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Book Review: Stay Awhile and Listen 66

Posted by Soulskill
from the stay-awhile-and-read dept.
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.
Stay Awhile and Listen
author David Craddock
pages 399
publisher DM Press
rating 9/10
reviewer Jeff Boehm
ISBN 978-0-9884099-0-3
summary A look into the humble beginnings of Blizzard

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.

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Book Review: Stay Awhile and Listen

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  • really? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 31, 2013 @01:15PM (#45292115)

    I'm an adult who grew up with video games and I feel like the industry knew more of what they were doing in the early 90s than they do today. Now, it's like the industry doesn't have a clue.

    • Re:really? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by i kan reed (749298) on Thursday October 31, 2013 @01:19PM (#45292147) Homepage Journal

      Oh no, they have a clue, but their clue is that more marketing=more money. Better game = not much more money. The real problem we have today is that the "games industry" has gotten into the same degree of consumeristic manipulation as other industries.

      Also, video games used to target a more intellectual audience, because there was a time when you had to be seriously interested in computers to play most games.

      • Oh no, they have a clue, but their clue is that more marketing=more money. Better game = not much more money.

        They learned this from Hollywood and, if Hollywood is anything to go by, things in the AAA game field will only get worse. If the movie industry analogy pans out, which it more or less seems to be doing, then we end up with two clusters: 1) A load of expensive, technically impressive, but derivative titles. 2) Titles that are cheaper and less technically impressive (i.e. shorter, less content, graphically simpler) but more creative, more thoughtfully made, etc. The rare happy moments occur when 1 & 2 m

        • Eh, it's a little nostalgic, but intellectually simplifying and, for lack of a better phrase, "hurrying" games is definitely part of the work, even with indie games today. I miss turn based strategy games that depend on reflection and planning, for example. That's not to say they don't exist, but they're place in the market has diminished.

          • I miss turn based strategy games that depend on reflection and planning, for example. That's not to say they don't exist, but they're place in the market has diminished.

            I miss them too. I spent AGES playing the first Civ on my Amiga 1200 and that was a really big title back then: a big deal. I agree you don't often see a game like that being marketed heavily nowadays. I don't know much about Eve Online, but perhaps it's the spiritual successor of games such as Civ. I think the increase in computing power that we've seen over the last 15 years has pushed things towards real-time and away from turn-based.

          • by Derec01 (1668942)

            I'm going to disagree on one metric. While they may make a much smaller proportion of games released nowadays, I honestly feel that there are more of these games around. Not to mention, the older games are still here, and more accessible than ever through GOG.com or even re-released classics on Steam.

          • by Darinbob (1142669)

            I sometimes get the idea that a game that has 200+ hours of game play is seen as a bad idea by the makers, because it means less money being spent to buy more games. Thus the rise of paid DLCs that feel not much better than fan made mods, and only a tiny fraction of a real sequel.

      • by Darinbob (1142669)

        Games used to be a niche market. The buyers wanted a certain amount of game play and were willing to put up with mediocre graphics as long as the game was fun, and the game companies had much smaller budgets as well. Today though games are becoming mass market items (and are already there in some demographics). So the game companies now are following a Hollywood model: spend a lot of money to make things look nice and sound nice, follow a fixed formula that creates a blockbuster and do not deviate from i

      • by Clsid (564627)

        It's not even the marketing that bugs me, more of an issue with DRM taking down whole games like Anno 2070 for instance. One hell of a game but so screwed up by DRM that in my case there was a gamesave file corruption that wouldn't go away even if I reinstalled the whole PC, since it was in their cloud tied to my account. And for some strange reason they would even refuse to reset my account back to normal.

      • by qwak23 (1862090)

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTzyz2TgGls [youtube.com]

        Not an argument or anything like that, just relevant.

    • by Derec01 (1668942)

      They may not have a clue what you like, but that's because they definitely have a clue where the most money comes from and don't really care what you like. And unfortunately for those of who were early gamers, we are now a niche in an industry that expanded well past us.

      Although to be fair, that's mostly speaking of big budget games. Indie gaming has almost never been better. If you can't find something you like there, I daresay you aren't looking beyond the big budget marketing.

    • by Darinbob (1142669)

      How about the 80s, they knew a lot then too.

    • by Clsid (564627)

      DRM might be a bit bad, but in general we have so many choices today that I truly feel that even if I have two lives I wouldn't be able to consume everything that is out there. Sure there were a lot of gems back then, but don't be too nostalgic and try to enjoy what you have today as well. And today you have stuff like Bioshock Infinite, Civ V, Anno 2070, racing games like Grid 2 or any NFS, and don't even forget about things like World of Warcraft, Battlefield et al. I mean, Doom was fun but that doesn't e

  • For me, Diablo always looked like Nethack with fancy graphics, and when I first saw Warcraft, I thought: Hey, they used the Dune II engine and replaced the SF artwork with a fantasy one...

    As a consequence, I never played Diablo, and I only played one map in Warcraft.

    • Diablo was nethack with fancy graphics(and a lack of absurd combinations of effects). That's what made it succeed. People like roguelikes(i.e. randomly generated worlds, permadeath, and RPG-like advancement), that's been borne out again and again recently. Many don't like text interfaces.

      • Unfortunately those same people have continued to streamline newer Diablo release far past the point they should have. When i play a character based rpg, I don't want to respec for each area I go through. It breaks my sense of character, and they all feel the same. I really enjoyed playing Skyrim, but after a while it turns into a 'follow the waypoint' sort of game, and even though every character has individual stories, I don't end up caring.

        Personally, I prefer something like Brogue [google.com], Sil [amirrorclear.net], or Dwarf [bay12games.com]
        • Eh, I personally love dwarf fortress, and still sometimes play nethack or angband. But that has little bearing on popular tastes.

      • by Bigbutt (65939)

        Actually it was Moria with fancy graphics. The problem I had with Diablo is the same one I had with Moria. Each time you went down into the dungeon, the map was different. Nethack saved the levels so going through them was the same each time you went, for that character's incarnation. I was much more of a fan (and programmer for a bit) of Nethack.

        [John ]

        • Nethack does no such thing as diablo. New game=new dungeon. Continue game, same dungeon(multiplayer excluded due to natural restrictions).

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      For me, Diablo always looked like Nethack with fancy graphics, and when I first saw Warcraft, I thought: Hey, they used the Dune II engine and replaced the SF artwork with a fantasy one...

      As a consequence, I never played Diablo, and I only played one map in Warcraft.

      I noticed the same things, but I played through the games. I enjoyed their new take on old ideas.

    • by Kaenneth (82978)

      I started with Modem Wars ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modem_Wars [wikipedia.org] ) and Nethack

    • when I first saw Warcraft, I thought: Hey, they used the Dune II engine and replaced the SF artwork with a fantasy one...

      That's exactly what WarCraft 1 was. It used the Dune 2 control scheme and included silly restrictions like forcing you to build roads before you could build buildings next to them just like Dune 2 forced you to build cement slabs. I want to say you had to build units centrally like Dune 2, but that may be wrong. WarCraft 1 also ran tediously slowly and I don't remember it having a game speed control.

      WarCraft 2 added a bunch of new controls, like right-click to move instead of right-click to cancel, remove

      • And then WarCraft 3 came out, which added Hero units. The less said about those the better.

        Like you, I never really liked WC3 much, but it spawned DotA, DotA2, LoL... arguably the most played PC games ever made. One man's junk is another man's treasure :)

    • by Derec01 (1668942)

      I am not what one would call a Diablo or Warcraft fan, but this seems an odd reason to avoid a game. We still read poetry with iambic pentameter or purchase phones that are just "Newtons with network access". Derivative doesn't necessarily mean boring.

    • by Darinbob (1142669)

      I tried Diablo demo and it seemed very shallow, not at all an RPG and it was all about how fast you could click. And I was never a fan of real time strategy. So Blizzard was completely off my radar as just another game company that doesn't make stuff I like.

    • by Clsid (564627)

      You forget that the true smash hit was Warcraft II. But to say that Warcraft was like Dune 2 is totally forgetting what the two main rivals represented, and by rivals I mean Westwood Studios and Blizzard. So with Dune/Command and Conquer you had the nameless unit, weak soldiers but strong vehicles. In Warcraft, you had badass units that sometimes only the sight of an enemy mage or catapults near a bridge crossing would make you stop.

      And the thing about Diablo is that it was a combination of the fantastic mu

      • by qwak23 (1862090)

        Seconding this. I've been gaming since the early 80's, damn near my entire life. While there are plenty of games from days past that I still think are amazing, there are also those that were only good at the time and remain good only from a nostalgia perspective and I get sick of hearing about how everything used to be better.

        Oh sure, there have been some genres that have received little attention in recent years, but the medium is constantly evolving and there are experiences to be had now that just coul

  • Stay awhile... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by the_skywise (189793) on Thursday October 31, 2013 @01:35PM (#45292303)
    Stay FOREVER! "Many of today's adult video gamers grew up with" THAT!
    • by bunkymag (1567407)
      That game was scary as when I was a kid! Still remember the flying cannonballs (both pathed & tracking varieties), and those robots ...
  • by Sebastopol (189276) on Thursday October 31, 2013 @02:21PM (#45292801) Homepage

    I realize this is a history of Blizzard, but I find it disappointing when authors write histories of video games and stop at 1990. Diablo didn't set the standard. Wizardry, Ultima, and Might and Magic set the standards for RPGs. Diablo successfully "Michael Bay"d them with 3D and 'splosions and the most robust, practically uncrashable game engines ever seen.

  • Sorry but... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by blahplusplus (757119) on Thursday October 31, 2013 @02:48PM (#45293073)

    "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."

    This is a bunch of nonsense. Genre's were well defined very quickly, if anything the more mainstream games became the more watered dowm the genre's have become. Just one look at Mass effect is overwhelming proof of this. You can't look at any modern FPS and pickup old 90's FPS games and say modern fps are 'more well formed'. The reality is modern games are movies with a small bit of gameplay. The game parts of videogames have been stripped out to expand to the mainstream audience because the mainstream audience doesn't get or like gameplay.

    • by asmkm22 (1902712)

      If this were completely true, then I should have no problem going back to some of the old games I grew up on, like Mario Bro's, Daggerfall, or Final Fantasy 7. Except that I do that once in a while and, after the nostalgia wears off, I begin to notice all the little things that are missing from those games that I now take for granted. Stuff like better controls, deeper stories, and obviously more engaging graphics.

      It's the same thing with older movies, or even non-computer games. I can go back and enjoy

      • I'm sorry but everything you mention that is 'better' is TRIVIAL and is practically ALL non gameplay related. "better controls"? like wtf? Older RPG's have deeper battle systems then 99% of the crap they push today. 90% of all RPG's have been fully automated and you just manage points in skill trees. There is little variance in combat systems between MMO's because the online requirement and the fact that most developers are clueless and unskilled at RPG combat systems.

        I despise autocombat, some old game

  • Just identify my unique armor you old coot!
  • Warcraft: Orcs and Humans put real-time strategy on the map, and Diablo set the standard for action RPGs.

    Bullshit. Warcraft launched in 1994, following Dune and Dune II (1992). The Dunes in turn were influenced by TechnoSoft's Herzog (1988) and Herzog Zwei (1989) on the Sega Genesis/Megadrive consoles. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples.

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