StarCraft II finally dropped into the hands of more than three million eager fans this summer, and Heart of the Swarm probably won't see the light of day until long after we've locked horns with an actual race of hiveminded aliens. So, in the meantime, why even bring the game to BlizzCon? What's left to talk about?
Tons, as it turns out. This year, Blizzard took the wraps off four brand new games it's developing within StarCraft II - each of which look equal parts excellent and bizarre. Oh, and let's not forget the "waves and waves" of free content that will continue to zerg rush the game until Heart of the Swarm finally comes out. Also, cheating! That's always fun to deal with. And what about the fallout from the forum tweak that was heard around the world, Real ID?
We sat down with game director Kaeo Milker to discuss all of the above topics and more. Also puns, briefly. Read the full thing after the break!
[Interview by Nathan Grayson]
VG247: You surprised everyone this year by announcing four Blizzard-designed StarCraft II mods – chief among them Blizzard DOTA. Valve, of course, has also taken to ancients and the defending thereof. What are your thoughts on that? Should DOTA be a full retail product?
Kaeo Milker: I haven't really been paying attention to anything on that side. We've been working on our DOTA for a while now, and, you know, we're big fans of the ones in Warcraft III – and even kind of the earlier Aeon Strife games going back to StarCraft. For my side, I'm all about Blizzard DOTA. It's what I've been focusing on for the last couple months – you know, along with the Heart of the Swarm ramp-up we're kind of doing on our team.
Ok, well, the game features a student-teacher system that rewards veterans for molding inexperienced players into brutally efficient (well, by DOTA standards) murder machines. StarCraft II, of course, is a dauntingly complex game for many. Is there any interest in adding a similar system to the game?
Well, again, I don't know anything about that feature set, but on our side we try to do a lot of things with StarCraft II kind of recognizing that barrier of entry. I think we did a lot of things for StarCraft II to kind of ease that. We have things like the challenges, which are kind of a really good bridge between being just a player and someone who really understands those fundamental things that elevate you to the next level.
Our ladder system now is really structured around not just throwing you in the pool and matching you up against people who are way out of your skill level. Everything is finely tuned now to put you together with people who are right at your level. And those are things that we've done to balance that learning curve out a little bit and maybe make it a bit more approachable for new players.
Obviously, you're working on a few small games aside from DOTA as well. (Aiur Chef, by the way, gets my vote for pun of the year. And yes, you can use that as a back-of-the-box quote.) Do you plan on continuing to pump out small games to fill the large gap between StarCraft II and Heart of the Swarm?
Definitely. If you look back at Warcraft III, we had “map of the week” features coming from our team. Sometimes it was a multiplayer map; sometimes it was a little UMS kind of map – a custom map that people could play. We always envisioned doing a similar thing with StarCraft II. We already released a map called Burning Tide, which was kind of a multiplayer take on a Tosh mission that we had in the campaign. So that was kind of a quick iteration of that – quickly do a variation on an existing map. And the things that we're showing at BlizzCon this time – things like Starjeweled – which is just an entirely new gametype and an entirely new user interface put into the game to kind of take StarCraft II to a place you've never seen before.
So our team has a million ideas and we're gonna have to balance our custom map creation with our expansion creation. But this early ramp up period was a great opportunity for our team to explore a lot of those gametypes that we didn't get to make during Wings of Liberty and start getting them out there. But we definitely intend to keep finding those and releasing them. Maybe some will come in little bunches and sometimes they'll just come one-at-a-time, but yeah. We're all really excited about working on that stuff.
StarCraft II has its fair share of multiplayer cheaters, and you've responded by bashing them with the banhammer until they're game-account-less pancakes. Do you think that's the best way of solving the problem, though? People keep cheating, after all. Are bans only Band Aids over a larger problem?
There was also some uproar over bans people received for third-party mods that allegedly only affected the single-player experience...
Yeah. And our standpoint on that is that we've built – just like we have in our past games – legitimate cheats into single-player if people want to do things like be invincible or have lots of money or whatever it is. If they really want to go through and use cheats to go through the campaign, they have those avenues available to them. As soon as they start using third-party programs, they think “Oh, I'm just doing this in the single-player.”
The reality is, we have no way of differentiating if that program's doing the multiplayer or single-player. We just know that it's a program designed to be cheating, and if we detect you using it, we're gonna take action on you. So I think anybody out there who's thinking “Oh, I want to use this cheat program,” use our cheats in the single-player. Everything else you're using at your own risk, and the consequences can be pretty dire there – up to losing your account.
Speaking of multiplayer, StarCraft II's got a pretty major E-sport component to it – mostly in Korea. Why do you think it's not nearly as culture-consumingly huge in the West? Why do we tend to shun what Korea's so strongly embraced?
I can't speak historically to all the right magical pieces that came together and led to that in Korea. I can say that we built StarCraft II from the ground-up as an E-sport. We were acutely aware of what happened with the original StarCraft – you know, that game's still being played today professionally. Warcraft III is the same way. With StarCraft II, we basically built the game around our expectation of that.
As for why North America and other regions aren't embracing it as much, I think they're starting to. Like, if you were following the GSL that happened, it's a Korea-based tournament, but people were watching it worldwide. They served over 15 million videos of the first season of the tournament. The second season is underway now. I think it really shows a worldwide interest in StarCraft II as a sport, and I think we're gonna see a lot more of these tournaments start popping up all over the world. And definitely, with the way people are following things on the Internet now, just because it's a Korea-based tournament doesn't mean it's a Korean tournament as far as viewership.
So is Blizzard hoping to position itself as the standard-bearer for E-sports the world over? Or is the proliferation of E-sports a team sport itself? Will more developers need to zero-in and focus on it in order for it to become truly widespread and mainstream?
Like I said, we really focus on it in our game. We knew what we wanted there. We knew we wanted a game that could be played at that level – where it could be fair and balanced and people could look at it and respect it as a sport. I don't know what other developers are doing in that realm, but we've been doing that in all our RTS games. It's paid off, and those are the games like StarCraft, which – 12 years later – is still being played at that level. Warcraft III is still being played at that level eight years after release. We're still focusing on it now. We're watching the worldwide play statistics and patching it. We'll keep balancing it and keep keeping it an E-sport.
Do you think E-sports will ever reach a point of worldwide mainstream acceptance? Or at the very least, do you think they'll shed the dismissive “Professional gaming? That person plays videogames for a living?” stigma?
I think that perception is starting to change a lot more, especially with how many people have access to this now. People are constantly streaming StarCraft games on the professional levels. You've got Youtube channels dedicated to it. You've got things like the GSL. At things like BlizzCon, we have StarCraft tournaments throughout BlizzCon, and we have a lot of WoW players here who've never really played StarCraft. And when they see the game being played on that level and when they hear the commentary, I think it's really easy to be able to watch that and get sucked into the excitement and kind of frenzy of that gameplay style.
And I think we're gonna see more of that coming over here. It may start on the Internet. It may start on TV. Who knows? But we're really excited about all those prospects. That's our expectation: it will get there. It's just a matter of getting it out to enough people.
Back to Blizzard DOTA and the like: Are you birthing those games and then dropping them into the cold, unfeeling dumpster that is our world, or do you have some fairly robust post-release support planned?
As far as supporting them, we haven't announced when we'll release them yet. But the intention is that this is something we'll release and support. It could even be something like adding achievements. Depending on the map type, it might be something that we add a competitive ladder to. There are all kinds of things that we could roll into these maps, but our expectation is that we're gonna support them as Blizzard products once they're released.
Could they eventually be released as standalone products?
Our whole intention with StarCraft II – as with Warcraft III and StarCraft's editor system – everything's based on running it within our game engine and data structure that's already there, and it's really more of an extension of StarCraft II. We haven't really talked at all about breaking it out of that. Right now, all of these are gonna be released as free games, so if someone purchases StarCraft II, they're gonna have access to these and any future maps.
On a different note entirely, Bobby Kotick recently spoke about potentially charging for videogame cut-scenes – essentially turning them into feature-length films. Specifically, he used StarCraft II as an example. Is this something you’re on board with? Do you like the idea?
We haven't talked about that at all. We don't really have a lot of communication with Activision on our side. Blizzard is very autonomous. At my level, I've never had any contact with Activision at all or heard those kind of plans.
I think – if he's bringing up StarCraft as an example – it's because it's the most recent example of a game that had really high-quality cut-scene content. I don't think that's reflective of plans we have on the StarCraft II team or anything like that. I mean, we're making cut-scenes as part of our story-telling and our games, and that's our plan going forward.
Recently, you got broadsided by an 18-wheeler of outrage from players over the planned implementation of your Real ID program. What sort of lessons did you learn from that reaction?
I think like everything we do – no matter how much planning we have on our side – we might get different feedback. We're always very open to that feedback, and we're listening. And even if sometimes it doesn't feel like we are, we're definitely taking in all the feedback from various channels and trying to pick out where those veins of truth are that we need to reflect. On the Real ID side, I think that was one of those cases where people brought up a lot of legitimate concerns, and we evaluated what we wanted to do and what our goals were for the system. Our original plan wasn't the right plan, and we changed it. We've done that in the past and we'll continue doing it in the future when it's the right thing to do for the game and things like Battle.net.
Obviously, keeping players responsible for what they say is a great idea. Real ID just may not have been the right way to do it. Why are people such jerks on the Internet, and how do we keep them from running their mouths in ways that hurt other players' experiences?
That's a big challenge that you face in any online community. In our game communities, we have that both on the in-game Battle.net side and outside the game in the forums. We have a Battle.net account now tied to your player account, so inherently with StarCraft II and the new Battle.net – even if it's a tag that you're using that's not representative of who you are personally – at the end of the day, your account is tied to it. There are financial ramifications if you go outside the extents of some of the rules.
So I think we have things in place that encourage players to try to be good community members. And I think a big part of that is tied to their Battle.net account, and there's a lot on the line there if you don't want to play by the rules. With our current system – even without your real name on the forums – you have a lot of incentive to behave yourself. On the forums, people can mark you as someone who's kind of stepping out of bounds. In the game, you can report people as well. And as we move forward, I think people will find that if they are not being a kind, responsible member of the community, they'll pay the price for that.
Speaking of, Blizzard has one of the more active and vocal communities out there. How do you manage that? How do you decide when to cater to your normal, average-Joe players versus your professional-level devotees?
We have a community team that's full-time responsible for not only responding to those kinds of things when the time is right, but gathering it all and putting it in a format our team can look at and kind of pick through. Maybe there's a big swing and people are disagreeing about it, but we are there listening. On our side, we have a lot of really good tools available to us that let us see what's happening in gameplay. So even if someone's perception might be one thing, we have very hard numbers that globally can dictate to us how our balance is and how we're doing in line with the goals of the game. So just because it looks balanced in numbers and the overwhelming response is that it doesn't feel balanced, we're paying attention to that. I think you've seen, we've been doing a lot of patches in the three months since the game came out. A lot of those patches are to address some of those small balance tweaks that we want to iron out and we'll keep doing that.
The big talking points of the videogame industry this fall are Move and Kinect, which sort of break free from the confines of the console controller as we know it. Is there any potential there to finally make RTSes work well on consoles?
I'm not sure. You know, Blizzard did a StarCraft port ages ago [on the N64], which actually I thought worked well for a strategy game on a console, but largely there's a lot of challenges there. You know, we are a PC gaming company right now, and that is our plan moving forward. We don't have any plans to try and do that, but I think on team level, we watch all that stuff.
But I'm not sure how some of these motion-based controllers would help [RTSes]. It might actually make it even more convoluted than it is to control a strategy game like StarCraft II. I mean, we have individual unit selection. Most of the console RTSes go to squad selection just because of all the intricacies of trying to get selection right. But yeah, we'll see. It'll be interesting – once all that stuff is out there – to see what people do.