The following was originally written on May 30, 2011. It is the first of my ongoing series documenting my level design process.

In this first entry, I compare the toolsets available in the WarCraft III and StarCraft II editors, discuss some of the story I want to tell and some of the initial gameplay.

So I took advantage of my holiday weekend and started working on a new WarCraft III project. Some of you are probably wondering, why make something for WarCraft III now that StarCraft II is out? Isn’t the SC2 map editor just like the WC3 editor, only more comprehensive? Why use an inferior tool?

I’ve been thinking about this for awhile and I’m not convinced that the SC2 editor is a strictly superior tool for every job. It has a lot more features, yes, and it lets me modify and control a lot more aspects of the level – but is that the same thing? Sometimes I don’t want or need all of that extra functionality, and in those cases, it just gets in the way. There are a lot of things both programs can do, and as a rule, the WC3 editor does those things a lot more easily and simply. So maybe there are situations where WC3 is the preferable tool to use just because it doesn’t take as long to do what I need to do.

A great example of this is designing hero units that can hold items and level up. You can get those things in the SC2 editor, but you have to build them from the ground up – it’s quite a lot of work just to get the basic template unit WC3 starts you with. Rather than reinvent the wheel, if I’m making a hero-based RPG and I want this functionality, doesn’t it make more sense to use the WC3 editor, which has the basic hero mold built in?

The other aspect of this is the story I want to tell. Sometimes, I just want to tell a fantasy story rather than a science fiction one. And unless I want to create every asset from scratch or spend ridiculous amounts of time looking for custom assets on the internet, it makes sense to go with the editor that already contains the assets I need.

So I’m back to working in the WC3 editor, which honestly I’ve missed. I have been learning my way around the SC2 editor for awhile now, and two completed projects and lots of progress on a third I’ve figured out most of what I’m doing… but I’ve got seven or eight years of experience playing around in the WC3 editor. I know this program like the back of my hand, and I’ve honestly forgotten just how comfortable I was with it. Working with the SC2 editor oftentimes is just that – work. Working with WC3 is more fun for me.

So what is this new project? Well, I don’t have a title for the whole campaign yet, but I do have a tentative title for the first level: “Under an Ashen Sky.” The campaign is going to be a 3- or 4-level RPG set just after the War of the Ancients in the WarCraft continuity (if you’re familiar with that). The player character is a night elf Blood Mage, a spellcaster that uses his life in addition to mana to cast spells. I’ve been replaying Blizzard’s “Founding of Durotar” campaign for inspiration, and I plan to replay the “Dwarf Campaign” by GG&K and “Thievery” by OgreBob when I get a chance.

I’m about 6, maybe 8 hours into this new project, and that translates into an opening cutscene and roughly the first five minutes of gameplay finished. I’ve got the Blood Mage’s three basic spells, which I’ll tell you about in a minute, and the initial combat area before you get to the first town.

The main character in my story is Kaldorian Sanguinar, a Highborn night elf. His people caused the recent war by making a deal with the demons of the Burning Legion, the recurring villains in the WarCraft story, which led to the demons running rampant over the world. Now that the war is over, the night elf society has been turned upside down: the Highborn class (comprised of all magic-users) have gone from being the elite nobility to being treated almost like lepers. There is a great stigma attached to being a Highborn, and they’ve been pretty well disenfranchised by the new ruling class of warriors, druids and rangers.

I wanted to tell a story about guilt. Kaldorian is one of the few surviving Highborn, and he bears a tremendous sense of guilt for what his people wrought. It is difficult to say who hates Kaldorian more: the other night elves he encounters, or Kaldorian himself. As a Blood Mage, his brand of magic is emblematic of his self-loathing: every time he casts a spell, he consumes a portion of his life force and causes himself pain. This story is about what it’s like to carry that kind of a burden, and about what it does to a person ultimately: Does it drive the person to find a new destiny for themselves, to try to make up for past transgressions by accomplishing great good? Or does the person become convinced that everything they touch turns to ash, and that deep down, they really are nothing but a monster?

With that in mind, one of the dynamics I want to work with is not giving the player all of Kal’s abilities up front. WC3 permits a Hero character to have up to five level-able Hero abilities in total. I decided that to start off I would only give the player access to three of the five. Later on, at certain points in the game, the player will then have the opportunity to choose Kal’s final two abilities. In each case, I intend to have the player choose between abilities that make Kal better at helping those around him, and abilities that make Kal better at hurting those around him. In this and other ways, I intend to offer the player some limited control over Kal’s ultimate destiny.

I’ve implemented the three starting abilities into the level already, and they work as follows.

Kal’s first ability is Blood Strike, and it serves as a basic supplemental attack that consumes Kal’s own life to deal damage. I toyed with making it an auto-cast ability, but I didn’t want it to be something the player could turn on and ignore. Not only could this lead to feel-bad situations where the player forgets it’s on and bleeds Kal to death, but I also decided I wanted the player to feel direct responsibility every time they made Kal exspend some of his life. (I am considering having a point later in the game where the player will have the opportunity to “sidegrade” Blood Strike into a healing ability, which will use up some of Kal’s life to heal an ally. In this way, the player will be able to make the choice, if they want, to channel Kal’s self-destructive nature into a more positive outlet.)

Kal’s second ability at this time is Create Blood Stone, which infuses a portion of Kal’s life into a carriable item called a Blood Stone. The Blood Stone costs life to create, and can be consumed to get that same amount back; but while carried, it passively increases Kal’s natural regeneration. (I am considering making it add to his combat damage as well or instead of regeneration.) The Create Blood Stone spell is basically a choice between short-term or long-term benefit. The player gives up some life in the short-term to create it, benefiting from the increased regeneration in the long-term; then later, the player can choose to consume the Blood Stone, sacrificing that long-term gain for short-term survival. This also supports the anything-to-get-by dynamic I want to push in the campaign.

Kal’s third and final starting ability (although you don’t actually get access to it right away) is Blood Tap, which warlock players will recognize from WoW. Blood Tap lets Kal convert a portion of his life into mana. Since Kal is going to have more life than mana most of the time, this lets him easily replenish his mana when he needs to and helps reinforce the idea that his life rather than his mana is the important resource to watch.

Being that Kal uses his life force so liberally, I decided to make his dominant attribute Strength (the attribute the game uses to calculate total hit points). This way, as the player builds Kal’s Strength attribute, he or she will also benefit from increased attack damage. Again, this reinforces the feeling that Kal’s life is more important than his mana; the player will have very little need to buff Kal with extra Intelligence (the attribute the game uses to calculate total mana).

I’m out of time for now. Next time I’ll talk a little more about the initial gameplay area and how the story kicks off.