and straightforward and with only a handful of modes, the team at Silicon & Synapse would build on the foundation of RPM Racing a few years later with the fun, vibrant, and engaging Rock n’ Roll Racing (1993). Although not a direct sequel it showcased Blizzard’s ability – right from the start – to improve and iterate on what had come before at the same time as exploring new ideas.
The Lost Vikings (1992) – Genesis, SNES
“We were inspired by a game called Lemmings,” Adham says of the genesis of The Lost Vikings. “We loved it so much we thought we’d do a game just like it, but for console.”
Lemmings, which was developed by DMA Design – later to become Rockstar North – was an almost overnight sensation in the early ‘90s. It gave players the ability to direct the movement of hundreds of little creatures, and the goal was to figure out how, with only the mildest of casualties, to get the tiny critters safely to an exit. It was in many ways a puzzle-meets-platform experience unlike anything else.
The Lost Vikings, like subsequent and high-profile releases Warcraft and Overwatch, began from a love of a specific style or individual game before becoming its own thing – its own universe. “Lost Vikings, for us, was a watershed product,” Adham explains. “It’s the first time you see the beginnings of us creating our own IP. It wasn’t a licensed property and it had its own story and rich characters.”
“We like to take risks, we like to try new things, new genres; Hearthstone, Overwatch, World of Warcraft. Every one of those is different than the genres we were working on before. Lost Vikings helped put us on that path.” – Allen Adham.
The side-scrolling platformer was a staple of both the 8-bit and 16-bit console eras, and it was this viewpoint combined with Lemmings that led to experimentation and the evolution of The Lost Vikings. “Originally, we had the idea of hundreds of little Vikings all with different abilities,” Allen adds. “We started working on it and within a few months we realised that small units didn’t hold up well on NTSC TVs at the time. It just didn’t feel right on console because there was an expectation that you would have more direct control over larger characters.”
This discovery led to some drastic changes. “We evolved from hundreds of Vikings down to five Vikings and then eventually, to the three Vikings that are in the game today,” Adham tells me. “Philosophically, we learned that making something new and interesting and creative is a pretty chaotic process. You won’t always have that perfect vision from the outset. Embrace the chaos and stay flexible. And for us, you still see that today. We like to take risks, we like to try new things, new genres; Hearthstone, Overwatch, World of Warcraft. Every one of those is different than the genres we were working on before. Lost Vikings helped put us on that path.”
The Death and Return of Superman (1994) – SNES, Genesis and Justice League Task Force (1995) – SNES
Even though the studio that would soon become Blizzard Entertainment had found its voice with The Lost Vikings, to pay the bills and stay afloat it still needed to complete contract work. At the time that meant working with a publisher like Interplay on licensed DC Comics titles for the Super Nintendo. “We were super excited to be given properties that were so well known, it was a great honour. But we also found it a bit constricting,” Adham tells me.
Justice League Task Force was to be a fighting game along the lines of Street Fighter II but with a cast of fighters from the DC Universe. As contract work, all design elements needed to be approved before being implemented in game, but when Blizzard submitted the details of each character and their moves, the team was told that Superman couldn’t kick. Or, that the Man of Steel chose not to.
“How do you make a fighting game where all of the characters can kick except for one?” Adham ponders. To try and come up with a solution, Allen and a few others went down to a local comic book store to buy up dozens of Superman comics. Taking the huge pile of Superman stories and adventures back to the office, the whole studio then sat on the floor scouring through each page looking for just one example, one piece of evidence, that would show that Superman could in fact kick. Although they didn’t find any foot-based combat among the panels, Adham vividly recalls the compromise, “There’s a panel in the Death and Return of Superman where Doomsday and Superman are fighting, and he knees Doomsday. We then pointed at that specific comic, [that] page, and we said ‘Superman does kick. Or, at least he knees. Can he knee?’”
For the studio, these two projects, with all their compromises and restrictions, served as a turning point. “From that point forward, we knew that we would always want to create our own IPs,” Adham explains. The lessons learned across these first few years creating a mixture of new titles and licenced products, was that it was the former that presented the biggest and most rewarding creative opportunity. As Allen puts it, “the joy of making games goes hand-in-hand with creating worlds and creating characters.”
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994) and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995) – PC (MS-DOS)
During these early years Allen Adham not only served as one of the co-founders and heads of Blizzard Entertainment, but also the main programmer. In fact, all three co-founders and early hires came from the same talented pool of UCLA engineers, programmers, and technical graduates that would contribute to all sides of development. “From my experience working with Interplay I wrote the engine that a lot of our early games were based on,” Adham tells me. “We had a lot of great programmers very early on and a little arrogantly, we referred to ourselves as the Brain Trust from UCLA. When it only took one or two engineers to make an entire game that was a huge benefit.”
“Dune II from Westwood was absolutely the inspiration for Warcraft. We… thought it was among the best games we’d ever played.” – Allen Adham.
During the early 1990s the term Game Director was relatively unheard of, but it was for all intents and purposes the role that Allen would soon find himself in. That being, “the person who sits at the centre of the project, guides tech, design, art, and balances the need of those different disciplines with production and the reality of running the company.” Although moderately successful, as an independent developer working on contract, meeting deadlines proved stressful. “Hitting that milestone was life or death for us,” Allen explains. “We didn’t have any money in the bank and Mike [Morhaime] and I were periodically making payroll on our personal credit cards.”
To help keep the lights on around this time the team would periodically help with the creation of educational software for Davidson & Associates, Inc. As The Lost Vikings and Rock n’ Roll Racing began to garner success and bigger opportunities presented themselves, however, Adham approached the company’s husband-and-wife founders Bob and Jan Davidson to advise that they could no longer offer these services. To his surprise, the pair instead made a surprise acquisition offer. The deal would give Blizzard the backing of a company that could market and publish their games, and Davidson & Associates would get an entertainment division to complement their current sole focus on educational software.
“What was so beautiful about that marriage was they didn’t know anything about gaming,” Adham explains. “And so, we got budgets with no strings attached. That gave us the opportunity then, to do what we wanted for Warcraft and Warcraft II.” Like Lemmings before it, Warcraft was born from a shared love of a single PC game – a ground-breaking effort that all but singlehandedly created a new genre. “Dune II from Westwood was absolutely the inspiration for Warcraft,” Adham confirms. “We played it any chance we got and thought it was among the best games we’d ever played. So then, of course, we immediately wanted to do something similar but with Orcs and battle-axes and put our own spin on it.”
“The watershed product for us, where we knew we really arrived, was Warcraft II,” he adds. “Warcraft 1 came out and it was critically acclaimed, and it sold well, but it laid the groundwork for Warcraft II. Warcraft II was immediately a success. After that touchdown, and Diablo, everything just exploded.”
StarCraft (1998) – PC (MS-DOS) and Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002) – PC (Windows, Mac OS)
As the decade progressed, the development process at Blizzard evolved. Team sizes grew to match the studio’s growing ambition and to make use of the latest technology, like the CD-ROM, which allowed for higher-quality visuals and audio fidelity. Although it had acquired the Diablo team (which would become Blizzard North), allowing for collaboration that “satisfied our need to be working on multiple projects,” the reality is that for several years Blizzard Entertainment was primarily focused on the real-time strategy (RTS) genre.
“There was a period there with the success of Warcraft I and II and then StarCraft, where [RTS] became the company focus,” Adham admits. “We love the genre, but as teams were scaling at that time it was difficult for us to be working on two or three things simultaneously.”
Rapid growth can be exciting, but it also introduces many new challenges. Being able to oversee everything might take a backseat to managing a single team and losing sight of the bigger picture. As the success of Warcraft led to the creation of StarCraft, the core team made the jump to a fully 3D world with Warcraft III whilst Blizzard North continued working on Diablo. Adham and the management team saw this as the perfect opportunity to expand and tackle the idea of a massively multiplayer online RPG.
“It wasn’t until Warcraft III and World of Warcraft that you saw us working on multiple things simultaneously,” Adham says, whilst reiterating that growth at this sort of level, when done right, is a slow and gradual process. “The size of those teams then sort of lays the foundation for, one day, a third team at Blizzard. We all sort of matured as leaders and executives during this time too. The way we did things when we were small, and everybody knew everything because the company was only 20 people, was very different than when we were working on multiple titles and our teams had gone from 30 to 60 people, from 100 to now the 300 people that make up the World of Warcraft team.”
World of Warcraft 2004 – PC (Windows, Mac OS)
But even during all that growth, certain things remained the same. “The secret to our success is simple,” Adham says, “we play a lot of games ourselves”. This shared passion wasn’t just about being entertained or the fun of a social experience with family, co-workers, and friends – it was also about learning, taking stock, and dreaming. “When we play a game that we really enjoy, if we see greatness in it with opportunities to improve, to put our own spin on it, and to take that gameplay and meaningfully advance the state of play, that’s when we get really excited,” Adham explains. “With almost every one of our games, you can point to another game that was the inspiration. If you look at World of Warcraft, you could point to Ultima Online, Everquest. And we played Everquest for a year, all day, every day before we started working on World of Warcraft.”
“We played Everquest for a year, all day, every day before we started working on World of Warcraft.” – Allen Adham.
World of Warcraft, officially announced in 2001, was released in 2004. Its announcement came prior to the release of Warcraft III – and it was Allen Adham who would become the title’s first Game Director. This meant overseeing the studio’s ambitious take on Everquest and the concept of an MMO set within the Warcraft universe for several years, and implementing “very clear ideas of ways we thought we could make it better”. It was a role that would overlap with his growing responsibilities as an executive and leader, which meant that he was also involved with Warcraft III’s development in addition to the running of the company.
A bold new venture into the world of online games, World of Warcraft’s development not only required the creation of brand-new technology, but also infrastructure and ways of thinking to nurture and support an always-online and evolving world. “I had switched places with Mike [Morhaime] to let him run the day-to-day as President,” Adham continues. “Because what I really wanted to do was get back to game development. It’s what I loved doing. For about four or five years, I was working on World of Warcraft as its Game Director whilst also helping run the company. And that was two full time jobs.”
Questing, story, zones, familiar Warcraft locations to visit, and the foundation for communal gaming alongside friends and strangers. The clear division and distinction between the two iconic Warcraft factions, Horde and Alliance, expressed and presented in a way that felt more personal and by extension grandiose. Allen’s official title at the time was Chairman and Vice President of Game Design but creating the core of what would eventually become WoW took its toll.
“WoW’s success made me incredibly proud. It also made me very happy as a gamer. I played World of Warcraft every day for about a decade.” – Allen Adham.
As World of Warcraft began to take shape and reach that all important stage where the words alpha and beta were starting to take hold, Allen Adham made the decision to leave Blizzard. This left many people within the industry and Blizzard itself surprised and stunned. Burnt out from over a decade of being intimately involved with the design of each new Blizzard game, alongside the growth of the company, it was a clean break. “In hindsight what I should have done was just take a sabbatical, recharge my batteries, and come back to Blizzard,” Adham tells me, referring to this decision as “the biggest mistake I ever made”.
“I was still very good friends with all the seniors at Blizzard,” he adds. “WoW’s success made me incredibly proud. It also made me very happy as a gamer. I played World of Warcraft every day for about a decade. I loved what the team did, and the team continues to do with that game. It’s astounding that it has stayed relevant in a way that I never could have imagined.”
Untitled Blizzard Project (20XX) – TBC
Leaving the world of video games for that of the high-priced-suit world of high finance and trading in the stock market, Adham tells me that creating an AI to play the market was not all that different to programming for one of Blizzard’s many classic games; and ultimately, “kind of fun.”
“But I missed the creative energy around making things and I knew it was just a matter of time before I would come back,” he adds. That period was ten years, when, after some market uncertainty, Allen decided to wind down the fund he managed. “Mike was one of the investors and he said, ‘Why don’t you come back? I know you love starting new projects. We could use more of that energy around here.’ I was so happy. I couldn’t start soon enough.” In fact, as Adham recalls, if Mike Morhaime hadn’t brought up the possibility of coming back during that lunch between friends, he would have asked himself.
Returning to Blizzard in 2016, Adham’s new role would reflect his entire career and contribution to both Blizzard and the industry. “Mike sent an email out within of a few days of me returning saying, ‘Hey, Allen is coming back as our Executive Producer of Incubation so if you have new ideas about new products, get in touch with him.’ The number of people that reached out was overwhelming, and I’m pretty proud of how many new teams we’ve started and how many new ideas we’ve been able to build those teams around.”
“It’s given some of our most experienced developers who weren’t at the top most level of their teams, opportunities to step up into new roles,” Adham adds. “Today, we have five public facing teams. But, in fact, we have more new games in development at Blizzard today than we’ve ever had in our history. You can see now, many years later, we can take our many experienced game developers and use them to seed new teams, multiple at the same time. I think we’re heading into a very bright future.” Looking at the history of Blizzard, Adham’s days as a young game designer in high-school, in addition to his general philosophy, his return in this way makes perfect sense.
“Today, we have five public facing teams. But, in fact, we have more new games in development at Blizzard today than we’ve ever had in our history.” – Allen Adham.
Allen Adham’s return would also see him come face to face with World of Warcraft, a game that he was instrumental in creating but over time had made the transition to fan. “When I came back, I gave a talk to the World of Warcraft team,” Adham concludes, “I stood in front of a team of 300 people and I said, ‘I’ll bet you that I have more achievement points than anyone in the room. If anyone has more achievement points than I do, stand up.’ At the time I had something crazy like 22,000 achievement points. And, one person stood up. It was only one out of 300. Turns out it was an engineer that coded the achievement system. Even though I was told they were a die-hard player, I feel that maybe that wasn’t a genuine number.”
And in response to that one recent announcement, the surprise mobile title. Adham pauses before responding in a measured tone, “We find that every time we announce a new thing, people are a little bit confused at first. They know what they know, and they love what they love,” adding with a smile, “and, they’re so passionate about our games. We’ll get everybody to fall in love with everything we do, eventually.”
Note: This interview took place at BlizzCon 2018. Huge thanks to Allen Adham for his time.
Kosta Andreadis is a freelancer writer and music producer based in Melbourne. Check out his new album here and be sure to read his epic Diablo 20th anniversary feature and StarCraft retrospective. He’s also on Twitter.