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Interview: Making The Fun Meant Taking Out The Fun In  StarCraft II
Interview: Making The Fun Meant Taking Out The Fun In StarCraft II
April 21, 2011 | By Kris Graft

April 21, 2011 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, Design

Dustin Browder, lead designer for StarCraft II at Blizzard Entertainment, is pretty good at his own game. A few months ago, he was ranked around the top 7 percent in the world, although he admits he's a bit rusty, and may now only be in the top 10 percent.

For a large portion of StarCraft II's players, it's that competitive aspect that matters most -- not only playing directly against other players, but also being compared to other players through the game's extensive ranking system.

StarCraft II and its framework were made with competitive gaming and eSports largely in mind, and updating a game as a sport was a creatively restrictive experience, Browder told Gamasutra in a recent interview.

The lead designer, who previously worked on real-time strategy games in Electronic Arts' Command & Conquer series, said he had to make creative adjustments when he joined the StarCraft II team. For him, the main hurdle was learning how to take some of the "fun" stuff out of the game.

"It took me a year and a half to figure this out," said Browder, an enthusiastic designer who might also be around the top 10 percent in the world in terms of speed-talking.

"I kept trying to shove stuff in that was fun but wasn't a sport," he said. "And everybody would tell me 'no,' and I wouldn't understand why. And I thought they were all jerks. I didn't know, right? I couldn't figure it out."

1998's original StarCraft wasn't intended to be a sport -- the game's community made it that way, and Blizzard has since run with the idea. Browder said he's seeing anecdotal evidence that StarCraft II is moving beyond its reputation as mainly a Korean eSports phenomenon, and sweeping Westward, with schools participating in collegiate StarCraft leagues, "strong membership" for Major League Gaming and lots of hits for StarCraft YouTube replays in the U.S.

And just this week, gaming and entertainment hub IGN said it would make a serious foray into professional competitive gaming, using StarCraft II as a platform to launch the initiative.

Browder admitted that taking out "fun" aspects was completely counterintuitive to his perception of game design. And certainly StarCraft II critics will point to his comments with a triumphant "A-HA!" now that there is hard evidence that the game was engineered to have "less fun" in its design.

But just as the NBA doesn't allow jet packs in basketball and the Olympic Committee frowns on nuclear-powered luges, sometimes self-imposed restrictions are in place because what might sound like fun -- or even actually be fun -- could ruin or over-complicate the design of a competitive game.

The StarCraft II team's goal wasn't necessarily to make the game less fun, but to find gameplay that was both fun and compatible with a sport -- the two elements had to coexist. At GDC this year, Browder likened the process to creating "Basketball 2."

"It took me a long time to understand why this sport value is so important," Browder continued. The development team kept itself in check, nixing units that overlapped with the roles of other units and dumping units that were deemed too complicated. Some of the units cut were fun to use, but just didn't fit with the game's objectives as an eSport.

"It makes it so challenging for designers on the project to come up with new and good ideas," said Browder. "We could sit here right now, and come up with 10 great ideas for an RTS. But I almost guarantee you that all of those would get shot down for a sport."

"There would be some fundamental reason why [our ideas] wouldn't work for an eSport. It's a much more challenging job," he explained. "It's not as easy as making 'cool' RTS units. ... That's not that challenging. Well, to be fair, it really is, but it's easier than trying to describe a crazy, crazy thing of a unit that's not only fun to play, but it's easy to understand, and allows for skill differentiation, and all of these variables [conducive to a balanced sport]."

Browder said that much of the pre-release balancing and related frustrations resulted in positive changes to the game's single-player mode as well. Blizzard is currently at work on expansions for StarCraft II, which will in return inevitably bring new updates and additions to the current game's multiplayer.

In the end, Browder believes the team created a game that has fundamental similarities to traditional sports: "The reality is that the game is trying to be easy to learn, impossible to master."

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Dru Bagaloo
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I've got huge respect for Blizzard in how they polished and StarCraft II as a whole, it's an example for everyone in this industry. The sacrifices they say that were made to reach a near-perfect balance though have also limited them to using a barely updated control scheme and well known unit roles/abilities of previous RTS games. Some even predating the original StarCraft.

If giving attention to the eSports aspect means barely adding anything else of your own but just shuffling around with the basics of a SC-clone then I'd rather play the games which base themselves around the fun and new experiences first. They may not be balanced and die out online but at least they give me something fresh to try out. WarCraft III did that as well just like Diablo II. Diablo III looks to shake up things a lot if you've been following it closely. Why StarCraft II remains so retro in player vs player is stunning. I sure hope SCIII will try to do new stuff and be an eSports game at the same.

Good thing SCII still has plenty of other things to offer beyond the competitive parts.

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You should probably do a bit more research before you make such claims. Also I'm sure you haven't noticed but SC2 is the premier 'eSport' and it is only getting bigger as more people discover how much fun it is to watch.

Sheridan Thirsk
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if they throw out tons of the main mechanics, then what kind of game would it be? SC-> WC3 was a major genre shift, sure SC->SC2 is using almost the same mechanics, and justa retooling of graphics,ai with a different game dynamic from new units and unit abilities. What kind of game changes its core mechanics from one iteration to the next? Maybe if the original was bad that would be neccessary, but when your original is starcraft, blizzard would be foolish to abandon what works. Plus I've never played a game where the infestor has to fungal a batch of marines to trap them for a baneling splash before a ghost EMPs them. Even if "marine" and "ghost" is recycled, how the game plays out is very distinct and has amazing depth.

Dru Bagaloo
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@M C: research about what? The fact that SCII is one of the most popular eSports now doesn't mean much to the folks who expected that the "II" in the title was justified by something they haven't seen before. Being fun to watch is something else than being fun to play.

@Sheridan: who says they should throw things out or even copy big features from other (recent) RTSs? That's not necessary at all, Blizzard should just come up with something new by themselves. That new units and abilities create new tactical situations is the least thing you should expect, from any RTS sequel even. In this case it doesn't mean the gameplay itself has been altered though.

Jose Resines
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I had huge respect for Blizzard until they dropped LAN support (amongst many other features) from SC2 and forced the new on everybody.

You can ask some pro tournaments also how happy they are about that. Like the recent MLG, for example. But hey, that's Blizzard post-Acti for you: money over customers.

Tom Dazed
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Sport is boring, winning on the other hand... no competitve gameplay, no winner, no sport, no fun. Thats why unbalanced mp sucks and dies a horrible slow death. 90% of games dont need multiplayer, because doing it right is very timeconsuming. I can count great competitive aaa titels with 1 1/2 hands. And half of them are community made, the other half is older then 5 years, or both.

Matthew Mouras
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Now if only they'd put this guy to work on Call of Duty.

Glenn Storm
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A few things come to mind:

First, this is a great example of why "fun" is the bean bag of terminology in talking about game design. It's far too imprecise to talk about in practical terms. Fun for the awesome quotient is vastly different than fun for the sport threshold. I tell people "have fun", and it's said with the recognition that my sentiment will mean slightly (or vastly) different things to different people in practical terms, while still getting that I mean 'enjoy'. We can use the word, we just need to use it with the knowledge that it has linguistic versatility, but no inherit precision. In culinary terms, its tofu or pasta.

Second, I had the pleasure of seeing Dustin speak alongside a panel of strategy game designers at GDC and (yes, he talks fast, but they all did) the one thing that struck me was the application of strategy to design, which the entire panel exemplified. In this summary of the interview, we hear him talk about a strategic correction in his approach to design for this game/sport. One tactic didn't work, and for a while it was unclear why, although it met standard game design 'fun' thresholds, it wasn't working for this project. That continued until the strategic approach was reassessed, giving rise to new tactics to implement. One of the best strategy games is game design.

Also, the difference presented here, between 'fun' for awesome versus 'fun' for the sport design, and the correction mentioned above, reminds me of the kind of differentiation designers need to be aware of in designing for serious games. ... or social games. In fact, I'm thinking this is probably a strong indicator that this is the kind of standard re-evaluation designers need to explore at the top of any project, no matter what. To find the fun, we better know what it looks like.

But, clearly jetpacks in basketball would be awesome.

James Booth
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Wise words and well spoken. ^^

Aubrey Hesselgren
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Completely agree. One man's "fun" is another man's "game breaking fluff".

And to quote a friend," saying 'games should be fun' is like saying 'sandwiches should be tasty'".

I think there's a definite kind of fun to be had with a sports bent, but you have to start treating the design as a tool or mediator for human competition, and not a showcase of cool interactive baubles. Takes a bit of humility. The players are the stars. The developers take quiet pride in being grounds keepers.

There's a slim interesection of the two, obviously, and the challenge is finding new experiences which can be leveraged for competitive play. And you may not find those with first breaking a few rules of thumb.

Miguel Castarde
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Fantastic serie of games:

Michael Kolb
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I really enjoyed Starcraft and Starcraft 2 but now that Blizzard has decided to update their game constantly due to the online community I have stopped playing their game. I don't understand why developers/publishers don't create two separate patch categories, the updates for the single player audience and the updates for the multiplayer crowd. EA ruined Generals & C&C3 with this for me. Blizzard is deterring me of playing SC2 which is extremely sad because I love Starcraft and had a great time/like bettering my score/unlocking achievements (goals) playing through the epic gameplay varying campaign!

Vincent Goossens
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SC1 and BW have had hundreds of patches before it became good and it took years. And only then it became popular with the Koreans.

Don't forget that. A good game takes time, and it has to be shaped while it's in the open.