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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Behind WarCraft III: An Interview with Campaign Designer David Fried

As a fanatic of WarCraft III since the game came out when I was in eighth grade, I was honored to have had the awesome chance to speak with an actual developer of the game, David Fried. David came in contact with me through my WarCraft III Easter Egg videos (which can be found here), and graciously answered my questions about his experience as a campaign designer and writer.

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Abelhawk: First things first, what was your specific position at Blizzard? Did you just design the campaign levels themselves, or did you have a hand in designing anything else about the game?

David: So at Blizzard I started in Quality Assurance. It was my first job in the game industry and my second job at all. I was working at a technical book store and I was running out of money for college. I didn't want to go into debt, so I thought, why not work in games? I was technical-minded, and I loved games. So, why not give it a try?

I called 4-1-1 and asked for the number for Blizzard, and they gave it to me. I immediately called and asked if they were looking for anyone who had Macintosh experience (I was a big Mac person at the time). Lo and behold, they needed Mac QA testers for Diablo and Starcraft! I went in for an interview and immediately felt at home. Everyone was wearing T-shirts and jeans, and playing games. I knew I wanted to work there, and my background in computers and games made the interview a breeze.

I got the job and started in QA, and while I was there for almost two years, I developed a knack for making neat test levels for Starcraft in StarEdit. I created a new co-op campaign map for Starcraft N64 called Resurrection, and it was very well received, so when Blizzard was looking for new level designers to take over the Starcraft Map of the Week program, I was picked right up.

"Deception" was my favorite Map of the Month that I made. It has the most story elements, and a lot of them ended up sliding into Starcraft lore. That was back when Metzen wasn't paying too much attention to what I was doing. I also did "Trademasters," "Mercenaries II," and "Arena," which someone once told me inspired the Arena maps in WarCraft 3 that eventually became DOTA, but that's not a straight line nor verifiable.

Soon WarCraft 3 began ramping up in development, and so I was moved to helping create the campaign maps. At Blizzard, everyone on the team gets a say in game design, systems, and story elements. So it's a very cooperative process. Primarily though, the level designers are the closest to the end product, and thus they end up working the hardest and longest of anyone on the team. Both because level designers are often waiting for tools and other elements of code and art, which we then have to implement long after everyone else is done, but also because we're the people who have to find the fun, and make sure that each map is an enjoyable experience.

For WarCraft 3 RoC I created "The Culling" (my claim to fame really, if I have one), "Digging Up the Dead," "By Demons Be Driven," and "A Destiny of Flame and Sorrow." I was also the writer of the team, so all of the tooltips (we called them ubertips internally, don't know why), most of the items, and the color schemes for information on abilities and items were my idea. I also wrote a large portion of the flavor text in the game, and some bits of the extended manual. Though looking back, it's definitely not my best writing.

Abelhawk: As a quality assurance employee and later as a campaign designer, how closely did you work with people like Metzen, Samwise, and the voice actors of the game?

David: It wasn't until I was working full time on the N64 Starcraft campaign map that I regularly started speaking to devs from "upstairs." That's how I met Michael Heiberg and Mark Kern. I actually already vaguely knew some of the level designers because three of them were former QA (Scott Mercer, Dave Hale, and Eric Dodds, all great people).

I played Dungeons & Dragons with Chris Metzen, Sam Didier, Jason Hutchins, and Derek Simmons for well over two years while I was there. Everyone was really cool to work with. Blizzard Entertainment was truly a company of like-minded nerds who just wanted to make cool stuff. Once I moved to level design, I interacted with Sammy and Chris all the time. I even had Mike Morhaime come and help with "The Culling," because the triggers got... a bit complicated and he came in to clean up.

Abelhawk: How long did it take to make a single campaign map on average? What was the process like? Did you have the story first, then the map layout, then triggers, testing, doodads, etc.?

David: An average campaign map takes about two weeks if the premise is simple, and up to eight weeks if it's a very trigger-heavy map (as most of mine were). The story was written first by Chris Metzen, then we'd all sit down and walk through the campaign scene by scene to determine what sort of levels each campaign would entail. That first phase is where the level designers get to give a lot of feedback on the story.

So we had the intro and outro story first, then we would pick which ones we wanted to do (I called dibs on "The Culling" immediately). Then we would make a document or write up something about what we thought would make a cool level. Then we'd round-table discuss our levels with the other level designers. After that, we'd go start the layouts, and once we had the basics, we'd start putting in triggers to make things work. When we had a fully playable level, we'd get feedback from other level designers, and then if it was approved by the lead (Rob Pardo at the time), it would go out to all-company testing. Then you'd get a ton of feedback, and combined with bugs from QA, you'd spend the next couple weeks fixing things to make it shippable. Of course, you often had multiple maps in the works at a time, so you'd be starting the layout of a new one while tackling the worst bugs on the existing ones you had. It could get a bit hectic towards the end, which is why level designers are often the ones working right up until the moment you ship. Whereas code and art often gets locked down much earlier.

Abelhawk: Do you remember any changes that occurred to the original storyline over time? Were there any big changes in the lore while the maps were being made?

David: There were a lot of changes to story throughout development. The original Illidan was still Furion's brother, but he was a satyr. His dabbling in magic had changed him into one. It was totally a take on Pan from Shakespeare, and it felt really weak. We were all like... "Whaaaat?" So Chris took that back to the drawing board and made him much more badass. Probably one of my favorite characters.

Jaina was supposed to die in a very early draft, but that idea was squashed pretty quickly. Arthas didn't need any more motivation to chase Mal'ganis than he already had, but that was planned to be a main story element. There was supposed to be a love story between Arthas and Jaina, but that didn't work out. It was a bit too Raynor and Kerrigan again, because Jaina was going to become a banshee or something... I don't remember very well, but that plot point obviously got moved to Sylvanas Windrunner. There were a lot of similarities between the Starcraft and WarCraft 3 plotlines, to the point where the first few drafts got sent back multiple times.

I remember towards the end of development there was a huge backlash because of the ending cinematic where Archimonde is attacked by Nightelf tree sperm. There was all sorts of meetings and in-fighting about it. Pardo was rounding people up to basically attack the cinematics department for giving us something nigh-unusable. In the end we made it work, but the joke about the World Tree jizzing on Archimonde would come up at least once or twice a month until we shipped

Abelhawk: If you could go back and change anything about WarCraft 3 that you worked on, or do anything differently, what would it be? This can include mistakes you think other developers made, such as in the storyline. Is there anything you wish was different about the game, campaign, etc?

David: Well, I would certainly have wanted a lead level designer for both projects, because a lot of itemization and level design problems went relatively unnoticed until late in the project. So a lot of item shifting occurred towards the end of development as we saw things like three levels in a row dropping a ring of protection +1 and things like that. That was part of the reason I had been working on the randomized drop box triggers: to streamline the process and remove the possibility of multiple types of the same object dropping (one of the triggers we were waiting on was a way to check the player's inventory for a type of item we intended to drop, and then to choose a different random item if the player had it, and other stuff related to that).

There were also issues where triggers would get stuck somewhere and the level would just sort of peter out. So if I could go back I would probably study programming a little bit more so that I could have done a better job with my heavier trigger levels. I also would have looked at that cinematography book earlier so that I didn't make so many mistakes in the early cinematics.

As to changing the campaign itself, I think there were a couple of levels that weren't as interesting as they could be, and for me, I felt the campaign was more about showing off a really crafted WarCraft 3 experience. So all of the levels where you just built a base and destroyed the enemy, I would have liked to have redone as something more interesting. In game development, there's always that feeling that "oh man, I could have done that so much better."

Abelhawk: Do you still play WarCraft 3? What is (or was) your favorite race to play in Melee maps?

David: I haven't played WarCraft 3 in a very, very, very long time. There's something about finishing a very long and difficult creation process that will make you hate the game, even if you loved making it. Especially if you're a level designer and you have to play your own levels and other people's levels over and over and over, through multiple iterations. There was some excitement after release to see what players were making, so we hung out on Battle.net playing user-made maps quite often, but after playing the fifth iteration of "Whatever Tower Defense" you get a little bit tired of that as well. It wasn't until TFT development started picking up that we went through the user-made maps more seriously and picked out DOTA as something to include in TFT. It was a very early iteration of DOTA but we helped fix some of the buggy trigger issues and updated it with new triggers we were releasing with TFT. The plan was to have DOTA on the disc for TFT, but I guess it ended up taking more time than we thought so we released it later online. I think it was obsolete within the first two days of release of TFT, because... of course it was. 

My favorite race to play was the orcs, specifically for the Blademaster. He was such a broken champ and could singlehandedly dismantle a player's base with his invisibility and ridiculous crits. The moment he got ahead it was basically over. That and the grunts were so broken as far as unit health and damage. I wasn't known as a good player, though I was well remembered for my Protoss high templar control when we used to play Starcraft in QA. People feared the psionic storm.

Abelhawk: Did you make any of the Melee maps, or was that a different department than the campaign designing one?

David: I made one or two melee maps, but I was known as the guy who made crappy ones. Mainly because I wasn't much for layout as I was for heavy trigger and story maps. None of them were popular, and I think a lot of them got removed later because they had serious flaws where I tried to do something unique with the terrain that ended up making the map unfun to play a serious PvP game on.

There was only one design department for WarCraft 3, which included seven "level designers" and Rob Pardo as the lead game designer. Tom Cadwell (aka Zileas) joined after WC3 as an associate game designer and to help with unit balance. I remember when he put in the bat riders initially, he made them completely broken and then abused them in a game all of the game designers were playing. Of course, Tom Cadwell went on to be design director at Riot Games and made League of Legends, so he's doing just fine now.

Abelhawk: How involved are you in WarCraft now? Do you play Hearthstone or WoW, read the novels, or play the pen-and-paper RPG? Are you excited for the movie next month?

David: I have no involvement with WarCraft now. I played some Hearthstone shortly after it shipped. It's cool, a very good online version of a CCG that avoids all the traditional trappings of card based CCGs that plague other online ones... But I'm not that into it. I read one of the graphic novels and I've played through WoW and its first expansion, but other than that, it's just not a universe that interests me anymore. I expect the movie to be a failure in all honesty. I've never seen that sort of relationship work well for a game.

Abelhawk: What can you tell me about the Frozen Throne? Which campaign levels did you work on, did the story change at all during development, and was the process of making the expansion any different than making Reign of Chaos?

David: On TFT I made "Wrath of the Betrayer," "The Brothers Stormrage," "Dungeons of Dalaran," and "King Arthas." Dungeons of Dalaran was my favorite one to make. The story was pretty straightforward and there weren't any major changes as compared to ROC. Everyone had gotten into a rhythm and so it was all very quick and businesslike this time around. All of the triggers we wish-listed on ROC became a reality for TFT, so map creation was much easier, triggers in general became much cleaner, and so forth. It was just a lot easier overall.

Abelhawk: Is there anything else you'd like anyone to know about WarCraft 3, Blizzard, game design, programming, careers in the gaming industry, or anything else?

David: People should know that there are real people working on these things. They tend to think of game development studios as these nebulous monstrosities, or some sort of tentacled monster that can only focus on one thing at a time. Features take time, and usually one or two people are assigned to a feature, and putting more people on the same feature would increase the amount of time it takes to complete rather than decrease it (or at the very least would waste a lot of time of one or more of those people). Multiple features are often in the works at a time, so the idea that one feature not being done in a patch is related to other features that were done is a fallacy. If a feature didn't get done, it simply wasn't ready at the time of that patch, and it has no impact on the other features

Abelhawk: Thanks so much, David! Best of luck in your future game design work. Thanks for your time talking to me, and thanks on behalf of all of us fans for your work on WarCraft 3!

David: Thank you for taking the time to closely examine three years of my labor of love.

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David Fried has 17 years of game design experience, having worked on such games as WarCraft III, World of WarCraft, Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, and many others. He recently became the lead designer at EdgeCase games. His YouTube channel about game design and analysis can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. I am a latin american player, i am not good in english, i love the question about how long did it take to make a single campaign map on average, i was wonder the same question, i was seeing all youtube videos about playing campaings on hard difficulty, videos like "Dreadlord's Fall - Destroy Both Bases Before Sneak Attack Ends" and i am very impressed about infinite possibillities that offer this game, the making of the game solving bugs should have been very hard. I am a fan of this game since i was a child :D and a fan of dota, thanks for your videos about easter eggs and this interview!

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