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Q&A: The Starcraft II Brain Trust

Blizzard's Chris Sigaty, Dustin Browder, and Bob Colayco talk about the Starcraft three-way news, a week later.

Even if you've been living under a rock for the last week, you probably heard the momentous announcement out of BlizzCon about Starcraft II being split into three games. Wait, I know you heard, because I've been listening to you complain about it ever since. We were curious what the Blizzard guys thought about the fan reaction to the news--and we had a few questions ourselves about this strategic menage a trois--so I managed to get producer Chris Sigaty, lead designer Dustin Browder, and PR rep (and international player) Bob Colayco on the horn for a quick chat this afternoon.

Here's an only slightly abridged transcript of the conversation, or if you're the lazy type, you can also grab an audio file of the entire thing and listen to it on your portable music device, or whatever floats your boat. Read on for discussion of the new Battle.net, the contents of each multiplayer game, and how you might actually play a little bit of the Protoss in the first, Terran-themed Starcraft II release after all.

You guys had your big announcement, the three games, at BlizzCon. There was a reaction, you could say, from the fanbase. It was mixed, but there was definitely a negative component to it. Did you expect that at all, going into the announcement, and how do you answer the critics of your decision?

Sigaty, shredding.
Sigaty, shredding.
Chris Sigaty: Well, first thing's first, there's a ton of misinformation out there right now. I've seen responses to the fact that there will only be one race per box in multiplayer as an issue, as well as our big money-driven decision that came down from executives from above. Those two major factors are completely not the case. It's a full multiplayer game. Look at it just like Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, The Frozen Throne, and then if we'd done a third, this is exactly how we're looking at this. And on the multiplayer side, of course there's all three races in there. So part of the negative reaction I think is just due to misinformation.

Dustin Browder: Yeah, I totally agree. There's a lot of folks out there who think that we're just trying to split it up into multiple boxes, and that's just not the case. We're looking at the creative problem that we're dealing with, we're trying to do something new, it's sort of a first for us. It's a little bit of a first for any kind of major RTS to have this kind of choice going throughout a campaign, and it just wasn't possible for us to generate the necessary amount of content, to have 90 missions in one box. We just weren't going to be able to do that. And the other choice we had, of course, was to not do something cool and new, and we didn't think that was appropriate either.

We definitely went with this choice and knew that there was going to be some confusion among the fans. But there was a little more confusion than I thought there [would be]. We had Rob Pardo get up there and do his presentation and really try to show the fans exactly what we're trying to accomplish. But I think a lot of guys on the Internet just saw the headline and just assumed that this meant "Oh my God, I have to buy three different boxes and they're probably all going to ship at the same time, and they're just trying to milk me for money." And that's just not the case. These things are going to be a trilogy; it's chapters of a story. They're going to be months or years apart as we work on them--obviously, closer to months, we hope. [laughs]

Bob Colayco: Minimum, a year between each.

DB: Yeah, as we work on these things we're trying to tell this huge story that sort of worked itself out of the creative process.

When you talk about the decision to split the game, would you say it wasn't just a question of quantity of content but also a design issue?

DB: Totally. We definitely wanted to have enough space for these characters in the story to breathe. A 10-mission campaign was just not going to cover it. Starcraft II is in kind of a unique position: We have this very deep story in the original game, and then we have years and years and years of novels and all kind of development on these characters that's happened since then. I think the guys who have been working at the studio for 10 years have had a lot of time to put into these characters and make them really cool. They've got a lot of story to tell. And if we had to cram all of that into a smaller space, we really wouldn't have gotten a chance for these stories to really run loose.

How about on the racial design side for the three different factions? You've got your RPG elements--what you're calling the metagame--between the missions. Is that going to be distinctly different between the three? Some of the Terran concepts, with the economy and the technology, don't necessarily map to the Zerg or Protoss.

DB: Absolutely. That's definitely the goal. When we were looking at it we were running into that as well. It's really developing a lot more than we've ever done before for a real-time strategy game. We do want to have this metagame for the Terrans, but then the Protoss and the Zerg will be completely different stuff. It needs to be a whole different problem set. We don't know exactly what we're going to do with those.

Browder, designing.
Browder, designing.
We've talked about Kerrigan evolving herself personally. Raynor is not the kind of guy who can leap to the front of the battlefield and take a Yamato shot to the chin and survive. That doesn't make a lot of sense for him. He would be somebody who's more of a commander, like a real general in a modern army. But Kerrigan, she's a monster of legend. This is a character who could potentially survive a fight with a battlecruiser--or several battlecruisers, possibly--so she may be more about evolving her own personal abilities, as well as evolving her forces, as she controls more and more Zerg creatures.

The Protoss are a whole different thing entirely, and that's the least fleshed out at this point. The Protoss are something we're looking at as, you know, this is a dying race that's struggling to unite under the threat of all the terrible forces in the Starcraft galaxy. They're really struggling to survive. The dark Protoss and light Protoss have split apart, and now they're back together on Shakuras and they're trying to reunite their tribes. As a player, you're going to have to figure out how to work these factions to make a coherent, effective force that can keep the Protoss alive. But those are obviously not developed at this point.

So it's safe to say that little or no work has been done on the following two games? Everything that exists right now is for the Terran package?

Both: Yes.

So the design work has yet to be done. Do you have the full three-game story in mind? Do you know where it's going to end at the end of the third game already, or is the story going to develop along with the design?

DB: We've got a pretty good idea of what's coming.

Obviously certain details will change over the time we develop these things, and we get better and better ideas, but we definitely know where it's going, we know where it's starting, and we've got a pretty solid idea of what will happen throughout the three arcs.

CS: And in specific, for example getting down to the campaign level, the Zerg and Protoss portions of the game have not been examined. But where it's going is definitely known at this point.

You talk about 30 missions in each package. Is that total number of missions? You've got branching storyline possibilities, so you aren't going to see 30 missions start to finish your first time through, right?

CS: You can. You can see up to, right now, we're saying between 26 and 30 if you play comprehensively. If you're a player who's not really interested in that, and just completing [the game], you can make it shorter. So it's really up to the player to choose how they want to play it, and follow the story arcs that they're most interested in. So it could be less in most cases, but yeah, we're targeting between 26 and 30 if you're somebody who did exhaustively everything per campaign. So at the end it starts heading upwards of 80, 90 missions total across the whole ting.

DB: There's a couple of places where we do ask you to make a choice, a hard decision, when playing a mission. You know, am I going to help this character, am I not going to help this character, am I going to kill this character, these kinds of things. There's not too many of those. We've only got right now in the game a handful of those in place. We'll see what happens in the future expansions, of course. Generally speaking, it's up to the player how much content he wants to do, and only a couple of places do we force you to choose A or B. So you'd certainly see the whole experience if you played it through once. You'd have a pretty good idea what's going on. It's not one of those cases where you have to play the game start to finish three times--you'll see a lot of the game on one playthrough. But if you really want to be super completionist, you can go back and choose those couple of places where you went left, choose right instead, and see some different results.

Colayco, pimping.
Colayco, pimping.
CS: I think the bigger, different discussion, the interesting part is, you know, I played through it this way and got this technology. I'm more of a turtle player, so I bought upgrades to my bunkers and made my siege tanks more effective. This other player may have upgraded the air units on his side or whatever, and now we had a different experience in how we played through in that direction.

Since you talk about there being so many choices on the tech side in the campaign, are there any differences between the units and the tech in the campaign, and what you're going to see in the multiplayer? Is there single-player-specific stuff?

DB: So we've gone away from one of the things we've done in the past and I think other developers have done as well, which is to pitch the solo campaign as a learning tool for online play. We are not doing that anymore. The feeling is that it's never been that successful. You can go ahead and beat the campaign, maybe all three campaigns, or beat the campaign on the hardest difficulty. Then you go online and you still get just destroyed by the first player you run into. It's just not the same kind of environment. There's a lot less pressure in the solo experience than there ever is in an online game against an aggressive opponent.

So we've definitely said these two parts of the game can live separately from one another. We can have a solo play experience with its own technology choices, its own options, and then for multiplayer it's a completely different rule set. Now there will be a lot of similarities between the two, but we'll definitely have units in the solo play we don't have in multi. In multiplayer everything's perfectly balanced, and we have to know that you can remember everything you need to do, and your opponent can be aware of everything you could do. But for solo play, if we want to have 16, 17, 18, 20 units for the Terrans, that's fine. If we want to have things that are out of balance in favor of the player, awesome. No problem. So we're looking at having a lot of units, especially for Raynor as a mercenary, he's getting access to and buying technologies that are apporpriate for the kind of down-and-out mercenary scumbag like he is. So he'll have access to things like Goliaths and Wraiths and Vultures, and all these old weapons that are not part of modern Dominion forces like we see in the multiplayer. Maybe some prototype stuff that would simply be way too powerful for any kind of multiplayer experience, but he can steal it and make use of it. So you'll definitely see not only new units, but lots and lots and lots of upgrades that simply would not be appropriate for multiplayer.

You buy the Terran game, you've got all three races to play online as if it were a full game with all three in the campaign, is that correct?

Both: Yes.

So is multiplayer the only way people can ramp up on the Zerg and Protoss before those games come out? Is there any other way to explore what they're about, or should you just play a lot of multiplayer?

DB: We are planning on using some tutorials to allow you to get into them and understand what they're about. A lot of players won't remember how creep works, and of course we've got a lot of new stuff in there as well which you'll want to learn, so we're going to look at doing what we can for that. We are planning a mini-campaign within the Terran campaign for the Protoss, so, you know, Raynor and Zeratul are kind of buddies--

CS: But just to reemphasize, we're not looking at the single-player as the way for you to learn how to play multiplayer anyway, so to tackle that, our plan right now is to have a multiplayer tutorial and on top of that we're exploring racial tutorials so that you could understand what larva are, and that they're a totally different build mechanic than how Protoss generate their units, or Terrans do.

You're saying it's a minimum of a year between, say, Terran and Zerg. Can you peg or at least estimate what year we'll see Starcraft II Battle Chest on shelves?

CS: That's an unanswerable question. [laughs]

Expect a two-year release window at the bare minimum.
Expect a two-year release window at the bare minimum.
We're going to try to do it as fast as possible, but if you look at a product like The Frozen Throne, it took a year from the time we shipped Reign of Chaos, almost to the day, to release Frozen Throne. That was a case where we didn't have this really ambitious total remake of what we did in the last product; it was a continuation, basically, the same style. So our intentions are to change it significantly for the Kerrigan and Zerg experience, so that's going to add some time. But we do know where we're going at the same time, so that also puts us ahead in some ways. But there's no scenario where I can imagine we beat that one-year timeframe, and beyond that I just don't know it goes beyond a year. That's for one product.

Do you guys expect a greater sense of urgency once Terran is out? Do you feel like you'll want to get those games out as fast as you can, or stick with the typical Blizzard design cycle of "keep iterating till it's awesome?"

CS:
There's a whole bunch of things that will come together because of us releasing the first. A lot of this has been technology, we fully wrote a new engine for this, all the cinematic and in-game elements we have are new to us, we've never done that before. So in doing this product, in getting it shippable and polished to the Blizzard level, we will have answered a lot of questions that will help us a lot. Our intention would not be to then have a cycle as long as it took to do this particular product up till now, which has been quite some time. At the same time, yeah, we're going to polish it until it's ready. We're going to be exploring a new take with Kerrigan and the Zerg's metagame, and the same thing with the Protoss. Each of those will have their own series of design decisions and explorations that will take some time. We'll want to do it as quickly as possible, but again, it will be a year or more.

BC: I want to throw in there, it's also important to note that the next box, it's not just "Well, let's make 30 more missions." Since the metagame mechanic is going to change from expansion to expansion, that's going to take some time to figure out and make the branching work that way.

DB: And multiplayer we'll want to add to it as we go into these expansions. We'll want to add Battle.net features, potentially. Just whatever stuff we can think of to add value across the product we'll be doing in each of these expansions.

CS: Our plans from the beginning, we knew this was going to take some time to do. We set out to make a brand new 3D engine for this and revamp everything--from a tech perspective, push the boundaries a bit. And putting all this time and effort into it, we knew we were going to do two expansions right from the beginning. We don't think those plans really have changed here, we're just switching up how it's happening, but the plans are identical. A base first game with two expansions.

We looked back at Frozen Throne, we looked back at Brood War, and both of those felt like, from the perspective of fans and even internally, if we'd had the resources and the time we could have easily done a second expansion for both of those. So we set out from the get-go to do that here.

You talk about subsequent products adding value into the overall experience. For instance, are we going to get new Terran units out of the Zerg experience that will roll back into multiplayer?

Both: Yes.

So what are the compatibility logistics between all these boxes? If I only have Terran, and two or three years later my friend buys Protoss, can we play together? Do you limit the available units to the products you own? How does that work?

CS:
We haven't finalized those details yet. We're still talking about it. We do understand that it becomes more challenging when you add a second expansion. But if you look at Reign of Chaos as an example, we then release Frozen Throne, it added a new campaign and then it added upgrades to the units. If you weren't interested in those upgrades to each of the races, you could stick with Reign of Chaos and continue to play it. Right now, that looks like how things will work here. You could buy the new expansion if you're interested in the Zerg campaign and you're interested in the multiplayer units that were added, then you'd get it. And if you weren't, you'd still be able to play the original experience.

Some comments came out of BlizzCon about the possibility of monetizing certain aspects of Battle.net. What can you say about that with regard to Starcraft II? Is it going to be free to just jump online and play another person?

CS:
We're right now getting into the real details from a design perspective of what Battle.net is. We have a lot of grand plans, we talked a little bit or alluded to some of that stuff in previous interviews, but we're not going into a lot of detail right now.

As far as the business model goes, that's not something we discuss on the development teams and isn't fleshed out yet. Blizzard has always delivered a great experience and done well on the side of the fans, on what they can expect for their dollar. We're going to want to continue to deliver on that and not change our reputation, so take that as you will.

DB: We were hoping to roll out more Battle.net stuff at BlizzCon, but we were looking at the feature set, and it wasn't quite working for us. So we just went back to the drawing board on it about a week before BlizzCon, so we're still working on Battle.net, we don't know what it's going to be yet.

Giant Bomb requires more vespene gas.
Giant Bomb requires more vespene gas.
BC [statement added after the fact]: We do get that a lot of people are worried that we're not talking a lot about how Battle.net is going to work, but one thing to understand is that there are still a lot of undecided issues for us. and it's a matter of figuring out how it's going to work in every single region we operate in around the world before we can come out and start answering those questions. The bottom line is that we recognize that different regions have different needs and expectations--the way the business model is going to work could vary accordingly. We want to make sure we're taking those regional needs and expectations, as well as the design of each game, into account.

Is there going to be an achievement system like you've rolled into WOW recently?

Both:
Yep.

OK, Jeff wants to know if you guys have recorded any voice overs yet.

CS: Yeah, we have. Some of the voices that appeared at BlizzCon and some of the footage you can find around, those are actual actors. Of course we're not final, we haven't shipped the game, and all of that is subject to change. In fact, a lot of it will change for sure. But those are actual real lines that we intend at this point.

BC: I think Brad's asking because one of the running jokes in our old office--

That is why I'm asking.

BC:
Jeff's favorite thing from Starcraft was when you clicked on Raynor and he went "This is Jimmy." So he really wanted there to be like nine different ways that he says "This is Jimmy."

We just wanted to know if that line was still in the game or not.

CS:
Wow, I didn't know there was such a love for that particular line, but now that you've said that we're going to make sure [creative VP Chris] Metzen knows and when he goes to recording, we can get something like that.

DB: That line in particular has not been recorded yet.

Jimmy Raynor is a popular guy, let me tell you.

CS: Is that in a sarcastic way? Yes it is. [laughs]

Actually, no, we really do love James Raynor. Thanks so much for your time, guys.
Brad Shoemaker on Google+