PC Interview

Chris Sigaty on StarCraft II

Blizzard's lead producer opens his mind to us

StarCraft II isn't quite with us yet, but this sequel, in development since 2003, is finally starting to 'feel' closer. With word on a beta test expected soon, we're hopefully if not sure of a release by the end of the year. What better time, then, for a sit down with lead producer Chris Sigaty, who is going to help us explore what the return of this RTS giant means.

Thanks for speaking with us, why do you believe now is the time for a new StarCraft game, and how do you feel the genre landscape has changed since the original?

StarCraft has been a mainstay in the competitive gaming landscape since the game was launched more than 11 years ago. The same development team went on to create and ship Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos in 2002, and the Frozen Throne expansion set in 2003. Once we finished with that game, we were all eager to return to the StarCraft universe and create a sequel.

We also wanted to make sure that if we did a sequel on a 3D engine, that the game engine could support the fast and frenetic speed that has been a hallmark of StarCraft, with dozens and dozens of detailed units on screen. It's only been recently that quality 3D hardware has become widespread and inexpensive enough to allow players to play the type of fast strategy game we envisioned.

Since StarCrafts release in 1998, the RTS genre has evolved greatly and we've seen several niches that have been created within the genre. The RTS games that have shipped in recent years are all as unique as the sub-genres we've seen in the shooter genre, which differentiates itself with fast deathmatch games, class-based, tactical stealth, and so on. We've enjoyed playing many of these RTS games ourselves over the years as were huge fans of the strategy genre. We believe that StarCraft II has a lot to offer with its fast-paced strategy, balanced and asymmetric races and epic numbers of units. We're also excited to offer a fresh take on campaign gameplay in StarCraft II, which is different from anything we've done before in our RTS games.

The series is a phenomenon in Korea, why do you believe this is, and in what way are you catering to this userbase, who perhaps have slightly different needs and ideas to Western gamers?

In some ways, we were very fortunate to release StarCraft at the time we did, when the Korean PC gaming market was just starting out. With the proliferation of PC cafes across the country, StarCraft ended up being quite popular for a number of reasons. The fast-paced, competitive gameplay was attractive to Korean players, while the interface we used for Battle.net made the game work well in single-computer, multi-user environments like PC cafes. The game also had very modest system requirements, so it was able to run on a wide range of computer systems.

As for catering to specific regions, we try not to think about building our games in such a way. On the one hand, we put in a lot of effort to localize our games for different languages and regions. But, as for the gameplay itself, we are more concerned with creating a fun game that appeals to all players.

Why are you splitting the game on campaign grounds, and how will this structure see the first StarCraft II and subsequent campaigns interlink and, from a narrative perspective, 'flow'? Generally, how customisable an experience will be offered in StarCraft II, and how 'open' are you really going?

It's not a split so much as it ended up being an overflow of more plot twists, interesting new characters and settings and sub plots than we could cram into a single game. When we sat down to outline the story we wanted to wrap around StarCraft II, we started to realise that what we wanted to present to the players could easily end up being a behemoth - an 80 or 90 mission campaign. Attempting to cram that much content into one package could easily have taken us several more years to finish. Our players have waited long enough. So we decided it would make more sense to build out the first 26 or so missions of this epic sci-fi opera and then release that as our core game, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.

In the games campaign youll take the role of Jim Raynor - the Terran hero of the original StarCraft game. The game picks up four years after the end of the events of Brood War, which was the expansion set to StarCraft. Jim's down on his luck, having been betrayed by Arcturus Mengsk, the erstwhile rebel leader turned dictator, and having witnessed the monstrous transformation of his friend and compatriot Sarah Kerrigan into the monstrous Queen of Blades.

You'll start out on the deck of Jim's battlecruiser, the Hyperion, selecting various mercenary missions around the galaxy to gain credits. As you succeed in these missions, you can meet new characters, add new vehicles and infantry to your army, open up new mission paths through the campaign and spend the credits you earn on customising your army's technology to fit your own playing style. You'll also find that many of the units and technologies you come across are unique to the campaign, making the single-player portion of StarCraft II a very different experience than the multiplayer game.

With the subsequent campaigns focused on the Zerg and Protoss, it doesn't make as much sense to focus the meta game on collecting money, so well change that part of the game design to fit the Zerg and Protoss themes.

What do you believe are the pillars of the StarCraft series, and how will trademark credentials be embellished in this game?

There are a number of aspects that characterize the StarCraft franchise. Perhaps the most important of these are the three completely unique, but balanced, races. The fact that the Terran, Zerg, and Protoss played so differently, and did not share a single unit between them, was attractive to players and contributed much to the depth of strategy in the original game. With StarCraft II were looking to add units and abilities that differentiate the three races even further, while still maintaining the balance of the original game.

The Protoss for example, have the ability to use warp-in, which is a technology upgrade. This allows the Protoss to beam in infantry anywhere on the map where they maintain a base or power grid. This powerful ability feeds into the high-tech nature of that race, providing opportunities for players to reinforce their army almost anywhere on the map. The Zerg on the other hand, maintain a carpet of slimy creep in their bases and wherever their Overlords choose to create it. When on creep, Zerg units move much faster creating a totally unique dynamic to their race playing right into their insectoid nature. The speed enhancement allows Zerg players the ability to quickly move defending units where they need them when their bases are attacked. We're sure that many new tactics will emerge where fast movement on creep will be employed in various offensive strategies as well.

How important are the visuals in an RTS game - what is the key role they play?

Visuals in an RTS game are important to different people for different reasons. At the core level you want to see your commands executed in a satisfying way. When you send a group of Viking aircraft and marines to destroy an enemy carrier or battlecruiser, you want to see that ship explode in a flash of light and chunks of fiery debris. When you set your siege tanks into artillery mode to defend your base from a rush of 100 zerglings, you want to see fountains of zerg blood and giblets as your tanks fire into the oncoming horde.

At the same time, competitive players need to be able to glance at the screen and read the battlefield - they need to understand at all times what is going on in a battle who's winning, where are the lines holding and where are there holes in the enemy defence that can be exploited? With StarCraft II running at such a fast pace, there's often only a few moments open to react, so if the battlefield is too obscured with flashing lights, particles, and smoke, all those pretty effects can actually be a detriment to gameplay. Balancing the desire for attractive visuals against the need to read and react to whats going on in the battlefield is a tricky thing. It's this balance that our artists and animators are acutely aware of, and theyre constantly adjusting elements in order to hit just the right note.

How do you plan to evolve Battle.net to support a new generation of online players? Do you look at rival services like Steam?

Blizzard is a company full of avid gamers and technology buffs and we are big fans of many of the newer online services and social web sites that have become popular over the last several years. It's still a little early for us to go into details about our plans for Battle.net, but our intention is to make it the ultimate online destination for gamers. We have a lot of great features and ideas we want to implement to make communication between all Blizzard gamers easier and more convenient, with the aim of uniting all Blizzard gamers under a single service umbrella. We also have some exciting plans as far as improved support for eSports and competitive gaming, while at the same time making the online experience more inviting and less intimidating for casual players.

Finally, when can we hope to sink our teeth into this eagerly awaited sequel, and do you have a timescale for subsequent campaigns?

We're targeting the end of 2009 for the release of StarCraft II, but as with all Blizzard games, we won't release a game until we feel it meets our high standards and the expectations of our players. As for the expansion sets for StarCraft II, we don't have a timeline for those games, but with much of the groundwork done in Wings of Liberty, we're optimistic that we can develop those games on a more accelerated schedule than the core StarCraft II game.

Thanks very much for your time, Chris.