November 16, 2019

The RetroBeat — Warcraft III: Reforged looks to balance the old with the new

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New games like Diablo IV and Overwatch 2 dominated headlines at this year’s BlizzCon, but Blizzard Entertainment is also working on a project with a more retro vibe: Warcraft III: Reforged.

This remake of the classic 2002 real-time strategy game was a big announcement at last year’s show. This time, Reforged took a back seat. It’s just started its beta phase, so people are playing it now.

Nevertheless, Reforged had a presence at BlizzCon, and I interviewed with production director Kaeo Milker and senior animator Keith Sizemore. I asked them about the challenge of reviving a classic for a modern era while keeping its older and nostalgic fans happy.

Making old meet new

GamesBeat: What kind of data are you hoping to get from the beta test?

Kaeo Milker: We just started in the last week here. Right now only humans and orcs are playable, and it’s in versus mode, so you can play 1-vs.-1 or 2-vs.-2 with humans and orcs. There’s a lot of stuff that we’re testing out at the same time here. I’ll let Keith cover art stuff, but technology-wise, part of Reforged is bringing Warcraft III into our modern Battle.net tech stack. It’s bringing it to our chat system, matchmaking, all the underlying Battle.net infrastructure. It’s about testing that out for the first time.

Again, this game is 17 years old. Battle.net was a very different beast back then. We never really updated or modernized Warcraft III until now. There’s a lot of things we need to feel out along the way. There will be phases of beta. We’ll test different game modes. Up next will be 3-vs.-3 and 4-vs.-4 and FFA [free for all] mode. We’ll be bringing in the world editor and custom games, so people can test that stuff out as well. Along the way we’re checking our math, that the new tech works the way we want it to, and that the game feels and plays the way we need it to. This is a game that people are still playing and loving. We want to make sure the Reforged experience matches that expectation and is something they’re excited about. Making sure it’s a worthy successor to what Warcraft III has been and still is today.

Keith Sizemore: On the art side of things, in terms of what we’re looking for, is just the posing of the characters for the game cam, making sure that the heroes that people are familiar with in the original game are recognizable. They’re getting that same experience they had connected to the Blademaster, for example. The Blademaster is actually a good example. We’ve already received feedback from the community on that, where he’s holding his sword like this, and then in the old one he has it more down, or he runs like this. We’re addressing feedback directly at this moment, trying to make sure we’re aligning our Reforged version with the original version so that the community that’s already been supporting this game for the last 16 years is comfortable with what they’re playing. It feels the same to them.

I’m already getting people walled in. The art looks great. We can already tell we’re getting good feedback on that. In terms of map design, do the doodads read — the props within the maps, how do those feel? The feedback, the particle effects, seeing what we can get with the feel of the game and the interaction of the new characters and the new art.

Warcraft III: Reforged develoipers

Above: Warcraft III: Reforged developers Kaeo Milker (left) and. Keith Sizemore.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: Is it intimidating to re-create a game that still has such a hardcore fanbase? 

Milker: I think there’s a lot of responsibility with that. That’s why, when it started out, it was clear that we needed to maintain the core feel of Warcraft III. It needed to still play like Warcraft III. There are lots of decisions made in what we’re doing that are about preserving those sides of it. At the same time, I’ll say that Warcraft III in the way it exists right now will continue to exist. Players have the opportunity to play in either mode if they want to. They can play in the HD mode or the standard mode. It’s interchangeable. They’ll also be able to play against each other. While we’re making every effort to preserve all those things and be true to it, if there are die-hard Warcraft III and they’re just like, cool, but I want my original Warcraft III, it’s still there for them. They’ll still be playing it.

Sizemore: At the same time, on the art time, we have legends like David Berggren and Matt Morris, the senior designer on the team. We have Brian Sousa. These are guys who’ve been with Blizzard forever. A few of them worked on Warcraft III back in the day. They’re revisiting their past experience, where they’re like, oh, I remember making this art! We have a lot of good direction coming in from guys that have already experienced the original build.

GamesBeat: Is it hard to make this new version compatible with the original?

Milker: There’s a lot involved in it. Again, that means that the original game is still getting updated to the modern Battle.net architecture as well. All the art and everything is going to be as it was, but they’ll still be playing on the new tech stack. That’s part of the thing we’re testing in beta, the interaction between the regular mode and the HD mode.

Sizemore: In terms of the art, making sure we can have the HD characters map and play alongside SD, there was a lot of — in terms of attacks, for example, we couldn’t change the frame lengths. We had to make sure that they attacked at the same time, so that if you’re playing against classic with Reforged, you didn’t have any desync or anything like that where you felt like you were getting a mixed experience. We matched animation lengths. We matched walk speeds. We’ve matched silhouetting. We matched sizing, as well as team color pop, just making sure that everything read and felt the same as in the original.

GamesBeat: What do you think it is about Warcraft III that helped it stay popular for so long? 

Sizemore: I think it’s the modding community, really, that continued to keep it alive, and the competitive side of things. That’s the beauty of Reforged. People can take the majority of the maps that have been made and they can play all those original maps with Reforged assets. Back in the day we had maybe one gnoll that populated all eight gnolls that are in the game, but now we have a gnoll per character that’s in the game. We have a gnoll archer, gnoll assassin, gnoll brute. When you load up these old maps and watch them play, you’ll have new characters popping in to play those roles for the old characters that used to just be tinted and skelled. I think that will support the community and the mods that kept the game alive.

Milker: The core gameplay of Warcraft III was pretty groundbreaking. It was the first hero-centric RTS, and it also had those RPG elements in terms of itemization and leveling. Things that set the stage not just for RTS, but it really paved the way, again — the mod-making community came in and built DOTA, which then spawned the entire MOBA genre in time. A lot of things have come out of that core gameplay. People still really appreciate that it’s more macro-intensive than micro. We still have StarCraft players where it’s all about micro, but this is a game where you control a smaller number of units, and you control individual abilities on individual units while you’re playing. I think there’s still a big appetite for that type of gameplay in the space.

Above: A town in Warcraft III: Reforged.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: With multiplayer you have the old and new playing together. In the campaign you don’t have that problem. Does that free you up to make more changes there?

Sizemore: That’s one thing we did do when we went into designing the art assets for this game. We looked at what’s already occurred with WoW and the stories there, and how they fleshed out what happened in Warcraft III, where Sylvanas back in the day, in Warcraft III — when she was killed and everything, that wasn’t thought of as a big moment. Now she’s turned into a hero, and so we’re revisiting those campaign missions. We’re building on Dalaran assets, building out Silvermoon assets to flesh out the campaign that lines up to WoW, so that when people from the WoW community want to return and see these legends in action, they get to experience maps that they’re familiar with. They see assets and think, I’ve been there, I get to experience this, I get to go through this story and this history that came before and paved the way for something that I already love dearly in WoW.

Milker: There’s a handful of missions that the team has done that on, where the gameplay is similar to the way it was, and the storyline is the same, but — all these things took place before WoW. In original Warcraft III, some of these places like Dalaran, they just don’t match up with what you see today. It’s cool to update that and bring it all together, the old and the new.

GamesBeat: So you can clear up Illidan’s fate at the end of The Frozen Throne?

Sizemore: Ah, yeah, a little bit? Stay tuned. [Laughs]

GamesBeat: What is post-release going to look like for Reforged? Is this going to be supported with patches and updates? Is there any hope for new content coming to the game? 

Milker: We’re looking at — this is going to be a live game, and I think what’s fun about this is that while Warcraft III today still has a really large and active community worldwide — it’s still a popular game — we’ll be bringing a whole new group of people to it. Old and new are going to return to it. Beyond launch you can expect us to be doing things. We’ll have patches and we’ll be looking for opportunities to bring in new content. We don’t have any specific announcements today on exactly what that stuff is, but we really want to see where the community takes the game, what goes on with custom maps, and support everything accordingly.

Blizzard goes retro

GamesBeat: It seems like the last couple of years, Blizzard has put more effort into its retro games. Why is that?

Milker: I think something that — even before I worked at Blizzard, I really appreciated the support we’ve given to games. Games that were — I’ve been at Blizzard for 18 years, but games that had come out five years before were still getting patched, and the communities were still there. All these games still have, again, active, vibrant, passionate communities around the world. We sometimes get lost in all the new stuff we’re doing. I think as we’ve grown and had a lot of big experiences with things like WoW, we’ve gotten a lot of energy going into those things. But as we took a step back, looking at the whole landscape, looking at the millions of players enjoying these games, I think there was a renewed focus — we want to support all of these communities and these games. We want to make sure the people who are passionate about them have opportunities to enjoy them. It’s not just something we’ve done in the past. It’s something we want to carry into the future. It’s not just our legacy. Some of these things really are our future as well.

GamesBeat: Last BlizzCon, Warcraft III: Reforged was one of the big announcements. This year, you’re maybe a bit upstaged by some of the newer things. Are you a little jealous?

Sizemore: Oh, definitely not. We’re all one Blizzard in the end. We’re happy to see the other teams in the Blizzard family succeed and get attention and enjoy it.

Milker: Last year was amazing. I think the response to Reforged’s announcement was incredible. This year, while we didn’t have as big a showing as we did last year, the reaction from the crowd when they were talking about Warcraft III was still phenomenal. Lot of excitement. Lot of people right now on our demo downstairs playing it. Since the beta’s live right now and all the virtual ticket holders for BlizzCon are getting added to the beta next week as well, I think a lot of people will get a chance to get into it and experience it.

He is that kind of orc.

Above: He is that kind of orc.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: Reforged was actually a secret before you announced. What’s the secret to keeping your game from getting leaked?

Sizemore: Crossed fingers? [Laughs]

Milker: It’s always a crapshoot with that. We always try. We rarely succeed.

GamesBeat: You have two art styles you can use as inspiration for Reforged. You have the original Warcraft III and World of Warcraft. Can you talk about juggling that balance? 

Sizemore: WoW, you have a different perspective. You’re on the ground looking up. Your character is more eye-level with the horizon. Warcraft III is an RTS, so a lot of the building designs were based on an RTS camera. They’re more readable in terms of — is the team color on the top of the roof readable to the players, so that when the player runs the camera around, they can recognize the building from the silhouette? That was a lot of what came into redesigning these buildings and making sure they not only lined up to what was originally there, in terms of the silhouette and the pop of the team color, but also what we can pull from WoW.

GamesBeat: Another thing I think people are looking forward to is the updated cinematics. Last year we had the intro cinematic remastered. What kind of work is going into bringing the other cinematics to the modern game?

Sizemore: The cinematics, we’re just uprezzing them at the moment. We feel like they speak for themselves and hold up really well. We’re just giving them a nice 1080p pop, where they have a better resolution and take on the gameplay to line up what Reforged has.

Milker: Our modern compression schemes are a lot better than what they were 17 years ago.

Sizemore: Yeah, it was 480p back in the day?

Milker: It was low-res and really compressed.

The Culling of Stratholme is an important part in Warcraft III's story.

Above: The Culling of Stratholme is an important part in Warcraft III’s story.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: What’s being done on the music side? Is that just working with the old tracks, or are there any re-recordings going on?

Milker: They’ve gone back and revisited music for the game. There will be new music in the game, Reforged music. [Laughs] That’s something the music team was really excited about, being able to go back to some of those classic tracks and bring them up to our standards now.

GamesBeat: My history with the game was a lot of LAN parties. Is that a supported feature of the game?

Sizemore: Yeah, yeah. The game is built on the original engine, so it supports LAN as well.

GamesBeat: Will it support CD spawning? That let us take the disc out of the CD tray after the game loaded and use it to start Warcraft III on other PCs. That was important.

Milker: Now that we’re integrated with Battle.net, everything will have to be tied to your Battle.net account. I think right now you can take your CD key that you have and connect that to Battle.net, but the spawning part isn’t really a feature anymore. For so many of our games, that was a lot of fun.

The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.