We chat to StarCraft II's big cheese about everything, from their first hopes for the series to HotS' launch.
By Alex Walker on March 28, 2013 at 3:32 pm
Dustin Browder is an intense man. The iconic director for StarCraft 2 has a sizeable frame and a sharp eye, and when he greeted me for our interview after the Heart of the Swarm launch in Melbourne’s Federation Square he was sporting an NFL-style jersey. It’s not implausible to think he could have led a successful life as a football player in another life.
His aura is never imposing though, with Browder directing his boundless energy towards a love of all things StarCraft and the fans that play it. It’s an infectious passion, which spreads even more rapidly thanks to the man’s genial combination of eloquence and gamer lingo.
It’s made Browder an icon which also dovetails as a magnet for criticism in a way not many other developers see. But rather than shy away and making himself less of a target for some of the more vitriolic barbs, Browder has taken centre stage proudly.
“We’ve got a lot of guys at Blizzard who are very used to this kind of experience,” he explained. “Blizzard taught me the responsibility here, how important it was to be able to maintain a sense of civility and go out there and be able to look through a forum, a Reddit post, something on Teamliquid… and ignore the personal jabs.”
“There’s often very valid feedback to be found within even the most angry post,” Browder added. And there can be a lot of anger sometimes, but it’s understood that StarCraft just isn’t like other games. “People, literally their jobs, are on the line based on the quality of the product that you do. That’s a level of pressure that goes beyond most video games I’ve ever had the pleasure to work on.”
It’s not an unwarranted intensity; Browder reiterated that people’s livelihoods can and do depend on the quality of their product. One imagines sitting in the crowd at IPL listening to chants of “we want LAN”, when technical difficulties prevented Startale’s PartinG from a certain victory against the mercurial MarineKingPrime, would have reinforced that view.
Almost as a defence mechanism, Browder is exceptionally well prepared, explaining Blizzard’s point of view in an accessible but exceedingly thorough way. At the developer Q&A the night before, he detailed how the absolute need for, or lack of, detection necessitated the removal of banelings that could move underground. The new ability either decided the game or became completely irrelevant, and that didn’t fit with how StarCraft was meant to be played. There might be some “sharp” counters — Reavers are supposed to obliterate Zerglings — but scissors-paper-rock does not apply.
I asked about how Blizzard reacts when the community takes issue with a particular strategy rather than a certain unit. At what point does the team decide to sit back and let players figure out their own solution, how do they determine that the best option is beyond their reach?
In passing, I mentioned the Immortal-Sentry all-in which became the dominant factor in the Zerg vs Protoss matchup. PartinG ruthlessly used the strategy to slaughter three top-class Zergs on his way to the the World Championship grand finals in Shanghai last year. The fact that everyone, even the crowd, knew what was coming had little effect.
Browder seized on my example, describing the build’s timing and outlining the most efficient response (forcing fights as far away from your base as possible, wasting sentry energy and buying time). He added that the balance team takes a very mathematical-like approach, outlining all the possible options for a player at a certain time.
The Brood Lord/Infestor combination was one issue, particularly on maps with areas that allowed the Brood Lords to siege tactically important locations beyond the range of most ground units. “There was no unit in play we could really buff to fix the problem,” Browder recalled, noting that the Tempest wasn’t an option at that stage.
But he also praised the community’s efficiency in being able to uncover all the new timings and strategies in Heart of the Swarm. “The benefit for Swarm for us is that we get the learnings of the last two and a half years that we can apply back to the game.”
The expansion gives Blizzard a lot more flexibility to tinker in subtle ways without damaging the balance completely. He explained that while Brood Lords were one of the more perplexing problems, they couldn’t effectively respond without ruining Zerg’s one major, reliable pathway to victory.
Browder took note to emphasise how far things have changed since the release of the original, particularly in the realm of eSports. “ESports had all been a Korean phenomenon, or largely a Korean phenomenon. We saw some certainly for WarCraft 3 in Europe as well but … in the States we hadn’t seen anything like that yet.”
“When we first launched Wings [of Liberty], we were like maybe, maybe we’ll be able to go to a theatre somewhere in the United States and have like fifty guys and watch eSports. That was the win, that was our huge victory we had in our heads … maybe we can get just get a couple of games, get a couple of guys up there and maybe a couple of thousand dollars up there and it’ll be awesome. And then we started seeing MLG happen over and over again.”
It was fascinating to think that Blizzard had such humble aspirations for eSports, considering the game’s rich history and the steady growth of eSports in Call of Duty, the fighting game communities and Defence of the Ancients (pre-Valve and the explosion of League of Legends).
“All of that knowledge has allowed us to go back and apply that information, apply that intelligence we’ve gained from this community to Heart of the Swarm, so I think it’s just a much better product,” Browder said.
One of the reported upgrades has been a reworking of the spectator interface, which wasn’t immediately available on launch. It’s been a difficult learning curve for Blizzard, especially since most of the benchmarks for a quality viewing experience have rapidly evolved in the last couple of years.
“When we first started putting the game out we didn’t have a lot of experience watching StarCraft 2 on streams … this is sort of a new phenomenon for us, watching a lot of StarCraft 2 on YouTube, watching StarCraft 2 on lower-res kind of environments.” That realisation drove concentrated improvements in the early days, like changes to the font and the leaderboards to make it more pleasing on the eye.
The dashboard, for instance, was an inclusion of legacy rather than intent, so the team questioned its existence from a spectator perspective. Most observers pull the overlay down for a major fight anyway, so why not remove it altogether?
Discussions continued, but considering they would be the ones setting the standards, Blizzard figured they may as well let the fans decide. “Why don’t we create a tool to make a really, awesome observer UI and let the community — the actual experts, the people who are on the ground doing this for a living every day — let them design it,” Browder recalled.
The change will allow organisations like the Global StarCraft 2 league, Dreamhack, Major League Gaming and even the Australian Cyber League to jazz up their own production in an easy-to-use way. “We really believe in service, we really believe that will make the best experience for everyone.”
“We’ve got all the code in now, so you can go make your own custom observer UI today, but it’s maybe a little challenging for a lot of people to do because it’s fairly technical. But we’re going to put out an example one that’s a much better experience that we have now … and from there who knows what will happen, fans will take it, casters will take it and hopefully we some really interesting ideas,” Browder added.
All of these changes are fascinating for the hardcore and the excited observers, but it does little to reduce the intimidation experienced by a lot of lower and middle-level players. Browder agreed, saying that the fear of laddering was an issue even with the release of Wings of Liberty.
“StarCraft is famous for how difficult it is … as much as [World of Warcraft] is famous for allowing you to play for a longer period of time,” he joked. Browder explained that one of the biggest problems was that “campaign” players, ones who aren’t familiar with the power of hotkeys, how much infrastructure and workers they need, generally lack the tools required to compete on the ladder.
There’s a series of games against the AI that gradually increase in speed and difficulty, after which point players can graduate to Unranked Play. Unranked matches are effectively the same as normal matchmaking minus the record keeping, which is a great boon for not only new players looking to ease into multiplayer but players who want to try other races without ruining their ladder record.
Browder revealed that Blizzard got great feedback from internal focus groups about the new challenge modes, although the real information would only flow through post-release. Nevertheless, the challenges are no substitute for the richness of the campaign, which teaches the players the mechanics of each individual race.
Or at least, it was supposed to. This concept worked in the original StarCraft since you had a campaign for every race, but StarCraft 2 was deliberately split into three products that each focused almost entirely on a single race. If someone who just enjoyed the single-player decided to, for instance, play Protoss in the multiplayer, would they not be at a substantial disadvantage?
After all, players now have a full suite of missions to learn more about Terran and the Zerg. Browder suggested that the concept that a campaign teaches you how a race is supposed to function wasn’t entirely true though; players would learn what units were and their general roles, but that was a far cry from learning how to function in an actual multiplayer match.
“We had to split [the campaign],” he said, “but at the same time we do have this moment you’re talking about where I haven’t really played a lot of Protoss, but I want to play Protoss, but I don’t really know what a Stalker does, not intuitively. And so I’m hopeful that our tutorial and versus AI will give players that time to go through that.”
Time was running short, so I wanted to know what Browder, someone who has spent the better part of the last two decades defining and setting benchmarks in the real-time strategy genre, was most excited for players to discover.
“We’re really trying to do something with the story that I haven’t had the opportunity to work on before, we’re really trying to make you play as the villain … and hopefully become a believer in the villain,” he gushed.
I remember yelling at the screen as a child when I saw Kerrigan betray Zeratul in the original Brood War campaign over 10 years ago. It would take a lot for me to forgive her treachery, but all I could think about walking around the streets of Melbourne afterwards was how much I wanted to find out.