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Blizzard's Mike Morhaime on the future of StarCraft 2 eSports, Heart of the Swarm, and community concerns

Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime in the audience at IPL5. (Image credit: Oliver Yu, courtesy of IPL)

As president and CEO of Blizzard, Mike Morhaime underlines Blizzard’s commitment to StarCraft and its thriving pro community every time he appears at a tournament. It’s an increasingly important message to send: during the autumn, the StarCraft community seemed to be getting morose about its own future, and Blizzard’s ability to help it grow. Since then, Blizzard have been pushing back and trying to reassure the community that not only will Heart of the Swarm be a strong expansion, but that Blizzard hear and understand the the community’s concerns. With Morhaime in the audience, they can hardly miss it.

Morhaime and I spoke during IPL5, a few hours before the GSL Final, and he explained how Blizzard are doing more than putting out an expansion. They’re trying to play more of a leadership role within StarCraft eSports, working with tournament organizers and the StarCraft community to ensure the sport continues to grow while the game continues to improve.

Rob Zacny: What's Blizzard approach going to be to StarCraft 2 in 2013 - particularly the eSports scene - what's going to be different?

Mike Morhaime: I don't have any announcements to make. I can tell you what our general philosophy will be. We're spending an awful lot of time right now talking to our partners to talk about how we can improve StarCraft 2 eSports next year. With the release of Heart of the Swarm next year we've announced a release date, March 12th, we think that's going to be a big opportunity to improve things. I think a lot of people will be paying attention: it's a fantastic expansion. There are definitely certain things about the way StarCraft 2 tournament scene is developing that we can help to improve.

For one, there are a lot of tournaments - and IPL's a great example - it's a really high quality tournament, there's so much going on… but I think that when you're following a sport, you need to have some structure around this to make sense. You can't have the grand finals, grand championship every week - not everyone's playing… what does it all mean, what is it building up to… We're meeting with everybody, and thinking about what we can do to improve things… We recognize that Blizzard is in a position where we need to take a leadership role in helping to accomplish that. We want to do so in partnership with all of our very good partners that are doing really good quality stuff.

RZ: When it comes to playing that leadership role - what are your action items?

MM: For one - trying to come up with a schedule in advance - so we can try and avoid some of these conflicts that have occurred where some of the top players haven't been able to participate in tournaments that a spectator would have expected them to be there. You expect certain players to be at certain events for winning that event to mean something.

RZ: I wanted to talk a little bit about the Heart of the Swarm development process. It's had an incredibly lengthy beta - what's that experience been like - does developing in public warp the design at all?

MM: We have to recognize that there's a pro-scene - people are playing Wings of Liberty right now - there is a whole ecosystem around that. We don't want to develop changes in a vacuum and then spring them upon the entire ecosystem. You can't do that. You have to make sure that the changes that we're making - players and pros - all have a chance to understand those changes , adapt to those changes. And we have to be able to test those changes and whether or not there are unintended side effects that may affect balance. I think it's necessary that we do this in public in partnership with the community. We're getting fantastic feedback from the community and the pros.

RZ: There was a lot of anxiety in the community these last couple months about the future of StarCraft, particularly after Destiny’s comments on Reddit. One issue he raised was that StarCraft doesn't speak to more casual players. How are you going to go about expanding the audience of Heart of the Swarm?

MM: There are a number of features we've been working on - and were working on before the Destiny post. We want to make the game more accessible to players that aren't necessarily ready to jump into a highly competitive scene. A lot of people do feel intimidated, at least at first, in playing in ranked play. Unranked matches are a big step in that direction. But, even before that, a lot of players never make the transition from the campaign to matchmaking - to playing against people they don't know.

There's a really nice feature we're adding in Heart of the Swarm which is a training area where you can basically play against the computer and the computer gives you tips on what you should be doing. It gradually gets harder. When you have completed the training program, you get unranked matched against the AI.

RZ: It sounds like the old Chessmaster games, where it would tutor you.

MM: I haven't played those, but yes, it sounds similar.

RZ: It's observing what you do and be able to identify weaknesses in your game?

MM: [No.] This is a little bit more scripted. It scripts out some basic builds for you so you know, you're not building, willy nilly. It gives you more of a safe build to start with. It's there to make people more familiar with the tech tree - because there are differences between the tech tree in campaign and multiplayer.

We also want to do a better job of exposing players to great resources that the community has developed: like Day[9] and like Apollo.

RZ: One of the things that seems tricky with Heart of the Swarm is that you did a great job with nailing faction design - particularly with the Zerg - the way they play in multiplayer - there's a lot of character in the way they play. but then, it seems tricky to layer new units into some already tight constructs… How do you improve something that absolutely isn't broken?

MM: We experienced this with the original StarCraft. I think we had a pretty tight design in the original StarCraft. As we watched how the metagame was evolving we noticed there were certain things about the various races… certain gaps that needed to be filled, we designed the new units around that. I think the development team is trying to do something similar with Heart of the Swarm in the design of the new units. That's still a work in progress. They haven't necessarily nailed down how that's going to look but that's the philosophy behind it. How do we turn this into an opportunity to make StarCraft II a better and more balanced game?

RZ: Will there be a push to turn the entire pro-scene into Heart of the Swarm?

MM: There will be, but I think it will happen naturally as well. That's where the focus is going to be. The pro-scene for sure will switch at some point, and we'll have to work with our partners to figure out when that point is.

RZ: Is there anything you wanted to bring up about Heart of the Swarm that hasn't been said?

MM: We initially designed StarCraft II to be a lot of things, but one of the things we spent a lot of time focusing on was StarCraft 2 as an eSport. As something that was entertaining to view. I'm very happy with where that is… but we're at the beginning of achieving the potential in reaching a larger audience.

RZ: You said you wanted to raise the production value of the tournaments. Does that mean you want to take a more active role in the tournaments next year.

MM: Probably not. We'll let our partners look after that.

RZ: Regarding tournament integrity issues - resume from replay - how are you addressing that in 2013?

MM: So, you alluded to it: we have a new feature that allows resume from replay. So if there is any type of disruption, whether it's network related, video card related, it doesn't matter. If the game gets interrupted for some reason you can go back to the game on new hardware and restart. Hopefully, we'll never have to use that; but if we do it's there.

That also has some really cool other side benefits, which may even be more impactful than that feature, which is as a training tool it's very interesting: you can set up scenarios for yourself - if you want to go back and replay a particular match and try to see if from this particular situation, how are you able to play against the computer from this particular point. As a tool for guys like Apollo or Day[9], they could do all sorts of cool things with that.

The other cool thing is that you could take a big pro-game, and play that out yourselves as a multiplayer match. We could start from some particular point where they'd both built up their bases at this point… you can then run the game and try a different strategy and see if you can counter.

RZ: You see the constant barrage of balance complaints online. That some unit or strategy is overpowered. Is that something the team sweats? Do you think this is stuff that self-corrects over time.

MM: A lot of it self corrects over time. We've seen a lot of it in the last couple of years where Terrans were overpowered. Then Zerg wins, and they're now overpowered. And then Protoss wins and they're overpowered. We heard it at BWC where everyone went into that tournament thinking Zerg was going to dominate, but by the end Protoss was overpowered. I think that we look at the overall balance across all difficulty levels and try and check that the balance is good… but we especially look at the very highest level of play. We'll make tweaks now and then - we have in the past and will continue to do this.

RZ: Something struck me at BWC [Battle.net World Championship]. You had the cutscenes running during the breaks. It got me thinking that 10 years ago, when I was playing StarCraft: Brood War, I was totally obsessed with the story. 10 years later, I'm much more obsessed with the eSports scene and just playing the multiplayer game. I've become a much more serious strategy gamer in that time. Do you think the story of StarCraft, that narrative, is as much of a priority going forward?

MM: Both [are] important. When you see the Heart of the Swarm campaign you'll be amazed. Our cinematics team knocked it out of the park. In terms of replay ability of the game, the depth of the story, the character of the game, it's really awesome for that attachment to the universe standpoint. But the reason people will be playing this game five, six years from now is because of multiplayer and eSports.

RZ: I've heard a lot of people say that for long-term viability of a professional scene, games should head towards a free-to-play model. Is that something you agree with?

MM: I think for the value you get from a copy, StarCraft 2 has the most value of any entertainment property out there. I mean, jeez, if you bought it during Cyber Monday, it was 50%… it was 20 bucks. Compare that to the price of your so-called free-to-play games - twenty dollars and you can play it practically forever. I really don't think cost is an issue.

RZ: Is that a frustration - that the value proposition gets so skewed when people think it's free?

MM: It is a little frustrating that the question keeps coming up because the math just isn't there to support the assumptions behind that argument. There are a lot of people who have purchased StarCraft and our other games, and they know what the value is.

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