Before its realm of Azeroth was brought to life in 2004’s World of Warcraft, Blizzard had tried once before to add a little depth to their fantasy franchise with a game that sadly never saw the light of day.
That game was Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans.
In the late 1990’s, and seeking to capitalise on the success of its Warcraft series of strategy games, Blizzard decided to develop, of all things, a point-and-click adventure game in the style of Lucasarts classics like Monkey Island and Sam & Max.
Lacking the experience in either developing within this genre or producing the 2D animation required for it, Blizzard struck up a deal with Animation Magic, a company based in the US but with employees in Russia. And this is where it gets interesting.
See, Animation Magic was hired for its expertise in crafting 2D animation. Yet its track record in this regard can be regarded as, well, a little suspect. Its most notable completed projects were the awful CD-i Zelda games, another awful CD-i game and an educational title.
Nevertheless, the deal was completed, and while Animation Magic got to work creating the game’s artwork and 22 minutes worth of 2D animation sequences for the cutscenes, Blizzard handled the story and recorded the sound effects and dialogue.
Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans was first announced in 1997, and promised to be “the pivotal next chapter in the epic Warcraft saga”. Taking the player to “More than 60 stunning locations within seven Azeroth regions”, it would also feature a “classical soundtrack of Warcraft music”. So, yeah, it was a proto-WoW.
Most promising, however, especially for my teenage self, was the inclusion of voice work by Peter Cullen, otherwise known as the man behind Optimus Prime, and Clancy Brown, who you may know better as Kurgan from Highlander.
All of which sounded great, and a trailer for the game included on the CD-ROM release of StarCraft only made it sound greater. Here was a game fleshing out the characters and world of Warcraft, in a genre that at the time was still one of the most popular on the PC. It was the stuff of fanboy dreams.
Sadly, dreams were all this game would ever be. While Blizzard and Animation Magic were at work on the game in 1997, the masters of the adventure genre, Lucasarts, released Monkey Island III, which boasted animation and visuals in excess of what Warcraft Adventures was currently showing off. Making matters worse was that Lucasarts then debuted trailers for Grim Fandango, a fully 3D adventure game, and that blew the “quaint” 2D animation of Warcraft Adventures clean out of the water.
Producer Bill Roper said of the one-upmanship “I think that one of the big problems with WarCraft Adventures was that we were actually creating a traditional adventure game, and what people expected from an adventure game, and very honestly what we expected from an adventure game, changed over the course of the project.”
Despite the fact the game was almost entirely finished, from puzzles to animation to voice recording, Blizzard suddenly was uncomfortable releasing a game that was by now shaping up to be well behind the genre leaders. So it hired adventure game legend Steve Meretzky (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) to come in and take a look at the game, see what changes needed to be made to salvage the project.
Meretzky recommended sweeping alterations to the title, but by then it was too late. The game, originally due out in late 1997, would not make 1998 were those changes to be made, and this delay, coupled with problems Blizzard was having with its Russian animators, became too much.
On May 22, 1998, Blizzard made the decision to scrap the game, figuring that – like it did with StarCraft Ghost – it was better to cancel a game it knew wasn’t great than risk having a mediocre title in its back catalogue. Ironically, the problems weren’t with the work performed by Animation Magic, which in the end was seen as a big improvement on the studio’s previous efforts.
While the idea of Warcraft Adventures would eventually come to life in World of Warcraft, the adventure game project died a commercial death.
This death, though, wasn’t necessarily the end. Because it had been essentially completed, versions of Warcraft Adventures existed, and more importantly, existed in Russia. While it has never been leaked to the public, a former developer (or friend of a former developer) has a copy, and did the world a favour by posting a playthrough online a few months ago.
You can watch the first of them here, complete with Clancy Brown’s wonderfully gravelly voice work.