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Shooting For The Stars: Blizzard's Sigaty On Developing StarCraft II

Gamasutra recently sat down with Blizzard's StarCraft II's lead producer Chris Sigaty, and with him delved into the practices and pressures that have lead to the PC RTS, shipping its first chapter in 2010.

To call Blizzard's upcoming PC real-time strategy game StarCraft II "anticipated" would be a bit of understatement. The game's release, over a decade after its wildly successful predecessor, begins next year with the debut of a base game, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, focusing on the Terran faction, followed by two expansion sets featuring the Protoss and Zerg.

Blizzard has demonstrated its customary exactitude in carefully preparing the game and its infrastructure to go out the door. This most recently manifested itself in a delay, thanks to stated difficulties getting the next generation of the Battle.net service up and running concurrently with the game's launch.

Of course, that tech shift alone isn't even taking into account Blizzard's atypical polish-focused and lengthy development process.

To find out more about the story behind StarCraft II, Gamasutra recently sat down with the game's lead producer Chris Sigaty, and with him delved into the practices and pressures that have led to the game that will ship its first chapter in 2010.

You're the lead producer. When the game has been in development for this long, and the team is, I assume, quite large, how do you manage all that?

Chris Sigaty: The best way to summarize it is "project manager." My overall responsibility is to make sure the project is driving forward. That can be communication with other teams -- we have a lot more than just our team working on this.

We have a Battle.net team that's working with Battle.net, wehave cinematics, we've got audio, we've got platform technologies; [we're] trying to tie up those pieces and be the communication between all that, setting the schedule. We have to identify roadblocks and problems that are coming up in the future, to ensure we have a clear picture of where we're heading.

Has the scope changed at all as the project has grown and spent longer and longer in development? It's been a while.

CS: Ages. Yeah. It's changed a lot. I would say one of the biggest [changes] was how we set about what we wanted to do. It was really up in the air in the beginning. We said, "Okay, we definitely want to do StarCraft II. We're going to do it. Well, what's it going to be?"

In the multiplayer game,we were pretty confident out of the gate. We talked a lot. We wanted it to hearken [back] to the original. We wanted people to feel a sense of nostalgia when they got in there and played it. But I think that was it.

The other two things that we identified [were] single-player -- we want to step out from where we've been with WarCraft III and StarCraft before it -- and then online and the online experience. We wanted to throw out a lot of [Battle.net].

So that's what we said, but what we meant, we didn't know. A lot of what has taken so much time for us is figuring out what exactly that is. The other thing that all throughout that really did have an impact was that World of Warcraft came about. The team was working hard on it while we were working on WarCraft III and [expansion pack] The Frozen Throne.

After those shipped, there was so much to do. We wanted to launch the game. It affected our team. There was a pretty significant impact on our team. I was pulled off the project for multiple months. Our entire art staff was. But we've always been that way. Blizzard has thrown our forces around as necessary for projects.

I would say really what you're talking about is the length of time we've had really figuring out what it is. Even this last year, even though we knew a lot more about what story mode is, we're still figuring out little details. Even as you guys are looking at it now, we're still changing things and tweaking. The last year has been really fruitful in us figuring [it out]: mercenary mechanics, tech purchases, research, how many items are highlightable, that sort of stuff. It's really come together over the last year.

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We were watching a demo downstairs, and [lead designer] Dustin [Browder] was saying that even at this point, you're still weighing how the persistent quest mechanic will work.

CS: It's crazy to be showing you guys, with that being the case.

How do you afford to still have those kind of decisions not fully made? [N.B. At the time this interview was conducted, StarCraft II had not yet been officially delayed into 2010.]

CS: How do we afford not to? The bottom line is we got feedback on it, and people were very confused by it. We recently did a pretty big development-wide feedback session, where we sent out builds to a bunch of the development teams to play and give us feedback. That was one of the areas where we got a lot of [feedback like], "Well, I'm not really clear what this research is. Is this just information? Am I supposed to click stuff?"

We're doing a bunch of reaction to that right now. We've done some of it already. Mercenaries are much more unified with the look and feel of tech purchases. Research has not had that pass; we're doing that right now, [with the player] feeling more of a sense of choice rather than just getting information. So, I don't know how we can afford to do it, but we need to do it because that's our own internal feedback.


What you said about World of Warcraft and the Blizzard process is interesting. I've been playing Blizzard games since Orcs & Humans, and I feel there's been some historical revisionism in terms of how frequently people think Blizzard used to release games. There used to be a Blizzard release just about every year. Now, it's been 2003 since there was a non-World of Warcraft game. Does that feel strange?

CS: Definitely. It's definitely strange. Part of the problem is that we're just extremely ambitious with what we want to do. Certainly the complexity of games has grown enormously, even looking at the time for WarCraft III. We announced WarCraft III I think in late '99, if not early 2000, and we released it in 2002. I was thinking, "Oh god, that was so long."

And then here I am, horrified at when we announced this, and finally we'll get it out at some point. It's definitely a change and not something that we aim to do. We're not trying to make them take longer, but just figuring out the details, getting the appropriate resources, and looking at it at the right time is all just a giant challenge. It's something we're up against all the time. I think we are our biggest critics and have the most ambitious plans for everything. We start out massive, and we make a statement to ourselves. Then we go, "Okay, that's great. What does that mean?"

Speaking of Battle.net, that's been a Blizzard fixture for over a decade now. But ever since World of Warcraft, there have been no new Battle.net games, and WoW's online service is paid. Will Battle.net have a paid system as well?

CS: We're not talking a lot about Battle.net today, but you can expect Battle.net... People [who] buy the box will have a similar experience out of the box. Free online play, yeah. That's connected. What we're doing with that is a lot more ambitious, though, and what that means is a lot more things than what you've seen in the past. That stuff we'll get into later, but yes, people can expect a free service.

I would imagine that post-World of Warcraft, where there's guaranteed revenue per user per month, going to a straight boxed product would seem, from a business standpoint, a little bit of a step down.

CS: Well, again, there aren't any other... As far as basic core play, it's definitely there. I have no ideas beyond that what Battle.net will entail. But honestly, if we can get people connected and playing the game...

Sure, you're right, World of Warcraft is a massive subscription-based game, but that wasn't really our aim with this. It just wasn't working into the plan with this specifically. Battle.net is a different beast. We look at it differently with regards to StarCraft II.

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How much do you look to the pro gamer community in terms of its effect on StarCraft II's design? Does it meaningfully affect the way you design the game, while bearing in mind that most people playing this thing obviously aren't pros?

CS: It does, and it's a really tough tightrope walk, a balancing act, to get both parties. I think we've got the hardcore pro gamer side better accounted for. We just need to be aware of the new player, because we definitely anticipate having a group of people who come from World of Warcraft, who have played World of Warcraft and are gamers now, and want to try this new Blizzard game.

It's an RTS. It's a different beast. RTSes can be pretty complex, especially at the beginning. But once you cross over the hump, instinct starts stepping in.

We're trying to be conscious of both groups and make sure we cater to both. There's a ton of things we've thrown in there to try and really help the pro gamer community. Replays have a bunch of new features. We've got leaderboards in there that really let you see what's going on with all the players involved in the game. There are a bunch of command and control things we've tried to do to really help pro gamers. We've also had the pro gamers and some of the websites bring up concerns that we're maybe helping the new players too much -- things like unlimited [unit] selection have been areas that people keep debating about.

It's a balancing act, but we've found that for the most part, the decisions that we're making turned out to be okay. It was hotly debated on our team, for example, the unlimited [unit] selection. We made the choice, and people were like, "Oh god, I can't believe it." Now, we've had some really good players on our team go back and play classic StarCraft and go, "Oh god, I cant believe we ever had that."

[laughs] It's amazing how that works.

CS: It's still true, though. The best players still group their units in smaller groups and control them so they can micro them when they want to. It's not the negative thing that it was debated it would be on paper.


In practice you've also bumped up the interface to make it more intuitive as well, with the visual group icons.

CS: Yeah, exactly. Then on the other side of the fence, we've tried to do things to intro the game in a way we just didn't consider in the past. We have forced tutorials. I mean, they're forced in that you can still click them away if you don't want to look at them. In easy and normal mode in single-player, we pop up tutorials and talk about how you drag and select units, how you move them. We have ramping in there. We have a new tip system; that's a lot more than what we did in WarCraft III, for example.

We're really trying to allow a player who comes in to be able to step in and experience both single- and multiplayer. That's another thing. There are things that we won't go into today, but we'll talk a little bit more about Battle.net when we start talking about that in earnest -- things to help the new player. The old experience of playing through single-player, getting online, getting your ass handed to you,and then saying "I don't want to play anymore" is not something we're after. We want to have more friendly experiences for new players.

How much do you look at what else is on the market? It's a very different game in most respects, but I've really enjoyed Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II from Relic this year, and there are some similar mechanics in terms of the leveling and skill structure in a single-player RTS. I doubt there's any actual copying going on, but it's interesting that two respected strategy studios ended up with that.

CS: Well, the tech purchase thing has been around in our design for a very long time, but we're definitely aware and cognizant of other RTSes. We've got a bunch of people on our team who are big RTS fans, so we play a lot of those games. We play a lot of games in general. We go through these cycles where certain games kind of catch fire.

Team Fortress 2 is a game that's been played a lot. We have a bunch of games right now. Left 4 Dead has been huge on the team. It's been sort of our crunch break game. At dinner, a lot of the artists go and play Left 4 Dead.

But RTS is something we pay great attention to. I can't specifically say that there's any that inspired specifically the things we're doing. We kind of just arrived at these things, and I'm sure other companies have done the same thing.

Parallel evolution.

CS: Yeah. Honestly, tech purchase was one of the few we knew early, and now we've arrived at this new stuff, the research and mercenary stuff. But it's just been an evolution. Hopefully that answers your question. We certainly do play a lot. Dustin comes from another RTS team.

He was on Command & Conquer, right?

CS: Yeah. He originally worked at [Electronic Arts LA], and he even worked on that before at Activision, years and years before that. He's been on RTS for a while and worked on Command & Conquer [Red Alert] 2, I believe. [Command & Conquer:] Generals, too. And The Lord of the Rings [Battle for Middle-Earth].

So, he has a lot of experience with that. He's very connected. He's still got a lot of friends who work in the industry. In general, we've got a bunch of RTS fanatics on our team.

starcraft2_shot4.jpg

Going beyond RTS in particular, what are your thoughts on the PC market these days? Frequently when the PC question comes up, people say, "Well, look at Blizzard. Look at Valve. Those guys are busting down the doors." And that's true, but when you remove you and you remove Valve, maybe the situation is less amazing, and I'm wondering if that concerns you long term.

CS: You know [laughs], I just read -- maybe it was today -- Intel's reports that blew everybody out of the water with what things are happening on the PC. But I'm not a business guy from that sense. We are developing on PC specifically because the user interface and the things you can do are right for our games. We have not found yet the right UI to go to console or that sort of thing.

Personally I think that the PC market is very viable and will continue to be so, especially with successful titles pushing it that way. But also, I just don't think we've gotten to the point where you can do it all from your TV -- there are all sorts of things that people do [on a PC], and having the games there is really convenient. Things like Steam make me believe that it's going to continue that way.

But I can't tell the future. I honestly don't know. I think that it looks like, if anything, there may have been a bump in the road, and we're spiking out of it. We'll see what happens. Hopefully, I'm not the guy that they're quoting for some financial report somewhere. [laughs]

Right. As a PC player, I'm always just curious to poll developers on this, because there are a lot of opinions.

CS: Yeah, yeah. I see it all the time. It's certainly something that has been argued forever -- the sofa chair gamer now just kicking back and wanting the Xbox. But there are just things that PC brings to the table that makes the value, to me, higher there. I don't know what the future holds, but certainly we're gambling on it.


Speaking of Dustin, I think he was recently commenting how every time you guys add a new unit to a race in multiplayer, you take an old one away. That's a clever principle, but also very different from the complexity creep of most strategy series.

CS: We definitely are [doing that]. Playing StarCraft II right now, we are very full. We have done exactly that. It has been an internal directive. It wasn't necessarily mandated, but it was something that we realized.

As you go and play through the game, you really start to become overwhelmed. The number of paths you can take and have it be meaningful to you, once you get beyond a number -- right about now we are between 15 and 30 units -- it starts to get to the point where you just never explore that way. It's too different and weird.

It's too much, yeah. It becomes overwhelming. And even for a good gamer, you can't get that chess feel where you feel like you can recognize anything at a glance, that sort of thing. So we've embraced keeping the numbers pretty low,and that has been conscious. We've always done an expansion that introduces acouple of units on each side, but I can say we're pretty plum full right now.

We don't know. We're going to keep exploring, but its definitely true, what Dustin said. We have consciously pulled away. And that, of course, has been a giant battle the whole time, because every unit has a particular person who's the biggest fan of that unit, so as we yank something from the original, it's like, "You can't do that! That ruins everything!" It's been interesting for sure.

Some time before Spore came out, I was talking to Soren Johnson, who did the strategy bit of that game and also designed Civilization IV. Civ IV is a truly amazing game in terms of what it can portray, but he was saying how, despite that, it does end up being so much more complex than Civ 1 that you've actually sort of changed the identity of what the series is. That can be dangerous, but on the other hand, how do you avoid not seeming like you've evolved enough in ten years?

CS: That's been big. We certainly hear that from some players. It's like,"Where's the new spin? When are you going to do the big gimmick that you're going to pull out of your pocket?" We really consciously made the decision that we weren't.

We feel StarCraft, the original StarCraft, has a particular magic, and we really wanted to latch onto that. That is core to it. That's one of the reasons we have felt the numbers have to stay right. It's got benefits both ways. You've got the benefit of the new players coming. It still grows forever. That was one of our core philosophies: Easy to learn, difficult to master. Even with the original game, you still had that, and that about 11 or 12 units per side, up to 13 or 14 with the expansion. We're at those levels right now in [StarCraft II].

The interesting thing is that it does help for the new player -- not letting it get too crazy and out of control -- but also the pro gamer. There's still plenty of [room] where you can go and perfect whatever strategy, even with just those numbers. If we went further, it would at some point, I believe, detract from the ability to be that ultra-competitive. It's just a more balanced way to play the game and proveyour strategies against one another. So, not only does [excess complexity] hurt the new player, it can hurt the pro gamer.

starcraft2_shot3.jpg

A co-host on a podcast I do was telling me about this person he knows who's a competitive StarCraft player, and how ten years on, there are still new strategies emerging you have to adapt to.

CS: It's over ten years now. That's the thing I love. This is true with War III, too. Some strat comes out, and everybody's like, "Oh God, this is the most powerful thing. The whole game is ruined." Then some guy come out the next week and just crushes that strat. I love watching that evolution. It's really cool to see that happen.

Part of that is you guys too. A common line is that Blizzard releases these immaculately-balanced games, but I think that's less the case than Blizzard's willingness to constantly rebalance and repatch, even years later. It's not a matter of getting it perfect right out of the gate.

CS: We're by no means perfect. We find things that are abusive, and people find things too. We know that right now in StarCraft II, there are some shitstorms of balance waiting [laughs].

There are some things in there... Dustin can shout out a couple off the top of his head. Right now -- and this is true today but it's changing all the time -- Terrans can salvage buildings for 100 percent cost. We know there are some abusive bunker pushes and that sort of thing that are just going to be absolutely owning as we get into beta.

The thing we're going to be fighting against when we get into beta, and this will be where people initially go to feel safe, is going to be using StarCraft I-like tactics -- Marine rushes or Zergling rushes or whatever, staying with the core initial units. The crazy shit is going to come from some of the new units out there that have all sorts of new abilities that people are going to find interesting ways to use.

But you're right. We patch. We pay attention to it. It's important to us that the game continues to settle and grow and has that ability to come back to being able to do one-ups that still somebody can find a counter to. Yeah, I think that's totally accurate to say. It's not out of the box. It just takes us time working together with the community to really get it to the point where it can have ten years or eleven years or longer of life.

That kind of shelf life is, basically, unheard of in video games. You can still walk into a store and pick up the StarCraft Battle Chest or the Diablo Battle Chest.

CS: It's crazy. It's certainly not something we set out, like, "Here it is. Here's the chart. StarCraft will launch in '98, and in 2008, we'll do this." We're just fans of it, especially the community. I think e-sports, the fact that it came into professional gaming, was part of that. You can watch it and see that it's really exciting, seeing these guys do things that there was no way we could have anticipated. And they're using the UI in away where I'm always thinking, "Oh my God, how is this not crashing?" Then, we end up being impressed and enjoying it and wanting to support it and help it do better.


On the topic of UI, you went with a system where the shortcuts are based on the initial letter of the action, rather than a grid system where you don't have to move your hand on the keyboard. Why?

CS: Well, it's been what we've done [in past games], so that's the main thing. Whether we would do this for launch is still up in the air, or whether we'd do it for an expansion, but we're talking about other ways of customization. We did something in WarCraft III where we exposed that through a text file,and you had to be really hardcore if you wanted to do it.

I didn't even know you could.

CS: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] So, we would like at some point to release a methodw here people can change things that way. We've stayed away from the grid, [but] if we go this route to a lot of customizability, we would probably allow you to switch between a couple of standards, and one might be that direction.

One thing that's happened to WarCraft III more than any other Blizzard game is the success of mods. One big different between Blizzard and Valve, another big notorious PC game company, is the approach to mods. Valve would have probably bought [successful mod Defense of the Ancients], hired the DOTA team, and kept developing it. Blizzard usually has more of a hands-off approach. Are you looking to change that at all?

CS: It's certainly something we've been very aware of. We talked to some of the DOTA guys. We think DOTA is amazing. It's phenomenal. Our big problem has always been bandwidth. Even to bring a team in and have them workon something and launch it, it's something that we have to ensure we really have the time to support, so it hasn't been something we've done yet.

Would we change that in the future? It's certainly something we'd consider for sure. Like I said, DOTA is phenomenal. It's a great game. People are playing it all over the place. We're really excited to see it. We're really excited to see that people can do that out of this game that was WarCraft III. I would go as far as saying it's inspired all sorts of games now that are standalone products.

There are now several games either explicitly or implicitly claiming to be the successor to DOTA.

CS: Yeah, exactly. We're certainly aware of that. We love it. It's a bandwidth thing. In the future, sure, we would consider it. We're not changing our business model, but we're definitely aware of it. We're doing things even in StarCraft II to make sure that embracing people who catch on to good ideas wouldn'tbe as difficult as in WarCraft III, for example.

By that, are you talking about the extensibility of mod tools? Are you talking about highlighting community mods?

CS: Extensibility of mod tools. We've done a lot of things in the editor. Oneof the things that we've done that's pretty cool is that the score screen that you see in the game is completely customized. It's passed up to Battle.net and validated, and then it comes back down and is delivered to you. So already, if someone wanted to make DOTA, as an example, in StarCraft II, you could have a totally customized score screen that does the things that were specific to that mod. The tool itself is much more powerful than even the WarCraft III editor, so we're really excited to see what the end user community can do with it.

That power has come...at a price? Er, with great responsibility -- no. [laughs]

Well, we have a pretty complex tool, and so accessibility is something we're dealing with right now. We want to allow for a guy just going in to play around for the first time and make a map. He can do that and go into the data editor and not be completely overwhelmed. We're making sure we aren't just catering to the absolutely most advanced people who are going to write something that does your laundry and dishes when you're not playing the game.

What about the expansion packs? How far along are you in figuring out what they are?

CS: We're definitely having conversations at this point about what these things are. We know the overarching story. We have certain points we know, but there are a lot of details to figure out. We expect everything to be different whenyou play through the Zerg story and when you play through the Protoss, so you're not going to be mercenaries, and you're not going to be buying tech in that sense. So now what is it?

So the actual mechanics themselves will change?

CS: The mechanics for single-player are certainly going to change. What we're doing with multiplayer, we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of, so allthose things we're just starting to move into discussions about now. I really don't expect us to get into any action on it until we actually ship the game.

So it may be several years until all of StarCraft II is completed?

CS: Yes.

Okay.

CS: That's a fair statement.

It's been said you're looking to run a four- to six-month beta period. Is that still the plan?

CS: Well, I would say that we're looking for a three- to four-month beta period, but we're not going to ship the game until it's ready, is the bottomline. We're trying to get the beta out as quickly as we can. We're really excited about where it is from amultiplayer standpoint. I don't know what it means other than we won't ship it until it's ready.

Like I was telling you before about why those [development times] are high, we've taken similar times in the past. During at least the first month certainly, people are just going to be doing tactics that we kind of expected -- marines, Zergling, and that stuff. We really need to get past that hump to the point where people are starting to do some crazy stuff before we even see the things we want to see from a balance perspective.

So, yeah, three to four months is accurate. And again, we're doing everything we can to get it out as soon as possible and get people onto this new online experience, to see it and be a part of it. That's what we're working really hard on right now.

Any idea when that will start?

CS: No. I don't know when it's ready. That's the best I can say now. I know we were saying other things before, but that's what I can say now.

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