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

T.J. Hafer

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.

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.

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