The day has finally come. Starcraft II is ready for launch, or well, at least the first third of the campaign, Wings of Liberty - what can be described as the continuation of Jim Raynor's story. We met up with Blizzard veteran and Starcraft II production director Chris Sigaty in Stockholm, just as the game had been released in Australia, a few hours before the Korean launch, and still a few more hours until the European and North American launches. Chris signed copies of the game at the official launch event in Stockholm, but prior to that he was happy to answer a bunch of our questions on what is perhaps the biggest release of 2010 so far.
It's launch day - a good day to reflect upon what has been. How would you describe the journey that you've had with Starcraft II?
A very long one. Since the announcement in 2007 we have been really excited to share it with the world, but there were a lot of things we had to work on and figure out and there was a lot of experimentation to get where we are today. For it was really significant and we've had a team of guys who have been working on this "forever" across many departments in the company. And they have all done a great job, especially at the end term bringing it all together. So we're at a state to show it to the world, so we're super excited to get it out there and let everybody see it, and playing it, and get to releasing patches, and letting the world play together.
If you go back in time to that first meeting, when you sat down and said you wanted to do Starcraft II. How many of those ideas carried through to what Starcraft II is today?
When we sat down to make Starcraft II we just said: "Okay, let's do it. Our team is gonna do Starcraft II." And I had this still somewhere on our network, this one page synopsis of Starcraft. It said it should largely harken to the original game, we'll change 40-60 per cent of the units across the races, keep the original three as far as the core multiplayer goes, and then we'll really do something different as far as the singleplayer campaign goes, and change the online experience. And that was it.
That's great, I'm glad we sat down and did that, but that was so vague that we didn't really know what that meant. So what a lot of this was was experimenting with what was fun. We knew kind of early that we wanted the player to be more immersed on the single player side and started down that path, but it took us a long time to strike the right balance with that. And there was a lot of iteration that went on with that. And on the online side, I would say was an even bigger bunch of experimentation, and the landscape of the online world has changed over time. And we've definitely been paying attention to the things going on out there on the social side.
Even though we sat down and said we wanted to make it, there really wasn't a lot there when we made those decisions.
Speaking of big decision, you then decided to split the game into three parts...
Yeah, that was actually a part of experimenting how we wanted to do storytelling. Because, although we had an ultimately greater tale to tell, in order to do it in the way we wanted to in what we internally call story mode, we knew we needed a lot more missions than we had originally conceived. To tell the Jim Raynor story and the story that happens in Wings of Liberty, we had a full campaign equal to what we'd done in our other games. And so, just being realistic we either had to make some choices to water it down in a way to cramp that in, but not have the experience we were after where the player is immersed and gets to explore, and create more of their own armies and have more choice. And so we made the choice to split it up in three.
We've had a lot of interesting questions about that where people think it's some sort of move by us to string people along the way. It's not. In order to tell the story that we want to tell, in this new medium that we're doing - the story mode, where the players can find out what happened after the mission, and not just this linear sort of experience that Starcraft was and then Warcraft III was behind it. It took more time and more missions to do that. That's why we split it up, not for any nefarious reasons.
From a production perspective, you have previously done an RTS, like say Warcraft III, and then moved on to an expansion. Is it different for you as a developer to move on to a standalone product, rather than an expansion like The Frozen Throne?
Not really, because ultimately we do look at it very much like Reign of Chaos was to The Frozen Throne or like Starcraft was to Brood War. It's the same thing. From a content standpoint, you get the same amount of content if not more. As far as content goes in our RTS games this is the most that we have delivered in a game so far.
The only difference is that if you have a true passion for your race, then the story may not be focusing on that race for this portion of the story. Although you do get to see it from the other angle, you don't get to play it from the other angle in this campaign, but ultimately I think it's the story that people want to see play out, and that campaign isn't necessarily enough to scratch that itch, and if it is then you can definitely come along and play Heart of the Swarm if Zerg are your race or if Protoss are the race you are really keen to see then you can go and play that one as well. But there is a Protoss part of the campaign anyway, as you'll see when its released.
Meeting the fans at launch events such as the one in Stockholm, what's that like for you as a developer?
It's great. I mean the people that come out to these events are passionate about the product and it's really cool to have the opportunity to interact and share in that excitement too. Because it is two similar things, releasing the game and getting a chance to play. Generally the people showing up at event have been paying attention to what's going on and are excited to get their hands on it, in the same way we've been paying attention to what's been going on around the recent beta and those things. And there has been a lot of "hang on, just wait until you see the game", and this is really the opportunity to let the fans get it and for us to celebrate with the hardest core or the most excited...
It's a real treat and hopefully they'll have a good time. We're doing events all over the world. I think there's 15 or something (looks over at the PR rep who nods and adds, "something like that"). It's our largest number of explicit events that we've had in different areas, even larger than we've done with World of Warcraft launches, but I'm sure they'll one up on us with Cataclysm.
Speaking of World of Warcraft. How did the success of World of Warcraft impact the development of Starcraft II?
I think that World of Warcraft has been a part of the change in the gaming landscape to some extent. There are a lot of people that I know that previously would never have played games who play World of Warcraft and games like Guitar Hero and all that. But going back to World of Warcraft, how it's affected Starcraft II is that I hope that people who have been playing that see another product coming out of Blizzard - Starcraft II - will take this opportunity to get involved in something that previously they never would have looked at. Because, I think, previously even when Warcraft III was launched, gaming was still a hardcore endeavour, certainly RTS gaming was. We've done a lot with Starcraft II to try and bridge the gap and hand hold a little bit more to help those people that are brand new.
So my hope is that World of Warcraft's influence on attracting people that maybe didn't play games previously will also have them come over and maybe check out something like Starcraft II. There is a lot of complexity in an RTS so getting some of these gamers over there and check it out. Obviously there is a lot of passion in it too, once you get in and start playing.
How do you achieve this without alienating the core audience?
The way we did it was, you don't have to do it, but we have a tutorial system, that's our best tutorial that we've done for an RTS so far. Additionally we have videos that you can reference, if you choose to skip it and get further into the campaign and then go "wait, how do I attack again?".
And then we have four different skill levels that you can play at, and let me tell you if you're a hardcore, brutal is very difficult, and if you're a casual then you can play at casual and it's pretty easy, but we'll ease you into it. There are tiers you can play at that are perfectly matched to your skill level.
One of the things we experimented a lot with was how do we get you to choose the right level, because we would default everything to normal and people would always play the default whether they were brand new or not, and so we actually turned it off and you have to make a choice. Generally we found that once we stopped defaulting people made the choice that was right for them. It's all about the naming too, if you call them like n00b versus whatever then people will go "I'm not a n00b"... So we worked really hard to try and make it appropriate and make sense and not insult you so people will play at the level they should.
And I think over time, the way most people will play, and the way we kind of breadcrumb you with our achievements and all that is, it introduces you to the game in the best way. So you have the tutorial to start, then we really put the campaign in front of you on the main menu. After you finish the campaign challenges makes sense they are right there on the single player menu, and challenges are a great way to pick up concepts you may not have picked up while playing the campaign. Things like number of units you should have, number of units on minerals, how to block your choke, how to cast some of the spells - ice storm or whatever, so you understand the systems more. Then you go online and you can play co-operatively online, against the A.I. with friends, obviously there are all the mods and custom made area. And eventually if you're so inclined, you can get over and play in the ladder, and play with the matchmaking system, as we saw in the beta we get to a really good spot where each game is at your level and it's really challenging. I think it's our best walk in to competitive play.
I guess it would have been easy to fall into the trap of just catering to the hardcore Starcraft community...
And we have too. Definitely we pay a ton of attention to the highest level of gameplay on balance. And on the matchmaking system to ensure that the really good players can find matches, and that we're continuing to react to issues that they reveal on the balance. Things that are abuses really. We are in a really good place, but with our previous games it has taken us a year or more to get to the really super balanced point. And we'll continue to balance Starcraft II for the foreseeable future.
Starcraft was a milestone in many ways, both in the RTS genre, e-sport and as a commercial success. How do think history will remember Starcraft II?
I hope it sets the next generation of exactly that. We purposely made it harken to the original, because I think that the gaming landscape has changed. Gamers that maybe heard of Starcraft, but didn't check it out will check it out. Plus still maintaining that great gameplay that all of these e-sport and hardcore gamers loved. So I hope that we're able to strike the balance in both communities and be remembered for that as well. Starcraft II did a great job of bringing the magic of the original to this generation twelve years later. We have definitely tried to have that sense of nostalgia for players that have before to go like: "Oh yeah, this is it. I remember..." It's kind of like getting on a bike if you haven't for a long time. However, there are some new gears on there and some things that have changed. It's more streamlined. You can ride the bike better... for lack of a better example.
There was a report (by the Wallstreet Journal), that Starcraft II had cost more than a hundred million dollars to make...
That was not an accurate report.
Perhaps it was some kind of guess?
No, he has actually come out. My understanding of it was that it was a conversation that the individual had with Mike Morhaime. He was being interviewed and they started talking about MMO's and development, and Mike said something along those lines in reference to MMO's and I guess the guy had his notes confused and put that out there.
We don't ever release the actual development amounts, but I think that's way high. It certainly has been in development for a long time, we have a lot of people who have worked on and touched Starcraft II to make it work and get it out the door. But that's really a pretty high estimate, so there is no accuracy to that. Certainly we didn't release that.
But obviously it cost a lot more than the original Starcraft...
Yeah, that's definitely true. I think any game you make today is going to cost more than it did back then. I mean just the shear amount of effort that goes into creating a single unit, a single piece of art, there is so much more technology that goes into it, there is four different textures that make up a unit where it used to be a drawing with different sprites. It was just a faster process, a less time consuming process in the past.
And your past fortunes has given you the luxury of time to spend on experimenting...
We're absolutely blessed with our success to be able to experiment and iterate the way we do. It's turned out to be part of the magic of our games. We can go down a path and be like "ehhh", where we just go, that's not really working and we're just going to abandon that. In many cases companies don't have that luxury. It's definitely a luxury and we're very fortunate to be in that position. And we're not going to release it until it's ready.
...and now it is...
So there was no truth to the $100 million rumour, but do you have a set budget?
We don't. I've been the producer now on two titles here, Warcraft III and Starcraft II, and we don't sit around and come up with some monetary budget for the title and say: "Here is the number, we need to hit this number and then we'll ship it out the door. It doesn't work that way at all. Most companies put together a budget ahead of time and do that. We don't. You heard how vague was when we set out to make it, and then we just went and made it, and we make the game we'd like to play. At some point we get close enough that we do say: "okay, we're getting close enough, we need to start putting a real date on this and we need to start setting realities about - when is this going to come out and what it is going to look like to the public" and that sort of thing. But money does not factor in to those decisions and we don't have conversations in that way. It's more about the game we want to share.
Going back, when did you realise that you would be ready to ship Starcraft II this July?
Certainly last year we started saying "hey, we're feeling really good about the multiplayer, we're ready to go to beta, and singleplayer is starting to get there", so then we started setting dates for that and there was massive revamps happening on the online service. We chose target dates, we actually slipped several of those target dates, because again we're not going to ship until it's ready. We weren't ready at those times. Originally we were targeting middle of the year, before the end of the second quarter and we pushed a little further out because we weren't ready. There were more things we wanted, and really polish it and make sure we can have a really competent and great launch so we took the extra time to do that.
Was that mainly Battle.net related?
It was a lot of factors as I remember. Certainly getting the beta out on time, there was a lot of configuration on systems and environments, so the online part of it was some of that. But there was more too. We use almost all of that time to polish and continue working on the campaign. All the levels got polished in many ways that they wouldn't have had we stuck with the old date. We actually used it across the board, so whether we said that the reason why the date is going to be pushed at this particular time is because of the campaign or the online service or whatever. It ended up ultimately being that the game really needed it in general. And I'm really glad we did, it was absolutely the right decision from my perspective. I feel really good about where we are with the game and the service for launch at this point.
Is the entire team moving on to Heart of the Swarm now?
We have a lot of things we still want to do with Wings of Liberty. As you've seen with Warcraft III or Starcraft before it, we'll be releasing patches throughout the rest of the year and into next year, while we start work on Heart of the Swarm. We've barely started to work on Heart of the Swarm at this point, some people on the team have started going over and talking about the story. More specifically we are just starting to talk about what shape the campaign might take. Literally, there is so much going on with the launch of this, there has been so many details that we just haven't had the mindshare to start. I would imagine that in the next month or two we'll be at a point where the whole team, besides those working on patch features for Wings of Liberty, will be moving on to feature development, campaign development, level development on Heart of the Swarm.
The decision to release the games in this order, what was that due to? And is it written in stone?
The story played out this way. It was more about the story. I would consider us barely started as far as production goes on Heart of the Swarm, we've really done nothing on the campaign. So we could theoretically shift it the other way, but from the story standpoint it really makes sense to roll them out in this manner.