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Warcraft III created new genres of games with its World Editor. Now with Warcraft III: Reforged there’s an update for the classic game — but why don’t more games have modding tools like it did originally?

It’s 2004 and Warcraft III is one of the hottest games in the world. Like many teenagers, I spent all summer thinking about Warcraft, but I wasn’t playing — I was coding. I was coding my own Warcraft III maps and putting them on the internet along with thousands of other amateur creators. We called ourselves modders. Our games used the same art and controls as Warcraft III but introduced completely new gameplay.

Mods allowed young people with no connections or experience to build games that they otherwise had no business making. One of those young people was IceFrog, the creator of Defense Of the Ancients or DOTA. Little did we know at the time that DOTA would go on to be one of the most popular games in the world.

It’s 14 years later and Blizzard has said that updated modding tools are amongst the most anticipated features Warcraft 3: Reforged. “’Warcraft III’ players built new genres with the tools in the original games– tower defense, MOBA, it came from them… So we’re looking for the next generation of modders and creations that should come from this.”


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The in-the-box toolbox

Lots of games, such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Crusader Kings, and Mount & Blade, still allow modding to some extent or another. But the power and ease of use of an out-of-the-box editor like Warcraft III and others offered last decade is something largely missing these days.

Warcraft III’s editor was revolutionary. It included a visual programming language, a map building tool and thousands of unit and building models. It even included online gaming capabilities that allowed anyone who owned Warcraft 3 to host and play a map that they had downloaded, effectively giving modders an instant distribution network.

That network more than anything, allowed allowed DOTA to go viral. At the time IceFrog was just 20, building DOTA with a volunteer group of staff. But millions of people were playing the game, organizing tournaments, giving suggestions and even donate to fund development.

IceFrog eventually went to Blizzard, asking to be hired to develop DOTA into its own game. Blizzard declined, but a few years later Valve hired IceFrog to make Dota 2. Meanwhile, League of Legends, created by Riot Games, offering streamlined gameplay very similar to DOTA’s. (Blizzard eventually got in the game with Heroes of the Storm, though that hasn’t been the sensation League or Dota 2 have been.) Building off DOTA’s gameplay, League of Legends and Dota 2 would go on to become some of the most popular games in the world.

So the biggest games in the world were based on mods. But none of these games themselves have modding tools! In fact, almost no triple-A games these days have modding tools packaged with them. Look at strategy game kingpin Civilization, whose fourth installment, released in 2005, included out-of-the-box mod tools for HTML files, Python, and the SDK for major gameplay changes. Civilization VI, released in 2016, took months to add even a Steam workshop, with nowhere near the depth of Civ4’s modding.

Where have all the mods gone?

Above: A visual comparison between DOTA built on Warcraft III (left), League of Legends (middle) and Dota 2 (right)

Modding video games has historically been a vital way for games to engage players on a more creative level while also prototyping new ideas. Warcraft III was a testing ground for entire new genres of games. DOTA pioneered the multiplayer online battle arena (or MOBA) genre, leading to games such as League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm. Warcraft and Starcraft helped pioneer tower and base defense games which were precursors to games such as Plants vs. Zombies and Clash of Clans.

Notably, all of these games relied heavily on the mod engine to execute difficult to program parts of Warcraft III such as pathing, AI unit control, buying items and building structures. Not only were these games created in the Warcraft III editor, they wouldn’t have existed without it.

For 14-year-old me, prototyping games without having to worry about art, algorithms or online networking was magic, I was hooked. I was using the exact same engine that Blizzard’s designers had used to make their campaigns. Warcraft’s GUI programming editing was a portal for programming.

This pattern has been repeated many times. Brand-new game genres start off as rough but addictive prototypes like DOTA and are slowly polished into great games through user feedback and hard work. But game studios find it difficult to invest resources in unproven game ideas, especially since the ideas are so hard to recognize. DOTA and League, while incredibly popular, can be incredibly obtuse and difficult to describe to newcomers.

Despite the success of DOTA and games like DayZ, blockbuster game studios have often stopped supporting mods all together, preferring to become gatekeepers of their content. Blizzard themselves have no editing tools for World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, or Overwatch. League of Legends and PUBG have no mod framework whatsoever, despite being originally inspired by mods. All of these games do have internal tools used by designers to build the maps and games. What’s lacking is the priority of including these tools in the released games.

There may be strategic reasons behind this. In many ways, Blizzard including design tools in Warcraft III led to the creation of some of their biggest rivals in Riot Games. However, this seems like a particularly shortsighted form of gatekeeping because it also cuts off a pipeline for young and inexperienced people to get into game design and programming. Riot and Blizzard have hired many of the Warcraft III modders as full-time employees, but where will the next wave come from?

In fact, we should all care about this because good modding engines are a way to involve young people in programming without their having to first have a deep engineering background. Minecraft has arguably the most popular modding framework, but lacks the ease of a GUI environment and a rich model library. Scratch is a great programming language for kids but since its not built on top of a true game, it doesn’t have the content and depth to create games that are playable by the entire world.

Another form of gatekeeping involves the always-online, games-as-a-service on central servers  model followed that many of the biggest companies follow. It gives them more control over monetization. But this, as the history of Minecraft shows, isn’t actually required for runaway success. Indeed, just this month, we’ve seen Fortnite, arguably the biggest game in the world, is just now adding Fortnite Creative to make Minecraft-like moddable servers. We’ll see if this allows for a burst of creativity from players, and how much ease of use it has.

What will the future hold?

These days bootcamps often introduce students to HTML, CSS and Javascript as their first programming experience. In contrast, my first programming experience was creating a Warcraft 3 character I had made up whose main ability was to smash the ground around him in different ways. And I still remember it.

If we want more diversity in programming and game design, we need to create ways for them discover programming on their own, just as much as we need bootcamps and schools. Games are the best way to accomplish this. Players are lured in by the promise of experiencing a new world and playing new characters, and gradually drawn into making their own games.

Game studios should embrace this, and not kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Thariq Shihipar is a MIT Media Lab grad. Freelance developer. Working on MISH.

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