I recently had the opportunity to sit down for a 30 minute interview with StarCraft II Game Director, Dustin Browder. The man needs no introduction - especially to a community of gamers who spend so much time discussing the decisions he and the SC2 development team have made. Dustin gave some really great and detailed answers and it was a pleasure talking with him.
I'd like to thank CW Jung (Community Manager) and Bob Colayco (PR Manager), who helped us set up this interview.
(help a brother out!)
Teamliquid.net: First of all thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I know you guys are really busy with development.
Dustin Browder: Oh, it's our pleasure man.
TL: Dustin, we know you've worked at a number of other studios on other franchises including RTS titles – how early in life did you decide you wanted to make games?
DB: Well, when I was 10 I got a copy of Dungeons and Dragons for Christmas and I think by age 12 it was the center of my life. So I didn't know what kind of careers were available in games at that time. There weren't a lot of video game design positions back in 1982/83, but I knew I wanted to do something with this. And then it wasn't until I was in college that I found out there were these positions where this stuff could be done. Even then it wasn't until I was out of college and looked around a bit to see that companies were starting to hire designers – guys specifically for content as opposed to just for engineering.
TL: So you would say DnD was one of the biggest influences in deciding you wanted to make these sorts of products?
TL: I know you've said you play a lot of other games to keep up with what other developers are doing – you mentioned Dawn of War 2. What types of influences do you get from SciFi movies, TV shows etc?
DB: Oh of course, we're always looking at everything all the time and trying to get inspiration from wherever we can. You look at Starship Troopers or Aliens where there is obvious influence on what Blizzard has done. We are obviously watching everything we can get our hands on to try to create moments in games. We've got a mission in game now that's largely inspired by 300, which obviously is not a science fiction movie but has those core dramatic moments that we really really enjoy. And that is one of the great things about being a geek and being in this business – it's something that comes naturally. This is not stuff that I wouldn't be doing if I was an accountant I would still be wanting to do this. I'd still be going to see Zombieland as many times as I could – I'm just fortunate enough to work in a business where that has huge benefits.
TL: You had said in previous interviews that you basically had to relearn how to design games when you moved to Blizzard. What sort of challenges did you face when getting acquainted with the range of skill levels in the StarCraft community?
DB: It was a pretty huge challenge. The games I've made before look like Blizzard games...but they're not (laughs). And I had played quite a few Blizzard games but I haven't played them as competitively as I would have liked. After I got here I sort of saw the difference in quality level but also depth of the gameplay and the detailed experience the players have while playing it...and all the fine control that goes into a ‘craft experience as opposed to games made by other studios. And so it was really, really challenging to relearn – I think the hardest part was learning that I HAD to relearn it. That was sort of a difficult pill to swallow (laughs). Once I got over that, it came very quickly – it became very obvious what had to happen.
I'm also really fortunate to be surrounded by such a great bunch of guys – guys like [senior game designer] Mike Heiberg and [executive vice president of game design] Rob Pardo and even guys like Jeff Kaplan [who was game director] on the World of Warcraft team. I'm surrounded by a group of guys who are so talented, who ultimately just by osmosis you can pick up so much from. One of our great strengths at this point is that we've been able to attract, really, really AAA talent to the studio – guys that really know their stuff. Then we are able to just teach each other as we go. I'm able to have lunch with Jeff Kaplan and [game director] Tom Chilton whenever I want and I tell you, I learn something new everyday from those guys. Not just about World of Warcraft, but other games as well, including what works and what doesn't work in this business and what we should be shooting for.
TL: Obviously we are a StarCraft Progaming community, how much of an influence has progaming been in the development cycle and can you give us any examples?
DB: It's been pretty enormous. You know, when we announced the changes to rallying and multiple unit selection stuff we knew that was going to be kind of a big deal. I don't think we appreciated how big of a deal it was going to be. And then the discussions that resulted from that on your site and other sites around the community were very educational for us in what we were trying to accomplish.
“The benefit you guys bring to the game, the passion and knowledge this community brings has been a huge benefit working on the game. It's had a huge influence and I think it has made the game a lot better.”
I don't have specific examples, which I know you want and would love to give them to you because you've certainly earned it. I don't have specific examples of units you guys have come up with or a specific post that I've read that I thought “Oh we need to put that in the game!” and went ahead and did that. Really almost nothing in the work we do here survives the development process – I don't ever come up with an idea (well maybe rarely) – almost never, that goes right into the game and that's it. I'll get an idea and I'll take it to a designer and we'll talk about it and say “that's kind of cool, we'll see how we feel about it tomorrow”. We go back the next day and say “you know what, I like it but maybe we should change this from protoss to zerg and maybe it should be plus armor instead of % damage lost”. It will slowly get tuned and it goes through me talking with the designers, talking with Rob Pardo, talking with the lore guys, the artists, the balance guys. At that point it's changed so much that was it really my idea (laughs)? I dunno... I guess, technically I said the words that started the whole thing but it's not really my idea anymore – it has no relationship to what I originally said at the beginning. At that point, it's evolved into something that is really tight and good and hopefully we would like in the game.
So there is definitely stuff you guys have said that has spurred conversation – that have created things that have gone into the game but there's no sort of one idea that we took right off a post and put in the game. But the influences are real and are really serious and have been extremely helpful. I've often said and will continue to say that StarCraft II specifically has been extremely fortunate to have you guys watching over it. The benefit you guys bring to the game, the passion and knowledge this community brings has been a huge benefit working on the game. It's had a huge influence and I think it has made the game a lot better.
TL: I think you'll make a lot of nerds really happy with that.
DB: It's the way it is man!
TL: To follow that up, what types of challenges do you face when trying to balance the needs of the casual player versus the rage of hardcore players like in the progaming community. You had mentioned the macro mechanics being a big one.
DB: Sure that's definitely a big one – it's a place where we feel we can definitely do better but it then does break other systems. You know a great example I love reading on Teamliquid and elsewhere were not so much that you guys were missing clicks – some people said that and I didn't agree with that – but that we were missing the difference between a macro player and a micro player. That we were destroying the sense of style of the player. I could be playing a micro game and you could be playing a macro game with both the same race, and we are still playing a very different game from one another. And when I saw that I was like “Ohh!” I was opening my eyes like “Thanks! THERE IT IS! That's great! That's genius! That's exactly what we need to try to accomplish”.
So yeah, it's always a challenge. It's very easy to make units and abilities and missions and UI that appeals to the hardcore gamer. It's also very easy to make those kind of decisions that appeal to the very casual gamer. The real challenge is making it easy to learn and difficult to master, which makes everybody happy. The casual gamer has learned it easily, the hardcore guy is finding it very difficult to master. And like I've said before, and you see this in World of Warcraft all the time – there's not a hardcore gamer and a casual gamer, there's a continuum. Casual gamers can and will become hardcore gamers if you let them. If you create a game that's easy to learn, the casual guy will come and sit down and play. And if you make it really difficult to master, what you are allowing him to do is play week after week, month after month and still learn something new. Then there's always some reason for him to come back and so he'll become a hardcore gamer over time. I can't tell you how many soccer moms I've raided with – it's ridiculous. These people according to conventional gaming wisdom would never be hardcore gamers, but they have better gear than I do! And I'm the archetype of a hardcore gamer, buying 3 or 4 games a month and staying up into the wee hours of the morning to play. Yet here are the soccer moms out there with their purple gear and epic mounts.
“Thanks! THERE IT IS! That's great! That's genius! That's exactly what we need to try to accomplish.”
So what is that? I don't know but it's not the usual breakdown between casual and hardcore. You've made a game where they are allowed to get into it and enjoy it easily but they have a lot of trouble mastering it and become us. So that is the goal, and that is always challenging. That's when it's easy to come up with something for the casuals but doesn't have any depth – so what's the point? It's very easy to come up with something that has a lot of depth and nobody will understand. So we definitely go back and forth, and that's one of the reasons it takes us so damned long to make our games. Cause this stuff is hard – we're smart guys but we're not geniuses, so we have to work at it and put a lot of effort into it. So we just grind on it until we've got it to a place we are happy with.
TL: Up until Blizzcon we had heard a lot about the Queen and in previous interviews, yourself and other members of the development team had said they found Zerg to be the be pretty weak. Now when we got to Blizzcon we played and released an article where we had said we found the Queen's macro mechanic to be extremely powerful (perhaps too powerful). So a big discussion spurred from that about why was the development team finding Zerg to be so weak vs. our play test. Now obviously we only had a limited amount of time with the build, but do you have any thoughts on that?
DB: Well yeah, there's a couple of possibilities. One is that you guys may not have had as much time to play with it as we did. Certainly the Queen stuff is very obvious how powerful it can be – we've certainly found specifically at tier 2, the Zerg lack legitimate ways to really push an advantage. The Mutalisk has been running into a little bit more trouble with stalkers than say it would against dragoons. Where using Blink and Warp In are fundamentally game changing kinds of moments that suddenly change the relationship between these old units. Certainly having watched some of the games played at Blizzcon, there's a lot of stuff which you guys aren't using yet which is only to be expected. You haven't really had a chance to get your hands on it for that long – you would be gods among men if you could sit down at this game and master it in 3 days. I really hope you don't! (laughs) That would really suck and we wouldn't have done our job if that was the case. Obviously you guys are very skilled though so I do expect you to go through the cycle stuff of understanding very very quickly. I would guess that maybe you aren't seeing what we're seeing cause you haven't had enough time with it.
The other possibility of course is that we're wrong, and you guys are correct. And because we haven't gone to beta yet, maybe we are seeing the wrong thing. Now while you guys don't have enough time with it, we have a lot of time but we have a very limited player pool. We've expanded to the studio at large, but the studio at large is not all playing with one another. The Diablo team is playing like crazy but they are also playing mostly with each other. Cinematics is playing a lot but they are mostly playing with Cinematics. We do get some cross team play but not enough that would be necessary to really shake things up and show us what's going on.
So it's very possible that you are correct even with your limited play time. But simply, we have too limited a player pool and we are not pushing it as much as maybe we should. So who knows? We'll find out when we get to beta what the reality of that stuff is. It doesn't really...well it matters to me right now and we are going to keep working on it, but we've got plenty of time for those kinds of adjustments.
TL: When Starcraft 2 releases and the Battle.net ladder goes live will the dev team be actively seeking to make tweaks to official maps to promote racial balance? Or will they be trying to release standard maps and then tailoring the races like that. For example if you look at some of the classic maps that are still played where there is relative balance from the game balance versus some modern progaming maps that are designed with dramatic features to alter how they are played upon.
DB: We're gonna choose a selection of map types – to start with we'll probably start with some very limited set of maps that we feel are pretty similar at a basic level and we'll test our balance on those. We'll start releasing a wider set of map types probably – that may change of course - during the beta to see what kind of maps are the most fun. We will initially be tailoring the races a little bit more to the maps rather than doing a lot of map stuff to affect the races. But it will depend what is easiest and best for us, so we may change our mind on that.
“I can't tell you how many soccer moms I've raided with– it's ridiculous. These people according to conventional gaming wisdom would never be hardcore gamers, but they have better gear than I do!”Like “wow this game would be perfectly balanced if only we did this to the maps” (laughs). So yeah we are definitely looking at making a standard set of maps that we riff on in a lot of creative ways and then tailoring the balance like that.
I really do feel like using map balance as a method of racial balance is something that the community has quite correctly evolved because we aren't doing a lot of patches. And so you guys have taken over the balance for us in many ways by doing the map balance which I think is glorious and I think you do a great job. But initially we won't be doing that because we know we can patch and will be patching frequently. So initially we'll be doing the balancing with the races themselves. As time goes on we may evolve, I don't know right now. We may evolve into a similar type of formula where we are doing more with map balance but we may not. Certainly for the next few years with the expansions we are going to be doing a lot of stuff with the races.
TL: Are there any gameplay paradigms that you as a developer see in Starcraft: Broodwar that, whether that be progaming, personal etc that you are actively trying to prevent in Starcraft 2? For example sitting back and turtling in TvP. Is there anything like that that you think “that is not something we want to see”?
DB: It's a little broader than that, but yeah all types of play that are extremely predictable where it's a given what you must do is what we are trying to disrupt. Now we know that you guys are smart, and we know that you guys in the community are looking for ways to win the easiest, fastest and safest way possible. So we know those things are going to happen anyways. We know that at some point there's going to be the ultimate Zerg build versus the ultimate Protoss build and that's just what you should do. But we're going to do everything you can to make it as flexible as possible to do everything creatively on your feet at the time. So you can't just become complacent and memorize a build and just run with it.
It's going to be kind of a constant arms race. We're going to be looking for ways to make it a flexible game where there's always new decisions to be made and always creative problems being presented to you. At the same time, the community is going to be looking to break that – you guys are going to be looking for ways to make just one build that always wins. Because that's what I always want to do - always win.
So that's going to be the challenge for us, and again it's not that we are trying to destroy anything specific to the original Starcraft, but we are trying to limit anything that comes up where its like “that's the obvious move.”
TL: OK, Blizzard has recently been making moves into the world of E-Sports - you have a dedicated E-Sports team now. With Starcraft 2, will you actually be organizing and sponsoring SC2 events or will you be leaving that to 3rd parties, either professional or in the community?
DB: I think Bob [Editor's Note: Bob Colayco, Blizzard PR Manager for SC2] is going to answer this one.
Bob: You know, we have an E-Sports team for a reason and I think you're going to see some 3rd party stuff as well, but we definitely like to get hands on with our own things. If you look at what we've done with WoW Arena, we do have the tournament realms and we do regional finals that we run and we sponsor. And then there's the grand finals which we have at Blizzcon, so I think you're going to see a mix of things. I can't say anything specific
DB: I think the important message for the community with this one would be, that we love the 3rd party tournaments as well. We love watching those, going to them and seeing them live etc. So we want to do stuff as well, and we want to promote E-Sports overall.
“We are trying to make this game as complete – like if nobody buys any other product, this game needs to be awesome. Like if Blizzard gets hit by a meteor tomorrow and we all die, at least Starcraft 2 was awesome – that's what it needs to be.”We want E-Sports to grow and grow and grow – ideally with our game of course, but even in the wider world of everybody's games. We think E-Sports is an important component of what video games could become, and we want to take this opportunity with Starcraft 2 to push E-Sports forward. But, we really hope that lots of people out there see how fun it is and jump on board to make their own tournaments for our games or whoever's games. As long as we have a lot of E-Sports out there, we'll have more E-Sports players, more sites and bigger sites. It's just good for the business overall and because we put so much energy into it, it's good for us.
So we are really hoping that E-Sports, in the States specifically and in Europe as well takes off like it has in Korea where it's huge. We see that opportunity like “wow this is so fun, there's no reason this couldn't be a world-wide phenomenon” instead of one limited to a few places in the world.
TL: What is your design philosophy with regards to expansions, and have you hit a point where you have to say “OK we'll have to put this in the expansion”. And then, how do you decide “this is something we can patch in” versus “this deserves its own separate product”?
DB: We haven't gotten to that point yet where we are designing stuff exclusively for expansions, but we haven't been throwing anything out. If we have something that doesn't fit right now but we think it's cool, we'll ear mark that as “possible expansion”. Like at this point we're going to be done with the original Starcraft 2 here, Wings of Liberty when they rip it out of our cold dead hands. We are going to put every ounce of energy into this release and then we'll worry about the expansions.
So if we have an awesome idea that will just not squeeze in, sure, we'll earmark that for expansion. But we are always watching to say “hey does that suddenly fit?” and if it fits, we'll put it in the ship.
TL: You already touched on this next one but with StarCraft II and the expansions are you designing it with a Global scope for the multiplayer the way we consider StarCraft+Broodwar now? Are there units that you think “that could work in the future, but we can leave it for expansion”.
DB: No we aren't leaving any intentional holes, is that what you are asking?
DB: No we aren't doing anything where we think “there's a hole here but we can fill it with the expansion”. We are trying to make this game complete – like if nobody buys any other product, this game needs to be awesome. Like if Blizzard gets hit by a meteor tomorrow and we all die, at least StarCraft II was awesome – that's what it needs to be.
Then with the expansions there's just going to be more, and we are going to tune and tweak the gameplay and give you some more strategic options, but we are definitely not looking at this like we are going to intentionally leave blanks that can be filled later on. That would probably be pretty lame (laughs). No, we are definitely thinking of them as separate products, like “here is a great game. Here is ANOTHER great game. It's like the other game, but great in its own right.”
TL: Typically balance feedback has been given to developers by word of mouth – typically through forums. Is the development team going to have any sort of method by which high end/high ranking players can directly give their feedback?
TL: Can you give us any more?
DB: I don't know what we are exactly going to do, but we've already been in discussion with some of the high ranking players around the world. We talked to people at Blizzcon and I think we sent a professional build overseas so some of the high ranking players could take a look at it and I've gotten the feedback from them on that.
But we are definitely going to be opening up...I don't know how we are exactly going to do it, whether it be a special secret forum or if we'll do email or what. We'll definitely be talking to the high ranking folks, the guys who have traditionally been really great at our games and see what they think.
TL: You've been asked before about HLTV type functionally in StarCraft II and had noted that it was on a wishlist but weren't sure that it would be there at launch. Given that Beta has been pushed to 2010, is this something we can expect with the final product?
DB: I don't know at this point which features for Battle.net are going to make the release. There's a minimum set which I know is going to make it. Then obviously there's going to be features we patch in, and ones we do with the expansions. Some of that is still swirling around, like which ones make which cut at which time. Those guys are working really hard to bring the best possible feature set with the game launch, but there's definitely stuff that's going to be put off to the expansions and patches.
Bob: One thing I wanted to say before we get off that topic - I really want to emphasize that people are used to seeing Battle.net only get overhauled with each product release, but there's going to be a concerted effort to do more in between releases with patches.
“There's going to be some juicy stuff in between the actual product releases as we go forward.” -Bob ColaycoAgain... I hate to bring the World of Warcraft analogy again but it is pretty analogous to the World of Warcraft content patches. There's going to be some juicy stuff in between the actual product releases as we go forward.
DB: We've seen what WoW has done for our games and our community, and we have a pretty good history of patching – not always what the community would want, but we try to do well. I think WoW has shown us what we can accomplish and the value it has for us, so we are trying to make the RTS team behave a little bit more like that in terms of how we get content patches over time. We'll see how we do.
Bob: That's for Battle.net features.
TL: One last question here. I went to the community summit at Blizzcon and had a chance to ask Tony Hsu [EN: SC2 Producer] this question – I wanted to hear your thoughts. A lot of people's jobs and careers even outside of Blizzard rely on the success of Starcraft 2, does that immense pressure ever get to you? Do you ever have one of those “....whoa...” moments?
DB: Oh yeah it's terrifying, no question. We are very aware of the importance of the product to a lot of different people but also to gamers at large. We know how much they are expecting of this product, how good they want it to be etc. At a certain point though, you have to put the horse blinders on and say “look here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to make the best game that I can possibly make, for as many people as I possibly can. But it's got to be about the game and about the product. I'm not going to worry a ton today about a specific IGR (Internet Game Room) or whatever”. But you do take it into consideration, and it is absolutely terrifying to consider how many people need and want this product to be great and how much pressure there is to make something that is going to fulfill everyone's expectations.
TL: I have to ask quickly about the beta – there had been hints that it would be coming in the first few months of 2010. What types of numbers would we be looking at for the first wave? And is there any sort of format for how new players will be added later on (bulk waves, trickle in etc)?
DB: I don't think I have the answer to that question, it would be a better question for Chris Sigaty as he usually keeps that stuff. I also know that those numbers will change over time and we will decide as the beta goes forward how many people to invite based on how well we are doing with our server load, player activity etc. It will be a little bit organic – there isn't sort of a secret document somewhere that I can read to you and say “Oh there's the whole plan!”. We're going to play it a little bit by ear as we go.
TL: Thanks very much – I really appreciate you guys giving us all this time since I know you are all very busy.
DB: We'll hey thanks a lot man, it's always a pleasure to talking to you guys. You always have really great questions – it's just really fun talking to Teamliquid specifically. Thanks for talking to us today.
TL: Thanks very much guys, I'll let you get back to work!
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