AusGamers StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm Developer Interview with Dustin Browder
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:25am 24/01/13 | Comments
AusGamers caught up with Blizzard's Dustin Browder who is serving as lead on StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. Watch or read on for what he had to say...
Watch the full video interview embedded above, or click here for a direct link.
We’ve got Heart of the Swarm on its way. And I wanted to start with that actually. We have a saying in Australia, “a long time between stumps”, it’s a cricket thing. But Wings of Liberty was out quite a while ago, is it troublesome for you guys... I mean, I know it’s the Blizzard ‘it’s done when it’s done’ type of thing, but do you ever worry that maybe there’s too much time between that release, and now this one?
Dustin Browder: Yes... [laughs]. Yeah, we always want to do stuff faster. We know that our fans are passionate for these games; we know that they want to get them more quickly; we want to get them out more quickly. But we’re just a bunch of guys doing the best we can in making these products.
The pressure to make them great, is truly enormous, and our desire to make them great is maybe too much -- our perfections might be too high -- but we’re always looking to tune that timing to the best we can, to reduce the amount of time between products.
AusGamers: It’s sort of almost a lucky thing that you guys almost exclusively work PC then, because to have two years between products would be a real problem with consoles.
Dustin: Yeah I guess. We are... we do some console stuff, like with Diablo in the future, so we’ll see how that goes for us. But yeah, it’s a challenge for us, and the PC does afford us that opportunity to really do it however long it takes us, it’s not the end of the world. We don’t seem to get to a point where we’re crossing a console transition, with something that was meant for last generation, so we’re going to make it next-generation or things like that. So the PC has been very good to us in that way.
AusGamers: Two years again, we’ll stay on this track. What’s changed with you guys technology-wise? PC’s are getting more powerful these days, obviously you’re working on [the same] engine; have you changed that? Have you optimised it much?
Dustin: Well the engine’s gone through a lot of different changes for us. We’re exposing a lot more tools to our community, at this point, to give them better access, to do better games on Arcade. We’ve done some optimisations as well, to make the game run as fast as we possibly can at this point.
We’ve added new physics to the game and tuned it up quite a bit, so hopefully we’ll be able to use those physics more often throughout the game. It wasn’t something, in our last iteration, that we could use very easily, and we weren’t using it very often. Now we’re trying to use it very strategically, to really create a better sense of drama on the battlefield; to make the battles look a bit more cooler, without getting in the way of the hardcore eSports nature that this game sometimes has.
You’d really have to ask some of the technologists to know exactly all of the details, but I know they’ve made a bunch of changes to the engine, and have been working for almost two years upgrading, tuning, polishing, providing better tools, better pipelines -- both for us, and for the fans -- as well as hooking up more bling and flash to make the game experience a little bit shinier.
AusGamers: Now just on that -- on the physics -- I think it looks really cool. You mentioned in the presentation that you’re trying to find that red-zone, that place that it sits comfortably; where it doesn’t get in the way. But did you guys toy with the idea of actually letting physics become a combat element?
Dustin: No, we never did, not seriously. It’s so difficult, top-down, to understand where something is going to go physically. It’s a lot easier if I’m in front of you, and I push you, and you move back; I get it. But I’m looking at a whole army of people, and I want to line up a shot just exactly right, but it’s actually like 14 degrees off, and it flies off, and it misses -- it’s not really practical for us; not at the scale of StarCraft.
If you imagine we had a smaller game, with fewer units on the battlefield, it might be possible if you added a bunch of UI to set-up stuff, so that players could cause things to happen. Like, I’m going to shove this guy, and he’s going to bounce off that tank, or I’m going to shoot this shot, it’s going to bounce off the wall, and hit somebody else. You could imagine that working, but I think that would be a game; I think the whole game would be focused on that, and StarCraft has already got a lot of gameplay that’s not focused in that direction. So it was never really a serious consideration for us, except as a way to improve the look of the game.
Now for Arcade games, I could see this being a very different story. I could imagine that in arcade games that our fans might do some really crazy stuff, and create some really cool physics-based mods.
AusGamers: How important has that community Arcade mod stuff been for you guys, moving into this project?
Dustin: Well it’s very, very cool, the stuff that they’re doing; and they’re really providing a lot of content to our fans. We know that there’s almost as many games of arcade games played, as regular core StarCraft games. So people are spending at least half their time, or some people are spending all of their time, just playing arcade games. So these guys are creating a lot of great value, and they’re creating a great, fun sandbox full of lots of really cool games, that a lot people are having a lot of fun playing.
AusGamers: You guys basically ship two games. You’ve got the single-player campaign, and then you’ve got multiplayer, and it seems with each iteration, that they seem to get a bit further apart. Because the eSports stuff is obviously really important to those players, and the core guys that have been doing that for so long, but at the same time you guys get to flex your muscles a bit with the single-player and come up with units that just wouldn’t work in the multiplayer.
Is that difficult for you guys? To have them separated so much? Or is it really a release, to be able to play around with the single-player that way?
Dustin: Creatively, it’s absolutely a release, to be able to separate the two and do what you want. Because they have such different needs. The single-player experience has a group of players who are looking for something that makes them feel powerful. They want powerful threats to fight against, and we can tune those things against each other.
Then in multiplayer, everything’s going to be tuned against itself. Is the zergling fair against other zerglings? Or is the zergling and baneling relationship correct, or the roach/zergling relationship; let alone against other races.
So I think it’s absolutely liberating from a creative standpoint, it lets us make a better multiplayer game, and lets us make a better campaign experience by far, by being able to split those out. And the challenge comes for players trying to transition between those two. So we had some challenge modes in Wings of Liberty -- some ways to learn some of the skills -- but they didn’t let you practice and bring everything together into one set.
There’d be a challenge mission for using hot keys, and a challenge mission for defending against fast rushes, and those were all useful skills to have, but you never got to bring all of those skills together into a single map. Now, in Heart of the Swarm, we’ve added three separate training maps that take you from the same game speed that you’re getting in campaign, all the way up to the game speed you’re getting on Ladder, and at the same time provide you with more and more tips, tutorial, instruction on how to play, what you need to be doing.
And it will take you naturally up into a place where you might feel comfortable playing some versus AI with people; maybe feel comfortable playing some unranked matches; get you to a place where you’ve got some kind of chance to understand and engage with this really cool multiplayer experience.
AusGamers: Is that a core focus of you guys? To funnel players into the multiplayer? Obviously you want everybody getting as much out of the game as possible.
Dustin: Yeah. But it’s not really a goal, we just want to allow it if you want to do it. Previously we’ve met with people, all over the world now -- at different trade-shows and different events; at Blizzcon, and what we’ve had a lot of people say is “Wow, I love the campaign; multiplayer: no thank you”.
AusGamers: I’m one of those guys.
Dustin: Right? So we feel like “well, there might be an interest”, and they’ll sometimes say “Oh, I would love to, I just can’t”. So we figure, for those people, if we can provide them with the tools, maybe they’ll have the opportunity; maybe they’ll have more fun with the game. That’s always the goal: how to get them to have more fun.
AusGamers: Is it an internal incentive, or did you guys get a lot of feedback that put you into that point of having the three training missions, or maps I should say.
Dustin: I would say it’s both. We had a lot of external feedback, which then prompted a lot of internal discussion. But I think the genesis of it was absolutely feedback from fans who were saying “No, I don’t understand; it’s too hard; I don’t know what to do”, and that led to a lot of these modes.
We’re doing the training mode, we’re doing the experience points system -- so you get something for a game every time; win or lose, you get something back -- and that was from our play experience as well. I’d have bad nights where I’d go home and lose five games in a row and go “Ohhh, what a disaster!”. But at least now, in Heart of the Swarm, even those games that I lost will give me some experience points, give me some portraits, maybe some skins -- that kind of stuff.
So a lot of it was based on external feedback, at the end of the day, and then that caused a lot of internal discussion about what the right moves should be, and should we be offering unranked play? And should we be offering all of these things that would hopefully allow players to have a less frightening experience online.
AusGamers: Now in the studio, which is where we’re at right now, do you guys have... is there a system in place, where you can basically just plug any of the single-player units into multiplayer to test them out? How does that work?
Dustin: Yeah, we can test anything out with the data system that we have now. Our tools are great, we have some amazing tools engineers, and we have a company that are very much just supportive of just making and building great tools, and you’ve seen we’ve put those tools out as our editor, that allows the fans to make these amazing modes we’ve all been playing.
So we can very easily move things around from one version of the game to the other without any real difficulty.
AusGamers: The reason I ask is because I want to know if there is a single-player unit, that is just ridiculously powerful, that you guys just plug in every once in awhile to play with.
Dustin: No, we don’t usually do that if we know that it’s going to be too much; we don’t have the time to sort of mess around like that. We do have the ability, in debug builds -- which we play often enough, so if we find crashes or whatever we can catch them; so we often play in debug builds -- we do have the ability to summon units any time you want into those debug builds.
When you’re playing a multiplayer game, you just don’t do that. Except, if I’m losing a game, sometimes I’ll summon 50 motherships, just to finish the game. So sometimes we screw around just a little bit, but for the most part, we really focus on making the multiplayer as tight as we possibly can.
AusGamers: What have you guys learnt moving into this one from Wings of Liberty, in terms of just telling a story?
Dustin: One of the things in Wings for us, is we’re getting used to a lot of the tools, and a lot of the storytelling techniques that we were using. A lot of the storytelling ideas have sort of come from Broodwar, through Warcraft III, to StarCraft, as an evolution of our storytelling process. We had just a briefing screen in Broodwar really, and in Warcraft III we’ve got some characters talking in the environment -- it got a little bit more elaborate, but still not that much more than the briefing screen; but a little bit more; it’s not just talking heads, at least you can see characters moving around.
When you get to StarCraft II, now we’re full sets. So we’ve got full sets of characters coming together. So I think in many cases we were learning to use a lot of those tools, and now I feel like we’re still using a lot of the same tools, but we’ve really learnt how to use them correctly, and effectively. And we’ve been able to focus a little bit less on “How are we doing this?”, and a little bit more on “Ok, what are we doing in this scene? How is that motivated from the last scene? How does that move forward correctly to the next scene?”.
An example I can give you -- where I think Wings of Liberty had a few issues, and Heart of the Swarm, I think has corrected a lot of this stuff -- would be in Wings of Liberty we had Zeratul show up on the ship to give the prophecy to Raynor. In many cases, this would be a mission just after you had a fight against the Protoss.
So for a lot of players who didn’t know who Zeratul was, they just fought the Protoss --t hey just spent 30-minutes killing Protoss -- and here comes this cloaked Protoss onto the ship. Their first thought was: “He’s here to kill him, he’s here to kill Raynor!”, then Raynor goes “Dude! What’s going on”, and he’s like “Oh, the prophecy!”, and you’re like “What’s happening?!?! I just spent 30-minutes killing Protoss, and this guy just shows up. This is weird”.
Those of us who know Zeratul were not shocked by this, but if you didn’t, that was a very confusing moment. So I think we’ve gotten that kind of feedback from players, and we’re also a little less focused on how we’re going to get it done, and able to get a little more into what we want to get done. And I think it’s produced a much tighter story experience.
AusGamers: Well, I think it’s probably a no-brainer, but can we expect missions similar to the Zeratul ones from Wings, in Heart of the Swarm? Stuff where you’re not actually playing as Kerrigan or The Swarm?
Dustin: There are some missions where we do some crazy stuff, but we’re not ready to talk about those just yet.
AusGamers: Alright, well we’ll wrap it up with one more. But I always ask this question for games like this, but your favourite unit, or your favourite character across the board?
Dustin: Wow, my favourite character across the board... I’m very partial I think, at this point, to Abathur, and I think when you play through you’ll see why.
AusGamers: I like his new voice by the way!
Dustin: Oh his new voice is so good! The actor did a great job; the writer did a great job writing. Abathur is this monstrous master of evolution that lives inside the Leviathan that spins the DNA and creates the creatures that Kerrigan’s commanding -- he just lives in his own little world.
Abathur does not understand half of why Kerrigan does anything that she does. He’s absolutely an alien creature, living in his own private, crazy little space, that once you see it is kind of terrifying; sometimes tragic, and sometimes just hilarious -- watching how confused he is by everything else that’s going on around him. I think he’s my favourite character in Heart of the Swarm.
AusGamers: Alright, we’ll wrap it up there Dustin. Thanks so much for your time, and the game is looking pretty awesome. Cheers.