Interview: Chris Sigaty talks Starcraft 2 pro strategy

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The two-day tornado of Blizzcon has passed. Between feverish blasts of Diablo III and trying not to stare too hard at the Blood Elf cosplay maidens, we got the chance to chat with the delightful Chris Sigaty, StarCraft II's Producer, about game theory, why the Zerg need a bit of love, and the difference between amateur and professional StarCrafters' brains. It was most enlightening.

PC Gamer: Help me Chris. I'm stuck at Bronze rank 2!

Chris Sigaty: Hah, me too! Are you playing team?

PC Gamer: Yeah, 2v2. I can't help but feel if I found a buddy and we worked on co-ordination…

Chris Sigaty: Absolutely. Once you get to professional tier I think there's a certain type of game that happens, but before then, single bits of knowledge can make absolutely crazy amounts of difference in your game, right? When you start playing StarCraft II, you go through the whole campaign, and when you get into playing multiplayer, you could be playing, and not choking off the entrance to your base for example, or not scouting at all. And when you learn that “Oh, I could choke-point this!”, you've just jumped yourself five tiers in the level of players you'll be matched against. These eye-opening things will happen, and at the higher level, it's very subtle. It's little things, like “Oh, I found out that if I counter with Hellions against Marines precisely, I can get these little advantages”. But at the lower level, I think these things are a really big deal. If you have a partner you regularly play with and work on the little things, and you always look at your replays or watch other peoples' replays and see some of the tactics they use, you'd jump up. It's all about focus and time, right?

PC Gamer: So at the higher level, do you find that players adopt similar strategies with slightly divergent tactics?

Chris Sigaty: There's a tendency to do that I think, and we know we've succeeded when the meta-game is evolving and changing. If it falls into a rut, and that rut is always the answer, then we have a problem, and we need to deal with it. But what's really compelling is that right now, it doesn't feel like that. There are these great players out there that are bucking the trend and doing well. They're such compelling games to watch. A guy called Fruit Dealer, who just won the [BlizzCon] competitions, is a good example – he doesn't necessarily stick to the standards, he's just so capable. But one of my favourite players is The Little One, TLO. He just does crazy stuff. We're all like “That's just wrong! What's he doing?”. He pulls these moves out where it shows he's just really well-studied. He plays Terran, and to some extent Zerg. In fact, he was a Random player during the beta, which is really unusual; at that level, players tend to stick to a single race. He played all of them – it's hard to know how to play them all and still be studied, and to practice enough and to know each form and style.

PC Gamer: Do you see any weighting towards one race rather than another in the playerbase?

Chris Sigaty: Yeah. Right out of the gates Zerg is the least favourite. Every time some information goes out that they're the least balanced, even more people run. But Zerg is the least familiar I think. Protoss and Terran are pretty close, but in the last stats I looked at, Terran is the most popular race. I don't even think it's a balance thing. If you take the whole population that's not checked in at the super-pro level, you've played Terran in the campaign… they're human…their technology isn't alien. As far as playability goes, it's pretty easy to make the jump to Protoss because they still have a bit of basic similarity – like Barracks and Gateways. Zerg, with Larvae control, and Creep and all that… it gets a lot more complex.

PC Gamer: It seems there's more micro-management with the Zerg? Does that affect their popularity?

Chris Sigaty: I think they all have some micro-management, but they're just so different. Again, Protoss is a lot closer to Terran. You're building a Pylon with power fields, but that Pylon, actually it's still food, so it's like the supply depot. It just gets really weird when it's like “Oh, my food is a flying creature??” Zerg has always been the least popular, even in StarCraft and Brood War. And then, when someone says something about Zerg being underpowered, people run even more!

But we're trying to look at the game across all the different play-types and styles, not just at the pro level. And it's difficult, because the story is different depending on the region. For example, we're looking at the Protoss-Terran match-up right now, and the rest of the world seems to have Protoss as the overall winner. But in Korea, at the higher level, Terran is winning more frequently. We have to wait, and watch that, to find out why. Maybe it's because Korea, which is playing at a slightly higher level overall than other regions, is discovering some of the cool tactics and things you can do with Terrans. We have to wait and see whether that trend comes across the pond so to speak, to Europe and the US. If we act on anything too quickly in terms of rebalancing, we're shooting ourselves in the foot.

PC Gamer: It does seem that paradigms appear in the strategies people adopt, but sometimes things move in circles. A great example is that ridiculous Photon-Cannon rush at the start. I've won games just by trying that, then people learn to counter it; then they forget and it becomes easy to do again.

Chris Sigaty: Yeah, you can kind of resurge it once in a while by knowing that. What's interesting is that at the pro level, it's all about skill-tiers. What you're talking about is eye-opening; you could be banging your head against a wall if you're not a skilled enough player to work out that if you scout, and quickly bring all of your peons over to kill that cannon-builder, you can press on, and you can win. There's a lot of learning that you have to do. It depends on the tier of player as to how effective these things are.

We've been watching one recently, a Protoss strategy against Zerg, to go heavy Pheonix and Dark templar. You kill overlords and overseers so they can't detect the Dark Templars, and the Dark Templars come in. There's actually a very easy counter, but what's happening is, at the mid-tier, they're going “Aargh, they just came out of nowhere”. I was talking to Dust [pro player] and he says “As soon as they come up with that strategy, I know I've won”.

What I envision in my head is that you've got the diamond/platinum tier, and you've got these players coming up to it. They progress because they're surprising everybody, because nobody knows how to counter their moves in the mid-tier. But they get up to the diamond or platinum tier, and the players there are like “So what?” and they smack them down. They're kind of like waves crashing against the shore of the higher level players.

The top guys aren't going to get caught off-guard by these strategies. They're just so aware. Did you watch the Boxer/Fruit Dealer match last night? It was awesome. Fruit Dealer always fast-expands with Zerg, and he expanded to a second hatchery; Boxer walled him off and stopped him from getting to his own expansion with bunkers. He basically caused him to cancel the expansion. And that's it, he won. That whole micro-management game happens with the pros. Fruit Dealer got really ballsy and expanded out to the gold mineral-expansion, very close to Boxer's base, and wasn't aware of it. Anyway, bottom line, it was just crazy play. They still catch each other off-guard, but not with those simple tactics. When you can do it with those simple tactics that are kind of cheesy, it's not going to work; you're going to hit the wall of players that are just too aware.

PC Gamer: Would you say there's a difference in thought process between amateur and pro players?

Chris Sigaty: Yeah, absolutely. The thing is when you're playing at that level, you really understand the unit countering. So you know, a platinum or diamond player, they really understand that at its core, this unit counters this unit. It's all knowledge. They're so much more familiar with which units work in what cases.

When I was talking about TLO… these guys are experimenting in ways that others aren't. They catch people off-guard, and not because it's a cheesy tactic, it's just different, and we haven't seen it, and they're thinking “I'm pretty sure this wins”. I watched this match between TLO and Nada – he's one of the fastest players, he's got like 300APM or higher. Very quick, very good player. He was going for a more standard Terran build, which is Marines, to Factory, to Siege tanks, and usually up to Vikings. So TLO's just running Hellions, and bang – out comes a Thor. It's like, “What is he doing ?!” You could see Nada, this very high-level player, and he's twitching. So in come the Hellions, knock out the Marines real quick, then they get out of the range of the Siege Tanks. Then the Thor comes in, and absorbs the tank-fire. Then the tanks start to siege, and the Hellions shoot back in, close the distance and get up really close really quickly… it was just brilliant play, and it was because it was unexpected. I'm really excited about what we're seeing at the moment.

PC Gamer: It is funny, seeing it from an amateur's perspective. It's not about spending your resources building up a big force, it's about constant moves and counters…

Chris Sigaty: Oh, totally. You have to be always poking each other. If you're not, you're screwing up for sure, because the other guy's going to poke in on you. So you have to make sure you're always aware of what he's doing. You do have to constantly counter, but you have to go in a direction the other guy may not expect. I've kind of got past my admiration of the physicality of it. That was the thing, it's like “My god, look at how quick they're moving”. I still think that's amazing, but now I'm thinking about how quickly they change strategy, and counter, in their minds. It's phenomenal. I was watching Nada play Brood War. And his actions per minute… he'd pop over the screen for a second, give a couple of commands, then pop over to this section… now this is hypothetical, but I almost think that in their minds, it's like a picture-in-picture mode, where they're looking at six stations at once. And they going to skip over to this station and act on it for a moment, but they're kind of seeing it all at once. I mean hey, it may not be real but… wow.

PC Gamer: It has to take a feat of abstract thinking to be able to work on that level…

Chris Sigaty: Yeah absolutely. It's crazy. It's so fun to watch though, because I can at least appreciate what they're doing at that level. I think one of the bridges to overcome is getting people in early enough, to understand how people play at this level. It's awe-inspiring to me as a professional – it's like hearing a very accomplished musician, who's spent thousands of hours doing this thing. The tendency is for people to think 'well, they're throwing their lives away…”, like they're not doing something worthwhile. From the layman's perspective, from a Mom-and-Dad perspective. It's like the rock-star thing. If you do it and you get famous, Mom and Dad are okay with it, but all the while before, they're like “What are you doing?”

PC Gamer: So you must be very proud of the success the game has had? Three million sales worldwide?

Chris Sigaty: Oh yeah. And I think we're in a much better place than we were. You know, I worked on WarCraft III, and Reign of Chaos, and Frozen Throne, and the original StarCraft. After launching Reign of Chaos, we just weren't in a position to properly support the game, we just had to get on with Frozen Throne, and we paid a pretty hefty price for how much crunching we did. We worked really hard on StarCraft II as well, but we've released a pretty good patch already, we have another one coming soon, we're adding chat channels, we have customisable hotkeys on the way… we've got a lot of features we're going to roll up, to keep the community happy, and improve the game like we want it to improve. We're in a much better position to do that, and move on to Heart of The Swarm as well.

Heart of the Swarm continues the story, and really, it's going to answer all those questions people have about the final scene, with Raynor walking away. We don't have a date, but it's going to be the Zerg portion of the story. It'll also address multiplayer in a big way. It'll make changes to all three races for sure.