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Warcraft is the bedrock of Blizzard Entertainment. More so than any of its other franchises, it's set the tone for the studio. Each era has been followed by a different iteration of Warcraft: Blizzard Entertainment made a name for itself with 1994's Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, and Warcraft 3 combined the real-time strategy and role-playing genres to create something new. World of Warcraft is one of the biggest massively-multiplayer games ever, the standard-bearer that competitors have attempted to dethrone for 15 years.
As a celebration of its 25th anniversary, Blizzard Entertainment announced Warcraft 3: Reforged, a faithful update of the original RTS landmark. Today marks the release of Reforged, bringing with it a new look at pivotal moments from Warcraft's history, including the fall of Arthas Menethil, Crown Prince of Lordaeron and eventual Lich King. While originally touted as a more extensive remake in some aspects, Blizzard developers ultimately decided on the change in philosophy for Warcraft 3: Reforged, creating something closer to the original.
The Impact of the Original Warcraft 3
Warcraft 3 was originally a very different game. Previously called Warcraft Legends, it was focused around the heroes that would be key to its eventual design. It was a client-server title where you played a single character, according to Warcraft 3: Reforged lead artist Rob McNaughton. Warcraft Legends was meant to be played in an over-the-shoulder viewpoint, bringing players much closer to the action. But it didn't feel like Warcraft.
"If you remember the very first [Warcraft 3 screenshots], you were stuck on one character, and you can only see a single part of the map. And that became very claustrophobic pretty quickly," says McNaughton. "As we built that game, we kind of learned pretty early on that this really wasn't Warcraft or the strategy game that we wanted to make. So we went back to our roots and made it a big peer-to-peer game, where you can see anywhere on the map and you can pop around the camera instantly. That to me was the biggest change, and of course that changed [in a] massive direction the way Warcraft 3 was made. I think that choice was for the better."
While this was all happening, another Warcraft title was in development at Blizzard. Looking back at the progression from Warcraft 3 to World of Warcraft, you could be forgiven for thinking the MMO came years after the RTS. So much of Warcraft 3's story set the foundation for World of Warcraft, introducing the Night Elf, Undead, and Tauren races, as well as locations like Lordaeron and Ashenvale. In reality, development on both titles actually started at the same time.
"[W]hen we first made Warcraft 3, we were making a cool story, a lot of cool characters. I don't think we understood at that point that that would become the foundation of World of Warcraft and literally build Blizzard into what it is today," says McNaughton, who worked on the original Warcraft 3 and WoW expansion The Burning Crusade. "We were thinking more of sharing the places and honestly there was a lot of text being shared between the two games. I did not expect the amount of character and lore being shared with specifically with the second and third expansions of WoW. That actually kind of took me by surprise. I actually think that Warcraft 3 is a massive foundation, and it creates some of the most iconic characters that we have."
The stories of those characters have stretched on for years. The Troll shadow hunter Vol'jin, Tauren leader Cairne Bloodhoof, and High Elf ranger Sylvanas Windrunner all appeared first in Warcraft 3. Vol'jin would ultimately become Warchief of the Horde, before dying and passing his mantle onto Sylvanas. Sylvanas was a key figure in the Horde and Alliance conflict in WoW's Battle for Azeroth expansion, and will be primary antagonist in the upcoming Shadowlands expansion. And Cairne died long ago, passing the mantle of Tauren leadership onto his son Baine.
"I actually love to see now that Sylvanas is out doing what she's doing," says McNaughton. "So there's some amazing things that came from Warcraft 3, and I'm glad that we were able to take those same characters and give them a little more love."
The final product would launch in 2002 as Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, with an expansion pack, The Frozen Throne, coming in the following year. StarCraft might've been more popular in certain regions, but some still consider Warcraft 3 to be the best RTS Blizzard ever created. Not only did other RTS games follow in Warcraft 3's footsteps, one of its mods led to the creation of the MOBA genre, led by titles like League of Legends and Dota 2.
Reforging a Classic
When Warcraft 3 was announced, it was touted as a remake of the original, featuring all-new graphics, improved multiplayer online, an overhauled World Editor, and a changed campaign to better reflect where the characters would go in World of Warcraft. Fans were vocal about their dislike of the story changes though, so instead Blizzard backpedaled its initial plans to keep Reforged as close to Warcraft 3 as possible.
"Part of the genesis of this project was focusing in on what should Reforged be," Production Director Kaeo Milker says. "I think where we landed was really agreeing that while we did touch every single campaign mission, every single cutscene in every campaign mission, and we did everything we could to really show off all this great art to its fullest capabilities, we also used the original storyline, we used the original dialogue."
Lead designer Matt Morris continues, "It was more trying to keep it pure. We took some liberties along the campaign front, to kind of change the maps, change the layout, add a little bit more bells and whistles for players who are maybe not so familiar with the RTS. Overall, we were very conscious that there was a group of players out there that were very vocal about wanting to maintain the original gameplay, but they definitely welcomed balance changes and obviously they're really looking forward to all the new high-fidelity units."
In fact, the games are cross-compatible and built upon the same framework. Reforged isn't replacing Warcraft 3, it exists parallel to it. "So a player that today owns Warcraft 3 and is playing it right now, when Reforged comes out they're basically gonna get the Battle.net component of Reforged," says Milker. "They'll have the new front-end UI and things. They just won't have access to the HD models and campaign. They'll be able to continue playing Warcraft 3 as they are today, even matchmaking-wise against players who are in Reforged. So it was really important for us to keep those two games as aligned as possible."
Trying to keep this parity is why Blizzard hasn't made more wholesale changes to Warcraft 3: Reforged. They could've stripped the game down to its core and made a full remake, a more modern version of the RTS classic. Some fans have even asked for a few changes, like the removal of the 12 unit selection limit, which was dropped from StarCraft 2. According to Morris, the team did talk about the change, but decided it was best to adhere closely to what players remember from the original Warcraft 3.
"That got brought up quite often internally, especially for those who had worked on the StarCraft 2, where it was unlimited selection," he says. "But one of the goals we had with the Reforged is we didn't really want to change the core gameplay. We felt that allowing the players to just select an infinite number of units would actually change how players would approach multiplayer. So, it was a very conscious decision, saying, 'Hey, look, there's things we want to do to enhance it and we want to make it look beautiful.' We want to make players be able to connect better, but we didn't really want to change the fundamental gameplay of the game."
The changes that were made in terms of gameplay are largely in the form of balance tweaks. Blizzard has spent a long time talking to the existing Warcraft 3 community, especially the professionals who have poured hundreds of hours into the original. Morris says those changes rolled through into the game relatively quickly. What took a bit longer was updating the look of Warcraft 3.
While the intended story retcon ultimately fell through, the visual retcon has remained a focus for Reforged. Take Vol'jin, who was originally a white-haired troll based on the Witch Doctor model. His Reforged model still holds the same crooked staff, but now reflects his WoW look, with a mohawk of fiery red hair. The same is true for characters like Rexxar, Gul'dan, Admiral Daelin Proudmoore, and Chen Stormstout.
"We keep about 80-90% of the character and then we're able to add detail," says McNaughton. "One of the amazing things is the original Warcraft 3, being Blizzard's first 3D game, is it is pretty low polygon, very simple shapes. They look great from far away, but when you get up close, they just don't hold up, to be honest. So it was quite refreshing and actually quite cool to make these iconic characters look great when you zoom all the way in. One of the things that's amazing to me is I think the models are so high quality that I just want to 3D print them and put them on my desk."
The character that got the most focus is one who arguably drives most of Warcraft 3's story: Arthas. The actions that lead Arthas to become the Lich King start in Warcraft 3, so he was the art team's benchmark.
"I think Arthas took probably the most time to iterate on just how he looked, because he's iconically central to the whole campaign. We spent a significant amount of time," says McNaughton. "And midway through this project, we turned on tech we used in StarCraft 2, which is the lip syncing facial animation. When we did that, all of a sudden the character didn't quite look right. We'd go back and fiddle with it again, so I would say to me just because of how much the camera is staring at Arthas, we spent a lot of time making him the perfect role model of what the rest of the heroes should look like."
That visual change also extends to the maps themselves. Morris notes that "there are a couple maps that we had basically redone the whole layout," while keeping all the mechanics largely the same. The look of those maps, including the Culling of Stratholme, were shifted to be closer to what players have seen in World of Warcraft. Most probably won't notice the change, but hardcore Warcraft 3 and World of Warcraft players should appreciate bringing both games closer together visually.
What Reforged Truly Is
To this point, a good deal of Warcraft 3: Reforged has been hidden in the fog of war. While the Orc and Human models featured heavily in various promotional material, players didn't get an official look at the other playable factions until today's release. Nevertheless, the overall look of Warcraft 3: Reforged has clearly changed since the 2018 BlizzCon demo. The lighting is probably the biggest change, but the terrain also looks simplified. The colors are more saturated compared to how they were in the BlizzCon demo.
"A lot of that is just the evolution of our game development across this year since we had the announcement. So on the overall art of the game, I think players saw that we've continued to work on terrain and lighting," says Milker.
In that time, the community has tried to glean the shape of Reforged from its beta client and pre-order information. The Spoils of War edition of Warcraft 3: Reforged comes with alternate skins for certain characters—Champion of the Horde Thrall, Emerald Nightmare Cenarius, Fallen King Arthas, Daughter of the Seas Proudmoore. Morris says that those skins will show up in the campaign, and also points to side characters like Admiral Proudmoore, who sport more "fleshed out" models. Speculation within the community is that the skins are supposed to bring Reforged closer to something like Overwatch or Heroes of the Storm, where skins are a strong part of the game's revenue. Milker says that's not the intention.
"So our emphasis isn't really so much on making skins, or like thinking of it in terms of the way we make skins for Overwatch or Heroes of the Storm. It was more like trying to really do something we weren't able to do back in 2002 and 2003, and create great unique art for all these cool characters and creeps that you're fighting against," he says. "In the original game, we would do things like have one Paladin model for the whole game and that was used for every hero Paladin that you had. We'd give them different names when you would spawn them in initially, but otherwise it was all the same model. Most of our emphasis [with the skins] was just on trying to have unique models for each of those things, so that it would flesh out the game more. We're really excited about what those new models are gonna do for map makers."
This art underpins many of the changes to the improved World Editor. The World Editor is where players have long created new maps for Warcraft 3 and new custom game types. It's a space for creativity. In Reforged, it's maybe been redesigned the least aside from the campaign. Most of its big changes involve just updating the map editor's technology.
"Part of what's really cool about Warcraft 3's editor is it's actually really easy to get into, far more so than StarCraft 2's editor was. So while we added a lot more power and sophistication with StarCraft 2, the Warcraft 3 editor is a lot more approachable," explains Milker. "By adding all this new art and then making it so that engine's running a lot faster and improving the capabilities of editor, I feel like people can jump in and then they can go really deep with it and create some really cool stuff that they might have been too intimidated to do in StarCraft 2."
The team at Blizzard Entertainment is looking forward to seeing what the reignited community comes up with using the World Editor. For 18 years, the Warcraft 3 community has been making maps and custom games, in many cases using the same aging tools.
"The custom games part was actually the most popular part of beta, we saw tons of activity in it. Between the improvements that we've been able to make to the editor and all of this new art that we're giving map makers, I'm super excited to see what's gonna come out of it," says Milker. "They only had six weeks or something with the map maker and custom games in the beta, but I feel like this is gonna be kind of the next chapter of really cool custom games. Yeah, I want to see another genre come out of it, that's amazing."
In the meantime, all this fanfare around Warcraft 3 has players asking other questions, like "What about Warcraft 4?" Since its launch in 2004, World of Warcraft has stood as the only extension of Warcraft's universe. Fans are still looking for a proper new Warcraft RTS, similar to StarCraft 2's release a decade ago. Blizzard remains steadfast that its focused on Warcraft 3: Reforged and has nothing to announce in regards to Warcraft 4.
"I think we come back to Warcraft 3, this is such an iconic game and it was such an influential game both from a gameplay standpoint—this kind of RTS RPG hybrid that we did that ended up spawning things like MOBAs—but I think, like Rob was talking about earlier, this was the foundation for World of Warcraft. We really wanted to be able to bring this game to a modern audience and that was something really exciting to us," says Milker.
"As for Warcraft 4, there's no plans for that at this point in time. I think doing something like this, breathing new life into the RTS genre, we did it two years ago with StarCraft Remastered and StarCraft 2 is still going extremely strong. I think these are the things that are going to bring new people in and bring old people back into RTS. We kind of have to see what happens from there."
Some fans realize that a full sequel to Warcraft is unlikely, but they've speculated on a potential middle ground. Perhaps an expansion for Warcraft 3: Reforged, with new units and a brand-new campaign? I bring the idea up to the Reforged development team and still get no traction. There's more coming to Reforged after its launch, but a new expansion isn't in the cards either.
"We don't have plans for that right now. All our efforts have been on, let's get to launch and let's see where everybody comes in and what they're interested in," says Milker. "We definitely have plans to continue supporting the game. There are features and there's content that we want to put in it. We want to see what other things people are excited about and that's going to influence some of our decisions on what future content will be, but yeah, no plans for something like an expansion at this point."
Warcraft 3: Reforged is a look back at one of Blizzard's historic touchstones, touched up for a modern audience. It's a chance for new players to experience Warcraft 3 for the first time, while the veteran community gets a few new toys to play with. Reforged is a shot in the arm for Warcraft 3, and hopefully, the first step in something bigger for RTS side of the franchise. Warcraft 3: Reforged is launching today for PC and Mac.