StarCraft II has been in development for most of this decade, and Blizzard promises to finally release the long-awaited real-time strategy sequel next month.
Despite that uncommonly long production cycle, lead writer Brian Kindregan has only been on the project since last July, giving him a fresher perspective. Kindregan inherited creative responsibility for a cast of characters beloved to strategy game fans for over a decade -- and which have not appeared in any new video game in just as long.
With a professional history that encompasses writing on BioWare's Jade Empire and Mass Effect 2, as well as a previous career as a storyboard artist on films like The Iron Giant, Kindregan brings to his Blizzard role a wide range of experience. He spoke to Gamasutra about what it's like writing for strategy games, how Blizzard's system of development checks and balances extends to the writing process, and why it's harder than you might think to name a map.
As "lead writer," how much are you writing versus reviewing, editing, and managing?
Brian Kindregan: It really varies depending on where we are in the process. I would say that most of my time is spent writing, writing, writing. [laughs]
Other than that, I say the next biggest thing is meeting, meeting, meeting, because definitely there's an entire team of passionate, creative, and talented people, all of whom are invested in the story, the storytelling, and the characters. I like to pull as much out of them as I can.
Since you only came on about a year ago, how much of the fundamental story arc and the concept was already there when you started? How much of it has been developed since then?
BK: It's a healthy mix of both. There's definitely a lot of bigger ideas and overarching themes that really have been in place since the original game in terms of these characters and the drama and events that they undergo. But with storytelling, the devil is in the details. A lot of it we've refined and changed and really brought into focus over the last year.
What's your personal development history?
BK: Before coming to Blizzard, I was at Bioware, and before that, I worked in film as a storyboard artist, which is kind of a half artist, half writer position.
How do you find working in games now after coming from film and storyboarding?
BK: I love it. I mean, I'm a gamer from way back in the '80s, playing text-based adventures.
Infocom and all that?
BK: I loved Infocom. And yeah, I love working in games. It's a rapidly evolving field. Every game that comes out brings something new and different to the table. That's really exciting, just watching it evolve as a storytelling art form.
If you think about games three or four years ago that did a great job with storytelling, then you think how far it's come since then, you realize it's really a fast-paced, evolving medium.
BioWare as a company is very explicitly about storytelling in games. It's the number one thing in their mission statement. But StarCraft II is a strategy game. How do you make a story around that that is engaging and striking but doesn't step on the toes of someone who just wants to go in and fight a bunch of RTS battles?
BK: That's definitely something we think about every day. The answer I've come to is that everybody is interested in characters and people -- at least interesting people -- and events. If you get plugged into those things, they'll sweep you along. What they do is they inform the gameplay you're experiencing.
Rather than thinking of them as two separate things, we focus on making one complete experience so you can get swept up into the total experience, rather than compartmentalizing it.
In Blizzard terms, WarCraft is a series with new game material coming out almost non-stop for 15 years across multiple genres. With this franchise, there's StarCraft, Brood War, and now this. There's supplementary stuff, but most people don't know that. Has it been a challenge approaching these characters that have been essentially set in stone for more than a decade?
BK: Sure. Definitely, the first day that you sit down and write a line of dialogue for Kerrigan, it's a little intimidating. But it's a lot of fun, too.
With the big gap between the games, we've really tried to make sure it's an experience that will unfold. If you are very plugged into the events of the first game, you'll certainly notice subtleties you'll appreciate when you play the second.
If you don't remember the first game or if you've never played it, you can still sit down and meet these characters. You'll get a sense of who they are and what they're up against, and then you'll start to learn their stories. Before you know it, you're in the moment with them.
Is it just writers doing all the writing?
BK: It's something that changes. There have been two official writers at times, but I'll certainly lean on game designers who have a penchant or a talent for that when I need to.
I imagine you've got to be working with designers a lot, because in what I've played of the single-player campaign so far, there are a lot more custom scenarios and unique mechanics tying into the story a mission-by-mission basis [than there were in StarCraft].
BK: Absolutely. Writing and design have to really be one team making this. I am talking to the designers every day, and they're talking to me every day about making sure that we have the big overarching story with the characters, but also that that story is a part of every mission, and that every mission and every map has its own story that sets up, plays out, and pays off in that map.
I was a big adventure game player back in the day as well, and I remember closely following WarCraft Adventures. Still, a lot of the story of that game ended up being very pivotal in WarCraft III and World of Warcraft even though the game itself never came out. Have you had any similar experiences with StarCraft: Ghost, any story elements of story developed there finding their way into StarCraft II?
BK: Well, they're all part of the same universe, so I would say that's a distinct possibility. [laughs]
How involved are you with multiplayer sections of the game? Do you go in there and do all the little character barks?
BK: Yeah. That's an area particularly where I have to work really closely with the designers. The other writers and I have written a lot of the unit VO -- you know, when you click on the units a bunch of times.
There's even stuff to consider when naming the maps. There are a lot of multiplayer maps, so we want them to all feel like something that would logically be a part of the StarCraft universe, but we don't necessarily want to evoke a specific [real-world] place name. I do work very closely with designers on that. There's room for a lot of people to jump in and be creative.
I've always thought that with a game like StarCraft, especially in multiplayer, everything is so crisp -- it's all about being able to recognize things and counter them. You must have to think about really nitty-gritty issues, like not having acronyms of different units be too similar, and thinking about where the first letter of their name falls on the keyboard for hotkeys, so communication can be completely unambiguous.
BK: Absolutely. Absolutely. That's one of the places where I think Blizzard's process really helps. I sometimes am prone to not thinking about how this unit over here sounds like that unit over there, because I wrote them three weeks apart. But there are so many passionate and talented people involved that it will come up, and we have lots of solutions for those things.
Do you set up a bible or style guide to cover those issues? Are there established rule sets for tone?
BK: Oh, absolutely. We actually have people here who look at that specifically, and I lean on them very heavily.
Coming from a story-centric studio like BioWare, how does Blizzard compare in writing, on the development side? Their games are absolutely miles apart in almost every respect. How does the writing differ under the hood?
BK: That's one of those things where, certainly, you might say the delivery method is different. The way we get story to the player is different. And that's also true just coming from film. When you have someone sitting in a dark room staring at a screen that's 20 feet high, you know you have their full attention.
All of these different experiences have all shown me that there are really different ways to approach the story, but the unifying theme is just getting what giving the player or audience member or whoever to be a complete experience of characters and storytelling, and trying to engage them. That, fortunately, stays the same everywhere. I say "fortunately" because that's obviously the most important thing in entertainment.
I would think that in a strategy game, character would have to take on an unusual significance, moreso than plot, because any unit can basically die instantly. Probably 95 percent of the actual humans or aliens you see in the game itself are cannon fodder and they're going to die, so it must be all the more important to create an attachment to the permanent characters so everything doesn't just feel disposable.
BK: Absolutely. It always come back to character. With storytelling, there can be great plot twists and all sorts of amazing events, but they mean more when you're plugged into the characters. In the first game, when Sarah Kerrigan was betrayed and left to the Zerg, and then came back as the Queen of Blades, that's a great plot twist. But the only reason that you really care is that you liked Sarah Kerrigan.
Blizzard is one of the studios that is particularly notorious for doing really extensive playtesting to make sure mechanics are absolutely tuned. Is there any equivalent to that with writing? Writing is a much more amorphous skill than, for example playtest balance. How do you gauge what you've done at Blizzard?
BK: There are a number of checks and balances for that. The first is finding a group of people whose opinions and instincts you really respect. Certainly for me, working with Dustin Browder and Chris Metzen and a whole host of other really talented people is a really nice luxury because I can throw ideas at them, and they throw ideas back to me. If I throw a lame idea at them, I will definitely hear back that it's lame within about three seconds, which is good. So, you get that creative flow back and forth, and I think everything just gets better and better.
And then on top of that, Blizzard is a place where every voice matters. I certainly hear from everyone across the spectrum internally about what's working and what's not. It behooves everyone in the storytelling part of the team to consider every opinion.
How much are you thinking about the two further expansions, or sequels, or whatever they are?
BK: We're going full speed on them. We're talking about them, hammering out details, but really still looking at "big picture" stuff. It's exciting. [laughs]
How did it feel to approach the end of this project? At least publicly, until that date is finally given, Blizzard always projects the image that the devs have all the time in the world: "Oh, you know, it'll be out someday, whenever we get around to it."
BK: [laughs] Yeah. "When it's ready. When it's ready." As a storyteller, I always feel like there's always more to do. I'm always one of those "Not yet! Don't take it away! Give me more time!" types. I think there's a lot left to tell.