One of our users, Abelhawk, recently created a youtube series to showcase the fascinating and hilarious easter eggs within Warcraft III's campaigns (check it out here!). David Fried, one of the campaign designers for Warcraft III, noticed those videos and contacted Abelhawk for a fun interview! Check it out below, or on Abelhawk's blog.
Abelhawk: First things first, what was your specific position at Blizzard? Did you just design the campaign levels themselves, or did you have a hand in designing anything else about the game?
David: So at Blizzard I started in Quality Assurance. It was my first job in the game industry and my second job at all. I was working at a technical book store and I was running out of money for college. I didn't want to go into debt, so I thought, why not work in games? I was technical-minded, and I loved games. So, why not give it a try?
I called 4-1-1 and asked for the number for Blizzard, and they gave it to me. I immediately called and asked if they were looking for anyone who had Macintosh experience (I was a big Mac person at the time). Lo and behold, they needed Mac QA testers for Diablo and Starcraft! I went in for an interview and immediately felt at home. Everyone was wearing T-shirts and jeans, and playing games. I knew I wanted to work there, and my background in computers and games made the interview a breeze.
I got the job and started in QA, and while I was there for almost two years, I developed a knack for making neat test levels for Starcraft in StarEdit. I created a new co-op campaign map for Starcraft N64 called Resurrection, and it was very well received, so when Blizzard was looking for new level designers to take over the Starcraft Map of the Week program, I was picked right up.
"Deception" was my favorite Map of the Month that I made. It has the most story elements, and a lot of them ended up sliding into Starcraft lore. That was back when Metzen wasn't paying too much attention to what I was doing. I also did "Trademasters," "Mercenaries II," and "Arena," which someone once told me inspired the Arena maps in WarCraft 3 that eventually became DOTA, but that's not a straight line nor verifiable.
Soon WarCraft 3 began ramping up in development, and so I was moved to helping create the campaign maps. At Blizzard, everyone on the team gets a say in game design, systems, and story elements. So it's a very cooperative process. Primarily though, the level designers are the closest to the end product, and thus they end up working the hardest and longest of anyone on the team. Both because level designers are often waiting for tools and other elements of code and art, which we then have to implement long after everyone else is done, but also because we're the people who have to find the fun, and make sure that each map is an enjoyable experience.
For WarCraft 3 RoC I created "The Culling" (my claim to fame really, if I have one), "Digging Up the Dead," "By Demons Be Driven," and "A Destiny of Flame and Sorrow." I was also the writer of the team, so all of the tooltips (we called them ubertips internally, don't know why), most of the items, and the color schemes for information on abilities and items were my idea. I also wrote a large portion of the flavor text in the game, and some bits of the extended manual. Though looking back, it's definitely not my best writing.
Abelhawk: As a quality assurance employee and later as a campaign designer, how closely did you work with people like Metzen, Samwise, and the voice actors of the game?
David: It wasn't until I was working full time on the N64 Starcraft campaign map that I regularly started speaking to devs from "upstairs." That's how I met Michael Heiberg and Mark Kern. I actually already vaguely knew some of the level designers because three of them were former QA (Scott Mercer, Dave Hale, and Eric Dodds, all great people).
I played Dungeons & Dragons with Chris Metzen, Sam Didier, Jason Hutchins, and Derek Simmons for well over two years while I was there. Everyone was really cool to work with. Blizzard Entertainment was truly a company of like-minded nerds who just wanted to make cool stuff. Once I moved to level design, I interacted with Sammy and Chris all the time. I even had Mike Morhaime come and help with "The Culling," because the triggers got... a bit complicated and he came in to clean up.
Abelhawk: How long did it take to make a single campaign map on average? What was the process like? Did you have the story first, then the map layout, then triggers, testing, doodads, etc.?
David: An average campaign map takes about two weeks if the premise is simple, and up to eight weeks if it's a very trigger-heavy map (as most of mine were). The story was written first by Chris Metzen, then we'd all sit down and walk through the campaign scene by scene to determine what sort of levels each campaign would entail. That first phase is where the level designers get to give a lot of feedback on the story.
So we had the intro and outro story first, then we would pick which ones we wanted to do (I called dibs on "The Culling" immediately). Then we would make a document or write up something about what we thought would make a cool level. Then we'd round-table discuss our levels with the other level designers. After that, we'd go start the layouts, and once we had the basics, we'd start putting in triggers to make things work. When we had a fully playable level, we'd get feedback from other level designers, and then if it was approved by the lead (Rob Pardo at the time), it would go out to all-company testing. Then you'd get a ton of feedback, and combined with bugs from QA, you'd spend the next couple weeks fixing things to make it shippable. Of course, you often had multiple maps in the works at a time, so you'd be starting the layout of a new one while tackling the worst bugs on the existing ones you had. It could get a bit hectic towards the end, which is why level designers are often the ones working right up until the moment you ship. Whereas code and art often gets locked down much earlier.
Abelhawk: Do you remember any changes that occurred to the original storyline over time? Were there any big changes in the lore while the maps were being made?
David: There were a lot of changes to story throughout development. The original Illidan was still Furion's brother, but he was a satyr. His dabbling in magic had changed him into one. It was totally a take on Pan from Shakespeare, and it felt really weak. We were all like... "Whaaaat?" So Chris took that back to the drawing board and made him much more badass. Probably one of my favorite characters.
Jaina was supposed to die in a very early draft, but that idea was squashed pretty quickly. Arthas didn't need any more motivation to chase Mal'ganis than he already had, but that was planned to be a main story element. There was supposed to be a love story between Arthas and Jaina, but that didn't work out. It was a bit too Raynor and Kerrigan again, because Jaina was going to become a banshee or something... I don't remember very well, but that plot point obviously got moved to Sylvanas Windrunner. There were a lot of similarities between the Starcraft and WarCraft 3 plotlines, to the point where the first few drafts got sent back multiple times.
I remember towards the end of development there was a huge backlash because of the ending cinematic where Archimonde is attacked by Nightelf tree sperm. There was all sorts of meetings and in-fighting about it. Pardo was rounding people up to basically attack the cinematics department for giving us something nigh-unusable. In the end we made it work, but the joke about the World Tree jizzing on Archimonde would come up at least once or twice a month until we shipped
Abelhawk: If you could go back and change anything about WarCraft 3 that you worked on, or do anything differently, what would it be? This can include mistakes you think other developers made, such as in the storyline. Is there anything you wish was different about the game, campaign, etc?
David: Well, I would certainly have wanted a lead level designer for both projects, because a lot of itemization and level design problems went relatively unnoticed until late in the project. So a lot of item shifting occurred towards the end of development as we saw things like three levels in a row dropping a ring of protection +1 and things like that. That was part of the reason I had been working on the randomized...
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