How Warcraft Got Its Name

I lost hours of my youth playing online StarCraft matches, nearly lost entire friendships to the scourge of World of Warcraft. In all that time, it never occurred to me why Blizzard uses that -craft suffix on those games, or what it could possibly mean. At last, I have the answer.

Other non-Blizzard games have used it, too, most notably Minecraft, but also a plethora of less memorable titles. The more I see this suffix, the less it makes sense. Still, based off the MS-DOS granddaddy of these games, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans from 1994, I had some linguistic theories.

Was the derivation similar to spycraft or stagecraft, thereby implying the skills and abilities necessary for the act of war? That would certainly be a flashier way of saying “strategic thinking,” which is really what any real-time strategy games boils down to.

A less likely theory was that the titular -craft referenced a vehicle, like spacecraft or hovercraft, only in this case one constructed for doing large-scale murders of orcs and/or humans. Although later entries would add various ships and even a napalm-chucking ballista, the only mechanical “craft” in the original was a simple catapult.

One last theory: given that the game involves both doing war and crafting stuff out of resources to do that war, the thought did occur to me that “warcraft” was a simple nod to the two most common actions the game encouraged, in order of importance.

A reply from Blizzard’s public relations team wasn’t forthcoming, so instead I reached out to Patrick Wyatt, former Vice President of R&D and credited producer on the very first Warcraft title (emphasis ours):

The short answer is that Allen Adham, one of the two founders of Blizzard along with Mike Morhaime, had wanted to do a whole series of games about various eras of warfare, both historical and fictional, that would all have the name “Warcraft”, with a subheading (e.g. “Warcraft: Vietnam”). Allen was an extremely bright strategic thinker and was thinking about how to take advantage of the critically important — at that time, circa early ‘90s — dynamics of retail shelf space. Having many related titles on the shelf near each other creates cross-selling opportunities and demonstrates that the brand encompasses many games, and is consequently well-supported.

As an aside, Allen should also get credit for ensuring we had really, really heavy game boxes. If you compared a Blizzard game with it’s [sic] competitors (we compared ourselves especially to Interplay, who published our games), other PC boxes were light as a feather, and the contents (typically a floppy disk and a couple of sheets of paper) would rattle around loosely. Blizzard boxes were packed with a heavy manual, a Blizzard notepad, discs, reg-cards, offers, and cardboard packing to prevent rattling, and consequently felt solid & heavy. Yeah, we did a lot to optimise for retail!

So our game, “Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans” was the first of that series; there were no other -craft games prior to that. Inasmuch as the name predated the game’s initial development, it was chosen for its “coolness” rather than being based on any game design elements.

It seems I’d overthought the entire premise, but Pat still had the decency to humour me. Although, as a brief aside, there was at least one -craft game prior to 1994: SpellCraft: Aspects of Valor, a strategy-ish game which was released on DOS in 1992 (and very nearly ported to the SNES shortly after.) Although the game itself is not especially memorable, its creator — Joe Ybarra — was one of the very first employees of Electronic Arts, and a contributor to better-known titles like M.U.L.E.

It features not just the -craft suffix, but the inter-capitalisation later used on StarCraft as well, although footage of the game suggests there’s little in common between it and the duelling armies usually associated with the RTS genre. Unfortunately, I was unable to reach Ybarra for comment.

Just to be certain, I also reached out to Adham — one of Blizzard’s founders. Sure enough, he backed Wyatt’s story entirely (emphasis ours, again):

So the story on how we came up with the name “WarCraft” is really pretty simple. We were all playing Westwood’s Dune 2, quite possibly the first RTS ever made, and we were loving it and decided we want to make something similar, but with a high fantasy theme. Sam Didier, aka Samwise, suggested we call it “WarCraft” and mentioned that he had always wanted to use that name to make a game.

We all thought it sounded super cool, and that was that. Pat is correct that we hoped to use the WarCraft moniker to name a whole series of games, across many different genres – fantasy, sci fi, modern military, historic military, etc. Of course the only two we ever actually developed were WarCraft and StarCraft.

So that’s the story of the origin of the name WarCraft. Not too exciting, just simple and true.

After working up several hypotheses on a question that possibly no one else was remotely interested in, I guess I deserve an answer as simple as “because it sounds cool.” It was a bit deflating, even if it technically closed the book on my inquiry. Knowing this genre-defining series nearly went in a vastly different direction, most of all I’m grateful no one had to play Warcraft: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

This article was originally published on 2/10/19.


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