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.