Designing StarCraft II: An Interview With Blizzard’s Dustin Browder

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Note: This is the full transcript of an interview conducted by our sister site The Escapist. To read the interview writeup, check out “A Master Craftsman” in Issue 248 of The Escapist‘s weekly magazine.

-Dustin, what was your experience with the StarCraft series before coming to be the Lead Designer on StarCraft II?

Like many other people, I was just an enthusiastic fan! I played a ton of the game for many, many years, as everyone else did. I used many of the design sensibilities of the original StarCraft as goals for the other games I worked on – in many cases, not always as successfully, but with a lot of enthusiasm behind them.

-There are few games that have had the impact, or that have the following, of the original StarCraft. How did it feel to look at this impossibly high bar and think, “Okay, we need to make something better?” Was it overwhelming?

Let’s call it “terrifying” – that’d be much more accurate! *laughs* The fanbase for the original StarCraft is extremely enthusiastic, and rightly so. We’re talking about arguably the best RTS of all time, right? I’ve heard people call it not just that, but one of the best PC games of all time. You can just sense the enthusiasm for this product. Certainly as a player and fan of the original game myself, it was very challenging to be faced with the task of building a sequel to this excellent game.

-So by the time you came to Blizzard, work had already started on the game, right?

When I came to Blizzard to work on StarCraft II, the engine had been in development for several years. We actually had a working version of the original StarCraft in the new 3D engine – it wasn’t a total, perfect piece-for-piece replication since it was a completely new engine, but it was a rough version. The team had ideas for new units – the idea for the Reaper been around for years; they’d been tossing around a “Dark Dragoon” concept that became the Stalker, that sort of thing.

[Blizzard VP of Game Design] Rob Pardo had set the original vision for the game: Hearken to the legacy of the original, build on the huge success of multiplayer, expand on Battle.net, and do something completely fresh and new for the series with the solo campaign. Those were the goals set for project before I got there, so the rest of the time we were grinding away at them.

-One of the most common criticisms levied against the game is that it’s too much like the original StarCraft, that it ignores 12 years of new features and ideas in RTS games, like the cover system from Relic’s Company of Heroes. Why did you decide to not include any of those?

I can give you a number of reasons. The main one … if we included 12 years of features from every game that we ever thought was cool, it would be the most messed up, complicated, confused and psychotic RTS ever. You don’t take everything everyone’s ever done, throw it into a game and call it a success. That’s tremendously dumb game design. You take what makes sense for your game. We’ve been inspired in order to create stuff that works for StarCraft.

We actually tried cover for a really long time, though not the Relic cover system exactly. The idea was that your units could be in certain terrain that would give bonus to defense – you could hide in the swamp, in the forest or grass. It would give your guys higher armor, more HP – that sort of thing. We tried it many, many times, and every time it was always a fail for StarCraft because it’s such a fluid game.

There’s a very specific pacing to StarCraft: Ebb and flow, attack and retreat, attack from this angle, it fails so you attack that angle; [the cover system] made it a lot slower, and a lot more boring. So really, what works for great games in their own right like Supreme Commander or Company of Heroes is not a lock for StarCraft. We tried a lot of these features and found them to be really unsuccessful in the game we were making.

We have to do what makes sense for our game, not their game, and they should do what makes sense for their game, not our game. There isn’t just one continuum for RTS design; we’re not all working on the same game and throwing all of our ideas into one big pot, working on our own games with our own goals. We added what would add value to StarCraft, but not make it too incredibly complicated. If we really wanted, we could add easily another 50 units to the game (well, it wouldn’t be easy), but would it make a better game? No, it’d just make it a bigger game. I know some folks will say “bigger is better,” but we don’t agree.

In order for you to understand what your next move is, what your opponent’s move is going to be – or what it could be, there needs to be a limited number of units available at any given moment. We could have added a fourth, fifth or sixth race, and you bet we certainly discussed it, but at what point would they feel kind of the same as the other races? In the end, they might not feel different enough, and we thought racial definition was something that was absolutely key to StarCraft.

The game feels fundamentally different when you’re playing it as Zerg than when you’re playing as Protoss – you approach it in a different way: That is absolutely critical. So we limited the game to just three races on purpose; not out of a lack of urgency or fear that we wouldn’t have enough time – Lord knows we’ve taken enough time with the game *laughs*. It was out of a genuine enthusiasm to make them all feel and play really distinct, and we had a much greater chance at doing that with only three races, and just 12 to 14 units per race.

We definitely made scoping choices that made it about the size of the original StarCraft, but that was on purpose to help us deliver the high quality that we were hoping for.

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-What defines “StarCraft-y-ness” for you guys? What did you HAVE to have in the game?

For us, it was obviously the idea of the “rush.” We love the speed, the chance to lose – or win – the game at any moment; these were all critical components. We don’t want it to be the sort of RTS where you’re absolutely safe for 15 minutes and after that, that’s when you might lose. We really wanted to make a game where you need to be on the edge of the seat from the first 10 seconds onward, thinking, “I could win or lose right here. Oh man, I need to harvest, I need to get ready as quick as I can!” That speed, that urgency, was really definitive for us.

Another thing that defined StarCraft was the ability to build up from small armies to massive fleets – and like I said, either could decide the game. StarCraft is a game where you can see the game end in a fight with 5 Marines vs. 8 Zerglings. You could have won it right there, you could have overcome your opponent depending on how you play. You could use the marines at chokepoints, you could put their backs to walls – if you have a unit’s back to a wall, it’s a lot safer than if you’re in the open field where you can get surrounded. It’s different if the Zerglings can attack from two directions at once. You can demonstrate a lot of skill and win the game playing with just five marines.

At the same time, this game is going to scale if both people are of equal skill to the point where I could have a fleet of 15 Battlecruisers. So you go from a very small scope that’s almost squad-based, to this epic, insane battle with dozens or even hundreds of units all fighting in a massive clash, over a twenty minute period.

That sudden change of scale is really crucial to StarCraft‘s success: Every moment is critical whether big or small, you can win or lose anytime.

Something that we’ve learned… well, we didn’t know when we made the original, but Blizzard has since learned that the game needs to be as fun to watch as it is fun to play. There’s lots of strategy that players can use, lots of turns you can take, but it’s also really enjoyable to watch people play and cheer them on, and that was something we wanted to preserve as well.

-Was this more of a reaction to the StarCraft scene in Korea, the Arena competitions for WoW, or something else?

Well, we’ve seen it grow around the world for a bunch of games. It’s true that Korea’s embracing of StarCraft and Brood War showed the world just what an e-sport could be. We’re seeing a lot of growth in e-sports around the world: Europe embraced it, Korea’s still the leader in that field, just for their unbelievable enthusiasm for the concept. It doesn’t matter if it’s for our games or our competitor’s games, I don’t care. I just want e-sports to be more successful here in the States, in Europe, in South America, wherever! It’s just a really fun way to experience and promote this hobby that we all love, and I’m hopeful that it continues to grow.

Certainly, we think that StarCraft II can help this along, and make this e-sport industry a bigger part of the gaming experience as a whole.

-How do you think that the removal of LAN play will affect the game’s popularity, especially in tournament situations where you can’t have 50 people on one DSL connection, or less-developed areas where broadband is restricted?

The question really is, for us… I feel like broadband is available in a lot of places. Most of our users are already able to connect via broadband, and if you don’t have broadband your online gaming experience is probably suffering on its own already. We’re trying to create a stronger internet community, to encourage people to play on the internet, which is how it’s meant to be played: With achievements, with the matchmaker, with your friends – you can see them if you’re logged on wherever you are in the world.

We’ve found that certainly for us, StarCraft is a vastly superior experience when playing against someone of equal skill as you, and that might not be your friends. It’s much, much more fun when you’re being matchmade against someone with your skill level, and believe me, that’s something we’ve been working on perfecting in StarCraft II. In the beta, we’re still ironing out all the kinks but you almost always feel like you should be matched against somebody of your skill level, who can play at the level you can play at. In StarCraft, if you’re playing someone who is better or worse than you, it really loses some of its teeth.

Sure, there’ll always be someone who likes beating up on noobs, who likes pulling wings off butterflies, but that’s not a fun experience. But by building a huge Battle.net community and bringing it together, we want to get them to play together. That was our goal from the beginning: to have everybody all on the same server, playing as one huge community.

I certainly hear the concerns about it, but it’s something we’re going to try and see how it goes, first.

-And what about the situation where you have a tournament where everyone is on one DSL line? Internet play would be impossible there – there was a “pseudo-LAN” solution mentioned where you’d be connected directly as long as there was some sort of internet connection, is that still in the cards?

I believe so. We’re still looking at tournament solutions, we don’t know what our final set of solutions will be, but we’re actively looking for something that will allow that situation to be a lot more positive experience. We’ve gotten a ton of feedback, we’ve heard that even that solution that you mentioned isn’t enough, I don’t know what the final form will look like, how that will finally shake out – but we’re really aware of the problem, and we’ve heard the feedback, and we’re trying to deal with it.

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StarCraft: Brood War has a very entrenched competitive scene. How did you guys focus on trying to crack that shell and get them to try SC2?

We hope that if we make a good game, they’ll come over: If we build it, they will come. We’re just trying to make it a really great game, and even though I hope that they’ll give it a try, I don’t expect every BW player to embrace SC2. Many of these guys have 10+ years with Brood War, and they’re going to love that game no matter what we do with StarCraft II and that’s how it should be. We’re going to make the best game we know how to make in the StarCraft universe with StarCraft‘s design sensibilities. If it’s good enough, then people will come play it. We’re pretty sure we’ll get some of the Brood War guys to come play it, but we really don’t have any expectations of a specific level of success on how many Brood War players we’ll get. We just need to make the game the best we can, and we’ll see who comes along.

It’s certainly our goal to surpass the first game. We have had the advantage of looking at Brood War, looking at what was successful and what wasn’t successful, and we really tried to pick nothing that’s not successful (though fans would argue, I’m sure). I think we’ve made improvements in a lot of ways.

-The game is really, really merciless online, and new players are bound to be slaughtered. Are you going to have any sort of multiplayer tutorial to each people “Hey, start building marines ASAP or you’re going to get killed by four Zerglings”?

We have a battery of tools to help us get over this. We have all kinds of tools! I expect the new player to play the game’s single-player campaign for 20 to 30 hours to familiarize themselves with resource harvesting, attack-moving, the basics – we have a giant tutorial right there to get them started. Then we have Challenge maps, an undetermined amount right now – the number constantly changes – but around 10 maps that teach you the basics of competitive play. They teach you how the unit counters work, what the best counters in the games are, they teach you how to harvest efficiently.

A lot of new players, they build 9 SCVs and think they’re totally done, so the map will teach you how to harvest effectively. We have a rush Challenge – we embrace the rush! – to show new players that a rush can be super easy to defend against if you don’t panic, and stuff that seems overwhelming and unstoppable is actually perfectly stoppable. We embrace the rush, because if it’s easy to do, it should be easy to stop.

They don’t understand that their workers can fight, and that 4 Zerglings are no threat to 12 workers. These Challenges are mini-missions that you play for 5 to 10 minutes. You need to learn a lesson, it’ll be explained to you, then you get to practice what you’ve learned. We have 3 difficulty levels for each mission, and there will be achievements tied to the challenges, to get new players to try them out and understand what’s going on. That’ll get you to a place where you get to know the basics of how to play actual human opponents.

Our final and most important line of defense is our matchmaking system. The beta’s a lot smaller than what we’re hopefully going to have at launch, and that skews things. With a player concurrency of 3000 in beta at the peak right now, and nothing but the most hardcore StarCraft players having signed up at all, you run into a situation where a handful of the newer players are going to log in and have a very unpleasant experience.

Unfortunately, we’re not here to make you happy – this is not a demo, it’s to work out our gameplay balance and to stress test Battle.net. If all of our players aren’t having fun in beta, then I’m sorry, too bad, but it’s not our goal. Some players who are just getting crushed in ranking matches right now? I expect when Day 1 occurs and we launch, hopefully there will be hundreds of thousands or millions of players picking up the new game. We’ll have bucketloads of new players and experienced players alike, and I think everyone will have a much better time.

We aren’t doing anything but putting the Very Easy AI in Beta; we want testers to play multiplayer and hash out balance issues. New players who are running into walls but still sticking with it and giving honest feedback are really helping us out. When the game comes out, if the Challenges and campaign aren’t enough, go play against the AI – we’re going to have five different difficulties, and doing that should get players feeling very comfortable with their chosen race or races.

And the last thing – and we’re gonna change up our UI a bit to make this more obvious – is that newer players should consider team games. It buys them more time to build up an army, there are other players to help to give them advice, and there’s also what’s called “distributed guilt.” If I lose a round of Modern Warfare 2, I don’t feel bad personally, I blame the other people on my team – those dummies obviously cost us the game! But I am personally ready to try again. In 3v3 and 4v4, newer players are going to have a lot more of a positive experience.

1v1 is the “hardcore arena raiding” of StarCraft. In the beta, as part of testing things we need to test… it’d be like if we opened up the demo for WoW, and everyone was automatically at level 80 and we started everyone just doing top-level arena. The new players would be freaking out! “What’s going on?! I don’t know!” It’s a very challenging place to play for new players; since the important things that we have to know if 1v1 and 2v2 are balanced, and if our servers can handle the load. The new players who are really trying, and sticking with it… God bless ’em.

-CAN StarCraft II have as much of an impact as StarCraft I did? Is it even possible for a single game to be so influential these days?

Who knows? All we can do is build the best game we can make and hope the fans embrace it – get millions of them together and then we’ll maybe know the answer to that question. We just try to make the best game we can possibly make. It’s like… what the team tried to do with WoW? No one thought WoW would be so big; we were hoping for 500,000 subscribers, tops! All we can do is make the best game we can – you can’t set out to sell 10 million copies; if that’s your goal, it’ll paralyze you. Your goal has to be to deliver a quality experience, you have to do the best you can and see what the fans think. They’re the ones who make the game big, not you.

-The original game firmly established phrases like “Zerg Rush” into gamer culture. Is there a new phrase or meme you’d really love to see come out of this game?

Uh… I guess if there was one, it’d be “Terrible, Terrible Damage.” I have gained a reputation for this phrase after the Battle Reports started coming out, and the community really made fun of me for it. I repeated it a little too much in the first one. They pointed it out, I responded with “I’m a dumbass,” but it’s kind of become it’s my catchphrase.

Honestly, I don’t know! I know we’re seeing lots of crazy tactics and rushes in the beta now that so many people are getting their hands on it and putting their creativity to work.

Ultimately what made StarCraft great – what will make StarCraft II hopefully great – is that yeah, we work really hard at making a game, and the community works really hard at loving it. The community and development team worked together to make StarCraft what it was, and honestly? Its success wasn’t even half on our end. The community invented e-sports. The community invented Battle.net’s success – yeah, we made the service, but they were the ones who used it in vast numbers. The community showed us just what was possible with modding in StarCraft and Warcraft 3. We didn’t invent DotA, that was all them! We’ll have to wait to see what the community does, and exactly what it is they’ll chose to do? We have no idea. We can hope for the best.


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