Starcraft II releases on July 27. To say it's had "a lengthy period in development" is putting it mildly: Blizzard's been working on the RTS since 2003. VG247 met Frank Pearce, Blizzard EVP of product development and the man in charge of the project, in London today to quiz him on the project's background and the highs and lows of the development of what is clearly one of the biggest PC game releases of 2010.
Pearce plays a critical role in the creation of all Blizzard’s games, so we also took the liberty of asking him a few questions about the future of World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s release plans for Diablo III and his thoughts on the future of MMOs, strategy gaming and more.
VG247: The release date for Starcraft II is now confirmed at July 27. You must have been happy to finally set that, given the game has been in development since back in 2003.
Frank Pearce: Well, yeah, it has been in some way, shape or form. And probably in earnest since 2005. So it is nice to have that release date set in stone at this early stage – and this really is pretty early for us to announce a street date like that. Almost two months in advance of the street date.
VG247: Which, presumably, suggests that the beta has gone well.
Frank Pearce: Beta's gone well. We feel that we are comfortable with the content. And that we will be able to deliver an update. It’s nice to give the development team a clear goal – and they feel very confident that they will be able to achieve it. There’s not any ambiguity about what we are trying to do right now.
VG247: Going back to the origins of the game in 2003 and then moving on to the dedicated team working on the project from 2005; what, for you, have been the biggest highs and lows of the Starcraft II development process?
Frank Pearce: Well, when we announced the game in Korea in ’07 that was a big deal. We announced it to 50,000 people in an arena at a worldwide invitational event that Blizzard hosted. I think some of the lower points were when we trying to figure out what aspects of the Battle.net experience we could deliver under the timeline that we wanted to deliver it in.
A high point at this point is definitely the single-player story mode campaign, because I think that really turned out great. But it was a long, hard road getting to that point, trying to figure out the tools we needed to put those sets in place and the tools we needed for the animation, the technology we needed for the voice, the ‘face effects’ technology used for web-syncing the facial animations to the actual sound-bites in the game. It’s been a lot of work, for sure.
VG247: Could you tell us about any particular events that you have planned for that July 27 release date?
Frank Pearce: You know, we don’t have any specific plans set in stone yet. It depends on who you ask. If you ask the MDs for all our specific regions around the world, then they are going to want to host midnight opening events on that date. In similar ways to what we’ve done historically, because it’s always really exciting to properly interact with the fans when we're launching a game. So, no specific plans, but it is definitely something that we are talking about right now.
VG247: Members of your development team have been quoted as saying recently that they think Starcraft II should spark a revival of PC real-time strategy gaming.
Frank Pearce: I’m not sure if anyone at Blizzard said that. But it will be awesome if it does. [laughs]
VG247: It seems like World of Warcraft has, in very many ways, almost defined PC gaming in the last decade. It must have taken up most of your time and most of Blizzard’s time throughout the last ten years, which is why it is such a big deal that we now have this major new title coming along from Blizzard. But do you perhaps have any concerns that the success of Starcraft II might in some way cannibalise WoW?
Frank Pearce: We’ve made a really great game and if people want to play it, then that’s great. If a great game is going to come along and cannibalise players from World of Warcraft then I’d rather they were playing a Blizzard game than someone else’s game. They are still our customers, ultimately, and they are still our players.
In a lot of ways the Real ID cross-game chat functionality contemplates that, because we know that there are going to be WoW players who will start playing Starcraft II, but who also want to still stay closely connected to their community within WoW. And potentially have a strong enough connection so that they may get a message from someone in WoW saying, “Hey, come on over, we need a last person to fill our raid." They have that flexibility and that connection.
VG247: There has been a few interesting predictions from various analysts regarding sales forecasts for Starcraft II, with Michael Pachter suggesting recently that he predicted 5 million sales this year and a total of around 10 million over time. Is that achievable?
Frank Pearce: Those are good numbers. Anything is possible. Ultimately it is going to be a factor of whether or not we have done our jobs well and whether or not we have created an exciting experience. It’s impossible to say, really. We just never know.
I mean, our estimates internally in 2004 were just grossly off when it came to World of Warcraft. We estimated that we would sell around 400,000 in North America in that first year. And we did that in the first month.
I think that we have definitely got the infrastructure in place to handle whatever capacity we need to. But, we’ll take the conservative approach in terms of the amount of units that we are shipping out to retailers.
VG247: WoW seems to have levelled off a little recently, with the number of players hovering around the 11.5 million mark for the last year or two. Do you think this is it now? Has WoW hit its peak in terms of player numbers?
Frank Pearce: No, I don’t think that at all. I mean, you can look at that number and if you look at some of the details around it… In China, for example, we haven’t even launched Wrath of the Lich King yet, and that expansion is already 18-plus months old. They're still playing The Burning Crusade there, because we're waiting for approval for Wrath from the appropriate agencies. And once we get that approval and launch Wrath in China then I think we will see growth.
VG247: And what about Cataclysm [the next new WoW expansion]? How’s that shaping up?
Frank Pearce: Yeah, Cataclysm is going really well. It looks awesome. And when we launch that… Whenever we launch an expansion we usually see some win-back from players who have set WoW aside temporarily. Hopefully we will get some people back from Cataclysm as well. I don’t think 11.5 million is a peak, necessarily, but there are certain things that we need to do and need to do well in order to see it go further.
VG247: One interesting news announcement you made recently was about Facebook integration with Battle.net – what is the thinking behind that?
Frank Pearce: Well, it’s less of an integration and more of a convenience feature, wherein if you want to import your Facebook friends list to create your Battle.net friends list then you have that option. It’s really just a convenience feature.
VG247: Are those types of features going to encourage more casual players into your games?
Frank Pearce: Hopefully.
VG247: I mean, Starcraft II is obviously going to appeal to the huge community of Starcraft and Blizzard fans that are already out there. But how do you start to appeal to those casual gamers that might have never even played a strategy game?
Frank Pearce: Yeah, and they are also potentially very intimidated by the concept of a real-time strategy game. Well, hopefully, the story that we are trying to tell in the campaign is something that will draw new players in to the experience. We’ve also got tutorials, missions, challenge-mode missions to teach people some of the basic concepts behind an RTS, AI skirmish maps in the missions… And basically, it is always a connected experience. The landing page almost looks like a browser and we point you to the different stages along the way before we throw you onto Battle.net for head-to-head play.
VG247: Looking ahead over the next three, five, ten years or more, do you see Starcraft II moving across on to console and on to mobile devices? There was a story recently that Dave Perry had WoW running on an iPad, for example. Is console and mobile gaming part of the longer-term strategy at Blizzard?
Frank Pearce: It all depends on the device, it depends on the game, on the platform. Starcraft II has been designed with the PC and with PC peripherals in mind, from the very beginning. We don’t have any plans for console versions of Starcraft II right now.
And then as it relates to mobile devices and things like that, it just depends. We are looking for ways that we can use those devices and platforms to enhance the gaming experience we're delivering to our customers. So, if you take WoW as a specific example, we are currently in beta for the Remote Auction House, offering players remote access to auctions in WoW via browsers and mobile phones. And, you know, we want to add more functionality to that as well. Where it makes sense.
VG247: Project Natal is also the big news in the console industry in 2010. Could you envision using that kind of technology in Starcraft?
Frank Pearce: Potentially. We can do anything we want. It’s just a factor of time and resources and whatnot – and making sure that the experience is going to meet everyone’s expectations.
VG247: Back to Starcraft II. Post-launch, what is the longer term plan? When do you plan to release the first Heart of the Swarm expansion for the game?
Frank Pearce: We’ll get started on that soon, in fact, we’ve already got started on it, and that will become the team’s main focus after launch in addition to working on any new patches we need to release via Battle.net.
VG247: There is talk of the new Diablo being released in 2011. Can you say more on that?
Frank Pearce: We have Diablo III currently in development, but we have made no announcements about a release window yet. That was announced in France back in June 2008. We’ll ship it when it is ready, but we are not going to rush it out. We take the time to get things right.
VG247: Blizzcon is a major event for you guys. As such, you tend to have much less of a focus on E3 than the rest of the games industry. What might we expect from Blizzcon 2010 in October?
Frank Pearce: Well you will definitely see Diablo III there. And, as far as Starcraft II goes, following the launch in July there will be a big focus on competitive play and e-sports. And we’re not quite clear just yet what we will be doing from a WoW perspective.
VG247: But Cataclysm [new WoW expansion] is set for release in 2010, so that should be out by the end of the year, yes?
Frank Pearce: Hopefully. If it’s ready. If not, then we’ll hold onto it. [Grins].