At the WCS Grand Finals in Kraków last weekend, it wasn't all e-sports. Lead producer Chris Sigaty was on-site to watch one of the most memorable tournaments in StarCraft 2 history but also debut the Legacy of the Void opening cinematic, release date and other tidbits. I got a chance to sit down with him to discuss the upcoming expansion, the beta, Blizzard's plans after November 10th and his personal decade-long journey to this point.
With the release date looming and the balance of multiplayer still in flux, I was most interested to hear how Chris felt about the way the beta had developed and whether, specifically, the team was brave enough in making changes early on.
"I think it was difficult to even get to where we got with it. It’s the most courageous we’ve ever been with changes. It's significant with how Legacy of the Void is already landing, for me. Based at least on how we’ve historically done it, I’m really proud of how courageous [Senior Game Designer] David Kim and the StarCraft II team in general has been about listening to feedback, interacting with the community and playing with them to get to where we are."
This is a fair point, and they have gone a lot further with changes than in Heart of the Swarm. The first expansion's shake up of the metagame could be defined by a few units added and alterations made to some more. Void, on the other hand, has messed with everything from the number of resources per base and starting number of workers to attempting total removal of the basic building blocks the game has relied on for five years. These are the macro mechanics - each race's unique method for increasing the rate of resource gathering and unit production - that have proved so difficult for the team to pin down.
There is still work to be done and Chris thinks it will continue, "No matter what we do during this stage [of the beta], it is guaranteed that significant change will be necessary beyond this. It is very difficult to get the best of the best playing right now because they can’t shift focus. It’s actually detrimental [for them to do so]. What we’ve gotten is extremely valuable, but there will be things discovered that we don’t understand right now that will require change, and I suspect significant change, again after launch.
"It’s gonna play out differently and then we’ll learn some things and we’ll make some more tweaks. What allows me to sleep at night is we know we’ll change and we’ll make corrections and we’ll learn more."
Even with the next year or more filled with further fixes, Chris believes the team made the right call in how they've operated the beta so far, "So despite all the changes happening right now around [macro] and all of those - which are big changes - I still think we’re doing the best we can in this circumstance and, in my opinion, because we’re being courageous, it’s one of the best moves we’ve done."
On the single-player side, this is the end - at least for the StarCraft II trilogy Blizzard have been building for a decade now. When it comes to telling the story of Raynor, Kerrigan, Artanis and galaxy-eating big-bad Amon, nothing will be left on the table.
"This is, from the high level now, it coming to the story conclusion. It’s an exciting moment. The team has done the best job yet of storytelling within this. The missions are great, I’m really impressed with what they’ve done with the immersiveness and cinematic feel of the game. You’ll see when we come out that there’s a lot more cinematic elements to it. I’m really impressed with what they’ve managed to do, they’ve really focused on making it excellent and I think they’ve done that. So yeah, as far as I’m concerned they’re pulling out all the stops and it’s great."
Those 'cinematic elements' aren't full on pre-rendered Blizzard cinematics, but they use the in-game engine's capacity for incredibly detailed models to make something that's, frankly, close enough. Unlike WoW's in-game cutscenes, the fidelity of the more modern SC2 engine means this stuff still looks stunning, as you'll know if you spent time with the previous two iterations. The team has gone all-out with it this time though, with over 30 cutscenes promised for the final version.
The other major impact of reaching the end of SC2's story is this is now what Chris calls "the Protoss moment". Everyone has their favourite race and Protoss players have long been asking when they'll be able to see their boys given all the campaign bells and whistles. That's now the case and Chris is looking forward to new players being able to "embrace" the trilogy as a whole.
For Chris personally, this has been a long, long journey. He's been with Blizzard for nearly 20 years, his first job with them was as a tester on the original StarCraft. During the cinematic presentation he recounted stories of seeing Brood War played professionally for the first time and knowing that nothing the player's were doing had been tested for. Coming to the end now, I wondered if he was considering moving on from Blizzard.
"No, not at all," he says confidently, and goes on to explain how much they and he still plan to do with StarCraft in the coming years. "In fact, I go back and think about what we did with StarCraft, what we did with War2 and War3. We were releasing these updates and patches with no great plan, just a passion to make sure it was as good as we could make it. [That passion] is going to continue with StarCraft 2, we are still going to do a lot more with it. If you look at the Diablo 3 patches example, they’ve released three major updates to that game and they’ve done an excellent job of continuing to build the game and make it more and more exciting to be involved with.
"That’s exactly what we want to do with StarCraft 2, as we’ve done with StarCraft in the past. We’re adding all these new things, like the co-op missions and Archon Mode, [and] we’re gonna add more of that. We’re working on some arcade things right now that we’ll talk about in the future." In general, the message is that while Legacy of the Void is the point that was being built to, support for the game will continue for a long time.
In discussing this, obviously the e-sports component of the game is important for its future. While Blizzard has a number of competitive games, Chris describes StarCraft as the "super-elite" that he wants people to still be playing in a decade. Did that mean they don't expect to develop the follow-up, whatever form it may take, before ten years is up?
"I can’t answer that because honestly we don’t know. Is it possible we work on something that steps on the toes of StarCraft? Yes, but there’s no intention to do that today, which is why I think it’s so critical and important how we treat it and how we continue to improve it and make things better - that matters. I think [StarCraft] absolutely stands as an amazing experience to both celebrate the people that get to that level of skill and quality and also to be able to watch and see that. While it’s possible we would [replace that], I don’t see it happening."
So you can probably wave goodbye to the idea of an RTS-centric Warcraft 4 or any plans you'd made to go pro with the release of StarCraft 3 in the near future. The team is very much focused on releasing Legacy of the Void and then continuing to improve it for a long time to come. Naturally, they'll be gauging community reactions to all the new features and expanding where they see demand. There's even the possibility of more campaigns or other single-player focused content in the future, though the implication is that the actual story will be coming to a very definitive end. Anything past that will be its own tale.
Heroes of the Storm will be influencing development as much as Diablo, "We are moving into a space with StarCraft that will take a lot of lessons from what Heroes has learned - not that it’s going free to play - but in content creation. We’ll be supporting it with regular, smaller, more digestible updates that will happen as we get into next year (and beyond) that mirror where Heroes is today. Rather than, 'Alright guys let’s get down to taking notes for Heart of the Swarm' after Wings of Liberty. That’s a much bigger project, this is more about ninja moves that can happen at lots of different places."
Of course, Heroes has already has a massive effect on StarCraft, originally being a project started and developed by the SC2 team. Specifically, Dustin Browder has gone from the face of StarCraft 2 to mainly discussing Heroes, featuring in their spotlight videos and always being the one talking about the game on livestreams or to the press. He hasn't totally abandoned the project he first directed, however.
"Dustin specifically is still involved in both. He’s still a guiding light and principle. He has effectively been helping StarCraft in getting here and growing some great folks - Jason [Huck] who is now the lead designer of SC2. He’s definitely a huge inspiration." said Chris, then explained how Heroes and SC2 have split over the years, "It was the same team a few years back. There’s still a lot of that but it’s been necessary to forcibly say ‘you’re here, you’re here’ - we were running into process challenges where we'd go ‘we got it all covered… oh no we were actually making Doug do all of everything in both games and he can’t function in life!’ so it was necessary to make it clearer who was on what."
The differences in how the games are released played a major factor as well, "What’s different is with free to play content for Heroes, that is a very different process to [creating] an expansion for a game that’s going to come out in a year or two. So that has changed how our process works, how we’re set up - there is a content pipeline for Heroes that is very specific to that for both Hero creation and battlegrounds." Of course, as Chris mentioned earlier, once LotV has been released it will move into a similar release schedule for new bits and pieces. Blizzard's experience with Heroes will be very useful there.
They've no plans to take SC2 fully free-to-play. While it's going to be supported in a similar way, Blizzard won't be removing the initial investment. They are continuing to make the game be easier to get into, with each part of the trilogy now completely standalone, letting new players simply jump into the final chapter if they wish. There's also the free Starter Edition that comes with any Battle.net account which lets you play custom maps from the Arcade and gives a few missions.
"It’s significant to change what we have. If we wanted to truly do it - most F2P games have stuff that unlocks over time. If we wanted to do it with StarCraft, it would be a massive undertaking and greatly change how the game is consumed today. So while we could do it, we’re not really considering it in that way." He admits it's fun to think about, though. "We do look at those other games and go 'heh, I wonder, what if?' Would we have done something different? Maybe. But I actually, personally, I like the difference. I like that some games can just be bought, I like to be able to go get my box and know what that is - and we have that with SC2."