As part of our ongoing celebration of all things StarCraft, we're hosting a Starcraft smörgåsbord, with a different theme for each of the days leading up to and the week following SC2's release. This article is a part of the "Everything We Know About StarCraft Day", the first of the bunch, and was our world-exclusive reveal of the Zerg's new artstyle.
When the new-and-improved StarCraft II Zerg were unveiled in March 2008, the new 3D graphics were such a huge step up from its predecessor's pixilated sprites that we hardly even noticed that the art was intended as placeholder.
Now Blizzard's venerable Art Director Samwise Didier (he's worked on every Blizzard game, including Lost Vikings, Warcraft I–III, Diablo I and II, World of WarCraft and StarCraft) and his team are steadily updating the Zerg with new unit models and textures, and in many cases the difference is so striking and impressive that it feels like we're looking at models from StarCraft III. We talked to Didier about the process of polishing game art up to the Blizzard gold standard. Dan Stapleton
Was this art pass always part of the plan, or did the team decide “we can do better”?
When we decided to announce the Zerg, we wanted to have something to show, and so we kind of pulled all of our guys together to get together what we could, but it wasn't near what we wanted to show. Artists always want to polish more of their art; they're never happy with the way that it looks. We always like to go back over whatever we do and get it to the level that we want it to be. That's where we are at with the Zerg: We're finally getting them ready to show to the public, even though we showed them a year ago. We're pretty proud of it, too. It's finally starting to look the way we want it to, and we're glad to finally be able to show everybody the true glory of the Zerg.
Is every unit in the game getting this kind of makeover?
Yeah, we already did that with the Terrans and Protoss. We may go back and check them out, because every time we finish one, the ones we already finished start to look a bit dated. It's a vicious cycle. But we're going to be hitting up the rest of the Zerg units and we also have the Zerg buildings that we're taking a crack at. Currently we're going over the hive and the hatchery, all the upgrades for that, and we're going over the Hydralisk den.
How long does it take your team to create one of these new models?
We have about two or three guys who work on any one model at any one time. So we'll have a guy model it in a couple days, we'll have the texture guy texture it in a few days, and then we'll have the animator animate it in a day or two. Our animations in this game aren't that detailed—all they have to do is run, shoot, and die. So it takes a little bit over a week, maybe a week and a half, and that's on a simple unit. That doesn't count the portrait, either.
Will the upgrade in quality have any effect on system requirements? Or will these old models still exist in the game for people to see if they turn their settings all the way down?
That's another pass that we might have to do. We did that with Warcraft III, where we had lower-polygon models. Hopefully we won't have to do that on this one, but that's always been sitting there in the back of our schedule going we may have to get some time to do these. Which, it isn't really that hard. It's easy to chop out the polygons, like for example on the drone's wings, where OK, yeah, it looks killer, but we don't want to sit there and kill the game all for a couple of drone knuckles.
Is there any one unit that you're particularly proud of?
I really like a new unit that we're working on. We haven't announced anything on it yet, but there's a new Zerg unit that's looking pretty killer. If there's an old one, I would have to say the Ultralisk. The Ultralisk is still my favorite unit—it's a giant wrecking ball with spikes. And because it's so large, you'll really be able to see all the shininess and all the new texture work that we put in. Hell, even the drone is still awesome-looking, too. It's your base Zerg unit, yet it looks really cool and looks like it could just tear up everything.
With this art pass, you seem to be taking a more realistic, slightly less stylized and darker approach with the Zerg. In general there's less pink and purple and more brown. Is that a result of higher detail, or was it a conscious decision on your part to make them less cartoony?
I think in the shots that most people have seen, we have the team colors set to orange, which makes the entire Zerg look more brown and orange. If we set the team color to purple they're a bit more purple and brown. It sort of depends. We've backed off a little on the super-saturated colors, but we really like to keep them colorful, because when you're playing multiplayer you want to be able to see who's who—you can't have everybody just be brown and realistic.
The old drone has streaks of purple and yellow…
Yeah, it kind of looked like a totally temporary piece of artwork that we had in the game, which is what it was. We hadn't touched that one since the very first time we made the drone. There might have been a little bit more polys on him than when we first started, but he was the last remaining piece of art that needed to go through a second stage and finally be polished up, and you can totally see the difference.
Are these the final units or will there be more changes before launch?
I'm hoping that the bulk of it is final. There's always going to be some little tweaks to the units. Like, we just finished doing the new Infestor model, and it's looking a lot cooler. That was one of the units that the fans really didn't dig, so we said all right, let's go ahead and change this one. The new version takes the elements that everyone liked about the old Infestor, and we just put it on a more sinister, vicious-looking critter. But most of the art that we're doing, we're not changing it, we're just finishing it. The tubby fat infestor model is still in, by the way. It's delegated to single-player status so that people can still use it for mods. ?