Dustin Browder, StarCraft II’s lead designer, wants to go home. He’s a tired bunny. He’s been working on a game that’s been in development since 2003 and finally, thankfully, the end is in sight: StarCraft II is gearing to launch in the first half of this year.
At least Dustin hopes so. The developer was kind enough to break off a Hard difficulty play-through last night to give us 20 minutes of his time on the phone, and talked about the monster RTS’s ongoing beta, what’s going on with Battle.net 2.0, StarCraft II’s day one patch and tons more.
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Interview by Patrick Garratt.
VG247: Are you seeing any specific trends from the beta?
Dustin Browder: We’re seeing all kinds of feedback. Some of the feedback we’re taking very seriously; quite a lot of it, of course, we’re not. Players are still learning the game and they’re going through a lot of the stages we went through in development, when we learned the game. What we’re definitely seeing right now is a general weakness in Terrans versus Protoss and Zerg, and this is from stats we have internally. The most interesting thing to us at this stage of the beta is less of what people think is wrong than what we can actually prove is wrong.
Our internal stats show us that Terrans are down in 1v1 versus Protoss and Zerg, and our internal stats also show us that Terran-Terran teams are also taking a hit in almost every match-up. This we believe to be largely because of map design. The Terrans lack some of the mobility to come rescue their allies in the early game, and we do have fortress maps in the beta, but we have several maps that aren’t fortress-style maps. This means the two players don’t that close to one another, so a Terran-Terran match-up could get a little difficult if you can’t move quickly to support your allies.
We’re going to change the maps a little bit and see if we get different results, but the Terrans being down is something we’ve started to address and we’re going to continue to address in the coming weeks.
In terms of how the beta’s going, what sort of affect is it having on a projected release date for the game?
Dustin Browder: So far, the beta numbers we’ve been looking at have been very, very positive. We’re close to a 50 percent win ratio for almost every race. What we’re really doing right now is waiting to see, as the community learns more, to see if something changes in the meta-game that causes this not to be the case. And, of course, we’re still dealing with issues of unit diversity, particularly on the Zerg side. But so far, no real damage from the beta per se. Things seem to be going pretty well.
The beta’s a huge deal for Battle.net 2.0. How’s the infrastructure that you’re allowing people to use coped with the stress so far?
Dustin Browder: We’ve surviving the stress just fine. We’ve added a bunch of new keys this last week and we’ve got our concurrency up much higher than it was before. We’re receiving a lot of feedback about usability which we’re going to try to address in a content patch at some point during the beta, to get some more features and functionality out to the fans based on their experience.
Can you give us any detail on what’s going to be included in that patch?
Dustin Browder: I’m not exactly sure. Honestly, I’d love to. We’re going to be doing a lot of bug-fixes and a lot of clean-up. I know there’s one issue that I find very frustrating, where I play a match and I want to know who I just beat or who I just lost to. There’s a way to do it right now, but you have to go through a complex series of steps: you have to make the guy your friend, then you have to drill into his page, then you have to go to his ladder page, and all this kind of stuff. We’re going to add some functionality that’s going to make that super-simple to do.
There are also going to be some changes to how we do match-making. I know this for sure. But I’m not exactly sure of everything that’s going to happen. We develop these features and some of them will make the content patch, and some of them will not. I’m not exactly sure what’s going to be in the content patch and what’s not at this point.
What level of concurrency to you want to get to before the end of the beta?
Dustin Browder: I think we want to maintain about 10,000. It’s sort of our goal, and we’ve just about hit that at this point. I can see we’re at 9,000-something right now, and 10,000 is the goal. That makes our match-maker really happy, makes it really sing when we’re about at those numbers. If we get much higher than that we’ll just leave it, and if we see concurrency fall off we’ll add more keys until we get back to those numbers.
Are you seeing that ladder system working so far? I only ask as I was speaking to someone that’s been playing the beta a lot, and the potential issue he flagged was that server populations might not be maintained for the general user.
Dustin Browder: Well, it’s going to be interesting to see. Certainly in the beta it’s going to be a little more challenging. I think we’re going to be OK once we launch, right? We’ll have the game in the hands of a larger number of customers. I certainly have concerns about the off hours. I’m a little worried that the casual player’s going to have trouble getting games at 2.00am that match his skill level. He might run into scenarios there where, simply, there are not enough players at his skill level that are enthusiastic at playing at two in the morning. But I don’t know for sure. I also talked to some guys around the office and they’ve encouraged me to wait to see how popular the game is before I panic about that issue. There may in fact be a larger population than I’m giving our fans credit for at that time, but that would be a concern that I would have.
How are you seeing people responding to the general speed of the game? Most modern RTS is much slower than StarCraft. StarCraft was very immediate, and still is. You’ve obviously to great lengths to match the sequel experience to the original experience. How are you seeing people cope with the speed?
Dustin Browder: We’re seeing two types of players. We’re seeing the hardcore who’ve been with us for the past 12 years, who are just totally loving it and having a great time. We’re seeing newer players get into the beta and struggling a bit with the speed, with the rushes, with the style of gameplay we’re presenting them with. We’ve seen a lot of feedback from the newer players saying, ‘Oh my God, this is really rough. What the hell are you guys doing?’ The only thing I would say to that is that the beta is not a demo. This is not how I expect new players to experience this game. As an analogy, if you play WoW at all, it’s kind of like us releasing a beta of level 80 arena games, with nothing before that, and saying, ‘Hey, go and have fun.’ Like, there’d be no way you could jump in. The beta for us is a chance to load-test our servers, and it’s also a chance to specifically test out 1v1, and to a lesser extent our 2v2 competitive environment, so it’s really for people that want to help us test. If you’re looking to just jump in and get something that’s really fun, just like a demo, I would encourage people to not think of it that way.
For the casual players we have a 20-plus-hour campaign that we want them to play before they get into online play, to get used to the gameplay experience. We have a wide selection of AI opponents, five different difficulty levels of AI opponents, which we encourage people to try out their chosen race with before they get into online play. We have our Challenge mode, which has a bunch of maps that teach you some of the fundamentals of competitive online play, that we encourage you to play before you get into online play. We have co-operative games against the AI, an actual quick match where we pick a random ally for you and get you playing against AI opponents. So we have, I dunno, 30-40 hours of offline and semi-online play experience for the more casual players, to get them accustomed to the StarCraft II play experience, before they delve into 2v2 and 1v1 Deathmatch.
Obviously, we’re not providing any of that in the beta. I guess what I’m hoping from these guys that are struggling a bit in the beta, if they can put up with it, is to struggle a little bit, get to their skill level and then give us their feedback based on their skill level. Obviously, we’re getting a lot of play balance from the very hardcore. I can go anywhere on the internet and see what those guys think, right? But we have to make the mid-range player balance for him too. At his skill level, it has to be a fun experience. So, for those players that are at the mid-level play, and are maybe having a little trouble getting past those ten games, and when they play at four in the morning currently in the beta they just run into a bunch of platinum-level guys and they’re not feeling so happy about it, I would encourage them to try to keep playing, and try to keep playing between hours where they’re likely to find good games, and send us their feedback.
Can you measure clicks-per-minute?
Dustin Browder: Yes, we can.
Are you seeing clicks-per-minute generally increase as you run the beta over time?
Dustin Browder: I’m sorry, I’m able to see it on a game-by-game basis; I’m not able to see it globally. But that’s a great question, and certainly a stat we’d love to have. We have a ton of stats right now, and we’re having a trouble getting at them a little bit. There’s a large volume of data that our business intelligence guys are working very hard to give us access to. What I have access to now is fairly limited. I have access to maps, I have access to win-loss by race and by skill, I have access to certain unit stats, but no, I don’t have access to action-per-minute on a global scale. I’m not able to see it increasing as we go. I imagine that it would.
Certainly, my experience in Call of Duty when it first released was quite terrifying. I’m getting to be in my late 30s. I went to play Call of Duty and I got owned for many days in a row. When I was in my late 20s and early 30s I used to be able to get top stop on a Counter-Strike server with no difficulty, and Counter-Strike’s a pretty fast game. Modern Warfare I was struggling with, but as I played in that first week, I pretty soon got back into the flow of things and I wasn’t losing every head-to-head match-up by half a second. So, I certainly hope that as people get used to the game their actions-per-minute go up, but I don’t have those figures for you, sir. I’m sorry.
That’s OK. Obviously, Rob [Pardo, Blizzard’s game design EVP – Ed]’s going to be doing quite a big session this week about StarCraft and more. What are we going to see from him?
Dustin Browder: Oh my goodness, I have no idea [laughs]. I should ask him in my meeting today what he’s going to talk about. I know he’s going to talk quite a bit about Blizzard design philosophy. I have seen a preview talk from him on that, and it was really quite good, I thought. He talks in detail about the philosophies that we use, and it encourages other studios not to follow our philosophies exactly of course, because that wouldn’t be right for them, but to find and create our own set of rule-sets that will make them successful. I think he’s going to talk a lot about – at least this is what I think he’s going to talk about, and I think he talked about this at DICE as well – the sort of philosophies that made us successful. Maybe it’s all BS, but the philosophies that we thought were good for us. If other studios want to steal ours then by all means, but he encourages others to pick philosophies that they think are strong for them and then stick to them.
As you’re approaching StarCraft II’s launch, the company’s becoming more active in terms of PR and putting itself out there. How important are shows like GDC and E3 to the game?
Dustin Browder: Well, I don’t know. Maybe Bob could answer that one. But certainly at GDC and DICE over the last five or six years, Blizzard has really increased presence at those shows, to try to be more helpful to the development community out there. We felt that we hadn’t been as responsible as we could have been in the past and we wanted to be more responsible going forward. We’ve actually been a growing studio since WoW launched, and it was more important for us to say, ‘Hey guys, we’re not entirely insane. We’re actually fun guys to work with and we might be fun guys to hang out with and maybe you might like to consider applying for one of those many jobs on our website. But those shows, certainly for the developers, are very important to us, just to advertise the fact that we do have a studio that’s growing, that we do that people to consider us as a legitimate destination for their career.
I don’t know what kind of impact GDC or E3 has on game sales, or anything like that. I certainly hope that by getting the game out there people get geeked up about it.
Bob Colayco, in-house PR: On the PR side, we don’t really use GDC as a PR vehicle. There are a lot of people there to learn, and I try to not harass Dustin as he’s going to these sessions, so we don’t do a whole lot of interviews or PR or anything. That’s more like Blizzcon. Also some of the big international shows like gamescom; we have a big presence there.
E3? Not as much lately because we have Blizzcon, but we hit the international shows when we can, to show some love.
Dustin Browder: What’s been really exciting for us at these shows, and this has been a fortunate happenstance of our development cycle, is being able to put the game out there live for people to play, both at BlizzCon and these shows in Europe. For me as a developer, I feel much happier being able to say to people, ‘Just play it.’ The beta’s given us the same kind of advantage. I can sit here and talk and pontificate all day about what I think is good about the game, but really, who cares? What matters is that if you play it and like it the game will speak for itself. That’s what’s been very exciting for me about the shows, is that we can just get it in front of the fans and they can just tell us what they think. I think the game speaks for itself at this point.
A lot of Battle.net 2.0’s community features appear to be locked down at the moment. Are you quite nervous about rolling out a lot of the new community features? Do you think the community’s going to be quite shocked by it?
Dustin Browder: I’m always nervous about everything we do, to be clear. I guess you’re asking if I’m especially nervous. Well, I know that we have a lot more development ahead of us on Battle.net. The multiplayer game, I think, is in a pretty strong space – I hope – and the community’s going to test that for us, and that seems to be going well. Battle.net does have a little bit more work ahead of it in terms of this content patch coming, but they’re also going to be working right up until the very end. We will have a day one patch, a required day one patch. So that gives them a little bit more time to sort of get their ducks in a row.
In addition, we view Battle.net this time around a little more as we do WoW. We hope to be doing constant content development going forwards, so there are certainly features – tournament features, e-sport features, for example – that are planned after launch. But obviously, we’re very concerned about what the community thinks and we want the community to be happy with the service. We’re going to keep working on it until the community is happy with the service.
You mentioned a day one patch there? Is that public knowledge? Is that just for StarCraft?
Dustin Browder: I don’t know if that’s public knowledge or not.
Bob Colayco: It’s been pretty standard. It’s not just us; everyone does it.
Dustin Browder: Yeah. It’s certainly something that we’re doing this time around because the beta is going to be running. We’re certainly going to have a balance patch if nothing else.
Bob Colayco: If you think about the logistics of printing million of boxes, and millions of discs, and getting all that distribution out to all parts of the world, there’s a big chunk of time there that can be utilized by development to improve the game. It only makes sense to use that time somehow.
Dustin Browder: It’s pretty normal. They’ve been standard issue for WoW for some time. As a consumer back in the day, I always thought a day one patch was kind of a sad sign, but I’ve got to tell you, as a developer now I kind of welcome it, just for the chance to get a couple more months to really polish and work on the game a little bit longer.
Obviously we’ll do everything we can to make sure it’s as small a patch as possible, to make sure people can get into the game and get started playing it. That’s our biggest concern with the patch: to make sure it’s the tiniest thing we can make it so it’s really quick once you install the game.
Are you actually going to be removing or adding any units before you launch?
Dustin Browder: I don’t know if we’ll add or remove. We could very easily add or remove. I certainly hope not to. I don’t foresee removing. I could see changing or adding significantly if it came to that. Our numbers now are positive and things seem to be going well, but as we’ve seen many times in the past, the community will often surprise us with tactics and strategies that we simply didn’t see coming. If we get to a point in a few weeks or a month where we say, ‘Oh my God, the Immortal’s a really huge problem. We need to change him dramatically or drop him,’ that is a change we’d be willing to make at this point.
Is the Campaign actually finished yet?
Dustin Browder: It’s not finished. I’m doing a play-through right now on Hard difficulty, and I have pages of notes. But yes, all the missions are in, all of the game mechanics are in and working, and all the audio is recorded. We’re down to fixing, polishing; lots and lots of difficulty tuning is going on. We have multiple strike teams around the studio playing through at multiple difficulty levels, giving us tons and tons of feedback. We’ve been bringing in a lot of new users and having them run through our game, or at least the first part of the game, and watching where they get stuck. But yeah: all the missions are at least at some level complete.
How does it feel to finally get it all in one place?
Dustin Browder: It’s pretty exciting. I’ll be a lot more excited when it’s actually done. We’re obviously working a lot of hours right now trying to get it complete. We’re working a lot of hours for tuning. It’s a pretty exhausting experience all the way round. I’ll be happy, and I’ll give that little cheer, when we actually put it in the box.
You’ve got a release date in the first half of this year, right? So you’ve got quite a lot of leeway, I guess. You’ve got four months to actually ship. You’re completely confident on actually hitting that release date, right?
Dustin Browder: I don’t know [lots of laughing]. I’d really love to say yes, I got to tell you, brother. You never know what’s going to happen. You never know when something’s going to jump up and bite you that you didn’t expect. Yeah sure, today it’s looking great, but who knows tomorrow? Certainly I’d be super-excited for that to be the case. I can’t tell you how enthusiastic the team is at this point of getting this game out of the door, not only to get the game into the hands of our fans, but also so we can go home. But at this point we really want to get it out in the worst possible way, and any delays are going to meet with our righteous fury. But there’s no way to know for sure, dude, what’s going to happen at this point.
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