All Your Base are Belong to Us: how 50 years of videogames conquered pop culture

In All Your Base Are Belong to Us, Harold Goldberg's comprehensive, new history of videogames, the author details the humble origins of what would become a multibillion dollar company, Blizzard Studios. Just after graduating college, Allen Adham, Mike Morhaime and Frank Pearce got together to make games their way. They eventually hired Chris Metzen, who brought some tight, savvy storytelling to the company. But their early success was complicated by the ups and downs of making what would become the uber popular MMO, World of Warcraft. Here's an excerpt.
all-your-base.jpg Shortly after Blizzard was sold once again -- this time to the French- based Vivendi/Universal -- EverQuest began demanding hours upon hours from the lives of hard-core gamers everywhere. The staff at Blizzard in Irvine was not immune to its many enticements, and Adham, now back in the fold, was completely fascinated. So was one of his newer hires, Rob Pardo. Pardo originally had dreams of becoming a movie director, but he ended up managing a local Software Etc. store. After becoming a game tester, he worked his way up to producer at Interplay and was slowly moving into game design. Pardo looked at the smart but soft-spoken Adham as a game design mentor. They began to have intense, constructive discussions; but the two really began to bond when playing EverQuest together. Pardo was so fascinated by EverQuest that he became the Guild Master of Legacy of Steel, one of the gangs of guys who became über-experts at the vagaries of the game.

Meanwhile, Blizzard was bogged down in creating a role playing game called Nomad, which had a post-apocalyptic theme and dinosaurlike monsters that were outfitted with tanklike weapons. The wow element would be that you controlled not just one person, but a complete squad of characters. Yet few were satisfied with the direction of Nomad, because none of the Nomad team was able to explain satisfactorily to the top dogs why people would want to play the game and what was special about it. It also had a new game engine, the software that made the game work, which wasn't quite perfected.

In mid-1999 Adham began to consider making an MMO at Blizzard. With the team, he tossed around the idea of using one of their established series as a springboard into the worlds of massively multiplayer games instead of creating a new universe from scratch. Adham and Pardo began retreating to the food court of the Fashion Island Mall in Irvine to have intense discussions.

"Should we do StarCraft, Warcraft, or Diablo?" wondered Adham. The latter, a game based on epic throw-downs between the forces of heaven and hell, was being made at a separate office entirely, in northern California. Whatever the game would be, it would be centered in the Irvine headquarters, where it could be easily overseen. Diablo, while alluring and popular, didn't seem to have the great depth of a StarCraft or Warcraft. And as they looked at EverQuest, which they admired to the point of drooling, they saw that that world could be improved upon.

"There are a lot of questions to answer," said Pardo. "What would the classes be comprised of? What about the healers; how powerful should they be? When a player dies, what is the penalty; how much of his experience does he lose? Or shouldn't he lose any?"

The challenges Blizzard needed to deal with seemed endless. In addition, Metzen thought the non-playable fantasy characters could be fashioned to have short but appealing tales to tell when a player engaged them. For story, he gravitated toward the mythology of Warcraft, which was not completely unlike that of his favorite comic books, like Simonson's Thor.

In meetings, Metzen noted that while EverQuest was really cool, its pantheon of gods wasn't in the foreground. He felt that Blizzard could better weave the fabric of story in this world of sword and sorcery. Tales would be the lure that would lead the gamer through this endless world full of social engagement. It was story that would constantly intrigue the gamer during the otherwise often banal game process of leveling up to make your avatar stronger.

Pearce, gruff on the outside but a sweet guy on the inside, didn't object to a rich story by any means. But he wondered aloud if building such a massive world was the right path on which to tread. "I know everyone here likes EverQuest. But the gaming experience I'm accustomed to and have enjoyed is playing something that has a beginning and an end. I like to play something and have a goal to finish the game. An MMO doesn't have an end. Why do I want to play this game in perpetuity?"

But the passion for EverQuest won out quickly, and even Pearce came on board after getting sucked into playing SOE's game. Within a month, Morhaime was on the first of a muckle of trips to Havas Interactive, the videogames arm of Vivendi, at the Universal lot. During lunch, he tried to convince members of the board to sign on to an expensive MMO based on the Warcraft franchise. While Vivendi had questions about the high budget, Morhaime came armed with projections showing that a million players would subscribe in the United States within the first year. During the presentation, he also made a good case for four million players around the world, including Europe, South Korea, and China. The Frenchmen were supportive, but dubious of those numbers. There were logical questions: Why would a company that was so successful with its strategy games move into a completely new genre? Morhaime said that MMOs were the way of the future, and the future was now. It didn't hurt Morhaime's cause that EverQuest had been a runaway success. And other megacorporations wanted to get on the bandwagon. Warner Bros. was spending a small fortune to publish The Matrix Online, an MMO version of the Wachowski brothers' cryptic films. So was Sony with its LucasArts collaboration for Star Wars Galaxies. No one wanted to get left behind, including Vivendi.

Blizzard's goal with World of Warcraft had been the grail of game makers since the beginning of the videogame revolution. They wanted to make a game that was a challenge to master but also easy to play. Pulling that off was like the ultimate leveling up for a videogame executive. The task they faced, if they looked at it in the long run, was terrifying. All Your Base Are Belong to Us

Excerpted from All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture Copyright @ 2011 by Harold Goldberg. Reprinted by Permission of Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

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    1. I think video games are important enough aspect of popular culture that they can support dozens of books on the subject.

  1. I wonder if the person who wrote that Japlish appreciates the echoes that have eminated from the keyboard of the programmer who wrote that. I hope someone has interviewed this fellow and his/her story is on the record of what will no doubt be a long lived part of the English language.

  2. in the meantime, EA was busy destroying Ultima Online and slowly but surely annoying the crap out of every single employee of Origin Systems.

  3. I’ve been using computers and gaming longer than most (since 1980), but surely counting fifty years of video gaming in pop culture is a bit of an exaggeration. I’m assuming the fifty years comes from the 1961-1962 Spacewar, but I’m not sure how a game played by handful of MIT researchers really counts as pop culture…

    1. I used a Digital Equipment PDP-7 in Edinburgh to play a game with home-made paddle controls and later on a light pen, and also a Teletype lunar-lander text interactive game and Michies tic-tac-toe which was ultimately only a draw (once the computer learned the decision tree of moves)

      all of this in the 1960s, and all of this outside of MIT.

  4. this looks to be an awesome read. thanks for the tip! happily, i see there’s a kindle edition.

    1. Yes and, thanks to Random House, it’s priced higher than the dead tree version on Amazon. So pisses me off…

  5. Kind of an odd title imo, considering that Zero Wing isn’t really known for being a videogame.

    1. Ummmm…but it IS a videogame. And I’m pretty sure most people who are familiar with ALLYOURBASE know that.

  6. I kicked the Warcraft habit and never looked back. That game is a vampire that sucks the life out of you.

  7. I went to UCLA with Allen and he gave me my first job out of school at Silicon & Synapse before it became Chaos and then Blizzard. I’m very happy for his success. Nice guy and very smart.

    1. While some douche bags would like you to believe that, I’d like to think we still have enough semblance of sanity to not try to assert ownership over the particular order of letters.

  8. I would take this book for free.

    People that say WoW is addictive are pathetic. I’ve played in the past, not currently. It’s definitely just a fun game that can take up a lot of spare time, if you have it. These MMORPGs don’t really fit well in this current economic environment with everyone scrambling to make ends meet. But if things get worse than these games will really be more appropriate, it’s such a cheap hobby and a great escape from reality.

  9. “Should we do StarCraft, Warcraft, or Diablo?” wondered Adham.” God damn, if they only chose Diablo! WoW is fucking hideous (Warcraft is hideous).

  10. And awesomely timely for the opening of Barcade in Jersey City, NJ! Gotta get my Defender on.

  11. I bought this book recently and as interesting as the stories are the guy needs an editor. He writes like he is talking on behalf of all gamers and comes up with some crazy comments claiming that the reason we all played Doom was because we were rebelling against our parents…seriously ‘What The Fuck!’

    He also uses game lines througout the book which feel forced.

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