While there's been a lot of talk about Warcraft III's multiplayer support in recent months thanks to the online beta test, which every webmaster and his dog seems to be part of, precious little has been heard about the single player campaign. We caught up with Blizzard's Bill Roper during a recent press tour of Europe to find out how the beta has been going, and what solo players can expect from the game.
Are You Sitting Comfortably?
"As I go through the first level here, I don't do any of the classic RTS things; I'm not doing any base building, I'm not doing any resourcing", Bill boomed over the sound of clanging steel, which was echoing out of the speakers in the little auditorium as he demonstrated the game's opening stages to a group of British journalists. "What I am doing is getting to know the characters, their abilities, how to control them. Getting used to things like going on quests and doing some exploring, and introducing players to some of the main characters that are going to be seen in the storyline." Telling a gripping story is something that Blizzard have been concentrating on in Warcraft III, with dozens of little in-game cinematics pushing the plot along in a far more sophisticated way than was possible in previous games in the series. "We've always tried to tell good stories, but even up to Warcraft II so much of that was done with the static introductions to missions and in the manual", Bill told me later, esconced in the comfort of a plush conference room hidden away in the bowels of the Covent Garden Hotel. "We started to break away from that a little bit in Starcraft, but with Warcraft III at any point in the gameplay we can get to a triggered event, zoom in to a scripted in-game cinematic sequence, have exchanges between characters. It's really a huge focus of the single player - we want people to come away at the end of the game and feel like they've had an integral part in a fantastic story. We want people to go away from it talking about the characters, just like they do when they come away from the latest Star Wars film or Harry Potter book. We wanted to have that level of experience and empathy with the characters. It's been a big challenge for us, but I think that hopefully we've been able to pull it off."
As in Starcraft, this story is told through the eyes of all the playable races (four in the case of Warcraft III), with players switching between the various viewpoints over the course of the campaign. "There's one epic storyline that you go through, and you're seeing how it effects the different races. So you might be playing [the human hero] Arthus at one point, and then fighting against him at another. It was an idea that we tried in Starcraft and we thought it worked really well, so we're trying to do that a lot more in Warcraft III." "We do block it off. You'll play eight or nine [missions] in a row as the humans, and then you'll switch to the orcs, or the undead or whatever. We don't do a lot of hopping around, we try to take the story in chunks and look at it in that way. I really think it tells a much better story. When you look back at Warcraft II, for example, we basically told the same story from both viewpoints, and part of the problem we came up with was that we wanted the player to win at the end of both campaigns. So for example, when we finished the original Warcraft, if you played through the human campaign the humans won, if you played through the orc campaign the orcs won. Now we did Warcraft II and we had to decide .. ok, who really won?" "The thing that's nice about the way the storyline works in Starcraft and Warcraft III is that you've got one congruent story that makes sense, and you follow it to the end. You can have the classic story arcs, and there's the victor and the defeated, and you'll have seen it through the eyes of a lot of different people and different races on the way through, and you're not stuck at the end thinking that maybe one of your outcomes wasn't valid. So we feel that this is the best way for us to tell the story properly. It all comes to one, big, huge, titanic, world changing ending."
Following The Script
Keeping that level of involvement all the way through an epic single player campaign is "a big challenge", according to Bill Roper. "It's just like trying to write a good movie script, you have to have peaks and troughs, but you have to make sure that the pay-off is there at the end, that you don't feel that it's anti-climactic when you finish, that you don't blow too much too early." "Fortunately we've really tried to approach it that way. We know how many levels we have for each race, what part of the story we want to tell from the beginning to the end of that segment, and we've tried really hard to write the story first and then figure how the campaigns fit into that. I think the trap that sometimes as game developers we tend to fall into, is we come up with all these great ideas and tricks and things we can do, and we put them all in early, and then six levels into the game you're like 'oh, we used all the cool ideas already - I guess we'll just make more levels, because we have to ship with 25 levels' or whatever. With us it's been much more about writing a story and how we tell that story through each level." This is particularly important in Warcraft III as the game's storyline is acting as a catapult into Blizzard's massively multiplayer offering. "World Of Warcraft builds directly upon what we're doing with Warcraft III; the storyline for World Of Warcraft starts four years after the end of Warcraft III. All the things that we're doing, new units we're introducing, so much of that is going to transfer into World Of Warcraft. I think a great example of that is that we've got the taurans, for example, which is a unit that we built for the orc side. We did that and we thought 'god, this would be such a cool player race', so that became an actual playable race that people will be able to have for World Of Warcraft. Even things like some of the items you're going to see in Warcraft III are going to make their way into World Of Warcraft." "The idea has been always to make a big rich world, and then put games in it, and I think we're really going to be able to take the most advantage ever of that with Warcraft III and then World Of Warcraft. The goal has been to expand the scope and scale of our Warcraft universe about ten fold. By the time Warcraft III is done, people should be able to look at that and say 'wow, there's a lot going on here that I never knew was happening', and then really be able to start exploring that in depth and very personally in the massively multiplayer game. It's actually made talking about the Warcraft III storyline really difficult, because we don't want to tip our hands too early on what we're going to see from World Of Warcraft."
Naturally there's also the likelihood that Warcraft III will spawn one or more expansion sets at some point, although Bill claimed that's something that isn't going to be decided on until after the game has shipped. "We don't really sit and plan out whether there's an expansion or not before the game ships", he told us. "We really look to the players to give us cues as to what we should do. Once the game's been out for a few months, usually there's kind of a natural evolution of what it is that they want to see from the game, what more they would want to get out of the experience, and then we really look at building the expansion set out of that. In Diablo II, for example, it became evident that not only did people maybe want a couple of new character classes and a new act, but they really wanted the gameplay to function a little differently. So not only were we able to go in and provide some new content, but we did a lot of work to tweak the content that was already there, to provide a very very different gameplay with Lord Of Destruction depending on which character class you had." "When Warcraft III ships and we spend some time with the product and the community, I think it will really become apparent if we do an expansion what it is that people will expect out of it. So much of what we do with add-ons is really to look at what the community wants out of the game. I think Brood War's an excellent example of that. After we finished Starcraft we really sat down and looked at what it is people wanted out of Starcraft. We thought it might be a whole new race, but we found out we were wrong, what they wanted was some more units within the races that filled up some of the holes, some of the balance issues. They wanted us to rebalance the game. We did that, we put in a storyline with it, added some different map types, added some multiplayer features, and they loved it."
Obviously there's a balance to be struck between giving the community every little thing that they want and following your own instincts, especially as most of the time different people want different things, or don't have any clear idea of exactly what it is that they do want. "You can't give everybody everything they want all the time, and you have to take a lot of comments with a grain of salt", Bill explained. "We do maintain our own forums, and the development team sits there and goes through them and reads everything. We talk a lot with people that we play with, we talk a lot with game rooms, with the big guilds and clans, the leaders and the fan sites, and really try and cull a lot of general sensibilities out of that. Sometimes we'll even pull things out of that that aren't perhaps specific needs, but you can see a general trend. Maybe people are asking for a lot of different specifics, and what you're seeing amongst that is that, maybe, they want more flying units. But you're pulling that out of all the little comments that are made about specific units, and when you kind of take a step back from it you can see what the general desire of the community is and try to address it that way. It is a delicate balance though - you have to realise you can't do everything that everybody wants, you have to try to do what's best for the game." In the case of Warcraft III getting that feedback has meant an extensive multiplayer beta test, with thousands of players and journalists involved. "We just felt that with four races and the balancing we were going to have to do across that many units and different unique styles of gameplay, we needed as much time as we possibly could. Fortunately we've had a very active beta community. Even though we're six or seven weeks into it we're still getting tons of games played and tons of feedback, and that's great. We had some concern that by starting the beta that early people might get burned out after three or four weeks and stop playing, but we've been really lucky in that we've had the community so vocal in their desires and their feedback. I think that when the game ships the end result is that it's going to be exceptionally well balanced."
When Warcraft II came out it had only two main playable races. Starcraft took that to three, and Warcraft III has four races which players will get to control, as well as the non-playable demons which play a major part in the storyline. "Every time you add a race it's another quantum jump. Three races was a lot harder than two, and four's a lot harder than three, especially when you're trying to make them each have a different feel and a different style of play, and not just pay lip service to that. Also we don't want things to be just exactly like they were when we've done them before, so it's not even that you're trying to make four races that are different from each other, you're also trying to make four races that are maybe different than what's been done before. You want the humans to pay homage, you want them focused on what the humans had done in Warcraft and Warcraft II, and the same thing with the orcs, but you also want them to grow just like the new races are going to be. So when somebody plays the orcs in Warcraft III they're really different to how the humans play, they're really interesting, they have their own unique abilities. And it just gets harder and harder the more that you do." One of the toughest races to get right has been the undead. "I think undead in games tend to be the kind of mindless, soulless monsters that you find. which I think orcs have always been too. One thing we've always tried to do with the Warcraft series is to give orcs a background, a history and a world and a reason for being, so that you can have some sort of empathy with them. An even bigger challenge has been the undead. Why are they undead? Why do undead do what they do, they can't all just want brains! That's been a really exciting challenge for us, to make undead a compelling race to play." Judging from what we've seen of the game so far and the feedback that Blizzard have been getting from the beta test, it looks like they might just have pulled it off. The real beauty of Warcraft III though is that if players aren't happy with anything, they can easily change it, creating their own maps, units and gameplay styles. Tomorrow we'll be joining Bill Roper again for a look at the World Editor and other tools that make this possible.
Bill Roper interview (March 2001)
Warcraft III preview (March 2001)
Warcraft III preview (September 1999)