Very few games have had as significant an impact on the current state of gaming as Warcraft 3. Blizzard’s RTS sequel was a great game in its own right, but the legacy of its modding scene is unparalleled. Only the great FPSes of the 90s come close. It’s not hyperbole to say that without Warcraft 3, huge parts of the games business would look very different: the birth of the MOBA had an epochal impact on both free-to-play business models and esports, with games like League of Legends and Dota 2 emerging as transmission vectors for an industry-remodeling set of ideas with their roots in WC3’s custom map scene.
Equally, it was Warcraft 3 custom games that turned tower defense games into an explosively popular modern concern. Here the legacy stretches deep into Flash and mobile—into ‘casual’ games, PopCap, and half the games you've bought in Steam sales over the last half-decade. This part of WC3’s legacy has been less visible, however, than the rise of the MOBA. The audience for tower defense is and has always been huge, but those original custom games haven’t received the DotA treatment. Outside studios haven’t stepped in to rebuild games at scale. Many of their ideas have appeared elsewhere, but full-on successors have been less forthcoming: primarily a matter for the StarCraft 2 arcade, or Dota 2’s custom games scene.
Legion TD 2 is notable first and foremost because it challenges that trend. This is a direct sequel to a popular Warcraft 3 competitive tower defense map that was, according to its developers, played by over a million people. Two teams of four compete to be the first to kill the enemy king, with each player responsible for defending a single lane. Instead of towers you assemble defensive fighters in formation, splitting your time and resources between bolstering your frontline, hiring offensive mercenaries, and developing your worker line. It’s about strategic decision making, theorycraft and mathematics, low on micro but high on macro.
Legion TD was one of the standout successes of the late Warcraft 3 map scene, created in 2009 by a high school senior, Brent ‘Lisk’ Batas. Batas took a break from the map—and from games in general—after college, but has returned this year with a new studio, AutoAttack Games, in order to develop an official follow-up.
"Brent and I have been friends since we were in kindergarten" says AutoAttack's Julian Gari, who worked on League of Legends at Riot before co-founding the new studio with Batas. "Brent actually got me into videogames when we were, like, seven years old. By middle school we picked up Warcraft 3, and that was our game of choice."
"Brent discovered the Warcraft 3 world editor" he continues. "He just started playing around with it and eventually got very good at it. Eventually, in 2009 we were seniors at high school and he created a game called Legion TD."
"I had already loved a bunch of Brent's games before and when I played this one I was like 'this one's actually... I think this is your best game'" Gari says. "He thought I was kind of flattering him."
"It was super buggy at the time" Batas adds. "He said this after the game, liked, crashed five times or something."
"I had a sense that the core gameplay of this game is actually really fun" Gari says. "There's something about it that just struck me."
By 2009 Warcraft 3 was already seven years old. This was late in the game's life, but it still had a dedicated international playerbase—and it was still possible for a new custom map to capture that audience's imagination.
"Me, Brent, and two friends, we would all jump in the game together, and then we would play against four randos" Gari says. "Since we made the game we usually stomped them, but out of the four we played against one of them would be like 'this is actually really fun'. Some would rehost the game, and so it started. It was super organic growth. It was just the four of us and all of the sudden, within a month or two, there were tens of thousands of people playing. It basically became the most successful mod on Warcraft 3. Obviously, historically, no one's as successful as DotA, but by this time people were leaving Warcraft 3. They were moving onto League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, Dota 2. So after that happened, Legion TD became wildly the most popular game in Warcraft 3."
Batas had no idea the map would explode in the way that it did. "It was literally scary, like 'wait a minute, this is not just our little creation'" he says. "Julian or another friend would text when I was, like, at a restaurant, and they'd be like 'you broke this thing, people on the forums are going crazy'. I'd be like 'oh, God, mom and dad, sorry—can we get this to go? I gotta go'. I learned to never ever release a version right before I go out."
A hobby project had become a full-time responsibility for somebody on the cusp of college. "When people are having fun playing your game there's a lot of responsibility that comes with that" Batas says "it's no longer just your own. Even though you made it, when people get invested in it, it becomes theirs. They can get mad at you for screwing it up, or love you for doing it right. And it's totally worth it. I mean, just being able to go onto YouTube and seeing people in Germany just loving the game and laughing and mispronouncing everything is just the funniest."
Even so, Batas had decided to hand over Legion TD 2 to the community in order to pursue other opportunities by the time he left college. Gari went to work for Riot, and the map itself saw successors in the form of StarCraft 2's Squadron TD and Dota 2's Legion TD Reborn. After working on non-gaming related software for several years, however, Batas felt the pull to return to games.
"I think the first thing that tipped me off was League of Legends taking the Dota formula and making a standalone game" he says. "I remember that one of the biggest objections had been, like 'this can't stand on its own two feet'. [DotA] was fun because you'd play it between ladder games, but people aren't going to want to pay money for it. And people did."
He also notes that as mods have grown to become traditional games, traditional games development has changed to become much more like modding. "With Unity being much more mature, Unreal Engine becoming free, on a technical level, game development has shifted to favour smaller teams" Batas says. "You see Blizzard having much smaller teams for Hearthstone, Overwatch, etc. With Steam becoming ubiquitous, there's no longer the massive manufacturing barrier to entry. There's just a lot of these factors coming into play that, from a technical standpoint, I think we can deliver—this is the right time. If it was five years ago, even if the ideas was right, I just don't think the tools and services would be there."
Legion TD 2's Kickstarter campaign has been successful (and still has around a day to run at the time this article goes live) thanks in part to sizeable donations—$60 on average—from fans of the original map. Batas and Gari hope, however, that they're able to draw a new audience to the game with the sequel.
"I think that's one thing where my experience working with League of Legends will definitely help some" Gari says. "Part of the success of that game was people who played the original DotA moving into League of Legends. I don't know the numbers now, but my gut tells me that if you polled all the players now, the majority will have never played DotA."
"I think it would be a similar case where our initial audience are likely to be people who played the original [Legion TD]" Gari says. "We have to strike a delicate balance where we want to stick to the core gameplay, and we want the game to feel a lot like the original, but we don't want to keep every little thing. Some things that people considered to be strategies or features might have actually just been artefacts of Warcraft 3. We don't want to pigeonhole ourselves into keeping those things."
Batas believes that the nature of tower defense makes Legion TD easier to introduce to a new audience than a game derived from Defence of the Ancients. "What's cool about Legion TD is there's no reflexes or mechanical challenge to playing—you just build stuff and it fights for you" he says. "That's a pretty good foundation to build a new player experience around. It's so much easier to teach someone Legion TD than League of Legends, at least anecdotally."
There's a clear precedent for popular Warcraft 3 maps turning into successful—even, in Riot's case, empire-founding—independent games. AutoAttack don't claim to aspire to the same kind of success.
"Brent and I want to leverage our strengths and our passions" Gari says "and that, to us, means not owning every single piece of the process. Even if it's more profitable to own everything, be the publisher, be everything. We want to be game designers first, and we're willing to maintain a smaller team."
To this end, they're planning to involve the community directly in the ongoing development of the game and the culture around it. As part of their work on Legion TD 2 they're also building a world editor, Apex, that replicates the conditions that allowed Legion TD to exist in the first place.
"It's basically the Warcraft 3 world editor in Legion TD 2" Gari says. "You can create custom games, and we'll allow people to create custom content, and we would support and encourage that because it's how Brent and I got into this scene."
"I totally want to give back, that's a big motivation" Batas says. "But also, if you think about it, I think it's the way of the future. League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, these are all based on mods. DayZ, for instance, the MOBA genre and TD genre. From a business perspective I really think it's the way of the future."
"One of the reasons I think Warcraft 3 lasted so long was that it had such a strong modding community" Gari adds. "A big criticism of League of Legends—fantastic game, I played it for six years—is that you can't really mod it as a player. We want that. We want players to be able to customise the game as they want for Legion TD 2."
"In terms of how to do that, we're taking a 'support the community' approach" Batas says. "Give the community the tools, access, be transparent with them. It's more about that and less about us hiring ten community managers. Rather than run a big tournament, we'd rather sponsor ten fans to organise their own, that kind of thing. That's part of the small team approach. I don't see, y'know, AutoAttack Games becoming the next Riot in the sense of 3,000 employees working on a single game.”
"We don't want to just expect crazy success" Gari says. "We want to play it by ear and adapt as needed—but assuming that people like the game, we plan on supporting the game for a long time."
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