This article originally appeared in issue 245 of PC Gamer.
The StarCraft IIs, they are a-changing. After two years, Blizzard have finally got the competitive balance of their space-set RTS just right. But just as they've massaged the numbers into place, just as they've buffed and nerfed it in the right spots to make the world's premier e-sport, they've decided to smash it all up.
Heart of the Swarm is the second in the StarCraft II trilogy, and it will drastically change a game that has raised the e-sports banner high over the past few years. A game that a cadre of elite players depend upon for their livelihood. It must be a scary time for the developers.
But designer David Kim isn't feeling the fear. “While it's pretty scary, we're also confident that we're ready to go ahead with it. We have the experience of tuning units in the past – not only in the beta – but through patches. We think we're prepared in terms of the things we have to look for.” Blizzard have it easier than some when it comes to this kind of tuning. A vast, competitive userbase plays on Battle.net's ladders every day, and professional players are quick to determine the weaknesses and strengths of new additions. “Right now we have a small playtest group internally of the best StarCraft players across all of Blizzard,” Kim says. “Some of the players are from the Q&A team, some players are from the development team.”
But no matter the amount of fiddling that goes on internally, Kim and his peers won't be happy with the balance until a hefty beta period is through. “I don't think we would be able to ship the game right now and have the pros play it at a balanced level. That has to be done during the beta.”
Wings of Liberty's beta uncovered some serious balance problems Blizzard had missed, but players also complained about units and powers that Kim and co believed would eventually even out. “Banelings [stubby-legged balls of exploding acid goo - StarCraft II Ed] used to be considered super powerful in the WoLbeta, but we left them as they were. We realised that as the Terran players' micro became better, so the marine spread is a little faster and the damage banelings actually do is reduced.”
But not all of WoL's now-venerable units will be left alone. The slug-bodied, spine-spewing Zerg hydralisks – decidedly underused in the competitive community – have been retooled to facilitate their successful deployment. They're faster, and work particularly well with the new Zerg viper: the latter unit can yank bothersome enemy units into a mass of squidgy Hydralisk flesh, letting the monsters tear the interloper apart with chitinous spikes.
StarCraft II has such a wide fanbase that Blizzard won't be able to please everyone with Heart of the Swarm– but an obsessive level of testing means they can give it a damn good try.