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Blizzard's Dustin Browder talks StarCraft 2

Kevin Kelly

Dustin Browder isn't just the lead designer on Blizzard's StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty -- he's also in the game! Well, sort of. According to a Blizzard spokesperson, "There are a few examples of Blizzard employees making it into the game. The portrait of the Vulture pilot was based on the likeness of Jason Huck, a level designer. Brian Sousa, a senior 3D artist was the inspiration for the regular Goliath pilot. A running joke amongst the team is that Brian and Dustin look similar enough to be brothers – so the extension of that joke was to make the mercenary goliath pilot (Spartan Company) look like Dustin."

So there you have it. If you want your face in a multimillion dollar game, just get a job working on it. Easy enough, right? We talked to Dustin about StarCraft 2 last year, and this time he gives us more details about the development of this eagerly awaited title, and not just his vanity unit portrait. He discusses multiplayer plans, balancing, Blizzard's hardcore fans, and more, just beyond the break.

Gallery: Starcraft 2 (04/19/2010) | 13 Photos

Joystiq: You were saying that the way Korea plays Zerg is completely different than the way we play it here. Why is that?

Dustin Browder: There's really no way to know. It could be a variety of factors. It could be a skill level difference between the regions. In that particular case, that wouldn't be a huge surprise considering the enthusiasm with which that community plays StarCraft in particular, let alone real time strategy games. More likely, it's just a change in the macro game. Like they just are playing with slightly different unit mixes than we're used to playing and the counters do exist, but they're just not getting used in the same way. But we don't know. We don't know. We're just going to have to wait and see how it all shakes out. When I was talking about this with Rob Pardo the other day, he says, "Oh, you won't know if that game's balanced for a year." That doesn't make sense to me. We certainly saw this, throughout Brood War and beyond, that the game would change frequently in the hands of the users.

That's why it's so important for us to keep up with them and be making patches, not only through the beta process, getting it as tight as we can during the beta, but also after we launch, maintaining contact with them, maintaining contact with the product and making sure we know what's going on out there, that we're playing as well, we can see what's happening and be able to make and react to changes as they're required as we go forward. We've been sometimes successful in the past, sometimes not as successful. It's something we obviously want to maintain and keep going with. You certainly see that WoW is keeping up, I think, with pretty frequent content updates and we'd like to do the same thing with StarCraft 2. It's one of the reasons we're excited about the three products as well. It sort of keeps us in the same space with fans for a longer period of time.

How will balancing continue with the expansions? I'm assuming the expansions will affect the multiplayer, right?

They have to. I don't know for sure what's going to happen. Once we get done with this, we're going to be working pretty hard to figure out what we can and can't do, but we obviously want to add. We're sort of doing them as expansion packs. If you got a Brood War expansion pack, what would you expect? Well, you'd expect two to four new units per race and you'd expect maybe some gameplay modes or something and you'd expect a great new campaign. That's what you'd expect. Right? So, we want to try to hit that quality bar for our fans and try to give them something that's rational -- that is both fun for them, but is also something that's not 17 units, then 21 units per race, which would be insane. So, I don't know what the magic bullet is yet, but we've got some ideas. We'll see if they pan out.

You also called this a beta test, not a demo. Why is that distinction important? What's coming?

"Look, we're just testing our hardcore multiplayer 1v1 balance. We're just throwing you to sharks. "

Most of it's pretty much what you've got. There's obviously more maps. But, multiplayer and there's 3v3 and 4v4 which is real. But, for the new user there's a campaign, AI, co-op versus the AI, challenge mode, 4v4, 3v3, before they start getting down into the crazy land of 2v2 and 1v1. So, I'm hopeful that we're going to have enough content there to smooth over that experience of, "I've never played StarCraft before." "Why don't you try a 1v1?" That's insane! And I hope that there's dozens of hours of gameplay in there that will get them to the point that by the time that 1v1 pops up on their radar, like, "What's this all about?" They might actually be moderately prepared to deal with it, as opposed to right now where the beta is like, "Look, we're just testing our hardcore multiplayer 1v1 balance. We're just throwing you to sharks. There are a lot of sharks in that pool, we're just throwing you in."

We do have a divisioning system and we do have a nice ladder system, which should be matching you against opponents of your own skill level. But, I think when players are feeling uncomfortable and then they lose a game, they feel way more uncomfortable. As opposed to if they're feeling comfortable and they lose, it's like, "It's OK. I can win the next one." So I think we need that scope of experience to get those new users comfortable with the game and that's all the content that I think we're missing in the beta.

How has the feedback been about the new

Yeah. There's been a lot of feedback about We're sort of viewing a little differently than we have in the past. We're viewing the entire experience more like ... our experience with World of Warcraft. We plan on doing more patches to the feature set for as we go forward. And by putting it out there for the community, we'll be able to prioritize a lot of those features a lot more accurately than I think we would have if we had just done it internally. We're like, "Well, I think this is important." Then you get, "Oh! That's not important. What's important to them is this." And that's really helped us quite a bit to get that in front of them so that we can see where we have been, maybe, making some assumptions that weren't entirely correct about how the community wanted to use the service and allow us to prioritize our work going forward for the next many weeks or months.

The collector's edition was announced recently and one of the items you get in it is the in-game Thor pet for Warcraft. Was that just an effort to try and bring over WoW players?

No, I think the motivation behind that was just to kind of say thank you to our hardest core fans who play both. And the collector's edition, I don't seriously expect a bunch of WoW users to go out and buy that just for that pet.

I don't know. That Celestial Steed has been selling really well.

That's probably naïve of me to say that, but that was certainly not the motivating factor. The motivating factor was like, "Hey, you play both our games? Thank you. That's really nice of you. Here's a little something for you in both." And a way to show off the fact that you're a really hardcore Blizzard fan that you play both. That's sort of the thinking behind it.

Matchmaking must be difficult for a game like this. How has that been? I for one have been getting my ass kicked constantly.

So we've made some changes recently. I'd be certainly interested to hear your experience. You're probably in that bottom 3%, which we have not been matchmaking well against.

You don't say. [laughs]

We've changed the way our matchmaker works in the last, probably a week ago. We made some behind-the-scene changes, server side only, we didn't have to make a patch, that caused a longer wait and should have made it a better experience for you. We're trying to fix that up. That's the user that I'm the most worried about at this point. You get above that bottom 3% and it's much better, at least according to our numbers. There still might be aberrations out there that I'm not aware of, but it's a much better experience. But that bottom 3% is losing 70% of the games or more. I'll take another look at the copper.

There's been a lot of focus on Activision lately with the whole Infinity Ward blowup that happened. Blizzard has three potential titles coming out, maybe not all this year, but soon. Do you guys feel any pressure from the company to get those out, or is it just "No. Business as usual here"?

Everything seems to be going fine. I certainly haven't had any conversations with anybody from Activision in six months or a year. We did a little presentation for the board of directors, but it was literally just like, "And here's what we're doing. Thank you." That's all it was. So, I'm certainly not seeing any pressure from those guys on products. We're just focused on the game and they've been nothing but supportive of us so far.

Yeah. I know you're all focused on Wings of Liberty, but have you guys been able to even conceptualize or think about the next title?

"How many conversations do I need to have with the Hydralisk? Probably not very many.!"

A little bit. Not a lot. That's going to be challenging for us to make that transition. But we've done a little bit of thinking about it. I think the biggest challenge for us is we've got so much content that we're so comfortable with here, and the challenge is to really make it feel like a Zerg game. We really want to make sure that, "Hey, I'm sort of playing the villains!" I want to feel that. I want to feel that switch over to the dark side and I want you to feel like, "Dude. This is the bad guy game. Woo! Yeah!" And not feel like it's just a slimy version of the Terran game. So that means the nature of our mission objectives needs to change, the nature of the opponents you're fighting needs to change.

The kinds of things you do needs to change. The story mode spaces need to change, you know, how we conceptualize. And there are a lot of characters in this one. How many conversations do I need to have with the Hydralisk? Probably not very many. So, the choices that we give you and the kinds of story that surround you need to feel uniquely Zerg, and we've got a few ideas about direction. I think, right now, more of what we've got is a general philosophy that we're going to try to pursue and we're just going to see how the features shake out.

In the build that we're on right now, if you click on the Battle Report in the bridge, you can see 26 missions listed there. Is that final or are you guys still fluctuating?

No, it's actually bugged. It's not listing all the A/B choices. I think 26 missions is probably the maximum you can play through on one play-through, but there's actually more missions than that that you have to choose one or the other with it. I think the final count is 29. So there's three A or B choices that are not listed there. And that is going to be a final list. There's no way that number is going to change at this point. I guess it could go down if we decide a mission really blows, but I don't think so.

When you're researching a new technology, you have to pick one and that locks out the other ones once you decide. Was it difficult to design that? Did you ever want to be like, "Well, we want to have everything possibly available?"

No, we were pretty committed early on because we wanted to feel very different from tech purchases or Mercenaries where you can pick everything. We wanted to have something that was a little bit different. We felt like this was a fun mechanic. I don't know if it felt like science, [laughs] which is kind of what the goal was originally, but at least it felt different, mechanically, from the other two. So we really wanted something different. And once we decided on that, that was easy, sticking to our guns was easy, picking which ones were fair in terms of the balance, unbelievably difficult.

So often we'd have somebody, "Well, that's easy, you just choose that. And we'd go, "Oh yeah, you should always choose that one." Like, how do we create parity between these, but not just make ones that are clones of one or the other? The worst one is probably the weapon and armor one at the bottom of the Protoss one. That's not our finest hour. But as you go up, they get a lot more interesting. So that was sort of the challenge in that one was to make the choices really feel very different from one another, but equal in power levels so that you as a user just go, "Oh. What do I do?"

Yeah. I can see that on the Zerg choice side where I'm like, "Do I want bunkers that can shoot or do I want stronger bunkers?" That's a tough choice.

Whoa! Yeah. Tough call. Right.

What has changed since you guys first showed us the single player?

So certainly, to those early missions, probably not a ton of changes, lots of tuning and polishing. From sort of a cursory glance, it's the same. From our end it feels like legions of work. But that's what really matters to us, for a Blizzard title, is to really be able to go through it and really scrub it to the point where no matter what you do, we're there to catch you and go, "Nah, it's cool." We do stuff like, in the Tosh missions. I don't know when you played them last. I don't know if this was there or not. But, for instance, if you lose all of your SCV in that first lava surge, we replace them for you. Not on all difficulties, but on the lower difficulties. We said, "Hey! Did you know about the lava surge? We told you 20 times, but did you maybe miss that point? Which is totally cool, because there's a lot going on in this game." Here are some more SCVs if it goes horribly wrong for you.

Lots of tuning and polishing so we make sure that whatever happens, we're trying to make sure there's a positive experience for you and that, if you do fail, you understand why. And if you do succeed, you felt like you were adequately challenged. And then, of course, finishing the whole game, really. Just making sure we got through all the missions to that same polished level, all the way to the end. I think when we showed you guys last, we probably had three to four missions that were really good. We couldn't show you anything after that and now we've got a whole campaign that feels really solid.

And what about having a unit that looks just like you in the game?

it's just fun to see yourself in the game, as well as flattering. It's just one example of how we have some fun while making the game.

Well, thanks for your time. I need to get back out there and drill through that door.

Awesome. Thanks.

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