Making WoW – The Art of Herding Developers, AMA with Author John Staats

Making WoW - The Art of Herding Developers, AMA with Author John Staats

Last year, John Staats published The WoW Diary, a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of vanilla Warcraft. Today we’re bringing you another essay on vanilla development from Staats, so sit back and enjoy the nostalgia!

This week’s essay is The Art of Herding Developers, discussing the long hours and camaraderie among the dev team lading up to launch.

Have any questions on the essay or vanilla WoW development in general? He’ll be checking out the comments section and answering them, so you may learn something new!

A million years ago, I designed and built half of the dungeons in vanilla WoW. If you have any questions about making the game, I’m happy to answer, here on Wowhead. – John Staats

Mark Kern once remarked that he’d never seen a professional group as sociable as Team 2. We went to lunch together with little regard to whom we ate with, squeezing into the backseats of one another’s cars in spontaneous groups. Often our lunchtime herds were so big there was only a short list of restaurants that could seat us. There were remarkably few cliques or departments that kept to themselves, at least not until later in the dev cycle. As the project aged, its employees formed into more regular lunch crews and people ate with members of their own department. During our dinners, most people still circled around tables in the hallway and everyone tried their best to converse about topics that weren’t work related.

We had been staying until 10:00 p.m. twice a week for a few months to polish the game for our big announcement at the ECTS, but half of the team stayed later. At 10:00, some played Counter-Strike for an hour or so before going home or back to work.

Since I thought of Blizzard as a patron more than an employer, I stayed late every night and put in twelve-hour days on weekends. WoW was my first foray in the entertainment industry, and building dungeons was what I loved doing. Besides, I was a transplant from NYC and felt out of place in the sunny climes of Orange County. In the four years making Vanilla WoW, I’d never stepped into the ocean despite living so close to it. I was by no means the only person sustaining this crazy pace; many of us worked hard because we simply didn’t want features or content cut from the game. I hated the idea of reusing dungeons for different locations in the world, and I secretly wanted to build all the dungeons myself just because each one had such a cool vibe. By my thinking, each dungeon had to be great—no matter what the cost. For a few years, level design was my life and that suited me perfectly. By having no life and spending all my time in the Team 2 area, I can say with confidence that generally the hardest workers were the programmers. Collin Murray and Scott Hartin spent many of their weekends in the office. I was a roommate of Tim Truesdale, who often experimented with code and features (on his own time) that weren’t on his task list but nevertheless occupied his spare evenings in case he discovered something cool to put into the game. Tim and I often commuted into work together, although the late hours made it difficult for us to establish a regular rideshare rhythm.

Some employees had spouses and children, and no one wanted kids to miss their father just because he worked on computer games. Still, for a few years of the development, the entire Vanilla WoW team worked many late nights, and I think it was remarkable that no one worked only regular hours.

Mark and Shane, the team leads, were very conscious of not burning everyone out because of their experience on StarCraft. They had both been associate producers on the project and vowed to avoid pushing Team 2 as hard as the StarCraft devs. StarCraft’s dev cycle was nightmarish in that the goal posts were always moving. Whenever they crossed the finish line, Allen Adham found room for improvement, saying the game wasn’t polished enough, and asked everyone if they could hunker down for a few weeks longer. Whenever the next deadline was reached, another issue would arise and it was extended again, prolonging the crunch of late hours. The light at the end of the StarCraft tunnel always turned out to be a mirage. Each “final” sprint collided directly into another. And then another. Fans camped out in Blizzard’s parking lot and counted the cars, reporting on websites how many people were working at night. StarCraft’s drop-dead due dates were missed repeatedly until it was over a year later. Shane reminisced how people slept in sleeping bags on the floor. Showers and meals were skipped. To this day, few people who served on the StarCraft team play the game. Both Shane and Mark agreed that people weren’t as productive when exhausted and it just wasn’t worth it. Allen Adham’s nerves had been so worn out he left the company he founded until Blizzard convinced him to help out on WoW years later. In the wake of StarCraft’s quality-of-life costs, Shane and Mark vowed they’d never push a team like that, and their solution was to start the late nights early.

If you found this essay interesting, consider purchasing The WoW Diary on Amazon:

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