Dustin Browder: 'It's not about how many units we have,<br> it's about the quality'

Posted by Radoslav "Nydra" Kolev 2 years, 33 weeks ago
In the afternoon of Friday, June 8th, we caught up with Dustin Browder, StarCraft 2's lead designer. In this very extensive interview, we talk about the new HotS units, the potential balance issues, why certain units did not make the cut, what will be the fate of the carrier and when can we expect a multiplayer beta to launch.

My first question is about the 1.5 patch. Will it have the same interface as Heart of the Swarm?

It will be very similar, certainly. We’re looking at doing a rescan of the entire UI, obviously for HotS to get that zerg theme, and there’s stuff we want to rearrange in terms of how it’s laid out as we add new features to HotS such as groups and clans and all that stuff. Some places of the UI get too complicated and they’ll have to be fixed up a bit but it’ll be very similar.

A question about the campaign: I read through the FAQ section about something called “sets”, which sounded like missions that change between main missions. Are these something like side quests that you pick along the way and when you go back to them at different points in the campaign they look different?

No, I think what they are referring to as “sets” is like when you are playing through WoL, you are stationed aboard the Hyperion from where you chose your missions. Now you come back to Kerrigan’s leviathan but the leviathan is landed on a planet so the background will change depending on which planet it’s on. So when you are on Char, for example, you’ll see the red wasteland.

Going back to the multiplayer, you didn’t talk about the nydus…

No, the nydus worm didn’t look quite ready for being shown today. The art was super rough, the art guys were super rushed into getting something done and it didn’t hit. It was really bad. We had only temp stuff, we didn’t get the chance to do anything. We’re still very passionate about the idea, it’s still in the build and when we launch a beta it will most certainly be there unless we feel awful about it but I don’t think we will.

So there are two new nydus worm that you can make from the nydus network. One is a nydus worm that spews creep in a direction, quite a distance right now so you can create a creep highway and go wherever you want to go. And the second is a nydus worm that you can spawn and attack enemy building only, no units. So you can use that when the mutalisk raid gets shut down which it often does: there are too many mutalisks on the map, the blink stalkers are out, the photon cannons are in play, maybe the thors and the widow mines are out. Then there are no more mutalisks and the zerg raiding just ends. In this case, the raiding will be able to continue. You can’t kill workers with it but potentially you can kill key pylons, damage or kill tech labs, stuff like that.

And there’s still the regular nydus worm so there are three worms in total that can be produced.

Staying on the question of creep: hydra’s are now getting a speed upgrade at hive tech. Is it in addition to their on-creep speed?

No, it basically normalizes and equalizes the speeds on creep and off creep. The hydra cheats a little bit. The hydra has a much more substantial bonus speed on creep than anybody else. Other units have a standard 32% increase and the hydra has a much larger number. This will normalize it a bit so it’s much more like other zerg units which are pretty fast on the ground and a little faster on creep.

A question about the design of the news units: I’ve played with almost everything but some of the terran units and I recall that every time a patch comes out or something about development is mentioned, you’ll say you want every unit to be different from each other. But now I look at the tempest and I see how people will look at it and say “Hey, that’s a flying tank”. And they will look at the new reaper with the health regen upgrade and maybe say “OK, it’s a hopping roach”.

I think the reaper plays much very differently from the roach. Because the roach really cannot maneuver that much. It can move while burrow but it’s not really a raider in that sense. The reaper moves much faster so I think it’s not a realistic comparison.

I think you can say that the tempest is very similar to the carrier, I think that’s definitely a concern. They are both siege ranged, attacks air and ground units which is why we are not showing the carrier anymore. We think that the carrier will not make it. But if you want to be really mean to the tempest, I think you can say it’s very similar to the brood lord but which can hit both air and ground.

Those units existed in Broodwar too. So a wraith and a scout are pretty similar, both have a weak ground weapon, both have powerful missiles against air, the scout’s tougher, the wraith has cloak – aah, they are pretty different – but they are not that different. They just counter a lot of the same things. We’re just doing the best we can. I’ve certainly heard complaints from some players that in the original StarCraft, the siege tank and the lurker were very similar. They both stop, they both deploy, they both do splash damage but come on – they are not that similar, right? So it’s up to us to make them very different.

The one reason we’re pushing the range of the Tempest to 22 is to say “OK, this is a really long ranged weapon, guys, this is not a brood lord. This is something that can be in a different part of the map and still hit.” We’ll see how that works out.

I tried the tempest earlier and I was kind of disappointed. It’s expensive but the damage is very low.

It is, it’s very light for its cost.

Yes, and so you will have to produce a lot of them, which gets quite costly.

That, or be comfortable with a light amount of damage and say “Look, I am not going to kill you with this but you can’t stay there forever. I am chipping away at you, I am not killing everything but I am beating you pretty good. You have to move away, or engage this tempest or figure something out because you have limited time to do it.” And that’s the other reason why I think it feels different than a standard artillery unit. Because the standard artillery units, like the siege tank, are all like “No, you are dead. You need to move immediately.” The tempest is like “Yeah, he’s working away at my nexus and this is a problem. But it’s not a problem I need to solve in four seconds, it’s a problem I need to solve in 30 seconds, or maybe a minute.” And that creates a different kind of feeling.

And what about the maps? Will you keep some WoL maps along with some new HotS maps.

Yes, absolutely! We have about 20 new maps that will be in the final game.

Are they more towards the 2-player or the 4-player setup?

We are mostly doing 4-player maps for the ladder these days but the ladder changes every few months anyways, so it’s almost not important what will there be in this first HotS ladder rotation, which will probably a mix of Swarm and Wings maps. So I don’t know what the ladder rotation will look like. We’ve seen the tendency of a general growth in size as the games are getting more macro oriented. When we look back in the beta I remember having stuff like Steppes of War and our biggest map being Desert Oasis at this point. And now I’m seeing maps where protoss is taking an early third and I’m like “What is going on?” *laughs* “This is a very different game than the one we launched two years ago.” Now we see terrans and protosses early expanding which is much different to the beta. This is evolution and the evolution will continue: I don’t know to where as a lot of this is dictated by the maps the community like to play, the kinds of things happening during the games.

Do you want to break or change the way the community is playing?

No, it’s cool, I think it’s working. I had concerns initially about the maps getting too large and that would create an environment which would be all about hiding expansions. And we’re seeing a little bit of that but I think as the community gets better at the game, this becomes less of a concern. I think if we had done those huge maps on day one, that’s what the game would’ve been: the player who wins is the player who hides the expansions the best. But as the community leveled up during those two years, I think this threat has diminished substantially. Even in silver and gold.

Is there a reason about why you are “attacking” particular aspects of each race with new units? Because terran is mostly getting factory upgrades, protoss is getting air upgrades, zerg is getting late lair/early hive improvements. Did you consider those areas problematic?

I think we can do better, certainly. I think zergs have difficulties pushing. Even when zerg gets a significant advantage in the mid-game, until they get brood lords there’s nothing much to do if the enemy is reasonably defended. They have to expand and hope, but that gives the opponent the chance to tech and so it’d be nice for zergs when they really have a crushing victory mid-field to go “And now you are in trouble” as opposed to “Well, I guess I’ll expand” which is kind of how it goes now. If felt less good than It could be and we wanted to experiment and see what zergs can do with the ability to really execute a killing blow or really pressure the enemy.

For protoss, we really felt like the stargate was underutilized and not because there’s no stuff there – there isn’t anything that they should not be building at all. So we felt we needed to make some more offering to the stargate to make it a bit more diverse experience for players. We also feel like the protoss lack a couple of things such as the ability to raid: you can do something with blink stalker play and some more with warp prism and it’s cool but it’s not super effective except on pro-player level. The protoss also had difficulty pushing in the early game: they could either go all in or they can hide, because sentries are slow, zealots are slow. You can go pure stalker, surely, but when you move against zerg you better be sure you can win, because you are not coming home if you don’t: those sentries will be ran over and killed and that’s a lot of gas. So we feel that the recall ability on the mothership core gives the protoss the ability to take a chance – one chance – to be kind of aggressive and then pull the units back if it goes wrong.

And then for terrans – TvT matches can get a little stale. Pro players have shown how they can break that but even then it can evolve into Viking wars and tank lines and we’d like to see more options for players to get out of those scenarios. And terrans never ever go factory against protoss. Ever. And we don’t want to make it a dominant strategy, we want to make it an option for terran players. We’d like them to go “OK, I can either go mech, or I can go bio. What does the map dictate? What do I think my opponent’s going to do?” So we think there are definitely opportunities for improvements.

In your mind, is the widow mine an upgrade on the shredder or is it something different?

It’s a different take on the same concept. Something that can give you board control but that is away from your main forces. I think it’s a very clean version. The shredder had a couple of really key problems. One, we’ve had troubles balancing it properly, it was either too strong or too weak and we never found the sweet spot. The other problem was that it was very fiddly: it was easy to accidently move one of your units in range and shut it down. You think “Why is my shredder not firing” and it’s because you have an SCV in range – it was really easy to make a mistake and it felt really bad. But the main problem was seen in gold leagues and below where it would be all about raiding. You would drop it at someone’s mineral line, they would not notice and *boom* they would lose everything. Game over. And the guy is like “Wow, that felt bad!” And I would bet you that this would happen in masters and grandmasters as well.

Maybe with time we could’ve make it work but it was broken, alright. We thought about having it attack air but not attack workers and we were like “Wait, what?” and then we talked about making it not affect hovering units and then players were killing it with drones. And I don’t want my badass machine being overrun by three drones. It was just not the right idea.

[The widow mine] does a lot of the same things but in much cleaner way.

Can you comment on which units are still on the operating table? You mentioned something about the carrier not being here but still possible to stay in the game.

The carrier is in question. We’ve heard a lot of complaints from players who want the carrier to be in and I haven’t yet heard an argument about why it has to be in except “It’s cool, don’t take it out!”.

Nostalgia, maybe…

Yes, but I think we’ve shown that the game can work with many of the old units gone and can still be a fun gameplay experience. We went through a lot of that in Wings, removing the medic and the reaver and we got a good game despite that those units are not here. I don’t know, we’re still not sure and we’re waiting for the feedback that will say “OK, here’s a real good reason to keep it”. And then again, it could be nostalgia. We could just leave it in. It bothers me from a design perspective that we would keep something useless in the game just because and we didn’t do that throughout WoL. We could’ve had a reaver and a colossus but we needed to make room for the units, we needed to have new cool stuff. Nostalgia is not enough of a reason and have in mind that the reaver had legitimate gameplay, right? Carriers don’t have that. They are just pretty.

I’m nervous about the widow mine. It might prove very difficult to balance, because it’s a unit that sacrifices itself to attack and the price of it is difficult to get correct. If you make it expensive it becomes useless except for very big things and if you make it cheap it becomes used for everything and it’s very difficult to adjust. We did a lot of work on the baneling throughout this years – oh my God we did a lot of work on that unit – and [the widow mine] is even more fiddly than the baneling.

Aren't you afraid that the protoss can overplay the invisibility card? They now have several ways to make units disappear?

Potentially, yeah, but it’s always something we can change or cut. It is 200 gas for the unit and it does have an energy cost which can be whatever we want. It has an upgrade cost which can be whatever we want to be. So we have the ability to control where it lands. And it’s also more vulnerable than the mothership. The MS is kinda hard to kill sometimes but these guys are really light. A couple of Vikings and *snap* it’s gone, right, and these things don’t cloak each other. So I think it’s balanceable and I’m not too worried about that.

Over the years you’ve shown that you are not scared to change upgrades, cut upgrades and all that jazz for the game to get better. Are you confident to do it with units as well? For example, you launch a HotS open beta, and you find that the widow mine is a bit tricky…

Gone, absolutely gone. Executed and never returned, no problem. It’s not about how many units we have, it’s about the quality. We have a very big room to cut. Even if we remove one unit from each race, we’d still have a big, confident expansion pack. If we have to cut 2 or 3 units, it’s back to the drawing board.

And that’s why we say we won’t launch till we are ready, right, because we won’t. So if we get to a point where we say “Oh god, these are all awful, I guess we are not shipping right away, are we?” that’s not going to work.

As a zerg player, from what I saw today - I played two or three games and I kind of exploited my press pass hopping from one PC to another – the zerg feels a lot differently than in Wings of Liberty. Before it was like the terran in Brood War where you sit, expand, defend and be passive. Now it’s all very different and all the new mechanics and units – the viper, the hydra speed, the swarm host, the ultralisk charge – they are all about getting “in there”.

Yes, the viper/hydra combo is especially effective and now the hydras with their mobility can be used to run around and protect all those bases and the viper gives you that extra reach. When you run into a siege tank line, it usually ends your mobility. But now you can start pulling those out. It’s a gas heavy mix, certainly, but they can do a lot of damage.

Did you feel like the zerg was a bit stale and passive race that required these changes?

Well, I’ve certainly seen that with nydus, and overlord drops and mutalisks the zerg can be very mobile and aggressive but I think we can do way better for sure. And we know that if we provide more options, the players will come out with new strategies.

I will ask a question that I will probably not get an answer to. You said in the press kit that a beta will launch in the summer. How long will it last, approximately?

It’s not an unreasonable question but I don’t know, depends on when we ship. Usually, we’ll shut down a month before launch and when we can’t make any more changes. First, we have to finish that 1.5 patch that’s coming, there are few bugs still there. So when that’s done, we’ll start thinking when can the beta be released. And then we calculate when we’ll probably ship.

During the HotS open beta, will the interface and Battle.net see the changes and features that will be implemented in the full version?

I don’t think you’ll see a bunch of them initially. I was talking to Alan [Dabiri, Lead Software Engineer] and he was worried that we won’t have enough if we go live too soon. But that’s ok as we need to test the multiplayer and that’s what the beta is really for. And we can patch mid-beta with the new features so you can test and make sure they’re not broken at launch. So there won’t probably be much stuff when the beta launches but it will get updated in the process.
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