StarCraft II Lead Writer Pre-BlizzCon 2009 InterviewBy Brian Leahy - Posted Aug 18, 2009
As part of our StarCraft II singleplayer coverage leading up to BlizzCon 2009, I sat down with Andy Chambers, lead writer for the game, to talk to him about the development process, story, and his influences as a write.
G4: Obviously with the player choice mechanics in the missions, what were the challenges in telling the story in this non-linear way and fitting the story into the game?
Andy Chambers: You just mentioned what the real challenge is: player choice. Stupid player choice! No, we love them! The fact that you could actually choose to do the missions in a different order rather than doing them in a very linear fashion meant that in terms of actually telling the story, and writing the dialogue in particular, it had to be very sensitive to what you had done. Actually, getting into elements of what you will do becomes very difficult when you don’t know what the player will do next.
So that’s been peculiar to this project as far as I’m concerned. I should make it clear: this is my first PC game. I come from a tabletop gaming background and classic book publishing background. The mutable nature of a game was very cool, but very challenging.
G4: How much of the writing is the story that is going to be told to the player versus the dialogue that gives more depth to players that want to explore the universe?
Chambers: For this project, we wanted to do both. The underlying principle was that we would tell a great story regardless of how much you wanted to engage in it or not, but then we would have all of these characters running around as well. If you wanted to know more about the characters or the universe that you’re in, you can go and talk to them.
So, yes, we had to take a multi-layered approach to make sure that the big hits were always told via cutscenes, in missions themselves, or during mission briefings. Then, the conversations that you have with the other characters are in the background, but they aren’t boring or mundane: “I did my laundry today.” “Did you? I always have trouble with the whites.” All that sort of stuff. You still need to get to some meaty stuff. Perhaps not as Earth shattering as the main events going on, but it needs to be substantial.
G4: Since StarCraft II’s story will span three separately released campaigns, how much of that story is plotted out through all three?
Chambers: When we started out the original plan was to do all three races in the same game so we did actually plot out the whole story: what would happen where and to who and all the rest. As we worked more and more on the story mode, on the Terran campaign, it become apparent that A) this is awesome and we can do great stuff with it and B) we are never, ever going to manage to do all three races in anything vaguely approaching the timetable we had set for ourselves.
So, after a lot of internal debate and heart ache, we came up with this solution: we’ll finish up what we’re doing with the Terran campaign and do it like we want to. If we had tried to fit the Terran campaign into 10 missions… we can’t do that! It was us being greedy at the end of the day. We wanted to do all of this cool sh*t. So, that goes in the first one and we’ll do more cool stuff in the next two expansions.
We did get it all laid out, certainly, in structural form before we had even started on the process. We know where we’re going, don’t worry.
G4: What it was like coming to this universe and franchise?
Chambers: Because of where I worked before, tabletop gaming, the universe that I used to work in was intricate and I spent a lot of years developing that one. (Editor’s Note: Chambers worked for Games Workshop on Warhammer 40,000). StarCraft’s universe, by comparison, is nice and straightforward. It’s very much a sci-fi future that we’ve seen before in a lot of movies. It’s a very Starship Troopers, Aliens, kind of a future. So that’s quite refreshing.
The other thing is, because it’s set in the StarCraft universe equivalent of Australia with a population of criminals, it’s a fairly limited area as well. It’s entire worlds and a lot of them, but compared to looking at a whole galaxy at once and a whole 10,000 years worth of history, it was positively homely by comparison.
So, I read around the available fiction that was there and obviously played through the first games. That was the nice thing about it that StarCraft was a universe that you could wrap your head around in a few days as opposed to a longer period. The universe very much knows what it likes. It’s got a strong movie bias toward it as well. So, it’s quite easy to get into. It’s very easy to perceive. It’s sci-fi! I get it! You know, “human convicts on rusty spaceships flying around space. We get it, cool!”
G4: What are you putting into the story to help catch people up that haven’t played or maybe don’t remember the first two games?
Chambers: That’s always the huge challenge. You have all of these characters with established history, rivalries, and the rest of it. What we did was actually motivate a lot of the plot around it and the fact that these characters have history and have had conflicts before now and extended them forward. So, you do that, you introduce some characters that maybe don’t know about those conflicts and then you’ve got a carte blanche reason to explain that. “Why the hell does she hate you?” “Oh, well, there was this thing that happened back in the other game where XYZ” You have that opportunity for a little bit of exposition. We have also got that fact that if you want to know more, you can go and talk to characters and learn more. We explore it more through the other characters.
We have some key events that kick off very specific things: this is something that you need to know about these characters that happened in the previous games. Then, we have a lot of miscellaneous stuff that just plugs back into the universe for the fans. Somebody new coming into the game will actually absorb information just from prior incidents. It’s one of the fun parts, to be honest, about developing a universe: taking what has happened before and pulling it up to be relevant.
G4: Were there any instances during the writing and development that lead designer Dustin Browder had a new unit that he was putting in and you had to write a story and background to work a unit in?
Chambers: Yes. Many! We also had new units that were put in and then pulled out again a week later. Or, that changed completely from being a flying, spellcasting unit to a ground crawling heavy assault unit. Stuff like that. That’s one of the nice things about writing. Ultimately, it’s one of the most flexible parts of a PC game. I can change the text that you’ll see in the manual or on the screen in-game (snaps) like that. That’s easy to do. Changing the art, sound, and everything else to go with it: that’s more difficult.
So I try to be really biddable on things like that. If there’s something that I can make happen by spending another hour or two banging on some keys, then that’s going to be a lot easier than saying, “No, we must keep the old art.” If there’s a change being made, it’s being made for a good reason. One of the keys of being a good writer in the sort of universe is working to fit different things in and figuring out if it will work well within that universe. That’s kind of fun, I actually enjoy that.
G4: Personally, what types of other works and fictions do you take inspiration from or maybe pay homage to in StarCraft II?
Chambers: I’m a huge history buff, actually, More than anything else. If there’s one thing that influences my writing and my depiction of universes it’s actually reading back into our own history and reading about what happens to people when they are put into situations of conflict and war. The weird things that fall out over the course of events. I try to get a little bit of that feel into the game itself because I always feel like that gives it a very authentic bend to it if it’s a bit real world.
Personally, I am inspired by a science-fiction author, Ian Banks, who I read a lot. Also, Gene Wolf. Those are my two “wouldn’t it be cool to write novels” guys. Some of the older stuff too: Robert E. Howard had an influence on me as well.
G4: As a history buff, then, if you could describe each of StarCraft II’s three races compared to real world historical societies. You already mentioned that the Terran were the Australians. What would the Zerg and Protoss be?
Chambers: That’s a really interesting exercise. Historically speaking, the Zerg are the Mongols, the Protoss are the Chinese, and yes, the Terrans are the Europeans in a very broad sense as in the UED (Editor’s Note: United Earth Directorate – StarCraft’s Terran governing body) and the shipping people off down to Australia is exactly what happened to Raynor and his group. “We don’t wan these people anymore. Let’s send them to the other end of the galaxy.”
G4: Blizzard RTS games are very well known for jokes after repeatedly clicking units. Were you able to write any of those jokes?
Chambers: Yes, actually, I relied on Micky Neilson, a longtime writer here at Blizzard. He worked on the first StarCraft game. He did a lot of the unit dialogue, specifically. The jokes are a fine tradition around these parts. How many little joke lines can we get in? We have a little group of people that get together and write these things. It’s a funny thing when you’re writing them and reading the scripts for them. Some things look hilarious and other things you don’t get. When you go and record them with the variation that the voice actor brings, you get jokes that you didn’t think were going to be very funny be hilarious.
And things that look like they would be really funny on paper end up being like paint drying. We tend to write over the amount that we actually want and then cut back to however many good ones we get, which is why some units will have five or six of those, but some will have twenty. Some units lend themselves to it far better than others.
G4: During development, which would come first? I know a lot of the missions aren’t critical to the main story, but have great self-contained stories. Would the level designers come up an idea, for example, “We want to do an escort mission where you’re rescuing civilians” and then your team would write a story for that, or vice-versa?
Chambers: It’s a mixture of both, actually. Some things, it’s like, “we need this to happen at this particular point in the story” and the level-designers will go to work. Other times, those designers will come back to us with a great mechanic they want to use and ask us, “Where can we use that?” My team tries to see if we can fit it in. Maybe we use it in this plotline and make it colonists that the player is trying to rescue, then that fits really well, for example. It’s give and take, which is the whole story with a PC game. It’s all about give and take. I was sitting in with level designers, right back when we were first fleshing out what types of missions we wanted to do. Even the elements of who is fighting who and how do we explain away the fact that we’re fighting other Terrans come up. We worked together from the outset. Like I said, if they have good ideas for a mechanic, we’ll work it in. If I’ve got good ideas for a particular world or a particular reasoning for a mission to occur, then they’ll work that in. That’s a lot of fun as well, especially when you get to things like, “We wanted to do the insane fire planet, but we couldn’t get the mechanics to work for it or the art doesn’t work so we need to completely re-write it.” Not that I was relying on that for all of my conversations or anything (laughs).
G4: Have you been playing the other Blizzard members in the internal multiplayer testing and how have you been doing in that?
Chambers: I played some. It very rapidly became apparent that I was a minnow amongst sharks so… yeah. I generally stick with the solo play, myself. Overall, I feel like I have little to contribute to the multiplayer side of things apart from being somebody’s bitch. It is something I’d like to get better at and honestly as more people around the company play, the pool of people gets bigger and there’s more of a chance that I’ll get somewhere. As you can imagine, it was the real hardcore group that wanted to play multiplayer from the start. Not a place for the likes of me.
G4: Thank you very much.
Chambers: My pleasure.