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 tomorrow, 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.
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.
“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.”
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. (See sidebar for why this might be desirable.) 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.”