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The outrage over Warcraft 3: Reforged, explained

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Blizzard screwed up. What should've been a celebration of a beloved strategy game has somehow become the lowest user-rated game on Metacritic. If you haven't been following Warcraft 3 Reforged closely, the backlash may be confusing. As Fraser wrote in his review, "the core of Warcraft 3 is as gripping as it's always been," and some of the graphical changes, like the new high resolution models for units and buildings, look quite nice. Isn't this more or less what a remaster should be? 

Well, it's not quite that simple. Due to poor communication by Blizzard and plans that changed over the course of development—some, ironically, due to fan feedback—Reforged is not the remaster many people expected. Blizzard even upset the diehard players who still compete in the 2002 original, by updating that version to Reforged's new client, which is strangely missing some key features. 

Here's how it all went so wrong.

The pitch: Warcraft 3: Reforged's announcement at BlizzCon 2018 called for major changes

Blizzard announced Warcraft 3: Reforged at BlizzCon in November 2018, showing off a cinematic trailer before talking about the plans for the remaster on stage. A gameplay trailer also listed several of the features coming in the new remaster: 

  • "Fully remodeled characters and animations"
  • "Remastered maps and campaigns"
  • An "upgraded UI and world editor"
  • "Reforged in 4K resolution"

After this unveiling, Blizzard talked about Reforged in more detail during a panel. At that time, one of the big plans for Reforged was to make it better align with WoW. Here are some quotes from the development team: 

Lead designer Matt Morris: "One of the things we want to do with our campaign is level it up to what people know from World of Warcraft. ... Looking back at the campaign now, we want the locations that you remember or know from World of Warcraft to match what you see in Reforged, and we want to go through some of the stories and tie the two franchises together in a tighter way."

Producer Pete Stilwell: "It's incredibly important to us to first get it right for the existing community, and then we want to do things to appeal to more people. ... But in so doing, we need to make sure that you guys who are in this room, that core audience that's never left this game and love it to death, and don't want to see us change it so drastically that you don't recognize it anymore. That's our first mission, to make sure that you guys give us a thumbs up when it ships." 

Blizzard also showed off the new hero models, talked about making changes to maps, and how Reforged would coexist with the original within the same client. 

Producer Rob Bridenbecker: "The version of Warcraft 3 players have have for the past 16 years, that needs to continue to be able to be played with this new version. We don't want to break the community. We don't want to break the game. We want to allow for players to continue to coalesce together. That has some hang-ups. Like the fact that you cannot go hog wild with animations means that you have to actually make it look as high fidelity as possible while at the same time adhering to some of those original time constraints."

This was the grand unveiling of Warcraft 3: Reforged, and it's understandably what a lot of fans expected from the game when they booted it up last week. But that's not what they got.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

The reality: Warcraft 3: Reforged shipped with much more conservative changes that were labeled a "downgrade"

Reforged only delivers on some of the promises made in its initial trailer. It does have remodeled characters, some remastered maps and campaigns (though 'remastered' is vague enough here to mean anything), and a new custom game editor. It supports 4K. But there are asterisks here.

Bridenbecker did mention in the 2018 panel that there were limitations to animation changes they could make while keeping the new version of Warcraft 3 compatible with the old one. And sure enough, those were obvious in Reforged. As Fraser wrote in his review: "What really makes the units look a bit odd is their low frame rate. Yes, you can enjoy Warcraft 3 at 200fps, but if you're looking at your army, it looks more like stop-motion."

The "remastered" maps and campaigns, meanwhile, turned out to be much closer to the how they looked in 2002 than in the 2018 demo. This video blew up after comparing the planned cinematic cutscenes from 2018 with the new release version. The simplification is obvious.

And it wasn't just that scene: Major changes were notably missing from the rest of the game, too. Two more points from our review: "There are a few exceptions, but most cutscenes lack the emotion or cinematic flair of what we saw just over a year ago. … Blizzard's also played it a bit safe with the maps. Some locations, like Dalaran and Strathholme have seen a more dramatic update, but for the most part they stick very close to the originals. Their design largely remains excellent, whether they have been built with story and pace in mind, or just a big free-for-all online fight. Veteran players will notice some tweaks, like camps, mines and other things being moved around, but meaningful changes are few and far between. Aesthetically, though, they are pretty unappealing. Despite the higher quality textures, it feels like playing WoW Classic with modern character models. The juxtaposition just makes the maps look more dated."

After BlizzCon 2018, the Reforged developers actually decided to change how dramatically these cutscenes would be altered from the original game's. But unless you were following closely, you likely had no idea. Blizzard talked about this very decision at BlizzCon 2019, but not loudly enough.

Blizzcon 2018 didn't properly set expectations for exactly what Reforged's campaign remaster would entail

At a deep dive panel in November 2019, Blizzard did say that Reforged's new, reworked UI would come later—an odd delay, considering it was one of the original pitched features for the remaster.

Blizzard also talked about making less dramatic cutscene changes in the campaign. Said producer Pete Stillwell:

"Last year as you saw with The Culling we were really aggressive on some changes, I think, and telling the story from a different perspective. We got fairly divisive feedback from the camp of 'don't change my game' vs. 'oh, this is cool, it will welcome a new audience.' Then we went back to the shop and as we were iterating, we weren't happy with where we were going with that 'Culling treatment' as it became talked about in the office. We decided to dial it back a bit."

Stillwell did add, though, that "all the cameras have been reworked. All of the models are new. There's tons of new animations and gestures, things that make them seem more real." So Reforged has been significantly reworked, but in much subtler ways than most fans expected after the 2018 reveal.

In interviews done in late January, the developers continued to attribute Reforged's light touch (on both gameplay and campaign changes) to player feedback. "Trying to keep it pure," designer Matt Morris told US Gamer. Production director Kaeo Milker said "part of the genesis of this project was focusing in on what should Reforged be… I think where we landed was really agreeing that while we did touch every single campaign mission, every single cutscene in every campaign mission, and we did everything we could to really show off all this great art to its fullest capabilities, we also used the original storyline, we used the original dialogue."

Interviews published just before release and a panel at BlizzCon weren't enough to inform players that the 2018 vision was no longer the plan. Worse, the official website still has this video from 2018 embedded in it. The "work in progress" disclaimer isn't enough to make this video feel like anything other than false advertising if it's still being used to represent the game post-release. 

This is the most common complaint about Warcraft 3: Reforged: That Blizzard sold players on the expectation of a game that doesn't exist. And it's not just Reforged players who are mad. Those who have stuck with the original version of Warcraft 3 are being affected, too.

Warcraft 3: Reforged has retroactively removed features from the original version

As players noted on the Warcraft 3 subreddit, the original game—which shares a client with Reforged to allow players to compete against one another across both versions—suddenly lost features that have existed for nearly 20 years. Those include clans, automated tournaments, LAN and offline play, ranked ladder play, and more. Many players also say that custom campaigns no longer work, either, and Blizzard has said it's working on it. Other players have pointed out there is a workaround—you can launch custom campaigns through the editor—but to the average player, it's a crucial feature that's simply vanished from a game they already own.

In trying to make Reforged and classic Warcraft 3 compatible with one another, Blizzard has made the old game notably worse. If players upgrade their clients, they lose features they've had for years, regardless of whether they bought Reforged. This might be a short-term problem—Blizzard plans to re-launch competitive ladder, and will likely fix major issues like custom campaigns in the next few months—but it seems unlikely that players will get everything back, as Warcraft 3 is updated to this new infrastructure. A blog post from Blizzard confirms that a couple features, like tournaments, were rarely used and won't be restored. The rollout seems to completely fail producer Rob Bridenbecker's goal of not "breaking" the community or the original game.

Especially when you factor in the new EULA.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Warcraft 3: Reforged's new custom games EULA gives Blizzard ownership over everything you make

This is the can of fuel that turned the smoldering anger into a full conflagration. Players dug through Reforged's new art tools EULA and found that any Warcraft 3 maps you make are the "sole and exclusive property of Blizzard." We did some digging, and determined that many other big publishers like Bethesda and CD Projekt don't claim ownership over mods, though they do claim the right to license or use them.

It's convoluted legalese, but it's hard not to immediately draw a line between this policy and DOTA, the popular Warcraft 3 mod that eventually led to League of Legends, Dota 2, and a lawsuit between Blizzard and Valve. That mod spawned a multibillion-dollar genre, and apparently Blizzard wants to make sure it doesn't miss out on owning the next mod that catches fire.

Even if the EULA doesn't affect how the vast majority of people play custom games, it's a blatant reminder that Blizzard is a company first and foremost, with legalese that puts profits before players.

After the Activision merger and Blitzchung controversy, Blizzard's mistakes are harder to forgive

Warcraft 3 players have plenty of reasons to be disappointed. Reforged's 0.5 user score on Metacritic is, of course, ridiculous—even with missing features, it's a strong strategy game that remains fun to play and looks much better on modern PCs. But rating a game a zero is an age-old move in the internet outrage handbook, one of the most direct ways game fans feel like they can voice their anger. Those reviews and comments on the subreddit often call Reforged a cash grab or point the finger at Activision.

"Daddy Activision killed this company some time ago."

"False advertising of a broken game that killed a classic. Warcraft 3 Refunded is the latest embarrassment from ACTIVISION blizzard."

"Another disappointment from Blizzard, Activision has definitely ruined them."

This sentiment didn't start with Warcraft 3: Reforged. It's been building over the past several years, as major figures at Blizzard like Chris Metzen and Mike Morhaime have departed the company. Activision Blizzard looked especially bad when it laid off employees after record revenues. But nothing hurt the company's image more than last year's banning of Hearthstone pro Blitzchung, after he made a statement in support of Hong Kong's democracy movement on-stream.

These issues haven't stopped the Blizzard faithful from playing their games or showing up at BlizzCon in droves. They most likely won't stop Diablo 4 from selling tens of millions of copies. But they have tarnished Blizzard's image as the golden child of PC gaming, the do-no-wrong developer that makes fans into family. It's a lot easier to be cynical about Blizzard these days, and even if Warcraft 3: Reforged's issues are patched up in the next few months, its launch will be another piece of evidence used to show that Blizzard has changed for the worse. 

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.