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Bill Roper, Blizzard North

Blizzard North VP Bill Roper is an industry veteran with countless triple-A titles under his belt, including WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness (producer), Diablo (producer), StarCraft (producer), Diablo II (senior producer), and StarCraft: Brood War (executive producer). Most recently, he has participated on the oversight team for WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos, in which he was instrumental in shaping the direction of the game.

We chat in depth with Roper in Chapter 5, "General Game Design: Role-Playing Games (RPGs) and Persistent Online Worlds," on role-playing game development, but here we have his inspiring and enlightening words on strategy game design, and how WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos could serve as a benchmark to others. Roper was first asked to discuss what he personally learned from working on such epic projects as WarCraft III. Following is his thorough response.

Persistence of Vision

The main goal of WarCraft III was to create a real-time strategy game that was heavily influenced by role-playing sensibilities. Although we went through innumerable changes, both grand and minute, we strove to keep the concept of the game in the forefront of discussions. This often proved challenging when we would have to try to balance the needs of a strategy game with the mechanics of a role-playing game. One of the key features of the game is the "Legendary Hero" units, and to emphasize their importance, we originally used an over-the-shoulder camera angle and required that regular units be "attached" to the Hero. This gave the game a very distinct look and feel while immediately driving home the point that role-playing elements were going to play a big part in the experience. Unfortunately, we discovered that this design prevented us from doing many things that we felt were necessary to create a strategy game. While the camera angle needed to be changed, we also didn't want to lose the immersion we had attained, so we also made sure that the environment had a much more organic feel as we pulled back the camera, making it easier to strategically control multiple units while at the same time eliminating the "game board" feel from which many strategy games suffer. Keeping our eye on the overall vision for the project allowed us to make major changes to even key elements of the game, with the knowledge that we would end up with a cohesive and fun game design.

Letting Go

During the creative process of designing a game, you come up with thousands of great ideas and not-so-great ideas. Sometimes you come up with ideas that seem like amazing groundbreaking concepts. Occasionally, these ideas just don't work. Whether for technical reasons, world continuity and design considerations, or simply because they're just not fun to play, these ideas need to be changed—or set aside. Sometimes, this can be a simple matter when you try something out and realize that it isn't fun or simply doesn't look right. Other times, this can be an extremely difficult decision because you can see how it might work and are willing to try and find ways to keep the idea alive. For example, we had a major shift in the look and the associated design elements of WarCraft III after a year or so of development, when we moved away from the over-the-shoulder angle associated with Hero units. The interesting aspect of this decision was that although it probably caused some concern and confusion to our players, the development team actually found that they could now make the game they envisioned; the rest of our design concepts related to melding role-playing elements into a strategy game were basically unaffected.
Dumping an idea that you have conceived, fostered, and perhaps even implemented is a painful but necessary process. Not everything works out as planned, and it's difficult to admit when that gameplay mechanic you thought would revolutionize the industry turns out to be an adventure into tedium. When you're faced with the need to pull the plug on something in the game—no matter what the cause—you have to do so as quickly and painlessly as possible. Don't be afraid to scrap ideas because many times you'll replace them with something far better or simply find that [you don't need] anything there at all.

Figure 3.1Figure 3.1 Bill Roper says that WarCraft III is "one of our greatest accomplishments to date. We started out hoping to create a fitting sequel to WarCraft II, and we ended up crafting a world of epic proportions. WarCraft III offers players an incredibly fun and dynamic experience." (Used with permission by Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.)

Taking Time for Tools

The design and implementation of the "World Editor" for WarCraft III was key to the successful realization of the role-playing game aspects found in the single-player campaign. The level designers worked hand-in-hand with the editor programmer to create a tool that was not only powerful but also easy enough for them to use day in and day out. While it's not uncommon to see tools created without much thought given to the end user, the growth of the World Editor was a cooperative venture between the people making it and the people using it. This was essential, not just because we intended to ship it as a part of the game, but also because we knew that we wanted to free up our game programmers as much as possible from having to do special-case programming for the campaign. By putting a heavy focus on designing a robust tool that the level designers could use to modify their work and then immediately review it in the game, we streamlined our development process [and gained] many more chances to iterate on those designs while reducing our required quality assurance testing time [see Chapter 17, "Proper Game Testing"]. It's said that a craftsman is only as good as his tools, so giving your craftsmen the best possible tools will help them create the best product they can.

Is there anything that Roper would've done differently? "We should have spent more time in designing the game before we put as many programmers and artists on the project as we did," he admits. Roper explains:

By nature, game design is a very organic and iterative process, but in our excitement to start making the game, we honestly put too many people on the project at too early a stage. It's difficult to gauge the proper numbers to assign to a project in the first weeks and months, but the biggest lesson we learned was to put as many designers into the mix as possible. Also, keeping multiple high-end designers in addition to the level designers on the project until the end was something we didn't address until later in the development process. Fortunately, we caught this issue before it was critical, but it certainly set back our balance and campaign designs to some extent.

In addition to the Legendary Heroes and the role-playing game flavor, what else makes WarCraft III stand out from other real-time strategy games? "While there are many elements that go into any successful game, I honestly feel the character and emotional bond gamers get while playing WarCraft III makes it far different from any strategy game we have ever created."

Movies have come a long way in the past 20 to 30 years in terms of what can be technologically created and brought to life onscreen. Games have leaped forward in the past 5 to 10 years in terms of what can be accomplished and represented with much of that same type of technology. Games provide potential immersion mainly because they're interactive, placing the player in control of the situation—something that movies simply can't do. But movies have traditionally provided something that games don't—an emotional connection between the entertained and the entertainment. This is an area where we as game developers can grow, and it was a major focus of the unit and level designers as well as the writers, cinematic artists, sound designers, and musicians on WarCraft III.
In terms of gameplay, the units in WarCraft III play an even more important and unique role within the composition of an army than in any of our previous games. Even the most basic unit has some special twist that makes him different and a viable choice throughout the course of a game. The top-end units—the Legendary Heroes—are the epic leaders of those armies and can greatly influence the outcome of any battle in which they're employed. These special units really show how we used the sensibilities of role-playing games within a real-time strategy game as the units grow in experience, gain levels, and find and purchase items that they carry in an inventory. They even have their own names, making them a very personal element in the scope of any game. When one of these Heroes dies in battle, a message is sent throughout the game announcing his or her defeat, and the death animation is far more grand and dramatic than those of his less-epic compatriots. Although WarCraft III is first and foremost a real-time strategy game, these elements provide an interesting and unique gaming experience.

Roper says that in terms of making an emotional connection with the player, they spent a huge amount of time crafting a rich storyline that's expressed through the single-player campaign:

The use of pre-rendered and in-game cinematic sequences, professional voice acting, and missions that are centered around a story (and not the other way around) create a compelling game that involves not only the skills of the players, but also their feelings. As the story unfolds, both the world and the characters within undergo changes. Reaching someone on a deeper level only makes for a more satisfying experience, and this is something that other forms of entertainment do extremely well. With WarCraft III, we wanted to involve the player on many levels while still tapping into the adrenal responses that have served games so well for so many years. If we can succeed in this endeavor, we can reach a wider variety of people than just the traditional core gamer.
Anything and everything that touches your life is potential fodder for the creation of a game. Did you ever get stuck on the expressway and wish you could just jump the center divider, blast through oncoming traffic, and cinematically sail into the local 7-Eleven parking lot so you could grab a Slurpee while waiting for traffic to break? Grand Theft Auto 3. Have you ever sat through a long boring dinner, lazily arranging and rearranging the vegetables on your plate into new and interesting patterns—eating only the ones that line up three-in-a-row? Bejeweled. Have you ever listened to "Ride of the Valkyries" by Wagner while staring into a clear blue summer sky? The Wyvern Riders in WarCraft III.

What about the origins of WarCraft III?

WarCraft III came from (a) wanting to expand the world we had already created and grown; and (b) not wanting to waste an exceptionally strong storyline that had been created for a canceled game. When we looked at where to go with the WarCraft universe after destroying the Dark Portal in the expansion set to WarCraft II, our creative director, Chris Metzen, set to crafting a story that would focus on what happened to the orcs who were trapped in Azeroth. Elements of the story and the background of where the orcs came from as a people were inspired by the culture and plight of the American Indians. The internment camps of World War II also played a part in shaping the background of how the orcs were marshaled and corralled after the war in Azeroth. The gladiatorial rings of ancient Rome and the way their combatants were both revered and feared as they lived out violent lives as valuable property also played a major part in shaping the character of Thrall, the main character of the orc campaign.
Music, literature, television, animation, art, sports, music, food, love of debate, social interaction—these are all things that can spark ideas for a game designer. Also, playing other games is key—especially with other people on your team. The best solos in jazz are a fusion of the mind and skill of the soloist with a responsive and iterative rhythm section. They listen to what the soloist is doing and then play with it and off of it. In turn, the soloist responds with his own intuitive iterations or departures. When a second soloist joins the fray, his performance is augmented by what he has just heard only if he can build on and learn from that experience. As game developers, we shouldn't be afraid to play other companies' games and learn from what they did. We also need to play our games and learn from our own mistakes and failures. The rest of the equation is to listen to the people who buy our games and see what they want out of a play experience. All these things can inspire new chains of thought and can lead to new ideas in the design of game mechanics, world concept, and story.

In Chapter 21, "Breaking into the Industry," Bill Roper offers some advice on breaking into the industry.

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