Warcraft III is one of the greatest real-time strategy games of all time, and its rich story and memorable characters set the foundation for what would become World of Warcraft. Blizzard announced during BlizzCon 2018 last week in Anaheim, California that the 2002 PC game is getting remade with Warcraft III: Reforged, which is coming out in 2019.
Last year, Blizzard remastered StarCraft. But Reforged is more than a remaster. Blizzard is updating character models, cutscenes, and even tinkering a bit with the story and gameplay of the original. That could be risky. Warcraft III sold over 4.5 million copies. Its modding community helped create entire new genres, such as MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas). Why mess with it too much when you can just up-res the original assets?
I had a chance to talk with Reforged executive producer Rob Bridenbecker and lead writer Christie Golden during BlizzCon last week. They told me how Blizzard is approaching this remake to one of its most beloved games, and they gave me an idea of some of the changes to expect.
GamesBeat: Why remaster Warcraft III now?
Rob Bridenbecker: We really cut our teeth as a team on StarCraft Remastered. That was the first time for us to go back and learn what was involved in remastering a game, bringing it to modern standards, solving some of the heavy technical challenges associated with that. We had all this great learning, great systems that were all rooted in RTS. We had an opportunity with Warcraft III, this beloved game, to carry all that learning and bring it right there.
GamesBeat: This is being called a remaster, but a lot of assets have been remade. Is it fair to call this a remake? Or is remaster still the preferred term?
Bridenbecker: We landed on Reforged. One, just because we thought it sounded cool, and two, we didn’t feel like it was just a straight remaster, similar to what we did with StarCraft. But it definitely takes its roots from what we did with StarCraft, because we are talking about a game that’s rooted in the original game engine. We started from existing Warcraft III, and we built on top of that and evolved the engine such that we’re able to do all the modern graphics that you see, all the modern interfaces you see, and layering that into the original game engine.
The reasons why we wanted to do that are pretty straightforward. We didn’t want to break the game. We also didn’t want to break the community. We wanted to make sure all the campaigns, the custom maps that have come out, all of these things just continue to work.
GamesBeat: Will there be any gameplay changes?
Bridenbecker: Again, drawing some of the parallels with StarCraft, in StarCraft Remastered, that game, everybody felt like it was in just a great state as far as balance was concerned. The competitive play associated with it was unbelievable. And so we didn’t want to change anything with the core gameplay. With Warcraft III it’s a little different, because the community has been actively making us aware that the balance on the game maybe isn’t as perfect as StarCraft’s balance. And there’s some opportunity for us to introduce some of those subtle changes to try to drive more toward that same degree of balance that we have with a game like StarCraft.
GamesBeat: The campaign is beloved. It really started a lot of the larger Warcraft lore that we know now. Is the story seeing changes?
Christie Golden: As has been discussed, we know how important this game is to people. We didn’t want to change it very much. We didn’t want to say, oh, here’s this new character and sideline plots and a whole new this, that, and the other. I was invited to join the team to work on this, and what we decided would be really useful would be if I were to revisit my novel Arthas, which is also considered canon, and to highlight not the backstory — that’s the novel’s area — but the scenes that we actually played through. See what I’d done with them in the book, what kind of dialogue I wrote, what framing, and just not glob on huge paragraphs of people standing around talking, because we want to play a game here, but just a few lines to emphasize some things that have now become very important in World of Warcraft.
For instance, Jaina, we got to revisit her. We can bring her personality a little more to the forefront, so we can connect and build — strengthen those bridges that are there. Not build new ones, but strengthen what’s there to lead people to where she is now. Sylvanas, of course, is huge now. She’s very important. We really didn’t see that much of her when you actually go back. You’d be surprised at how little we see. We wanted to go back to the novel and see what we could do to enhance that.
We wanted to remind people that Arthas was once beloved, and that once he really did have good intentions. He wanted to do the best for his people. He wanted to do that so much that he became obsessed with not failing at any cost, and that was what led to his downfall. And to remind people of that and make the story a little more powerful. We wanted to give more depth and a richer feel to it without adding huge chunks of story.
GamesBeat: Arthas is such a cornerstone character for the franchise. What do you think it is about him that makes him resonate with fans?
Golden: As a writer there are a lot of themes that I find myself returning to again and again, and I’ve always been chewing on, what makes people do bad things? How do you get from point A to point Z? It seems so drastic when you see Arthas at the very beginning. How in the world could he end up here? And of course it’s step by tiny step, the choices along the way. All of us, we’re all faced with choices and decisions. We all want to be good people. It’s there but for the grace of God, right? How to see this character that was so powerful and so beloved — just see what a mess he made for himself by pursuing this path at all costs.
GamesBeat: The in-game cinematic look a lot more … cinematic? Was it challenging to redo these story beats with things like camera angles and animations, while the original game just used the same top-down perspective for these cutscenes as the rest of the game?
Bridenbecker: Just over the years, we’ve learned a lot as a company in terms of the way to tell story through in-game cutscenes. There’s definitely less of looking at people on horseback, looking at people’s backs while they’re on horseback, and a bit more actual zooming in on the characters themselves, see the people coming into town. What we’re doing with the culling of Stratholme is an example of the treatment we’re looking to do with the rest of the vignettes that exist within the game.
GamesBeat: Making custom maps was a large part of Warcraft III. Will people who learned those tools in the original game be able to jump right in with Reforged?
Bridenbecker: Part of the reason we wanted to start with the Warcraft III engine and evolve that is so we didn’t break the community, didn’t break that learning and understanding. If you’re very familiar with the existing world editor, it’s going to be evolved, but it’s not going to be evolved so much that it feels really different. We’re talking about new features, new capabilities, but not something completely different. If you’re familiar with making those custom maps, you’ll be able to jump right back in, use whatever your skill level was, whether it’s yesterday or 10 years ago or 15 years ago, and directly apply that.
GamesBeat: Some of those custom games have inspired entire genres now, including MOBAs. Do you think we’ll still see the original Warcraft III version of Defense of the Ancients? Is there any legal problem there now?
Bridenbecker: The main thing we’re interested in is ensuring we’re providing as much compatibility and capability to our custom mod community. What mods are popular or not popular and so on, those are things that really, as time goes on, we’ll learn more about. But step one for us, again, was — let’s make sure these things load up, work, function, play, so that people can continue to enjoy them. Where it won’t work is when people have gone in and — let’s say they’ve subbed out some of the original Warcraft assets for different assets. In those areas, we’re still talking about how that will actually manifest, because artistically we don’t know if it’s such a great thing that you have all this high fidelity imagery, and then certain units in low def, as it were. Having those two mixed and matched with one another. Technologically that’s possible, but artistically, we’re not sure whether or not that looks like a great game.
There are a lot of things on the custom map front that we’re still working through. But first order of business is, let’s make sure these are able to load up, able to play, players are able to continue to enjoy them. To your earlier point, if you’re somebody who’s interested in extending your custom maps and using all of your existing knowledge, you’re going to be able to do that the moment this comes out.
GamesBeat: A lot of the voice actors for these characters have changed since Warcraft III came out. Are you using original voice files, or recasting roles with newer actors?
Bridenbecker: We’re definitely, as Christie mentioned — we’re doing some things around additional lines, additional bridging between Warcraft III and World of Warcraft, just to give a bit more flavor around characters and backstory. As far as the overall V/O, we’ll give you some more information over the coming months. But we are adding new languages. There’s a host of things going into this that we’ll have more information about in the future.
GamesBeat: The trailer you showed to announce Reforged was a remake of the original Warcraft III announcement CG movie. Will reforge have new versions of all of Warcraft III’s CG cutscenes?
Bridenbecker: The current thinking is that our prerendered cinematics — if you go back and look at the original Warcraft III prerendered cinematics, they still look pretty good. The teaser cinematic that we had, that was one where we felt like — the original orc that was in that, the original footman that was in that, maybe they could have used a bit of fine tuning.
We got together with our partners over in story and franchise development, and they were able to recut a version of it. It’s definitely a time-consuming process, definitely something that we want to use judiciously. I’m pretty excited about the opportunities just with the existing cinematics that are in-game, cleaning those up, because remember, these originally came out 15-16 years ago. The technology of the time, even from the original source files, resulted in us dithering down those cinematics through compression so they didn’t have their full glory. There’s a lot of things we can do without having to recut everything.
GamesBeat: I remember hearing, shortly after Frozen Throne came out, that the final battle between Arthas and Illidan at one point was going to be a pre-rendered cinematic, and then for whatever reason it became just an in-game scene instead. Could that finally become a full-blown rendered cinematic?
Bridenbecker: Nothing we’ve talked about. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: Wouldn’t it be fun, though?
Bridenbecker: A lot of things would be really fun. I come back to, right now — we’re pretty laser focused on making sure that we do all the right things to preserve the game and carry it forward. It’s a pretty aggressive undertaking when you think about it. Starting from this place of, hey, we’re going to take 16 year old game engine and we’re going to carry that forward to 2018, 2019, make it look beautiful, but by the way, in the process, all the old still has to work.
You have to carry all that with you. Just that alone is its own undertaking. Where we go in the future is just that. It’s something we’ll talk more about in the future. Right now we’re 100 percent on, let’s make sure we’ve got all the trimmings of today carried forward and up-leveled into what you see.
GamesBeat: Talking about adding a little bit of new dialogue to make things more relevant to World of Warcraft, is that a chance to maybe clarify some of the things that World of Warcraft retconned or changed. Like Muradin — in Warcraft III it looks like he’s killed, but later we find out he’s just knocked out. Same thing with Illidan at the end. Even Illidan’s motivation has kind of been clarified through the years.
Golden: It’s interesting that you bring up Muradin, because he really just kind of comes on the scene. He’s just this dwarf. We don’t really understand what’s going on. He has a long history with Arthas. He taught him how to fight. Arthas was not a natural fighter. A dwarf tempered him. He was Arthas’s weapons trainer.
As an example of how you can get a lot, hopefully, across with just one line, when Arthas starts to do these questionable things, he says, you lied to your men. You prevented them from returning home. That’s not the lad I trained. Boom. You’ve now established that they’ve known each other since he was a boy, and he’s given him training, in just a few words. That’s the sort of thing we’re looking to do to try to flesh things out.
GamesBeat: So much of Blizzard’s identity started with these RTS games. Is it fun for the company to go back and work on RTS again?
Bridenbecker: Yeah, definitely. We’ve continued to be involved in RTS even today. We now have — I guess this will be three RTS games on the show floor, between StarCraft, StarCraft II, and Warcraft III. Part of the fun has been in going back in time a bit, taking a look at how we started as a company. The engineer or the artist looking at things and saying, oh, wow, why did we make these decisions? And often it was, well, we made a decision because of technical limitations, where we were at in terms of our own personal development as creators. But the notion of being in a place to carry forward the RTS genre and help lift it up over all and add to it, give it a higher ceiling so to speak, is part of something that the team feels an immense amount of pride in.
GamesBeat: These original in-game models are relatively low-poly now. When you’re redoing those assets you have the ability to almost do something very different style-wise. Looking at it, it’s not that you just put in what they look like in World of Warcraft. It’s something different. How did you settle on the new look for the game?
Bridenbecker: We really spent time identifying how we wanted to take the original assets. Because they were very low poly. There wasn’t as much detail in them as we would have otherwise wanted. We took a look at World of Warcraft and we said, yeah, there’s a lot more detail, but we would like to add a sense of realism associated with it. We ultimately landed on the Mists of Pandaria cinematic. Part of what we wanted was, we wanted to have the visual fidelity to tell these in-game stories manifest with that art style, so you could do the in-game cutscenes and tell the story and have it look as if, yeah, these are people engaging in conversation.
They have real animations with one another. They’re pointing and getting in arguments. When Uther is pissed off at Arthas because Arthas is about to go do something absolutely crazy and raze a town of these poor citizens that have been infected with the plague–you see the emotion in his face. You see the emotion in his gestures. To be able to do that was sort of the core behind why we wanted to drive on this art style. And then adapting that such that from a gameplay standpoint, they still iconically feel like Warcraft units — it’s a bit of a balance.
GamesBeat: What’s the future of the original Warcraft III now that Reforged is coming? Is preservation important, even though the remaster is coming?
Bridenbecker: For me personally, that’s an industry-wide – -not just specific to games, but really more the digital industry so to speak. It’s a challenge that we’re going to need to think through pretty heavily, because the notion of preserving a digital artwork is a very different space than, let’s say, what we learned on physical goods and preserving those over the years. So much content that gets created can just vanish overnight. If you don’t properly maintain the code or if you don’t properly maintain the place where people have access to it — even right now, finding Warcraft III, it wasn’t a great process for our fans and our players. That’s part of the reason we wanted to do Reforged.
So when we talk about the future of it, the way we approach it is, hey, we’re going through and making Reforged, but if you want to play the original version of the game, it’s going to be right there with Reforged. You’ll still be able to go back and play the original game using all the original assets. If you like the no-neck version of the units, you’re able to do that. [laughs] That’s our strategy on how we can make sure that we’re speaking to you as a person that wants to play the game the way you want to play it. It’s not for us to say, this is forevermore the only way you’re going to see Warcraft III. You get to choose. That’s on you.
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.