Interview: Blizzard's Chris Sigaty on the future of Starcraft II

Rich McCormick

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Chris Sigaty is StarCraft II's lead producer, and rhythm guitarist in Blizzard house band The Artists Formerly Known As Level 80 Elite Tauren Chieftain . His business cards are lengthy and hairy. I interviewed him the other day about StarCraft II's launch, its first patch, and the game's future. Here's what he said.

Rich McCormick: So how did StarCraft II's launch go?

Chris Sigaty: Overall it was really good. I was actually at an event in Sweden, so that was extremely exciting. We had an estimated 1,300 people at a store in Stockholm, and that was just one of twelve midnight launches. It was really exciting to work on a game like this and to be able to go to a launch and have that many people show up, feel their excitement, and participate in their excitement.

Rich McCormick: What does the game's launch say about the state of PC gaming at the moment?

Chris Sigaty: I think it says that PC gaming is not dead, despite the news that has come out in the last few years.

Rich McCormick: So what would you have changed about the launch, if anything?

Chris Sigaty: I think for me personally I would have hoped that we could have had the Chinese version of the game done at the same time. That was a personal goal of mine, but it didn't make it, so we're working on that now. Other things - there's regrets from my side only around features that didn't make the cut at the time. Most of those things are high level features things that we intend to now release over time via patches, things like chat features on the online service. There's group functionality that we definitely want to get into the game at some point, but these are internal things that we've tried to get done that didn't make it in time.

Rich McCormick: Is the intention to release them, via patch?

Chris Sigaty: It depends on our bandwidth at any given time but yeah a lot of things are going to come online at the feature level, in patches, and then some of them will be parts of the expansion.

Rich McCormick: The first patch came out in the last few days. Could give us an insight into what you're planning to do with the next patch?

Chris Sigaty: The next patch is largely our e-sports patch, is the best way to describe it. A couple of main, big things that'll be in there are support for the season rolling - that just means players can look at previous history of how they did in the past in past seasons. Chat is another thing that we intend to get in there in the next patch. Of course there will be bugfixes, balance changes and tweaks, and several other things that I really don't want to speak about yet because the list is constantly changing.

Rich McCormick: Are there any units you're looking at at the moment that you think need to be rebalanced?

Chris Sigaty: We're looking at all of that very carefully. You can go and read on the forums at any one time and there's a bunch of different theories about balance and imbalance, and we're being very cautious about making large swinging changes right now because at the highest level things are actually very strong.

The things that we'll probably be addressing are the 2v2 and larger scale games. Ultimately, the 1 to 1 is the are we want to keep as sacred as possible, but right now there are some things that we need to address in the 2v2 at the higher level. At the moment, there's issues with what race types players pick. The actual matching is working very well, we're very happy with how well its matched, to the dismay of some players who always want wins, but ultimately our goal is to get it where each game is challenging, and whether you win or lose you feel like you could have won. They're not walks in the park, you know? But as far as 2v2 and six, eight player games, it's really a matter of - if it's two Zerg versus two Protoss, is there a huge imbalance there? We want to make sure those are as equal as we can get them, and that'll be an ongoing process that'll take a year or longer. Even after Brood War was released we still patched and continued to drive towards a solid final balance. But honestly, the 1 v 1 is the purest form of competition in Starcraft 2 and is going to win when we have to make choices in that direction.

Rich McCormick: How did you come to the conclusion that units like Reapers needed altering in the patch?

Chris Sigaty: A lot of play, a lot of listening and discussions with high level players. We did get detailed data and numbers, but honestly on this first patch a lot of it was old school methodologies. We played a lot and tried to understand if those were complaints were real. People get very emotional about their particular race, you can see that coming through. People will make wild accusations and we just have to play to investigate. “Is the siege tank truly a problem? Yeah, it looks like it is - it's not horrible, it's just slightly off, so let's make these slight tweaks”. It depends on what our internal play experiences are like after we make those changes, and then finally zeroing in on what we want.

We have two extremely good players on the team and they play hundreds of matches and then relay various trends that seem to be forming. Every week you could watch and say “oh this is overpowered or underbalanced!”, and then the next week that was shifting to something else. So, making sure we weren't just jumping on the newest bandwagon, and investigating it, and then allowing those guys to get a true sense of it, discussing it with Dustin (Browder, lead designer and top player), and then working out how we can change it and not overreact.

Rich McCormick: What's the response been to the first patch?

Chris Sigaty: It's very early. Talking with the balance designers, they don't feel like there's any major emergency right now in the balance. But I know there's going to be additional changes that are going to become obvious for us internally over the next few weeks. They'll be included either in the next major patch - which will be 1.20. Even prior to that there will be balance tweaks.

Rich McCormick: What's your multiplayer team's focus now?

Chris Sigaty: Making sure we understand what's going on because there's a lot of noise. One example: we shared the top 200 players with the public recently, and because they weren't a lot of Zerg players in there. The immediate reaction was “Zerg are totally underpowered”. That's actually not the case based on what we see. As far as skill levels, there are differences in the balance numbers and percentages, but a lot of that is that we have fewer Zerg players overall. As a player, I avoid playing Zerg as much as possible, because I find them to be just more complex in general. Larvae management is harder for me to deal with, so I don't enjoy playing them as much that way. It's just a higher concept, I guess.

We're just making sure we're really paying close attention to noise, and working on our internal numbers and making sure that we're getting the right information back daily. It actually took us a while - when we first rolled out, we weren't able to keep up as fast as we were getting data. We've made some changes to the system now and are now able to see game information very accurately internally. The balance team is just concentrating on ensuring that they truly understand what's going on, then playing lots and lots of games.

Rich McCormick: Is there an ETA on the next major patch?

Chris Sigaty: No. I think internally we'd like something out before the end of the year, but I don't know that I can commit to that yet.

Rich McCormick: Have you seen any tactics that really surprised you?

Chris Sigaty: Constantly there's all sorts of very cool, really creative thinking going on. Once players get to the level where they're not thinking “how do I control that?”, or the basics of “how do I get my economy working properly?”, it really is phenomenal to watch. I just watched last night a game between two players that were at a high skill level. It was a Terran/Terran mirror match and one of the players went with an all Raven strategy. It was totally unexpected, but he gambled, he captured his natural and then he was able to protect any base we wanted by throwing down tons of turrets. Have you seen the match?

Rich McCormick: I haven't. I've read stuff about massing Ravens but besides using point defence drones a lot, I've never used them properly.

Chris Sigaty: He basically put no defences down. There were some arguments about how it could have been countered reasonably easily but both players were certainly very skilled. His opponent was was probably caught off guard and unable to critically think fast enough to counter, but it was a pretty long game - almost 30 minutes.

Rich McCormick: I saw a game the other day with a Zerg player that just pumped out Queens and Zerglings, covered most of the map with creep and Spine Crawlers, and penned in a Protoss force.

Chris Sigaty: I saw the same one! and it was actually really fun too because the Protoss player was turtling and he just said “screw that” and busted out. The Zerg used a tactic that the community can't decide is abuse or not - we're well aware of it - you can place a Hatchery down and cancel the Hatchery to gain creep expansion. It was an amazing game.

Rich McCormick: Are there any mods that you've had your eye on?

Chris Sigaty: I've not looked in personally on what the leading mods are in the community, but I know the most popular ones: Nexus Wars is one of the most played maps out there right now.

Ultimately we're going to go a lot further with this: we are working internally on some mods to demonstrate what you can do. In the last patch we added various features to the editor to help people developing these maps; 1.20, our next major patch, will add a lot more significant features as well, as well as tools that show how to use them.

We also have a team that's going through mod and map submissions right now. We just completed a map contest and the top three of those are going to be showcased at Blizzcon, so we will be doing a review process shortly on those maps. The mods we're making, we're going to showcase three or four of our own internal creations to the world at Blizzcon.

Rich McCormick: In an age where a lot of people are locking things down and not letting anyone play with their source code, why have Blizzard made the decision to let everyone tinker with the game?

Chris Sigaty: The experiences that have come from us doing that in the past, even going back to StarCraft and WarCraft 2, through to WarCraft 3, were amazing. It's a self-feeding community that forms up from that: DotA (Defence of the Ancients) is a phenomenon, and it came about because of providing those tools to the end user. For us it's really exciting to see the ideas, they inspire some of the things we do in our own games. Tower defence was - as far as I know - non-existent until StarCraft and WarCraft 3, and now I have probably twenty different games on my iPhone that came about because we put tools like that in users' hands.

We want to open it up even more if we can. We've talked about the concepts of a marketplace, and it's a goal of ours to get something like that up. Ultimately, we want to create an iTunes-like platform where not only can map creators share their ideas, but also actually make money doing it. We're way behind it.

Rich McCormick: How do you think Battle.net has held up?

Chris Sigaty: I think it has been robust enough. As far as the stability of it and what it's capable of, yeah, we're very happy with it.

Rich McCormick: Where do you want to go next with it?

Chris Sigaty: Our next patch will focus largely on competition and supporting the season. We're going to roll the first season after 1.20 launches – along with that, we'll allow people to look back at the records, implement a chat capability, and then there's a longer list of other features that are on the table as well: things like customisable hotkeys that have been requested by the player community.

Rich McCormick: How do you think Korea's taken to the game?

Chris Sigaty: They've taken to it the same way they have with all of our products so far. With StarCraft, with WarCraft 3, there's been a long ramp up over time. Generally it's been about a year of time as the game ramps up in interest. So far, we've seen a lot of professional players looking in on it but not committing to it. But now we're now starting to see very high level players committing, or transitioning from StarCraft to StarCraft 2, and we're seeing that the player population following along with it.

Rich McCormick: Has it taken over StarCraft I/Brood War yet as the major spectator sport?

Chris Sigaty: Not yet, and I don't know that that's our goal, either. I think letting Brood War live on its own while still having really great players in Starcraft II would be great. If players do come over that's fantastic as well, but we're certainly not out to destroy Brood War. In a perfect world, both would live side by side, but we'll see.

Rich McCormick: Do you have contact with the network of shoutcasters who provide English language commentary on game replays? (People like Community Hero Husky )

Chris Sigaty: Yeah, our e-sports team knows quite a number, and interacts with quite a number. We hire each year a couple of the more famous English speaking shoutcasters that come out to Blizzcon.

Rich McCormick: What are your intentions for this year's Blizzcon?

Chris Sigaty: Our focus is competitive play and and modding at Blizzcon this year. The idea is to showcase some work in progress stuff, but it will be the first hands-on with these maps and mods and also an opportunity for players to understand just what they can do. We'll also have various panels around how you can do these things yourself, some of the tricks of the trade.

We've also got the big e-sports competitive side of the event, too.

Rich McCormick: Can we expect any news about Heart of the Swarm?

Chris Sigaty: No. We're still working on the details and the last thing I want to do is get us there, talking about theoretical things instead of talking about what's real. We will be featuring a Q&A to talk about story, but that will largely just be to tie up any loose ends and questions players have about what was happening during the story, we won't be going into details about what's going to happen in Heart of the Swarm.

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