The lights are on
“Outstanding. A truly elite title that is nearly perfect in every way.” That’s how the GI review scale describes a game that receives a 10, and it’s also a description that I think fits quite comfortably with StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. But a game of this level of quality doesn’t happen out of nowhere. It takes years of hard work, dozens (if not hundreds) of lengthy meetings and debates, and a truly talented and passionate team. To get an inside look at how StarCraft II was created, we talked with lead designer Dustin Browder.
Read the full interview below to discover what influences the team had in their design decisions, why they weren’t interested in bringing wild changes to multiplayer, and some early hints and what we can expect from the next game in the StarCraft II trilogy, Heart of the Swarm.
Any game that Blizzard does has a high level of anticipation going among gamers, but I think in StarCraft II’s case, the hype and excitement around it reached crazy proportions. It’s a sequel to a game people have been waiting over 10 years for, and the original is on a lot of best of all time lists. It was number 35 on our top 200 games of all time. How did you approach dealing with the clearly high level of expectations out there and the amount of stress that brings to the process of creating the game?
There was a lot of fear obviously, because we know that we have a lot of responsibility to hearken to the legacy of this game and to do it justice, to be worthy of the name StarCraft II. We just knew that expectations were really high. We tried to be aware of that, but I think at some point we just put our heads down and just tried to focus on the game as it was and make the best game we knew how to make. We hoped that we could come up to that standard at the end of the day.
Throughout the development process, from when we first started working on it until the last bit, there was a lot of concern that maybe we wouldn’t hit that quality level. It’s so important for the fans and us, as fans ourselves, to walk away from this and know that we did a good job. So we ultimately put our heads down at some point and said, “Look, we’ve got to make the best game we know how to make.” We had to not worry too much about the fear and just focus on quality.
Did you ever have those moments of panic, though? Like, it’s the middle of the project, and suddenly you realize, “Oh my god, I’m making StarCraft II.”
Constantly. And I’ve got to tell you, it got worse as we got closer to the end. We were getting more and more positive feedback from the beta and positive feedback from people internally. Even people internally who’d been skeptical for quite a while started turning and saying, “No, I think you’re good. I think this is going to be fine. I think you’re doing a really great job.” But as we got closer to the end, we lost more control. The game is mostly done. There’s not much you can do in the last month-and-a-half except fix the bugs. As we got closer to the end and more unable to change things, I know my personal level of terror skyrocketed.
Even on launch night, I’m smiling and happy and excited that we’re done, but we’re about to put it in the hands of the consumer. Our baby is going out there, and there’s nothing we can do for it now. Either our baby is prepared or it’s not. That first couple of weeks when the reviews were coming out was truly terrifying, just to see what the response was from the community and the critics. It’s definitely exciting times.
One of the most interesting choices in the game from my point of view is the between-mission segments in the ship where you can click on different items and talk to characters and learn additional information. Many players have mentioned how this recalls the Wing Commander games, and it even reminded me a little bit of the Mass Effect series. What inspirations were you drawing on when you came up with these segments, and why did you feel that they were necessary for the game?
Certainly Wing Commander is one that was talked about frequently in the studio when we first started this project. I don’t think Mass Effect was even out yet when we started creating this, so that wasn’t a reference we could use, but it was one we could use later on.
We’d always had these elaborate briefings in StarCraft. Then there were cutscenes using the engine in Warcraft III. The team had always wanted a chance to do more with story. We knew that for StarCraft, we really needed to find places to innovate with the game, and we knew that solo play was an opportunity to do something a little bit new. We wanted to give players some choices, some options, some gameplay that hadn’t existed in our titles before.
I know Wing Commander was one that was definitely talked about because it was such a story-heavy game. We’ve always been story-centric with our RTS games ever since StarCraft. A little bit in Warcraft II, but especially since StarCraft, story has always been really essential to these experiences. It was an idea that was already here when I started at Blizzard. I know Rob Pardo and Chris Metzen had been talking about that for several years; I’m sure there were many people around the studio that had already been talking about this kind of Wing Commander approach. Obviously we had lots of directions we were taking it before we settled down on exactly what we ended up with.
I think what we’re hoping to do is try to bring the clunky story-telling tools that we had from Starcraft and Brood War and Warcraft III and try to bring them into the 21st century and really push the story and give players opportunities to experience it in new ways that aren’t just more cutscenes. We wanted players to have some kinds of choices about what they wanted to do. I think ultimately, we would have liked to have done more choices, but I think we’re pretty happy with the kinds of choices we provided players.