Rock and Roll Days of StarCraft: a Development Retrospective

2017/04/27 | Blizzard Entertainment

The year was 1997, and Blizzard art director Samwise Didier’s ’65 Mustang was producing an alarming amount of smoke. The ancient vehicle was held together by little more than duct tape and prayer, and by the time Didier pulled into his garage one sunny Southern California afternoon, it was clear that neither countermeasure would suffice for long.

Didier popped the hood and assessed the situation. His car was on fire. He leapt into the driver’s seat and backed out of the garage, identified the flaming component, extracted it, and stomped it out on the pavement.

“Guys would get new cars, or they’d wreck them, and they’d need a ride to work, so they’d be driving with you for a month,” Didier says. “It was always through neglect. ‘Oh, I forgot to put oil in it.’ Just dumb, stupid stuff. It was always happening.”

They were a ragtag bunch of twenty-something friends working sixty hours a week, plus half-days on weekends. They played Street Fighter and Samurai Shodown, jury-rigged beat-up cars, jammed out on electric guitars, blew off steam at karaoke bars and concerts. They didn’t know it yet, but the sci-fi game they were building, one wild improvisation at a time, would become a landmark in the real-time strategy genre and a fixture of global esports. The name of the game was StarCraft.    

In the Beginning…

Nineteen years after StarCraft’s release, it remains popular around the world, especially in South Korea, where it’s broadcast on cable television and played live before thousands of cheering fans. With such enduring appeal, it’s tempting to assume that the game’s development was a closely choreographed ballet of art and design. In reality, it was more like a bar brawl.

“There wasn’t a lot of thought process,” says Didier. “It was more of—let’s put this in, and boom. That’s our Siege Tank. That’s our Battlecruiser. There was no going back, no ‘Hey, can we redo this?’ There was no desire for that. It was cool, just as it was.”

Trevor Jacobs was one of Blizzard’s earliest artists. One of his responsibilities was to produce concept art for all the Terran buildings. He drew three or four pages of structures; the team cut and pasted the ones they liked.

“That looks like an armory; add a smoke stack!” Didier recalls saying. “That looks like a barracks—actually, it looks more like a toaster, but we’ll call it the barracks.”

The team quickly settled on a set of general design guidelines. Terran structures were square and clunky, Protoss structures were elegant and rounded, and Zerg structures were vaguely triangular, covered with spikes. When it came right down to it, though, artists like Didier and Jacobs mostly followed their instincts.

“I made the Battlecruiser, and I remember taking squares and rectangles and smashing them together, because it didn’t have to be precise,” says Didier. “We would render the models out to tiny little images at each of the angles.” Years later, the Battlecruiser’s iconic hammerhead design remains one of his proudest contributions to the Blizzard multiverse.

StarCraft’s world was born in a whirlwind of creativity. “When we made these races, we just threw a bunch of crap at the wall and saw what stuck,” says Didier. “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.” 

The team took inspiration from a wide array of science fiction media, but added their own unique spin. The Protoss were loosely based on the superintelligent “gray alien” archetype—with important differences.

“We made ours eight or nine feet tall instead of the skimpy pre-pubescent gray aliens with no muscle tone,” Didier says. “Our Protoss have giant golden armor they have to support. Those little guys couldn’t do it, you know?”

The Terran race, on the other hand, was an attempt to bring a gritty “Wild West” atmosphere to space.

“We used a low-down, dirty vibe—a little bit of a mafia vibe, a redneck vibe, a mad scientist vibe—and that was our version of the space marine. Where you’re used to seeing all these polished Galactic Federations, we did the opposite: the street gangs, the prisoners.”

Practically every unit in StarCraft embodies this pattern of freewheeling improvisation.

Dark Templar? “A Protoss ninja,” says Didier. “And what does a ninja wear? Sometimes they have a cool face mask. Zeratul’s got the little face wrap going on. Makes him look like sort of a wise shamany-type ninja mystic.”

Ghosts? “They were these government-made genetically engineered things. We weren’t super tight with the lore back then, so it was like ‘Oh, maybe they grow a bunch of these dudes in vats! Maybe he’s got six fingers, so he can pull two triggers!’ (Laughs) Not that he couldn’t already! It was goofy.”

Zerglings? “Cinematics had a version, the game team had a version, and the portrait had its own thing going on, so when doing art for the manual, I just came up with my own version too. My concept spent a few months in the Smithsonian as part of a video game exhibit, so I think I won.”

When Blizzard first showed StarCraft to the public at E3 1996, the Smithsonian couldn’t have seemed further away. Journalists were unimpressed; many labeled the game “Orcs in Space,” a dig at the early build’s similarities to Warcraft II. According to Didier, work hadn’t begun in earnest yet, and the lukewarm reception was a result of tight deadlines and insufficient preparation.

“I remember that period as ‘Holy shit, E3 is coming up, we need to have something,’” he says, “so we basically just . . . made stuff.”

After E3, the team set out to overhaul the game. For a while, though, StarCraft took the back seat to another Blizzard project:

“One by one, everybody from StarCraft went to Diablo,” says technical director Bob Fitch, “until I was the only one left.”

In the next two months, Fitch rebuilt the entire engine from scratch.

“I took the list of things we couldn’t do,” says Fitch, “like units that could move one direction while facing another—and I rewrote the engine so that it could do all those things.”

Another problem was that other studios were getting into 3D graphics, and Blizzard still hand-drew their models, pixel by pixel. Didier and the other artists began experimenting with 3D—though the results, at least at first, were less than promising.

 “I think it was the Goliath that we first made, and it just looked kind of doink, from the game view. It was muddy, and when you rendered it out, everything looked like it was one or two pixels thick.”

To deal with this problem, the art team made the models wider and thicker, resulting in a distinctive over-the-top style.

“Everything on PC at that time was photorealistic, or trying to be, with realistic proportions, and we just said, It doesn’t look cool. What we started trying to do with Warcraft was max things out. And then in StarCraft, instead of having one gun, it was three guns, and they were all chunky,” says Didier. “The ‘Blizzard Style’ was inspired by a technical necessity—from trying to make things translate.”

This wasn’t the only occasion when technical restrictions determined the artistic direction of the game. The team was limited to fifteen colors for each model, but Didier didn’t mind. “You know when you go to a restaurant and they give you a piece of paper to draw on, and a box of busted crayons, and you’re kind of making do with what you’ve got? And you end up with cool stuff because you’re forced to use color combinations you’d never normally use?”

Silicon & Synapse

In 1993, a 21-year-old artist named Brian Sousa came across a job posting in the computer lab at Orange Coast College.

“Can you draw this Viking?” asked the flyer. Beneath the illustration were instructions on applying to a videogame company called Silicon & Synapse.

Sousa drew the Viking and printed it out. He took the picture home, along with the information from the flyer, but never applied. A couple weeks later, he received a call from somebody named Allen Adham.

“We got your resume,” said Adham, one of the company’s cofounders. “Want to come in?”

“Sure!” said Sousa, bewildered. It turned out his mother had taken the application into her own hands.

“She had asked me about my resume and stuff like that, but I hadn’t really thought about it,” says Sousa. “I called her up, like—did you send this in?”

(“Oh, that’s funny,” says Adham when he hears this story today. “It’s probably a good thing he didn’t tell me about that.”)

Sousa landed a two-week internship. Then he landed the job. At the time, Silicon & Synapse was working on three games: The Death and Return of Superman, Blackthorne, and a project called Warcraft. With such a small team, and so much going on, life in the studio was barely-restrained bedlam.

“I was working all the time,” says Sousa. “I loved it. Everybody there was working all the time.”

Many Blizzard veterans still working at the company today have similarly humble origin stories. Trevor Jacobs was working in a sign shop, hand-cutting wood and foam letters, before he landed the gig. Other artists came from ice cream shops, movie theaters, and various part-time jobs. Blizzard’s original “sound guy,” Glenn Stafford, was initially hired on a one-week trial basis. He spent that first week stationed in cofounder Mike Morhaime’s office, porting music and sound effects for the PC version of The Lost Vikings.

In keeping with the tumultuous atmosphere, the company changed its name twice in the next few years. For a short while it was known as Chaos Studios. This conflicted with another company’s brand, though, and in 1994 a ballot with alternatives was hastily circulated. “Blizzard” won the vote.

Sousa can’t remember the runner-up. “It seemed like one of those things where Allen and Mike probably really liked ‘Blizzard,’ and they didn’t want something else to win, so they threw a bunch of crappy options on there,” he says, laughing.

Ask Adham about the name and his face lights up. “’Chaos’ represented a fundamental belief that the iterative process of making games is chaotic and that you need to embrace that,” he says. “And then we got a cease-and-desist, so we switched to Blizzard, but it was the same basic principle: this powerful, chaotic force, this fury—but it’s actually quite beautiful. It leaves beauty in its wake.”

According to Adham, this embrace of chaos was—and still is—key to Blizzard’s success. “It’s not what you learn in business school. It’s sort of the opposite to say, no no no, don’t do any of that, just give your guys the freedom to go hog wild for a period of time. Given enough freedom to iterate, and game directors who don’t abuse that freedom—out of that comes Overwatch, and Hearthstone . . . and StarCraft.”

StarCraft’s development embodies this philosophy of wild, spontaneous innovation. For instance, its cinematics entered production long before the rest of the game had been solidified. When he started out, Sousa says, “even the units weren’t done! We were like, well I don’t know what the Terran units look like, so . . . just go with this.”

At the time, nobody had any idea what the main storyline was going to be. The animators pulled together quirky self-contained scenes, choosing characters and topics almost on a whim. Sousa recounts a typical planning session:

“What are you doing next?”

“Ahh, there’s a guy driving through the desert, and they run over a Zergling.”

“Okay, well, then what happens?”

“Ehh . . . then a bunch more zerg show up.”

Budget and time constraints forced the team to improvise in many areas. Glenn Stafford, now a senior composer, cobbled together StarCraft’s sound effects however he could.

“A lot of the zerg sounds are probably just me,” says Stafford, “with a microphone, going like—” (he pulls his cheek out and wiggles it around) “HUWEAauguhughugh—”

In fact, most of the unit voices in StarCraft were done by Blizzard employees. Stafford voiced the SCV and most of the protoss units. (He later reprised his role as the SCV in StarCraft II.)

Employee audio contributions weren’t limited to unit lines. Big Tuna, a band of Blizzard employees, volunteered one of their songs, a sort of hillbilly two-step, for StarCraft’s cinematic intro.

“We could have written something new,” says Stafford, “but that was just so perfect.”

Play Nice; Play Fair

Despite the heavy workload, StarCraft’s development had no shortage of fun-loving mayhem. There was always plenty of alcohol around the office, until two employees got into a scuffle, after which there was no alcohol around the office (for a while). There were nicknames and Halloween parties and late-night trips to karaoke bars. (The best karaoke singer at the company was Roman Kenney, whose specialty, “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” by The Darkness, won him several contests. “I still go about once a week,” he says.)

The abundance of powerful personalities left a mark on every area of the company. For instance, Trevor Jacobs remembers receiving diametrically opposite design guidance from his superiors.

“I remember being in a little room, working on something, and my boss would say ‘Okay cool, make it gray, and maybe lean it up—make it taller and leaner.’

On his way out he’d high-five with Sam [Didier]. ‘Hey man, what’s up!’

‘What’s up!’

And then, after my boss was gone, Sammy would walk over and say ‘Cool cool cool. Alright, make it bigger, and shorter, and more colorful.’”

Another good-natured dispute centered over what to call the in-game props that populated StarCraft’s world. A programmer from Texas suggested “Doohickies.” This suggestion was roundly rejected by the rest of the team, which eventually settled on “Doodads.”

Then there were the pranks. Glenn Stafford once installed a fake virus on cinematics whiz Joeyray Hall’s PC. It was right after the company’s computers had been networked together, so the risk of an actual virus, though minuscule, did technically exist. Stafford put a batch file on a floppy disk and stuck it in Hall’s machine. When it booted up the next morning, Hall was confronted with a terrible choice:

“Press Y to reformat your hard drive, or N to activate the virus.”

When Stafford arrived, he found Hall, Adham, and a few others leaning over the computer.

“Glenn,” said Adham, with an intense stare, “did you do something to Joeyray’s computer?”

This wasn’t the only occasion that antics backfired. An engineer in the office collected empty cans of Coke. His ever-growing collection filled two windows. Trevor Jacobs and Brian Sousa decided to replace the cans with Pepsi, which the engineer despised. This required buying and drinking hundreds of cans over a several-week period.

“We were drinking so much Pepsi, we were sick from it,” Jacobs says.

The Friday before the weekend they intended to perform the can-swap, the engineer in question left the company.

Jacobs recalls this story with genuine anguish. “We were like, are you kidding me? We had it all planned. We had three or four trash bags, all full of empty Pepsi cans.”

While everyone was proud of the game they created, it’s safe to say that nobody at Blizzard realized StarCraft would do as well as it did. Even after it came out, and sales numbers were good, the game’s true impact took a while to dawn on the team.

“We were excited when 10,000 people were playing our game,” says Jacobs, “and oh my gosh it was amazing, and then the Korea thing blew up, and I don’t think we quite grasped it, at least at my level, what that meant?”

“It almost felt like a fluke,” says Didier, “but it kept growing and growing, and it wasn’t just Korea, it was everywhere.”

“We were hoping to sell a hundred thousand copies,” says Fitch, shaking his head. “It turned out to be in the millions.”

In the winter of 1998, after Brood War came out, everyone in the office was playing it. Adham came around to tell the team they could go home.

“We were like ‘Wait a sec,’” says Jacobs, “let us finish just a couple more games before we leave.”

That part hasn’t changed a bit.

Looking Back

Mike Morhaime, president & CEO of Blizzard Entertainment, sits on a couch in his office, unwinding after a typically lengthy day.

Does it feel kind of surreal, looking back at all this?

“Yes,” he says.

Does it all feel inevitable, somehow?

“No.”

How much chance was involved?

He thinks about that one for a while. It’s silent except for the A/C. On his bookshelves are neatly organized game boxes: every Blizzard game ever released. There’s a sword and shield on the wall. Sculptures, figurines everywhere.

“I don’t know if I would say ‘chance,’” he says. “Some of it, you know, finding talented people . . . but I also feel like we put ourselves in a position to get lucky.”

“I think we worked really hard,” he continues. “We assembled a group that was really talented, passionate, and committed. StarCraft didn’t make itself. The team killed itself to make that game. We put everything we had into it.”

Though he cofounded the company, and was serving as vice president in 1997, Mike had a hands-on role in StarCraft’s development. He worked on unit behaviors, implementing art and animations. The code that controls resource-harvesting is all his. He also came up with the cheat codes. Every early Blizzard strategy game had a code for skipping campaign levels; Mike made each of these a title of a different Natalie Merchant album. StarCraft’s was “Ophelia.”

“Nobody ever really figured that one out,” he says.

Things that seemed impossible then are obvious now. Mike says the StarCraft team didn’t finalize the game’s economy until four months before release. As central as Minerals and Vespene Gas are to StarCraft’s identity, they were some of the last pieces to fall into place.

“When we were working on StarCraft, it felt like the weight of the world was on our shoulders,” he says. “It didn’t feel at all guaranteed that we were going to complete the game.”

Is there a part of him that misses that era?

“Oh, absolutely, yeah.”

All of a sudden he stands up.

“I would come into Sammy [Didier]’s office a lot and we’d talk about stuff. He used to have a whale on his desk.”

Mike goes to the back of the room and roots around behind his desk. Produces a toy, a killer whale, maybe a foot long.

“I used to pick it up, walk around with it.”

He’s looking at the whale, carrying it slowly back to the couch.

“Anyway, one day I just took it.”

He and Sam have been stealing it back and forth ever since.

Mike sets the whale on the table, and the conversation travels elsewhere. Eventually it gravitates toward esports. The first time Mike witnessed professional StarCraft play was in South Korea in 1999.

“We went to an event celebrating 2 million copies of StarCraft and Brood War sold in Korea. There was a StarCraft match that was going to be played. We drove up to the event hall and there were people everywhere. We were like, wait—what are all these people here for? Is there something else going on?”

He grins. “They were there for the StarCraft match. The hall was completely full. I was blown away, because the crowd understood the game so well. The cheering when somebody lost an SCV, or killed a Science Vessel—”

He pauses.

“I hadn’t seen anything like it. It was so cool to see people playing our game, that we had made, at such a level . . . and people watching them, and appreciating the skill that it took to play!”

Discussions about remastering StarCraft have been floating around Blizzard for a while. But it’s not so hard to imagine that the origin of the idea traces all the way back to this first tournament, when Mike saw just how passionately players had embraced StarCraft, and turned it into something greater than Blizzard had ever foreseen.

“We put in a little effort to modernize it now,” Mike says, in reference to StarCraft: Remastered, “so people can play it for years to come.”

When the interview is over, Mike goes to open the door, but first he picks up the toy whale.

“It’s a good weight,” he says, holding it out. “Want to see?” 

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