we took a look at some of the work that Blizzard have been doing on Warcraft III, from balancing the races through the multiplayer beta test to the effort that has gone into scripting and storyline for the single player campaign. But what happens after the game is released? We talked to Blizzard's Bill Roper to find out...
"One of the things that I think is really amazing about Warcraft III is the world editor that's shipping with it", Bill had told us earlier in the day, as he played through the first couple of missions in the game at a press presentation in London. "Anything you're seeing that we're doing in these scenarios - setting up triggers where they're destroying buildings, in-game cinematics, background music - can all be done through the editor. With a little practice players can make levels and campaigns and stories that are as complex and involved as what we're able to do in the game. It's really incredible the things you can do with it. If you wanted to, you could make Monopoly with the Warcraft engine - you could make a map that was a board that went around, and move units with the random number generator and use gold as money. We do a lot of things even within the campaign - we have certain levels that act almost like races, where you have to complete goals before your enemy." "People are really only going to be limited by their expertise and the time they want to spend learning the system. If there's anything that you see in a map, including in our single player campaign, and you wonder how it was done, you just go ahead and open that map up [in the world editor]. You can go in and see how we did anything and use that as a learning tool. How we did the cinematic sequences, how we lay out the different player settings, how we do a lot of the different triggers, getting people to say hello to you as you go by, villagers talking to you, how we did all the different quests. Even in the cinematics you can double-click on anything and it brings up the action, and you can see that here we used the fade filter, how we're fading out the colour, the transparency settings..."
Blizzard are obviously excited about the prospects of the mod community getting their hands on the Warcraft III engine. "I think it's a largely untapped resource in strategy games", Bill admitted. "But we've seen how amazingly important mod communities can be for first person shooters." That's not to say that Blizzard haven't supported mod makers in the past. Their last strategy game, the massively popular Starcraft, shipped with a campaign editor and some bizarre demonstration maps. "If you go back and load up Starcraft there's a folder 'weirdmaps' or 'oddmaps' or something. It was something people didn't really see a lot of, but we spent time with the Starcraft editor making a lot of weird maps like Zergling round-up and we had like a football game and Pacman and Galaxians. We built all these other weird game types trying to show people what they could accomplish even with that tool." "I think the Warcraft III editor is a whole generation beyond that - I really expect a lot out of the mod community once they start fiddling around with it. And we want to make sure that people who want to do that have as many tools as possible when they go ahead and make their changes, their desires, their visions. People, hopefully, for months and years to come are going to be coming up with all these great new ideas and variations on the gameplay and whole new types of gameplay they can all build with it."
Your Flexible Friend
Players aren't limited to just churning out new multiplayer maps and single player campaigns though. The built in unit editor allows mod makers to change everything from the size and colour of a unit to its combat stats and any special abilities or upgrade options. It should also be possible to add your own models into the game, although this isn't something that will be directly supported in the editor. "We do know that people rip apart our file formats, they always do", Bill told us. "I think it'll definitely be the elite of the elite that do that amount of work, but we do know that people will figure out how to put their own models and spell effects in. It's something that we didn't want to directly support with the editor, because then we thought that we were maybe going to have to educate people on what poly counts are about and how to apply textures, and we would have to make a whole modelling tool that shipped with it, and we didn't want to get that deep into it. But we know that people will probably find a way to make that happen." Something which will be easy for players to edit and replace though is the game's sound effects, speech and music. "We recently switched over to MP3 format, because it's such a widely accepted and easy to use format, so you can change the basic unit sounds, you can put your own music in... If you'd rather have the score of Gladiator behind you when you're playing, you just go ahead and rip an MP3, dump it right in, and access that as your gameplay music. All very simple to do." If this is beginning to sound a little daunting, don't panic! The game will come with "hopefully a fairly extensive help file", according to Bill Roper. "I really envision the fact that, depending on how popular creating mods for Warcraft III becomes, it's probably going to eventually become a part of our website and our on-going community support. Fortunately we have a really strong supportive community for blizzard games, and I also envision that if we provide the mod community a place to exchange ideas through our boards, we'll see them use that and really help each other a lot as well. I think that's another thing that's fantastic about the mod community, they really are into exchanging ideas and helping each other out, almost like an open source format. So I think if we give them some tools to be able to do that it will really help as well."
The flexibility of the engine and the world editor should allow players to come up with radically different types of gameplay as well, rather than just rehashing whatever Blizzard have managed to cram into the box by the time the game ships. "I think the thing that's really exciting about the toolset we're giving them is that we're going to see some amazingly creative maps, anything from writing straight-up RPGs to really intense strategy games. People used the Starcraft editor to make little RPGs. Well they can go way overboard now and make full fledged RPGs if they want. Another thing that I think is very cool about the editor is that you can link maps, so you can build one map that is a town and in that town have different NPC buildings that sell items, and then you can have areas off that town map that link to other maps, that might be big open adventure areas or dungeons. Basically you could recreate Diablo 2 (or something very similar to it) using the Warcraft engine. Or they can strip all that stuff out and make a core RTS, a throwing big numbers at each other kind of a game." "I really think that it's something that as game developers we're starting to tap into, the fact that our players want to increase their experience over time. We can only do so much. You put as much as you can into a game, you're releasing patches, you're trying to bring out some new ideas with the expansion set, but we're only so many people, you gotta move on to the next project. When you have a really voracious community that's really dedicated to that, it's a fantastic thing that you can tap into. You can have a core group of people out there who are making changes to the game and introducing new ideas that benefit the whole community."
Something else which should benefit the whole community is the inclusion of a replay option out of the box. This allows players to record everything that happened in a game, whether it's an online match or simply playing your way through a single player mission. It's hardly a groundbreaking feature, as several other real-time strategy games now offer this, but it's certainly a welcome addition. "There's a couple of things we can do with that", Bill explained. "Most importantly it's a great way to save a catalogue of what you've done in the game. It's something that we back-ended into Starcraft about three and a half years after the game shipped, because people really really wanted it. Another thing I think is great about it, which we've seen a little of in Starcraft and really expect from Warcraft III, is you'll get expert players saving off great matches. And just like if you go back and you watch films of great sporting events or study the moves of Kasparov, you're going to see like 'oh wow, look at the amazing strategy this guy used, look what his build order was, this is how he built up and got here that fast'. You can see both sides at the same time, you can free scroll around the map, you can fast forward and rewind through it - it's much like watching a VCR. And the file sizes are very small, a typical game is about 160k. We really think it's going to be a fantastic tool." "It's also a great way to let the community notify people not only of good players, but maybe of abusive players. If you've got somebody who you think might be running some sort of hack or cheat, right now all you get from people is 'I think Vindicator is cheating because he like attacked me really fast'", Bill explained, putting on his best impression of the comic book store guy from The Simpsons. "Now you'll be able to say 'I think Vindicator is cheating, because look at 37 seconds into the game he's got 42 footmen'. We have an incredibly active community that lets us know when hacks and cheats happen, and we have a whole feedback system built up within Blizzard for people to e-mail us when they see cheats. This is just another great tool for the community to police itself. It's one of the single biggest things we wish we would have had for Diablo 2."
Hitting The Net
A lot of thought is also going into launching the game's multiplayer side, something which has proven problematic for Blizzard in the past, with the servers swamped as thousands of people stampeded on to the internet as soon as the latest game hit the shelves. "That's definitely what happened with Diablo 2", Bill admitted. "There's no way we could have planned that we were going to sell a million copies worldwide in thirteen days. We were really caught flatfooted - we had a whole plan on how fast we would get servers into the field, and that all went out of the window. With Warcraft III we've way overplanned. We like to believe that we learn not only from our successes, but also from our mistakes and the bumps in the road that we had to overcome." "With Diablo 2 we started having different server farms - Asian, European and US - and we want to do the same thing [with Warcraft III]. Fortunately the requirements for Warcraft III server load wise are a lot less, because it's not a client server game. But we've already shipped out a lot more servers into the field, and that includes out here for the European hub. New servers, upgraded software .. we're looking forward to a very smooth launch." Hopefully we can all look forward to that smooth launch taking place some time in the not so distant future.