In this third installment of my map-maker’s journal, I look at strengths and weaknesses of three WarCraft III campaigns that are similar to the one I’m making.

It’s been a busy week and a half, and I haven’t been able to set aside much time lately to work on the Highborn campaign, unfortunately. What I have been able to do, though, is play a little here and there.

When you’re a game designer, playing other people’s games is really a form of research. So you could say I’ve been researching WarCraft III custom campaigns that are similar to the one I want to make. The three “best” WC3 RPG campaigns I’ve played (in terms of production value, overall design savvy and fun to play) are, in no particular order: “The Founding of Durotar” (Blizzard’s bonus RPG released with The Frozen Throne); “Thievery” by OgreBob; and “Dwarf Campaign” by GG&K.

“The Founding of Durotar” is a good place to start; as Blizzard’s own project, I feel like it sets the right bar for a quality, professional campaign. Bugs are practically non-existent; and it’s Blizzard, so all the charactersand cutscenes are fully voiced, which adds a lot to the experience.

Even though it’s technically comprised of three episodes, it’s better to remember that “Durotar” was released in two chunks: the first episode, included with The Frozen Throne, and the second and third episodes, which were released later via patching. The second and third episodes also feel more like one installment when you play them, being that the third one is so short.

“Durotar” follows the exploits of Rexxar, a half-orc Beastmaster that becomes a sort of special agent for the Horde in the days following the events of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. It begins as sort of aimless questing, but toward the end of the first episode  the story picks up as an aggressive human fleet begins to invade the region. The remainder of the campaign from that point centers around recruiting allies to resist the invaders. The focus of all three episodes remains on Rexxar and your other starting hero, Rokhan, although there are other characters that join your party later on, some temporarily and some through the end of the campaign.

“Durotar” is a fun playthrough and a all that you might expect from an RPG. It is fairly mindless, with gameplay revolving around grinding your heroes against different variations of hostile monsters. Most of the difficulty in any given section involves paying enough attention to combat to heal your party when you need to. There is also no real penalty for death as heroes revive almost instantly and ad infinitum at a series of predetermined respawn sites in each level. The only real customization comes from which items you give to which heroes, and the boss fights are all tank-and-spank. As RPGs go, “Durotar” typifies lots of genre tropes without really breaking the mold in any notable way. It is fun, but not challenging.

GG&K’s “Dwarf Campaign” I have not had a chance to replay recently, although like the others I’ve played through it many times before. Production value is a little more rudimentary than in “Durotar”. There are no voices, which makes the cutscenes a bit drier to sit through; but most of them are skippable, so if you get bored watching them you can just cut to the action. The basic gameplay systems are also driven less by expert trigger work and more by tech-tree sort of mechanisms similar to WarCraft III’s normal gameplay. (For example: heroes can be actively revived, for gold, at an Altar.) Like “Durotar”, “Dwarf Campaign” is three missions long, although here all three episodes are quite lengthy. Supposedly there were originally intended to be more missions released, but I find the story and the gameplay conclude well enough after three.

The “Dwarf Campaign” story is actually arranged somewhat similarly to “Durotar”‘s, in that the characters start off trying to do one thing only to have the real crisis present itself towards the end of first mission. Here, the story begins in Ironforge with the dwarves preparing the city to be defended against an imminent undead attack. As they explore the tunnels underneath the mountain, however, they come into contact with nightmare creatures trying to awaken Lovecraftian Old Gods and summon them back to the world. The heroes explore the tunnels further and fight more of the creatures in the second episode, then in the final episode, actually travel into the Old Gods’ own nightmarish realm to challenge them there.

Unlike the other campaigns, “Dwarf Campaign”‘s main characters change somewhat over the course of the saga. (I don’t mean there is character development; I mean the focus shifts to different characters as the game goes on.) The heroes you control are different in each level, although the old characters still appear in cutscenes and as NPCs and such. While this is a little jarring to immersion–the player has to “get into the groove” with new heroes and abilities every level–the learning curve on these heroes is not terribly harsh. The added technical advantage of all this is that the levels stand separately and do not depend on a game cache; as such, they don’t need to be combined into a campaign file but can be downloaded and played individually if necessary.

As far as gameplay is concerned, “Dwarf Campaign” is a little bit bolder and more demanding than “Durotar”: in addition to the grinding of monsters, there are a few basic puzzles sprinkled across the campaign to keep the player thinking. There are also several points where the player is permitted to make meaningful decisions that affect gameplay for the rest of the campaign, such as which heroes to keep in the party when two of them have a dispute. While these moments are a little jarring the first couple of times they occur, as a group they added a little bit of an extra dimension to the overall gameplay. This is nice as it compensates a bit for the slightly more amateur production values.

“Thievery” by OgreBob is a bit different from these first two campaigns in scope and design. While “Durotar” and “Dwarf Campaign” are hack-and-slash RPGs first and anything else second, “Thievery” is much more of a committed puzzle game, eschewing combat almost altogether. As such it’s much more challenging than the others, requiring a great deal more attention and strategic thought from the player. (I’ll talk more about this in a minute.) In terms of scope, “Thievery” is still very much in production, but there have been five playable levels released as of this writing. (There are officially six episodes, but episode four is simply one long cutscene with no gameplay.)

Production value on Thievery is very high for an amateur/custom project. A great deal of complex trigger work (including some JASS if I’m not mistaken) powers every aspect of the game, and the later levels even make use of some custom music and visual assets not taken from WarCraft III. Despite the much more complicated nature of the project, “Thievery” has relatively few bugs to speak of, which frankly is rather incredible. The only major way this campaign’s production value could be better would be with the addition of a voice cast, but cutscenes are shorter and fewer than in the other campaigns anyway (and naturally are always skippable).

The storyline of “Thievery” follows Rakhan, an expert thief in an original fantasy setting. (The campaign does NOT take place in Azeroth.) Over the course of the current span of levels, Rakhan attempts to steal a magic scepter from a long-lost temple, only to run afoul of other interested parties seeking to acquire the artifact. For the first four levels, Rakhan is the only player character; in the most recent mission, there is also a second character in the party for some sections.

As I said above, “Thievery”‘s gameplay is considerably more difficult than the other campaigns discussed so far. Rakhan himself is nearly useless in direct combat, so much more of the game revolves around sneaking around and solving puzzles rather than engaging enemies directly. Rakhan does have the ability to assassinate some units by sneaking up to them and performing a special stealth attack, but there are severe limitations on how and when this ability can be used.

The biggest problem with “Thievery”‘s gameplay is how unforgiving of mistakes it is. Rakhan has a very limited number of lives, after which the level ends in defeat. Being that levels (especially the third and fourth) are generally huge, this forces the player to frequently save and load the game, which can become a lengthy process late in the levels. In the worst cases (such as in boss encountersor puzzles which require either timing or trial and error), the player may be in the position of loading for 45 seconds or more for every 15 seconds he or she actually plays the game, which is frankly unacceptable. A puzzle game should be motivating the player to experiment and explore, to try different solutions to the puzzles. Being this unforgiving with mistakes fosters a sense of futility which makes the player want to stop playing. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this flaw is that it’s so easily fixed: making the player’s lives infinite, like in “Durotar,” eliminates the disincentive for trial and error as well as the dependence on saving and loading–two birds with one stone.

So what do I take from these as lessons for my own project?

As far as production value is concerned, I’ve long been aware that well-executed voice acting adds something huge to immersion, which is why I try to involve voice actors at some stage in so many of my projects. Looking at “Thievery”, I also recognize that custom music and visual assets can also make the game feel a lot more impressive. These assets don’t necessarily have to be original (“Thievery” takes its music from old SNES games); they just have to make the campaign appear distinct in some way from the normal WarCraft III engine it runs on.

In terms of gameplay, the obvious lesson from “Thievery” is to be forgiving with player death, if only to avoid a situation where the player depends on saving and loading or cheat codes, as these things disrupt immersion and undermine the game’s design. On the other hand, I should be wary of skewing too far towards the numbingly simple gameplay of “Durotar”. In this perhaps “Dwarf Campaign” strikes a good balance with the sprinkling of forgiving puzzles and player choices offered throughout the campaign. (As already discussed, I intend to make customization of Kal’s abilities a major focus of gameplay in the later part of the Highborn project.)

Narratively speaking, I definitely think three crisp episodes is a good scope for this kind of project–“Durotar” and “Dwarf Campaign” feel well-encapsulated after three missions (indeed, “Durotar”‘s conclusion could have been lengthened to a full episode), while “Thievery” (as much as I’m enjoying the new levels as they’re released) is starting to drag on a bit. (After playing through the moderately long third mission and epic-sized fourth one, I was starting to expect a real climax–but the story continues.) I also think it’s important to keep the campaign’s focus on at least one consistent character, even if peripheral characters come and go. Anchoring gameplay on something consistent not only aids immersion, but makes the larger project feel like a cohesive whole.

I never know how to end these journal entries, so I’ll just close with this: don’t be a passive gamer. Consider your games critically as you play them, the waycollege teaches you to critically read. Good or bad, there is always something to be learned from your “research”.