"We're still working on [Battle.net], and it's kind of up in the air," StarCraft II lead designer Dustin Browder told me. "I kind of wish it wasn't, but it kind of is." nope Browder gave the typical "when it's ready" response when asked of a beta timeframe. The test is scheduled to begin sometime this summer.
However, I did get a chance to talk at length with the affable Browder, thoroughly covering the reasons for the sequel's lengthy development period. In the process, the designer shared some exciting details on the singleplayer portion of the game. What follows is a late-night preview of the full interview, to be published later today:
Shack: I played a version of StarCraft II two years ago, then last year, and now today. With the game being in a playable state for so long, obviously this has been a considerable iterative process for you guys. How has the experience been on your end?
Dustin Browder: Hard. [laughs] Yeah, it's easily the most challenging development environment I've ever worked in. It's really exacting. We're really focused on quality, and that doesn't mean--when I first thought about, I want to work at Blizzard, it's going to be so cool--I thought we would make the game and then polish it. But no: we polish it. That's what we do.
We make and polish at the same time, as we go. So you don't get to jam in a bunch of stuff, and then just redo it. I mean, you do that, but you fix it as you go, so it's always currently the highest quality experience we can figure out. So you're always a minute away from being done--not really, but you know what I mean? You're always trying to make it as strong as you possibly can. You're always arguing about the smallest detail. You're always working on the littlest, tiniest thing you can think of to improve the game.
I can't tell you how many times--we have selection geometry in the game. When you do a click, we don't test against every poly in the game. It would be insane. We have a sphere, or a square, or a variety of shapes that surround each unit, so that we test against a smaller set of polygons so that it doesn't consume our performance every time we make a click. Um.. I can't tell you how many times I've stared at that. [laughs] With every unit up on the screen, and just.. [gasp] That guy has a little corner sticking out! I should be able to click on that! Why can't I click on that? And we do that again and again and again as we go through.
You know, if the Probe has an ear that's sticking out, and you click on that and nothing happens, you're not going to care. But if everything in the game has that, you're going to care. You're going to start to think--maybe you won't know that the selection is crappy. Maybe it's just like, "This game doesn't feel good." And maybe if you're more skilled, "This selection is bad." And if you're awesome, "The probe selection is bad." So we have to work on every tiny detail as much as we can, and it's exhausting.
Shack: Can we talk about Battle.net?
Dustin Browder: I don't know. Let's try. Let's see where they stop us, right? [laughs]
I can't tell you a whole lot because in reality, anything I say might be a lie. We're still working on it, and it's kind of up in the air. I kind of wish it wasn't, but it kind of is. What you saw today is not where we're going. It's a version that we have that has a lot of problems that we don't like. It was never meant to be the final version, but we're getting further and further away from that being close to the final version. We're trying to do more and more stuff.
We're hoping to have support for casual leagues, support for professional leagues, hardcore leagues. Hoping to do a lot more with friends, more with replay sharing. A lot of it you can probably guess, but what makes ship, what doesn't, what comes in later patches--what we decide to do with it exactly does depend. And I've got a design meeting today, and it's about what's going on with Battle.net.
Shack: So it's all up in the air then.
Dustin Browder: There's just a lot more work to do. I could probably show you a full flow of Battle.net today, but I guarantee tomorrow it would be a little different. So work is going on on that, but at the same time the design is "wheeeeeeeee!" And where it's at in the schedule is also sort of free-form right now.
Shack: In terms of the singleplayer campaign, and the decision to include one per game--the response, I think, has been mixed. Some people, myself included, are betting that the content will ultimately justify the split, while others are still skeptical.
Dustin Browder: Yeah, no I know. And maybe they just won't like it and that's the way it is. You know, previously you were going to get a game and two expansions. Now you're going to get a game and you're going to get two expansions. The only difference is that instead of having three campaigns in the game and in each of the expansions, there will be one campaign in each of these expansions, and that's the only difference.
New multiplayer units, improvements to performance, changes to Battle.net, improvements in our tournament system or whatever--all that stuff will come with these expansions just as it would have previously. So we just view it as, look, we're just making two Brood Wars now, except instead of having a bunch of ten-mission campaigns which are too fast, and don't let you experience the full story, we're taking all of that work and putting it into a single story per game.
So I don't think there was any intention to milk anybody of any additional money. This was always going to happen, it's just where the content is placed is now different.
Shack: You haven't shown much of the singleplayer component, and that may be one reason for a lot of the skpeticism. Do you think the Terran campaign will catch some people by surprise?
Dustin Browder: I hope so. It's going to be pretty huge. It's really different than anything you've seen before in our titles. This is sort of a level of choice and options for the player--RTS is typically, you're on the rail man. And if you get a mission you can't beat, I guess you'd better take it back. Well, you can't take it back anymore. [laughs] I'm [thinking] of when you could take games back at [Electronics Boutique].
But you were just stuck right, and that's terrible. But now if you get stuck, you can go, "I'm going to come back to this one. I'm going to go myself something powerful and come back here and make this one suffer." At the same time, I think players--we learned a lot obviously in StarCraft, and I think this team learned even more in WarCraft III, in terms of the kinds of mechanics that you're going to get in this campaign. The kinds of things you're going to be doing in missions, I think is pretty cool stuff that maybe players aren't quite prepared for.
We've got a mission right now where every five minutes, lava rises and kills everything on the ground. Everything dies. You've got to get to the high ground or die. We've got a mission right now where infested Terrans are attacking at night, but they're hiding in the ground by day, so you need to just hold out all night long like you're in I Am Legend. Like, "I've got to live!" and then day, "Get 'em! Kill 'em while they sleep!" And you run out and you burn everything as fast as you can, and then when darkness starts coming you have to get back and hide out.
We've got missions where you're trying to defend a Terran colony that's getting infested one piece at a time, and you've got to try to put out all these fires while fighting off these infested units. We've got this mission where you are a lone ghost trying to influence the course of an entire battle. So each of these missions is like a little minigame.
Shack: Yeah, that's what they sound like.
Dustin Browder: It's like a 15-45 minute minigame. Depending on how fun the mission is it'll be longer or shorter. But each one is its own little game for you to play.
Shack: At this point, are they mostly unique missions, or are there archetypes?
Dustin Browder: As much as we can, as much as we can. I'm sure there's repeated content, but it's not by choice. As much as we can we try to make them different. So if we have a hold-out, we try to make the hold- outs different as much as possible. There's some mechanic about it that's fundamentally different.
Shack: It almost sounds similar to the approach taken with the World of Warcraft quests, in a way.
Dustin Browder: At its best. At its best it is, I agree. We've got missions where you're racing against the Zerg, both fighting your way to the same Protoss base trying to reach a goal. We've got battles on ancient forbidden space platforms where the very space itself damages your units. We've got all kinds of crazy stuff. So this is what we're working on the solo campaign that takes so much time. Each mission is a little game.
And we do this all the time--we come up with a little mechanic that sounds really cool, and we go, wait a minute, what if I just do this and build the 200 food and I'll win. [sighs] It's a constant check and balance between what is fun, what feels unique, and what's too fancy. What's just over-the-top too complicated, can't possibly understand it. So I think for a lot of players it'll be a pretty unique experience. It offers a lot of choice for the player.
They can choose the order of the missions, they can choose which units they want to upgrade. So if you love yourself some medics, hey I got a couple upgrades for you they would make them so powerful we'd never put them in multiplayer. We've got a couple upgrades in there--oh, did you want an eight-man bunker with three armor? Go you. Did you want a Hercules dropship that can carry three Thors into battle, and looks like it can? There's all kinds of crazy stuff that you only get through the solo campaign. I think it'll really rock 'em, but we'll see.