StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm mega interview with Dustin Browder

T.J. Hafer at

Take a few minutes to stop watching the Heart of the Swarm cinematic trailer on a loop and check out our meaty, Ultralisk-sized interview with StarCraft II Game Director Dustin Browder. We talk eSports, the new single player campaign, and the future of attackable rocks.

PC Gamer: What's been the most unexpected thing to come out of the Heart of the Swarm beta so far?

Dustin Browder: I guess the scariest thing for us as a balance team is, you know, we've made enough changes that the meta hasn't settled. The metagame is still all over the place. So you see lots of surprising strats, right? That probably aren't "real." But they're real today, or they're real in that game.

Like, David Kim was telling me about a game where he was endgame TvT, and the other guy was beating him with all Battlecruiser/Reaper.

[Laughs]

Browder: Right? I'm like, "What?" And he's like, "No, it was working. Here's why." Because he didn't need to Stim. Because the Reapers were just screwing around. They would just run over to a base and blow it up, run over to a base and blow it up. The Battlecruisers were keeping the Siege Tank off the board, so the Reapers weren't countered by the Siege Tanks. And because the Reapers are constantly healing, right, he didn't need Medivacs either.

And this was actually a more cost-effective Stim/Medivac push. By just using Reapers at that stage of the game. It was faster, it was more flexible. And it was ultimately easier to manage and easier to use. I'm like, "What in the world?"

"You're seeing games where Protoss are opening with, like, double Stargate and sh--."

We just don't know. You see all kinds of crazy strats. I guess if you want to point to a single thing, I'm a little surprised—though we certainly made the changes to cause this to happen—about how powerful air 'Toss is right now. Like, it is crazy good. Craaaazy good. You're seeing games where Protoss are opening with, like, double Stargate and sh--.

The craziness of beta is pretty cool. And hopefully what we've done at the end of beta, is we've unlocked a lot of strategies. So, there are many, many choices for players, and the metagame is constantly evolving and shifting. And that's what we're really going for. We're gong for a place where the game has enough tools in play, where what is accepted this month will be not accepted next month. And that will be because of the players changing their playstyles, and have nothing to do with a patch.

How do you go about designing a new unit or changing a unit to encourage that kind thing in what was a little bit of a stagnant metagame in Wings of Liberty?

Browder: You try to create really solid tools. You don't know how they're going to be used or if they're going to be used, but you have to look at a unit and say, "You know, for its cost, that unit has uses. That could be effective." An example I would give is the Warp Prism from the end of Wings of Liberty. We started seeing that more and more and more, as Protoss players started to be more threatened by immobile forces, and they needed the mobility to break up the danger.

When the Brood Lords and Infestors are out, it's dangerous as hell, but it's not fast. So what they would do, is they would say, "Okay, I'm going to try to spread you out. I'm going to try to pull you away from here by constant harassment with Warp Prism. And it could be very cost effective and very dangerous. We hadn't changed that unit. But they were starting to use it that way.

So that's the ideal, is to create the tools so that when they suddenly have the need, they have something they can do which changes the way the game plays. And so it's this constantly cycling metagame that we're not even touching.

Is there one unit, maybe not just in terms of how effective it is, but in terms of how much it has changed the game that you would call the "strongest" of those that have either been added or significantly changed in Heart of the Swarm?

Browder: I think the unit that disrupts the metagame from Wings the most is the Tempest. Because it breaks up PvP, because the Colossus is not the correct answer all the time now. It used to be just Colossus wars. I have eight Colossus, you have six Colossus, I win. Immortal helped with that a little bit, but it was still largely Colossus wars.

The Tempest allows you to just break that. The Colossus is still very valuable, because if I can keep back your Tempests, then my Colossus can really key in and do the damage. But if I overbuild Colossus, I can get rolled by the Tempest. And it breaks up the Brood Lord as well. Which is, again, very useful for us.

So in terms of the one that I think sort of fixes some of Wings' core design problems, I think the Tempest does the most damage.

Is there one unit that you think, when the expansion goes live, might still need the most improvement?

Browder: You mean the one I think we should still be working on?

Yeah, the one that will still need the most work.

Browder: Well, I don't know for sure yet. We'll see. We've still got time left in the beta. We're still able to make balance patches. I'm still nervous for Terran vs Protoss mech play. I think we've taken some positive steps toward unlocking the Factory as a legitimate choice against Protoss players. I'm not convinced yet. Again, the metagame is so unstable right now, it's very difficult to know.

What about the unit from Wings that has kind of risen up most to be a star as of the expansion, that was lackluster before—is there one that stands out in that sense?

Browder: I would say the Raven, with his buffs. Oh, the Hydra. Hydra or Raven, pick your poison. The Hydra sees very little play in Wings. We're starting to see some more here and there at the end of Wings of Liberty, but still, it's been a struggle for the Hydra. Just a couple of buffs have given him just off the charts success. And the same thing for the Raven. Like, changing how the Seeker Missile works, and changing its mana cost, I think has been a huge benefit.

You guys have talked about this a little bit in the past, but what exactly happened with the Reaper? He's kind of been all over the place in the Swarm beta.

Browder: He may be still. The Reaper doesn't have a core combat role. He can't replace the Marine, he can't replace the Marauder. He's very close, right now in Wings, to a Hellion. So we had to make a couple of choices: Do we want the Reaper to be a better Hellion, or do we want the Hellion to be a better Reaper?

"The Reaper doesn't have a core combat role."

And we went with the Hellion as the one that was more fun to play with and more fun to watch, as opposed to the Reaper. And this left us with, in Wings of Libery, a Reaper that is occasionally used for scouting and that's about it. So what we're doing right now with the Reaper is we're testing him in a role of, sort of early- to mid-game scout, and early-game pressure.

So, Zerg do not always get board control now. That's not a given. I mean, the Terrans have to pay for that board control. They have to pay in gas. The Zerg get board control for minerals. They get it for free with Zerglings. Not for free, but basically—with no risk to their tech. The Terrans, if they want to take that board control back in the early game, they can spend gas and delay their Factory, and anything else they want to do with that gas, to regain that board control from Zerg. That's not of zero value to Terrans. That can be a very threatening style.

I have won games against Zergs who got too greedy and thought the Reaper wasn't a problem. Because hit-and-run on the Queens does work. You're not going to build that many Spines. And if you do, you may have just cost yourself some economy you don't want to lose at that point.

So we're going to use them as that early- to mid-game scout, and as that early-game board control, particularly against Zerg. And we'll see how that feels and take them from there.

As far as what you're hearing right now from pro players and eSports organizations, is it still too early to tell whether the competitive switch from Wings to Swarm is going to happen fairly quickly?

Browder: The comments I've had from the few tournament organizers I've spoken to is a great deal of enthusiasm to move to [the expansion] as quickly as possible. Because we feel like the balance is probably going to be better in the long run, even if there is some nervousness in the short-term. And because it's got a bunch of new gameplay, which makes for more exciting games.

StarCraft 2 is know pretty much as an eSports game at this point. As far as designing the campaign, is that something that has ever been in danger of falling to the wayside, since it's something people get excited about for a short time initially, as compared to the ongoing interest in the competitive scene.

Browder: No. Because it's known as an eSport in the eSports community, which is a community you and I are both a part of. But many, many of our players, I run into them all the time at conventions, say, "I'm not really into multiplayer, but I love the campaign." That's very common. And these guys just aren't on the boards. They're not posting. But they make up easily half of our audience.

It's always been a big passion project for us. It's something very exciting, and it's always something the community wants more of.

You revealed the new mutiplayer training modes. What type of player, specifically, are these designed for? Is this for people who have never been on the ladder, or have just hit the wall trying to ladder?

Browder: I think it's going to be for somebody who's finished the campaign and wants to see, wants to make that transition. Or maybe, like you're describing, that player who, you know, tried in Wings and got just absolutely hammered, and wants to get some knowledge before he goes back in again.

You know, our community is hugely helpful to new users, actually. There are a great many casters out there, you know: Apollo and Day[9] and all these guy who are doing great, great work at teaching new users how to play StarCraft II. But your ability to find those guys, if you're just coming off of campaign, may not be 100 percent. There's a bunch of people out there who won't think to check those sites, who don't know about them.

What was the reasoning behind the decision—you guys were kind of pushing against unranked play for a long time, and now it's finally coming in the expansion. Was that community feedback?

Browder: There was a big concern, and there still is a big concern ... if you have ranked play and unranked play, are those two, separate matchmaking pools? And does that damage the matchmaker? Especially in some places in the world ... I'm thinking Southeast Asia, there's a few places where the population of gamers is just not that huge. And our population of players is not that huge. So the matchmaker can struggle in those areas.

"If people start abusing [unranked play], then that's why we can't have nice things."

And so if you start dividing up the matchmaker over and over and over again, does the matchmaking become untenable? Like, "Oh, hey, I'm Masters. Hey, here's a Silver. What?" That's not what you want. The matchmaker has to be fast and accurate. In order to do that, it needs a population. And if you divide that population up too many times, you are in trouble.

So what we've finally said for unranked play is, we're going to risk it. We're going to put them into a single matchmaker [with ranked players]. Now, the concern from the community, and the concern internally, is, do people start abusing that system? When I come in unranked, do I say, "Hey, I'm unranked. Don't worry, I'll quit out before this game is over. Don't quit." Or some silliness. I don't know. There could be 50 ways to break this. They'll find a way if they want to find a way.

So if that starts to happen, now this feature is in trouble. If people start abusing it, then that's why we can't have nice things. But we kind of felt like the benefits were worth the risk. So ultimately, we're taking the leap. And we're saying, I hope our community doesn't ruin this. I hope a handful of bad apples don't find a way to make this go bad for us. I hope people play with this system with a little bit of honest integrity, which is a little scary with any online community.

But I feel like the incentives to do that are very, very low. I play unranked. I don't like losing games of StarCraft. I don't really care if your ladder rank goes up. I'm happy to win, and just call it a day.

You've been talking about how the community really influenced which maps you guys used on the ladder, and how the meta has kind of restricted what kinds of dimensions and features can exist in a "balanced" map. Is that something you guys still plan to revisit, in terms of determining if you can build a little bit more variance into the map pool without breaking a certain match-up?

Browder: Totally. I do think that our maps right now, in many cases, have gotten a little stagnant. But we'll see. That's something we always have to look at. Maps are always a very touchy subject, because everybody has their favorite and their least favorite maps. And maps that sometimes, the metagame shifts and [they] become bad.

I think we're very open to working with the community on maps, and getting maps from tournaments. I know as an eSports fan myself, it is very fun to play on a map I saw on the GSL or I saw at MLG last night. To go play on that map today is very cool. So I think we're going to work a little more closely with tournament organizers to sync up our maps with their pools and see if we can bring that experience to fans a little bit more often.

It's really fun to play baseball on Wrigley Field, right?

Right, and to see how terrible you are on the same playing field, compared to the pros. [Laughs]

DB: [Laughs] Right! But its still fun. I think that's part of the fun of eSports, period. At least for those of us who are both watching and playing. And so, I think we'd like to make that happen a little more often.