Gaming Corner: Warcraft III Beta Preview #2 - The Purpose of a Beta

By Joel Hruska

Date: March 12, 2002

Originally, I intended for this second column to be a more in-depth look at the heroes and economy of Warcraft III, but recent events on Battle.net have changed my mind.  I’ve been following the beta forums more actively as of late and have discovered there is a certain subset of people testing the WC3 beta who obviously don’t have a clue about what a beta test really is, or how to go about doing one.  While these people are thankfully not the majority of testers, they are a very vocal minority whose posts seem to be split between whining about how new Blizzard patches have “broken” the game or making ridiculous statements about how the last patch released have convinced them that the game is destined to be a miserable failure.

I’m not a Blizzard employee and I don’t have the inside track of Warcraft III development, but I’ve spent a great deal of time beta testing for Blizzard.  In addition, I headed up the development team that built the Cold Fusion mod for Diablo II.  We spent over a thousand man-hours developing the initial 1.0 version alone, let alone the time spent developing versions 1.1 to 1.5.  As we built the mod, which incorporated new sets, uniques, skills, monsters, and, in fact, rebalanced the entire game across three difficulty levels, game balance was first and foremost on our minds.  In fact, it was Matt Wesson (our resident monster genius) who rebuilt the entire experience curve based on mathematical equations he developed to express the relationships between character level and relative power vs. monster toughness, speed, hit points, etc. 

We spent hours and hours discussing game balance, from the powers of Orbs (new gems we developed) to the new uniques, Exceptional Sets, skills, and other changes we made.  Often, changes we made that worked extremely well in one situation would become broken or under-powered in another, forcing us to rethink our strategy or shift the design of the mod.

Why do I bring all this up?  Because the simple fact is, there is a great deal of similarity between the Warcraft III Beta and the process of modding a game like Diablo II.  In addition, Warcraft III and D2 are very similar on a conceptual balance level. 

Obviously, WC3 and D2 are extremely different types of games, mind you, but this is not my point.  They are similar in the sense that both are highly complex and interactive, with multiple statistics and designs that directly impact one another.  Just as D2 used a number of classes, each with their own specialized skills, abilities, equipment, and strategies, so WC3 uses a variety of races, each with a huge number of special powers, unique play styles, build times, building toughness / ability, special units, speed / firepower considerations, and much, much more.  The games are similar in that they are both extremely complex and interlocking—changing one variable inevitably changes another. 


Understanding the Process of Balance

A standard approach to the complaint that Diablo II was too easy (or gave too little XP) was to double the amount of XP that creatures gave, or double their HP.  This was the normal approach—but it’s not the approach my teammate Matt Wesson took when he developed his multivariate equations to design monsters and the amount of XP they should give.  The Cold Fusion mod gave D2 characters the chance to finish single-player Hell mode at Level 90 (far above what Blizzard originally allowed) yet did so in a way that did NOT unbalance the game at that level.

Yet designing monsters to be competitive in Hell facing level 90 players meant that a huge set of other variables had to change.  Equipment had to be improved, skills re-done, gems re-balanced, character stats buffed up, certain over-powered monster abilities toned down, and a huge host of other variables.  In short, a simple statement, “Build a tougher Diablo II” became far more than a case of “double the monster’s XP / HP” and caused us to literally re-design almost every facet of the game we could within the parameters of that goal.

Although I’m not a Warcraft III developer, I’m absolutely certain that the developers of WC3 are currently chasing their own vision of the game.  When we truly began to flesh out what Cold Fusion would be, it became incredibly exciting to see it taking shape—almost like watching an incredibly complex wire frame mesh begin to fill in—but part of that process inevitably meant that certain drastic imbalances were introduced.  When we built our vastly more powerful monsters, for example, no one would’ve wanted to play the game.  Without the character class improvements in place, players would’ve been smashed all over the map, killed by the basic skeletons walking around.  It took weeks of additional work before the rebuilt characters were ready to challenge the monsters.  Anyone looking at the mod throughout MOST of its history would’ve concluded it was an unbalanced wreck and doomed to fail.

Right now, Warcraft III is in a very similar position to any serious mod.  So much of the game is finished—so much of it is in place—that I’m willing to bet the programmers are, in turns, wonderfully thrilled and horribly frustrated.  Thrilled because each day brings real advancements in balance and implementation, frustrated because gamers are howling about bugs or balance issues they are already fully aware of, but not yet decided on how to fix.  Game balancing is incredibly complex and it always draws upon a programmer’s vision of what a game should be.  Deciding the best way to articulate and flesh out that vision, however, isn’t easy.  It’s a time consuming and arduous process that can take a designer down a lot of dead ends that don’t end up being fruitful, in search of that one right idea that draws everything done thus far together and makes the game even better.


The Difficulty of Testing

Another similarity between any truly complex mod and a game like WC3 it that they are extremely hard to test.  While cheat codes can allow for some obvious tests, it’s simply not possible to replicate the playing experience without actually doing it, but in all Blizzard games, this takes immense amounts of time.

Allow me to give an example.  Two to three hours after the latest Warcraft III patch was released, people were already commenting on its imbalances / fixes.  Ten hours later, at most, the forums were in full-fledged discussion.  Assume, for a moment, that an average of 200 people played an hour a piece of ten hours—that’s two thousand hours, or an entire work year of testing done in a day.

One thing I discovered from being a hardcore mod-writer was that I couldn’t reasonably play and test my own mods.  I tested as much as I could, to be sure, but I depended heavily on beta testers to help me find my own errors.  Now, keep in mind I was working with a game where the vast majority of the code was NOT accessible to me.  Increase the complexity of the situation by at least a factor of five, and you’ve got the sheer amount of data the WC3 programming team is grappling with.

This means changes to the game that badly affect balance and seem like such obviously bad ideas to testers after three or four hours of play may not seem like that at all to a programming team.  This isn’t because they don’t care or aren’t busy, it is because they are already up to their eyeballs in work, with very little time left to actually play their own creation.


The Future of the Warcraft III Beta

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a prediction about what the rest of the beta testing will look like.  We’ll see more patches (we’ve already had 1.11, following up on 1.10 released early this week) and each one will correct some problems and introduce others.  The pendulum of balance, if you will, is swinging, but with each patch it will swing less as programmers introduce new features (such as the new units added to the elves), and further refine their own vision of the game.  As further patches become available, the game will slowly fall into its true balance, which may look nothing like it does today.  A game is only balanced insofar as it resembles its own design vision, meaning Warcraft III might be badly balanced compared to the strategy / gameplay of a C&C or Starcraft game, for example, yet taken on its own merit and examined in the light of its own design philosophy, could be near-perfectly constructed.

To those of you whining about how the latest patch has “ruined” your strategy for any particular race, shut up.  The purpose of a beta is not to allow you to find exploitative strategies, it is to use the feedback you provide to build a better game.  Strategies, ideas, and abilities that aid in that goal will be kept—those that do not, will get (and should be) dumped. 

To those of you whining about balance issues after each patch, get some perspective.  Each patch is a new opportunity to shift how the game is played, and the development team has proven they are more than willing to listen to the concerns of the beta audience. 

Express your ideas intelligently and without the constant complaining, or don’t express them at all.

To those of you looking only for the newest “cheap” way to kill your opponent and whining when those ways are closed, get used to it.  If there’s one thing Blizzard has shown a consistent intolerance for, it is people who use design flaws to exploit aspects of their games that ruin the fun for everyone.  It may take them time (I admit—I’ve been frustrated by the length of time Blizzard can take to release a patch as much as anyone) but they will shut them down.

Finally, to those of you who’ve filed great reports, given good feedback data, and shown a consistent willingness to help build a great game, thanks.  While I’m not on the development team, it’ll be my hard-earned dollars (just like yours) going to buy this game when it’s all over.  It is good to see a group of people willing to work to make a product great—and beta testing IS work, when done properly.  If nothing else, we help ensure that the end product is worth our money plus have the satisfaction of helping make a great product great.

As far as I’m concerned, Warcraft III has every indication of being a great product—precisely because Blizzard has shown such a tremendous willingness to listen to their consumers and testers.  I hope you readers understand how rare that is.  The opportunity here is tremendous if you are willing to use it and use it constructively.

Enough writing.  I’ve got testing to do.  See you on Battle.Net and whether you liked it or hated it, comments are welcome on this article, so fire away.


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