The first time I saw the words "The world of Warcraft" was likely in 1998, years before Blizzard had even started thinking about making a massively multiplayer RPG. The phrase wasn't referring to WoW—it was advertising Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans, a point-and-click adventure game that promised voice acting and a story that followed the events of Warcraft 2.
"Raised by humans and forced into a life of brutish slavery, one Orc stands as the last symbol of honor for the Horde," read one page of the pamphlet that came with my Warcraft Battle Chest. "As Thrall, you must unite the clans and lead your people onto the field of battle. In this pivotal next chapter of the epic struggle between the Orcs and Humans, an all new dimension of WarCraft is revealed."
I was so in.
As things turned out, Warcraft Adventures wouldn't come out in 1998. Or 1999. In the end, Blizzard's first high-profile canceled game was of 2016, 18 years after it was meant to be released. And its path to that belated arrival is a strange and winding one. The story includes Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy text adventure designer Steve Meretzky, the Russian-American animation company known for the infamous Phillips CD-i Zelda games, a novel adaptation by Christie Golden that would serve as a lead-in to Warcraft 3, and two separate Russian leaks that finally gave the world a look at the near-complete Warcraft Adventures.
Ground level view
In the mid 90s, Blizzard was quickly transforming from a scrappy studio of a dozen into a big name in PC gaming. Selling more than a million copies of Warcraft 2, released a mere year after Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, gave Blizzard a superstar franchise and the money and power to mostly follow their passions.
"We weren't thinking about anything other than doing what we enjoy, and if everybody else enjoys it too, awesome," said Bob Fitch, a 24-year Blizzard veteran who programmed the engine for StarCraft and was most recently technical director for Hearthstone. "There was really no other thinking beyond that. Was there money involved? No, we had no concept of trying to make money off of it, or trying to target anything, really. Other than what are we going to have fun playing."
That sentiment seems to describe Blizzard's general direction at the time, and even years later—WoW came out of a desire to make a more approachable MMO than the Everquests and Ultima Onlines of the late 90s. It also explains how Warcraft Adventures came to be.
"We were really looking to expand the Warcraft universe by doing something that was heavily story focused. There were a lot of people at Blizzard that loved the classic LucasArts adventure games and we hoped we could do something along those lines," former Blizzard producer Bill Roper told me over email. "The concept was to tell an epic origin story of an Orc hero, but also fill it with some dark Warcraft style humor. Also, we were working on Starcraft at the time, so our RTS plate was pretty full."
By this point, Blizzard had experience working up the design for a project—usually an expansion like Warcraft 2: Beyond the Dark Portal—and farming the development out to a third-party studio. For Warcraft Adventures, writer Chris Metzen and producer Bill Roper worked on a story about Thrall, an orc who lived his life in human captivity before escaping and reuniting the scattered clans of the Horde. Blizzard then contracted animation studio Animation Magic to build the point-and-click adventure engine and animate it with traditional 2D cel animation.
While Animation Magic was based in New England, its animation house was in Russia, and that presented a couple problems. The first was communication. Blizzard had worked with third parties before, but this was a significant timezone and language barrier. The second was quality: before Warcraft Adventures, Animation Magic's track record in games like Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon wasn't exactly stellar.
Next to the CD-i Zelda games, Warcraft Adventures looks like a masterpiece. The animation is mostly clean and expressive, more detailed than Animation Magic's earlier work, but still with a bit of a Saturday morning feel. For the year that Warcraft Adventures was in development, Blizzard pushed hard on animation quality.
"Blizzard can be very challenging to work with as a third party developer, which is why their best work always comes from internal production," Roper said. "Blizzard is filled with passionate perfectionists, so it can be hard to meet the exacting standards expected by the company and their fans."
With nearly two decades of hindsight, Warcraft Adventures plays like a conventional, borderline dull point-and-click adventure—and not just because better games have been developed since. Much of Lucasarts' earlier work, like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, have more creative puzzles and a spark of humor that Warcraft Adventures tries for but can't quite reproduce. The bigger problem, perhaps, is that it doesn't quite feel like Warcraft. , Roper commented that Warcraft Adventures looked outdated against contemporary adventure games in 1998. But that wasn't quite the whole story.
"Our competition was making the leap to 3D so the game was definitely behind the graphics curve. However, this wasn’t the sole reason it was cancelled," Roper told PC Gamer. "Blizzard has a well-deserved reputation for releasing only the highest quality games. When I came onto the project about nine months into development, it wasn’t anywhere near there. The puzzles were very far from what a Warcraft fan would expect both in quality and tone. As I recall, there was one puzzle that resulted in Thrall using a flower to attract some creature he was trying to capture. Needless to say, that was so far from what an Orc warrior would be doing, so we had to go back to the drawing board." Roper's solution: bring in a fixer.
The fight to save Warcraft Adventures
"We brought in Steve Meretzky, one of the funniest and talented adventure game developers of the day, to work on salvaging the game," Roper said. "I loved having him on the project, and even had him sign a copy of Superhero League of Hoboken for me. Unfortunately, we were under serious time and budget constraints (I know, that sounds crazy when talking about Blizzard) so we were trying to use as much of the art that was already done as possible. After a few weeks of working within these limitations, Steve and I put together a new roadmap for the gameplay, some new script to record, and a completely revamped UI."
Steve Meretzky made adventure games before they had graphics, working on Infocom classics like Sorcerer and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. At this point, Blizzard had been working on Lord of the Clans for around a year, and the game was essentially complete—but that doesn't mean Blizzard was happy with it. While it's hard to be exact, the version leaked online in September is likely the game in this state, which Meretzky was brought in to workshop.
"The game was completely implemented and ready for testing, but the folks at Blizzard felt it wasn't... 'Blizzard quality,'" wrote Steve Meretzky over email. "On the other hand, they didn't want to spend a whole lot more time and money on the project. So they asked me to come in, with my expertise in the adventure game genre, and see if it could be significantly improved without any new audio, and with only minimal amounts of new art and additional coding. This involved a week of time in Irvine, going through the game with a fine tooth comb and brainstorming with the project's leadership. I know that Bill Roper and Chris Metzen were both in those meetings. … Then I went back home (to Massachusetts) and spec'ed out the various changes that we'd agreed on. Total involvement was just about two weeks of my time."
That two weeks entailed big changes for Warcraft Adventures. Meretzky's memory of their specific changes is hazy after 18 years, but he recalled trying to improve some puzzles to make them "more fair and fun." One puzzle they worked hard on was inside the stomach of the dragon Deathwing. His goal on the project was to come up with less obscure solutions to puzzles, while Roper was obviously concerned with having the game better reflect the style of Warcraft.
Trying to rework puzzles and story without heaps of new animation was obviously no easy task. With Meretzky's help, Blizzard had a plan to redo the UI and reshape other portions of the game. In his opinion, despite their focus on the puzzles, the scope of their changes couldn't have turned Warcraft Adventures into a great game. He called Thrall's story "interesting and even a little big moving" and praised the voice acting, particularly Clancy Brown as Thrall. "Being able to get up close to the characters, weapons, and vehicles of the Warcraft world, and go inside buildings like the aviary and goblin workshop, was such a fun experience," he said." But the art was only serviceable, hardly great, and their changes would've made for okay puzzles, but certainly nothing that stood out from the other adventure games of 1997.
Still, with a potential roadmap for improvement, Blizzard took the unfinished build and those plans to E3. And that would prove to be the end.
"Someone called me, I think it was Bill, to let me know," Meretzky recalled. "He said that they'd shown the game around at E3 to a select group of people they trusted, and the consensus was that it was so far below Blizzard standards, that even with the improvements we'd designed, it still wouldn't be good enough to release. They decided that their choices were to invest a LOT more in the game, or kill it, and then decided to kill it. ... I think Blizzard made the right decision to not release the game, although it made me sad at the time. It wasn't a triple-A-quality game, and Blizzard was known for triple-A games. I'm sure it was a hard decision for them to make. They loved adventure games and wanted to make one, but instead had to kill their baby."
Warcraft Adventures was never released—but it didn't quite stay dead, either.
Eighteen years later
In 2010, a Russian forum poster named Andrey, aka MAN-Biker, posted a video of Warcraft Adventures on Youtube for the members of Russian gaming site . That video has long since been removed, but in 2014 he posted a new longplay of Warcraft Adventures, from the beginning with Thrall in his prison cell to the end. But it's an incomplete beta version of the game, missing the cutscenes.
"I obtained my copy of WA about 8 years ago from my colleague," MAN-Biker explained over email. His colleague was a former game developer who didn't work on Warcraft Adventures, but the Russian development community is seemingly tight-knit. MAN-Biker made videos of his version of the game, removing much of the mystique around the project. We finally knew what it looked like beyond a few scattered screenshots and clips. But finally playing it would take nearly another two years, and another Russian leak.
In September, a user named reidor uploaded a near-complete version of Warcraft Adventures, as it was before Blizzard decided to pull the plug. According to reidor, who runs a , the game was essentially dropped in his lap. He posted on his fan club and on social media that he was looking for music from Warcraft Adventures. A member of his club emailed him a download link, and inside the archive was a full game rip of Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans, cutscenes and all.
Reidor uploaded Warcraft Adventures on September 9. Within two days Blizzard asked him to remove the link and had copies of the game taken down from filesharing sites. "In September [I] received phone call from Blizzard, the truth where they found my home phone … Mystery :)" Reidor wrote me.
By then, of course, it was too late. After Reidor made his move, a download of the beta version MAN-Biker had in his possession also leaked. Warcraft Adventures was finally playable.
"The game code that was leaked is a really fascinating slice of time in the history of Blizzard game development, but it’s not where we were taking the game in terms of puzzles and story if we would have pushed it to completion as opposed to canceling it," Roper said.
Despite their love for the genre, Blizzard never attempted to make another point-and-click adventure, at least not publicly. I always wondered if the title-subtitle combo of Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans hinted at the possibility of other Warcraft Adventures that never came to be, and Roper confirmed that Blizzard wanted to leave that possibility open if this first game was successful.
"There was a desire to have a platform through which we could present many different chapters of our growing Warcraft lore," he said. "Fortunately, that storytelling medium came to light with World of Warcraft."
Despite its early death, the good ideas in Lord of the Clans lived on. Roper and Metzen decided Thrall's story was too good to throw away, and three years later, author Christie Golden wrote a novelization finally telling the story of Thrall's rise to unite the scattered and defeated Horde. That story would lead to his central role in Warcraft 3 and eventually to WoW. Thrall's father Durotan also became an important piece of Warcraft lore and is the protagonist of the 2016 film adaptation.
Few canceled games can claim to have as much impact as Lord of the Clans, and in the end it seems like Thrall was more valuable than the game itself. As much as I'm still drawn to the idea of seeing Azeroth through a ground-level cartoony close-up, the hookah-smoking Deathwing and pigs with jetpacks just weren't quite where Blizzard needed to take its most popular, enduring world.