We’ve had the pleasure of Steve Meretzky answer lots of questions from us previously and we were back in touch after hearing about his consultancy work on the fabled Warcraft Adventures. Being the legend that he is, he happily answered lots more questions. You can listen to Adrian’s podcast on Warcraft Adventures here so go on, treat yourself:
Steve, great to have you back at Arcade Attack! Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans, can you remember how you were first approached to work on this project?
Someone from Blizzard phoned me… I don’t remember who. Probably either Michael Morhaime or Bill Roper, gave me a quick overview of the state of the game, and asked if I was available for a short-term consultation. This was after the demise of my studio, Boffo Games, and before I went to work for THQ, so I was available.
What were your initial thoughts and opinions of Warcraft Adventures when you first laid eyes on the game?
In most respects, it was very similar to the LucasArts adventures (Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, etc.) that were the gold standard for graphic adventure games at that period of time. Similar presentation, user interface, type of puzzles, etc. But the art (which had been done by an art house in Russia) was a step below the quality of a LucasArts game, and gave the entire game a less polished, less AAA look.
Did you feel Warcraft Adventures was up to the standards of a Blizzard Entertainment title when you first played it and were there any glaring issues that stood out straightway?
As mentioned above, the art quality. And even if the art quality had been of a higher quality, the entire game would have merely been (approximately) as good as a LucasArts adventure. Whereas Blizzard (even at that time, with Starcraft just launching and WoW still years away) was known for setting an industry standard, not just matching it.
What was your exact role while working on Warcraft Adventures and how much freedom were you given?
The game was pretty close to done. If it were a live service game, like most of the games we make these days, I would have called it a soft-launch candidate. But it wasn’t a live service game, it was a traditional retail-channel packaged release, and what went out was going to be the final game. And Blizzard (rightfully) saw it as not quite ready. So they asked me to come out to Irvine, and spend a week with the team brainstorming ways to improve the game, but without adding a lot to the schedule or the budget … In other words, seeing what big improvements to the game could be made with very modest investments. We identified a handful of such improvements, and then I went home and wrote up specs for those changes, perhaps another week or two of work. That was the extent of my involvement.
How long did you work on this project and can you recall any specific suggestions you made to help improve the game?
My total involvement was 2 to 3 weeks. At this point, 20 years later, I don’t recall any specifics about the changes we agreed on. I think there were some changes that involved the order of certain scenes or puzzles, some changes that involved adding additional hints to certain puzzles to make them more fair, and maybe adding one or two new puzzles. But my memory about specifics is really hazy.
Is it true that a lot of your re-designs and ideas never made it to the final version of the game, and if so, do you know why this was the case?
A month or two after I completed my work, Bill Roper called me to say that they were killing the project. Apparently, they took the latest build to E3 and quietly showed it to some trusted partners, and the feedback was that “this game isn’t up to Blizzard standards, and will hurt the Blizzard brand”. I have no idea if any of the stuff I worked on made it into that final version of the game, but I don’t think it would have mattered one way or the other on the decision to not release it.
Did you always get the opinion Blizzard Entertainment were desperate to get this game released, and how did you personally feel when the game was eventually cancelled?
I wouldn’t say that Blizzard was desperate to release the game. I would say that many people at Blizzard, certainly the team leaders I worked with during my week in Irvine, were huge fans of the Lucas adventures, and really wanted to create adventure games themselves. Personally, I was disappointed when the game was cancelled, just as I am with anything I work on that never makes it out into the world, and also because I felt that the story of Warcraft Adventures was a nice piece of interactive narrative that would have added narrative depth to all the games set in the Warcraft universe. However, I understand with, and agreed with, their reasoning.
If the game was eventually released, do you feel it would have been a success?
It depends on how you define “success”. At that time, a successful LucasArts adventure game would sell, perhaps, 100,000 units. I think Warcraft Adventures would have sold at least that many, just on the strength of the Blizzard and Warcraft names. But while 100,000 units would be terrific for a lot of companies in 1998, it would be only a minor success by Blizzard standards. And, if players looked at the game and said “meh”, it might have hurt Blizzard’s standing among gamers.
Warcraft Adventures had picked up something of a cult following and really seemed to resonate with a lot of Warcraft fans, with many fans being very disappointed that the game would seem lost forever. Do you feel one of the main reasons the game was never completed was due to Blizzard’s lack of experience in the adventure genre, or do you feel there were other reasons?
I think it’s partly that Blizzard didn’t have any prior experience in the adventure genre. But partly it’s because the project was so spread out. The management and design came out of Irvine. The implementation was done by a Blizzard-owned studio in Massachusetts. The 2D art, as I mentioned, was done somewhere in Russia. And the animated cut scenes were done by a company in, I believe, Korea. That’s a lot of moving parts to come together, which would be hard even for a company with a lot of experience in the genre.
How do you feel that this game is now available to play, and do you feel it is a good thing that never before released games can be enjoyed by the public?
I’m glad that it’s gotten out there, from a historical and archival standpoint, if nothing else. And I don’t think anyone is going to look at a 20-year-old game (especially one that they are playing at no cost) and say “Man, Blizzard has really lost their touch!”
If you had been asked to work on Warcraft Adventures from day one, do you feel the game would have turned out a lot differently and ultimately officially released?
That’s really hard to say. I don’t know what the initial marching orders would have been – whether they would have been willing to innovate more on the LucasArts model. I don’t know if I might have seen early art from that studio in Russia and been able to get them to improve their work, or convinced Blizzard to go with a different vendor. Etc.
What are your impressions of Thrall (the orc) as a leading character in a video game, and do you feel this character should be further explored in any future Warcraft titles?
Thrall was one of the most interesting things about Warcraft Adventures. A character with a foot in two different worlds is always a great mechanism for conflict and for getting the reader/viewer/player to think about things with new perspectives. Moses, the Hebrew raised as an Egyptian prince. Mowgli, the human brought up as a wolf cub. And so on. Thrall was such a sympathetic character that experiencing his story would have, well, humanized the orcs for a generation of Blizzard gamers.
Thanks again Steve!