I am delighted to have had the opportunity to chat with Nelson 'TekkVicious' Lee, the developer behind an old favourite of mine Enmity Campaign. We talk about Warcraft III, the fighting game community, design decisions, and what can be learned through the process of game development.
Softmints: Good morning Nelson, and welcome!
Nelson: Thanks for having me!
We'll dive right in.
I think it's a very fateful thing to pick up Warcraft III; it changes a lot for some people. What kind of games were you playing prior to Warcraft?
I played a lot of Starcraft when I was young, and then I moved to fighting games in the arcade. I was like really big into fighting games; I liked the idea of you put your quarter up, and if you win you stay, if you lose you get to the back of the line.
The fighting game community was really good back then; this was late 90's - early 2000's. I liked the mentality of, you know, "get good, stop whining". You can't balance-change a fighting game back then, because it's an arcade right? There's no patches; if some guy's using some broken strategy you either adapt to it or stop playing.
We actually had Justin Wong play with us. He's famous for Marvel vs Capcom; I think he's still active. I saw him up and coming, he's a couple years younger than me. It's kind of funny, because when I was 16 I was beating up all these 20 and 30 year old dudes in the arcade, and they'd say "oh man when I was your age I was just as good as you"; bullshit right? Then I'm 20 and Justin Wong shows up and he starts kicking all our asses and he's like this 14-15 year old at the time.
I played at Willowbrook New Jersey; he played in Chinatown NYC, and they would come down once in a while and you'd get to play 'em. It was kinda funny how things went full circle: a 16 year old beating up older dudes and then this kid came in and started kicking my ass.
I played a lot of MvC2, a lot of Third Strike, then later I went back to PC games playing Counter Strike. We had those... you call them PC bangs? We played a lot of Counter Strike, Diablo II, and then Warcraft III later.
From the games that you've mentioned: Counter Strike, Starcraft, fighting games: they've all got a competitive streak to them. So when you were playing Starcraft, were you playing competitively?
I didn't know what competitive playing was at the time; I was still in high school. I guess I was playing with a competitive nature. I had a account that was 75-1, though I wasn't playing ladder; I was playing pickup games so I don't think it really counts.
I like competitive; I'm a very competitive guy which is a double-edged sword. I'm spending a lot of my time as an adult trying to not be too competitive about things: take it easy, relax, try to have fun without having to win! Right now I try to keep the golfer's mentality: competing against myself.
Some years passed, and eventually you pick up a copy of Warcraft III. I assume you played the campaign, tried out ladder, that sort of thing?
Yeah, I played a lot of ladder; I was actually a top Undead player in the states at one point. Then I went to one or two tournaments; I went to ACON4 and lost to a guy named AetherX; I think he won the whole thing?
It was really fun. When you're at the top of the ladder, you play the same people; once you get towards that level you don't even play ladder anymore because your queues are like an hour long. It's going to match you with the same people that play on your schedule. So you stop playing ladder and just hit up people on the ladder that are high; like "Hey you wanna hit up some custom matches?"
Then things get more fun because you're messing around; you can play the same top-tier player and there's no pressure if you lose; it's like playing in the arcade again. You can talk shit to each-other; you become more like friends. There's no having to worry about saving face because none of the matches are ranked, so you can try really stupid shit against someone that's high level. It was fun.
At some point, you must have delved into some of the other custom games that Warcraft had to offer.
Yeah, a lot of my friends, they weren't good enough at ladder play to hang, but at the same time I wanted to play with them, so we played a lot of custom games.
A lot of those were the original Aeon of Strife, the one that had the three-way, the triangle, that was fun (Rival Nations). A lot of tower defence; it's a neutral game where you're not competing with your friends; you're playing together. I liked the arena-style ones where you just pick a character and fight in a closed-off area.
I think my favourite types were the custom campaigns. There was a lot of random stuff; like "the world is haunted and you have to hunt ghosts". It was a campaign style map but it had nothing to do with Warcraft; it was just using the engine.
I think those were the most impressive from a development standpoint too, because a lot of thought went into creating the story, and then making it so some random person can figure out where to go and what to do.
There's a couple that I played around that era; Joe's Quest, Nature's Call: Return of the Dragon...
Yeah, that one; I remember that name. I think that says a lot about the engine for Warcraft III, how they had the foresight to put in all these customisation capabilities, being able to write your own code into the map and create your own abilities. I thought that was a feature that wasn't that necessary for them to create, but they did it anyway and it was awesome.
You ended up opening the World Editor yourself. What sort of maps did you work on? How many did you make?
I made maybe like, two? I think one of the first maps was trying to add the Naga as a fourth playable race to the game. But I realised probably no-one's going to play it.
Then I was playing some of the Aeon of Strife games, and I was like: "oh man like this would be cool if this character did this, or they had a character like that...". But then when you're doing wishful thinking, you're at the mercy of communicating with whoever made the game and convincing them and whatever... and I was like you know what fuck it I'll make my own!
And that's how I started making Enmity Campaign.
How long had you been playing Warcraft at that point? How old were you at the time?
Maybe 1-2 years? Probably 20-21.
Who else was involved?
I just started it for myself and then a community started to grow around it. I only remember two names because it's been so long... there was a guy named DaFox; he gave me free web hosting for a forum. He was more of the community manager; he created this place for people who liked to play my game to talk to each-other and have a way to talk to me. This is all before social media, so forums was the way to go.
I remember another community member; DemonGod86? This guy was really into the game and he was very vocal about his opinions. I guess he was the first super fanboy.
It was an interesting experience. I had fans when I played games competitively, like low-key fans, but I never had a super fanboy. It was really interesting! Some of the things he would try to convince me to put into the game, I was like wow... very interesting perspective.
Looking at the Aeon of Strife genre, almost every game out there uses the "Noun of Noun" or "Noun of the Noun" naming format. You're one of the rare exceptions! Where did the name come from?
The name? I think a friend suggested it. I was describing the premise: there's these two sides and they hate each other and they're gonna fuck each other up!
It was like a war campaign, so he said just call it the hate campaign or enmity campaign or something. I was like, alright, I don't even know what "enmity" means... but yeah, it sounded cool.
What kind of ideas did you have coming into making the map?
I wanted it to be a lot more fast paced than the other maps. I have my roots in the fighting game community, where you pick your character and just go fight. But then, I didn't want it to be an arena type of map. I wanted some of the MOBA elements, but I didn't want the game to make players spend a lot of time levelling up and acquiring things. I wanted to speed up that process but still have it there.
I also wanted things to be a little crazy. I wanted the characters to be super strong and have things that would make people think "that would be super unbalanced". Unbalanced is a lot of fun!
By making the characters really strong in certain aspects I had to give them exploitable weaknesses, so you can somewhat claim there's some balance there.
That leads us into systemic weaknesses, an idea which turns up a lot in Enmity Campaign. The heroes have various typings that affect damage dealt, damage taken, items they can use, and items they're affected by.
It seems like that gave you a diverse set of tools for solving balance issues.
Yeah, that was the idea. If you try to tell someone we should have a hero that can fly in a MOBA, they'd say "oh that would be so broken". Every advantage needs to have a cost to it; I think that's what makes elements in the game balanced.
It's like in real life; everything has a cost to it. Sometimes that cost is hidden; sometimes that cost doesn't seem like it exists: but it does, and it's up to the player to figure out what that weakness is and how to exploit it.
Speaking of clear strengths and weaknesses, those mounted guns were really exciting! You can probably tell they caught my attention; they're the sort of thing you see in first-person shooter campaigns all the time, but lane-pushing games haven't picked that up at all. When did you get started with those?
As a player I wanted a way to bait and trap people, you know? I felt like in a lot of the games, the MOBAs I played back then, there wasn't any bait or super trappy things you can do to somebody. Everyone knows where all the turrets are.
I thought it would be awesome if you could set up an ambush like in the military: have somebody try to chase you and all of a sudden they're in a spot with a bunch of turrets that weren't on the map. I also just like the idea of thinking: it would be really awesome if I could pick this tower up and drop it wherever I wanted to!
It's like that movie Aliens; they have a remote turret in that movie and they set it up and kill a bunch of aliens with it. I used that as inspiration too.
I wanted to make a lot of the items useful for enabling new tactics for the player. Another one was the sentry wards, and later there was a hero that could create portals on the map. The whole idea was to enable teams to do harder-to-read, unexpected stuff.
I feel like if you don't have those type of dynamic, environmental abilities it's like playing the same map over and over again. But if you have them, even playing the same map the dangerous spots change depending on the players and their actions and how they want to manipulate it. You can destroy the trees and stuff like that.
That's a really interesting answer. It wouldn't have been an intuitive jump for me to consider the mounted guns as a response to wanting more opportunities to bait and make plays.
The heroes in EC have a creative flair to them that was shared by a lot of earlier lane-pushing maps. Could you talk me through your process for making heroes?
A lot of it was inspiration from different games or random thoughts while I was playing. The X-Copy hero was inspired from Street Fighter III; there's a character called Twelve whose super is copying the other guy's character. I thought it would be really cool to introduce to a Warcraft game, in a MOBA.
That character was actually kind of hard because I had to make a copy of every hero's ability and different versions of every ability so the character can copy any hero in the game. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun: the idea of what that character offered.
Some of it was also that this would be really cool; no-one else would probably do it, so I'll do it!
The competitive streak, working its way into the creative process!
Yeah! It started off like "it would be really badass if this would be in the game", and it snowballed from there.
One example is the abomination character; if he eats stuff, he should get bigger, right? And then he should get stronger. But if he gets hit he gets smaller, and because that's the case there's no need for a limit in size. It'd be really cool if someone made a strategy where they ate a bunch of corpses and became the size of the map.
There were some basic ladder skills I found really cool, like the one that summons treants from trees. What if instead of summoning those treants by turning the trees alive, you shot seeds at an enemy like a gatling gun? I wanted there to be a unique twist on skills; something preposterous or over the top.
I like the hero Gate Lord; his super opened a gate and shot a giant cannon from hell. I wanted to make it over the top by making the cannon have no range limit, so if you shot it from one side of the map it would go all the way to the other side. You could blindly shoot it from anywhere and if you get lucky or if you're really skilled you can shoot a guy that has no idea this thing is coming for him. You might one-shot him; it makes for funny, unexpected, WTF moments.
I wanted to make it crazy in a way that you can have really memorable experiences playing.
How did the community react to all this?
There's a lot of people who really liked it and thought "oh wow this is awesome", and you have your contrarians who claimed "oh it's not balanced" but you always have those people. And you have people who played more and came to understand how the balance worked.
I made the game mostly for myself, and whoever seemed to enjoy it like myself would enjoy it. The target was more of a niche; when that niche appreciated it I was really happy. If other people didn't like it or play it I didn't really care. It wasn't made for everybody.
What were the best moments for you working on the game?
I think the best moments were with the community. I'm an aloof, keep to myself kind of guy. It really surprised me; all the free help, the volunteer feedback and setting up the forum and a website. I'm not even asking them to do these things and they're volunteering their time and effort to help; it was really uplifting.
Also playing test matches with different skills and trying them out with the people who volunteered to be more involved with development was really fun. You got to see some interesting matches with stuff that didn't otherwise come up.
I remember this one match was really fun; one of the guys, we thought he went afk because he was on the other team and we never saw him for the majority of the match. And then all of a sudden out of nowhere this giant abomination the size of the screen shows up and he's one-shotting everything!
That was really funny. That, and random plays testing with the community. During testing everything's unstable and crazy. It's also fun to see where people take things; I create the idea of the hero, and then seeing where people take and use it.
At the same time the community is also what makes me feel bad about it; I just kind of disappeared on them. In hindsight I was young and wasn't thinking too much about other people.
What led to the end of development?
I think a lot of it was burnout. Creating something like that game, especially when you start building momentum... You figure out how to write almost any skill you can think of and... it gets really absorbing?
You think: "I can do this", and then start doing it and do a test run and it's not as good as you thought: but what if I made it do this too? You start going down this giant rabbit hole working on this one skill that you don't even have a hero for.
Before you know it sixteen hours have passed and the day's over. You're doing that every day for the summer, and all your friends are wondering where you went. I was in a relationship at the time and never talked to or saw her because I was too busy doing this thing.
When you neglect things in life... there's a cost to everything right? At the time I was doing it I wasn't seeing the cost, but over time and months the cost becomes very apparent: maybe you should stop or take a break.
Looking back at Enmity Campaign; is there something you would do differently?
I wish I kept in contact with the community members? I remember only one or two names. When you're young you're not really thinking about other people. I have a daughter now, I'm married, and I wish I had some of the maturity to think about other people and keep in contact back then.
I think I did tell them I was going to stop, but I should have got their contact information and given them an unlocked copy of the map so if they wanted to try pick up the mantle they could. But as far as the map is concerned, no, I did what I could at the time.
What have you been doing since then?
I mean, it's been fifteen years, so a lot!
I guess we'll go in order; after Enmity Campaign I was still in college, and I picked up World of Warcraft. There was a year in between; I don't know what I was doing in that year but I don't think I was playing any games. I picked up World of Warcraft late; in 2005 or 2006, right before the first expansion came out. Then I got really sucked into battlegrounds and arena.
In arena I was one of the top rogue players; when the competition's there I almost can't help myself. I still remember my name in WoW; it was Sunset.
That's a nice username! How'd you get that?
I don't know; I joined a server and just put it in. I thought it's probably not available, but it was available and I was like: I'll take it!
I did arena, and was actually boosting other people in arena as a side hustle for college money. I'd charge ~$120 and me and my partner would log onto other people's accounts and play arena on them and get them to x rating.
After college I joined the army as an enlisted reserve and did one tour in Afghanistan.
As far as work, I joined a couple of mobile gaming companies. Back then, this is like 2006-2007, it was pre-iPhone games. I was porting games, doing producer type of stuff on flip phones. The biggest gaming company I joined was Zynga.
What was that experience like?
It wasn't that bad... it was like any other gaming company. The game industry is like a meat grinder. There's so many passionate young people wanting to work in games. I guess in a sense they're kinda naive; I know I was.
You think "aw yeah I'm gonna make these awesome games", and you get in there and they just churn the shit out of you, you work 80 hour weeks, they take advantage of your passion and chew you out... and then the next new kid from school comes in.
You spent a year or two working on Enmity Campaign, during which you had full creative direction, control of your tools, and direct access to your community.
What was the transition to commercial development like for you?
Back then for me, maybe I was just unlucky but it was very politically charged.
I wanted to be a game designer. I put all this effort in, I'd done side projects like EC and felt like I had stuff to show, but when I tried to get designer roles no-one would give them to me. It's almost like you had to know someone; you had to be well connected.
People's mileage will vary depending on who they apply for and where they are, but for me that was my experience. That was disappointing. But I think there's a lot of disappointment when you go from college or school into the workforce. What you're told to believe and what you experience aren't always going to line up.
Then I ended up getting pushed into the QA part of gaming. They were like "oh you're good at games you should just do this" but I felt no, I want to create them.
Eventually I got out of the gaming industry. I developed the skills to do it; my idea is if I retire I'll make a game on my own with no-one telling me what to do. I'll fund and write it myself; the game will be mostly a joke or a pun, making fun of other games... but that's way in the future.
After Zynga I switched to ads and ad-tech, and now I'm in general technology. I also have two side hustles. Me and my wife, we created a silicone drinking stir company!
Tell me a little about that! What exactly are they?
You know drinking stirs, they kinda look like a spoon? Usually you have wooden or metal ones. I made it because I have a lot of glassware, and nice mugs, and using metal spoons scratches up the ceramic mugs and makes that really annoying sound. With glass mugs using a metal stirring spoon is kinda nerve-wracking.
I looked up if there are any re-usable silicone stirs and couldn't find any, so I decide to make my own! I went down this rabbit hole of "how do you make your own product?". I found out it's not that expensive if you have a designer.
So I decided to make it and try selling it online. If no-one buys it I don't care, the upfront cost of having this made for myself is fine for me; it's a bit expensive but whatever!
You got to be the first person ever to have a silicone drinking stir!
What about side hustle number two?
I have another alias called ChonosMoon, where I do custom Transformers; the action figures. They're pretty much off-the-shelf transformers and I repaint them to look different and more custom. They transform, and I have people who will email me and ask for special orders. I'll charge them a small amount; it's a fun side hobby.
The amount of custom figures I do is very inconsistent so I'll do it when I have free time, but I've been doing it since 2013. I got a good amount out over that time. It's been really fun.
And like I said earlier I'm a dad now, that's a lot of fun too. I've been very busy!
I'm appreciating that the creative element is still there; still making things and the kind of things nobody else would do.
I mean, don't really care that anyone else would do it; it's I wanna do it.
Have you dabbled in any lane-pushing games over the last number of years?
When they first came out, I remember my friend told me I should try League of Legends. I was really excited because finally someone with money had the idea that this genre should have its own game outside of being a custom user map on Warcraft III!
Sometimes a lot of things are luck of the draw. I feel like if I had the resources or knew the right people, I probably would have made League of Legends myself. But I didn't know those people, and also I how old I was at the time... stuff like that prevented me from pursuing it.
I knew there was going to be somebody who had the right environment and connections and drive to bring the MOBA out into its own game genre. So when I heard League of Legends came out, I was really happy that someone actually took the steps to do it.
When I was at Zynga they had a giant superscreen, maybe 25 screens and 100 feet tall, and they were airing the League of Legends tournaments. Everyone was watching in this giant entryway. I was like, wow, this isn't a Zynga game!
As far as playing MOBAs; by the time they came out they were too much of a time commitment to play. You can have a match that goes anywhere from 10-40 minutes long. I was looking for games I could play for 5-10 minutes. Even when I was playing WoW Arena; the matches were only 2-4 minutes long because we had a pure damage team, so we either crush them or they crushed us. We didn't have any of the legendary 50+ minute matches that healer/dps people had.
By that time, I started going back toward my fighting game roots and FPSs. Those are more pick-up-and-go: you can play more casually and not care if you lose. If I gotta go in the middle of a match; no-one's going to get mad at me.
So I never got into MOBAs when they did get out, because of timing.
Are you still playing fighting games? What do you play at the moment?
Fighting games, not too much anymore. The new Street Fighter V was disappointing to me because it's always connected, it takes forever to load, there's ten thousand screens before you get to a match. If there was still an arcade in my neighbourhood, I'd rather spend the money to play there.
I just miss the arcades. You can talk shit to each-other, and it teaches you your social limits, like how much shit you can talk to someone in person. Also there's all types of people that come, and you become friends with people who would never be friends with each-other, hanging out and getting drinks after playing.
I guess for me I thought it was really helpful because it would help toughen up my sensitivity to words. It expanded my sense of humour; people talk shit to you and you talk shit back and it's fun; you don't get offended easily.
The whole thing of the fighting game community is "get good"; that's really helpful in life to have that mentality: "think about what you can do". That's what I miss about it the most.
How about other games? What experiences have you had?
There's an MMORPG called Blade and Soul; I played that competitively for a while. That game's really good because it rewards you for predicting your enemy on the PvP side. But that game is full of microtransactions and other bs that makes it not accessible for people who don't have money or time.
I had the resources to have good gear in the game, and it made the pool of people I could compete with so much smaller. And since there's people who are probably better than me who didn't have the resources to get good gear, they're always at a disadvantage and it wasn't really fun. You either join a freemium group where everyone's broke in-game, or the whale clans, and there's no in-between.
It's a shame because I think the mechanics and core game design is really good, but the business aspect takes away from the game. I do understand why they do it; they're probably raking in hundreds of times more money than they would if they kept it honest.
I want my games to be more like movies now. I'm playing Darksiders 3, I'm going to beat the game and enjoy it for it for what it is and probably never look at it again. Or Devil May Cry 5, same thing: I'll play the game through, be done with it, and move on to the next one.
I do play a "forever game" which is Destiny 2; I've been playing it for four years now. I play it casually, which is nice; it's not a game which requires your entire life.
Depending on where you are in life, certain games will be more appealing. Games that are like books are more appealing to me these days than games that constantly update.
Even with Destiny, I kind of don't like it when they release updates because I don't want to update my gear! I just want to play the PvP part. But the meta changes and I've gotta update my gear for it. The good thing is in Destiny it's pretty quick to update your gear.
Since 2009 when League of Legends became available, lane-pushing games went through a huge explosion in popularity. What is your perspective on that, having been one of the people who was there in the beginning?
I hope that some of the things I did with Enmity Campaign were inspiration for some of the characters in the game. I know some people have told me, and I forgot which MOBA, maybe both, have skills that are similar to something that was in Enmity Campaign.
I hope that I was inspirational but at the same time I do understand that two people can come up with the same idea without copying each-other. So in the back of my mind I'd like to think I did something towards these characters that people are enjoying now. If not I guess that's cool.
I've worked in the gaming industry, and with the information I had at the time I was expecting it. In college I wrote a paper (which I wish I kept) that stated people would be watching video games on ESPN one day.
Wow, that's a tight prediction!
And that gaming is going to overtake physical sports one day, or be at least as popular. I'm not surprised; I think there'll probably be more genres like MOBAs come out. The latest is battle royales.
For me, I'll always like fighting games; I still watch the clips on Youtube. I particularly like watching Street Fighter because it's very easy to read what's going on. Smash is very chaotic; even Guilty Gear is a little too chaotic.
Do you feel the experience of making EC had learnings for you?
Yeah, it did. EC was my first experience of "if you want something, maybe you should go do it, or at least try", and regardless if you execute it right or wrong there's always some gains that you'll have that are almost invaluable. You get this new perspective.
Professionals make things look easy and it's easy to get caught up in that. You see it with couch athletes. They're watching a sport and that professional guy: he sucks! Why'd he do this thing? When you try to do it yourself, you get the appreciation: now I can eat my words, right?
The experience of trying to make a game; doing something that I thought I knew... If you think you know something, you should try it first before you judge. Or at least get a good idea of what type of effort is involved.
Also, I learned how to maintain ownership of something. You need to have a balance between your vision in creating something with what people are telling you to do.
When I first started creating EC, it was whatever I wanted to do. When you start building a community, some of them have really good ideas, some you're on the fence with, some you straight out don't agree with. Sometimes you get pressure from people on the things you don't agree with, because they want you to agree.
You have to learn where to draw the line between giving in to the community or being nice, and making your vision. You're never going to make everyone who plays your game happy. The one person you can make happy and control is yourself, and hope there's other people who appreciate that.
Thanks for your time, Nelson! Is there anything you'd like to say to the EC fans out there?
Thank you for supporting when I was there! Sorry for abruptly leaving and not leaving the map open... I'll make a point to upload the files I do have on github as some sort of retribution. If they want to reach out they can email and say hi... or sign me up for a bunch of spam!