An (Old) Interview with Dustin Browder

A zergling sketch from the original Starcraft

Last year, I was lucky enough to visit Blizzard on Eurogamer’s behalf to take a first look at Heart of the Swarm, the upcoming expansion for Starcraft II – and wrote this preview at the time.

I also interviewed Dustin Browder and Brian Kindregan, respectively the lead designer and lead writer / Lord of Lore. The constraints of a preview meant almost none of this was used, and at around the same time Eurogamer’s Oli Welsh did two awesome interviews with Chris Metzen and Mike Morhaime, so the site was Blizzard central. For one reason or another, they didn’t end up in a separate piece. I regret this, because there was some great material, so I’m going to post them up here.

One thing to bear in mind is that these interviews were conducted in summer 2011, so some of the specifics may have changed or be a little out of date.

We’ll start with a bang – this is Starcraft II’s lead designer Dustin Browder. He’s a livewire presence, sharp as a tack with an enthusiasm for the game, the scene and the minutiae that really bowled me over. Think of someone sitting in a chair, but gesticulating in a manner that often threatens to leave it behind.

The first half’s about singleplayer in Starcraft, and how important Blizzard think it is. The second half moves on to Starcraft II in general: e-sports, custom games, the episodic model, the lot. The pictures are actually photographs from the museum that’s downstairs in Blizzard’s HQ, so apologies for my terribly wonky framing of this amazing art.

Browder and random nerd

Rich Stanton: How many missions will there be in Heart of the Swarm?

Dustin Browder: Twenty, or thereabouts. Probably twenty, it may go up or down a little bit but not drastically.

RS: In terms of the feedback and data you’ve gathered from Wings, what was the most surprising bottleneck you found?

DB: Wow, that’s a good question. One of the hardest bits we found, and I don’t know if I should’ve been surprised by this, was the mission with rip fields and Battlecruisers near the end of the campaign – I know it as Tychus 5 but I can’t actually remember what it’s called in-game, I just remember the filename [laughs] That stuck a lot of people, and Tychus 4 the one before that with the walls of fire also saw a lot of players get stuck. So those are the types of mechanics we’ll be watching for in the future.

RS: How important is the lore and singleplayer to Starcraft’s appeal? Don’t people just see an amazing multiplayer game?

DB: Incredibly important. I’ll tell you what: I think most of the press ends up reporting on the multiplayer. Because that is what their fans are reading. But I know that most of the players just play the campaign. So there’s a bit of a disconnect there between what we’re talking about and what we’re actually doing – a huge percentage of our players are coming just for the campaign and that’s what they’re there for. So one of the things I liked about this as a demo just to start with was to say ‘hey look, our campaign is a pretty important part of the experience, and a lot of our players come to us just for the singleplayer experience.’ And that’s something we want to get information out about so that our singleplayer fans can hear about it, so they can go ‘ oh yeah this is for me – I played the first game so I’m gonna play the second game, right?’ That’s what it’s about.

RS: What are the numbers?

DB: I don’t know the exact percentages off the top of my head, but I do know it’s well over 80% that play significantly into the campaign.

RS: Before they even touch multiplayer?

DB: I’m not comfortable saying exactly that because I don’t know what the final percentage was, I could get those stats but our system isn’t working as well as it should be right now in terms of telling you when they had popped which achievements, but I know a huge percentage of our players play a tonne of the campaign.

RS: What proportion have finished it?

DB: I don’t know that off the top of my head. It wasn’t everybody. A lot of players did not.

RS: Is Kerrigan as ‘hero unit’ the focus of HotS’s campaign?

DB: Yeah she’s definitely the centre of most activity on the battlefield. She’s the one you’re going to be controlling, leading your army from the frontline – or at least the third or fourth line [laughs] She goes into battle as opposed to in Wings it was much more about Raynor’s Raiders and how they fought as group, and you would occasionally have a commando team but for the most part it was about the Raiders. This is much more about Kerrigan leading swarms of faceless creatures into destroy the enemy.

She’s coming out of an egg! Man, imagine a Blizzard Aliens game…

RS: Why the change?

DB: Because she can! Because Kerrigan is a goddess. Kerrigan is a horrible monster of incredible power. She is the most powerful psionic creature to ever come from Terran space and then she was further amplified by the power of the Zerg. Because it’s fun to have that kind of power and now the lore supports it – whereas Raynor couldn’t realistically stand up to 27 siege tanks, but Kerrigan can. That’s plausible, we saw her do it at the end of Wings. It creates a couple of things: it gives you a fantasy of power for this character. It matches the lore. And at the same time it lets us create a new gameplay experience so the player really feels they’re getting something new, new types of challenges and things to accomplish.

RS: So HotS’s campaign has a number of mini-campaigns set in single environments, I guess you’ll be switching tilesets a lot?

DB: [laughs] That’s the thinking right now! That planet background you see might evolve and change over time as you play through in more substantial ways, so you’ll see the effects of your actions in that background. The tileset itself will alter as you play the missions, I mean if you go to Char I don’t want to look at fuckin’ red lava for three missions. That’s gotta change, right? That’s why we have you for instance on the acid marshes to start with. In future missions you might go to more traditional Char-looking locations but we want to vary it up so yes it feels like you’re on the same planet, but you see lots of different aspects of it.

RS: In HotS you’re humanising a bestial race. I mean, being red in tooth and claw is what the Zerg is all about. Don’t you risk losing something important?

DB: Absolutely, absolutely. And this is the challenge we have to face: how to humanise these characters so you can identify with them in some way. At the same time, make them alien monsters. Make them so you’re ‘I HATE that one’ and ‘I kinda like that one!’ Or whatever, right? But at the same time they are monsters. I don’t our voice recording is doing us any justice at the minute. All I can think is total fail, so that’s something we’re working on going forward.

But it’s totally a risk, yeah, and it’s one of the exciting things about this game and what makes it creatively challenging – we can’t just port over Wings’ sensibilities and say ‘see? There. Done!’ There is no obnoxious but loveable Tychus. There is no strait-laced Matt Horner. Those guys were easy to… well maybe not easy they were actually pretty hard, but it’s easier to write a normal human than it is to make me understand what it is to be a beast or a monster. To be feared, to be hated, to be hunted, to be fighting for my life, and at the same time still be the bad guys. To have them all be misunderstood creatures that we all kinda love, that doesn’t work either. They’ve gotta be the monsters.

Got the HotS for Kerrigan?

RS: Why can’t we use some of those great unit upgrades in custom multiplayer games?

DB: Balance.

RS: I’m not talking about the GSL [Global Starcraft League], though. Just for a laugh between friends?

DB: Balance. Balance! You tell me: can Starcraft be unbalanced?

RS: If it’s in an isolated mode? Yeah, why not?

DB: I disagree, and I think most of our fans would too. That’s our concern. We may do that at some point in the future, we may find a way to make people OK with that, but balance and a fair gameplay experience is the cornerstone of the quality of Starcraft. That’s what defines it. A crappy balanced experience is not something we’re enthusiastic to do, even for the sake of additional content – we will hold the line on quality and say this has got to be a fun and fair, balanced experience. Not ‘we’re just gonna throw something together’ and then you and your mates can play it three times and say ‘I found a balance problem!’ And then never play it again. You may well say ‘that sounds great, I love that!’ Until you found the balance problem. And then you would stop playing, and rightly so because you’ve found a break.

So for us balance on Starcraft is religion. This is not something we take lightly and talk about until it suits us. This is balanced until the day we die, like that’s what we have to try and accomplish. So that’s our feeling on it, I mean I’m ready to listen to your feedback and the feedback of others as well. Maybe people don’t care about balance as much and just want to play with these crazy toys in a different environment. I don’t think so.

RS: But you have tried some of these things in custom gametypes

DB: Yeah we did do some of this in custom games, we did a burning tide level with the lava rising and falling, and we could do custom game stuff, but even then that communicates to our fans ‘this is not really balanced.’ And those things don’t last very long, at least when we ship them out. The ones that stay forever are the ones that are balanced – the DOTAs are the kind of game that lives on because people keep playing them. An unbalanced game experience is ultimately doomed. It can last for a while, and you can enjoy it for a week or a month, and then you will break it and then you are done. So for us, at least for strategy gaming, balance is utterly critical.

RS: In terms of the Wings custom gametypes, there’s a fantastic richness out there that doesn’t seem to have been very well communicated by the game itself. Will anything change in HotS?

DB: I agree with that feedback. What we’re going to try and do with HotS is the map marketplace and this would environment where players could search for maps, rate them, find maps by favourite authors, that kind of stuff, but also in the future sell maps to one another for a buck or two bucks or whatever. And the point of this marketplace and the reason we’ll allow player to player transactions is so that a mapmaker can get paid for his or her work, and so maybe they can do more of it. That’s something that could let people spend more time on their maps and maybe less on the day job, and more time means building something of higher quality that benefits their own fans and ultimately all of us. I think that would be a great way to surface all of that content.

But there are a lot of players who do find the content and who do play it. Maybe there are players who don’t understand what a custom game in Starcraft can be all about, maybe we’re just hoping over time word will get out. But I agree with you: it’s under multiplayer, it’s in kind of a weird place and that’s something we want to work on.

An early sketch of Jim Raynor

RS: Do you think Starcraft as an e-sport has cracked the mainstream?

DB: Was it supposed to? That’s my question.

RS: Is it as big as you want it to be?

DB: It’s… bigger than I imagined it would be. It’s amazing how big it’s gotten, and how much it continues to grow. I continue to be blown away at the enthusiasm we get all over the world, not just in Korea but in the US and Europe as well. I think the internet has really helped us with this in a way that was not possible with the internet when Brood War shipped, in the fact that video is now easily accessible to anyone in the world who wants it. I just got myself a google TV and I’m able to watch GSL on my plasma, which is awesome.

So we’re seeing huge growth, we’re seeing multiple tournaments all over the world, we’re seeing hundreds of thousands in their prize pools. Holy cow! That’s fantastic! Is it gonna get bigger? I don’t know, but holy cow! This is amazing, who knew it would get this big in the first place? And the fact that it’s still continuing to grow, I mean we see those players that are able to make a living just from streaming their ladder games. That’s amazing, and shows the community is out there. Blizzcon this past year, the crowd at the Starcraft e-sports area was wall-to-wall, it was standing room only and people were turning up an hour or two hours early just to get a seat. It was absolutely awesome.

Look, I know I’m biased but I think it’s going amazingly well on the e-sports front and I think the community has done fantastic work. Every time I talk about it I learn about more and more crazy stuff that’s going on and cool things people are doing. Will we get to the point where it’s on ESPN? I don’t know. Maybe? Maybe not. I don’t know if I care. To heck with ESPN! The fact is that all of us who are interested are able to find it when we want it, it’s very high quality stuff and we’re seeing more and more people get pulled into it, and it’s all down to the fans. We did the best we could to make an e-sport, but I didn’t invent Tasteless and Artosis. They did that. They went out and learned how to cast, and learned how to make it compelling, and learned how to communicate the most exciting moments. And they are not alone. The number of shoutcasters out there is numerous and they’re all pretty good at it – and competitive. I’m blown away by the community and the effort they put into it, and how they’ve built up this e-sport into what it is and what it’s becoming.

RS: On the episodic model, and making these huge standalone expansions – in terms of SCII’s mechanics you can add new units and tweak existing ones, but the core fundamentals won’t seriously change. Do you find that restrictive?

DB: I don’t know if I’d want to anyway, but yeah I guess it does restrict us. We want to make improvements in the singleplayer and the multiplayer, and there are things we absolutely want to do better, but I don’t know that it’s holding us back. It’s given us an opportunity that if we hadn’t done this episodic model we might not have – we’ve got a couple more cracks at Battle.net, at custom games, at multiplayer structure while we’re doing that.

RS: What race do you play?

DB: I play random. I don’t have the ability to play a race.

RS: Is that the truth?

DB: Yes! That’s not insurance! I work on the balance team, right, so if I start favouring a race it might affect the balance. I have to play Random – it means my endgame blows and my openings are pretty brutal. For my skill level, at least, I’m decent at the opening game, lousy at the endgame and I forget the metagame because I’m playing different races all the time. It’s actually the way I think is the most fun way to play the game, because it’s constantly changing up.

RS: You look like a Zerg to me.

DB: [laughs] If I ever have played one race for a period it was when I played Zerg for several weeks during the beta, which was when our Zerg players were totally up in arms and I thought ‘well they’re pissed off, let’s see what this is,’ and then maybe you can see why they’re pissed off and make some fixes. That was different from playing Random and it was fun because I got to master the race a lot more than I do playing Random, but I definitely enjoy playing Random a lot more. You just don’t know what you’re gonna get. I’m Protoss and he’s Terran? Argh! You have to quickly rewire your brain for that matchup.

[Interview ends]

I really enjoyed meeting Browder, great guy – and what a game! By your actions shall ye be judged, and one of his actions was to make the best multiplayer game I’ve ever played.

I’ll get the Brian Kindregan one up tomorrow.

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