FROM 2002 TO 2020 — How Warcraft III Birthed a Genre, Changed a Franchise, and Earned a Reforge-ing Team behind Warcraft III looks back—how many games had NASA scientists behind the scenes? by RICHARD C. MOSS This article originally appeared on ars TECHNICA. Page I II III Few game worlds have made a mark as big as that of Warcraft. It has birthed three best-selling strategy games, a blockbuster Hollywood movie, a bunch of novels and comics, a mega-popular (digital) collectible card game (Hearthstone), and an epic, genre-defining MMO that, 15 years on from launch, is soon to get its eighth expansion. And while most of its cultural impact and fame (and infamy) stems from that MMO, World of Warcraft, there's something to be said for the quiet legacy of Blizzard's 2002 real-time strategy game Warcraft III. Despite a long and troubled development—a development that included a name change and major shift in direction along the way—Warcraft III cemented the world of Azeroth in gaming culture. It paved the way for WoW's success, kicked off the trend of bringing RPG elements into non-RPG genres, triggered a revival in tower defense games, and spawned the uber-popular MOBA genre, which was invented out of its modding tools. (Warcraft III also happened to be a great game, too.) With Blizzard's official remaster of the game, Warcraft III: Reforged, out today, it's high time to take a look back at Warcraft III's history. I spoke to eight of the roughly three dozen core development staff from the original Warcraft III team about how it was made and how it helped shape the future (which is now the present) of the games industry. This is a compressed retelling of their many stories and anecdotes. Warcraft Legends Our story begins around 1998 just after the release of sci-fi RTS StarCraft. "There was some development being done on Brood War, which was an expansion," lead designer Rob Pardo told Ars. "Then there were two other teams that went off—one of which was going to work on a new Warcraft game." But it was not a sequel. "We wanted to push past what we had been doing before to make something fresh," recalled Art Director Samwise Didier. StarCraft had nailed "the mass army vibe," he added, where you "toss marines and zerglings into the meat grinder." But with Warcraft, Didier argued, "units had always felt more like characters than just bodies to march off to slaughter." He and his colleagues wanted to accentuate that individuality. The team soon came up with a concept for a squad-based tactical game centered around heroes and a smattering of role-playing elements. Gone were the resource collection and base building of previous Warcraft titles, and this new game would utilize a camera perspective that was more pulled-in—just a little further above and behind the hero character than you'd get in a third-person RPG. The team gave it the working title Warcraft Legends. "For the first demo map we made, you controlled the Orc BladeMaster and we had him running around in a snowy environment," said environment artist Dave Berggren. "The culmination of the demo had you facing off against an undead dragon, which later became what we all know as the Undead Frost Wyrm, only this dragon was more of a boss fight and much larger in scale. Since there were no tools or systems in place yet to create the terrain or cliffs, all of the environment had to be custom built and patched together." Level designer Dave Fried recalled that it didn't feel at all like an RTS. "Imagine League of Legends or Dota, and then you get additional heroes on the side of your hero, and you can use their abilities along with you, but they all sort of move as one and fight as one unit." Programmer Andrea Pessino offered a more technical explanation: "It was supposed to be a client-server, online game, very instanced, you know, with this over-the-shoulder camera and full 3D. It was exactly what Guild Wars eventually became." Blizzard announced the game in September 1999 under the Warcraft III moniker as "a role-playing strategy game," or "RPS" for short. It had six planned races and a slated release date of "late 2000." But discontent was growing within the team. The Pivot "We kinda got to this place where we had a sense that it's not getting someplace that we're excited about," recalled Pardo. Fried filled in more of the details here: "Mo Brien [Mike O'Brien] was the one who was pushing for the tactics RPG stuff. But it was a big point of contention on the team—that, you know, it doesn't feel like an RTS anymore. It feels like a different style of game. Is this really the direction we want to go?" Pessino remembers it fell to Blizzard co-founder and (now former) President Mike Morhaime to make the call. "He pulled the trigger and switched, which also caused a group of people to quit and go form a different company, a different studio, in order to realize the vision that they had," said Pessino. That breakaway group eventually went on to create Guild Wars—the critically acclaimed best-selling MMO that broke convention by foregoing subscription fees. "So, you know, everyone benefited from that fall out," Fried said. That is, everyone except maybe the programmers—at least initially. The change in direction generated more than a few headaches for them. "All the work that was done for the first version of Warcraft III," said Pessino. "[It] was for client-server, and it's a fundamentally different way of approaching running the simulation of a game." CLIENT-SERVER BENEFITS For Diablo II, released in June 2000, Blizzard changed from a peer-to-peer to a client-server model for the network architecture supporting online play. It was a necessary move to curb the rampant cheating they had seen in Diablo and StarCraft online play. But for Warcraft III, the programmers had to adopt a hybrid of the two models. Today, Pessino still points to client-server as the ideal choice. "Client-server has huge advantages," he explained, "particularly when it comes to cheating, which is a huge consideration with RTS games and with multiplayer games in general—you know, cheating and hacking and all of this other stuff is a huge deal. And that's why there have been so many attempts to try to move away from peer-to-peer. "The fundamental difference is whether or not the state of the game is on your machine or you're only keeping the state that the server wants you to have," he continued. "For example, if I have on my machine the state of all the units that do not belong to me, someone can find a way to hack into it and show it. And all of a sudden someone can see what all the other units are doing, even though there'll still be fog of war and so forth. There is no real technical way to avoid that—not in a completely reliable way—if you are in peer-to-peer. Because they have the information. There's going to be some way you can get to it. It might be hard, but someone will figure it out." In simple terms, client-server means running all the game logic and events on the server and then just feeding the state back to players. But with the huge amount of player-directed information bouncing around, Pessino explained that "it's very, very difficult to make an RTS game that works client-server." "So we did a lot of work that ended up having to either be redone or adjusted or rethought in a new context when we switched to an RTS game, which went back to peer-to-peer—or in this case it was a bit of a hybrid system with a validation system and authentication system to help with cheating, but fundamentally it's still peer to peer." Basically that means that in a multiplayer match, everybody's computer runs a separate copy of the simulation (i.e., all the AI and gameplay stuff) that continuously syncs with the player inputs and events from every other copy. And there's code in place to effectively arbitrate any disputes or discrepancies between the game state on each machine. While the programmers rallied to re-architect the game engine, publicity and marketing commitments added an extra level of strain. "It was decided that we would show Warcraft III as an RTS at E3 2000," recalled Pessino. But that was no more than a month or two away. "I still remember because, just to give you a sense of how different the times were, we had no unit movement logic. Everything was just really lame. It was all temporary stuff. Because when we switched, before there was no NPC side. There was no automatic unit behavior. It was all supposed to be multiplayer… So all of a sudden we needed unit behaviors and we had nothing. And I think we had like a couple of weeks to do all this stuff and show it at E3 and put it in the hands of players, which is complete insanity." With no time to piece together a full set of AI routines, Pessino quickly hacked up a swarm behavior. "It's the dumbest thing you can do," he said. "Basically I made the units behave a little bit like a flock of birds, so they would just stay with you and flock around. There was no pathfinding, much less AI or any sort of tactical or strategic gameplay, nothing. The idea was just to show the 3D engine, the [new] overview camera—you know, the general look and feel of the game. And we did it." Finding the Design After the decision to pivot, Warcraft III's design and art also entered a state of flux as the team looked at what to keep, what to change, what to cut, and, of course, which conventional RTS elements to add in. Heroes continued to loom large in their discussions. "There was definitely a lot of challenges along the way with trying to balance, I guess, the emotional desire for these heroes to be these kind of big, dominating units," said Pardo. "But at the same time we had all the challenges like, well, how is the hero heroic in let's say a five-unit skirmish versus a 40-unit skirmish." Not everyone on the team thought it was worth the trouble of figuring this out. "I remember one particular designer refused to playtest with them and insisted that he could win a match without using one," recalled designer Matt Morris. "But over the next several months we smoothed out the revival mechanic, and we were adding items and leveling up. Eventually he lost every game and then began building them." To find the balance between overpowered and underpowered heroes, the team turned to the game's economic systems. They had simplified the economy from Warcraft II—cutting out the oil resource and streamlining some resource management processes. "And what we found was if we didn't have some other controlling mechanic, which eventually turned into Upkeep, then players would often just go straight to whatever the food cap was—or supply cap," recalled Pardo. "It wasn't as interesting and was hard to really balance the power of the heroes, especially when there was kind of these mass armies." Upkeep, which is effectively a tax (though Pardo said "we never called it a tax—tax is a bad word!") on your gold mining as you produce more units, would prove divisive with fans of the series. But in retrospect, Pardo considers it a critical addition. "Upkeep really helped control the pacing of the game better," he said. "And it really helped with the progression and power of the heroes relative to their armies." Many of the role-playing ideas of the original vision stuck around, too. Pardo points to the experience mechanic as another critical resource for players to manage. "Because there's a lot of gameplay around leveling up your heroes," he said. "Do you level up one hero, two heroes, three heroes?" Putting Story into Real-Time Strategy The four single-player campaigns—one for each race—that the team devised for the new RTS direction also broke with genre tradition by incorporating RPG-style quests into missions as part of a sweeping, epic fantasy narrative. Warcraft III followed the lives of three hero characters: the human paladin prince Arthas, orc warchief Thrall, and night elf leader Tyrande Whisperwind. "From a pretty early time period we really wanted to do something different with how we told stories in a strategy game," recalled Pardo. Previous Blizzard RTSs had put the story almost entirely in between missions—you'd get a cinematic, a mission briefing, or some narration to set the scene, then dive right in to a mostly unscripted map. Game and story, separate but connected. But Warcraft III would leverage its heroes to change this. "We thought that would be really interesting," said Pardo. "Now we have a character that can be on the battlefield that can actually talk and have interesting story moments happen to them. A COLLABORATIVE CULTURE Blizzard had developed a reputation for its collaborative culture long before Warcraft III. As you may have noticed from the stories in this article, experimentation and cross-pollination of ideas abounded. "The cool ideas that appear in the game have a lot of different parents, so to speak," Pardo said. "And where the original kernel came from could be from anywhere." Things were collaborative to the point even some of the testers got to have a hand in development. "Many of us in QA were able to create multiplayer maps," said Kaeo Milker. "I was most proud of having my voice used for the Goblin Tinker hero…it's still one of the coolest things I've been able to do in all of my years at Blizzard!" "And then we also really wanted to push hard on not just having great writing or great characters," he continued. "But how do we express that to the gameplay and the levels themselves? So all that was definitely intended." Multiple people interviewed for this story mentioned Chris Metzen (who declined a request for interview) as the star here. He acted not only as the writer but also as the creative director and narrative designer—those industry terms just didn't exist at the time. "He was actually a really, really good designer in the sense that the stories he was writing kept in mind the game mechanics that you would be employing to execute them," said Fried. Metzen worked hand in hand with the designers to craft a compelling campaign over a roughly nine-month period. "I remember the design group locking ourselves in a room to draw narrative beats from mission to mission," said Morris. "And every time we hit a creative wall, we forced ourselves not to leave the room till it was resolved." At one point, Morris added, they sat on the floor—the room had no tables or chairs—for several hours a day, day after day, writing ideas on a whiteboard until they had outlined the story in every mission. "That experience has really left an impression on me in terms of what it's like to be in a room full of passionate creative people that are presented with a challenge," he said. The level designers revelled in this creative environment, where they could flex their map- and scenario-sculpting skills around Metzen's narrative framework and dialogue ideas. "We'd go and we'd read the dialogue together, and then we'd discuss what type of map that would be and like how we would relate all these components and like what additional things we would need in terms of dialogue," recalled Fried. "So it was actually a very iterative and interesting process that I haven't seen done anywhere else." It led to some memorable missions, too. Fried called dibs on one of the most famous ones, like The Culling of Stratholme. "That one really spoke to me," he said. "Having to murder your citizens to effectively save everyone else I thought was a very compelling story point that I could do really cool mechanics with." That storyline was a race against time to deter the forces of evil, but also a morality play, a test of that gray area where right and wrong blur in the face of the greater good. In this case, it centered on the need to protect Azeroth from the undead army of the Scourge, who were converting victims of the Plague of Undeath into unwitting soldiers as the disease swept through the town of Stratholme. Morris remembers another mission as his personal highlight. "My first task as a game designer at Blizzard was to create a mission called The March of the Scourge," he said. "It was what we called a hold-out mission." These types of missions involve building a base and then trying to survive for X number of minutes (kind of like a precursor to the modern tower defense genre). They weren't particularly well liked, but the team considered them important for adding variety to the campaigns. Morris' challenge was to make a hold-out mission that felt exciting. "There were several ideas that the team floated, but the idea that really resonated with me was to pull the player out of their comfort zone—to add an objective that pulled the player out of their base," Morris continued. It worked, "and it happens to be the one mission I will never forget working on." Trial and Error Other mechanics came and went, tried and discarded because they didn't meaningfully improve the experience. Pessino remembers one time where another RTS came out with canopies in it. "You could hide under the trees," he explained. "We took like two months working on canopies for Warcraft III because all of a sudden that was kind of the gimmick. We had to have canopies. So we developed all this stuff to support the canopies and then at the end everybody said, 'Yeah, OK, canopies kind of suck, actually. There's no fun at all.'" To support all of the design team's experimentation, as systems were built and discarded and overhauled, the art team initially just tried stuff, too, ad-hoc, to see what works. But Berggren recalled a point where the team realized this wouldn't be a sustainable approach. "We eventually had to make things more modular such as the cliffs," he said, "and nail down polygon and texture budgets, and finally get a terrain tiling system. But as far as the art style, we were already heading down the path that we wanted to go with." Fantasy with a Blizzard Flair For the first Warcraft, Blizzard had rolled with a classic fantasy aesthetic, with realistic proportions on characters and traditional stylings on their equipment and buildings—except everything in oversaturated bold colors. Then Warcraft II started to veer off in its own direction, Didier recalled. "We wanted to make our very own version of a fantasy world." And for Warcraft III, emboldened by the fresh new gameplay ideas, Didier told his artists to push the colors and proportions and everything else out not just to eleven but "to one hundred and eleven." "The art we created completely separated us from other companies' art styles," Didier said. "Where most companies were pushing realism and realistic characters, we opted for a comic book version of fantasy. We didn't want to be Lord of the Rings or standard D&D fantasy. We wanted our characters to be the superhero versions of fantasy characters, rock stars with battle axes, with each one of our heroes and units looking like they could take on a whole army by themselves." Their technical constraints helped accentuate this stylized look. "We had 14,000 polygons," said Pessino. "That was the maximum, the target—14,000 polygons on screen for the whole thing. The background, the characters, the special effects—everything. Just to give you an idea, now, like in our PlayStation 4 game [Ready at Dawn], you have characters with a hundred thousand polygons just in the head." Low polygon counts offer their own set of challenges, though. It apparently took a lot of trial and error to get the right level of detail on textures, and Didier remembers challenges with the low polygon counts available for character models. "We all had to learn 3D programs and how to make art look good while using pure 3D resources and not touching them up afterwards," he added. The Third Dimension Warcraft III was not truly 3D. It had 3D graphics, for sure, but it had no physics system and most of the underlying logic for the game was a sort of layered 2D—despite appearances of rolling hills and sheer cliff faces. "We initially thought maybe we could use natural heights from the terrain," recalled level designer Dean Shipley, "but we quickly realized that there needed to be clear definitions of height and so we added multiple elevation layers [three in total] to mimic the 2D map elevations in StarCraft." Nonetheless, even this much of a step into 3D was a big (and necessary) adaptation not only for artists—who for the first time had an entire 3D-rendered world to create—but for designers as well, who had to consider how to implement height advantages in combat and where to put high ground in their maps. "I don't think we ever really seriously considered not going to 3D," said Pardo. "That's just kind of where the industry was going at that point." The team endeavored to make 3D more than a bandwagon, gimmicky move—to begin to grapple with how to actually use it to enhance the experience. "And we took it pretty seriously for sure," Pardo said. "Like I know for me, with the designers, we even took some classes trying to learn how to model in 3D just so we can start getting used to the idea and how to think about 3D space." Morris agrees. "It was a huge change," he said. "We kept getting comments about 'verticality'—make the camera sail along the terrain as we move around the map. We had to come up with lots of game rules to support the gameplay that we didn't need to do for StarCraft." Darkness can fall in WarCraft III... Night and Day The game's day/night cycle also took some iteration to get right. "We had the tough job of creating a significant visual difference between day to night while also ensuring that the playfield be visible enough at night for good readability and gameplay," said Berggren. Dark looked good, but it made it harder to get value out of the night mechanics (reduced sight range on units and buildings plus various perks for the night elves). "We settled on a bluish light that signified the changing to nighttime but still was bright enough to make the game fun to play," recalled Didier. Nobody can quite remember where, specifically, the day/night cycle came from, though. "I know there was another RTS game that the design group was playing and their campaign had a day/night cycle," said Morris. "But mostly it was a narrative device, so the artists got excited to add dynamic lighting and championed this idea." As with most things in Warcraft III, the designers didn't initially have a clear idea of how they wanted to utilize day/night differences, so they experimented. "We started with pushing a unit's sight range to nearly the entire map during the day, which led our playtesting to only attacking at night," recalled Morris. Then late in the game, as the team was implementing the final race, the night elves, Morris remembers their "design groove" had gotten so strong that they had the capacity to play around with more off-the-wall ideas. "Which is why night elves are the only ones that benefited from day/night," he added. Enjoy Dota 2? You can thank Warcraft III. A Huge Legacy Years after the initial idea came up in 1998 and the original 2000 release date slipped, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos finally came out in July 2002. And that followed a months-long crunch to get it finished. An expansion called The Frozen Throne followed a year later. On top of a game of the year award from GameSpot and numerous other accolades, it sold over a million copies in its first month and millions more in the years to follow. Looking back, however, its success as a commercial product would come to be grossly overshadowed by the legacy it left behind. TRIVIA TOO GOOD TO TOSS Here are a few extra stories from Warcraft III development that we just couldn't bear to cut: "The song 'Power of the Horde' which plays during the end credits of War3, performed by 10th Level Tauren Chieftain (now known as Elite Tauren Chieftain), was originally a song our band played called 'The Serpent and the Slave' and it had nothing to do with Warcraft. We needed a song for the War3 credits so Samwise [Didier] just changed the lyrics to be Warcraft related." -Dave Berggren "As a QA Tester, my biggest challenge was when I was assigned to ultra-low-spec computers for testing…everything was sooooo slow and all of my tests would take forever to complete! It was pure heaven when I got off of those Celeron 333's and onto a Pentium." -Kaeo Milker "We had an amazing map editor developer who basically coded everything we requested—even things we thought couldn't be done: Brett Wood. We called him the 'rocket scientist' because he briefly worked for NASA before coming to Blizzard as the editor developer. The old 'well it's not rocket science' joke was used a few times, as you can imagine." -Dean Shipley "We went to Fry's Electronics to do a signing of the boxes. People were just asking us questions as they're passing through the line, and they're like, 'so what are you going to do next?' I'm like, 'Oh, probably the expansion.' And Mike Morhaime was standing behind me. He was like, 'Dave, could you not announce products that are not announced yet, please.'" -Dave Fried Warcraft III spawned a genre, for one thing. Not in the way that genres normally form, as copies of a successful game, but rather through a community mod. Defense of the Ancients, or DotA for short, grew from humble beginnings as an unofficial spinoff of StarCraft's Aeon of Strife map, year by year increasing in popularity, until the release of League of Legends in 2009 turned it into a genre—the MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena). "Certainly it was surprising that something like Dota could get so, so big within the community," said Pardo. "But then again, probably in retrospect it wasn't—because you can look at other communities like the Half-Life community or Counter-Strike. I think there's been a long legacy in computer games that, if you have a great game and you deliver really strong modding tools, that other great things will come out of those communities." Pessino agrees that the World Editor was vital to Warcraft III's influence, though he points to how "over-engineered" the game was by the time it shipped as key. "All the systems were capable of so much more than was actually used in the game," he said. "It had this whole programming language within the editor that was so comprehensive you could write entire games with it. It was really an engine, basically—a system to do tactical games, you know. Or strategic games. So that's why you got Dota," he continued. "Everything that came after, it came because Warcraft III provided the platform, the heroes, and the environment that allowed modders and people to make their own things…It was a foundational moment for what has been arguably the most impactful style of game for the last 15 years. Certainly the last 10." World of Warcraft owes a lot to Warcraft III, too—Pardo, who worked on both, said the RTS had a huge impact on WoW's art style and story, in particular. "They went through many years still utilizing a lot of the Warcraft III storylines," he added, "before they really had to start going off on their own and developing new IP storylines." And then there's even more Warcraft III legacy in other games, with the likes of Blizzard's Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm and even Bungie's Halo series drawing influences from various elements of the game. Berggren even noticed a clear Warcraft influence in the art for the Netflix animated series The Dragon Prince. "It was super humbling to realize that our IP can have that kind of influence," he said. Reforged Fast forward nearly 20 years, and now Warcraft III gets a chance to shine again. Blizzard's remastered edition, Reforged, is here. And many members of the original team have had a hand in its creation. Including Kaeo Milker, who's long since moved out of QA and now serves as producer. "It's been surreal to come back to Warcraft III over 18 years after I first worked on it," he said. "It's really taken me back to a time when I was a player and a fan…It was a bit of a homecoming." Matt Morris, now a senior designer, has similar feelings—though he admits to cringing at some of his old work—while Dave Berggren calls it "pretty surreal" to be touching up his old 3D models. Rather fittingly, too, it hasn't all been smooth sailing with this reforging—there's been a laundry list of struggles along the way. The 3D rendering engine had to be rewritten, for instance, and the art team faced drastic changes in their development pipeline as part of a transition from 3DS Max to Maya. Plus Berggren said their shift from the original's hand-drawn to Reforged physically-based rendering shaders initially came with a jarring loss of saturation and vibrancy that took a lot of tuning to get back to the "Warcrafty" levels fans expect. Fans also reacted angrily to plans—later cancelled—to overhaul the campaign story to better align with World of Warcraft. But the team seems to have navigated through the inflated expectations of nostalgia to bring Warcraft III into the modern era, and now, Morris said, the most exciting thing is to see how "an audience that missed out the first time" will respond to it. "There are so many people familiar with Warcraft from World of Warcraft but [who] never played Warcraft III," he continued. "So I'm looking forward to reading stories of new players playing Reforged. And if I did my job well, then I will hear players talk about 'not being a RTS player' but loving Warcraft III: Reforged. That will be my happy place."