Blizzard is probably the most successful developer on the US west coast at the moment, with a string of hit games such as Diablo II, Warcraft II and Starcraft behind them. So when Blizzard's Bill Roper dropped by the Covent Garden Hotel in central London as part of his press tour of Europe earlier this week, natually EuroGamer was there to see the company's latest projects in action, and to find out more about what Blizzard have planned for us over the next year...
Much of the attention was naturally focused on Warcraft III, with the latest build of Blizzard's new role-playing strategy hybrid on show. "Warcraft III is a strategy game at its core", Bill told us. "But at the same time there's so many things that role-playing games do that are great for developing storylines and worlds, so we wanted to integrate that."
"One of the big ideas, and I think one of the largest differences between Starcraft and Warcraft III, is that we want to focus people's attentions on to very specific units, as opposed to Starcraft where you might build 50 or 75 marines and just throw them in waves at the zerg, and he's got all these zerglings and hydralisks coming at you. That's very much a war of attrition, and it becomes who can out-resource the other player. With Warcraft III we want to focus on more refined strategies, on using smaller groups and better tactics to defeat the other player."
"A lot of that comes with some of the changes and ideas we've come up with for hero units. They're a really neat idea that we started playing around with in the Warcraft II expansion and really expanded on in Starcraft and Brood War. People would get really excited they got Kerrigan - 'aw, what a kick ass character, she rules' - but then they would realise that when she died the level was over and they had to restart. So they'd use her early on when they felt safe and then they'd hide her in the back of their base and complete the rest of the mission with their regular units."
"We wanted to make sure in Warcraft III that players were encouraged to keep taking their hero units into combat by allowing you to pay a cost to revive a hero unit [at the altar of kings]. There is a penalty for losing a unit, in that you have to spend resources to get that unit back. However you are never going to be at the point where that ends the campaign for you."
When it was first unveiled at London's ECTS trade show back in September 1999, Warcraft III was touted as an innovative blend of strategy and role-playing elements. Since then the focus seems to have changed towards a more traditional real-time strategy game, and we had feared that there had been some dumbing down in action. But in fact much less has changed than we had feared.
"There's only been two [changes], believe it or not, but I think they lead to that exact perception", Bill admitted. "One is the camera angle; obviously we've gone back to a more traditional strategy camera angle. Before we had more of a third person over-the-shoulder Tomb Raidery kind of thing almost, which definitely gave the game more of a role-playing look. Unfortunately that, coupled with the other big design change, which is the fact that we used to have to attach units to heroes for them to move around, led to serious issues trying to design a strategy game."
"The concept has always been, from day one, that Warcraft III would be a strategy game. But I think the single biggest thing that we tried to impress on people when we first announced the project is that this wasn't your older brother's strategy game. This was going to have all these cool role-playing elements infused in it, and when you saw those first screens it looked like an RPG which had some strategy elements. I really think that was our fault, we should have made it much clearer early on that it was a strategy title first and foremost. But all the other things - like having heroes that go up in levels and gaining skills and abilities, and having inventories, and changing the focus to exploration and combat as opposed to resourcing - all of those things have been there since we first announced the title. But it's very easy to look at that and say that we've moved away from all those role-playing influences, because it looks totally different."
The most obvious change to Warcraft III since the game was announced eighteen months ago then is the new camera view, which has switched to a traditional top-down isometric angle. But why has this been done, rather than allowing for a more free-roaming camera system like most other 3D strategy games have?
"Obviously in a game like Homeworld, having utter and complete control over the camera is essential to the gameplay", Bill explained. "But in Warcraft III because we are always on some type of flat plane you never need to have total control over the camera because being underground doesn't really help you in any way. We also found that when we started letting players spin the camera around they got confused pretty quickly. They'd be playing the game, they'd start moving the camera around and turning it and then they'd get a message in the game from someone saying 'argh, I'm getting attacked from the north, come up here and help me'. So they grab all their units and run to the top of the screen, but they've already spun their camera around so they're actually running south east, and they don't realise it for ten or fifteen seconds."
"So that led more than anything to us locking the camera down. [Also] we tend to find that when people have total control over the camera in this kind of game, they get the camera set to a certain place that they like and then they never really touch it because there's no gameplay element that drives you to. So we tried to pick a couple of views that we thought people might like to use depending on what they're doing in the game and left it at that."
Actually there has been one other major change to the game design since the project was first revealed, and that is the number of playable races. Back in September 1999 we were expecting six, then that dropped to five, and now the total stands at four.
"The fifth playable race was going to be the demons", Bill revealed. "But we found as we started putting the demons into the game that by trying to make them a playable race we ended up doing a really big disservice to them. In the very first Warcraft III teaser we put out when we announced the title, we had this great scene with a human and an orc going at it, and then this fiery rock comes from the sky and out comes this huge demon, and it's like five times as big [as them] and it rises out of the ground."
"We found that we didn't get that effect anymore, because you have to come up with some demon unit that for whatever reason wants to go and mine gold. The demons probably don't give a rip about that - they're there to dominate and rule, and the idea of them having to build a tech tree and all that stuff really tended to minimise them as a factor in the game. So we went through and looked at that and thought that the players and the campaigns would be much better served by having this kind of omnipresent force in the game that would be represented by big massive uber-units. So when you ran across one of them in the game it had some really meaning and impact."
"It's kind of funny, a lot of the people on the team went 'now we're only going to have four races', and then they realised 'oh, that's one more than Starcraft - wow, that's going to be a lot of work!' It also allowed us then to go through the ideas we had for some of the lower level demons and see if they worked in other places. It really led to a much better refining of the four races that were there, as opposed to trying to spread that out. It gave the designers another pass through those, and we really had to punch up a lot of the units that were there. At the same time we were able to keep the Burning Legion as this force within the game which we hope is truly awe-inspiring, instead of trying to figure out why they want to go out and get gold."
What's The Story?
The sheer number of races involved isn't the only thing which is giving the designers at Blizzard sleepless nights either. "There's a lot of stuff that's ambitious about [the game], just the fact that we want to do so much more storytelling".
"I think a game where that infusion of role-playing elements happened was Half-Life. It was a first person shooter, and everybody had an idea of what that was, and then Half-Life brought in these ideas that you could have a storyline, compelling characters and things, and it really paid off. And a lot of those ideas are what we are trying to infuse into a strategy title, like having you care about your units, which usually you don't. We do all this work to give them cool voices, and funny things they say, and little portraits and great animations, and in the end you just make a hundred of them and you throw them at the enemy and you don't really give a crap that they're dead. Yay, I gained five more feet. Wheeeee! We don't want to do that in Warcraft III."
Something which has helped Blizzard to add more storytelling to Warcraft III is the amount of back story for the world of Azeroth which is now available, largely thanks to a cartoon-style adventure game which was finally cancelled around the same time that Warcraft III was announced. "The one thing that I was really happy about with the storyline is that we had gone through great pains to tie up a lot of loose ends and to enrich the Warcraft world in the storyline of the adventure game, and then of course we didn't do it. And so we had all this great background that we had worked on, and so we said 'ok, that's all going to be in Warcraft III'. So it was really nice, we got a huge jump on Warcraft III knowing where we wanted to go and what characters were going to be there and so on."
Told through a mixture of in-game and pre-rendered cutscenes, the storyline for Warcraft III will stretch across four single player campaigns. "We will definitely have campaigns that focus on each of the different races, but we really liked the way that the campaigns worked out in Starcraft as opposed to Warcraft II, where it's one arching storyline that you're seeing different parts of as you go through it."
The maps that make up these campaigns should also mark something of a leap forward for Blizzard, not just in terms of graphics but also with gameplay and their new scripting language. "One thing that we're very excited about is the abilities that we're gaining in being able to make maps. Warcraft III will have a much improved and more refined campaign editor [than Starcraft]. You'll be able to put in your own sounds and music, change artwork, and at the same time have much more control over triggers. With Warcraft III we're actually able to tell specific units to attack other specific units. We have new triggers that allow specific units to cast specific spells at a certain time or when whatever conditions are met."
And this time round Blizzard will be doing all they can to support the mod community, which has helped to give their previous games a far longer shelf life than they would otherwise have enjoyed. "All those triggers will ship with the game in the editor, and also we're opening up the scripting system using a Java-like language to write all the triggers. So for people who are more technically proficient, particularly in the mod community, we'll give them a way to very easily go through and make their own triggers to use in maps as well."
The big question though is when will Warcraft III be released? Bill told us that "the current release window is the end of this year", but added "we'll see". Blizzard, like id Software and 3D Realms, has reached the point where they can say a game will be released "when it's done" without worrying about whether or not they can meet their fourth quarter financial targets.
"If the game's not ready we won't ship it just because it's the end of the year", Bill insisted. "We didn't do that with Diablo II, and it paid off. If we'd shipped Diablo II for Christmas 1999 it would have been a disaster - there was just so much that wasn't right in the game, and I think it was definitely the right decision for us to hold it."
"We're actually a little confused on the Diablo II expansion because we're on schedule. We have these meetings every week where we talk about the project, and co-ordinating the worldwide launch and everything. And there's Leo - 'So, where are we with the development of the game, is it still looking like...?' Well, yes, strangely enough we're on schedule! We're a little confused by it, we don't really know what to do. We keep waiting for something to catch fire, or an earthquake or something to happen."
But if you want to hear more about the Diablo II expansion pack you will have to come back next week for the second part of our interview with Bill Roper.