Many of today's adult video gamers grew up with a gaming industry that was still trying to figure itself out. In the early-to-mid 1990s, most of the gaming genres we're familiar with today were still indistinct, half-formed concepts waiting for that one game necessary to define them. Thus, many players sat up and took notice when a relatively unknown company named Blizzard managed to exemplify not one, but two separate types of game in quick succession. Warcraft: Orcs and Humans put real-time strategy on the map, and Diablo set the standard for action RPGs. The two games immediately elevated Blizzard to the top of the industry, and many gamers wondered how one studio could put out two games like these so quickly. As it turns out, it wasn't one studio; it was a blending of two very different but extremely creative groups who had a passion for making video games. In Stay Awhile and Listen, author David Craddock lays out the history of the two groups, from how they first got into the gaming business to their eventual success launching now-legendary games. Read on for our review of the book.
Before going into the content of the book, I want to discuss its form. Stay Awhile and Listen, unlike most books that chronicle past events, flows almost like a documentary film. Craddock conducted years worth of interviews with former Blizzard staff, and the story of what happened is tightly interwoven with actual quotes from those interviews. The effect is illustrative; during the narrative parts, it's easy to imagine, for example, a group of young developers hunched in front of faintly glowing screens. During the quotations, you can picture the older and wiser industry veterans sitting in front of a camera and explaining those early days with smiles on their faces.
The structure of the book itself is rather unusual as well. Because of the author's extensive research, the sheer volume of historical material is almost overwhelming. In order to keep it focused on the development of Blizzard's early games, Craddock narrowed down the main story to only the most relevant events. However, to preserve all of the extra background information without cluttering the pages with endless footnotes, he added a secondary section appropriately named "Side Quests." When the author or the one of the developers mention a side-topic, there's a small link noting the availability of a Side Quest. Hitting the link takes you to the exact page it's on, and when you're done, there's a link returning you to the exact page you left. Some of these excerpts are even sourced with shortened URLs, in case you want to dive even more deeply into the history.
The Side Quests contain anecdotes, lessons on game design, technical bits from early development, and even information on content that never made it into the games. When reading Stay Awhile and Listen, I was struck by how nice it was for somebody to finally take advantage of the flexibility of digital books. One of the advantages of real books over ebooks is that it's much easier to flip backward or forward with a physical copy. The links within this book made that a non-issue. In addition to the Side Quests, there are a few extra chapters called Bonus Rounds, which contain background on the parts of the gaming industry that supported Blizzard during its rise.
For somebody who played a lot of the early Blizzard games, I was still surprised by a lot of the information in this book. I remember years ago firing up Diablo and seeing the Blizzard North logo. I wondered what made that group different from the "normal" Blizzard developers. It's easy to look at a company and assume uniform identity or uniform goals, but Stay Awhile and Listen makes clear that Blizzard Entertainment and Blizzard North were two fundamentally different studios that had their own ways of doing things, and strong opinions about how their games should work. Fortunately for them (and for us), the biggest thing they had in common was a real love for gaming, and for making the best game they could. This let them work well together despite their frequent and contentious debates.
Getting a look into the development of Diablo and Warcraft was interesting as well. Usually, when we think about design decisions, we imagine the developers debating the finer points of the finished product. (Do we let players use a rail gun or a rocket launcher? Is our last class a Paladin or a Mage?) So, learning that some of the most basic aspects of these games were almost very different was fascinating and perplexing. For example, Dave Brevik conceived of Diablo as a graphical interpretation of the text-based dungeon crawlers of the 80s. These games were largely turn-based — and so was the earliest incarnation of Diablo. Looking back on it now, it's jarring to think of Diablo as a turn-based game. It's like finding out that Looney Tunes was almost stop-motion animated, or that pizza was almost salad. Stay Awhile and Listen provides perspectives on the game's transition, and a fascinating description of how, once the decision was made, Brevik sat down and hammered out the code necessary to turn the game into the Diablo we now.
It was also nice to read about some of the technical details behind the games. Strip away the last 20 years worth of lessons in how to develop software, and you end up with talented programmers putting out brilliant, but ugly and hard-to-maintain code. I'm always curious to know what technologies underpin the software I use; if you're the same way, you'll enjoy reading about what they used and how they decided to use it. (Necessity is a powerful thing.) At the same time, you'll get a feel for how shaky the whole business proposition was to start. Nowadays, Blizzard is largely inscrutable as a business. But budding game developers will be heartened to see how a successful company arose from humble beginnings.
Stay Awhile and Listen is incredibly well sourced. Over three dozen former Blizzard employees contributed to this book. This goes all the way to the top — Dave Brevik, Erich Schaefer, and Max Schaefer were the three co-founders of Condor Inc., which became Blizzard North, and all three feature prominently. We also hear from Mike Morhaime, Frank Pearce, and Allen Adham, who founded Silicon & Synapse, which went on to become Blizzard Entertainment. There are also discussions with Blizzard veterans like Pat Wyatt (whose anecdotes we've discussed before), Bill Roper, and composer Matt Uelmen.
The book is well-written, and the story flows well. If you played these games when you were younger and you're interested in how they came to be, Stay Awhile and Listen is well worth picking up. It'd also be useful to anybody jumping into game development (probably start-up software development, too), as it gives a perspective on how Blizzard adopted the ideals it still holds to this day, like "we'll release when it's finished," and "if you can defend your idea, everybody will consider it." It's also the first in a series documenting Blizzard's history; future volumes will focus on StarCraft, World of Warcraft, and the continuation of each franchise.
Stay Awhile and Listen is published by DM Press on the Kindle and iBooks platforms, and will soon be available for the Nook as well. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews (sci-fi included) — to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.