Blizzard Entertainment is one of the most successful game developers in the world, with an unbroken string of hit games including “World of Warcraft,” the “Diablo” franchise, the “Warcraft” series and “StarCraft.”
The only hitch? The company famously will ship no game before its time, which means fans often have a long wait between new releases.
Ask any game fan which Blizzard sequel they’d most like to see and the answer will inevitably be “StarCraft II,” even from the most hardcore “World of Warcraft” addict. Released in 1998, the real-time strategy game about a war between three galactic species is considered one of the greatest games of all time. "StarCraft," and the expansion “Brood Wars,” have sold nearly 10 million units.
“StarCraft” is credited with sparking the online gaming craze in South Korea and it remains hugely popular in that country’s Internet cafes and on the pro-game circuit. So not many industry watchers (or Blizzard-watchers) were surprised when the company unveiled “StarCraft2” in Seoul.
On May 19, thousands of attendees piled into the Olympic Gymnastics Arena and watched as company executives showed screenshots and gameplay videos from “StarCraft II.” The demo event quickly made its way to YouTube, and the game blogs whipped into a frenzy about The Game That Could Now Be Named. The only thing Blizzard didn’t have for fans that day? A release date.
In a Q&A session, I talked to Bizzard’s vice president of game design, Rob Pardo, about the company’s long development processes, how to keep teams motivated (hint: champagne parties and record-shattering sales), courting casual players and what fans can expect from "StarCraft II."
What took so long? The first “StarCraft” shipped nine years ago. Why has it taken so long to circle back to this franchise?
Mainly because we make our decisions on what game we’re going to work on from a creative standpoint. The team that worked on the original “StarCraft” wanted to revisit the “Warcraft” universe, and they went on to work on “Warcraft III.” When that game finished up [in 2002,] they were excited to go back and work on the “StarCraft” universe.
We did break ground on “StarCraft II” in 2003, but wasn’t in full production for another year or so.
What do you mean by full production?
That’s when you have a significant team size with a full complement of programmers, artists and designers that are working 40 hours a week or more on the game.
In the very early stages of any game development project, you tend to see a more skeleton crew because you’re still deciding what the game is. The first thing you have to develop is technology. The artists can’t put anything into the game until the programmers get some technology for them.
Were you concerned that a title as anticipated as “StarCraft II” might steal thunder away from “World of Warcraft”?
Not really, just because we’ve been doing this for a while, and we’ve done multiple products for a while, so we’re excited to do the next big game.
How’d you manage to keep it secret for so long?
We keep games under code names and we teach developers to refer to games by their code name. And we’re just really careful about talking about the game internally. We don’t bring external folks through unannounced product areas. But I think even I’m surprised that we were able to keep it under wraps all the way to the end.
Speaking of secrets, what is your timeline for release for “StarCraft II?”
It’s a secret! I can give you the old Blizzard mantra of: “It’ll ship when it’s ready,” but it’s something that historically, we’ve learned to keep release dates really close to the vest. I think all game developers are extremely optimistic, and we used to give optimistic dates and we’d disappoint our fans when we didn’t hit them. So now, I think we’ve just gotten more gun shy. The only thing I can give you [that’s] concrete is it’s not going to be this year. Some people were hoping, because of how advanced the game looks, that we’d have it out by Christmas, but that’s definitely not happening.
That’s a pretty long development cycle, if you started work on “StarCraft II” in 2003.
Different companies have different philosophies on how long they spend on products. I think we…have smaller development teams than other companies in the industry, and that turns into longer development cycles. We’re very iterative in our approach to game development. We can really look at the game and make really big decisions on redoing whole aspects of the game.
“Warcraft III” as an example: About two years in, we overhauled a large portion of the game because we just felt like we were going in the wrong direction. We’re able to do that because we have smaller teams and we give ourselves time to iterate through the product. You see a lot of companies that are so focused on the release date that they put 100-person, 200-person teams together to hit that date, and at that point you’re really the runaway train. You have to hit that date and live with decisions that you might not have been 100 percent happy with. We take the opposite approach.
You’re never going to be 100 percent happy with anything you do. How do you scrap something and change direction without it being demoralizing to the team?
It’s a challenge. But that’s the discipline, and I think the results speak for themselves — even though, a lot of times throughout the process, it’s a leap of faith that [the process] is going to result in a quality product. But when we hit that ship date and we have our champagne party and it blows up, everyone’s like “Oh, now I get it.”
Are all of the key roles filled on the “StarCraft II” team? And what’s the size of the team now that it’s in full production?
All the key roles are filled, and we’re running approximately 40 people.
Are the teams pretty even at Blizzard?
“StarCraft II” is actually one of the smaller teams.
How many people work there?
Worldwide, it’s approximately 2,000 — and the majority of that is support for “WoW.” Development is really a small subset of that [2,000] number.
The real-time strategy field is crowded right now with quality titles like “Supreme Commander,” “Company of Heroes,” and “Dawn of War.” How will “StarCraft II” distinguish itself?
We’ve definitely never been shy to go into a crowded field, especially a genre that historically we’ve been one of the kings of. “StarCraft II” will distinguish itself really well through online play. We’re building it to be the best competitive RTS on the market. RTSs, especially the ones you mentioned, are focused on single-player only.
We really are hoping to innovate more in the single-player [game] than we have in the past — we’re just not releasing details about it yet. But our story and our world and our IP [that] we developed in “StarCraft” is superior to what we’re going to be competing against.
“StarCraft II”s biggest competitor probably is “StarCraft.” How will you top that game and convince players that this isn’t just “StarCraft” in 3-D?
That’s a really good question. It’s not so much beating “StarCraft” that’s the problem, it’s beating people’s perception and nostalgia of “StarCraft.” “StarCraft” was and is a great game, but it’s certainly an older game. Across the board, “StarCraft II” is a better game in a lot of ways.
Will it live up to that nostalgia? Time will tell.
What new technologies can players expect to see in “StarCraft II?”
The first one is an enormous graphical improvement by going to 3-D.
We’ve also added things like a physics system in the game…we’re not really utilizing it for gameplay as much as for graphical improvement. Like, you’ll see things like debris that will actually fall apart, which adds more immersion and a lot more realism.
Online, we’ve learned a lot. In the original “StarCraft,” there was no online matchmaking system. That’s going to be huge…for “StarCraft II.” In “Warcraft III,” you had to press the “play game” button and it’d put you in a game with similarly skilled people. We’re going to do yet another improvement on that system for “StarCraft II,” which is going to be huge for the online market — especially broad market users.
What expansions are planned for Battle.net?
We have a lot of ideas. I’m really excited about the Battle.net stuff but we’re planning on releasing a lot of that information later down the line.
We’ve learned a lot from “Warcraft III,” about automated matchmaking and automated tournaments and ladder systems. We want to add to that. We want to make the game more exciting and enticing for spectators to watch so we have a lot of feature improvements planned there. We believe a lot in our user-made map and mod community and want to integrate that better into Battle.net.
How will you attempt to appeal to both the casual player versus the competitive player?
We’ve always tried to appeal to both. I’ve done talks on it, and I even have this funny way of putting it called “the doughnut theory:” The hole of the doughnut is your core market and the main donut itself is the casual market. We design for doughnut hole first. It’s more difficult to design for [the core market] in a lot of ways — you can’t make decisions that don’t hold up over 500 hours of gameplay.
In “StarCraft II,” we started on the multiplayer game first and a lot of that is really designed for that core market. Then we start making the game acceptable to the casual market. A lot of times, casual players do want to play a lot of the same stuff that the core players do, but the content is beyond them — there’s not an easy way for them to learn the game and slowly advance their skills. We really focus a lot on that.
Given the popularity of “WoW,” do you have any plans to go to subscription model with “StarCraft II” or any subsequent releases?
We’re going to do what’s right for the game. We made “WoW” to be a subscription game from the very beginning. With “StarCraft II” it’s probably going to follow more of a box model. But we’ll decide more of that stuff down the line.
Battle.net is pretty expensive to maintain, isn’t it?
It’s not as expensive as “WoW” to maintain! (Laughs)
Will any familiar characters from “StarCraft” and “Brood Wars” be returning to "StarCraft II?"
Yes. The storyline will follow the main story arc that we left off in “Brood Wars,” just a couple of years after that. You can certainly expect to see many of the returning characters.
But no fourth race?
No fourth race. We talked a lot about it. We ultimately decided we wanted to focus on the three races we had.
Will Blizzard remain a PC developer?
I don’t know. If you talk to our biz guys, they like the PC for a lot of reasons, but we don’t make our decisions based entirely on business or even primarily on business. We make our decisions based on the games we want to make. After that point, we make the decision on [what system] that game is going to live. And up to this point, the games we wanted to make worked best on the PC.