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

T.J. Hafer at

PC Gamer: Which matchup do you find to be the most fun now, with all of the changes coming in Heart of the Swarm?

Dustin Browder: I still think TvT is glorious. That one, still, is all over the place. And the unit compositions are just bananas. It's just, I need one of everything, and then five of those. And the positional play is just really exciting.

"TvT is glorious."

I feel like Protoss vs Protoss is probably the most improved overall. You're seeing just lots and lots of tech in some of those games. Certainly in the games I've played, I've seen crazy amounts of tech. You know, I have ... like an hour and ten minute game of Protoss vs Protoss. We built everything. We built High Templars, we built Archons... we had Tempests, we had Oracles. He had Carriers. I started adding Carriers. We had Immortals, of course. You know, we had Sentries... we had everything.

It was one of those games that, when I finally beat this guy, I was like, "Dude, you're awesome!" And he was like, "No, you're awesome!" Like, it was just this total high-five. It was a very positive experience. Which is weird, right? I'm used to being yelled at on the Internet.

I haven't seen a lot of ZvZ yet. For me, at my skill level, it's still very much a Zergling/Baneling challenge. I do feel like we've unlocked Muta[lisk] a lot more in that matchup, because of the nerfs to the Infestor. You know, I've watched Grandmaster players play. These are not pros, these are Grandmasters, so let's be real about that. Grandmaster does not equal pro. But I've watched them play, both in streams and here at the studio, and they miss with Fungals. They miss, especially on fast units like Stim Marines, or on Mutalisks.

And that's significant. That helps unlock that Muta in a very real way. Plus, the regeneration on the Muta is significant. So, I'm hopeful that that unlocking of Muta will be real. But I've also heard nightmare horror stories of, it's all Swarm Host/Brood Lord battles. So we'll see how that one goes.

Speaking of the Infestor, is it pretty close to where it needs to be at this point?

Browder: I think it's in a happier place, for sure, in Swarm. In Wings, I'm not sure yet. I feel like the problems in wings may be more systemic—and I've felt this way for a long time. The map sizes are big. The Zerg are playing greedy. You can fix the Infestor from now 'til the cows come home. But the map sizes are big, and the Zerg are allowed to play greedy. And that's real.

So, we've done a recent nerf to the Infestor which will reduce the power of the Infested Terrans. Which is one of the ways you're using Infestor. You know, one of the ways of using Infestor has nothing to do with Fungal. They're using it to beat the 200 food cap. They're coming in, they're Infested Terraning: Aaahhhhaaagghhhh, I've got 250 food! Which is actually kind off cool and Zergy. I like that, but it's causing us some problems.

"They’re coming in, they’re Infested Terraning: Aaahhhh- aaagghhhh, I’ve got 250 food!"

If we get back to just Fungal wars, then you'll be back to the point of, "How many Fungals do I really need to win this battle? Five? Six? I don't need 75 Fungals. So I don't need 15 Infestors." Which will hopefully be a better experience. But if we nerf the Infestor too much in Wings, I think Zerg may not be able to win. They're hanging all of their strategy on that one unit right now. And so we have to be very careful with it.

I don't really disagree with the community that, A: we've probably got bigger problems than the Infestor. I don't disagree that, B: we could nerf the Infestor even harder, and would that be good, because we wouldn't see so many Infestors? Totally agree. But if we nerf the Infestor too hard, the Zerg may not be able to win games anymore. And that's not positive either. And so we have to take these dinky little changes and be very cautious with them.

I know a lot of people think we should move faster. And I don't disagree with that feedback. We just have to be very cautious. Because a lot of money's on the line for these kids. I can't go out and look Stephano in the eye and say, "Hey, I just made it impossible for you to win. But hey, at least you can't build Infestors anymore."

[Laughs] "Okay, thanks dude." Right? That doesn't really work either.

How long do you guys plan to keep supporting Wings of Liberty hardcore, with balances patches and stuff like that, alongside Heart of the Swarm?

Browder: We'll see. It really depends, but I hope [it can be indefinite]. I really hope we can keep supporting it for a long, long time. I don't see any problems with that. I believe we can continue to do that. I think there are limits to what we can do to Wings of Liberty. There are only so many unit compositions where we can change numbers around.

I think Heart of the Swarm is going to be a vastly better balanced experience over time.

So I do think Heart of the Swarm is going to be the better balanced experience. I wish that wasn't the case, but there it is. We've learned so much in the last two years, both from the community and from playing ourselves. Again, the map size change is a huge impact on the game. So I think Heart of the Swarm is going to be a vastly better balanced experience over time.

But we will do everything we can for our Wings of Liberty players. We know those guys, they've earned our trust. They've earned our respect. They've earned patches.

Is there anything you guys have changed over the course of rolling out the expansion beta that the community has kind of freaked out about, that you guys didn't see as that big of a deal?

Browder: I think the biggest one was the auto-harvesting and the numbers over the town hall buildings. There was a bunch of—and there still probably is, but it's died down since we haven't really responded to it—but there was a bunch of concern that this was "the game playing for you." That this was damaging eSports, that this was going to take away too much of the game's skill.

And we just never thought this was the case. We felt like this was a new user benefit. If you want to turn it off because you like auto-splitting, you can totally turn it off and auto-split. For 99 percent of the playerbase, it's totally fine. And for those who actually get skill out of it, who are actually losing something by auto-rallying, then just turn it off and split. You can totally do that.

What was the biggest thing that went into the expansion direct from player feedback, that you might not have thought to include otherwise?

Browder: The Oracle went through a lot of changes based on player feedback. We were very much in the mode of, "Let's create a caster that doesn't kill workers." That was our design direction, we announced that to people. We pushed that forward, and we said, "This should be a caster that doesn't kill workers."

We've got raiders that kill workers. We have 35 raiders in this game that kill workers. We've got Hellion drops, we've got Marine drops, we've got Banshees, we've got Vikings, we've got Mutalisks, you've got Zergling run-bys... I don't need something else to kill workers. Agh, no more!

"And the more we played, we were like... they should just f---ing kill workers."

And we did all these crazy spells. Entombs, they looked really cool. I kind of miss that spell, the way it looked. And then the more we played it, and we got all this community feedback—all the Protoss players said, "I wanna kill some f---ing workers!" Right? I'm glad the Zerg have a way to kill workers, I don't have a way to kill workers! Phoenix pick-up doesn't count!

And the more we played, we were like... they should just f---ing kill workers. Like, this is ridiculous. Why are we holding onto this? I think we were right to hold onto it until we were quite satisfied that it was not good. This was not working. Not only is this not working, but this idea of killing workers is absolutely better than what we were pushing.

Has there been a significant difference in how you handle changes and feedback from the Wings beta to the Heart of the Swarm beta?

Browder: Not the way we handle it, but certainly the way we can get it. We have so much streaming going on now that we didn't have as much of in Wings of Liberty. And we have so many eSports professionals now. We didn't have those people. I don't think people realize how much eSports has grown as a result of StarCraft over the last couple of years.

This game has absolutely pushed and created a lot of the eSports fandom that has allowed a lot of other games to say, "Hey, we want to be eSports, too!" Which is great! Which is totally cool! And at the same time, all these pros are suddenly here, able to give us feedback that we didn't have.

So we've got our own private forum for Korean pros. And we've got pros all over the world contacting us and contacting our community team, and telling us what they think and what they want next. We've got streams. I can go watch a lot of these guys play tonight. And I can go, "Oh, look what he's doing! Interesting."

So I can be studying balance tonight after my kids go to bed, which was not the case in Wings. If I wanted to study balance, I had to go play. And I'm not good. [Laughs]. So I'm only getting some information. So if I want, I can go do that, and learn about what a terrible player does when he plays Heart of the Swarm.

But if I want to watch IdrA play, I can watch him play. If I want to watch Grubby play, I can maybe watch him play, and see what his experiences are in Heart of the Swarm. Live. Tonight. On my computer. Which is a huge tool for us.

From your perspective, what is killing eSports?

Browder: [Laughs] I thought I was killing eSports. I thought that was my title. I have the crown! That's what Twitter keeps saying.

That's the silliest question, because nothing is killing eSports. It's growing at logarithmic rates. Did you ever think we would be here, in this, place, two and a half years later? We're just swimming in pros, and so many events you can't even keep track of them all. Like, we used to talk about timing patches relative to major eSports events. Now there's no way.

"That's the silliest question, because nothing is killing eSports."

There is no way for us to patch Wings of Liberty without it hitting an eSport event. We went live with our beta in the US, because we thought that was going to be enough to give us testing. And we have had nothing but feedback from all over the world that's, "So, when can I run my tournament? I want to run a [Heart of the Swarm] tournament. I'm in Korea, or I'm in Europe. When can I run a HotS tournament?"

It's just constant. The amount of constant input coming into this studio, "More! More! This! That!" It's just insane. So, the idea that anything is killing eSports is nuts. eSports is growing out of control. It's alive and breathing and flying away. I have no idea when it's going to stop.

And I think the StarCraft community should take some pride and joy in that. They should take some ownership of that, and say, "We did that. We helped build this. We are ground-floor, core contributors to what makes any eSport going forward." They should, in their minds and hearts, claim some of that. Because they've absolutely earned it. They were on the ground floor. They were here when it really started to happen.

So, going forward with the game, where do you think we could take the concept of rocks from here?

Browder: More!

Will we get modifiable rocks? Movable rocks? Liftable rocks?

Browder: Ooh, flying rocks? Flying rocks! Like Outland, they're all floating up there!

And they block movement for flyers, unless you destroy them! Oh yes, that's good. Legacy of the Void: Flying rocks.

"Legacy of the Void: Flying rocks."

Confirmed!

Browder: You were in the design meeting when we came up with flying rocks!

Yeah, you can send the check to...

Browder: Oh, we don't get paid for this.

[Laughs]

Thanks to Dustin for taking the time to talk to us. You check out the Heart of the Swarm cinematic trailer if you haven't already. The expansion is set to hatch on March 12.