Today, we have an interview with erwtenpeller, one of the Warcraft modding community's most established artists. He is well known for his distinctive cartoony style, serving as the art director at the modding site wc3c.net, and his work can be seen in a wide variety of maps.
Softmints: Hi erwt! To get started, what was your first introduction to the AoS genre?
erwtenpeller: That would be the first DotA on Warcraft III RoC, and I played that a lot. The first reason why I liked it so much, was because it had all these custom moves in that you just didn't see in any of the other maps.
That really intrigued me; that people could just go into this game and change all these things around and make their own stuff happen. Other maps were less advanced, they didn't really have custom spells to that degree.
Soft: The original Eul's DotA back in the day used imported excel sheets to create those custom abilities, which proved to be a big draw for people: the special effects which looked very different, and it played very different to anything that had been seen before.
erwt: Exactly, and yeah, the gameplay was also pretty nice. I've never been very good at managing an entire army, I'm more of a one character guy. DotA allowed me to enjoy Warcraft III in a way that was more suited to my gameplay preferences.
This was before I played any MMOs or anything, it was my first online gaming experience, so it was a pretty eye-opening thing.
Soft: So moving into TFT, how did you continue with AoS maps?
erwt: Well, I remember being very disappointed that the DotAs on Frozen Throne were rubbish when it first came out. There were a lot of them because now it was really easy to create DotA, because there was an ability editor now, so everyone and their mother could make their own abilities and their own heroes, and throw them online.
So at the start of the Frozen Throne, there were a lot of DotA maps that were just not as good as the first one, until I came across Tides of Blood, which had custom textures and custom graphics. And that felt very next-level for me.
It felt like they'd spent a little bit of time and a little bit of thought on that map, and really designed their characters, rather than having skeletons that shoot arrows out of their chest or whatever. They really matched up the abilities with their animation sets and made everything look very smooth, like it belonged. And that attracted me to Tides of Blood, so from that point on I was pretty much playing ToB exclusively.
It was seeing those custom skins in Tides of Blood that got me interested in making graphics for games, because I saw those custom things and thought "oh man, you know, I've drawn things in my life, this is something that I could actually do!" And then I started researching on how to do that, made a wc3c.net account, and started making textures.
Soft: You're quite well known among the Warcraft modding community for your artwork, which has been used in many maps over the years. How did you get started with drawing originally?
erwt: Oh that's just something I've always done, from ever since I was little. I think pretty much every artist will give you that answer: it's not something that I deliberately started doing, it's just something that I've always done.
Me and my brother have always been giant fans of Warcraft, ever since Warcraft I, Warcraft II, we played them all. I always drew a lot of Warcraft fan-art, especially when I was younger. Making textures for Warcraft III was a natural evolution from that, a step up in creating artwork that was a tribute to Warcraft. Which I still do every now and then.
Soft: Did you have any formal training at the time?
erwt: Not at that time, no. I taught myself to use photoshop when I was around 16, I got my first tablet and started playing around with it. I just looked up a tutorial on how to extract the skins, and edit them in photoshop and started doing it.
And once you get going, you realise that your stuff doesn't look as other people's stuff, and then you start researching how you can make it better. And eventually, I was the one telling other people how to make their stuff better. So that was pretty cool.
Soft: When you were starting out, were your skins just ideas that were cool, or intended for a particular project, or for practice?
erwt: Oh no, it was just cool ideas really. What I liked about Warcraft III was that because it's so low-poly, you can add a lot of character just by changing the skin. You can change the entire look and feel of the model just by swapping around some colours and putting new stuff in.
I think those kinds of skins is what got me noticed by people. I did stuff like a reskinning Grom Hellscream to look like a Pandarean Lumberjack. Weird things like that. Just trying to push the edge of the models and see what kind of interesting things I could do with them.
I think it was mostly the low polygons really. That helped a lot, and the fact that they were mostly humanoids as well. If you would want to make a texture for say, a Hellion, there's not a whole lot you can do. You can make a purple Hellion, but it will always be a Hellion! You could paint some skulls on it I suppose?
Soft: In those early days, when people started using your work in their maps, how did that feel?
erwt: Oh that was great. I mean, it's always great if people are interested in your work and are using it. I eventually started developing my own map because we had all these great graphics; me and my brother were always coming up with ideas and eventually we decided that we wanted to put them in a map. But our own map was never really that good, because we mostly focused on the characters and didn't have many great gameplay ideas, we just wanted to make these interesting characters happen, and we needed a place to put them!
Soft: That map started in around 2006, and it was called Blades&Billets?
erwt: We started with a different one actually, we started with Coast of Conflict: we really like alliteration! Coast of Conflict was the first one; it was a crazy concept that was very specific about Maiev teaming up with the Undead, and the other team was the Illidan bunch with Blood Elves and Satyr and stuff. But we got stuck in map editor pretty fast because both my brother and me had no idea how to program, we just knew that we somehow wanted to express our ideas in the Warcraft III format.
We stopped then for a while, and eventually, I had a lot of skins laying around, we decided to look for a programmer and try to get something made.
Soft: Aside from bringing together an assortment of different characters, was there anything you wanted to bring to the table that maybe hadn't been seen or done before in an AoS?
erwt: Not really, we had some ideas that were new at the time like having a shared hero pool, which is something that DotA started doing not long after that. Not that I'm saying that they took the idea from us: anyone would have come up with that eventually. It's kind of the logical step to being more efficient about your resources. Designing a whole team for two sides is a lot more work than just designing one roster that everyone can pick from. We didn't want to have a clear divide in the teams, we just wanted two teams and a bunch of fun characters that were duking it out in an arena.
One thing that we did do was make use of destructable terrain a lot; we had a lot of walls that were made out of trees, and then we had a lot of units that could destroy or regrow those trees for mobility purposes. But none of this was really radical, we just had a lot of random ideas; we weren't very experienced in game design.
Soft: One of the things that I really liked about Blades&Billets is that each hero has its own two colours that are used in the hero select screen, and on all the hero's tooltips. It's a subtle thing but it really helped bring out their characters.
erwt: Well, that's what you get when you get an artist and a writer to try and design a game. Like I said, we weren't very good at the game design part, but we were very persistent in trying to make our stuff look as good as possible.
That was sort of the main thing that we were good at: the expression of it. All our characters had a very clear theme, and all their abilities had custom graphics that fit that theme. We tried to design nice characters with movesets that fit together and stuff, but for us, the looks and the story of the character were more important than the gameplay behind it.
Soft: When designing your characters, would theme have usually been the motivator, or would you occasionally think of an ability or a mechanic that brought a theme forward on its own?
erwt: Sometimes, yeah. We used forums and suggestions a lot, like where people would post their hero ideas and their mechanics and stuff, and we drew a lot of inspiration from that forum, but I feel that the characters that started out as a character idea were always a lot stronger than the characters that started out as a moveset, because then you forcibly have to come up with an idea for a character within those restraints.
I feel we worked better if we had a great idea for a character and then started to come up with moves that fit the theme, and then try to make that work gameplay-wise.
Soft: In the end, you stopped developing Blades&Billets. Is there any particular story behind that?
erwt: I got invited to start working on the Tides of Blood team! Blades&Billets wasn't really going anywhere, it had a very loyal but very small fanbase, didn't get a lot of playtime in custom maps, and Tides of Blood was the reason why I started doing this in the first place, so when they asked me if I could work on their map, I thought: well, yeah! Of course I would work on Tides of Blood! I mean, that was my little dream, at the time.
Soft: What areas were you working on?
erwt: Graphics, purely graphics. I did a little bit of character design every now and then, but Cassiel had complete creative control over that, and he deserved it because he designed some very nice characters.
I just did the graphics for some things that he wanted to get done, and at that time I also got into modelling, so we did some model editing for Tides of Blood, and really made some things happen that you wouldn't be able to see in any other map.
ToB vO had the Ghost Pirate character in it, that me and Chris completely re-did, we made a new model and we animated it from scratch, the spell effects were all from scratch, the texture was from scratch: that character was completely made by us. That sort of thing, I think, should have given Tides of Blood an edge. But it never really happened that way, unfortunately.
Soft: Was the feeling in the team that Tides of Blood was going to be a big hit?
erwt: Not really, we weren't really concerned with being a big hit that much. We were mostly just trying to make it the best we could. When we're talking about hits, I think that was our biggest problem; it took us a year and a half I think, to get the version done. It just didn't go very smoothly.
I like to think we created a very fine product in the end, but there were so few people playing ToB by that time that there wasn't enough player feedback from the community to really make it great, gameplay-wise. All the systems were in place, but we never really got the chance to perfect them and make the balance work.
Soft: As maps go, Tides of Blood has probably inspired more successors over the years than any other AoS aside from Eul's DotA. What do you think ToB was doing right that people bought into so much?
erwt: I think it did two things very very right.
One of those was the attention to detail. I mostly mean the visual aspect of the attention to detail, that means that they had fewer characters, but the characters that they had were very well designed. I remember when I was playing a lot of Tides of Blood, at some point I tried out the new DotA that was gaining in popularity.
I picked a character and it had three passive abilities, and one active ability that shot a spear from its chest without any animation. It just looked like rubbish to me, a completely random design. I think that's something that Tides of Blood did very well: create interesting characters that had a very complete design, in which everything they did made sense, and all their moves were choreographed to make sense, they made very good use of the animation sets of the units themselves.
The other thing that ToB did that I thought was more interesting than DotA is that it focused more on the teamplay aspect of it, that's the impression that I always got from the game. Because those teams were so finely tuned, they could really decide where to put the crowd control abilities and where to put the big damage dealers, and because they could tune that so finely, they had a lot of control over how teamwork played out in that map.
When you saw what team the opponent had, you knew what tactics to expect and how to respond to that. From my personal experience, it's mostly the fantastic graphics that did it for me at least.
Soft: How do you feel about ToB years later?
erwt: I have very fond memories of playing the game, I have very fond memories of the community; I don't really speak to any of them anymore, but at the time it was a really nice place to be on the internet. We had a nice forum, and knew each other: that was good stuff.
As far as the creation goes, work on Tides of Blood was what made me decide to drop my subject of study at the time which was illustration, and move to game design. So for me, it played a huge part in my life and how I decided to continue my life. It made me want to make games.
There's sort of a duality in there, because while I really enjoyed working on that map, and enjoyed the community and the team, it's always sort of left me sour that DotA won. I mean, let's be honest, they won you know? We had better quality and they won because they had more updates basically.
There were more factors at play, but if you cut it down to brass tacks, I think the biggest edge that they had over everyone else was that DotA made a lot of updates. They made updates for quantity, not necessarily quality, and at the end they had over 100 characters?
We always used to say that DotA has heroes, we have characters. We used that as a slogan to say, we're going for quality, they're going for quantity. But quantity won in the end, and that is something you see a lot in the games industry. That was a tough lesson to learn.
Soft: Have you had any interest in the commercial games?
erwt: I'm reading very nice reviews of Heroes of the Storm, that might just be a reason to revisit the... they call it moba these days? When DotA 1 and ToB got forgotten, I got a bit bitter on the whole thing, but then I played League of Legends and figured out that it was actually a good game. I think they did a pretty good job on that one.
Valve DotA, honestly I have no idea how they're getting away with this without getting their pants sued off, because they are literally stealing everything.
Soft: Well, they re-themed all the characters, and don't use any trademarked names, so they're winging it, but they're doing it in a fairly tasteful way.
erwt: I disagree, I think it's very distasteful. I think they should have... I mean they called it Dota 2, fuck off, just make your own stuff. It just irritates me. I like to see new things that are creative and nice. DotA was a thing, let it be its thing and create something new!
That's why I've come to respect the League of Legends guys a lot more, because they took a chance and actually created something new. They added a lot of stuff as well. There's a lot of features in competitive Dota that became a feature because people were playing it so much that they discovered all these exploits.
I lost interest in DotA when they started doing those deny things. That was an exploit, and it really bugs me that it is being perpetuated. I'm very glad that League of Legends recognised that it was an exploit.
The thing that bugs me most about it, as someone who designs from an artist's standpoint, is that it's very unflattering narrative design to be killing your own guys to get an edge. If they would have made it somehow a part of the story, that killing your own dudes is somehow a good thing, then I could sort-of tolerate it, but it's a purely a mechanical exploit. That's just sloppy design in my opinion.
Soft: One criticism of the commercial games was that they all had very similar artstyles, obviously following Warcraft's fantasy aesthetic. Do you think that it's a valid criticism?
erwt: I'm personally a big fan of the artstyle, I mean, that's why I got into this stuff in the first place: because I adore what Blizzard does so much. I understand it as a criticism, but I've worked on a bunch of games by now, and studied game art, so I've had some time to meditate on it at a professional level.
From that point of view, it's very logical that you would go for a more cartoony style, because often there is a lot going on on your screen, and if you try to do that with realistic graphics: imagine an archer character with “realistic graphics”. I think you often wouldn't be able to see what's going on, because it would be shooting these tiny little arrows that you can barely see on your screen.
So that's why they all use cartoony graphics: because they need to communicate to the user what's going on on the screen, and if you can't see what's going on, you can't play the game. So while it might be a valid criticism, I think it's a little bit ignorant of the professional side of designing visuals for games.
Soft: Final question: Have you ever been pleasantly surprised to see your work pop up somewhere?
erwt: No. The thing is, I was an administrator of wc3c.net, which at that time was one of the leading websites on Warcraft 3 modding, so I knew most projects that used my work before they ever came to completion. So I think it's only happened once that a friend pointed a random map out to me that used some of my skins.
The rest of the time, I already knew that they were going to use them for something. I controlled our downloads section: it was up to me to decide what stuff to upload to our downloads section and what stuff we rejected. Through those forums you got a lot of information about what people were intending to use your stuff for.
Soft: Thanks for your time, erwt! Any last words?
erwt: I think it's important to remember that I'm giving the answers from an artist's perspective, and I know that some programmers or even my brother who was primarily a writer, had a very different experience with what makes a game good for them. It was quite nice to reminisce and catch up on things. It's been fun!