StarCraft 2 Interview: Lead Producer Talks LAN, Expansions, Editor Features and More

After a lengthy hands-on session with the StarCraft II campaign, I got a chance to sit down with lead producer Chris Sigaty and rifle a couple dozen questions at him.

We touched on a few obvious subjects, such as beta time frames and release goals, not knowing that the game would be officially delayed two weeks later. We also delved into some finer points, like the new challenge mode, the editor, the upcoming expansions, and why StarCraft II has taken so long to hit shelves.

Shack: So, to get the obvious stuff out of the way, something you probably can't talk about: will the game ship this year?

Chris Sigaty: What I can say is we will ship it when it's ready, and I don't know when that's going to be. We were working as hard as we can to get it this year, and we're trying to get the beta out as fast as we can. Honestly, it'll be done when it's done, and I don't know when that is at this point.

Shack: You've gotta get it right..

Chris Sigaty: That's how we feel about it for sure.

Shack: ..even right down to the wire.

Chris Sigaty: Well, we're committed to quality. And we've been through several things recently internally. We let the company play singleplayer. You've seen some of the reaction to that--there's still a lot more. This build that you're playing has some reaction to company feedback. The same thing with the early preliminary multiplayer online stuff, that we wanted the company to look at first. And we see that, we hear the feedback, and until we hear what we want to hear, we keep working on it, you know.

Shack: There was a pretty strong reaction to the news that there will be no LAN support in StarCraft II. Were you expecting that?

Chris Sigaty: Yeah, I think any time that people hear news like that, they're going to be upset, or some people will be certainly. The really hard thing about is the primary reason we made it--and it's a tough decision--are some of the things we intend to do with Battle.net. And really a sense of being connected all the time, and whether you are a competitive player or a casual player--we're adding things in there that try and enhance that experience by being connected. So that's really the primary driver behind it, but we can't show that driver, so I think people are reacting to that in the way they will, and they don't have any information.

Shack: Like, perhaps, seeing a rainbow in a screenshot, and then..

Chris Sigaty: Precisely. So I think ultimately, it's going to be a great experience. We're really concerned--of course, it's our bread and butter, is a good, connected, fun multiplayer game. Playing with low latency, and having an experience where you're not complaining about the connection. I know people are saying, "But I do it this way now." There's things that we're going to try to do that if you are close to one another, you get the best connection possible. So we're going to try to alleviate all of people's concerns, but until people play it and see it, I think they'll just react to what they see on paper.

I mean, we've gone through a lot of this so far on the project. Even things as much as us saying we're going to add unlimited selection to the game was met with all sorts of various crazy reactions, even on our own team. It's funny, thinking about the unlimited selection argument--that's still ongoing, although I think it's going to turn out to be just fine. But unlimited selection, originally that was a huge deal, and on our team as well. And one of the guys on our team recently went back and was playing original StarCraft some more, and he said, "Wow, I don't know why I ever pitched a fit, because I can barely go back and think of the older interface in that way." [laughs]

Shack: EA just announced Command and Conquer 4, which will require all players to be constantly connected online, even in singleplayer. Have you considered something similar for StarCraft II?

Chris Sigaty: Well, there's a couple things. You will need to connect once for sure, to basically authenticate the game. And then you can choose to play "offline," we're calling it. But playing offline is more limited. There's a bunch of achievements and that sort of stuff, and that stuff does not happen when you're offline. So it's really to your advantage to be connected.

Shack: But you're not requiring it.

Chris Sigaty: Not for singleplayer. And I think that's also true--singleplayer and challenges. Which you probably saw the button for it, but didn't know anything about it--challenges is another area you can go to. Challenges are something we're trying. We always hear people say, "You look at singleplayer as the training ground for multiplayer, right?" And we don't really.

And in fact here we're kind of training you all wrong, because you can have any unit depending on what missions you went through, and there are units that aren't in multiplayer at all, like Firebats, Medics, all sorts of stuff. We kind of created challenges out of this, and our concept behind challenges is to train you at some of the things that are important to a good competitive player, to be at least aware of. They're little minigames that teach you about things like economy, how to maximize getting resources, unit countering, control grouping, micro, spell usage, all sorts of things like that. Those two things are available when you're offline.

Shack: It almost sounds like a tutorial-plus.

Chris Sigaty: Yeah, it's like a master version of a tutorial. And you can best yourself too. There's a minimum bar we want you to hit, and you can try to best yourself by playing them again and again. It's pretty cool stuff--I'm really excited about it, because I think that's one of the things we haven't done as well in the past, is really helped out people who aren't really experience in multiplayer. And when they jump on there for the first time, nobody's telling them these things, they jump into a game and get their assed handed out, and they just walk out of the experience. We want people to have a place they can go to learn, and eventually get to the point--some of the better players do research, they get replays, they see what the best players do.

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Shack: I was talking to the guys who are making League of Legends recently, and that was one of the things they're focusing on, a progression where you play against bots and slowly ramp up to online play. Because it is challenging to pick up a new set of rules in a competitive game, particularly with strategy games.

Chris Sigaty: Very much so. I think more than people realize.

Shack: Even somebody like me, if I haven't played StarCraft in a while, it can be daunting.

Chris Sigaty: I think today's age of gaming is pretty different than it was before. Everybody's a gamer now. Somebody played Guitar Hero once and they're now a gamer. And it's like, okay, we've gotta bridge the gap here. Same thing with World of Warcraft--WoW is pretty user friendly, at least as far as MMOs go, and I think we'll see some people that come over from there, and it's a big jump.

Shack: Let's talk about the campaign missions. I was a little surprised by the first one, because it was a fairly linear, straightforward level. And then the campaign sort of branched out to more complex missions, and I calmed down. Has there been any push-and-pull there in terms of how to balance traditional base-building gameplay with the minigame-type stuff, though?

Chris Sigaty: Yeah, I mean there's definitely--we're trying to make sure there is traditional StarCraft play, but we are embracing the concept that every mission has its own gimmick or fun-factor in it, and that it is its own experience and its own ride. It adds to the replayability to some extent, which way you chose to go, you have this experience with the mission that lava rises or falls. Or escorting the civilians off the planet, or whatever sort of thing--that each one is its own experience.

But with regards to the beginning of the campaign, that's just a ramping issue, and we knew the first one needed to have some degree of, hey, you're just playing for the first time, baby steps. So that was a conscious decision. I think you'll see, as someone coming from RTS before, it really takes off starting with the third mission. Each one is its own experience.

Shack: Are you going to recommend people play those challenges first? Or are you expecting people to go right into the campaign?

Chris Sigaty: Certainly campaign is put in your face more than anything else. What we want is when you get into there, there's enough for a new player to watch the tutorials, play the mission, get through it. If you're hardcore, go ahead and click "Insane" or "Hard," and it's much harder to beat those missions. So we have something there to cater to that group as well. A lot of the stuff we're doing to help with people that are already knowledgeable is adding side quests and things like that.

Shack: I know the editor is supposed to be fairly robust, but in terms of users creating their own story content, will they have access to the cutscene tools?

Chris Sigaty: Um, that's definitely possible. We have lots of assets that are capable of being scripted and made into their own cinematics. We oftentimes do a lot of custom work on those things, so they hit a certain level of polish that we want to hit. But certainly the end user can go ahead and script together sequences on their own using these characters. You can also use the in-game units, but if you want to get really close with the camera, you'll want to use the story-level characters.

Shack: Some of that is procedurally generated, the lip movement and face effects. Is that in the editor?

Chris Sigaty: Face effects is in there. Within the context of the game, you can make and process a face effects line to be used in the game.

Shack: And we should expect the editor to ship with the game, correct?

Chris Sigaty: Yes, absolutely. For sure. And it's much more powerful than the Warcraft III stuff. We've put a lot of things in there to try to embrace the same sorts of things we did moving from StarCraft to Warcraft III.

Shack: Let's talk about the sequels for a minute. Is that work ongoing, or are you totally focused on getting Wings of Liberty shipped?

Chris Sigaty: It is ongoing. We are talking right now about what the moments are in the second campaign, or the first expansion, so there's a lot of effort and work that has to go into getting these prerendered movies together, we need to know everything that's in them.

We haven't figured out exactly the mechanics that we'll use through story mode. We want them to be different--you're not a mercenary again, we want you to have some other mechanics that you'll play and use as Zerg. The missions themselves we haven't even begun talking about, but we will pretty soon.

We'll start talking about that stuff in the next couple months probably, to make sure that we have a head start we can move into, because it's going to be ambitious as well. What we do know already is that the overarching story has been determined, and we know that we're going to do Zerg next and Protoss after that. A lot of the little details are things that we'll move on to pretty soon.

Shack: And in terms of the time inbetween each release, are you expecting it to be fairly significant?

Chris Sigaty: Well, I.. I wish I could look into my crystal ball and know exactly how long. We want to be as ambitious as we can. StarCraft II has taken a while. We're very aware of that. We want to get it out as soon as possible. Once we do, the time inbetween Warcraft III and the Frozen Throne was a year. That's going to be pretty ambitious for something as complex as this, the story mode and all that, but we don't want to go too long, either.

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Shack: The price of these expansions has some people nervous. Fans are concerned about the splitting of the campaigns, and they're saying..

Chris Sigaty: "You're going to gouge us."

Shack: Right. And you're talking about them as expansions, so in terms of value, what should we expect?

Chris Sigaty: I think one thing that we've done is we've put a really good price on the things that we've offered. A lot of the reviews on our expansions have always been really stellar, and the amount of content has been a lot, considering they've always been a reduced-price game.

We're going to value it at what it's worth. And honestly, internally, how we look at it, we look at it like it's the Frozen Throne and the Frozen Throne 2, or Brood War and Brood War 2. We think we're adding at least that amount of content, but we're not going to gouge people, we're going to charge them what's fair.

I honestly don't know--we haven't begun to talk about anything like that. But we effectively look at it internally as expansions. So we'll see what that means for the price--we're not just going to raise it and call it that for the purposes of that. We would need to offer the same content.

Shack: Because you haven't really gotten into the dev side, you don't know..

Chris Sigaty: I don't know the exact price or anything like that, but we haven't even stated the price of StarCraft II yet. So when you find out it's $150 for StarCraft II, you're going to.. [laughs] I'm kidding.

But yeah, I think internally, we want to do it a little bit fast, get a full campaign out there with enhancements to the multiplayer game. And in doing so, it would likely be an expansion-level product, and a Blizzard expansion-level product, but still something that doesn't quite have the same content as the original. So we'll see, but that'd be my best guess right now.

Shack: With the original StarCraft, you guys released patches and maps right up until recently..

Chris Sigaty: Sure, we've released patches for StarCraft.. this year.

Shack: Yeah, exactly. With the expansions already planned, will we see any smaller updates and map releases inbetween them?

Chris Sigaty: Yeah, definitely. We have traditionally done that the whole time. We did that with Warcraft III, had several major patches while we were developing the expansion. Same thing with StarCraft and Brood War. We'll definitely be paying close attention to the numbers, and what's going on with the balance of the game, so you can definitely expect patches along the way.

Shack: And content?

Chris Sigaty: Oh sure, sure. There will be things that won't make it for launch, that we'll have wanted to make it for launch, that are bits of content we'll add in for patches. And then there will be major things added during our expansions. Similiar to some things you've seen with WoW, actually.

Shack: Last time I was here a month ago, Battle.net was fairly up in the air. Are things getting nailed down at this point?

Chris Sigaty: We're starting to get a picture of what we're going to do for ship, but we still have a lot of work to do, both for the beta and ship. I'm really excited about it. It's a different, much more integrated experience. I want to get people up there playing as soon as we can, but there's still just a lot of work we need to get done.

Shack: The beta target was this summer. Are you still optimistic you'll hit that?

Chris Sigaty: Um, optimistic.. honestly, the best I can say right now is that we'll get the beta out when it's ready. I don't know if I touched on this or not, but we just recently put the singleplayer and multiplayer game in front of the company, and have been reacting to feedback. Based on those things, there are things we identify that we want to take care of, and we're trying to address them as quickly as we can. Even what you're seeing here has more things that were part of the identified issues that we're working on, but we wanted to get it in front of you guys as quickly as we could.

Shack: Do you think of the beta more as a stress test, or a chance for feedback?

Chris Sigaty: Oh, absolutely. That's one of the reasons that we think the beta is going to take three or four months of time. We said as much as five or six, but realistically the first month of the beta will be everybody marine rushing, Zerg rushing and zealot rushing. Until we can get out of that mold--because people just cling to what they know, and I think a lot of players are going to do that. And then once they start breaking up and getting to some of the crazy stuff that I know is in there, balance issues, or just some of the cool things that the new units do, then we'll start getting the meat and potatoes of it. And those are the things we really need, and want.

So it's on really three fronts for us--certainly a stress test, and that's why we're doing it in all of the regions. We still don't have a roll-out schedule for that, US vs. Asia vs. Europe. Second thing is, just feature standpoint, what are people seeing, what are they having problems with. And finally there's balance, and we'll definitely pay very close attention to what people are saying, and what we're seeing. We get more info than what you guys get, on what maps are being played more often, what's winning on which maps, that sort of thing.

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Shack: Will a lot of the final features make it into the beta?

Chris Sigaty: It will be substantive features--it will have the main stuff that I think players will be mostly involved in. Matchmaking is something that we do want to look at for sure. At least some ability to track how players are doing. At least wins and losses, that sort of thing. But I can't go into too much detail.

Shack: But there will be no singleplayer or skirmish content, right?

Chris Sigaty: No, although we will include at least some level of AI, so that players can jump into games and play against the AI if they want to, to make sure they're at least able to experiment between matches.

Shack: Speaking of the AI, I was playing around in skirmish earlier. How far along is it at this point?

Chris Sigaty: It's pretty far along. If you go up and play "Hard" and "Insane"..

Shack: Yeah, I did. I noticed.

Chris Sigaty: ..it'll kick your ass. Well, depending..

Shack: Oh, it kicked my ass. [laughs] I'm not going to lie.

Chris Sigaty: It's far along. The big thing is, every change we make has a fairly significant impact on it. So we really want to get to beta, because we'll have to make changes in reaction to the public. So there'll be more things to do. It does a lot of cool things. The most interesting thing about the AI is, if you weren't aware of this yet, is that it does scout, it doesn't know what's going on until it sees your units. Insane, however, does not--that's like the AIs of old. For easy, medium and hard, it's all real, and that's significant and a pretty big deal. It's fun stuff.

Shack: Yeah. [laughs] Unless you're on the losing end.

Chris Sigaty: Yeah. That's the cool thing though, we have so many dials now. You can start on beginner, which does nothing, and then we have a handicap too. We're still working on the handicap, but right now it just lowers the health on all of the units. So if you have an AI on Beginner at 50% health, and you can go in and beat that. And if you can beat it, you go up each time. Then you can move to easy, and do the same thing.

Shack: So bringing this all together.. this game has been in development for a long time now. Were your initial goals too ambitious? Or do you feel like this process has lead to a better product in the end?

Chris Sigaty: I don't think it's too ambitious. I think it's.. we have always been our biggest critics. And also, have the grandest ideas of what we'll do. All of our products have had massive amounts of debate on what we'll ultimately end up with, and then we cut, and add, and chop, and end up with what we get. Basically, the goals we set out are what we're hitting.

But the problem has just been bandwidth of the team, you know, there are a lot of things that affected our schedule. World of Warcraft is probably one of the biggest worth mentioning. After we made the decision to make this game, a majority of our team helped with World of Warcraft. So all of 2004 and part of 2003, we had artists helping build art for that. Various things have come up. We go down a path, we head in another direction.

I don't think it's been too ambitious. I think part of the problem is figuring out what it is, when we set these goals, like, "We're going to make singleplayer something new and unique and go to the next level for us. And we're going to do that with the online experience." Great, we make that statement early, but what that really means is where all the actual effort comes out of. So we just have spent a lot of time figuring out what that means for us.

Shack: And I imagine the stress comes in at the point where you have to say, "Okay, now, which path are we taking?"

Chris Sigaty: Right. It's been a while, what are we doing, we've got to get this thing going. That's where the stress hits. We do actually--even though externally it's "when it's done," and that's a true statement--we still try to set dates. And we set those dates, and when they move, that's very frustrating to us. Ultimately the challenges are always, getting this big scope of stuff, and figuring out what that really means, and then accomplishing it. But I see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Shack: Has that experience changed the way you're approaching the expansions?

Chris Sigaty: Certainly what we've learned about story mode, and even online--once we get that basis, now we're just enhancing and improving. But yes, it absolutely will help us with the expansions, because we're not reinventing the wheel now.

Shack: Are you at all anxious about the release?

Chris Sigaty: No, I'm not now. I was in the beginning only because there's so much, just more.. "Where's the new big thing?" What's this thing, whatever gimmick it was. And really, it was very conscious, we said, we think there is something very magical about the StarCraft experience, and there's a whole generation of people that haven't experienced it. So let's get it out in front of people in a new engine, and kind of move it into the next generation. And that was the goal from the get-go, but of course we've heard all that stuff, everybody's experimenting in RTS, and games in general, and they're all going all sorts of directions to figure out what they want.

So I had some concerns about the initial reactions, but actually playing the game now, I think it's exactly what we had talked about in the beginning. Which is, on its surface, if you've played before, you recognize it, you think you know it, you get that sense of nostalgia to some extent. Then you play it, and you figure out: wow, I do know, but there's a lot I need to relearn now.

Shack: Thanks Chris.