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Unleashing The Creativity Of A Generation: Memories Of Blizzard’s Map Editors

[Credit: Blizzard Entertainment]

Blizzard games and I go way back. I must have thrown away a mind-boggling chunk of my formative years on Warcraft II and StarCraft. As much as I enjoyed the story campaigns and multiplayer in these strategy games, they alone weren’t responsible for my addiction.

Instead, many hours were actually squandered tinkering with what was—at the time—one of the coolest things I’d ever seen in a game: the map editor.

Alongside video games, I was also playing tabletop games like Dungeons And Dragons. D&D was no straightforward boardgame, but more of a toolkit set of rules that I could use to create my own scenarios. The world-building aspect of the game was what captivated me most about it, and I quickly took on the role of games master, making my own dungeon maps, monsters, and custom rules.

At the time, it felt like this was something that I could never get from video games. But then Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness came along, and changed everything. It was the first game I’d seen to come bundled with a level editor and it felt revolutionary. If Warcraft was like going to a friend’s and playing a great boardgame, Warcraft II was being handed the whole box, rulebook, counters and all, and being invited to make whatever you wanted out of it.

‘Warcraft II’ Opened Up The ToyBox

WarCraft II is a pretty simple game by today’s standards, but the user-friendly map editor multiplied the game’s lifespan many times over by allowing players to quickly make and play custom scenarios.

The map editor allowed players to explore a range of different scenarios beyond the scope of what was available in the standard game, including bigger battles, sieges, mixed-race armies and the use of units such as the Daemon that were unavailable in standard play.

Although Warcraft II‘s editor was pretty limited, savvy players could exploit the AI game ‘rules’ to make primitive event triggers. For example, triggering an attack by placing an enemy building in the middle of your troops. Your troops would auto-attack the building and the enemy units would rush your position to defend it.

A siege created by Timothy Johnson in WC2 map editor [Credit: Blizzard]

I personally spent a lot of time running my own homebrewed Warcraft II scenarios using these tricks to expand on the existing mechanics, but some particularly dedicated fans took things further and found a way to change the rules completely.

Daniel Lemberg reverse-engineered the Warcraft II map file format and created the first third-party map editor, War2xEd, which was much more versatile than the bundled map editor, capable of editing unit attributes. In an fortunate twist of fate, Blizzard began to use War2xEd internally, and it inspired them to bundle a feature-rich editor with their next smash hit game, StarCraft.

‘StarCraft’ Gave Us Greater Visual And Narrative Detail

StarCraft’s levels had elevated terrain and cosmetic features [Credit: Blizzard Entertainment]

StarCraft was a global sensation and it was much more sophisticated than Warcraft II in space. Aside from the excellent single-player campaigns and well-balanced multiplayer, it also shipped with a more sophisticated world editor based on War2xEd.

Even before getting into units, StarCraft maps took the genre to a whole new level. You had ramps and elevated terrain that could be used as defenses and chokepoints. Gone were the largely flat and featureless maps of Warcraft II. StarCraft maps were full of cosmetic details known as doodads, which defined the landscape with things like foliage, crashed ships, debris and other geographical features.

When making StarCraft maps, you had to take into account the effect terrain would have on gameplay and strategy, as well as take pride in making your map look good, adding doodads and little touches here and there to make it more immersive.

StarCraft Map Editor [Credit: Blizzard Entertainment]

StarEdit also allowed the map creator to try their hand at a little elementary programming with the use of triggers. By specifying certain conditions in code-like logic such as ‘if-then-else’ and ‘for each’, the map creator could cause different in-game events to happen, and even have the units ‘speak’ in texts. With these tools, the potential for player-made narrative campaigns was unlocked.

Aside from the single player campaigns and multiplayer maps, the editor’s versatility allowed the editing of units and victory conditions to make what were basically entirely new games. As an example, StarCraft actually shipped with unconventional custom games like ‘Zergling Round-Up’, Vulture racetracks and a base defense game reminiscent of Space Invaders.

These mini-games foreshadowed the potential of what could be done when a creative fanbase gets their hands on a sophisticated editor. Of particular note was a map called Aeon of Strife, in which players controlled a single hero that battled against waves of AI enemies. This custom map radically changed the gameplay experience of StarCraft, and was just a small step away from spawning a video game sensation in its own right. It was just waiting for the next generation of map editor to make that possible.

‘Warcraft III’ Spawns An Entirely New Genre

WC3’s map editor [Credit: Blizzard Entertainment]

Warcraft III ramped up the complexity and sophistication of the series, with new features such as 3D graphics, heroes, neutral ‘creeps’, different abilities, and so on. With this came a much more powerful level editor that gave the creator almost total control over the game’s assets. Everything could be modded, from the size of units, to custom spells and abilities, and even the camera angle.

An amateur such as myself spent days creating new campaigns and building new armies and heroes from scratch. It was a true sandbox, allowing users to customize Warcraft III into completely different games. People used the Warcraft III editor to make popular new game modes like Footman Frenzy and Sheep Tag, but also radical departures from the base game such as first person shooters, flight simulators and machinima movies.

Of course, WC3‘s biggest breakout hit came when some fans of StarCraft‘s Aeon of Strife custom map decided to remake the format in WC3. The experience, items and level system used by WC3‘s hero units proved to be just the kind of depth that the Aeon of Strife format needed, and the most popular version of Aeon of Strife made in WC3 was known as Defense of the Ancients (DotA for short). Although DotA would itself spawn many imitator mods, one consolidated effort would emerge to rule them all: Defense of the Ancients Allstars.

DOTA [Credit: IceFrog]

DotA is a remarkable success story, not just because it was a wildly popular fan mod which greatly extended the lifespan of WC3, but because of how it broke out and changed the wider gaming landscape. The original mod had to spread through word of mouth via niche internet communities. It could only be manually downloaded and run through a previously owned copy of WC3.

Blizzard themselves decided to showcase and support DotA. Eventually, with the mod being refined and balanced by dev leader IceFrog, it gathered a player base numbering millions and inspired commercial imitators, chief among them being Riot Games’ League of Legends.

Riot Games coined the term MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), although it may be fairer to call these imitators Dotaclones. Now, these games are big money (and correspondingly big drama), and they’ve left WC3 in the dust.

The rise of the MOBA still remains a testament to the passion and creativity of gamers. In 2015, the spirit that ignited back in the days of the original StarCraft came full circle, as Blizzard themselves finally released their own official MOBA, Heroes of the Storm.

Heroes of the Storm [Credit: Blizzard Entertainment]

‘StarCraft II’ Arcade Continues To Nurture The Creative Spirit, But Is The Golden Age Of Customization Over?

So given the breakout success of fan efforts working from the old WC3 engine, what’s the state of the custom game in Blizzard’s latest RTS, StarCraft II? Although Blizzard have admirably remained committed to giving players the full toolkit they need to make their own games in SC2, there has yet to be a DotA-style runaway success.

Currently, anyone with the free version of SC2 has access to the arcade, a platform for player-created maps and games. SC2‘s Galaxy Editor is also even more versatile than WC3‘s, so there is a ton of great content out there that can be played for free, ranging from new StarCraft campaigns, to completely new games in a variety of different genres.

Aiur Chef, a cooking themed SC2 custom game [Credit: Blizzard Entertainment]

Nonetheless, the general impression from the SC2 community seems to indicate that the golden age of customization has since passed. SC2 doesn’t seem to have inspired fan creations and participation to the same level as WC3. Indeed, some of the most popular SC2 custom content is heavily nostalgia based, such as recreations of the original StarCraft campaigns in the SC2 engine, or even remakes of the older Warcraft armies.

The Galaxy Editor is more complex and less user-friendly than previous Blizzard world editors, and it might be that it has passed the tipping point of complexity. Making WC2 and SC maps was easy for me when I was a high school kid, their limitations were something of a blessing in disguise by ensuring it was never too overwhelming. Now, anyone looking to get into SC2 modding has a lot more moving parts to learn from the get-go.

Starjewelled combines SC2 with a puzzle game [Credit: Blizzard Entertainment]

Others blame mis-management of the custom game community by Blizzard. Before Legacy of the Void, it was extremely difficult for custom games to be noticed and tested by new players, and the current system is still heavily weighted towards promoting the most popular custom games over new ones. With the focus on featuring the custom games that quickly gain new players, it’s clear that Blizzard is hoping to incubate the next DotA-level sensation, but their approach might leave some diamonds buried in the rough where no one can see them.

The Next Generation

WC2, the game that launched a thousand devs [Credit: Blizzard Entertainment]

I know more than a few developers today who were inspired to take up programming because of the fun they had playing around with the possibilities of the Warcraft II and StarCraft map editors. They graduated from making silly battle maps after school to becoming part of the actual industry.

Maybe the period of those early games was a perfect storm of accessibility, ease-of-use and community support that can’t quite be recaptured. Certainly, there are a lot of free-to-play games out there now that user-created custom games have to compete with.

It’s also much easier now for budding game devs to get their hands on Unity 5, GameMaker, Source 2 or other tools to make games from scratch instead of twisting SC2 into new forms.

WC2 armies recreated in SC2 [Credit: Blizzard Entertainment]

I had to admit to finding SC2‘s Galaxy Editor intimidatingly complex, and that’s for someone who learned every previous Blizzard editor. It might also just be a factor of having more adult responsibilities and less free time on my hands to experiment with it.

Even if my custom game making days are over, I still like to browse SC2′s arcade and make a point to try anything that looks interesting, even if it’s not popular. After all, it took years for DotA to evolve from the niche Aeon of Strife map into its own game genre, and I haven’t lost hope in the ability of gamers to build amazing things, given the tools.

In an environment where game creators increasingly have a wider range of options at their disposal, Blizzard editors may not be the best place to start making new games anymore. But I feel they do deserve a lot of credit for inspiring and enabling not just dilettante creators like myself, but a generation of budding game developers that were handed their user-friendly editors at the creative peak of their lives.

Is there still gold in the SC2 custom map scene? Recommend me your favorites in the comments!

This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co. The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a selection of articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.

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