Franchise Festival #11: Warcraft

Happy Friday Avocadoans!

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be dispelling the fog of war surrounding Warcraft. Noah Caldwell-Gervais’ video essay on the series and an IGN article outlining its history are the major sources for this overview.


Blizzard was founded in 1991 under the name Silicon & Synapse, and got its start producing ports to the PC and Mac platforms. It soon developed content published by Interplay, a popular publishing company in the 1990s, including the lauded 16-bit Lost Vikings. In 1994, the company changed its name briefly to Chaos Studios, Inc. before settling on the name Blizzard Entertainment. To begin their work developing heavy-hitting games under their new name, Blizzard opted to release an homage to 1992’s pioneering real-time strategy game Dune II.


Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994)

As personal computers had rapidly populated the market in the late 1980s, games for them had remained relatively slow-paced. This began to change in the early 1990s with the advance of first-person shooters and real-time strategy games; Warcraft falls into the latter category.

Dune II had permitted players to command an empire from a birds-eye view, making sweeping decisions and directing their military around vast maps. With no successors on the market two years later, Blizzard staked a claim to the genre with the first Warcraft title. Its chief distinctions from Dune II were its scope and its aesthetic design.

Warcraft narrows its birds-eye view to a smaller field and focuses chiefly on military operations. Players control armies composed of distinct units – each unit belongs to a type with unique strengths and weakness – and moves them around a field of battle while also building up a base of operations. Buildings created in the base area drive the in-game economy, costing player resources but also generating resources, while also being the source of new army units. Unlike later games, buildings in the player’s base must be connected to one another. The objective of combat is not only wiping out your opponent’s army, but also the buildings that fuel that army. On top of this basic goal, which had been established by Dune II, Warcraft integrates a number of other novel scenarios, like rescuing towns and using only the army units made available at the start of a level. Players can select up to four army units to move in tandem; this represents a significantly smaller scale than future games, but does allow grouping units with different strengths together for assaults on their enemies.

You can never have too many farms.

With regard to aesthetics, Warcraft took its cues from fantasy literature. The two playable armies are orcs and medieval humans. Magic plays a significant role, with spell-caster units augmenting direct melee fighters and archers. Surprisingly, much of the game’s lore and background were ad-libbed on the spot by Bill Roper (producer/layout artist). As the title’s only voice actor, he played numerous roles and had no script provided to him during the recording sessions; consequently, he had the opportunity to play a major part in shaping the series’ narrative development.

The default enemy, of course, is an AI opponent. The main campaign storyline is bare-bones, as the player takes on the role of either the orcs – invading through a portal to conquer the human realm – or the humans – defending their home against the marauding invaders. Progression through the campaign is based on individual levels in which the player must complete a goal before progressing to some new area; this sets early real-time strategy games like Warcraft and Command and Conquer (1995) apart from its less segmented turn-based strategy contemporaries like Civilization (1991).

More important to Warcraft‘s long-term success was multiplayer. Critical reception to the game was cool at first, but players who discovered the joy of modem or local area connection multiplayer popularized Warcraft over the following year. Blizzard had not invented this mechanic – Modem Wars was available to Commodore 64 owners as early as 1988 – but the low barrier to entry and randomized maps made Warcraft the gateway to this type of play for many.


Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995)

By the time that Warcraft had begun spreading through word of mouth and months-late reviews, Blizzard was already hard at work on its successor. The game was originally planned to be a version of the original “orcs vs. humans” arc set in the modern era, rather than a medieval milieu, but that was scrapped early in development. Instead, the developers updated the game’s systems and visuals without dramatically altering the overarching aesthetic; a touch more steampunk was the only significant design overhaul.

Its visuals, however, were a major improvement on the game that the studio had released only one year earlier. Warcraft II no longer featured a flat, if colorful, fully pixel-based appearance. Instead, it included a combination of pixel art and multi-dimensional computer renderings. Units would react with animation when clicked or moved, rendering the game’s world a much more inviting, engaging place.

More critically, the field of battle was expanded significantly. Players can now select up to nine units at a time, rather than the original game’s four; this is a double-edged sword, since friendly fire is a new concern. Combat is not confined to land anymore, either – naval combat is introduced, becoming a major component of the game’s numerous maps and missions.

Boats vs. dragons in Warcraft II.

Warcraft II‘s plot is also richer than its predecessor. Unlike the first game, in which a voice actor/producer had wide latitude to work up the series’ mythology, the second game followed a fairly strict series of narrative events. It is a direct sequel, following a version of Warcraft in which the humans lost the war and fled to a neighboring area. The orcs take this opportunity to begin expanding, quickly threatening the game’s new human kingdom of Lordaeron. By the end of the game, the orcs are pushed back into the portal from which they’d emerged and humans are once again masters of the game’s fictional continent, Azeroth. An expansion called Through the Portal complicated this tidy conclusion, and introduced hero characters alongside army units, but left a tenuous peace in place.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Warcraft II. Its mouse-driven interface became the standard to which real-time strategy games would adhere into the 2010s. Its internet-based multiplayer, a program called Kali, allowed players the ability to find up to eight strangers to participate in online skirmishes; multiplayer Warcraft II proved so popular, in fact, that it was re-released in 1999 with Blizzard’s proprietary online functionality. Its emphasis on tactile, animated units and cinematic storytelling also lent the genre a sense of personality lacking in earlier strategy games. With the 1995 releases of Warcraft II and its primary competitor, Westwood’s  quasi-modern science fiction-influenced Command & Conquer, the ascendancy of the real-time strategy genre had begun.


Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002)

Only seven years separated the second and third entries in Blizzard’s first major series, but it must have seemed like the studio had entirely forgotten about Warcraft. Blizzard had published two critically-acclaimed new series in the intervening years – Diablo, an isometric action-RPG, and Starcraft, a futuristic real-time strategy game set in space – and had even attempted an ill-advised story-oriented Warcraft spinoff called Warcraft Adventures; this last project would be cancelled shortly ahead of its planned appearance at E3 1998. The market had fully shifted from 2D to 3D environments of the late 1990s, and fans wondered how Warcraft would adapt.

A playable beta version of Warcraft Adventures finally entered circulation through fan channels in 2016.

It adapted, perhaps not surprisingly, by not changing very much at all. The third Warcraft game is visually distinct from its predecessors – fully polygonal models and environments replace the sprites and crude computer imagery of the mid-1990s – but the birds-eye view is entirely consistent with the previous decade’s real-time strategy games. The interface is remarkably similar to its predecessors, as players interact with the game by clicking and dragging a mouse to select options, buildings or army units. The game’s biggest changes are in its emphasis on hero units (unique characters who fight alongside armies and feature distinct abilities), its removal of naval combat, and its expansion of the playable factions to include night elves and undead armies. The narrative is more impressive than Warcraft II, but this richer cinematic scope reflects an evolution rather than innovation.

A hectic scene highlighting the polygonal designs and lighting effects in Warcraft III.

Interestingly, the next title in the core Warcraft strategy series was almost a very different game! Blizzard had actually experimented with bringing the perspective down to a ground level in the early stages of development. Players would take on the role of the aforementioned hero units and travel among the army issuing commands. This dramatic upheaval in the Warcraft formula would have offered a fresh take on the real-time strategy genre, but Blizzard opted instead for what had proven successful with fans.

Online combat continued to be a major factor in the success of the Warcraft franchise. The single-player campaign had been heavily influenced by Blizzard’s own Starcraft, in which the player progresses through an evolving narrative by taking the reigns of all four races, but the multiplayer kept the game active over the following years. An expansion called The Frozen Throne brought naval combat back from Warcraft II, but the robust modding community ended up offering the game a longer lifespan than is characteristic of this notoriously forward-facing medium.

An image from Defense of the Ancients (DOTA), a mod for Warcraft III that popularized the MOBA genre.

This strategy paid off – the game won numerous “Game of the Year” awards and sold over one million copies within a month. For the apparently niche real-time strategy genre, this was a major coup. Its highly engaging narrative campaign brought more attention than ever to the series’ impeccable art design and increasingly complex backstory, while Blizzard’s willingness to ship the game with a World Editor program provided years of fascinating game mods. The modding community would become so ambitious, in fact, that it led directly to an entirely new fan-made genre – the multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA.



Warcraft is noteworthy for being one of very few series in which the spin-offs outshine the original franchise in the public imagination. I’m speaking, of course, of the widely praised and widely criticized World of Warcraft. This massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) was released in 2004 and swiftly took the world by storm.

World of Warcraft had been announced as early as 2001, but few could have predicted that an all-multiplayer adaptation of a real-time strategy game in a new genre would be so successful. It leaned heavily into the series’ backstory, lore, and world design rather than mechanics, and this gamble paid off. Real-time strategy is inherently a challenging genre for new players to approach, but the appealing visual design of the Warcraft universe was attractive to outsiders; leveraging that art design in a more user-friendly genre was, in retrospect, a brilliant decision.

Exploring Azeroth at ground level in World of Warcraft.

The spin-off would change significantly over the following decade. It had taken its cues from earlier MMORPG success stories – particularly Everquest (1999) – but would go on to define the genre. Numerous expansions have been released, beginning with The Burning Crusade (2007), but fans remain dedicated to both the base version of the game and its more advanced newer iterations; fan communities preserve servers running the game largely as it existed in 2004, though in 2017 Blizzard announced that it planned to work up official support for this type of gameplay. The game’s evolution continues unabated, though, as occasional visual or mechanical overhauls keep pace with shifting market trends.

An online card battle in Hearthstone.

World of Warcraft is not the only major spin-off of the Warcraft series, however. Since 2014, PC and mobile device users have been able to download a free-to-play digital collectible card game called Hearthstone. This title is largely geared towards multiplayer elements, like its predecessors, but single-player campaigns do exist for players willing to pay for them. Similarly, players are able to accrue points through matches and cash these in for new expansion card sets, but most find it more expedient to simply pay real-world money to receive new cards. This payment system has become controversial as concerns over loot-box mechanics have picked up traction, but it reflects an older analog model of collectible card game (see Magic the Gathering or Pokemon) and is unlikely to disappear in the near future. Hearthstone has begun to inspire its own imitators, like Gwent (itself a spin-off of The Witcher franchise), and has become a major part of Blizzard’s Warcraft empire.

What do you think? Which is your favorite Warcraft game? How about your favorite faction? Do you think there will ever be a Warcraft IV? Let’s talk about all of these points and more in the comments below!