BlizzCon ’11: Starcraft II Interview
We uncover what’s breeding in the Heart of the Swarm
It’s nearly the end of the the first day of Blizzcon 2011, and I’m sitting across from Alan Dabiri, Lead Software Engineer on Starcraft II. As I’m his last scheduled interview for the day, he’s more than happy to kick back and chat about Blizzard’s latest expansion for the Starcraft franchise, Heart of the Swarm.
Starcraft II Wings of Liberty introduced the Terran campaign, and Heart of the Swarm will now focus on the Zerg. From a story point of view, can you tell us where things pick up from?
Basically, Kerrigan has been ‘de-zergified’, and with Heart of the Swarm we’re going to start with this episode of the story where you now see her trying to reclaim her rightful place as the controller of the swarm, and really reunite the various factions of the zerg swarm
You left us with quite a cliff-hanger at the end of Wings of Liberty – aside from Kerrigan, do any of the characters from Wings of Liberty appear in the next instalment?
From the trailer that you’ve seen you definitely know there are a few of them that show up, but there are some surprises coming your way
Players get to revisit the world of Char and also the freezing planet of Kaldir – what other environments have the Zerg travelled to?
There’s a whole bunch of stuff that we’ve yet to reveal, but one of the mechanics that we have in the game is that playing as Kerrigan, you get to travel to different planets as part of the mechanic of the single player campaign, which is different from Wings of Liberty where you spent most of your time on the bridge of the Hyperion, so you’re definitely be seeing more of the other worlds.
Have you tweaked your graphics engine in any way to better render some of the harsh environments the Zerg inhabit as well as their character models?
We’ve done some changes to our graphics engine for sure, and we’ve spruced up the Zerg a little bit; for example the creep can now crawl up buildings, and also doing some new effects on some of the units.
Can you tell us about the “battle focus” feature that Kerrigan sports?
Since Kerrigan is really the key focus of this story, we wanted to make her be able to play on all the missions. In Wings of Liberty we had Raynor, we had Tykus, who were on some of the missions, but at the end of the day they’re human and fragile. Kerrigan is this force to be reckoned with, and she can go around and basically conquer galaxies. We wanted to make her a key focus and also allow gamers to upgrade her abilities, so as you play through the missions you’ll unlock different kits that have difference ‘focuses’ for her powers. One focus might boost your attack, while another might focus on another of her powers, so you’ll be able to select which focus you’d like to use for each particular mission.
Another interesting feature is the ability to mutate the Swarm as you see fit – can you talk more about this?
In the same way that Kerrigan can evolve over the course of the game, so can the Zerg. They have this cool part of the story where essentially they are going through the universe and assimilating different life forms and adapting to them, so one of the things you do through the campaign is to evolve your own army. You’ll be able to add enhancements to your own units through new abilities or upgrades, which ends with an ‘evolution split’ where you can evolve your unit into different kind of things. For example one that we’ve shown with the Zergling, you can convert them into Swarmlings or Raptorlings that can jump upon the enemy.
Can you touch upon some of the multiplayer changes to the game that you’ve revealed here at Blizzcon?
We took a look at Wings of Liberty and tried to see what areas there might be where we can add a new unit or change a mechanic that would benefit the game as a whole. We didn’t want to just add something for the sake of adding things, but some of the cool things we’ve got is a new unit on the Protoss side called the Replicant, which can essentially copy any non-massive unit, so there’s all kinds of strategies that can come from that. There’s still a lot of stuff in development that we’re checking to see if it will work in the final game or not, so stay tuned!
SC II has spawned a number of user mods that have completely changed the game, and subsequently led to four official mods being available to players. What do you think drives gamers to bend the rules of what would otherwise by a traditional RTS, and craft it into something completely new?
That’s a good question – there’s a drive for creativity from everyone, and I think the fact that people can now fairly easily create something and have people immediately see it, use it, and react to it is incredibly satisfying. It’s something that has been in our games for a while, and we’ve supported this concept of user content for a long time. It took on a life of its own with Warcraft III where it spawned entire new game types with DoTA style games, and we’ve taken it to a whole new level in Starcraft II where we’re providing more support, letting you publish your map to Battle.net, and really just expressing your creativity however you want to.
Touching up on DoTA, how is Blizzard DoTA coming along?
It’s coming along great actually!
And coming soonish?
[Laughs] Yes, coming soonish – we showed it last year and it was great and a lot of fun, but we went back to the office and thought ‘what can we do to make it even more fun?’ Since DoTA came from Warcraft III, we just didn’t want to do the exact same thing, so we looked at simplifying things a bit, added new elements like the control points, so right now it’s in a fun playable state. It’s funny because back at the office we have set play times to test DoTA, and we always go over the time limits because we always end up having so much fun – nobody wants to stop!
What kind of feedback have you been hearing from gamers who’ve given Heart of the Swarm a go?
The response has been phenomenal – yesterday we showed it to some of the pro gamers and today I spoke to some of the fans, and it’s been very positive. Even in the opening ceremony when we showed a few new units, there was this roar from the crowd, so anything new that’s being shown has always had a great response.
And out of everything that you’re bringing when Heart of the Swarm releases, what’s your favourite unit or feature?
That’s hard to decide! On the campaign side, I love that Kerrigan is this powerhouse who can go around and dominate the missions. For multiplayer, I love the Replicant unit and also the fact that Baneling units can move while burrowed – beyond that I’m just waiting to see the cool custom maps that people create that may have nothing to do with Starcraft, but they’re fun games and expand the reach of the game.