Today, Azeroth is more than just a videogame setting. It's a living place with a mythic history that spans thousands of years of conflict and heroism. It features in novels, card games, genre-defining MMOs, and even feature films. But back in 1994, Azeroth wasn't nearly so grand or so solid.
A case in point: when Bill Roper – the man who would eventually become vice president of Blizzard North – turned up for his first day of work as a temporary voiceover artist on Warcraft: Orcs & Humans
, his first instinct was to ask for a script. I was told there were no scripts – nothing at all,
Roper explains when we chat with him. So we sat there and I just wrote some stuff down, and I guess all those years of being a Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons paid off because I just wrote out a script and we recorded it.
Once he'd recorded his lines, Roper's involvement with the game was supposed to end. Instead, I wrote a letter basically begging for a job. I just said, look I'll do anything. I'll run your bulletin board system. I'll wash the cars. I don't care – I just really want to work here. And so they hired me.
Why was Roper so desperate to join this team? Well, the Warcraft story really begins with Westwood Studios' critically-acclaimed Dune II, which set the standard for the real-time strategy genre when it launched in 1992. It was a shared passion for this game – and frustration over the lack of any imminent sequel – that convinced a relatively unknown studio named Blizzard to start work on its own RTS.
Despite mostly being diehard Dune II fans, one thing the team at Blizzard was certain of was that they didn’t want to make a clone. The studio ditched the usual sci-fi themes of the time for a fantasy medieval setting, and even briefly considered a deal that would let them use Games Workshop's Warhammer license before dropping the idea in favor of total creative freedom (meaning we'd have to wait for Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat
to get our Warhammer strategy fix).
By the time Bill Roper was brought on board, Warcraft's core gameplay was already in place, but the narrative was barebones, to say the least. Roper recalls that during his first meeting with Allen Adham, the Blizzard president explained that all we have for Warcraft is we know there are orcs and we know they're fighting humans. Oh, and the bad guy's name on the orc side is Blackhand.
Everything else was up to Roper. So my first full-time job there was planting those seeds and creating the original lore for the Warcraft universe. Which is nuts, right?
Roper went on to shape the game’s tone and setting, drawing inspiration from Arthurian movie soundtracks and his old Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. It was one of these campaigns that inspired the trope-busting idea that orcs could be more than just mindless beasts. There’s a great quote that every villain is the hero of their own story,
he explains. So that to me was the mindset for the orcs.
It takes two
Meanwhile, Blizzard was also determined to incorporate multiplayer, something that felt like an obvious and necessary addition to the genre, but one that proved challenging to implement. An early match between two developers left both convinced they’d won by a landslide – which really shouldn’t be a thing you have to argue about,
Roper says, laughing. And then that’s when we realized there had been a sync error in the code, and their games had gotten decoupled. And then they finished basically single-player games, thinking they were still playing the other person because the AI took over.
Despite the bugs, this was the moment that the team knew they were onto something special. It’s this moment where you’re like, that’s a thing,
Roper says. And I think at that moment, we knew multiplayer was a thing. And we felt like the game was going to be a thing.
But these bugs proved so challenging to fix that, for a while, it looked as though the game would be shipped without a multiplayer element at all. Still, the team’s persistence paid off, and it was the polished and accessible multiplayer, via local network or modem, that set Warcraft apart.
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans shipped in December 1994, but amazingly, the team initially didn’t realize the scale of what they’d created. Learning that their initial shipment figure was being upped to 100,000 units, Roper and his colleagues were astounded: We were all like, how are you ever going to sell that? That was a mindblowing number.
That initial success set the stage for Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness
to sell a staggering 1 million copies in its first year on store shelves.
Of course, Warcraft wasn’t the only RTS to come out of the 90s – Westwood Studios followed up Dune II with Command & Conquer in 1995, and games like Total Annihilation (1997) and Age of Empires (1997) also cemented their places as RTS icons, each with their own significant impact on the genre. As Roper puts it, I think that that genre grew because we kept standing on each other's shoulders to get there.
But Warcraft's legacy is arguably one of the most visible. As a franchise – this sounds weird – its influence is almost incalculable,
Roper says. Without the success of Warcraft: Orcs & Humans
, there’d be no StarCraft, World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, or Overwatch. Arguably, we'd have even missed out on Dota II and League of Legends, given that the original Dota started life as a Warcraft III mod.At the end of the day,
says Roper reflectively, we're making games, right? We're making something that's hopefully fun, that people have a good time interacting with. So when it has some kind of lasting impact like that, it's very humbling, and it's a little... I'm just so glad that people love it.