Post by KostaAndreadis @ 02:13pm 05/12/18 | Comments
We sit down with Blizzard to discuss the studio revisiting the classic real-time strategy of 2003's Warcraft III.
When Blizzard released StarCraft Remastered, it not only provided an accessible way to play one of the studio’s most beloved classics. It showcased that with a modern and tasteful visual overhaul – the underlying mechanics of ‘Ye Old Blizzard Games’ remained engaging and thrilling almost twenty years later. It also served as a gentle reminder that Blizzard was not only at the forefront of PC development but pushing the real-time strategy genre further with each new release. Beginning with the original Warcraft in the first half of the 1990s, all the way through to the RPG-infused and cinematic Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, and then the grand sci-fi epic that is StarCraft II.
At BlizzCon this year one of the surprise announcements was the revelation that Warcraft III was in fact, the next Blizzard classic to get the remaster treatment. In its debut showing Warcraft III: Reforged sported an impressive visual overhaul, whilst retaining the look and feel of the original release. That being a bright, vibrant, colour scheme in addition to larger than life characters - with an art-style that put an emphasis on the grand. Quite clearly too, with armour often twice the size of the wearer.
Even though, just like with StarCraft Remastered, the core game remains mostly unchanged. “It's still the original engine,” Pete Stilwell, Senior Producer on the Warcraft III: Reforged development team, confirms. “And we used that same engine to build World of Warcraft too. So, we’ve taken a lot of what has evolved to kind of level it up above and beyond where it was originally at.”
Like with StarCraft Remastered, utilising the original Warcraft III engine is paramount and a key part of the studio’s overall vision for bringing back classic games. It means that once launched, players firing up Warcraft III: Reforged will be able to play multiplayer against those that still own the original DVD-ROM from way back in the mid-2000s. Which extends to the mods and famous fan-created experiences like the original Defence of the Ancients and countless Tower Defence experiences. “That's kind of the cool part,” Pete adds. Noting that all of that will work from day one.
Although utilising the same engine the scope of Warcraft III: Reforged is impressive from a functionality point too, with its scope almost extending into remake territory. The campaign features all new real-time cinematic sequences, covering both the original release and The Frozen Throne expansion. Totalling up to four hours or so of newly realised story. This new cinematic presentation, part of the Warcraft III: Reforged reveal, means re-imagined and iconic heroes like Arthas showcasing what is effectively an all new art direction.
“We’ve gone through a lot to even get to this point,” Pete explains, whilst noting that there’s still plenty of work ahead to complete the Reforged project. “It's all part of the process, where we first had to decide what the art style would be. We went through a lot of iterations and bounced back and forth between cartoony to maybe too realistic. And then we found this medium, where the shapes are still recognisably Warcraft. Big shoulder pads, everybody's buff.”
In its original release the real-time cut-scenes in Warcraft III utilised the same 3D models as the in-game action, where zooming in for story sequences revealed the ‘blocky-ness’ and early-3D look of characters. With Reforged the team is not only updating the in-game 3D models to support new highly detailed characters and new animation, but also separate cinematic story versions of characters that can withstand the camera getting up close and personal. This process was then applied to the environments and existing buildings too, which led to the team realising that a large portion of Warcraft III’s visual appeal or feel came from, as Pete describes it, the “bright summer green” of the grass and fields.
“Getting the colour right on the terrain took time,” Pete adds. “For a while there it was kind of darker and we were like, ‘what's wrong?’. And then you look at the old game, and those vibrant colours hit you. We’ve had a couple of art directors [and veteran Blizzard employees] come over to check the game out after we had spent more time on that stuff, where they sat down and immediately asked, ‘You got the green back, right?’ It was that simple really, and it set the tone.”
Work on the visual side of Warcraft III: Reforged is still a work in progress, with the team looking to give the environment another major overhaul before the planned 2019 release. To remove the feeling of there being a noticeable tile-set, and to introduce a sense of flow. “There's going to be a lot of refinement on that front, because what you're seeing is still very much a work in progress,” Pete confirms. “We’ve dubbed the look ‘stylised-realism’. Which I know is a nonsensical term, but it's that bubbly style with the grit of the textures and seeing the reflection of the metal and steel versus the muted tones of wood and leather that comes from modern rendering. There's just so much potential to take that next step into more realism, but also maintaining that vibrancy, that brightness.”
One of the more interesting facts is that even with new visuals, animations, unit looks, and so forth, compatibility with the original release is a relatively straight-forward process. “The animations are all the same length so if an attack was 1.5 seconds before, it still has to be 1.5 seconds in Reforged,” Pete describes. “Anything that happens in between that time, the artist can put in a lot more keyframes. Make the animation a lot smoother too. And because SD can play against HD, all we have to do is have them sync the duration of things. And that’s the only real constraint. But the artists are really spreading their wings and not just expanding existing animation, but also adding new creeps and objects to make the world feel that much more alive.”
For Matt Morris, lead designer on the Warcraft III: Reforged project, working on recreating the various campaign missions has carried with it a sense of coming home. “Warcraft III was the very first game I worked on at Blizzard as a designer,” he tells me. “Having the following 15 years of experience working on StarCraft II and various other games, to come back with that different lens has that quality but also some anxiety in the sense that there's so much that I want to fix.”
Hindsight is often something that rarely leads to any sort of implementation or change, by virtue of the fact of the word referring to simply looking back to take stock. In the case of remastering an older title with the sort of care and attention Blizzard are putting into Warcraft III: Reforged, it can lead to subtle and meaningful improvements. Make no mistake about it, Warcract III in its current 2003 state is still an exhilarating and rewarding strategy experience. For Matt and the team, the improvements come more with how the game communicates objectives, goals, and information through animation, action, story, and prompts.
“Already we've done a better job of making sure that new players who come into the game can get through the campaign with fewer issues or questions,” Matt explains. “Which just makes it a better experience. Being clear with the mission objectives and saying, ‘This is what you need to do.’ We can also add more flavour, little vignettes where you come around a corner and see enemies approaching. What we want to be careful of is not changing the direction of the missions mechanically but adding to them. Like bonus adjectives, things like that. Flesh things out with more story.”
To demonstrate this potential Blizzard had a version of a key campaign mission called The Culling playable, a memorable and pivotal moment in the Warcraft III story where Arthas is faced with the hard decision of having to kill civilians in order to prevent an Undead scourge. This mission offered up some interesting design challenges for the Reforged team, even now, because as Matt puts, the core mechanics wouldn’t be something that the team would create today. “The thing you do at the very start of the mission is the exact same thing you do at the end of the mission,” Matt explains. “There's no temperature change. So, we’ve added these cool little moments where you come around a corner and the villagers are like, “Oh! My lord! Don't kill me!" And they're running into the buildings, and the militia are actively trying to stop Arthas from purging the city. We also throw larger forces against the player to kind of make it more challenging as time goes on.”
As one of the original designers on Warcraft III, Matt recalls that working on the campaign was “a brutal nine months” of intensive work. Prior to that the team were simply figuring out how to make an RTS work in 3D, what limitations that placed on systems, and just how the new RPG-like approach would work in multiplayer. “Coming back was weird,” Matt responds, when asked about the level-editors and tools utilised to create the Warcraft III campaign and missions. “I had been in that tool for a fairly long time, from the start of the Warcraft III all the way up to Frozen Throne. So even though I was like ‘Yeah I know all the stuff!’ it was a lot of homework remembering how to do this and that. I'm at the point now I'm very comfortable with the tool, and all that stuff has come back to me. It just took some time. Compared to the complexity of the StarCraft II editor, it's really easy to just do things in Warcraft III.”
“We've learned so much from StarCraft II,” Matt adds. “Making sure that players who are not really strong RTS players, but they want to know about the StarCraft story, can get from the first mission to last mission. Smoothing that difficulty curve and keeping it fun and varied throughout.” This experience, and additional decade of working intimately within the Blizzard RTS space, will mean that Warcraft III: Reforged will benefit from the games that followed in its footsteps. Even Warcraft III’s expansion The Frozen Throne.
“There was a huge difference between Reign of Chaos and The Frozen Throne for us as a team,” Matt recalls. “Because we were able to expand instead of worrying about how something works. If at all. We knew how to create with the tool, and with confidence. Coming back now, there's probably going to be more healing in the Reign of Chaos missions than the ones from The Frozen Throne. In both cases we’ll continue to push everything forward, making it all closer to what we all expect to see in a modern game.”
For millions of fans, World of Warcraft was their introduction into the universe. A title that began its life as Warcraft III development was entering its final year or push. Although a completely different genre or style, from a lore and story perspective World of Warcraft was direct continuation of the events depicted in Warcraft III – with the same focus on telling character-driven and grandiose stories in a fantasy world that felt alive. For the team, this is an important part of Warcraft III: Reforged development. Players coming to the game to experience a sort-of origin story for some of their favourite characters, or to see the dramatic changes to Arthas as a leader first-hand.
“I was a player when this game came out,” Pete concludes, recalling the blend of cinematic story and strategy of Warcraft III. “It made me want to work at Blizzard, so I look at this is as an opportunity to hopefully inspire people the same way. Let’s pour our hearts and souls into this and get Warcraft III to that level where it can move people again in that same way. When I look at the older cut-scenes my rose-coloured glasses shatter as I realise a young person right seeing that probably won’t be as immersed as I was 15 years ago. So, let's figure out how to recreate those moments and feelings - and still emerge on the other side.”
“Everyone on the team is so passionate about Warcraft III,” Matt adds. “We break out into larger meetings and smaller groups to have conversations about what we should do and how make sure that we're not only hitting everybody's notes and ideas - but also living up to that original feel.”