11th Jan, 2014By Softmints9 minutes

Today we have a special feature: an interview with Rising_Dusk! Dusk is a veteran Warcraft modder, known particularly for his two AoS projects: Advent of the Zenith (AotZ) and Desert of Exile (DoE), as well as his infamously difficult dungeon crawler Obsidian Depths.

His maps have had a dedicated following over the years in the form of Clan VZ, and are easily some of the most polished AoS around. Below we discuss some of his design influences and goals, as well as his perspective on the genre today.

Softmints: Hi Dusk. Tell us a bit about yourself and your history with Warcraft III.

Rising_Dusk: Hiya Soft. Hrmmm... Well, when I started playing WC3, it was back in high school, so I was a very different person. I didn't really start developing the map I first became known for until I had just gotten into college as a freshman, so that's when that began.

The motivation really came from a friend of mine who really loved the lore of my world and who convinced me to translate it into an arena-style game. I had always loved the AoS genre, and ToB was an exceptional example of the way I felt the genre should go, so I followed in its footsteps and used it as inspiration for the pace of my game.

The game I refer to, of course, being AotZ. Clan VZ started very early on in my WC3 days, when I was playing Legacies: Tides of the Serpent, and ended up being the platform around which I had a player base for AotZ and beyond.

Soft: Cool. Were there any other games (inside or outside Warcraft) which were inspirational for AotZ?

Dusk: Yes, actually: Dynasty Warriors on the console systems. I always liked the way it felt that you were in charge and killed troves of creatures in swift strokes.

Soft: I often hear it cited that the number of troops on the lanes in AotZ feels "just right", so I guess that's part of where that came from?

Dusk: [Dynasty Warriors Img] Yeah. Dynasty Warriors as a series has had 8 to 12 games to get the feel right for how many things you're fighting at once of non-player characters, so I used the way it generates that feel to try and construct one of my own in the game scale of WC3 (specifically AotZ).

Speaking of "feel", that's one of the things about the AoS genre I've always been adamant about supporting. You get players (new players) by having a unique feel to your game, which can be accomplished in many ways.

Additionally, 'feel' is what makes games in the genre complement each other rather than compete with each other, which is also very important.

Soft: One of the really unique things about AotZ is how well the lore is intergrated, even compared to today's commercial mobas.

Despite being symmetric, the bases look and feel totally different, there are context-sensitive battle-cries and retorts, and each team's heroes follow different colour schemes. One thing I'm curious about is how much influence lore had on the actual gameplay?

Dusk: WC3 supports a lot of flexibility in how you can make things look and feel, and playing to the strengths of the game is a big deal. Making things look and feel different is one of the key points of the game because there is an actual story behind it all. And yeah, the story influences the gameplay a lot.

I will say that I wanted each hero to feel distinct as a gameplay mechanism, but I also desperately wanted you to feel like you were that character, and part of making that possible is making each team feel different, like a whole different experience.

It is for this reason that I have been adamantly against 'all random' as a mode in my AoS games, because it completely desecrates the way a team "feels" when you mix and match. Not only as a gameplay experience, but also as a lore experience.

Soft: Were there any other choices you made in the name of lore which might have been unpopular with players? Do you feel it would still be viable to prioritise lore in today's climate?

Dusk: Yeah, I feel that there were a few other decisions I made that might have been unpopular. I wanted a lot of things to be lore-driven, so items weren't a big deal. It was more about the hero.

In a similar vein, I have a lot of esoteric heroes, which I wasn't sure would be popular with players or not. I wanted them to be who they were in the story, regardless of what that entailed for the game. I feel with the heroes at least, they turned out to be much better received than I'd expected. People seemed to really feel what I was going for.

Soft: The commercial games seem to have caught onto the attraction of lore in mobas, as we've recently seen with DotA 2's contextual voice acting, or League's heroes being released with videos to sell us on the character. In hindsight it's no surprise your approach was a success!

To my knowledge, you're the only AoS developer to have completed two distinct AoS maps. It seems most of us get very attached to our earlier ideas! What inspired you to start working on DoE and its "back to basics" philosophy?

Dusk: Yeah, I think I am the only AoS developer to make two maps. Or well, that I know of. I felt that what I wanted to create couldn't be encapsulated in AotZ, and I also wanted both maps to maintain their differences.

I didn't want to make AotZ into what DoE would eventually become, and I knew that DoE and AotZ fans might not be one in the same. They carry vastly different paces and accomplish things in very different ways.

It was mainly because I, as a player of the genre, could appreciate things both ways. I sometimes like the big buildups where heroes make the biggest difference (as in AotZ), but I also wanted a game where the creeps meant the most and it felt like a real siege.

I also appreciate uniformity, clean combat, and an easy learning curve. These are things I really wanted to play at in DoE. So I took another battle from the lore that decided key parts of the story. And I made another map.

Soft: Were there any particular lessons you'd learned from developing AotZ which influenced DoE's design?

Dusk: There were a lot of lessons I learned from developing AotZ that would return to help me in DoE. The most important of those lessons was in code maintenance and upkeep. AotZ was among my first programming projects ever and so it was all over the place.

Once I got things under control and some experience under my belt with it, I could design things much more modularly and usefully for DoE. I also had a much better feel for game design on the whole, making every part fit and be important to the whole, and keeping things simple and yet complex enough to be interesting. I learned a lot of very valuable design skills from AotZ that would carry over to the streamlined project that became DoE.

Soft: Yeah, it's evident that you were using a more object oriented approach with your coding, particularly for features like conditions and physical/magickal damage. How did those features fit into your overall design goal for the game?

Dusk: Those features were defining for the design goals I had in mind for DoE.

When I made AotZ I couldn't have conceivably made DoE because the developer requirements were much higher than I could satisfy at the time. As I became more skilled, however, I saw the eventuality of DoE as a reality, and it made it possible.

I believed that things such as debuffs and buffs should be unified under uniform banners because by doing so, they become interaction pivot points for everything else in the game, which creates a genre-bending experience that could be offered nowhere else.

The physical/magickal split was another key point that I wanted in DoE because it meant that players had access to different types of damage. In most AoS maps you do "hero" damage which is predictable and nothing special. Or sometimes its split into some rock-paper-scissors trifecta, but even that lacks the interaction possibility that the physical/magickal split offered, where you could have magickal damage inflict burn, or deal bonus magickal damage against burning foes, or what-not.

These are things that are easy to wrap your mind around as a player, but offer intricate interactions that keep experienced players coming back for more. You can invoke incredibly cool interactions between heroes in DoE in such ways that really skilled players really crave, all the while having simple enough mechanics for a new player to grasp.

That, to me, was a crux of the development for DoE.

Soft: I think the items in DoE really reflect that, with stuff like the Power Inverter to flip your damage from physical to magickal and vice versa: there's lots of direct interaction with those systems. The hero design really played into it as well, with some heroes being focused on a particular condition or damage type.

Do you feel your hero design had matured for DoE, or was it simply different (because heroes were now interacting with those systems)?

Dusk: I feel like hero design had matured a lot in DoE yes. It was especially meaningful because not only were they lore-based designs, but they were also vessels by which the condition and other interactions would propagate to the players.

The items were as much an important part of that as anything else, as they would enable players to do things that might not otherwise be possible.

Soft: How do AotZ and DoE compare when you look back on them? Was one more 'successful' in your mind than the other?

Dusk: That depends entirely on how one views success. I think in hindsight, more people have an attachment to AotZ than to DoE because it came out sooner and was therefore earlier in their list of experiences (there is a lot to be said about the only thing better than being best is being first), but also because they just enjoy the eccentricity of the heroes and the entire lack of items and such. It's a lot more like a hero arena.

That said, DoE is a much more intricate game with much better general game design (and hero design) and affords players an experience the likes of which they can't really get anywhere else. That's really cool in its own right.

I think from a technical standpoint, DoE is far more successful than AotZ (and also doesn't suffer from any of AotZ's notorious bugs). I also think that if you're looking for fast-paced combat, DoE is more successful at giving players that than AotZ ever was. If you're also looking for a better paced game, DoE's ripe 30-45 minute length does much better than AotZ's potential 2 hour stalemates.

Still, it's tough to say one is objectively better than the other given how different they are from one another and how vastly different my goals for both were when I made them. If you're asking which I enjoy playing more as a player of the genre, I'd say without a doubt DoE.

Soft: Okay then. We'll move on to the commercial mobas. Are there any that you're playing?

Dusk: I've tried a few, but I could never enjoy any of them, so no I do not. It's worth saying that I made maps the way I like my games, and unfortunately, nothing from the actual commercial MOBA list actually comes even remotely close to any of the games I made to me. So if I want that genre, I hop back on WC3.

Soft: A sentiment echoed by many a Warcraft modder I'm sure! What are your expectations for the future of mobas, based on your experience of the last decade of watching them grow in Warcraft?

Dusk: I imagine that LoL and DotA 2 will inspire indie game developers to try variants of them, and maybe we'll see something like the expansion of innovation seen in WC3.

That said, I imagine it will go much slower, and may not happen at all given the time investment a standalone game comes with. I'm sure we'll see one or two oddball MOBAs that will succeed and be hailed as wonderful, and I'd be willing to bet a lot of what those eventual success stories do are echoed in the WC3 maps of old.

Other than that, I trust that big names will keep it close to home much in the vein of how FPS games do with a new version of the same thing every year or so.

Soft: Is there anything in particular that interested you about how the commercial mobas are doing business? The transition from a lone map file to fully featured games with tightly integrated business models, shifting meta-games, and competitive scenes is far from what one would expect playing Warcraft 8 years ago.

Dusk: Yeah it's a pretty wild shift. The commercial MOBAs have to make money somehow, and they definitely are making a ton.

I'm glad they're doing business but I feel like there is room for a more traditional business model in there as well, perhaps a B2P style as opposed to the cash shop style of LoL (for instance). I also think that the games are a little too hooked to the MOBA itself and don't allow flexibility beyond that.

Wouldn't it be cool if one of these popular MOBAs had a mapmaking tool in itself that we could build stuff in? I think that'd tap into a whole other source of revenue that no one's taking advantage of right now.

Soft: Imagine Blizzard's pockets if Warcraft had been able to monetize its editor!

Dusk: Yeah, no kidding. Although to be fair, I think because they hadn't been able to is part of why it succeeded as well as it did. Just look at SC2's modding scene, if it can even be called that.

Soft: Okay, I have one last question. Have you any personal favourites among your hero concepts? I've always liked Myriad, though I'm terrible at micro.

Dusk: First, I'm surprised your last question isn't "When are you going to finish AotZ 3.00?" :P

Second, it's tough to say which my favorites are! Part of my requirements for even making them is that they have to be something I enjoy thoroughly, which puts a very specific set of critiques into play.

My favorites to play are probably the more supporty, quirky heroes. I love Vertejaune from DoE, I'm a huge fan of Glasse as well for his tanky-caster style, I really enjoy the skillshot style of Hanzaemon in AotZ, and I think Grayl is one of the coolest heroes ever.

As far as my favorite "quirky" hero I've made, I'd without a doubt have to say Sozen... There's just something special to me about having your life bar be your mana, and to use your mana both to charge spells and to stay alive. There's a pressure balance you have to maintain there, and it puts a lot of mana pressure on the opponents who try to take you down. I like that teeter-totter feeling.

Soft: It's so hard to get designers to pick one :D Thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed, it's been a blast.

Dusk: It really has. It's been a real trip down memory lane for me, and I'm probably going to have to hop on later and play a round or two. :P