Wot I Read: Blizzard Biography ‘Stay Awhile And Listen’

By Alec Meer on December 18th, 2013 at 8:00 pm.

Stay Awhile And Listen: How Two Blizzards Unleashed Diablo And Forged A Videogame Empire is David L. Craddock’s ebook unofficial biography of… well, it’s in the title, isn’t it? Consisting of reminisces from Blizzard staff, design insight and a document of how the then-games industry worked, it’s the tale of how plucky start-up Condor Inc became Blizzard North and created the grandaddy of action RPGs.

A summary of the subject matter isn’t the only thing that the book’s name gives away. Look at the hyperbole in that subtitle – ‘unleashed’, ‘forged’, ‘empire’. The book as a whole has a similar tone, steeped in adoration and a propensity for so much positivity and excitement, even about the mundane, that it often comes across as a little fanciful.

The author is clearly a fan, which can certainly be said to make him well-qualified to pen this history of early Blizzard, but the sustained tone of gentle awe for these game-makers of yore sadly comes at the expense of revealing much about the character of his many interview subjects.

In terms of facts it makes no such compromises. The hard work that went into research and interviewing seeps out of every page – Stay Awhile cuts few corners in its attempts to be definitive, and it’s entirely refreshing to read a history of that critical period of the games industry which doesn’t revolve around Nintendo, Sega and Sony. This covers what was happening in the trenches, and what the industry at the time was like for those who weren’t yet near the top of the foodchain. If you don’t know much about how the games industry works, or at least did before the current indie renaissance, this contains as useful a summary as any.

Unfortunately, in its whirlwind of names and job titles, I didn’t get the slightest sense of what any of these people were like, not a one has either appearance or attitude evocatively described and every one is depicted as Just A Great Guy Who Really Loves Videogames. An inordinate amount of words, recurring throughout the entire book, are spent talking about how Condor/Blizzard North staff played a lot of NHL 94 and who was best at it, but almost none on the true personalities of these avid puck-swatters.

Dramatic and painful decisions, such as Condor selling up to Blizzard Entertainment or agreeing to change Diablo from turn-based to real-time, are made to seem far more casual and chipper than they surely were at the time, and even the very occasional suggestions of discord, such as a staffer leaving in protest at money issues when Condor’s bosses started turning up to work in Porsches, are so without rancour that I sometimes wondered whether I was reading the biography of a Mormon community rather than a fiercely driven collective of creatives and businessmen. Just Great Guys Who Really Love Videogames. If the book was determinedly distanced from the people in its tale it would make more sense, but a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ defence is undone by its occasionally breaking into outright flights of fancy like this:

Such purple prose is mercifully rare though, and in the main it’s a straightforward, exhaustively-researched listing of events which handwaves away most hints of negativity or strife. Even what sounds like a horrendous crunch period is presented as a sustained state of creative bliss, with abandoned significant others’ unhappiness shrugged off as throwaway, almost comic. I wonder how those wives and girlfriends might have remembered things.

There’s a very brief mention of ‘the Blizzard curse’, which apparently meant that marriages would always end in divorce, girlfriends would always leave, but that’s all that’s said – the sure psychological effects of such emotional upheaval don’t get a look in. I appreciate that this is a book about the making of a game, not about some Californians’ love lives, but again I felt the absence of clear personalities in favour of “then this happened, and it was great, and then this happened, and it was great.”

I’m sure that my not being quite so unequivocally enamoured of early Blizzard titles (indeed, I believe Diablo didn’t make quite so big a splash in the UK as it did the US) as the author appears to be influences my reading of it – I want to hear about the dirt, not just the wonder. I’m sure too that modern-day Blizzard’s tendency to be a bit Scientology in its carefully-worded, everything is super, don’t let ‘em see you sweat public face plays a part in making quotes from staff both past and present seem contained, safe and uncritical, and that major figures such as Mike Morhaime declined to be involved speaks volumes in that regard. There’s no shortage of great contributions here however, and a remarkable roster of interviewees from all over the proto-Blizzard hierarchy, but it’s undermined by a very peculiar stylistic decision to present every quote as a pull-quote, like this:

“Stay Awhile And Listen is an often interesting insight into the making of a landmark game, but I found the presentation extremely distracting. I ate some toast for breakfast this morning.”
- Alec Meer, erstwhile book reviewer

Every single quote. I’m not sure what the intention was behind that, but it means that words, sentences and paragraphs have a broken sense of flow. I constantly felt interrupted as I glanced away from the ‘main’ text to a floating blockquote every few lines, then down to see who said it, then back to the main text. It’s the textual equivalent of an I Love 1985 clip show, chopping at speed between talking heads rather than knuckling down to a solid flow of analysis and commentary.

It’s as though the book is constantly interrupting itself, and it proved fatiguing to read. Furthermore, presenting quotes in this somewhat dramatic fashion gives the impression that each of them is particularly important or golden, as you’d see in a magazine or newspaper feature, but half the time it’s just someone saying “I used to live in Georgia, it was OK” or “sometimes we’d get Burger King for lunch.” Mostly it’s a variant on ‘I just loved making games”, though.

Worsening the bitty, distractable nature of Stay Awhile And Listen is the decision to partition off significant swathes of relevant content (and a full third of the book’s length) as backmatter, a little too cutely termed ‘Side Quests’ and ‘Bonus Rounds’. The book seems understandably determined to stay focused on the formation of what became Blizzard North and their journey to make Diablo happen, rather than quite so much on what eventual parent company Silicon & Synapse, aka Blizzard Entertainment, were up to with The Lost Vikings and Warcraft, but it still means crucial pieces of Blizzard and Diablo history are stored in separate compartments.

Diablo as we know it probably couldn’t have happened without Warcraft II being so successful that Blizzard Entertainment could inject the money Condor/Blizzard North needed, for instance, and indeed that game played a defining part in the Blizzardian ethos of minute-to-minute fun and feedback, but it barely warrants a mention in the main text. Perhaps all the quotes about NHL 94 would have made for more suitable endnotes instead? But the relevant and equally well-researched stuff (including a surprisingly frank admission about the influence of Warhammer on Warcraft) is in there, just so long as you’re happy to either flick back and forth as you read or put up with even more staccato pullquotes once you’ve finished the main tome.

Much as the book’s choppy structure and consistent reverence meant aggravation forever simmered in me, the insights into Diablo’s design evolution and the trials and tribulations of making money in uncertain times for the young games indsutry were fascinating enough to keep me involved. The stop-start presentation robs the tale of much its drama, but hearing about how the team pushed against the technical limitations of the time, initially kept themselves afloat and cut their teeth on sports and fighting games for failing consoles, stumbled into greatness by chance and honed that ‘monster-bashing feels grrrrrrreat’ aspect of what was then uncharted waters is both historical insight into how a landmark game comes about and design 101 for any current project. I feel like I learned quite a bit, irritated or not.

There’s also some background tension between the creative (as represented by Condor/Blizzard North) and the commercial (played, with plenty of prescience, by Blizzard Entertainment), which also has as much relevance today as it did in the mid-90s. While typically restrained quotes give the impression no-one ever felt particularly fraught about this, it does lend more understanding about the Blizzard method, and how they hit upon the formula for mass market success that persists to this day.

Much of their theory of fun was founded during the making of Diablo, and the result was a two-year transformation from an X-COM-inspired, turn-based roguelike that probably wouldn’t have been more than a cult hit into a high-speed, Skinner-box slaughterfest with a then-groundbreaking multiplayer component that rewrote roleplaying game rules forever. Those Great Guys Who Just Love Making Videogames certainly earned their success.

There’s a huge amount of information on a specialist subject in here, and I can certainly recommend Stay Awhile And Listen to wannabe videogame historians and those with a passing (or stronger) interest in game design. It certainly puts your average making-of feature to shame. It will also, I suspect, meet the expectations of anyone with a ‘Blizzard, heck yeah!’ mentality. The disjointed presentation and the emotional distance (authorial awe aside) makes it a rather harder sell as an entertaining piece of longform writing for a less devoted onlooker, however.

Stay A While And Listen: How Two Blizzards Unleashed Diablo And Forged A Videogame Empire, by David L. Craddock, is out now as a e-book. Further volumes are planned.

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42 Comments »

  1. CobraLad says:

    Ah, that thing when good or famous thing turn into BESTTHINGEVAR in 10 years.
    Its the thing that turned me off Starcraft 2: usual space stuff presented as something bigger than life itself, with each thing dropped like cult favorite. Its so much Blizzard these days.

  2. WedgeJAntilles says:

    Agree about the presentation; having the story cut up by quotes every page is really annoying. Otherwise I’m enjoying it.

  3. Discopanda says:

    Does this book talk at all about Rock’N'Roll Racing? Because that game was awesome.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      The book’s about Blizzard North. Rock’N’Roll Racing is Blizzard proper.

    • Alien426 says:

      More of a Blackthorne guy here. But I think we can agree that Blizzard was better when it wasn’t a three franchise shop.

      New Blackthorne, new The Lost Vikings, please.

    • Gassalasca says:

      R’nR Racing was probably my favourite game when I was nine. Made by Blizzard, published by Interplay. Man.

  4. pupsikaso says:

    I constantly felt interrupted as I glanced away from the ‘main’ text to a floating blockquote every few lines

    Yeh, nice. Now try that with the blockquotes being peppered right in the MIDDLE of the page, the way you do that here on RPS occasionally.

  5. Phinor says:

    I really need a physical copy if I’m to read a book. I have like four devices I could read ebooks with but it’s just not the same, not the same at all.

    Am I weird? I mean yes but is this particular habit weird?

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      The Kindle Paperwhite is really quite nice if you’re just reading fiction (ie, linear text) with no illustrations. Text quality is great, and you can carry a load of books in one small device. I can’t say I miss physically turning pages.

      With textbooks or large illustrated tabletop RPG books or anything like that however, there’s still no good electronic solution.

      • iucounu says:

        iPads are good. Games Workshop does nifty rulebooks in iBooks Author format, though they soak you for £25 or so for them.

        iPads are cracking for comics and also – at 10″ size at least – for PDFs, should you buy rulebooks in that form.

    • Moraven says:

      Any of those devices a Kindle or some other E-Reader? Kindle Paperwhite is a lovely device. Got the missus to transition with complaints. Now she tries to touch any physical book to change the page when not using it.

    • bhauck says:

      It’s great that you love paper books. I love having 200 books in my pocket. I love being able to instantly generate a copy of a public domain classic. I love reading in a dark room next to my sleeping wife. I love being able to read when I find myself unexpectedly waiting. I love that I’ve read more books in the 3 years I’ve had an iPhone than in the 10 before it.

    • iucounu says:

      No, not at all. Publishing ebooks is my job and I love the convenience of having a thing in my pocket with 1000 books on it; but it’s undeniable that there are advantages for print. Print books are nicer objects; have properly crafted typesetting; sit on your shelves reminding you what you’ve read. And don’t have a button you can press to play, y’know, Sushi Spinnery or something instead when the middle of the book bogs down.

      Read however and whatever you like but for god’s sake *grabs your lapels* keep buying books in whichever format.

      • phuzz says:

        Shelf space is the reason I’m buying a lot more ebooks now, as I can’t really add any more shelves, and I’m already double stacking books on the shelves I do have.
        As a few others have noted, text only books are fine on an ereader, but It’ll be a while before I move to getting graphic novels or other picture heavy titles electronically.

        • Reapy says:

          Took long hard looks at our DVD shelf and bookshelves taking up a ton of space in out house recently, after chucking a stack of VHS we had in the closet. Realized these things would mostly be going away soon and would eventually be living on a local pc or even a cloud server in the future. I like my shelves of books and DVDs, but I don’t dispute how nice a media server and dreaded are. If anything they allow for more artwork than is on the covers of either medium, so there is actually a lot gained by going digital.

  6. Freud says:

    Even the books are online. Classless Blizzard.

  7. Anthile says:

    That…that’s not how a curse works. That’s direct cause and effect. What a strange thing to say.

    • Quiffle says:

      I think you’re delving just a little too deeply into the semantics of office banter.

    • Grygus says:

      You’re missing the tragic part: it’s a curse because they’re ignoring or even unaware of the cause. That’s how you work that hard for that long; you ignore the fact that you’re doing it, either out of enjoyment or sheer habit.

      • sleepisthebrotherofdeath says:

        “you ignore the fact that you’re doing it, either out of enjoyment or sheer habit.” – that sounds like WoW to me.

  8. Alien426 says:

    There is a Matt Chat video interview with the author.

  9. Shuck says:

    “…even the very occasional suggestions of discord, such as a staffer leaving in protest at money issues when Condor’s bosses started turning up to work in Porsches, are so without rancour…”
    To some degree that’s just the Blizzard North guys. I know some of them, and they’re surprisingly relaxed about that period and the sorts of things that would make my blood boil – for example, they actually laugh when recalling that time the bosses told them there wasn’t any money for bonuses… only to later discover that there was plenty of money, but the bosses had taken it all for themselves. Part of that is also how they put up with amounts of crunch time that were frankly abusive and, from what I’ve heard, likely completely unnecessary.

    • Arglebargle says:

      I know a bunch of game devs (and ex game devs) and the story off-the-record is rarely the same as the public knowledge.

  10. Bugamn says:

    You’re just constantly getting pats on the back for stuff that you’re doing. And that’s fun. That’s why people play games. –Pat Wyatt

    I think there’s a joke to make here, but I’m not succeeding right now. Preferably something with clones.

  11. RiffRaff says:

    “The author is clearly a fan, which can certainly be said to make him well-qualified to pen this history of early Blizzard”

    you mean he is one of the least qualified people to write this book, least qualified was the description you were looking for there.

  12. Lanfranc says:

    WRITING PROTIP: Under no circumstances should a breeze ever “sigh” through a window. No exceptions. If you ever find yourself writing something like that, slap yourself and hit the Delete key. >:-|

  13. qrter says:

    Allen’s plans for the company and the pounding of hammers on cheap wood rang throughout the small space.

    So Allen’s plans rang throughout the small place, much like the hammers did? That’s rather mystifying.

    Reads like someone could have used the help of an editor.

    • bhauck says:

      I remember this being a particular thing from Latin in high school, and some googling for the name has led me to “zeugma.” Whether that’s the right name or not, using a word both literally and metaphorically in the same construction has existed for thousands of years.

      • qrter says:

        Yes, that would work if “plans ringing throughout a room” was actually an expression that is in plain usage – it isn’t (it’s horrible poetry, at best), therefore the construction doesn’t work.

  14. ZombieRiot says:

    All this reminds me of is that the creepiest thing I ever saw on Youtube is Mike Morhaime’s talk during one of Warren Spector’s lectures at UT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzpS7xYyjNw

    Everybody else is talking about how ridiculous it is that nobody is sharing technology that’ll be commonplace in a year or two anyway. His response to technology sharing questions was “WE GUARD THEM WITH FIREBREATHING DEMONS AND SPIES AND TRAITORS SUFFER ETERNAL TORMENT IN OUR COMPANY OWNED DUNGEONS”. I’m paraphrasing.

    • Tolkfan says:

      Paraphrasing, eh?

      I’ve watched that video some time ago and I found the part you’re talking about:
      http://youtu.be/MzpS7xYyjNw?t=1h18m39s

      It seems to me he’s saying “If we had some unique technology, we’d keep it secret, but these things tend to spread around”. But maybe I’m “paraphrasing” it wrong…

      That aside, I really recommend all the Warren Spector lectures/interviews on that channel to anyone interested in gaming history.

      • ZombieRiot says:

        Yes, yes you’re doing it wrong. You have to read between the lines and around those lines there swirl firebreathing demons and incantations to unspeakable evils.

        I just wanted a reason to post the lectures, as they’re great and wonderful and it’s just industry people talking about what they love.
        In the first lecture Warren talks about indie games in 2007 and the lack of funding models, that right there was already an enlightening history lesson.

  15. Swanny says:

    What I like best about this is the mention of the Blizzard Curse.

    Even (especially?) if you’re the best, and at your prime, making video games is a hell of a slog. Some might like it, but coding games will probably rip out your soul and live you broken and empty.

  16. DLCraddock says:

    *crackle*

    Good evening, everyone. This is your author speaking. Thank you to Alec for a well-thought-out critique of the book. And thanks to RPS readers for chiming in with their thoughts. It’s getting a bit late here in the States, but I thought I would drop in to answer questions you might have about the book. I might not get around to answering for a few hours, as I’m getting over a cold, but feel free to ask away!

    • Kleppy says:

      Hi Mr. Craddock, I was wondering if there’s a chance you’ll release the book in epub format. I do have an iPad but I can’t buy ebooks from the appstore where I live, but I would like to read it on my Kobo.

  17. Philotic Symmetrist says:

    D-ablo is NOT the “grandaddy of action RPGs” and it never was. It was simply the first successful attempt to bring the genre, which started on consoles, to PCs. It was also a very different style to previous Action RPGs (using mouse control rather than direct control [a la action games] over your character) and is still representative only of a segment of the genre, it isn’t an archetype to the genre as a whole.

    • Jack Mack says:

      What is the grandaddy of action RPG’s?

      • Philotic Symmetrist says:

        Not sure exactly; I got into the genre in the SNES era and action RPGs had been around for about 10 years at that point. (2 minutes of research suggest that the first ARPG was Dragon Slayer on the NEC PC-88 but that’s not really my point).

        My main point is that D-ablo didn’t define the genre; it defined a sub-genre and brought the genre to a new audience but in a very different form.

        The “grandaddy” of a genre is a vague term anyway and I’m not saying it has to mean the first one made but it does need to be representative or something. The genre is bigger than all of the various D-ablo clones and it was already broader than that style of game before D-ablo was around.

        I’m sure my attempt to explain my viewpoint is quite poorly written; I just get a bit annoyed (and confused) when people think that ARPG means a loot-and-click-fest when that was never really the core of an action RPG. An action RPG is the combination of an action game with an RPG but D-ablo does things a bit differently to that (clicking to move and attack doesn’t exactly describe many action games that I can think of).

  18. Guvornator says:

    Dear Blizzard,

    I heard you loved NHL 94. I too loved NHL 94. Can I has job pleeze?
    Yours sincerely,

    David

    • DLCraddock says:

      We hope to release on Kobo in early January, maybe even before the end of the month. Watch dm-press.com for details. Hope you enjoy it!

      EDIT: Sorry for the misreply. I tapped “Reply” on the correct comment on my phone, but here we are.

  19. Alphabet says:

    A general principle, to which there are a few though not many exceptions, is that books not from good publishers (the sort with editors) tend to be utterly terrible. This isn’t true of games, interestingly enough.

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