StarCraft 2 Interview: Reaction and Reflection

By Nick Breckon, Jul 01, 2009 7:21pm PDT Fans are never shy of criticizing Blizzard teams. And while it's tough to imagine the intense scrutiny doesn't affect developer sanity to some degree, StarCraft II lead designer Dustin Browder can say for a fact his game is better for it.

I asked Browder how that feedback factors into Blizzard development during an interview at the company's headquarters last week. Other topics included Battle.net, the singleplayer content, and the decision to keep StarCraft II looking like StarCraft.

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.

If you look at the WoW forums, WoW is the worst game ever made. I don't agree.
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: How much is this a reactive process--in other words, based on feedback you're receiving--and how much is it internal polishing?

Dustin Browder: Some of both. Obviously right now before beta it's mostly us, with some reaction. After beta, it kind of goes the other way. Right now we're definitely doing most of the stuff internally, with some external feedback. Obviously we watch the boards and a lot of sites, including our own of course, and we kind of see what people are seeing, and try to understand what their concerns are. And we try to make a decision, are those concerns real, or is it because they haven't played the game yet? And that's the toughest call right now.

When we go to beta, we won't have to answer that question. We'll know then for sure that he just doesn't like it. And that's an even harder choice at that point--well, he doesn't like it, but if other people like it, what do we want to do? But we definitely look at the boards to see what's going on out there, and a lot of the stuff that people are worried about, macro vs. micro decisions--

Shack: Mutliple building selection..

Dustin Browder: Yeah. What do we say? Do we agree? Do we not agree? What do we think? We watch it very carefully.

Shack: Taking that specific issue, is that something you were greatly concerned about already?

Dustin Browder: I would say that the community in many cases has definitely raised our enthusiasm to solve a certain problem. We were always aware that macro and micro was a problem that we wanted to deal with. Their enthusiasm for it made us more enthusiastic. While we were always aware that multiple building selection and some of our other automated features was a concern, their concern raised our enthusiasm to deal with the issue, and certainly influenced what we were looking at doing.

Unfortunately I can't say, "They told us to do that and we did it," which is what everyone wants to hear. At the end of the day that's not usually what happens. We usually end up taking it and saying, "They said to do this, but we think this will solve that issue, or one part of that we don't care about, but this part is huge."

Shack: The graphical iteration seems like another place where the fans may have had some impact. The game certainly looks more grimy than it once did.

Dustin Browder: I think so. I mean you can ask our art guys, but I think the fan reaction was part of it. There was internal reaction as well. We were like, "Ehh, our stuff looks a little too shiny." Then the fans kind of dogpiled. So like I said before, the fans don't really force our hand, but they definitely get our attention. We're like, "Oh.. we agree." [laughs] You know what I mean? "Yeah.. you guys are right. You guys are right!" And that's totally good. It gives us additional pressure to sort of do it.

Shack: That kind of improvement seems like a nice byproduct of your development process. As much work as it must be to keep the game constantly up to spec, the fact that you do have something current and fairly robust to show off allows people to have that reaction.

Dustin Browder: And allows them to comment in a way that feels legitimate. Like, "I don't like the way that looks." It's like, well, that is the way it looks. Maybe you don't like it, but.. some people we do disagree with.

The team colors were a big contention. I think generally, not that we can't be convinced--somebody on the boards will blast us--but I think it helps a lot. It helps a lot, and I don't think it looks that bad in-game. But a lot of folks don't like it. So we're not always in agreement with the community.

There are definitely times where the community says, "You should do this," and.. look at the WoW forums. If you look at the WoW forums, WoW is the worst game ever made. I don't agree. [laughs] I think WoW is really cool. If six people bought it, I would still think that is a cool game. We won't always agree with the community, but at the same time they definitely have an influence, they definitely have a voice, and it's a voice that's been very helpful to us.

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Shack: During this process, how do you balance the concerns of pro gamers and casual gamers?

Dustin Browder: It's really hard, because the casual gamer doesn't post. His voice is quiet. So we have to try to hear him. We have to try to listen to what he might be saying if he were here. And so that's what makes it really challenging. And that's what's so hard for the pro gamers too, because they don't hear or believe in that voice 100%, but that's okay.

So we definitely sort of have to keep a lookout for them as we're going forward. I've definitely seen some suggestions from the community where the casual gamer would just go out of his mind if he had to play that way. But I understand what the pro guy is going for. Like, your implementation is horrible, but your idea, your core urge, is 100% right. How can I give you what you want without hurting this other guy? And that's the constant tight-rope we walk.

Shack: Are you playtesting the game with pro and casual gamers simultaneously?

Dustin Browder: Sometimes. We do a lot more casual testing for the campaign, and we do that simultaneously. So we'll have guys on strike teams that have never played an RTS before, and guys on strike teams that have played way too many RTS games.

For the multiplayer, what we tend to do is focus on making it great for the hardcore, and then finding ways outside of the game for the casual guy to learn and get his feet wet. Just like level 80 raiding is not designed for the casual, but the 1-79 kind of is. We don't have the advantage of that tiering, so we have to find other ways to get that done.

Whether we'll succeed or not is open for debate, but we have casual leagues, our challenge mode. Better matchmaking, where we find ways to keep out the guys who are re-rolling. We've got a casual league that lets you play at normal difficulty on anti-rush maps. We've got plans for a version of the game where you've got challenges that you can play through that teach you a key component of multiplayer strategy. Each one of these 5-10 minute missions says, "Here's how you use hot keys. By the way, we've turned off the buttons. You're going to have to use hot keys to do this," and we'll score you.

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.
And you really can't lose, but we'll just score you better and better, and then at a certain point it'll say, "You know what, that's good enough, you've learned basic hotkeys-- good for you. Now go use them." Or, "Hey, you know what, you need to learn to resource. You need to make these five things in the next ten minutes. Unless you're resourcing at full capacity, this is never going to work. If you're floating 3000 minerals and not spending it, you're going to lose this mission, so practice. Once you've got this challenge down, you'll be ready for some serious economy building in the game." Or, "Here's how you use some of the counters. Or here's how you do some basic micro."

So even if you can't always master it, it sort of opens your mind to the bigger world. You go, "Oh, that's what micro means, I get it." And we hope it'll open them up to a bigger, wider game experience. If you don't know how to hold a baseball bat you can hardly play baseball, but if you know the basics of how to hold and swing at pitches, you can start having fun right away. You'll just get better as you go.

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, can see how the content could 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.

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Shack: You haven't shown much of the singleplayer component, and that may be one reason for a lot of the skepticism. 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 and repeated content?

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.

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Shack: In terms of the adventure stuff--well I don't know, what do you guys call it?

Dustin Browder: We have a terrible name for it, we call it "story mode." But you can call it the "adventure stuff," that's probably better.

Shack: When did those elements come in during the project timeline?

Dustin Browder: That was day one. We've been planning to do that for a long time, we were just lying to ourselves about the scope. We were like, "Wow, we can do that. We'll have three campaigns in one box, and whooo, we'll do 20 missions per race, we'll have like 60 missions, yeeahhhh!"

The three pillars of this game that have remained fairly true throughout, we're going to hearken to the legacy of the original StarCraft, but we're going to add new strategies as well. So you're going to see something new, but it's not going to be the craziest, newest thing you've ever seen. It's still going to be StarCraft at its core. We're going to do something all-new with the campaign, and we're going to do as much as we can to make the Battle.net experience just over-the-top, better than you've seen from us before.

Shack: So was it always the plan to stick relatively close to the original design, or was there a moment where you considered a drastically different, perhaps more over-the-top version of StarCraft?

Dustin Browder: Everyone always kind of knew that we wanted to make this game feel like you were coming home. Still at its root a really bad-ass, competitive RTS. Not like, "We're bored of RTS, let's redo it completely! Let's get rid of base-building and redo this. We'll have a first-person mode!"

I've been at studios that wanted to do that. First-person mode was going to go into every Command & Conquer since 1999. It was going to be like, "First-person mode!" [laughs] It was like, oh my god you guys, this is a terrible idea. So we really wanted to make it like--we still think RTS games are cool. If you're bored, then that's cool, go buy another game and we're fine with that. But we think RTS games are cool, we think you'll have a lot of fun if we make a really good one--let's just make a good one.

Shack: Is the extent of the mode a hub for players to explore between levels?

Dustin Browder: Yeah, it's like a hub. It's like a place that lets you choose your mission, your technology. We've added some parts that haven't been in there in the past, that I don't think I've told anybody else about today actually--we've actually got some mercenaries you can hire, which is a new way to get some troops onto the field. And they're one use per mission, but they regenerate after every mission.

We've got some research that you can do, and that's really just a fancy way of saying we have some quests for you. So you have a scientist that says, "Okay, here's the deal: I can get some really cool technology for you, but I need you to go get some stuff from the battlefields." So when you get into the battlefields, some battlefields will say hey, there's a research objective. Find the Protoss artifacts, or find and kill that giant horrible Zerg creature that's going to really wreck your day unless you're really ready to fight him.

So then once you complete enough of those, over multiple missions we unlock some special tech for you. And then of course the armory tech where you choose what upgrades you want to have for your units.

So it's a hub for all these things, and then in addition, it's a chance for you to get a little bit closer to these characters and find out more about the story if you're inclined. If you're not inclined it's cool. We've got lots of little cutscenes that are full of action and people shouting at eachother and stuff. You can just watch those and you get the gist. But if you want to find out more of the inner motivations, you can delve into it.

And our theme in this one, it's like, look, everyone has a different tolerance for story. Some people want more, some people want less. We don't want to force it down their throat, but we don't want it not in there. So we create an environment where it's much more of an optional experience. If you're really interested in these characters--and we kind of hope that at some point everyone is interested in at least some of them--then you can sort of customize your story experience and get as much of it as you want.

Shack: It sort of reminds me of flight sim games.

Dustin Browder: It's very Wing Commander.

Shack: Yeah, Wing Commander, any of those games.

Dustin Browder: Tie Fighter, yeah. Wing Commander is one of our obvious favorite games. We all played it back in the day and loved it, and it's something that definitely spoke to us. I know we're going back years now to pull some of these things out, but we kind of feel like hey, what if it works? Other folks sort of feel like there's sort of an evolution, you can't go back. We're like, hey, if it works, we can go anywhere.

Shack: People talk about that in terms of the RTS and strategy genres, moving to consoles, and what might--

Dustin Browder: "Where's it going," right?

Shack: Exactly. And you guys seem to be saying..

Dustin Browder: It's going where it's fun. And it should go wherever it makes sense for every game. Some of our competitors are doing stuff that I would never do for StarCraft, but I respect it.

For them it makes sense. They're trying to differentiate themselves, and they want to do something a little different. The parts of RTS they don't enjoy, and maybe their fans don't enjoy--like, if you don't like base building, hey there are some games out there that do that. I like it, and I think a lot of our fans do as well, so for us it makes sense to keep a lot of those elements.

Shack: Thanks Dustin.

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