When he set out with nothing but 15,000 dollars from his grandma to found Silicon and Synapse, Michael Morhaime couldn’t possibly imagine the empire he would build. 20 years, a dozen games, and nearly 15 billion dollars later, Blizzard Entertainment has become one of the most influential companies in video gaming, and it would be nowhere without the guidance of Mike Morhaime.
This man has an extensive history with video games. From his childhood to the current day, he’s worked tirelessly on the medium he’s loved most. We here at Culture of Gaming are fascinated and inspired by Mike. That’s why we’re writing a multi-part chronology of Morhaime’s life and career. This article will delve into his early years and the first phase of Blizzard, but make sure to stay tuned to at least one more part coming in the future.
Without further ado, here’s a brief look into the soul of Michael Morhaime, former CEO of Blizzard.
And for more details, make sure to check out the list of sources at the end of the article.
Michael Morhaime’s adventures first started in college, but we can trace his fondness for video games all the way back to his childhood. See, Mike was an avid computer nerd; since the sixth grade, he’d studied arcade cabinets and computer boards, learning how to modify them with help of his magazine subscription. “I was so excited about how cool it was that you could get this machine to do things.”
That enthusiasm carried him into his college life at the University of California (UCLA), where he studied as an electrical engineering student. It was here that he would meet one of the most important friends in his career: Allen Adham. Allen, like Mike, had been an adamant computer and video game nerd since his early days. But unlike Mike, who was mostly experienced in hardware, Allen knew quite a bit about the software side of technology as well. He had written and developed video games since he was about 14.
Geeks and CEOs
Being the geeks they were, Allen and Mike quickly became friends. They shared a few of the same college classes, and got to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses through their assignments. In the early nineties, Mike graduated from UCLA and went to work at Western Digital, where he planned on holding a “regular” engineering job for the foreseeable future. But Allen had a different idea…
Allen wanted to start his own company – a video game company – and he pleaded with Mike to join him. And despite much disapproval from his parents, Mike accepted Allen’s ambitious idea. Allen would later note: “[Mike’s] parents – his father in particular – thought it was crazy to leave a good job for this crazy start-up with a 22-year-old kid.” They were understandably worried; Mike left his job at Western Digital with nothing but $5,000 USD to live off of for the next two years, and another $10,000 to invest in Mike and Allen’s newfound company.
The Dawn of Silicon
Despite their severe lack of funding, Mike, Allen, and a friend from AI class named Frank Pierce founded Silicon and Synapse in 1991. The name itself “Silicon and Synapse” is very clever! Silicon is the primary element used in computer chips, and synapse is a common biological term for the junction between nerve cells in the human brain. Essentially they were calling the company “Technology and Creativity”. Unfortunately, as Mike puts it, “nobody got it.” Customers would commonly be confused by the name; Allen reported that he was constantly asked, “Silicone? Isn’t that what you put in women’s breast implants?”
They kept the name, though, and got some contracts to port games to the Amiga. But not soon after their start, S&S made a name for themselves, albeit in a small way. Under the publishing hand of Interplay (who would later go on to publish the first two Fallout games), Mike and his team created RPM Racing. Much like Super Mario RPG, this racing game displayed pseudo-3D graphics that, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t have been possible on the SNES. While the isometric racing title never gained a huge following or sold incredible figures, Blizzard claims that it was the very first American-developed SNES game to hit store shelves.
Under Mike and Allen’s guidance, Silicon and Synapse continued to grow. They recruited new talent like artist Sam Didier and programmer Bob Fitch to develop the team. And over the next few years, Silicon and Synapse’s library of games continued to grow. They developed Rock N’ Roll Racing as a sequel to RPM in 1993, and The Lost Vikings, a Norwegian-inspired puzzle platformer in the same year. Both Rock N’ Roll and Lost Vikings did very well that year; As Allen Adham says, “I think we may have been the only company to win two of the seven top awards [that year].”
Despite, this sudden attention, the Silicon and Synapse years were hard on the entire crew. Mike reminisces on Silicon’s financial struggles. “On paper, it always looked like we were just a couple months away from having a windfall of excess cash to work with. [But] it never really happened.” As leaders, Mike and Allen did their best to hide the fact that they were almost continually a week from bankruptcy. They had completely eaten through the $40,000 that their parents had given them, and were coming closer and closer to the brink of extinction. It was quickly becoming apparent that if they wanted to succeed, they’d have to try something completely new.
“The Name’s Davidson”
In 1994, Bob Davidson, CEO of Davidson and Associates, approached Mike and Allen to make a proposition. See, the two companies had a complimentary need. Silicon and Synapse was in desperate need of financial backing and a strong publishing arm. Davidson and Associates, a well-known name in the Edutainment industry, wanted to branch out into computer entertainment software. It seemed like a match made in heaven, but there was still one barrier.
Mike and Allen had two choices: sell themselves to Interplay, a reliable video game publisher whom they’d worked with before, or to Davidson, who had never published an entertainment game up to that point. Obviously, it makes sense that Silicon’s first choice was Interplay, but Bob Davidson’s wife, Jan, had a different idea. “I called [Allen] up and I said ‘you have made a big mistake, and I want you to think about it some more.’” He did think about it: Jan’s words were so powerful that Allen said he wasn’t able to sleep for the next few nights.
The Monday after Jan’s haunting call, Allen changed his mind and rang up Bob to seal the deal. They would sell the company to Davidson’s ownership for 7 million dollars. It was a huge financial upgrade for Silicon; they finally had the resources to get rolling on their own project. But first, they would need a serious overhaul, starting with their name…
What’s in a name?
Mike remembers that settling on a new name for the company was no simple task. “We had such a hard time finding a name that everyone liked and wasn’t already a registered trademark from somebody.” At first, they were dead-set on the title Chaos Studios, but unfortunately, Chaos wasn’t to be. “The main reason we changed the name from Chaos was because someone was already using the name Chaos Technologies”. They would have charged the company $100,000 to continue using the Chaos moniker, an offer that Mike quickly declined.
A couple other names were tossed around, like Ogre Studios and Midnight Studios. But one weekend, Allen came into the office with a brilliant, one word title. They pulled some quick searches to see if the term was taken, and luckily, the results came clean. So overnight, Mike and Allen’s steadily-rising studio changed from Silicon and Synapse to Blizzard Entertainment.
Crazy, huh? We’re already an article into Mike’s career, and we haven’t begun to start on his most famous games! What do you think? Were you ever familiar with Blizzard before they became, well… Blizzard? Did you play The Lost Vikings back in the day? Let us know, and be sure to go read part 2!