For developers creating multiplayer games, the beta is invaluable -- data on every aspect of how the game is played comes rushing in. But Blizzard's StarCraft II design director Dustin Browder warns that caution is required when sifting through the data for meaningful changes to make.
He also says that it's not Blizzard's place to create an innovative competitive PC RTS with StarCraft II, as it fills a very specific niche in the market -- shaped by both the series' broad popularity and its place at the forefront of the e-sports movement.
These and other topics are touched on in this interview, which encompasses the single and multiplayer modes, both of which Browder has responsibility for.
As design director, are you equally responsible for single-player and multiplayer design? They seem like very different games, more so than in the original StarCraft.
Dustin Browder: I am both single and multi. I have a lot of folks who help me out with that, though. I have a staff of very skilled designers in both areas. They do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Having been in the beta test for a couple months, I would imagine the amount of balance and design data you have to work with has skyrocketed.
DB: It's pretty high. We can learn a lot. The danger with a lot of this data is that you have to be very careful how you use it. With unit stats, I can tell you that, for example, in a Protoss versus Terran game, 12 percent of the time the Protoss build carriers. And when they build carriers, they win 70 percent of the time. You could say, "That must mean carriers are overpowered!"
That's not really true, though. It could just be that as you get towards the end of the game, if the Protoss have the extra resources to waste on a bunch of carriers, they're probably going to win anyway.
In other words, if your opponent hasn't managed to stop you being able to build 24 carriers...
DB: Right. Of course, it doesn't mean the carriers aren't overpowered either. That stat alone actually tells you nothing. It's a very dangerous stat. If you listen to that stat, you can make all kinds of mistakes. The real challenge for us is to continue to sort the wheat from the chaff, to determine which stats are real, which stats are meaningful, and which ones we should be looking at to make a meaningful change.
So you get that empirical data based on stat tracking, you get feedback from the beta forums, and then you get the high-level meta-game that exists largely in the minds and strategic evolution of experienced players.
DB: Yup. And our personal play experience, which is probably the most important. We take from whichever one is providing the correct information.
If we look at the stats and we say, "This doesn't actually back anything we're experiencing online," I'm very suspicious of that number. We get information from a lot of different sources, and then we use the other sources to refute or corroborate. We look at another source and say, "You know what? What they're saying online matches my play experience, and it matches the stats. This seems real. Let's talk about what some possible fixes can be."
On the other hand, "You know, what they're saying online does not match my play experience and it does not match the stats. Let's put this on a watch list, and if we see more information that can prove it to us, we'll make a fix. If we don't, maybe it will go away and was never real."
How much do you make a point to follow the meta-game that surrounds high-level players? Do you explicitly try to track that scene? It can be like going down the rabbit hole.
DB: We do track what's going on, but we don't make changes to try to push it in any direction. We're not trying to manipulate the meta-game so much as we're trying to make sure the overall experience is a positive one.
We saw, through StarCraft: Brood War especially, how many times the meta-game changed when we didn't even make any balance changes. One of the challenges for us is to know when not to touch it. I don't know how we're going to hit that.
That's the challenge for us down the road, and that's where we lean on guys like [Blizzard game design VP] Rob Pardo, guys who have been through this for many, many years. We can go to these guys and say, "Hey, you've done this before. Do you have any opinion of what seems real to you here?" We can use that vast well of experience Blizzard has at this point for this kind of work to help us out.
Looking historically, even after StarCraft came out, it wasn't really until Brood War that it really took off and something clicked.
Blizzard had a while to ease into that. Now, you guys are expected to hit that right out of the gate. Do you think you're operating in a development design mentality as a result than that team was?
DB: Absolutely. We have so much more information available to us than they had then, both in terms of stat-tracking and in terms of contact with the community. And the community is smarter. These guys learned how to play this game much faster than they learned how to play StarCraft or Brood War. We have the advantage of their additional knowledge as well as the advantage of our additional knowledge.
And of course, we're shooting for e-sports, which didn't exist in the way it does now. We're targeting something that simply was never there. It's definitely a brave new world in that respect. There's all kinds of new information out there for us to get, and there's all kinds of new targets to hit that simply weren't there before.