Destructoid interview: StarCraft II’s Dustin Browder

In addition to getting to play StarCraft II at Blizzard last week, I also got a chance to interview lead game designer Dustin Browder. He was able to give us a bit more detail about the single-player mode of StarCraft II, what their vision was when designing the game, what’s up with the three separate games for each campaign, and some additional details about what’s planned for the multiplayer and

One of the coolest things about interviewing Dustin was that he was clearly passionate about the game — when talking about all the new stuff they were putting in, his face would light up, he’d get really animated, and overall he was a ton of fun to talk to.

Hit the jump!

Destructoid: To start off, tell us a bit about what your vision was for StarCraft II, as opposed to the original StarCraft.

Dustin: Well, what we’re trying to do is create a game that hearkens back to the legacy of the original. We felt the original was such a strong game that we didn’t want to run off and abandon it and do whatever. We wanted it to feel like you were coming home to a game that you knew and loved. At the same time, we’re trying to create all-new gameplay elements, trying to create a gameplay experience that still has as much learning for you as the original StarCraft and the original Brood War did. You feel like you have to expand your mind, try new stuff; you get a chance to be creative, [and] you might be able to discover something no one’s ever seen before, which is clearly not as likely these days with StarCraft and Brood War. It’s really been a huge challenge for us in that sense, trying to walk the line between new and keeping it true to the original creative excellence. Also, obviously, we want to create a much stronger campaign experience. We want to create something that lets players get a lot closer to the gameplay experience, get a lot deeper into the characters, and really gets to be a 21st-century look at storytelling in the StarCraft universe, which a lot of our competitors have been doing — really great stories. We wanted to do something that we felt matched our quality level and was really out there doing some awesome stuff.

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Destructoid: In terms of the single-player campaign, it’s my understanding that it’s still going to be three separate packs. Can you tell us anything or give us any details about the invidual campaigns?

Dustin: Absolutely! The reason we made this decision was so we could really tell the Terran story we wanted to tell. The other day we were looking at probably a 60- to 80-mission game with all three campaigns together, which would have delayed the game way too long — it has been murder getting this one campaign done. It’s been really really challenging. We had at least 20 to 25 missions of just the Terrans alone. At least! We’ve expanded that out a bit and now we’ve got a campaign that feels like you really get to experience Jim Raynor’s battle across the stars, Jim Raynor’s challenges, [and] his mixed relationship with Kerrigan — the fact that she clearly has to be killed, but this is a woman that he did love. [And] his feelings about Mengsk, his former ally, his comrade-in-arms who has turned against him and turned everything they dreamed of doing into a terrible, horrible government that’s just really really evil to the people it’s around. And, of course, he’s got this relationship with the Protoss — he’s helped them out in battles against all kinds of things, battling against the Zerg, saving the universe. At the same time, we wanted to introduce some new stuff — we don’t want it to just be about these guys. We want to introduce new characters like Tychus [Findlay] and [Gabriel] Tosh; we want to introduce a bunch of new stuff. We really felt like we had to go big, we had to make it cool — and that meant we had to split them out into separate products.

What I know right now is that we’ve got 20 missions planned for the Terran campaign, and we’re working right now to make sure each one of those missions [doesn’t] just feel like [a] skirmish [battle]. We don’t want you to get into the campaign and have it be ‘Here is your base. Here’s the enemy base. You kill them now.’ That’s not for us. We have missions where the lowest level of the terrain gets flooded by lava every five minutes — if you don’t get off low ground you die. We’ve got missions where hordes of infested Terrans attack, but only at night. You have to hold off at night, and then during the day, it’s “EVERYONE GO OUT AND KILL ‘EM WHILE THEY SLEEP!” We’ve got missions where you’re trying to defend an infested colony. We’ve got missions where you control a single Ghost, trying to change the tide of a war. We’ve got missions where you’re battling on ancient forbidden space platforms, trying to steal artifacts from under the nose of fanatical Protoss.

This is the stuff we’re trying to do. Some of them are bigger story hits, some not, but they all have these really different mechanics, so you won’t be like, “Well, what I should do is put four bunkers in front of my base, fill them with marines, and I will get 200 food, and I will win.” We don’t want that. That’s not fun. So, if you can imagine, engineering these experiences — each mission is like its own minigame, and the length of each mission is determined by, ‘How long is this minigame fun for?’ Each mission is a chance to see a new aspect of StarCraft, experience a new part of the story, and try some new gameplay mechanics that otherwise would not be available for you in the multiplayer or in the skirmish mode.

That’s the Terran campaign, and we’re working like crazy to try to get it done. The Zerg campaign we haven’t gone into a lot of detail yet, but it’s going to be about the Zerg and their quest for building empire. The Protoss are sort of a troubled species. They’re being systematically exterminated, and were being exterminated long before the Zerg arrived. They were starting to die out from their sheer age, but now that the Zerg came and their home world is gone, these guys are really having a lot of trouble. Their campaign is going to be more about you trying to unite the various Protoss tribes into something that resembles a force that can survive. The Terran campaign, the mechanics — at least at the beginning — are about cash: making jobs, making money, buying big guns. The Zerg campaign will have a whole other mechanic, although I’m not sure what that is yet, but I guess it will involve mutation and evolution or something. And then the Protoss campaign will likely, although I’m not sure yet because it’s still a couple years away, will likely be about making difficult choices about how to ally yourself with the surviving Protoss tribes and stand firm against the darkness.

Destructoid: You said you felt like the Terran story wasn’t fully complete. Can you tell me a little more about what you still felt was unfinished when you guys finished StarCraft and Brood War?

Dustin: I can tell you two things that were obvious from the first couple of missions. One is, is Raynor ever going to get a piece of Mengsk? Is he ever going to get a piece of that guy? That guy has hosed him down so many times so badly. And, what about Kerrigan? What is going to happen with her? Here is somebody that he may have loved, was certainly close to a relationship with, we don’t know for sure, but he has strong emotions tied to her, and she’s just killed billions. What about her? 

And what about him? What is his future really going to hold? At the start of the Terran campaign, he’s kind of a down-and-out rebel. He’s a mercenary to pay the bills, and he blows up Mengsk’s stuff when he gets a chance, but he’s not exactly on top of the world. Where is he going? I think [there are] definitely a lot of unanswered questions that are out there for these characters that are some pretty exciting stuff, and it’ll be pretty interesting to see how it turns out.

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Destructoid: So, you mentioned that the campaign missions will be, in your words, ‘minigames’. Are you anticipating that, for each campaign, all the ‘minigames’ will be very different?

Dustin: Yes. I don’t know how much you know about what we’ve talked about at BlizzCon, but our story mode campaign has non-linear mission choice. You can choose which missions you want to do. It always begins in the same place, and we want to tell a story, so it’s always going to end in the same place. But how you get from A to B is entirely up to you. So, the units you get, the missions you take, totally yours. You decide how that happens. Then you can buy upgrades for your units that determines how strong they are. Like Medics? I’ve got a couple upgrades to the Medics that would blow them off the charts. They’d never last in multiplayer — like it’s way too powerful, so we could never do it. But in solo play, we can. That’s why we don’t have Medics in multiplayer, but we do in solo.

We’ve got a bunch of units; in the case of the Terrans, they tend to be older units, but we have new ones as well, like a Hercules Dropship that can carry multiple Thors. We’ve got a Cobra that’s a hover tank that’s never existed before and probably will never be in multiplayer. It’s a really fun addition to solo play. You can choose which technologies you want to get, which missions you want to take, which stuff you want to upgrade, and a lot of it is based on cash for the Terrans. The Zerg will have a similar system, in terms of choosing which missions to do and which units they want to get, but it won’t be based on cash. It’ll be based on something else.

Destructoid: For people who aren’t familiar with StarCraft, how would you describe the play styles of the three different races?

Dustin: Well, it depends. One of the things that’s very important for players to understand I think, that’s sort of shocking for people, is that it depends on who you’re playing against. What you choose to do depends on who the opponent is. As a Terran player, you will play differently against a Zerg player than you will against a Protoss player or against another Terran player. And the reason we sort of encourage this and have it as a core part of the gameplay experience is so that the gameplay is constantly changing — you’re always having to switch gears. “I just won a game as Terran versus Protoss! I’m going to use that same stuff again…ooooh, I can’t.” Against Zerg, Terrans tend to be a little bit more static. They tend to be a little more about gaining ground, using bunkers, using siege tanks, using support from Thors. You have to watch out for the Banelings, probably not go as heavy on the infantry — you can, but probably not as much. Sometimes they do; if the Zerg player goes hard Mutalisks, then you want to get out the Ghosts to shoot those guys down, which the Ghost can totally do these days. If you’re playing against the Protoss, you tend to have more Marauders, you’re a little bit safer going with Banshees than you would be against the Zerg, so you’re a little bit more mobile. You tend to get out in the field, you get a commando force, you get some Medivacs, you get Marauders, you push your way in. Again, though, this is pre-beta, so I don’t know if these will be actual strategies; this is just based off yesterday.

It really depends on who you are. The Protoss tend to be a small, elite force. It needs to maximize the terrain, so that it doesn’t get surrounded, and really wants to hit once and hit hard. The Zerg tend to be fast, agile, and they harass a lot. They don’t need to hit once; they can hit many times. They can just pick away at you — pick, pick, pick, pick. Hit you in the back, strike over here, pick off a guy there, and slowly wear you down before sending a giant flood of Zerg that come and crush you. The Terrans tend to be methodical; they tend to slowly, deliberately gain ground — slowly pushing you across the map until they’ve got you into a small, tight corner where there’s no escape from their giant guns.

But your mileage will vary, depending on who you’re facing and what they’re doing.

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Destructoid: We know the multiplayer will be available as soon as the first campaign comes out. Will the multiplayer be getting upgrades to introduce new units as the later campaigns release?

Dustin: Yeah. Think of the later campaigns like expansions. For StarCraft, we did StarCraft and Brood War. This is going to be like StarCraft, Brood War, and Brood War II. Just exactly the same. We’ll have a new campaign each time; the difference is — the only difference — is that before, we had three campaigns in each box. Now we have one big campaign in each box. All the usual upgrades —, the replay system, adding new units and structures to the multiplayer, adjusting performance and making the game run faster — all of those things will go into the next expansion.

Destructoid: Can you say anything about

Dustin: I can say we’re working on it. Part of the whole painful process of Blizzard game creation is that we sweat every detail.  

Destructoid: One of the things about StarCraft is that it’s a very easy game to pick up, but jumping online and playing multiplayer can be very intimidating for new players. Do you have any plans to introduce some kind of online tutorial system or system to help out new players?

Dustin: We do. Here’s what we have planned right now. We’ve got in-game tutorials that show you how to use every race, at least at a basic level and the basic rules. That’s not for you, since you already know that stuff. Then, we’ve got a challenge mode, with a bunch of challenges that are like five to ten little mini-missions that teach you some critical aspect of StarCraft II gameplay — how to defend your base against a Zergling rush; what units counter other units; how to micromanage. We have a challenge that’s just about hotkeys — in case you’ve forgotten that you need to use hotkeys, here’s a map that will score you based on how effective you were with hotkeys so you can learn and practice hotkeys a bit.

We’ll give you the basic lessons of what you need to know. Basic resourcing. Most players, their biggest problem is that they don’t resource enough. They put one or two workers on each crystal and say, “That looks big! I’m done!” You’re not done! You’re not even close to done. The reality is that you need to build a worker every twenty seconds. Forever. Never stop. The minute you’re mining out your first base, your workers should be going to the expansion base. We’re doing little things too, like right now, the crystals light up when you’re harvesting them, so if you look at your base and see dark crystals, you know that you’re not harvesting them efficiently. 

Another thing we’re doing: one thing that WarCraft III had was pretty good matchmaking. It was pretty viable to find people of your own skill level to play, and that’s when the game is the most fun. But, there were a lot of people who would restart their accounts just to wipe out new players. You would think, “Oh! I’m playing with people of my skill level! Uh oh, I just got scouted by a Wisp. Ooooooh crap, you’re so much better than me, aren’t you! Aww, I’m dead!” So, we’ve got some ideas, and I’m not sure how successful they’ll be and we’re still working on it, to prevent that kind of behavior, so that you can’t just sneak into games that you don’t belong in. Of course, the community is going to fight against that, since they always want to be in games they don’t belong in, so we’ll see how that goes. 

The other thing we’re introducing is a casual league. It will work just like the regular league, except it doesn’t do a bunch of ladder stats, so you don’t have to worry about your rank and where you are. It’ll be at a slower game speed setting, so it will be what you’re used to from the campaign, and it will be on a bunch of maps that are anti-rush — that are designed specifically to prevent rushing. Now, I can’t promise you that you won’t die at minute six — you could be minding your own business and here comes a fleet of Banshees and, “Aaauugh! I’m dead!” — but you won’t die in minute two. I can promise you that. You’ll at least have a chance to get your feet wet and experience some of the tech tree before you get rolled.

We’ve also got some in-game help stuff that’s a lot better than it was before. We’ve got a full tech tree guide in-game, a full list of units in-game with counters listed for those units, so you don’t have to go on some sleazy Web site somewhere to get the information. Also, the better score screen at the end of the game should help out the casual players a lot; hopefully they’ll get into it and learn something. I don’t expect a first-time player to go in there and click on the build order list and understand what’s going on, but I’m hoping after the tenth game they’ll look at it and go, “Oh, what’s this? Ohhh, build order. Build orders are important! I never thought build order was important!” — and it will sort of open up their eyes to a bigger world.

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Destructoid: What’s the difficulty you’ve encountered when trying to balance the game for multiplayer? When you’re figuring this game out, how do you determine the roles of each of the races; how do you make them distinct while not giving one a gross advantage?

Dustin: Well, it’s a lot of work. [laughs] That’s the short answer. The longer answer is that what you do first is try to make all the races as different as you can and don’t worry about it. You say, “Oh, this’ll be weird. Let’s do that!” “That sounds fun, it fits the race’s theme, it does something the race can’t already do (which is already the hardest thing), and it’s also something that another race can’t already do.” You don’t want to create another Banshee and put it on Protoss and say, “Look, it’s a Death Star! Wooo! It cloaks and it flies!” You don’t want to recreate existing units, so you’re looking for new stuff that doesn’t exist in any of the other races, that fits the theme of the race and works.

Then, you look at that and say, “Okay, can we balance that? What would we do?” And then you work the problem, and you work it a lot. Sometimes, it dies there. Sometimes, you have a great idea for something and you can’t figure out how to balance it. Or, sometimes you do figure out how to balance it, but the unit or ability has so many rules that the player needs to know that it becomes terrible. If we cut it to two rules, then it’s not balanced anymore. You work it, and work it a lot.

The important thing to do is to start with no fear. You have to start in a place where you don’t know how to balance something, but you have confidence that you’ll figure it out. “What if we did this? What if Protoss could just warp in stuff anywhere they wanted to? That sounds insanely powerful.” That came out of one of Rob Pardo’s ideas, of him looking at the Terran, Protoss, and the Zerg, and realizing that the Zerg build in a very unique way, but the Protoss and the Terran build kind of the same; it’s the same mechanic. He said we should do something different. “What could the Protoss do? What if they could teleport to the battlefield? That seems like it would have all sorts of applications.” When we first put it in, everybody freaked out. People said we ruined the game, that it was too powerful. Everyone freaked out, people were saying we ruined the game. “WATCH WHAT I CAN DO! WATCH WHAT I CAN DO! I CAN END THE GAME RIGHT NOW!” Yes, we know, we don’t care. We’re going to work the problem now. Now that we’ve got it in, we’re going to work the problem and figure it out. Can we make this work? And, at least in pre-beta, mission accomplished, right? It’s pretty cool, it’s pretty powerful, but it’s also pretty different.   

Destructoid: Finally, obviously StarCraft and WarCraft both have had very big map makers and map editors. Can you tell us about how you’re upgrading and enhancing that program? Will it be available at launch?

Dustin: It will definitely be available at launch. We’re looking at getting it available in the beta as well. It’s the most powerful set of tools we’ve created yet. You can pretty much recreate almost our entire game just with data alone. Since it’s our most powerful thing yet, it also means it’s unbelievably intimidating working on it — I’ve forgotten how to do things I used to know how to do because it’s so fancy! We’ll be working on that quite a bit. Obviously, if we manage to get a version out in beta, we’ll get some feedback from the community at that time. If we have to wait until launch, then we can get a patch in later if we find out there’s stuff that’s too confusing. We really want the editors to be as easy to use as possible. Don’t get me wrong — it can be hard. But we want it to be as easy as possible so we can get the widest variety of good maps. The more people who can use it, the more people’s vision of what RTS gaming could be can get on to, the more quality we’ll get. Custom games were SO MUCH FUN in WarCraft III, I mean it was one of the reasons to keep playing. You play a match game, or you could go and play some Elemental Tower Defense, which was AWESOME, or play some Defense of the Ancients, WOOHOO! Or all the Aeon of Strife maps — when that first came out, I played sixty different Aeon of Strife maps. So much development the fans put into that, and it’s so awesome. We think part of the reason is the editor, and most of the reason is our highly enthusiastic fans, but we want to make sure we give them the best tools we possibly can.

Destructoid: Thank you very much! It was great to talk to you.

Make sure you also check out our hands-on preview of the StarCraft II multiplayer!

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