Warcraft III Beta Update

The Warcraft III beta is in full swing, and the game has already undergone some dramatic changes. Find out about them and read an insightful interview with Blizzard's Bill Roper.

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Blizzard released a beta multiplayer version of Warcraft III to 5,000 testers last month, and as you'd expect from a beta, the game is very much a work in progress. The initial beta release was missing a unit and a number of spells. It also didn't take long for players to find significant imbalances in the game's four very different playable factions. Shortly after its release, we took a weeklong look at the Warcraft III beta, but now that Blizzard has released its first major patch for the beta, there's plenty that is new or has been changed. The fun of being in a Blizzard beta is seeing how radically a game can change as it goes through its last months of polishing. And in addition to our hands-on impressions of what's new in the game, we have an interview with Blizzard's Bill Roper about how the developers have been responding to player feedback thus far.

Warcraft III has already undergone some big changes during the beta. The orcs are particularly different from previous ones.
Warcraft III has already undergone some big changes during the beta. The orcs are particularly different from previous ones.

After a couple of quick patches for balancing, there was a long gap in updates before Blizzard released the big recent 1.10 patch. It's no wonder, since the game underwent major changes in the release. Many initially thought that the humans and orcs were too similar, since the basic units and structures between those races were roughly equivalent. That's no longer the case. The orcs now have strengths and a style all their own. It's clear now that the orcs are the fiercest ground fighters. To some extent, as with the protoss zealot from Starcraft, the orcs' basic infantry unit, the grunt, is now dramatically stronger and costs proportionally more than the first units of the other three races.

Perhaps an even bigger switch for the orcs is the disappearance of the pig farm. That basic structure from the days of Warcraft II was too much like the human farm. The orcs now build orc burrows to expand their population limit, and these sunken buildings also double as defensive bunkers. Burrows were in the initial beta release, but they weren't used much since Warcraft III's relatively low maximum population limit is just 90, much lower than Starcraft's, and this makes it hard to permanently garrison bunkers. Now that any orc player needs burrows all the time, it's easy enough to just place them at base entrances when an opponent attacks. The orcs also now have a separate defensive structure, the watchtower, which can hit air or ground targets.

The undead haven't changed as much, and their skeletal armies often still reign supreme.
The undead haven't changed as much, and their skeletal armies often still reign supreme.

With these changes, the orcs now have the option to rush opponents early in the game on smaller maps and can better defend against a rush. But they have plenty of other options as well, including strong heroes. While the other units have expensive air units at the top of their tech trees, the orcs instead have the tauren as their top unit. The tauren is by far the strongest ground unit in the game and has the war stomp ability, which does damage within a nearby area of effect. As a result of the orcs' newfound strength, they're now one of the most popular factions to play on Battle.net. But naturally, players favor races that are perceived to have an advantage, and Blizzard focuses its balancing efforts against those imbalances.

Certainly, the orcs aren't the focus of all of Blizzard's changes. There are a couple of new abilities and a new unit in the new beta version. Early on, the night elves lacked many options for advanced units, since they were missing one spell unit and the others had only one spell each. The missing druid of the talon unit is now in the game. Just like the druid of the claw can turn into bear form, the druid of talon turns into a crow to serve both as a scout and a good antiair unit. In human form, the druid of the talon has two support spells: one that cuts a unit's armor and lets the player scout through that unit's eyes and one that slows an enemy. Meanwhile, the lowly human peasant can now defend his homeland as a militiaman with the call-to-arms ability at the town hall, which changes nearby peasants into basic infantry. The orc peons, as well as grunts, also get the pillage ability, which lets them get gold from attacking enemy buildings.

These additions to the beta aren't even the most far-reaching changes, and combat plays out very differently for all races now. Read on for more gameplay details and what's new with Battle.net.

Serious Changes

Blizzard's original intent for Warcraft III was for the game to focus less on massive battles and base management and more on hero development and tactical combat between mixed unit groups. Yet, in the initial beta, many players turned to using masses of ranged units that could concentrate fire and quickly take down even large groups of units without any supporting units. That's not something you'll see on Battle.net now. Blizzard has jacked up the hit points for all units in the game, which means battles now tend to last longer, so you have more chance to maneuver your troops to the best of your advantage or use units spells and abilities. Melee units now take enough damage to effectively close with the ranged troops that previously could run unescorted. And while mixing unit types is more important than ever, the addition of an automated formation system makes it easier to have units support each other. When stopped in a group together, melee units now line up on a front line, with ranged and spell units behind. This system is seamless and mostly quite useful.

Now more than ever, mixed groups of units are vital to victory.
Now more than ever, mixed groups of units are vital to victory.

Many special abilities and spells weren't being used in the initial release because they just weren't effective enough. In version 1.10 and those thereafter, spells are much more effective, to the point that Blizzard quickly toned them down in a small balance patch last weekend. The human sorceress and orc far seer hero became particularly strong. The sorceress' slow spell is still quite effective for crippling the movement and attack speed of enemies, but especially when used in combination with the human archmage hero's brilliance ability, which recharges the mana of nearby units. The orc far seer is much more potent now, between a decent ranged attack and one of the strongest direct damage spells in the game, chain lightning. At its highest level, this attack spell can bounce between up to eight units and works well for hit-and-run attacks.

More generally, even first-level heroes can be useful now, as a new hero now starts with an ability point to use toward a spell or ability. However, there are new restrictions on how you acquire higher-level abilities--second-level abilities require a level-three hero and third-level abilities are unlocked at level five. Between these two changes to heroes, we see heroes who are less focused on one particular ability, and more players tend to buy all three hero types in the midgame since it's no longer necessary to hunt neutral monsters to make a hero useful.

Orcs no longer build pig farms--instead, they use burrows, which are defensive structures.
Orcs no longer build pig farms--instead, they use burrows, which are defensive structures.

Building and expansion strategies are now fairly different. Night elves no longer build and mine gold differently from the way other races do. Since trees of life could initially mine without help from worker wisps, it was very easy for night elves to greedily expand to new resource points. The difference is that wisps (the night elf worker units) no longer disappear when they construct buildings, and since you don't have to constantly build wisps, Blizzard requires wisps to work in an entangled gold mine. To some extent, the easy expansion seems less important than it did, since more players can rely longer on the initial gold mine. Plus, having three or four mines going is now impractical. To protect those essential expansions, defensive structures are generally much stronger, except for the undead spirit towers, which were quite strong enough already. To build structures and defenses more quickly, humans can team peasants to work together, but they are the only race with this ability. And since defensive structures are more potent, there's more reason than ever to buy sappers at one of the neutral buildings, which can take a tower down in one kamikaze charge.

Blizzard has started introducing major Battle.net features into the beta, starting with the ranking system. In the Warcraft III chat room, a menu comes up when you right-click on a player name, which lets you see a stats page, whisper a message to the player, and more. The stats system tracks a player's win-loss record separately for solo and team games, as well as for each race, including the random race option. Players level up on the ladder system with an experience point system, and Blizzard has said that once you reach level 11, losing will remove as many points as a win, so the system should effectively separate players by skill levels. As players get more wins, they get special icons next to their name, and there are different icons depending on the race that a player is best at. Blizzard has a page with those status icons here.

To get more perspective on the beta test's progress, the game's release date, and more, we talked to Blizzard's Bill Roper. Read on for the interview.

Blizzard Q&A

GameSpot: The Warcraft III beta is about a month old now. In general, how has it been going so far?

Bill Roper: The beta test has been a fantastic experience, and we have received a great amount of feedback from our testers. Overall, the response has been enormously positive, and we look forward to continuing the iterative process of fine-tuning the game.

GS: The recent 1.1 beta patch made some very significant changes to most of the game's four races and introduced new units and new special abilities. About what percentage of these changes is the result of beta testers' feedback? What percentage of these changes was planned from before the beta?

The night elves can no longer rely on their archers quite as readily as they used to.
The night elves can no longer rely on their archers quite as readily as they used to.

BR: We just put up our first patches this past week, and many of the balance and unit changes we made are in direct response to what we have seen while playing the game with our testers. While the majority of the additional unit and hero abilities were already in the works, a great deal of the balance changes is due to the excellent feedback from the testers.

GS: Which of the game's four races has been the most popular among beta testers? Which has been the least popular? If there's been a noticeable discrepancy, how are you planning to address it?

BR: Obviously, the undead and night elves started out as the heavy favorites since they represented totally new ideas in the Warcraft universe. As the test has continued, we have seen swings in popularity, usually based on whatever unbalance in the game is easiest to exploit. As we work through these balance issues, our goal is to make every race have its unique character and style of play while removing as many radical discrepancies in power as possible. While the flavor of each race should be felt throughout its gameplay (the orcs being very powerful on the ground, for example), we do not want to create situations where the "correct" strategy is to always play the same units from the race.

GS: We've been lucky enough to see Warcraft III's multiplayer so far. How far along is the single-player campaign at this point?

BR: We are working day and night on making our single-player campaign our best yet, especially in terms of what kind of story-based experience a strategy game can deliver. We have the majority of the human campaigns laid out, several from the other races in the same state, we have finished our scripting, and we have recorded a good amount of the voice-over. We are looking forward to the single-player campaign being not only a great tool for learning the basic strategies of the game and the functionality of every unit, but also as a way to really grow the Warcraft universe.

The gigantic orcish kodo beast has gained some new abilities.
The gigantic orcish kodo beast has gained some new abilities.

GS: In what way have the changes to multiplayer balance affected the single-player campaign?

BR: Obviously, any balance changes affect how and when the AI uses specific events and so forth, but in terms of the story and campaign goals, it is mainly unaffected. We are focused on making the game balanced and fun and so we should be able to fairly easily make any required changes in the campaign.

GS: There have been a number of key changes to the orc units and buildings. Has Blizzard's background concept for the orcs changed in the process?

BR: Actually, the changes in the orc buildings and units were done to better highlight their conceptual differences. One of the easiest of these changes can be found in the exchange of burrows for pig farms as the basic building block of the orcish outpost, representing their more military-focused nature. Also, the new graphic representation of spiked barricades leaves no doubt that you have entered a heavily fortified orc encampment.

Blizzard Q&A, Cont.

GS: The Warcraft III beta is a work in progress, and naturally, there will be more Battle.net and game features to test before the game is complete. Do you expect to add all the multiplayer maps and features for balance testing before the public beta is over?

BR: While we will add a good deal (if not all) of the Battle.net features before the end of the beta, we certainly will not be adding all of the maps that will ship with the game. Even our beta testers will have a good deal of surprises left in store when the game is finally complete.

GS: The recent beta patch introduced some significant gameplay changes, like a formation move system. Do you have plans for any other such features before the game ships?

The orcish far seer can spy on his foes, and his magic is stronger than ever.
The orcish far seer can spy on his foes, and his magic is stronger than ever.

BR: We are constantly looking at our "wish list" of features and are going to get absolutely as many into the game as we can before we launch. Whichever of these features makes it into the final version will depend on time required to implement, difficulty of implementation, and how much they will add to the game. We still have a ways to go before we will be ready to make the Gold Master, and we intend to do as much with that time as possible.

GS: Recently, Blizzard announced that there will be a Collector's Edition of Warcraft III, which will include a coffee table book called The Art of Warcraft. Can you give us some more details about this book? Will it include concept art from Warcraft and Warcraft II as well as Warcraft III?

BR: We are very pleased to be working with Brady on publishing this book, which will include concept artwork from all of the Warcraft games. It has been a great deal of fun for us to look back at the designs and art we created almost eight years ago and compare it to where we are today, and we hope fans of the series will enjoy the images we have selected.

GS: We loved the three different Starcraft boxes--any plans for custom Warcraft III box designs based on each race? Will the game use the new smaller retail box size?

BR: We are looking to create different-sized boxes to meet the needs of all of our retail accounts, ranging from the new DVD-sized box all the way up to our large-sized Collector's Edition box. In regards to past and future box design, we agree that the three Starcraft boxes were great fun and let people buy the box that best reflected their graphic sensibility and gaming nature. We have come up with a new look for Warcraft III, and if you point your browser here, you can get a sneak peek at the new design.

Warcraft III is really shaping up and remains on schedule to ship in the middle of the year.
Warcraft III is really shaping up and remains on schedule to ship in the middle of the year.

GS: Blizzard stated that the beta would last for "at least 10 weeks." At this point, do you think it will go longer than that?

BR: We will run the beta for as long as required to get all of our testing done, and we knew at the time we started that this would be for at least 10 weeks. I would not be surprised if we ran beta longer than our initial estimate just to be able to keep polishing the balance until the last possible minute.

GS: Is the game looking like it's still on track to ship in late June?

BR: We are working furiously to have the game done and in players' hands by then, and the number of hours the team is putting in now is basically making this a 24/7 endeavor. As always, any number of unforeseen circumstances could prevent us from shipping as scheduled, as we still have no intention of releasing the game before it is ready. All that said, however, we feel that we are still on track to get everything done according to our schedule.

GS: Thanks, Bill.

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