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Interview: StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm director Dustin Browder

We chat with StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm's game director, Dustin Browder, and ask him what new things the next chapter in the beloved RTS series has in store.

Last week, at a closed-door press event, Blizzard showed off a first glimpse at a couple of missions from the single-player campaign for StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. For the uninitiated, Heart of the Swarm puts players in the role of Kerrigan, an ex-assassin and psionic badass who was infested against her will by the insect-like alien race known as the Zerg. Now known as the Queen of Blades (and murderer of billions), Kerrigan's finds herself in a seat of great power, in command of a vast Zerg army, and is roundly despised by the Terrans, Protoss, and rival Zerg broods alike. After a few hours of laying waste to Kerrigan's foes in the two missions that were available, I sat down to get some more information from Heart of the Swarm's game director, Dustin Browder. Among other things, I asked him about how playing as Kerrigan differs from playing as Wings of Liberty protagonist, Jim Raynor, some of the game's new "light-RPG" gameplay elements, and the challenges of (re)educating players about the Zerg and their bug-like units. I began by asking Browder for a top-level overview of Heart of the Swarm, in particular, how the single-player experience will feel and play differently than Wings of Liberty.
You're playing as the monsters this time, so we wanted the story to have a much darker feel to it. We want to have you making some questionable choices about how to proceed. Kerrigan is fighting for her life. She's hunted, feared, and hated by almost every sentient creature in the galaxy. So, she's on the run, and in many cases--even if she's on the attack--it's in her own defense.
At the same time, mechanically, we want to make you feel like the bugs--like the monsters. Swarms of troops aggressively assaulting with wave attacks--these are the kinds of feelings we're trying to accomplish. It's a little difficult in a solo campaign, because players are, by their nature, conservative. In a solo-play environment, they don't know what we're going to thow at them next, so they tend to be more cautious. So, we're trying to do some different things, [like] giving you a lot more free units, and encouraging you to expand. [We want] to try and see if we can get players a little out of their comfort zone, and to get them out there on the map, grabbing the resources that they need, and grabbing the units that they need so they can overwhelm the enemy.
A staple of StarCraft has always been its disparate alien races and unit-types. In the case of the Terrans (humans) in Wings of Liberty, units are easy to identify given their visual commonalities with real-world counterparts. The game's Siege Tank actually looks like a giant tank, for example. I asked Browder about the particular challenges of designing units for the Zerg that were both appropriately bug-like, but still accessible enough for players to immediately understand.
Well, there are going to be some more challenges for us, and honestly, I haven't done the 'new user' testing for Heart of the Swarm yet, to know how bad this problem is going to be. We did some pretty extensive 'new user' testing on Wings of Liberty where we had players who had never really played a real-time-strategy game before--but were gamers--come in and play our game and see how they did. We did a lot of tuning, especially in the early levels, to really try to smooth it out. We went from groups of people that would come in and couldn't finish mission one, and by week six and week eight that we were doing it, they were blowing through mission five and looking for more content. So we made a bunch of improvements. Of course, I imagine we'll go through the same process as we did with Wings of Liberty. I don't know yet what kind of nightmare challenges it will put in front of us. It could be very real.
We are fortunate, in the sense that StarCraft has been very good in the past about: the small creatures are fast and light, the bigger creatures tend to be slower and tougher, and we have tried to communicate some semblance of that. But you're right. Does a roach shoot air? That's not going to be obvious. As opposed to something with maybe guns pointing up. You know what I mean? So, it'll be interesting to see what the challenges there are.
Browder also assured me that everything from unit specs to artwork would be carefully tested and reviewed, and that the team is committed to make sure everything works just as it should. That said, any tweaks or changes will be within reason, being careful to avoid messing with series staples.
We tend to do [testing and balancing] towards the end, because we can't do it until we've got something built. And then we just polish and smooth as much as we can. Though I don't really expect to change the Hydralisk because new users are confused. The Hydralisk is the Hydralisk. But I could do more things with tutorials, more things with movies, more things with tips, simpler mechanics on easy mode.

Choose your Kerrigan.

Heart of the Swarm will also feature some "light-RPG" elements, namely the ability to choose a suite of powers that Kerrigan can use to support her army during each mission. Browder explained that while the ability sets were still being determined, the goal is to add some supplemental customization to Kerrigan that will not only help keep players invested in her as a character, but will also provide some tactical differences during combat.
We've known for a while that we wanted Kerrigan to be a hero on the battlefield and be someone you can control and use because she is a creature of incredible psionic power--even before she was taken by the Zerg--and god help you after she was taken. So, she's incredibly dangerous, and we want her out on the battlefield, smashing stuff up. We explored a number of ways to do that. We explored skill trees, and a lot of different ways. What we're really trying to go for, as we go for many of our choices in StarCraft, is to try to make sure that that the choices are real choices. That everything is balanced enough that it really... [what you choose] kind of depends on your style and the nature of the mission. There's no Internet page you can go to go, 'Well, i'll always choose that.' We really don't want that to happen--though, it probably will--but we want to do the best we can to make sure that it's challenging for our players to find the perfect choices.
So, we've created these very distinct styles for Kerrigan to fight in. That isn't coming through as much in the demo you're playing today--it's still a pretty rough system for us. We want to have, like the sneaky Kerrigan, the defensive Kerrigan, the Kerrigan that's powerful with air units, the Kerrigan that is powerful with Roaches... maybe. I don't know. But we're trying to have different Kerrigans with different styles of combat, so that you really kind of choose the style that you feel comfortable with, but that also makes sense for the mission you're on.
We're not sure yet if we're going to let you change [power-sets] mid-mission. That seems likely to me. We could very easily see getting into a scenario... 'I didn't really understand the briefing. This is wrong. I chose the wrong Kerrigan. Reload.' Which is something that we don't want you to have to do. So we'll probably allow you to change [power-sets] in the map, but that's something we're still sort of exploring.
Much like the Wings of Liberty's armory, Heart of the Swarm's evolution chamber lets players upgrade their units, but also lets folks evolve their units with experience and DNA they accrue on missions. I asked Browder how mechanics like DNA-collection (from the Kaldir demo level) would factor in to the overall experience.
Not sure. I mean, clearly the mutations for the Swarm would have that element to them where you're trying to collect DNA. Are we going to ask you to find specific DNA sometimes? We're thinking not, because if you miss something, then you'll feel like you need to replay that mission, which would kind of suck. As opposed to, 'Well, I can pick it up later if I really want it." But I don't know, for sure. We're exploring different versions of that. Right now, we're definitely saying, 'Look. You've got to get different mutagens and DNA from killing weird creatures and from playing missions.' And then you have sort of a hard choice. When you've evolved a creature enough, now it has sort of the genetic strength to take on these new forms. We're trying to make these new forms feel as strange and weird and different as we possibly can, so you can feel like, 'Dude, I've really changed what a Baneling is," or, "I've really changed what a Zergling is by making this evolutionary choice.'
Browder clarified that the goal is to make strategy and tactics evolve in such a way as to provide the player with different tactical experiences, based on their choices.
The hope is that [players will feel], 'Well, I've made these kinds of choices, so now I have a swarm that plays a little bit more in this way." That you'd have a choice to customize [Kerrigan] based on your sort of play. 'I prefer a more slow-moving, methodical mass strategy,' versus, 'I prefer something that sort of hits and backs off.' Or maybe you just want to burrow. Like, I don't know what all the strategies might be.

Abathur, Kerrigan, and Izsha, respectively.

As discussed in my Heart of the Swarm preview, Kerrigan is able to interact with select members of the Zerg hierarchy before each mission. My experience conversing with both Abathur (the evolution master) and Izsha (the advisor) led me to believe that their relationships with Kerrigan are tenuous, at best. I asked Browder to elaborate a bit on their general design.
I know for Abathur, Sammy [Didier] wanted to have something--It was his pitch. I was like, 'Yeah, do that!'--spidery and spindly, to give it kind of an evil and diabolic nature. I think he had in his [concept] image that it was using webs and stuff to view the genetic structure of a creature that it was working on. Like it would weave these webs together. He ended up with this very spidery, grotesque creature. I saw the concept and I was blown away. 'Oh, my god. That's such a horrible Zerg monster. That's Abathur!'
For Izsha [the advisor], they were obviously going for a mixture of human and monster. We wanted something with kind of a face, that could talk to you, as opposed to Abathur, which, really... he's got some eyes and a mouth somewhere, but I don't even know what he's looking at. But we wanted something with kind of a face that [Kerrigan] could maybe have a little more of an emotional connection with--something that you could look at and feel a little more connected to. I think you'll see more monsters than faces moving forward. There are more characters coming, and I think that more and more of them are going to go the monsterous route.
I think you can expect Kerrigan to have a much rougher relationship with most of the people she's hanging around with. She's a pretty angry person, not a lot of friends, and she doesn't have a lot of love for these creatures. I think those relationships may be very contentious.
Despite a strong first showing, Heart of the Swarm is still very much under development, as evidenced by Browder's reply when I asked him about his favorite Zerg unit-type.
I'm not quite there, yet on those. Not sure. Those, I'm still like, 'Hmmm. I think we can do better. I'm not completely in love with them, yet.' I think the Baneling is cooler than the Zergling, but other guys on the team go nuts over the Zerglings. Like, 'Oh my god! You can [upgrade to] make three zerglings from one egg. That's so broken! That's so awesome!' And I'm like, 'I dunno. Doesn't seem that great to me,' but they're all loving it, right? There is some good stuff happening there, and I'm obviously proud of the work that the team has done. But I still think that we can push a little bit more and we're going to keep trying to refine it going forward--trying to add more to it.
I concluded our discussion by asking Browder about the challenges of maintaining narrative flow in a game that (like Wings of Liberty) allows players to select certain missions in non-linear fashion. In this regard, it seems as though the StarCraft 2 team has a few tricks up its sleeves.
There's a few things that we do where we will block you off from specific things because we know they have to happen at a certain time [in the story]. We try to structure the story so that those things only unlock at the appropriate moments. Otherwise, I know that Brian (Kendrigan - lead writer) has been experimenting a lot with different tools that we have in the engine now, that will allow us to have the scene play a little differently, depending on the order you've done events. So, we can go back and rewrite it, and go, 'Well, at this point, Kerrigan is feeling this about the Zerg instead of that,' so let's just change that one line, or that one line and this line. And hey, look at that! It's not a new scene, but it's more contextually appropriate for where you're at, in that part of the [story] arc. We might even see more severe [differences] if we felt the need to. In many cases, [the diferences are] just slight, but we do have the ability to do it. And we're really going to try to work on that.
We got some feedback on Wings of Liberty that if you played [missions] a little bit out of order, sometimes it didn't feel quite right. And fair enough. We hadn't built one of these things before, and honestly, we didn't have a lot of other examples to look at. The Bioware games are so different, and didn't match our formula at all, and so we kind of had to figure things out. So, we're learning. And we'll try to do better on this next one. I think we've got some tools that will allow us to do it. It's really up to execution.
StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm doesn't have a release date yet, but earlier promises of release sometime in 2012 haven't been revised. For more on StarCraft2: Heart of the Swarm, make sure to join the discussion in our preview coverage and the first gameplay trailer for the game.
From The Chatty
  • reply
    June 1, 2011 1:15 PM

    Jeff Mattas posted a new article, Interview: StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm director Dustin Browder.

    We chat with StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm's game director, Dustin Browder, and ask him what new things the next chapter in the beloved RTS series has in store.

    • reply
      June 1, 2011 4:07 PM

      So ... does the narrative follow directly on from the end of Wings of Liberty? I took the end of Wings to mean that Kerrigan'd been seperated from the swarm, cleansed of Zerginess. But, well, the game did end a bit abruptly, I suppose.

      Aside from that, it has to be said that Kerrigan doesn't look very "Queen of Blades" in these screenshots. But that's nitpicking. I'm sure the game will be great.

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        June 1, 2011 4:13 PM

        She looked much more human, but still had some "Zergness" afterwards. Her hair was the main thing, looking like segmented dreadlocks of chitin

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        June 1, 2011 5:20 PM

        Blizzard has been saying to everybody that what they're showing now is in the middle of the game's story. Stuff already happened between the end of Wings of Liberty and what we're looking at. E.g. why Raynor's looking for her again and why she's back with the Zerg.

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          June 1, 2011 11:52 PM

          She's probably trying to get Mengsk, and Raynor's like NO. And she's like YOU DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO, YOU'RE NOT MY DAD. And Raynor is all like WELL FINE, GET OFF MY SHIP. And she's all like FINE. And then she storms out and slams the airlock for dramatic effect, but in the end just seems childish.

          Or not.

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        June 2, 2011 12:24 PM

        I always took it that we'd have to ... to some extent ... re-zergify her in HotS. I was thinking that she and Raynor would have to work on it together. But hey.

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      June 1, 2011 4:29 PM

      In the video interview over on GameTrailers, Browder basically said "something happened" to separate her from Raynor, and now she's trying to get back control of the brood.

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        June 1, 2011 4:30 PM

        Er, meant to be a reaply to bladderfish

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      June 1, 2011 4:48 PM

      Should have asked him why Kerrigan is pulling a reverse Michael Jackson.

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