Part Two: Into the Dark Portal
Yup, we’re back in the early nineties. If you were even alive, you’re probably playing a brand-new Super Nintendo or a Sega Genesis. It’s going to be a couple of years before Blizzard Entertainment creates Warcraft: Orcs and Humans and begins to make a name for themselves. Computer video games are niche in a way that is difficult for today’s consumers to understand. If your game hit the six-figure sales plateau, it was a smash hit. Tucked in the darkest depths of this niche gaming platform is a crazy thing called Teh Internets™. In this civilized and mature social network, there is a small-but-growing demand for online video games. Get this: What if you could use your home computer to play video games with people from around the world? Just blew your mind, didn’t I? Oh yeah. I did. In this part of computer history, there isn’t a whole bunch to mention here. This is a tiny market. There’s some limited interest in “Multi-User Dungeons”. There’s also a small group of gaming services (such as Sierra’s ImagiNation Network and a game portal linked into the user interface of internet provider Prodigy) that share many similarities with the casual gaming hubs of today. They’re using the novelty of online multiplayer as a selling point and keeping the action confined to simple games and board games such as chess.
These services had a problem: You think your cell phone provider is giving you a tough time about bandwidth costs? These online gaming portals were expensive. The ImagiNation Network was a dollar-an-hour gaming service in a period of internet history where internet service providers were also charging by the hour. Yeah, sure, they could be some great fun. For most people, any extended playtime pushed your wallet to the brink. It deterred any interest they would have in these products. It would have to wait a couple of years.
So, what the hell are we supposed to find here? How does this part of history connect us to Battle.net 2.0? Well, two years after 1991’s Street Fighter II ignited a competitive multiplayer revolution in the arcades, Doom happened. (If you ever walk into class and stumble into a surprise pop quiz on “American History in the Nineties”, just pencil “Doom Happened” into every blank line. You’ll do great.) It is this controversial and violent shooting game that would give birth to modern computer multiplayer culture. It somehow managed to accomplish this without a powerful multiplayer component. As you would expect in a computer video game market dominated by small, independent developers and a couple of medium-sized publishers (who spent their money on getting the games to retail instead of financing the developers), iD Software had enough trouble getting Doom onto shelves with ten employees. Although John Carmack and the rest of the team had already conceived the idea of an online multiplayer portal, the company didn’t have the time to program and test it.*
Merely setting up Doom to play through a multiplayer mode was a nightmare. Your options were extremely complicated and they granted limited results. Yeah, you could play the game through a modem connection. More often than not, your latency was not going to be adequate. Instead, players got their “deathmatch” fix by playing the game on university networks and setting up “LAN parties”. The maximum number of players was limited to four. Shortly after Doom was released prior to Christmas of 1993, the scope of the internet began to change. It kills me to say this, but with the help of America Online (whose aggressive advertising campaigns built around “Free Hours!” would help to redefine the price of American internet service), there was a surge in the number of potential online gamers. Doom was lighting the world on fire and computer game developers would be crazy if they did not court this audience. They were looking for ways to separate their product from the more popular console video games and this could be a game-breaker. The first of these initiatives would be launched in 1994 and the first multiplayer portal for a major computer video game would go live. Yes, Doom happened. Again. But this round, it wasn’t the work of iD Software. It was the fans of the games.
Relax. I’m sure your modem is on the list.
Bob Huntley and Kee Kimbrell were a pair of Texas residents could not get enough of Doom. They wanted to play anyone and anybody. From this passion, they came up with an idea: “What if we could create a program that would allow people to play Doom through the internet? A program where people can play against anybody they wanted to at any time of the day?” They would independently brainstorm the same concept that iD Software could not dedicate manpower to creating. Huntley was just throwing ideas out there. Kimbrell was serious about this endeavor. In response, Huntley told Kimbrell that if he could get a working prototype for the service programmed in six weeks, he would secure an audience with the creators of Doom. (Huntley was bullshitting; he had never met anybody that worked for the company. But hey, he tricked his friend into coding a lucrative piece of video game software. That’s what friends are for, right?) The mission would be accomplished and the program was programmed.
For several weeks, all the pair would have to show for their effort was a number of unanswered phone calls to iD Software. Eventually, Huntley would get in contact with iD’s publicity firm and secure an audience with John Romero. Romero (whose addiction to Doom deathmatch would actually strain company chemistry) took the software home and immediately fell in love with it. The other members of the iD Software team were skeptical about handing Doom internet duties to two men with no experience in video game development. However, Romero convinced them that this would help to build interest in the product and that it would absolve the team of funding and developing online play for their games…for now, at least. They agreed. And with that, the Doom Wide-Area Network Game Organization (DWANGO) went to market. For the low price of ten dollars per month, players could chat and compete with Doom fans from around the United States. (The service would become popular enough that servers would be installed in Asia, and players would be connecting to the service all the way from Europe and Australia.) Huntley and Kimbrell would set up the servers. All iD Software had to do was endorse the software and they would get twenty percent of the revenues. This was a great deal for the Doom guys. They were too busy trying to get Doom II out of the door before the 1994 holiday season. But more importantly, DWANGO could act as a killer app for any games using the Doom engine. (The software would also be packaged with the shareware version for Raven Software’s Heretic, a first-person shooter that used a modified version of the Doom engine.)*
With the release of every additional computer multiplayer game worth a damn (and there were a lot of these in the nineties), there became a greater demand for online play. Ushered on by the success of 1994’s Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, Blizzard legitimized the real-time strategy genre and set off a world of imitators. The best of these rivals were found at Westwood Studios (the team behind 1992’s Dune II: Building of a Dynasty) would then create 1995’s Command and Conquer. In that same year, Blizzard would counter with Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and it would become the game that placed the company on the map. The first-person shooter was also on its way to megastar status, and a Michigan developer by the name of Parallax Software wanted in. They would develop the first two games in the popular space-shooting Descent franchise. Command and Conquer, Warcraft II, Descent, Descent II. All of these games were huge hits. All of these games did not feature an online multiplayer portal. Like Doom, all four of these games could be played over a local IPX network. These circumstances would become the inspiration for the second major gaming service of its day.
Created for the exclusive purpose of playing Descent over the internet, Kali would be created by Scott Coleman (who would go on to work at Interplay) and Jay Cotton. Both Kali and DWANGO could be configured to work with any number of games that supported the IPX protocol. Kali was simply tricking the local network information into transmitting over the internet. Kali did not actually host the games. The server merely acted as a rendezvous point for the player base. Because of this, Kali was cheap. It was available for a one-time charge of twenty dollars and the service took right off. While the number of games compatible with DWANGO would be limited, Kali became a portal for dozens and eventually hundreds of multiplayer titles.* This service would single-handedly create and sustain a large portion of the competitive video game scene during the mid-nineties. While the creation and upkeep of Kali had little backing from game developers, they were taking notice. Blizzard was one of those companies. If you own a late-edition DOS copy of Warcraft II, you will find “WAR2KALI.EXE” packaged onto the disc. Blizzard packaged later copies of their product with a version of the game that was designed to optimize the quality of play over the Kali service. They were supporting this third-party online gaming service with their own development resources. Blizzard recognized the value of Kali to their bottom line.
Blizzard and iD had independently taken the same approach to these programs. In the interim, they liked these programs. These programs built brand loyalty and sold copies of the games. These programs were good for business. While I can’t speak for the nature of DWANGO (and there’s no reason to, because the creators had a partnership with the developer), there was another reason that Blizzard and Westwood were not authorizing their legal teams to crack down on Kali. Not just because the internet was capable of brewing a shitstorm back in the nineties, either. It was because Kali was perfectly legal and continues to be legal today. They did not manipulate the game software. They simply told the network information where it has to go and how to move over the internet. These programs did not feature any copyrighted code from any game files. (This is the same reason that emulators are legal but the ROM and BIOS files are not.) Kali was just a set of keys for a set of keyholes. It did not have to modify the keyhole (the program) in order to work properly. And while you could play over these services with pirated copies, it was much, much more difficult to come across pirated software in 1996 than it is today. Spare me your “Piracy has always existed!” rant. High-speed internet was the domain of the uber nerd. No “download in thirty minutes” crap. If somebody was playing the game over Kali or DWANGO, they were probably using legitimate software. Developers had little reason to oppose the use of these programs. Perhaps more importantly, they had little ability.
Developers understood that it would become their duty to network their fan bases and reap the profits. “Online multiplayer portal” was going to become a necessity. It was inevitable that the third-party provider would go the way of the dinosaur. The first-parties made sure that would happen. In 1996, iD Software released their legendary first-person shooter Quake. Months later, the company launched the free-to-play QuakeWorld, a service built on a client-server networking model that had been used in the year’s other computer smash hit, Duke Nukem 3D. And just like that, DWANGO’s pay-per-month model died a disgusting and horrible death. That same year, Blizzard’s landmark dungeon crawler Diablo would be the first game to support multiplayer on the company’s Battle.net service. Diablo would sell millions. It is important to note that the original Battle.net was not conceived as an anti-piracy measure. Diablo did not require a product key. (This would probably help to explain why the company no longer packages the Diablo Battle Chest with a copy of the original game.)
After Blizzard realized the mistake they had made, they would adopt product keys with the 1998 release of StarCraft. StarCraft would outsell Warcraft II by several orders of magnitude and it would become the most popular real-time strategy game of all-time. With the rise of company-developed online multiplayer portals, interest in Kali began to decline. While Kali functions to this day, its place in history has settled. Blizzard would suck in some of these stragglers by releasing Warcraft II: Battle.net Edition in 1999. While a competing third-party service by the name of MPlayer would temporarily surpass the popularity of all these online gaming services, they would do this by hosting a healthy inbetween for both commercial and free-to-play casual video games. Microsoft’s MSN Gaming Zone would commit to the same strategy. The days of third-party services dedicated solely to the best products in the retail computer video game industry appeared to be out of the way.
Through the most financially-successful period in the history of computer video games, this contract between the developer and the consumer worked fantastically. For a short period of time, it looked a little bit shaky. Through the end of the nineties and on to the next decade, more people gained access to broadband internet connections. Consumers now had the ease of ability to download commercial video games at their convenience. However, the contract continued to work. No product key, no online gaming service. Blizzard would become the biggest beneficiary of the boom.
In 2000, the company launched Diablo II. Much like its predecessor, it would gain a reputation for its cheat-at-all-costs player base. But in this round, their product key could be banned for infractions and nobody would share any sympathy for them. If they didn’t have a valid product key, they couldn’t log in to Battle.net. Diablo II would go on to sell over four million units. In 2002, Blizzard shipped their real-time strategy gem Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. The game was the most anticipated computer video game ever released. In order to meet demand, Blizzard shipped four-and-a-half-million units to retail* and it would go on to sell millions. (Yeah, I know. Those numbers don’t seem so crazy when the Call of Duty franchise sells millions on its opening day. Remember, this is back in 2002. The “midnight launch” was not a weekly occurrence. Hype and first-day release sales were not driving the market like it does today.) In order to demonstrate that Battle.net was a superior alternative to “illegal copies on a Local Area Network”, Blizzard continued to up the ante. The version of Battle.net packaged with Warcraft III revolutionized what people expected from online gaming services. The most impressive feature was “Anonymous Matchmaking”, the act of clicking a couple of buttons and allowing the service to find you a matchup of equal skill. (Or, if you asked the guys at Penny Arcade, the devirginification of your asshole.*) An official ladder website was also launched alongside the game.* It allowed players to track and search comprehensive game stats, including a detailed synopsis of every single ladder game played on the service. It also featured a global statistics system that measured the activity of each gametype and tracked hero compositions, map preferences, and so forth.
In order to squash any concern that the service may not be an adequate means of fighting software piracy, Blizzard did exactly what a company with lots of money should do. They leveraged a war chest as a means of distancing itself from imitators and third-parties. (Ironically, the Warcraft III edition of Battle.net was so good that it became the blueprint for Bungie.net. That service would be launched in 2004 for use with Halo 2, and the madly-popular console shooter would legitimize Xbox Live. In 2009, Greg Canessa, one of the architects of the Xbox Live service, would become the lead designer for Battle.net 2.0.)
Pictured: When “free-to-play” online video games didn’t mean “you get what you pay for”.
Perhaps the most quirky accomplishment of the Battle.net service would occur across the Pacific Ocean. In 1997, the Southeast Asian country of Thailand took a day off from having its government overthrown. Instead, it collapsed the value of its currency. One crisis leads to another, and there’s a lot of people in South Korea without jobs. Short story shorter, the economy of South Korea would recover with a vengeance and the recovery would barrel forward with a boom in computer technology. This small country would rapidly develop one of the best internet infrastructures in the world. Almost immediately, PC Bangs began to pop up across the country. They’re best compared to the internet cafes that are common in most of Europe. These things were state-of-the-art facilities. With some of the best computer technology on the planet, the South Koreans took up computer video games in huge numbers.
In response, the South Korean government would create a body designed to help facilitate and promote the growth of “e-sports”. The Korean e-Sports Players Association was founded in 2000 and would become the governing body for competitive video games in South Korea. The country was serious about this. Much like the Canadians love their hockey and the Americans dominate “weighing more than everybody else”, South Korea would have to choose a video game (a “sport”) that they were going to get behind and destroy the rest of the world at. They chose StarCraft. The number of players present on Battle.net would double during the afternoon and evening hours in South Korea. The global nature of this service was quickly creating a hierarchy for the competitive StarCraft food chain. Eventually, the most important question of our generation was going to have to be settled: Who are the best StarCraft players in the world? Online ladders and online performances could not settle this question. This stuff had to be done live and in-person. The South Koreans would answer the question in a decidedly-South Korean way. On June 15, 2001, Zerg player Park Tae Min (GoRush) and a creative Terran prodigy by the name of Lim Yo Hwan (SlayerS_Boxer) would play each other in front of a live studio audience that was 150 viewers strong. The games would be broadcasted on Ongamenet, a South Korean television network dedicated to video game programming. The OnGameNet “Starleague” was born.* Blizzard’s games were now so popular that people were playing them in front of television audiences. It was all thanks to Battle.net.
All this success and it’s very easy to play a narrative that Blizzard Entertainment was bored with it. Their games were now snonymous with real-time strategy and the dungeon crawler. In the short years since the 1994 release of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, the company shared a fierce fight with Valve Corporation for the crown of “Most Beloved Computer Game Developer on the Planet”. And of all the valuable assets under Blizzard control, their most valuable was the free-to-play Battle.net. The company’s most valuable asset was community. By 2005, at least 100,000 people were logging in every single night to play their games on the Battle.net service. Blizzard was doing multiplayer better than anybody on the planet and making tons of money off of it. If people were playing their games on television and Blizzard wasn’t getting licensing fees, big deal. It would be free advertising for StarCraft and the rest of the Blizzard game library. Free advertising means “copies sold”. “Copies sold” means “money”. That was good.
The impact of Battle.net cannot be understated, particularly in the case of StarCraft. For most of its early years, StarCraft was simply one great real-time strategy game in a mess of great strategy games. Among its competition was Blizzard’s own Warcraft II, 1996’s Command and Conquer: Red Alert, 1998’s Total Annihilation, and 1999’s Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. To this day, you will find devoted fans who will defend any of those games as the genre’s greatest example. And yet, all you hear about these days is StarCraft, because only StarCraft had the benefit of a stable, popular gaming portal at the time of its launch. The closest competition came from the integration of the Microsoft Gaming Zone into Age of Empires II, and that ended when the service discontinued support for boxed retail games in 2006. StarCraft became the greatest game in its genre because of Battle.net. Even in the years following the release of StarCraft and Diablo II and Warcraft III, those titles were regularly hitting the top ten in monthly sales listings for computer games. Blizzard learned lessons from DWANGO and Kali in order to create Battle.net. And as would be expected in any industry with visible and powerful leadership, challengers would soon gain inspiration from them. Challengers would find ways to make money off of the lessons learned from Battle.net. Blizzard would be confronted by two separate-yet-equally-important issues that would come to shape Blizzard business strategy in the years to come. As that famous television judge once said: “It’s like the more money we come across, the more problems we see.”
Continue to Part Three: Cataclysm