StarCraft II Lead Designer Pre-BlizzCon 2009 InterviewBy Brian Leahy - Posted Aug 17, 2009
I sat down with StarCraft II lead designer Dustin Browder to talk about the game's singleplayer campaign as well as how larger audiences will be introduced to the multiplayer component.
G4: Where’s the beta?!
Dustin Browder: I’m sorry, man! We’re trying hard, I swear!
G4: So, how is the story coming together? How far in development are you? How ready is the singleplayer campaign?
Browder: It’s coming along pretty well. We’ve got a couple missions right now, in the campaign, that I’m a little dodgy on. I’m like, “That might need to be a reset. We might need to start that whole one from scratch,” but only a couple. The rest of them, I believe, until I hear feedback that says otherwise, we’re polishing and tuning as quickly as we can. And, we’re continuing to work a lot on the polish of the story mode stuff, making sure that the conversations are as cool as they can be, making sure that everything works correctly, that the logic of where everybody is at any given moment is all. Really at this point, if you go beyond where you are today I don’t know what happens. There’s definitely a lot of work to happen in the last half of the game, at this point, really.
G4: About how long ago was the decision made to add lore and extra story through optional exploration between missions? You know, you click on the TV in the bar and get a news update about the Zerg infestation and things like that.
Browder: We always wanted to do it since we came up with the idea. So, Rob Pardo pitched this to me, when I joined the company in 2005, early 2005. I think initially it was just going to be conversations and then as we were working on the Mar Sara Bar, especially for the first part of the Mar Sara bar where Raynor sits alone and that was sort of part of the old, bitter cowboy feel that were trying to create there. This is someone who has been a little wounded by his past, so he drinks alone in a bar, right? So this was part of this character, this personality, somebody who we want to see grow into somebody who’s truly mighty by the end. Who’s commanding fleets of Battlecruisers and laying waste to whole empires, right?
Since we wanted to have him begin in this quiet place – there’s no one to talk to, right? Which means we just started playing around, and just having fun with stuff on corkboards. “He’s got pictures from his past, won’t that be fun?” You just click on them and look at them. “Okay, that’s cool. Hey, you know what would be more fun? Is if he actually said something so I’d have some freakin’ context about what this was about.” It sort of just evolved organically into something like this where you can kind of explore the environment a little bit more, tactically.
G4: How much of a concern for the team is it for gamers that A) may not have played the original and Brood War and B) may not remember it because it was so long ago?
Browder: It’s definitely a concern for us and it’s definitely something we’ve been looking at. We’ve got a bunch of plans to actually help shore that up. We have, I don’t know if you remember, The Wrath of the Lich King installer, but that had a bunch of back story in it, and we will do the same, try to catch people up. We’ve had arguments about it, pretty heated arguments about it, whether or not this is Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or not. Do you just have to have seen Fellowship, or should you be confused? Is that okay? Or no, it’s been ten years, and the same rules don’t apply. I kind of stand on the “it’s been ten years” Like, if Fellowship came out and then Two Towers was ten years later, you have to do something, it’s just not fair. People who even saw it have forgotten. I think we have to do a little bit more to catch people up and get you into it.
Of course you get into it, even if you don’t understand everything immediately, that’s okay. As apposed to someone who remember all the history and says, “Oh! That’s Jim Raynor!” or you say, “Oh, that guy seems pretty beat-up. What’s he about?” That’s okay. The story works on both levels at that point, but yes, I think we need to do a little more work so that mass confusion doesn’t reign among the more casual guys.
G4: There are units and upgrades in the single-player campaign that don’t carry over to the multiplayer side. Is there concern about people new to the franchise coming in, learning through the singleplayer the first time, and then trying to jump into this different multiplayer game?
Browder: We never felt like that ever works. I mean, do you? You’d learn in solo play that you should turtle a lot and you should build a lot of bunkers, you could invest in resourcing at a moderate level. You go into multi-player, you’re like, “I’m building my barracks. I’m going build it there. Why are there six Zerglings in my base! Bullsh*t!” right? So, we never felt like that was a legitimate tool. It was a fantasy, and we tried and we failed, frequently, to make that work. All you really get is the click rate. So, admittedly, you’re not really even getting the click rate so much anymore, but we’ve got challenge modes, we’ve got better score screens and stuff.
We’re trying to get you into the multiplayer in some other ways. We’re encouraging you to take some baby steps. So, you’ve played the solo play. Okay, play some against the AI - hey look, there’s some achievements for that. You know, maybe you should try to get some of those. You know, maybe you should try this casual league. There’s no rushing on these maps, by the way, we’ve blocked everything off and made these maps just really no fun for the hardcore guys, but really fun for you, right, because you’re scared of being rushed. Play on that one a little bit, and oh, by the way, here’s a score screen with some really relevant stats. Hey, there’re some challenges, you should try these. The challenge, of course, is going to be to direct them. Like, in WoW, they direct you by levels and by zones, right, so they have hundreds of hours of gameplay experience before you step into Arathi Basin, or, God help you, an arena, right?
So, you’ve had a lot of time to get comfortable with this character, to feel like, “Hey, you know what? I feel like I’m ready for an arena.” You’re probably not, but you’re like “Yea! Let’s do this!” right? As opposed to our game where you play campaign and then there’s this other button up that goes “Multiplayer? Huh.” And you just blunder right from mission one right to end game content. So, how to channel that? I don’t know the answer to that, yet. We’re still working on it. We have a lot of tools now that should help transition you from solo to multi in much better ways than we’ve ever had in the past.
G4: And on that, will Wings of Liberty ship with Protoss and Zerg challenges?
Browder: Yes, a mixture. It’s a mixture depending on what we’re trying to teach you. We teach defending with SCVs, which you can do with any worker, but we teach with SCVs because it’s a little easier to do. But we teach hot keys with Protoss because they have a lot more hot key opportunities. So, that’s a challenge level where we turn off your UI, and you have to play with hot keys. And how much stuff can you kill, with hot keys alone, in the next two minutes? Go! So, you already know the hot keys in your head and you gotta do them and if you don’t, you have to read them and it sort of teaches you the experience.
I think that will help the casual guys a lot if they want to move into multiplayer they’ll be able to a lot more successfully than they ever have in the past. At the same time, limiting solo play to what was only a multiplayer experience just hurts solo play. Like, it makes solo play into that, where it is nothing but a testing grounds and a tutorial for multiplayer, and that’s not what it has to be, ya know? It can be its own game in its own right. If I play Call of Duty 4, I play the campaign, it’s a very different experience than the multiplayer. It’s got the same guns, but not all the guns, right? And the same strategies that I use in solo play, they are not the same strategies I use in multi. So, we definitely feel like it just makes it a much more fun experience to separate them. It’s just much more fun for us to make and much more fun for the fans to play. Even if there is a cost, it’s worth it.
G4: I’ve talked to the guys over at BioWare, specifically about Dragon Age: Origins. Part of their philosophy is that everyone should be experiencing the game in a different way. How much of that do you want out of the solo campaign with the non-linear progression?
Browder: Not too much. It’s definitely a choice. Like, I expect everyone to have all different tech trees, and I expect people to have chosen missions in different orders, but it’s not Fallout 3, right? Like, I don’t expect you to be the evil Raynor. Like, you’re still Raynor and it’s still a strategy game at the end of the day. We only have 30 missions of content for this because each one of these missions takes us months to build. Each one is a huge exercise. This is not like building a quest for three days and calling it done. Each one of these has to be its own mini-game. So, I don’t really view the same way as a BioWare game, I know it looks like a BioWare game at a certain level, but it’s really not. It’s just a way for you to experience the story. It’s not a way for you to fundamentally choose to be a good guy or a bad guy.
G4: Each of the missions that I got to play today were very different. I mean, you had one where a day-night cycle was your gameplay hook, one where lava rising and falling affected your ability to mine. How many of these 30 missions are different like this?
Browder: All of them, I hope. That’s the goal. All of them should be different. You should never sit down in a mission and say “It’s kind of like the other one, isn’t it?” You should never do that. Like, there may be, at a certain level, “Well, both are races, but this one is a race to destroy trains before they get off of the map, and this one is a race against the Zerg to destroy the Protoss. Oh, okay, it feels pretty different and it plays really differently, too, and the map layouts are different enough.” So, the goal is that each one is its own little mini-game and at no time do we repeat. That’s the goal.
G4: To the achievements, I noticed at the end screen, when you finish a mission, you can play again and you can change difficulty, but once you move past that point, can you replay it without going back and loading a save? Can you get extra credits or complete objectives that you missed?
Browder: Yes. I call it the Battle Report Screen. It shows you a list of every movie you’ve seen and every mission you’ve played. So, you can just select them and replay them. If you miss a secondary objective the first time, you don’t get another shot at it. It’s not in continuity, but you get the achievements. So, you can totally go back and whore as many achievements as you want without needing to restart the whole game, but you can’t grind credits.
G4: Do you get more credits on higher difficulties?
Browder: No, it’s the same credits. It’s just the opposition is a lot tougher and the kinds of upgrades you tend to choose also tends to vary a little bit on the difficulty setting. You can be a lot more casual and goofy with your choices, but there’s certain choices that you really need to start considering when you go into the harder difficulties and there’s certain units become more prominent.
G4: So, for the completionists out there, is it possible to get every upgrade through a play-through?
Browder: We’re still discussing it. Right now, the answer is no. Right now it’s about 65%-70% of the upgrades you’re able to get on a single play-through, obviously depending on the cost of the upgrade you choose. If you choose more expensive upgrades, it’s fewer; if you choose cheaper upgrades, it’s more. But, on average, that’s what we’re looking at, but we’re still fighting about it. I don’t know how we’ll come down on that.
G4: The original game took a little bit of heat from some experienced players where the end missions were just so hard. How’s the difficulty on those later missions? Does the difficulty level take a huge jump in StarCraft II in the later missions?
Browder: It shouldn’t be that hard. If that happens to us, then we have failed. So, we’re going to make every effort to make sure that the experience is consistent throughout so that that last mission is a little bit harder than the one before and not 50x harder. I’ve seen that in a lot of games where you kind of feel like the designer feels like he can finally be a jerk to the player. “I can do it! I can make it fun for me!” and it’s like “No, you can’t, man. It’s got to be still fun for the player.” And that’s the hardest thing for balancing games is as a designer, you know everything. And so, you always make the mission too hard if you just follow your instincts.
So you really have to watch other players play, learn some formulas that we use quite a bit – like how many units, at what cost, are allowed to attack at what minutes, like we make some pretty hard rules that guide us through the process. We break those rules when necessary, but then we still want to have a structure from which to build because if we just kinda build it however we want, it gets way too hard, way too fast.
G4: World of WarCraft has this design where the quests get players out into the world progressively. It’s not really the same for StarCraft, but are the missions designed to progressively teach people different strategies with different units and different abilities?
Browder: Some. Each mission is designed to teach you the unit that comes with the mission. We don’t suddenly give you a unit and then make that unit suck for that mission – at least we hope we don’t. At the same time, because you can play the mission in kind of any order, we really don’t try to teach you too much, we just try to let you have a good time and show you some new toys. That’s really what we’re trying to do at the end of the day.
Like I said, the strategies are so custom to the particular scenario, there’s not a lot to be learned about playing StarCraft in general from a map where lava floods the low ground, unless you’re playing on a map where lava floods the low ground, and then it make a lot of sense. There’s no multiplayer training to be done there. There’s nothing to be learned, and there’s not even a lot to be learned about StarCraft in general in that sense except more time with the game. You could learn to micro down a Brutalisk (Editor's note: tough Zerg unit that appears in one of the missions we saw), but that’s not taught specifically by the level. Most players wouldn’t think to do that.
G4: I noticed there were checkpoints during the mission. The original game didn’t have these. What went into the decision to put these in?
Browder: We just wanted to have some autosaves for players so that didn’t feel like they had to ride the save button quite as much. I don’t know how many times you’ve done this in an RTS, but I’ve done it a bunch, where I get into the game, I’m having a good time. Something happens at the end and I blow up the objective by accident. I’m like, “ I’ve got to save that and I just killed it! Why did I do that?” and then it goes, “Fail!” and I’m like, “Oh God, load!” and then I’m back 40 minutes. Like, I’m back to the beginning. I totally forgot to save throughout. So, it’s just sort of some safety features for players. God forbid they just relax and enjoy the game. If something bad does happen to them at the end, then we’ve got sort of a safety net there to catch them. A sort of “You’re only back 5 minutes; don’t worry about it.”
G4: The AI in the singleplayer game, does it have the same types of improvements that the AI in the multiplayer has… where it will actually use better strategies, target your medics first for example?
Browder: At different difficulties, yes, but at normal difficulty, we’re pretty good about leaving your SCVs alone while they’re repairing, but at harder difficulties we turn that off and we let you have it.
G4: Are we going to see more of the Blizzard top-quality CG cinematics or will most of it going to be in-game driven?
Browder: Well, most of it’s in-game driven, but there’s several pieces that are the full, crazy, gazillion-dollar CG ones, yes.
G4: So, Mercs…sort of the soft replacement for heroes?
Browder: We have heroes in the game, we just use them on levels that are designed for heroes. So, we don’t have Raynor on a level where there’s 17 Battlecruisers all with Yamato cannons pointing at him, but we have him on level where he’s going deep under infested worlds armed with a nuclear weapon to destroy a Zerg hive. On that mission there’s Raynor and he’s got his Super Raynor Suit and his Super Raynor Gun. He does his Raynor thing. So, that’s all good. With the mercenaries, for the mass combat levels, sometimes players want something a little bit more elite. Like, I want something that feels a little bit more badass, something that feels like it’s a little bit more special than one of the 75 Marines I’m putting into the meat grinder here. Something I care a little bit more about.
At the same time, I don’t want to feel like I have to reload the level every time one of these things dies. Or that I have to go back to the Altar of Storms and rez it. I don’t even know how that would work in StarCraft. So, we thought the Mercenaries would be a kind of fun way to do it. It still has some meanness to it, just like a lot of StarCraft game play, if you lose your mercenaries, they’re out for the mission. But, you don’t need to worry about reloading the mission, because they’ll be back for the next mission. So, it feels like a way to get some units that you care about, to get some units that are really special, which is the core fun of a hero without having a hero that you have to babysit all the time.
G4: When you do the hero missions, with Raynor for example, would he be leveling up with new abilities or he’s just the super power hero?
Browder: No, he’s just Raynor. We don’t have an item system and he’s not on enough levels to really justify it. In Warcraft III, the hero was on every level. So, it made sense to have a leveling up system and an itemization system for that game.
G4: With Relic’s release of Dawn of War II and their different take on an RTS campaign, has their product factored into the development process at all?
Browder: We take too many years to make these games. I played and loved Dawn of War II. I played all the way through it. I had a great time with it, but we were already so committed in this direction when that game came out that it couldn’t really influence us too much at the end of the day. I really enjoyed it quite a bit, but, yea, it was very different gameplay experience because in some ways it wasn’t, almost, an RTS, it was almost a tactical RPG, right, because you had no base building – and so you only had to build up your forces through the RPG element, which, again, just makes it a tactical RPG. Our game is still, at its core, an RTS. You’re still building armies. You’re still collecting resources. Resource collection is still an important element in solo play. Like, all these things are still factors. So, yes, it’s such a different game. I don’t think it really affected us.
G4: Thank you, very much
Browder: No problem.